Friday, December 4, 2009

Temple Tales: Sermon (2 Advent 2009)

Sermon: 2 Advent (6 December 2009)
(Malachi 3:1-4/Luke 1:68-79/Philippians 1:3-11/Luke 3:1-6)
Temple Tales

Let us give thanks to the Lord.
For he is good, and his mercy endures forever. Amen

Advent is the time for stories. I come today to offer three – temple tales, all.

First things first: the first temple tale of Solomon’s temple. Israel assembles in holy convocation before the Lord and before the newly completed temple in Jerusalem. In their hearing Solomon concludes his magnificent dedicatory prayer (2 Chr 6) with an invocation of God’s presence.

41 “Now therefore, arise, O LORD God, to Your resting place, You and the ark of Your strength. Let Your priests, O LORD God, be clothed with salvation, and let Your saints rejoice in goodness.
42 “O LORD God, do not turn away the face of Your Anointed; Remember the mercies of Your servant David” (2 Chr 6:41-42, NKJV).

And then God acts; God appears with power and great glory.

1 When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple.2 And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’s house. 3 When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the LORD, saying: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever.”4 Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the LORD (2 Chr 7:1-4).

The Shekinah Glory, later Jewish writers call it: the glory of God’s presence dwelling among his people in his temple, in the Holy of Holies, between the outstretched wings of the cherubim, over the ark of the covenant. And there it remains through the reign of Solomon, through the division of the kingdom in his son Rehoboam’s day, through the moral and social decay of successive generations in Judah until, as Ezekiel witnesses in a vision, the glory of the Lord departs from the threshold of the temple (Eze 10).

And then come the destroyers, the Babylonians. Someone who saw, or someone who heard, laments the destruction of the temple following the withdrawal of the Shekinah Glory (Ps 74).

O God, why have you utterly cast us off? *
why is your wrath so hot against the sheep of your pasture?

Remember your congregation that you purchased long ago, *
the tribe you redeemed to be your inheritance,
and Mount Zion where you dwell.

Turn your steps toward the endless ruins; *
the enemy has laid waste everything in your sanctuary.

Your adversaries roared in your holy place; *
they set up their banners as tokens of victory.

They were like men coming up with axes to a grove of trees; *
they broke down all your carved work with hatchets
and hammers.

They set fire to your holy place; *
they defiled the dwelling‑place of your Name
and razed it to the ground.

They said to themselves, “Let us destroy them altogether.” *
They burned down all the meeting‑places of God
in the land.

There are no signs for us to see;
there is no prophet left; *
there is not one among us who knows how long.

How long, O God, will the adversary scoff? *
will the enemy blaspheme your Name for ever
(Ps 74, BCP)?

It will be some forty years before the exiles return to worship God again on the temple mount – until a second temple tale can be told. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel the repatriated exiles lay the foundations for a second temple – lay the foundations and weep.

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. 11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”
Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off (Ezra 3:10-13, NKJV).

The old men who had seen the former glory of Solomon’s temple weep with sorrow and shame for their loss. Much is missing, as the tale of the temple’s completion makes clear by omission.

15 Now the temple was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. 16 Then the children of Israel, the priests and the Levites and the rest of the descendants of the captivity, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. 17 And they offered sacrifices at the dedication of this house of God, one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. 18 They assigned the priests to their divisions and the Levites to their divisions, over the service of God in Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses (Ezra 6:15-18, NKJV).

Where is the fire from heaven? Where is the Shekinah Glory? Neither is to be found. God does not come to dwell in his temple as he did of old; so our tradition teaches us.

A century later and the people are still waiting, still longing for the glory of God to come to his temple. The land is devastated with famine and drought; crops and flocks fail. Israel is under constant military threat from surrounding enemies. Survival is precarious. If only God would come to his temple, come to vindicate his people. And there arises in answer to the people’s longing a prophet – the last prophet – with a burden of the word of the Lord to Israel. “You want the Lord to return to his temple? You do not know what you ask. For when he returns, it will not be to vindicate Israel, but to judge Israel for its polluted offerings, its corrupt priests, its marital unfaithfulness, its perversion of justice (Mal 1-4). Yes, God will return as you wish:

But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness” (Mal 3:2-3, NKJV).

The Shekinah Glory will return to the temple, but in judgment; God will come, but he will come to cleanse and to purify. And, before he comes, to warn and to prepare the people, he will send a messenger.

“Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts.

5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. 6 And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, NKJV).

And thus we come to the third of our temple tales, to an old, childless priest offering incense before the Lord in Herod’s Temple. An angel of the Lord appears to him – Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God – and assures priest Zacharias that his prayers – his secret prayers for a son – have been heard and will be honored. And in the answer to this prayer lies the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy; the messenger of the Lord is coming, as Gabriel says:

“Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13b-17, NKJV).

Some thirty years later this messenger, this Elijah, bursts on the scene calling Israel to repentance – calling Israel to be cleansed and purified – before the Lord returns to his temple.

And so the Lord comes to his temple once again – the Shekinah in flesh and blood.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’” 16 And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace (John 1:14-16, NKJV).

The glory of God in the face of Christ comes to his temple: as a baby received by righteous Anna and holy Simeon, as a teacher rejected by Pharisee and Sadducee, as a savior crucified by all men. He comes just as Malachi foretold – to cleanse and to purify, with fuller’s soap and refiner’s fire: to cleanse and to purify not by judging sinners such as we, but by judging sin itself, in his own body, by embracing sin to the death and by rising again victorious. Such is the third temple tale.

And though I promised only three tales, there is a fourth which must be told. For there is yet another temple.

Throughout Advent we say or sing in one form or another, “Come, Lord Jesus,” or “Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Come, return to your temple; shine the light of your glory upon us. As we speak or sing these words we look to the past, to the first Advent: to dreams and prophecies, to angels and promises, to stable and manger, to a child in Bethlehem, to hidden glory in flesh and blood. As we speak or sing these words we look to the future, to the final Advent: to white horses and white thrones, to books and scrolls, to the Lamb who was slain coming in power and great glory to judge and to vindicate. But, surely, as we speak or sing these words we look also to the present; we look for a present Advent: “Come, Lord Jesus, to the temple of our hearts and lives. Come to cleanse us. Come to purify us. Come to make us fit dwellings for your presence.” Surely, as we speak or sing these words, we hear the voice of Malachi’s messenger Elijah – John, son of Zacharias and Elizabeth – call to us all, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” and the glory of the Lord is even now returning to his temple. And remembering these temple tales, we offer a most fitting Advent prayer:

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
Who art everywhere present and fillest all things,
Treasury of good things and Giver of life:
Come and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity,
and save our souls, O Good One.

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