In the year 587 BC the temple of Solomon was razed to the ground by the armies of the Babylonian Empire. This event was not mourned by the Israelites as merely the destruction of an important civic monument, but as a sign, that the God of Israel had abandoned his people.
For years, the Israelites languished in exile, beset by the fear that God had given up on them. The prophets reminded the Israelites of their many refusals of God, and this cast a pall over them. They could not deny their infidelity to the covenant. Had they driven God away? Would God ever return? If God didn’t come back to his people, would they ever get to go home?
This week the Church has selected readings from Old Testament Books of Ezra and Haggai. Both men spoke the Lord’s word of truth around the year 520 BC, during a time when the Israelites had returned from a long exile and had begun the difficult task of rebuilding the temple. The temple was not, as I said just a civic center, it was a house for God to dwell in. From this house, God reigned over Israel as their king and offered the people communion with his divine presence. The rebuilding of the temple was an act of faith that God had not abandoned his people and the covenant had been restored.
There were many obstacles to this project of rebuilding, and political intrigues brought everything to a standstill, money ran out, and it took the intervention of a foreign king to get things going again. Ezra and Haggai acted to organize and encourage the Israelites to rebuild the temple and to get on with the mission God had given them. Their long exile had ended. God had brought them home. God had not abandoned them. The Israelites were not to live in nostalgia or in regret, but to be the people God had created them to be: a light to the nations, witnesses to the world of the living, divine presence of the one, true God.
The lesson in all this is not just historical, but immediate to the mission of the Church right now. The Church is the continuation of the story of Israel. The stories in the Old Testament are reference points for understanding what the Church is and what the Church is supposed to be doing.
The mission of the Church is too often blocked by nostalgia, mitigated by practical concerns that are construed as insurmountable obstacles, fear holds us back, too many times we prefer to argue about the mission rather than doing it. The Church’s mission is that of Israel- to be a light in a dark world, to be an invitation to the world to bask in the divine life and presence of the one, true God Jesus Christ. In the temple of the Church’s worship, God in Christ offers communion with all who would come to him in faith and humility. We build up that temple through lives of virtue and works of mercy. Christ’s faithful are the missionaries of the temple of the Church, the Lord sends us from the temple of the Church out into the world so as to invite people to come in.
Today’s Gospel testifies that Herod (the son of Herod the King who tried to murder the infant Lord Jesus and killed the children of Bethlehem) is both curious and fearful of Christ, wondering if an even greater prophet than John the Baptist (whom he had killed) had been sent to the Israelites.
John had proclaimed that the Lord God was coming to Israel to set things right that had gone terribly wrong. God would drive out the family of Herod who had usurped the kingdom of God and purify the temple that the Herod had gilded as a monument to his own glory. The family of Herod hoped that with John’s death, none of his prophecies would come to fulfillment.
News of the signs and wonders worked by Christ troubles Herod because it seems that John’s death didn’t stop what he had set in motion and his prophecies would come true.
Thus, Herod wants to see Christ. Why? The Gospel of Luke will testify later that it is because he wants to see if the Lord Jesus can perform miracles for him, provide him with an experience of faith-based entertainment. He doesn’t seek the Lord Jesus so that he can be liberated from his sacrilege and blasphemy, but so that he can be entertained! He thinks of Christ as a kind of celebrity whom he can use for his own benefit!
The desire for Christ is a gift of the Holy Spirit but even that gift can be distorted and destroyed by sin. Had Herod opened himself up to the authentic potential of the gift of Christ, he would have been freed from the debauchery that imprisoned him. But that would have meant Herod would have to let Christ be himself- Lord and Savior. Herod would have to repent of the terrible things that he had done. Faith based entertainment was easier.
The reduction of our relationship with Christ to superficiality and worship to entertainment is a perennial temptation for us all. Herod’s tragic refusal of Christ displays where that temptation leads. It is not enough to be interested in the Lord Jesus, even fascinated by him. Instead, we must be willing to be changed by him.