‘Then the LORD you are looking for will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger you long to see will come and proclaim my covenant’.
This was the dream of centuries. Ancient Jerusalem had a great Temple, built by Solomon. The people went on pilgrimage to it from all over the country. They believed it was the dwelling place of God.
Isaiah dreamed of all the nations of the world coming to it to learn God’s ways and live in peace.
Jerusalem was under threat from powerful empires, and eventually it was taken by the Babylonians, the Temple was destroyed and many of the people went into exile in Babylon.
About 50 years later, there was a change of regime in Babylon and some of the exiles returned to Jerusalem and started building a new Temple.
But somehow things were not quite the same. There was division and conflict, the Temple took a long time to build.
There were prophets who had messages for the people: they brought hope, but also warning.
Haggai told them the reason they were not prospering was that they were busy building fine houses for themselves while God’s house was still in ruins.
His words had effect, and the people got on with building the Temple. But somehow it was not quite the same. The nation was poorer now. Then Haggai brought the word of God to them:
‘Is there anyone among you who can still remember how splendid the Temple used to be? How does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing at all. But now don’t be discouraged, any of you. Do the work, for I am with you.’
He promised that the wealth of all the nations would be brought into the Temple and ‘the new Temple will be more splendid than the old one’.
About the same time, Zechariah said that the people had turned away from God and suffered for it, but now God would turn back to them and return to his city. He hears God saying ‘I have a deep love and concern for Jerusalem, my holy city’. The Lord would once again ‘help Jerusalem and claim the city as his own’. It would be a great city, and God would live there in all his glory.
In the story of the building of the first Temple it says that the shining glory of God came down and filled the Temple. People doubted whether that glory was in the new one, but they held out the hope that it would return.
Malachi, the last of the OT prophets, pointed out different reasons why the people were not prospering. They were disrespecting God.
- The priests and the people were offering inferior sacrifices – their leftovers instead of the best
- they were cheating on the tithes
But it was more than just religion. They were living unjustly:
- cheating employees out of their wages
- taking advantage of widows, orphans and foreigners
Does this sound familiar? It is not just about Jerusalem. It is about the Church, about our ‘Christian’ civilisation, about the whole world.
We look for a better future:
- Britain’s new place in the world
- a more unified nation
- peace in the world
- an end to poverty
How will this better future come?
Malachi says: yes, God will return to his Temple and once again be amongst his people. But what will that be like?
In the words of the AV that we hear in Handel’s Messiah:
‘… and the LORD, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in … But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth?’
He will come like strong soap to cleanse and purify, like fire to refine metal.
- came to the Temple and drove the money-changers out of it
- challenged the spiritual leaders of the people
- promised a new world
But will it be achieved by dramatic demonstrations and judgment?
In today’s story the Lord comes to his Temple:
- as a helpless new-born baby
- loved by his young mother who is pondering what it could all mean
- recognised by two old people, humble and devout, who have an ‘epiphany’ and see the future
God is not going to push us around to get his way. He offers us something much quieter, much smaller, but in the end more powerful. And in it there is promise.
The signs of the promise are everywhere:
- where there is kindness in a harsh world
- where people have hope
- when a child is born
As the prophets constantly said, God is still with us. But in Jesus he is with us in a deeper way, not just in the Temple but in the world:
‘The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory …’