The Prophet Malachi predicted that a messenger would come to prepare the way for what God wanted to do for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. The messenger would come, "but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" (3:2) This messenger would purify those who needed purification. He would be like "a refiner's fire" and "like fuller's soap" burning away every fault and sin and washing away every impurity. The ones who needed the most purification, according to Malachi, were "the son of Levi", the priestly tribe, the ones charged to process the rituals of the Temple, the ones that took the animal presented to atone for the sins of worshipers and slaughtered it on the altar in the area near the Holy of Holies. The priestly tribe was not always completely righteous themselves though and needed sacrifice given on their behalves to wash away their own sins.
So, Malachi predicts that one would come whose effect on them would be to purify their actions and cleanse their sins even as a fire hot enough to melt metal could do and a soap harsh enough to wash away a bit of skin along with the dirt as one used it to do the laundry as well as clean one's body. The messenger of the Lord would purify the priests along with those offering sacrifices until the sacrifice they gave would be pleasing to the Lord.
Fast forward 500 years or so, and up steps John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River, yelling out at all who would listen that they need to submit to his baptism for the purpose of repentance. Calling his listeners broods of vipers, he told them to change their ways as well as to be dipped in the water as a symbol of their new life to come. Their family heritage was not important to him. Instead, it was obedience to the message he preached that would bring a change in their lives.
Tax collectors and soldiers were among the crowd listening to John and they asked what they should do in order to escape the wrath of God that he said was coming. Share, give to others, do not cheat, be satisfied with what you have....good advice to live by. "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people." (Luke 3:18)
Is being subjected to fire and soap good news for the masses? For John's crowd, it seemed to be what they needed to hear. Clean up your act, John would say, and your life will be much better.
Perhaps John's message to his First Century listeners is one that is relevant for today's world also. Many people seem to have no direction in life and go about in patterns of life that bring them and others misery and pain and confusion. Maybe what Malachi and John offered the ancient world is what continues to be needed in modern society in order for peace to truly be the order of the day.
The messenger that Malachi predicted would bring about righteousness through a purification process that would be painful or uncomfortable to say the least. Israel had experienced that purification again and again as their land was overrun by foreign armies and their citizens were killed or taken into exile. Each time they rebounded and began again in the land God had given them, they were faithful to the Covenant for a while and then began to stray away from what God had instructed them to do. Purification happened again and again and each time the People called Israel learned more about how God would have them to live.
We, as individuals, as members of a country and society, are much like the people that Malachi and John spoke to. We forget the lessons we learned in the past and go our own ways to do what we think is right. Time and again, experiences happen that provide purification and cleansing. They teach us how to live as we reflect upon them and compare them to what we know from our study of God's Word. John's advice to those in the First Century was simple....be kind and share what you have and treat others the way you would want to be treated. This Messenger spoke as the one he was preparing for would do. Jesus' words to the crowds who heard him were exactly this same message. Those words are ones we need to hear again today, in the complex, confusing world we live in also.