A Tarnished Image of God

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, December 6, 2015

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Luke 3:1-6

After the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in London in 1741, Handel wrote to a friend, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.”[1] I have heard many in the choir, including our Choir Director, voice this same sentiment. They would like their music not just to entertain, but also to inspire, to teach, and to help all of us become better Christians. That is why Debbie works so hard with the choir to help all of us hear the words to the music.

Handel was inspired by some of the very scripture readings we heard today, one of which was from the book of Malachi. This book was written to the remnant of Israelites who had returned from their exile. Those exiled were the leaders and upper class of Israel and when they returned to their land, they were expecting God’s punishment and retribution to rain down on their conquerors. They were also expecting to be richly blessed as they began to rebuild their country. Neither happened and the people began to grumble. Why wasn’t God smoting their enemies? Why wasn’t God rewarding them for their faithfulness and survival in their land of exile?

Malachi responds to these expectations of reward and punishment by warning the Israelites about their own failures. “You want God to punish your enemies, but you don’t see your own faults. You don’t see your own corruption, your faithlessness in your marriages, your cheating on your taxes and cutting back on your tithes to the temple. You ask, “Where is the God of justice?” but don’t pay your own labourers a fair wage, you don’t look after those who can’t support themselves, you send the foreigner away.”

Malachi’s words are pretty strong. He then concludes by prophesying that a messenger of God will be coming to help them prepare the way of the Lord. This messenger will be coming like a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap. We understand how silver and gold can be purified by having the dross or impurities burned off. But does anyone know what fuller’s soap is?

I beg your indulgence with this bit of trivia, but I found it fascinating. A fuller was someone who cleaned wool by beating and matting it, so as to thicken it. In Scotland, the women used to sit together on a field and pound the cloth with their feet and hands, singing waulking songs, as fulling was called in Scotland, to set the pace of their pounding. In the time of Malachi, the fullers would use nitrate, found in Syria, combined with vegetable alkali and particular soil from clay fields to make a soap that would cleanse and whiten the cloth as they trod on it.

The processes of fulling and refining both try to rid the material of impurities. Malachi asked the Israelites—and asks us—what are the impurities in our lives that we need to let go of? What do we need to do to clear the deck so that we can prepare the way for the coming of the Christ child? What is being asked of us? of Westworth? of the United Church of Canada? Are there things we are doing or not doing that are getting us muddled up?

One biblical commentator wrote “a silversmith knows the refining process is complete when she observes her own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal.”[2] Since we are made in the image of God, can we see the image of God reflected back to us when we look in a mirror?

This last question may have more to do with how we see than what we see. When we look at someone who annoys us, it is much easier to see their dross than their reflection of God. Those who have poor self-images can only see their own imperfections reflecting back in the mirror. When all we can see is dross in ourselves or in others, we need to have a second look for those qualities that do reflect God, for they are also there.

It is easy to slide into judgement of ourselves or of others. When we do that, we end up alongside the Israelites focussing on reward and punishment. Instead of making this simplistic division into good and bad, can we try to see God’s image shining through everyone? It may be a bit more tarnished with some, but it’s still there hiding beneath the dross.

In Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, he paints a scene of the final judgement day. The dead rise and all are ushered into the presence of God, expecting either the terror of eternal judgement or the bliss of eternal reward. They find neither—no sinners and no righteous; no great and no humble. Instead, they find an almighty love shining through them all.

What if our hope for this country and this world was based not on retribution and reward, but on repentance and forgiveness? Can we hear the voice of John the Baptist still crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Repent from the dross in your lives. Receive forgiveness of your sins.” If the betterment of our personal and communal lives is our goal—as Handel hopes his music inspires—we may have a chance to live in peace.

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, lived under the harsh Roman occupation. When the gospel of Luke was written somewhere between 85 and 95 years after Christ, the Romans had already sacked Jerusalem in 70 C.E. As Luke was writing about Zechariah and his prophecy, he was doing so under the shadow of the Roman massacre of the Jews. Knowing Luke’s context, it is amazing what he wrote. In this beautiful song that Zechariah sings, he doesn’t ask God to smite the Roman enemies, nor does he ask God to bless the righteous. Instead, he prophesizes about a coming era of peace, for which his own son will help prepare the way. According to Zechariah’s song, when the Messiah comes, he will not be bringing a day of judgement. Rather, he will be ushering in a time of peace where people can worship without fear. “By the tender mercy of our God,” Luke writes, “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”[3]


[1] Deborah A. Block, “Pastoral Perspective, Malachi 3:1-4,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009): 30.

[2] Jennifer Ryan Ayres, “Theological Perspective, Malachi 3:1-4,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009): 30.

[3]Luke 1:78-79