So, we’ve moved into the very popular Advent reading from Ezra! Ok, so maybe it isn’t a very popular reading… ever. In fact, who has even read the book of Ezra? Not too many I imagine. Isn’t it great I’m getting you into these little known books at a time when we like to relax and celebrate long-standing traditions? (that’s a joke folks)
What have we seen over the last few weeks? We’ve seen King David celebrate the return of the Ark of the Covenant to the temple with dancing and singing in the streets. The Ark of course holding the laws, the 10 Commandments, given by God to Moses and in turn to the people.
We’ve seen the people fall away and struggle to continue in relationship with God. And we’ve seen them return again with King Josiah when he read a long lost book to the people. He read scripture to them, and the whole nation of people committed themselves to following God’s laws, just by hearing those words.
Since then, we’ve seen the people disperse. The nation of Judah has been taken over, and people are on the move like refugees, looking for safe homes to live their lives. Something we are very aware of in the world today.
And today we have the decree from the Persian King, Cyrus, that the Jews are allowed to return to their native land and live freely. In fact, Cyrus goes so far as to say, “God has told me to rebuild your temple!”
The temple was destroyed when Jerusalem was taken over and the people were exiled from their native land. And now, this foreign king declares God has commanded him to rebuild it for the people as they seek to reestablish themselves in their homeland.
The rebuilding of the temple is a huge thing. Now it won’t be as fancy as the one Solomon built. But it will still be there for the people to come and not only pay their respects to God, but also to encounter God in His holy place.
Now we know that God does not live in a temple, just as we know He doesn’t live in our church either. I’m sorry if that shocks some of you, but I think most of us know this. But the temple, again like our church, is a place where we gather as Christians, as followers of God, to come and encounter Him in a special way.
I know many people who say, “I meet God in nature” or the golf course, or some other place. And I don’t dispute that, because I have also met God in those places. Although I would challenge the golf course claim, because I play golf. I know what that little ball can do to your attitude and thoughts… and I know it’s not always the most Christian words that come to mind as you chase that little… ball over those many holes.
I also wonder how much do we learn about God in those places? How much do we grow as a Christian there? Meeting God in whatever part of our life is wonderful, but how does it help us grow in understanding of our Father in heaven? In many instances, it does not.
We need to gather once in a while together to see each other and to see how we all grow and support one another’s growth in the family of God. We also need to hear the word of God read aloud, to pray together and to sing our praises to Him. This is where we grow and learn the most. For us it’s the church. For those we read about in the Old Testament, it’s the temple. It is the gathering place for the people of God.
So to rebuild the temple is a huge component in reestablishing the nation of Judah as a place where the Jews make their homes and their lives. The temple is more than just a gathering place, it is a focal point in the community.
Even today, when people talk about all the churches that have closed in Cape Breton, there is a hint of sadness, even for those who haven’t been to church in years, maybe even decades. They still understand the church as an important aspect of the community, even if they may not completely see why.
And as they are building the temple, they celebrate the various festivals that would normally happen in the run of the year. They continue to offer their burnt offerings and other rituals held at the temple.
And finally, when the foundation is built, the community gathers around and celebrates with music and singing. There is a great celebration among the people who are so excited to see the temple beginning to take shape.
But there are others who we hear are weeping. They remember the old temple from before they were taken away. I’m sure they remember its grandeur and its beauty. They remember the stories which were told of it. They remember hearing about King David and his dancing in the street at the ark was brought in. They remember hearing about Josiah and how he read scripture there and the whole nation devoted itself to God. They also remember their own stories from their times at the temple.
So there is some mourning as they go through those memories, which is completely understandable.
You can think of it a bit like the season of Advent. People are getting their homes all ready for Christmas. And it seems like every day they are getting more and more excited as the countdown continues and more and more things are knocked off the “to do” list.
But for some people, it’s hard to be all happy all the time. For some people this time of year is quite sad. Maybe this is their first Christmas without a loved one. Maybe it’s a time when someone has lost their job. Maybe Christmas brings up bad memories from an experience long ago in their lives that happened this time of year. Whatever the reason, Christmas is not a happy time for 100% of the people. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that.
However, what we do need to know is Christmas is still for all of us.
Christmas is a time to acknowledge God came into this world to show us how much He wants to be in relationship with us. To show us how much he loves us and wants to be part of our lives.
Christmas is a time of recognizing God stepped into the world as a baby in a manger. Why? Because God is showing he is with us from the moment of our birth to the day we die, and even beyond.
I imagine those who were weeping while the temple was being rebuilt weren’t sad about the new temple, but rather mourning the loss of their beautiful old temple. Like everyone else, they were happy to see it being built, and were probably looking forward to the day when they could see it finished. No doubt they have been waiting a long time for this. Some probably thought they would never see the day when they could return to their homeland and see the temple again.
Five hundred years later, in the exact same location around the completed temple, not long after Jesus was born we read this in the Gospel of Luke:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God…” (Luke 2:25-28)
Simeon has been waiting a long time for something to happen at the temple. He has been told he will not die until he sees the Christ child.
Then one day, a young family comes to the temple to have their child blessed as was the custom for the first born son.
Simeon knew right away this child was special. It says he was led by the Holy Spirit to be at the temple that same day. So when Joseph and Mary brought their baby, he was there and he recognized this child was the Promised One.
Imagine his joy at this moment! He is in the presence of God’s son, the Promised One, the Messiah, the Saviour of the world! And he gets to hold this child-king in his arms. And as he does he says,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
Simeon also knows sadness in this moment as well. He knows since he has finally seen the Promised One of God, his life will soon end. But, as he says, he will depart in peace because he has seen God’s salvation.
We’re a people who enjoy our rituals this time of year. Whether it’s happy or sad, we like to have a routine. We like to watch certain movies or specials, maybe more than once. We like to eat certain foods on certain days. We like to go to our regular gatherings, concerts or parties.
All of which I say, great! You do what you need to do to celebrate the season. We don’t have many religious festivals in our church, and Christmas is probably the biggest. The other two main celebrations are Easter and Pentecost. Times when we remember God acting significantly in the world, not only 2000 years ago, but also today.
Because this is why Jesus has come. Jesus has come to show God is at work in the world still. Nothing changes this fact.
This Advent we have heard so far how the Word of God has impacted the nation of Judah when King Josiah read it from the temple.
Last week we heard the promise of God who has prepared a highway for the people to return home, and also how that promise extends to letting them know they never have been, nor will they ever be alone.
This week, what have we heard?
We have heard how people are excited to gather at the temple, which means they are looking forward to experiencing God together as a community when they are finally able to worship at the temple when it is completed. No longer do they have to struggle in their faith alone, they will have a place to experience God as a community of faith. It will be a place where they can grow in their understanding of their God, our God, who loves His people unconditionally. So much so He is willing to come here Himself.
God has come into the world. He has come to show us His great love.
This is the season when we prepare for and celebrate this. We prepare for the gift so generously given in the manger, a gift for all of us, a gift which was given to save us.
A gift from God to a world, a people, in need of a Saviour. A gift we cannot match in value, for this gift is priceless beyond anything we can ever imagine.
It is a gift with no expectation of a response other than, “Lord Jesus, I will follow you.”
Christmas, God’s love has come to the earth.
May we experience the joy of knowing our Lord, in our lives, our homes, in our workplaces, in nature, in all places. Especially in our church as we gather together to grow and learn together as a family of God celebrating and rejoicing in the birth of our Saviour.
And may all people sing his praise.