Fire that Transforms

Fire that Transforms

The Truth that Sets Us Free, the Fire that Transforms us All
By Dr. Noriel C. Capulong, Professor, Divinity School  

(Sermon delivered during the113th Founders Day Opening Service and the Silliman University Church 98th Anniversary on August 17, 2014 at the Silliman University Church.)  

Text:  Malachi 3:1-5; John 8:31-32

I understand there are quite a number of important occasions we are celebrating today. First, we are launching this year’s Founders Day celebration with a very intriguing and so enigmatic theme: “Submitting to the Refiner’s Fire”.  At the same time Silliman Church is also observing today its 98th anniversary with the theme, “God’s Truth Marches On.” Then, we also are launching the countdown towards the Silliman University Church centennial, with the theme, “Shining Bright as the Sun.”  So, we have three occasions, three themes but one message to proclaim. Three in one! Very Trinitarian! But there is a risk here of fragmentation and lack of coherence on a very special day like this. It may appear that there are three separate communities here each one having a distinct observance of its own celebration, each one with its own respective theme which may be related or completely unrelated to the other themes.  But it seems you have the faith and the daring to take on the risk and so we take the challenge.

The Founders Day theme, “Submitting to the Refiner’s Fire” is actually a prophetic metaphor for God’s judgment based on the text in Malachi 3 which involves real, intense, painful suffering. It reminds me of a statement of a friend whom I visited in the ICU a few days just before he died of a very excruciatingly painful disease some years ago. When I asked him, “How are you, bai? He answered with great difficulty, catching his breath with each word he utters, “I am now going through the refiner’s fire, Nor. But I am ready. I know I will be transformed by his gracious hands.” That conversation somehow kept coming back to me whenever the topic and text of the refiner’s fire comes up.

The Church anniversary theme, “God’s Truth Marches On”, is also another biblical metaphor” depicting the unstoppable march to victory of an army with no weapon and no source of power other than God’s truth. It is proclaiming with courage and faith the only truth that can set people free.

The Centennial theme: “Shining Bright Like the Sun” appears to have been adopted from the apocalyptic text of Daniel 12:3: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky” — referring to those Jewish teachers or rabbis who had undergone extreme persecution during the time leading to the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian colonizers of Israel, for leading the people in resisting the Hellenistic policies of the Syrian kings. Many of them suffered and were even executed. To them was addressed these words of assurance, that those who had endured and suffered till the end shall rise up and shine brightly like the sun on the day of judgment.

All of these themes, however, have one common objective: the transformation or renewal of life. The typical refiner’s fire subjects a metal to extreme heat so as to melt it down and transform it into liquid and in the process purify it and remove from it all the dross and impurities before molding it into a new form and shape. The refined metal now becomes a new and high quality tool in the hand of its owner. But it has gone through a very radical transformation process.

These themes involve a very serious process with very heavy theological implications. I am not sure though if the very serious implications of these themes would really fit the rather joyous and celebratory atmosphere that normally characterizes Founders Day and church anniversary observances. But perhaps we may really need a sobering message from these biblically based themes in our days of celebration. Is Silliman ready to embrace the purifying refiner’s fire? Is Silliman Church ready to march on in upholding God’s truth that can liberate us all?

For looking at the broader context of our celebrations this year, even if we affirm that God’s truth marches on, actually, these are days that could be characterized by the growing dominance of falsehood and sacrifice of the truth, and these are days also of unrelenting pouring down of the refiner’s fire upon our people in this nation and upon so many nations of this world. Darkness and not shining light has engulfed the lives of many of our people nowadays. These are days characterized by unrelenting crisis upon crisis hitting our own people, from unprecedented destruction brought about by natural calamities that descend upon us now in above normal levels of fury and destructive power, bringing so much death, trauma, widespread loss and disorientation of lives and spirits, to human made calamities like war and continuing violence such as what we have in various parts of Mindanao resulting again in terrible loss and displacement of innocent lives.

But there is that greater tragedy involving the collapse of the spirit and the morals of our leaders involved in this ever escalating issue of the pork barrel scandal, with the accompanying loss of that sense of public accountability, a loss of that sense of what is right and what is wrong, a loss of discernment of what is moral and immoral as leaders who should have set the example for the people to emulate and draw inspiration from instead of being thrown into a state of spiritual and moral confusion. In the din of all these commotions, truth becomes sacrificed at the altar of expediency while the ordinary people continue to go through the refiner’s fire of suffering and darkness.

