Here's something I've been chewing on of late regarding Christmas, Advent, Israel, and the King born in Bethlehem so very long ago. Maybe it will stir some fresh thought in you as well.
When Israel’s Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD, the Romans found it quite curious to discover that the revered and sacred Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum into which only the High Priest was allowed to go once a year, was in fact just an empty space. There was no ark of the covenant, no mercy seat, and most certainly no Shekinah Glory, the physical manifestation of the presence of Israel’s God. All the secrecy, all the prohibitions, all the dread, for an empty room? Let’s just say the Romans were not impressed.
Even today, it's not widely known that though the people returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon after 70 years of exile, and though they obediently rebuilt the dwelling place of their God, Hewas apparently a no-show. He did not descend in a magnificent cloud of smoke to fill the new Temple as He had in Solomon’s day. The breathtaking fullness of His Shekinah Glory did not overwhelm the people and priests alike, all falling on their faces before Him. No, the Holy of Holies would stand empty for centuries. So while the people had returned, they waited for His return.
The exile was geographically over, that was certain, but it was not over spiritually. Israel’s God was withholding His presence from them, and the spiritual exile would continue for Israel until He returned to dwell among His people again. For the Jews, this was the most earnest desire of their hearts. They longed for it, wept for it, desperately prayed for it. But the Holy of Holies stood empty. Heaven was silent. Silent for four hundred years.
But then quietly, obscurely, and even unremarkably, the glory of God returned to Israel. After four hundred and ninety years of spiritual exile, Yahweh came back. Israel’s God took on flesh and He came to once again dwell among His people. God came back. And except for a select few, Israel didn’t even know He was there.
Long before the exile, long before the Shekinah Glory ever left them, the prophet Isaiah said that Israel’s sin would drive her God away. But in the fullness of time He would return. Isaiah said a child would be born, a virgin would give birth to a son. And He would be called Emmanuel, which means God with us.
With the return of Emmanuel, the exile was truly over. By His death, the true MOSES would lead God's people out of the bondage of sin and spiritual death and into real freedom. Through Emmanuel, the true TEMPLE, God and mankind would do business again like they hadn’t done in nearly five hundred years. And as the true DAVID, King of Israel and all creation, Emmanuel returned to establish His Kingdom and invite any and all to enter it, to be mercifully ruled by it, and to bring its gracious light to the darkest corners of this desperately broken world. For He will save His people from their sins.
This year I'm pondering that Christmas doesn't just mean He came. It means He came back.