As I thought about Jesus and John the Baptist in light of this prophecy from Malachi, I had a thought that is probably one of those things that is obvious to everyone else but something I kind of missed… John, who is the messenger that comes before to prepare the way of the Lord, does not come into the temple with fine robes or any kind of status to spread his message. In fact, John looks and sounds kind of crazy. And I am sure many of those who heard him, thought he was. He certainly made his share of enemies. But John’s proclamation was not in the temple; it was on the banks of the river where people, common people, were fishing, washing clothes, or attending to other tasks of daily life. John certainly engaged with the wealthy, but I imagine it was primarily through others. Then the one who fulfills John’s prophecies, Jesus of Nazareth, shows up. He also doesn’t burst through the walls of the temple gathering worshippers around him. Rather, those who follow Jesus and become disciples are those who are outside the temple. Those to whom he ministers are those who for the most part, aren’t welcomed in the temple. And, many of them are considered unclean; even if they wanted to come to the temple to worship, they can’t. So, what does Jesus do? He brings the temple to them.
Where did Jesus do much of his ministry? The Gospels tell us that Jesus did his ministry wherever outcasts can be found, and its important for us to remember that it wasn’t in the temple; or at least it wasn’t in the temple that was built with human hands; the temple that Jesus came to was the temple of human life. When he spoke of the temple being torn down and rebuilt in three days, he equated himself with the true temple. In the kingdom of God that Jesus brought to earth, the temple was no longer a place; the temple was and continues to be, a person; the person who is Jesus.
As I think about that, I believe it has implications for all of us. I love church buildings as I am sure we all do; but I think it’s easy for us to think that this is the place where everything happens. It’s certainly a place where a lot happens; but if we are disciples of Jesus, we have to follow the example he has set. He went off alone to pray and to get the spiritual nourishment he needed; but he didn’t stay on the mountain or in the quiet places, even though I am sure he probably wanted to. Rather, he left those places so that he could be with those whom the Father gave him; those who were on the margins and eventually even those who weren’t considered heirs of the covenant. Jesus went out to those places and he did things that were downright scandalous; he spoke to women, he engaged in conversations with gentiles, he touched and healed people no one else would go near let alone touch; he raised the dead… none of these events could have happened in the temple building because you couldn’t go into the building if you were considered “unclean” by the religious law of the time. With all of the touching of unclean people that Jesus did, it’s amazing that he was able to spend any time in the temple at all.
So what are the implications for us? Well… this beautiful place of ours is certainly a place of refreshment. It is a place where we come face to face with Jesus as he comes to us in the bread and wine. We receive holy food for our hungry souls. We give thanks and praise to our God who has given us these ways of being close to him, and that is all very, very good. It’s also very very safe. And wanting to be safe, wanting to be in a place that is beautiful and clean is ok. Of course we would want that; who wouldn’t? However… that’s not what it means to be a disciple. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, most of our ministry needs to be in places where we get dirty; the people WE have been given by the Father aren’t going to show up here… some will come, because they are like us and know that a church is a place for worship and refreshment. However, there are lots of people who need Jesus, who need what the church is, who will never come because perhaps they don’t feel worthy, or they have been turned away and told that they do not belong. One day when I was in my office in my last church, a young black man rang the doorbell. My “jack of all trades, master of many” assistant answered the door. When she opened the door, the young man lifted his hands where she could see them and said he wasn’t there to hurt anyone, he just hoped he could speak to the pastor. She told him to come in and she brought him to my office. When he came in, I stood up and offered my hand in greeting. I invited him to sit down, and asked him if he would like a bottle of water. We gave him one of the snack bags that we kept around so that no one left our building hungry. He then looked at me with tears in his eyes and told me that he had been to some larger churches in town, and not one person invited him to sit down, let alone touch him. He was an outcast; a brave outcast who tried to enter the temple many times, but was turned away. My heart hurt on his behalf, especially when I heard about his declaration that he didn’t have a weapon and wasn’t going to hurt anyone. I couldn’t give him much that day in terms of material things… some socks and tee shirts, some snacks and some water. Our little church didn’t have much. He said that Betsy and I gave him a better gift that day; we treated him as an equal, as someone who was deserving of our time and our attention. We hugged before he left, and I told him I was sorry the world was so harsh. He left my office with his head held high and a smile on his face, no longer an outcast.
Now while that encounter happened on church property, there are so many outcasts that are waiting for you and I to bring the church, the temple, to them. We are heralds of the good news; news that says in the kingdom of God there ARE NO outcasts; that all are welcome at God’s table; that Jesus is the new temple. So much of what you and I are called to doens’t happen within these walls. The people we have been given by the Father are the same people that the Father gave to Jesus… those that don’t belong, those that are unclean, those that are outside the gates who desperately need tangible things like food, clothing, shelter, healing… they also need love and dignity and need to be treated as if they are children of a loving God. They have had more than enough of being told that they don’t matter. If the last shall be first, then it is up to all of us to make that happen.
John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. The Lord has come into his temple, not a temple made of stone, but his temple that is the life of all who live, no matter where they are found. I pray that we can find ways to prepare the way of the Lord so that all of his people might know him beyond these walls, in all that we say and do. Let us prepare for his coming by daring to get dirty. Emmanuel, God with Us, is not just God with the clean and tidy; it is God with us, all of us, and perhaps especially God with those whom no one else loves.
Come O Come, Emmanuel.