Part of the scandal of the Christmas story is what it means for the Temple and its worship that the Messiah has now come. John uses some strong, powerful language to describe this (to the scandal of the Jewish mind).
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)
Literally, this text might be translated something like “The Word was incarnate as human and cast his tents in our presence.” Imagine that. God making his home with us. We spend most of our lives pursuing God “above” and “beyond” but God reveals himself in our midst.
This “tabernacling” or “tent casting” of God is important to a theological/political problem in the life of Israel. A lot is happening at the time of Jesus surrounding the meaning and future of the Temple – the place where We can “go” to meet with YHWH. But Jesus transforms, or perhaps redeems, the understanding of this. Consider this part of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well:
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman, like us, wants a place on earth and to know that place – we want to go to the house of the Lord where we can meet with God. It is a very human impulse, and perhaps a legitimate one. However, John’s messiah is a rather wild one – not easily tamed or confined to “four walls.” Perhaps we should be careful about what we call “the house of God.”
Barbara Brown Taylor says this wonderfully in her beautiful book “An Altar in the World.”
“As important as it is to mark the places where we meet God, I worry about what happens when we build a house for God. I am speaking no longer about the temple in Jerusalem but of the house of worship on the corner, where people of faith meet to say their prayers, because saying them together reminds them of who they are better than saying them alone. This is good, and all good things cast shadows. Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay in ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls – even four gorgeous walls – cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in the houses of God?”
These are wonderful and important questions. Beautiful questions. Questions we need to consider with care and love. Questions that we need to wrestle with, if I may, with a certain, “Zeal for the house of the Lord.” At the incarnation, the resurrection, and Pentecost, God is set free from human limitations. There is no more temple. There is no more “house” in which God dwells that holds him fully. God is not sought “at a place” but can be found in any place. BUT! But, this “anyplace” you may rest assured is a place on earth.
As John Howard Yoder so beautifully taught me in his book “The Original Revolution” there is a difference between Apocalyptics and Eschatology. Eschatology is the study of “what will come to be.” Apocalyptics is the study of “the particulars of how it will come to be.” Eschatology is far and away a more serious concern for the NT and OT writers. Apocalyptics, however, is what seems to capture the imaginations (or lack there of) of most Western Christians. Nevertheless, NT scripture gives us beautiful and poetic eshcatological glimpses into God’s future glory – his “reconciling all things.”
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
Take notice of the language there. “God will make his dwelling among them” and the New Jerusalem is depicted as “coming down out of heaven” None of this damages what Jesus said when he taught “I am going to prepare a place for you” rather it amplifies it and gives fuller meaning to what sort of place the place will be.
Even though we do not know the particulars, we do know that the place to go meet God is a place on earth. Nowhere does God reveal to us his intentions in this regard than at Advent and Christmas. At Advent, we live in hopeful anticipation of God’s new event – an event of salvation. And the salvation hoped for is not escape or evacuation, rather it is always couched in “here and now” terms in scripture. Even the salvation the prophets dreamed of was poetically revealed in terms of “real world” salvation. Isaiah says:
In the last days
the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the LORD.
Even if one argues that this is all simply metaphor for an “other worldly” hope, an “other worldly” heaven, the invitation of Isaiah remains firmly in the here in now: “Come… let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
And we can always do well to remember that salvation “comes” to man in the form of the helpless baby. As the great theologian Karl Barth once said: “Grace is not grace unless it finds expression in real life.”