Last time, we talked about Advent in the context of first-century Jews awaiting a national Deliverer. This time, we will talk about Advent from the perspective of the priestly class, who were waiting for God to return to His Holy Temple.
To set the stage, consider Ezekiel 10-11. God has declared His judgment over Judah—because Judah has failed to keep God’s commands, like her rebellious sister Israel, she too will be conquered and sent into captivity. Then God’s glory, in vivid imagery, vertically takes-off from the Temple, and departs from Jerusalem. But God leaves the prophet with a promise. In Ezekiel 43, God promises that there will come a day when His people will repent of their idolatry, and He will return to His Temple, and dwell with His people forever.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah report the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem. But importantly, even after the Temple is rebuilt, there remains a dark, gloomy sense that God’s glory has still not returned to His Temple. For one thing, if God’s glory had returned, His people should no longer be under foreign occupation. For another, the prophets repeatedly speak of God’s promise to return, clearly implying that He has not returned yet. See Malachi 3:1.
In response, the Pharisees embarked on a program of social reform and fastidious ritual observance, hoping that devoted acts of self-purification would prompt God’s return. The Pharisees saw any collaboration with the Greeks or Romans as treasonous, an act of disloyalty and idolatry that would delay the return of God. The priests, Pharisees, and scribes longed for the return of God, because they believed that this would re-launch God’s project of ruling the world through Israel as a kingdom of priests.
With the arrival of Jesus, God truly did return to His people, and through the gift of the Spirit, He now dwells forever within the hearts of His people. As Jesus said in the Gospel of John, His body is the new Temple, and all those who participate in His life are joined to His body. We who believe are grafted into Israel, and truly become God’s kingdom of priests. But God’s return in Christ toppled the Jewish priestly class from their positions of self-righteous authority, and subverted their expectation of an Israelite empire that would rule the world.
There is a warning for us here. We may be as religiously intense as the Pharisees—following all the rules, condemning all the “right” people, and truly longing for the Second Coming of Our Savior. But unless we pay careful attention to Jesus, unless we submit every ounce of ourselves to His Lordship, we are at risk of distorting the One whose Coming we so eagerly await. It will not do to make the King of the Universe the personal assistant to our own smaller, petty ambitions and worldly desires. Jesus is not the magic name we invoke to receive a million-dollar house, or a jump up the career ladder, or the affections of an attractive woman. Jesus is not an Angry Zeus, who comes to smite our enemies with thunderbolts, and vindicate us as the only right, “good” people.
God will provide, and God will judge, but we must be careful to avoid the mistake of the priestly class, who trusted in their own righteousness and lost sight of the sovereign mercy of the God who invites sinners to His Table. An encounter with the real Jesus will leave us gasping at the scope of the Mission of the Kingdom of God, and eager to forsake worldly pleasure in order to participate in God’s Renewal of Creation. An encounter with the real Jesus will leave our hearts broken for the world, and willing to enter into pain to help spread God’s saving love. An encounter with the real Jesus reveals the muck and dross that still spoils our hearts, and helps us recognize that only the fire of His love can heal us.
Christians confess that “Jesus is Lord,” and we believe that the Spirit is knitting the hearts of Christ’s Church into a Temple for the Living God. But it is hard to believe that when we continue to see the selfishness, corruption, and idolatry that still plague the people of God, let alone the rest of the world. Advent reminds us that we are dependent on God’s action, not our own, to change this state of affairs. We wait patiently, faithfully, expectantly—but still, we wait. Like the apostles of the early church, we pray, “Maranatha!” Yes, Lord Jesus, come!