At the same time, we continue to be alarmed at the news of escalating levels of violence, chaos and destabilization in so many countries around the world, as in Libya where government presence and control seem to have completely disappeared in the wake of vicious fighting among various militia factions and where a Filipino worker was decapitated for confessing that he was a Christian, and where another Filipina nurse was kidnapped and gang raped, or in Syria and Iraq where we see the rise of extremist groups with very aggressively violent ways and along with Afghanistan which continue to be wracked by  bloody civil wars, with genocides and rising atrocities with no clear end in sight, or the deadly fighting in Gaza between the Israeli army and the Palestinian militants there which has already claimed thousands of casualties including so many innocent women and children, or the intensifying conflict in Ukraine where the Malaysian Airliner was shot down by a missile killing all 298 people aboard. And then, we also hear in the news about the fast spreading epidemic of the ebola virus in the West African nations killing more than a thousand people already.

This is not to mention the worsening state of environmental degradation all over the world, from global warming and rising sea levels and the rapid melting of the polar ice caps bringing about more destructive calamities threatening the sustainability of  human life along with the irreplaceable loss of vital animal and plant species.

A friend of mine recently told me about how she was criticized by her own son for watching news at the CNN and BBC channels which are full of these very disturbing news of war and violence around the world. She was told, “Ma why don’t you just switch channels so that you won't feel disturbed and depressed?” But she responded, “son, even if I switched channels I cannot pretend that things have become alright simply because I switched channels. Our world is in so much trouble these days; I cannot pretend that it is not.” We cannot pretend that things are alright just because we switched channels.

Our world is in a terrible mess as if going through the refiner’s fire. People could be asking, where in the world is God in this kind of situation we are in where the first to suffer and the first to be victimized very often are the powerless, the impoverished and the innocent ones? What kind of a God would allow the occurrence of so many tragedies and calamities both natural and human caused ones in this world of ours?  Where is the supposed God of justice, God of love and compassion, the God of peace and reconciliation in all of these tragedies? Where is the supposed God of sovereign power who is supposed to rule over all nations and over all creation according to his righteous and just will? Where is God in today’s world, God’s world,  when He could have stopped all the wars and deadly violence going on in several parts of the world especially in that place and region where the Prince of Peace was born? These are questions a caring and concerned Christian community like Silliman should always be asking?

If it is of any comfort to us, voices in the Scriptures, especially in the Psalms, have already raised these questions to God: “How long O Lord, is the foe to scoff, is the enemy to revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom? (Ps. 74:10). It is as if God is sleeping on the job and not doing anything to intervene to right the things that are wrong, to defend and protect those who are in the right in a situation where the forces of the wicked appear to be dominating. /In another part of the Psalms, (Ps. 89:46), the psalmist expresses his own lament with another perspective: “How long O Lord will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” In this lament the psalmist believes that the suffering his people are going through is but the expression of the wrath of God for their own failure to live to the terms of their covenant with God. This second text of Psalms is the one that comes close to the thought of our text in Malachi.

According to our text, God is not sleeping on the job. God has not distanced himself from what is going on in our world. But God right now is like the refiner with fire coming out of his refinery. We are in a world that is facing the brutal and painful process of going through the refiner’s fire, like going through a very radical transformation.

But what has brought us to this point? With all of what has been going on in our world, environmental degradation and destruction, conflicts and wars between nations and even within nations, the ever widening divide between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless and the efforts of individuals, governments and organizations to overcome them, it seems we have lost touch with one essential datum of faith. We have lost the connection with the truth that can set us free, the truth that can free us from all our fears, from all our anxieties for the future, from all our insecurities, from all our tendencies to secure the future for ourselves on our own terms and not God’s.

That is, we have lost touch with the truth that there is a higher accountability that everyone, especially those who wield great power over others, have to reckon with, that there is a power on this earth much greater than the powers of the most powerful on this earth, that there is a being in this universe who is reminding us of our limitations as creatures of the only one Creator God, that there is a reality above and beyond us all that is the source of a love that can never be equaled, the source of a saving and transforming grace that we can never deserve, that we have to stop acting like we can be masters of our destiny, that we can manipulate and re-shape our world according to our own schemes, independent of the righteous and just will and plan of God, that we can behave as if we can play god to the rest of God’s creation, that we can exploit and destroy our pristine resources using our technology, that we can dominate and dictate on other peoples using our position, power and wealth, all without feeling accountable to a higher power.

For so long a time we have been living with a number of falsehoods in our life as a people instead of clinging to and upholding the only truth that can set us all free  towards the abundant life that can only be received as a gift of God’s grace. For quite some time we have entertained the thought that we can by our own efforts improve our lives, improve our world, with the kind of tools, the kind of technology we have developed without any reference to God. Indeed, in this highly secularized 21st century we have the best of what science and technology can offer to improve the quality of our life. We have the most advanced tools and gadgets in communication and transportation. Yet we remain stuck in the quagmire that brings about death and destruction. In this modern age of ours, our world has remained as deeply divided and as painfully conflicted as it has always been since the beginning of history. We never learn the lessons of history. The gifts of science and technology had been utilized at the same time in the production of more efficient tools and weapons of death and destruction.

It is time to pause and deeply reflect on these realities. We are now on the edge of either new life or death, survival or destruction. We could come out shining bright like the sun or we could come out stepping into even greater darkness than ever before, or we either perish in going through the refiner’s fire or come out of it cleansed, healed, transformed, renewed and empowered.

How are we going to celebrate in the face of this truth? Can we still celebrate while much of the world is going through the refiner’s fire, as the rest of the world appears to be on the throes of political, economic, environmental convulsion? I believe we still can but first, we need to unite and have that basic sense of unity, to have greater cohesion and coherence in our response to the challenges we are facing these days, to have a unity of purpose and direction, (perhaps a unity of themes!), to have a greater unity in the faith and how this faith is to be lived before the rest of the community.

Second, and this is one thing very much needed for a Christian university sensitive and concerned about what is going on. We cannot be at a mode of business as usual. If we are indeed in an atmosphere of the refiner’s fire, then things cannot be business as usual. For the abnormal has become the new normal that is emerging out of these convulsions. And this new normal is calling us to be always on our toes, always on the alert, always aware of the urgency of the times, always ready to respond in obedience even if it means facing the refiner’s fire.

But our text is actually pointing to one group which is supposed to be the one to undergo this radical purification process. It is the sons of Levi, those who have the responsibility to lead the people of God, those who have been equipped with the knowledge and truth about God, those who have been called to provide spiritual and moral leadership to the greater community.

Silliman University, as an educational center and community leader has this vision of being committed to total development for societal and environmental well-being. Silliman also has as part of its mission, among others, to instill among the members of the university community an enlightened social consciousness, a profound sense of involvement, and a genuine compassion for every person. In the kind of context we are in this is precisely the need and the call of the hour, for a Christian institution like Silliman to actualize its vision and mission, to take up the challenge and take the lead, along with the church in proclaiming and witnessing to God’s truth that can set our world free.

If Silliman, along with the church looks at itself as having this kind of leadership and prophetic role and responsibility in the community, if Silliman believes that it has the gifts, the calling and the vision and mission and the moral and spiritual ascendancy to lead, then, like the sons of Levi, we have to be ready also for some kind of refining and purification ourselves in these days of great trials and challenges. Before the days of brightness as the sun, we have to anticipate the looming dark clouds in the horizon, Silliman will have to stand prepared to undergo the trial of a purification process, prepared to face new challenges coming up in the next few years. We are not exempted. We ourselves may have to face the refiner’s fire. But we have to be prepared to embrace new possibilities that come with every crisis, new paradigms and sources of hope and inspiration that come with every challenge.

In carrying on with this task and mission, there is only one tool and weapon we can hold on to in the face of looming adversities, that is, the truth of God that can set us all free, free to proclaim and witness to the dawning of the new, free to witness to the coming of a new world where war and conflicts will be no more, where peace and good will to all people will be a living reality, where mother earth will once more bloom with renewed vitality and freshness, where people will experience and enjoy God’s gift of peace and reconciliation through the renewing and transforming power of His truth as revealed in and through Jesus the Christ.

For once, let us try to embrace not just the refiner’s fire, but to feel empowered enough to uphold the banner of God’s truth as it marches on with that renewing and transforming power for all the world to see and experience.  Let Silliman and Silliman Church be in the lead in this prophetic role for the sake of a world crying for hope, peace and redemption. Let our collective voices be heard and resonate all over the nation and all over the world: We speak in the name of our God who is calling for change and repentance in the way we all live in this world. We speak in the name of our God who loves this world so much that he gave his only beloved son Jesus to sacrifice for our sake. In the process we can make this a celebration so different from the routine acts of the previous occasions. We can make these celebrations even more meaningful and expressive of our obedience and faithfulness to the God who has called us to be part of this very special community. Amen.