Archive for February, 2020

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple – Malachi 3:1

February 2, 2020

 It is hard for us to conceive of just how important and sacred the Temple in Jerusalem was to the Jewish people. According to the Hebrew Bible, the First Temple was built by King Solomon and it was the only legitimate place for Israelite sacrifices to be offered. It replaced the rustic, moveable “tent in the wilderness,” the Tabernacle, constructed at the time of Moses and carried with the Hebrews on their journeys and even into battle.

There was a sense in which the Jews actually thought of their God as “living” in the Temple. Of course, as good monotheists, they knew that God couldn’t “really” live in a temple made by hands, but they experienced God’s presence there in a special way. It’s what the Psalmist was singing about in today’s Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling, O God of hosts to me! Within the grandeur of your courts, my soul desires to be.” (Psalm 84:1)   The Temple was the court of the Lord, the very dwelling place of God!

The best analogy I can come up with is the sense that catholic Christians have (whether of the Roman, Orthodox, or Anglican variety) when we enter a beautiful church, veiled in semi- darkness, with a small candle twinkling in the sanctuary, signifying the Presence of the Reserved Sacrament, the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist, kept in the Tabernacle for the Communion of the Sick and for prayer and adoration.  Many of us experience the divine presence there in a special way…just as the Israelites experienced their God in the Temple.

So, when the First Temple was destroyed by the Assyrians in 700 BCE, it was devastating for the Jews! The God who had promised to protect them and always be with them (not least in the Temple) seemed to have deserted them. It would be over 200 years before the Second Temple was constructed with the permission of Cyrus the Persian, and under the guidance of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The “new Temple” was great and yet it never quite seemed to live up to the grandeur and holiness of the First one. For one thing, the Jews continued to be harassed by the Greeks under Alexander the Great and later the Romans and they just never had a sense that God was with them quite in the same way. Even after Herod the Great renovated and expanded the Temple some twenty years before Jesus was born, something seemed to be missing – namely, the presence and the protection of God! And so they began to long for, and look forward to the day when, God would return to the Temple…at the time of the Messiah, the Anointed One.

It’s what the prophet Malachi was talking about in our First Lesson today: “Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 3:1)

It was that “coming,” according to Luke, that the old man Simeon and the prophet Anna were waiting for in today’s Gospel. “Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel…It had been revealed to him that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah…”

“…There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2:22 passim)

These two elders personified, for Luke, the hopes and aspirations of Israel for the Lord to return to the Temple. And so when he told the story of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the Temple forty days after his birth, which they surely did according to Jewish law, he has Simeon sing the Nunc Dimittis and Anna begin to “praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”.

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word,” Simeon says/ “for my eyes have seen your salvation/which 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)  For Simeon, for Anna, and for Luke, God had finally returned to the Temple in the presence of the Christ Child…the Messiah. The promise had been kept!

And so, we gather here at New Song Episcopal Church, forty days after our commemoration of Christ’s birth day on Christmas to celebrate one of the few Holy Days permitted in our Church Calendar to take precedence over a normal Sunday’s Readings. “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple” is that important to us. Why?

  1. First of all, it connects us to our Jewish roots. Jesus of Nazareth did not spring on to the scene from a vacuum. He was a descendant of Abraham, Moses, and David and deeply enmeshed in the history of the Hebrew people. Christians always have been, are now, and will be forever connected in this unique way to the Jews, and that’s why we have a unique responsibility to speak out against and fight anti-Semitism whenever it rears its ugly head. This despite our own complicity in anti-Semitism historically which redounds to our everlasting shame.
  2. Secondly, it reminds us of the importance of sacred times and spaces in which we can experience the presence of God in a unique way. Yes, you can worship God on the golf course. But do you? From the ancient Israelites gathering at their desert Tabernacle… to Jews offering sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple… to Christians gathering around Font and Table on the Lord’s Day, we need to present OURSELVES to God in intentional ways and on a regular basis.
  3. And finally, perhaps our observing of this day can teach us something about the importance of patience. Old Anna and Simeon went to the Temple each day looking forward, the text says, “…to the consolation of Israel.” In that, they were continuing the vocation of the people of Israel who had been waiting patiently for their Messiah for thousands of years…and who wait for him still!

You and I are still waiting for the reign of God to come in its fullness too. We think we’ve found our Messiah. And yet, the world is still broken. People still suffer. And the planet is dying. Yet, in the face of it all, we are called to be people of hope.

Because, like Simeon and Anna, somehow, in the face of a small child, we too have seen “the Savior, whom God has prepared for all the world to see…to be the light to the nations…and to be the glory of God’s people, Israel…