Last week Jan and I went to the Christmas concert at Emil Friedman’s Music School. I can’t remember if it is the third or the fourth concert that we have been to. Betty Bell introduced them to us and we are grateful to her for that.
The program is almost identical from year to year, and because the first half is a large section of Handel’s Messiah, it makes it particularly enjoyable for me.
There is a danger of course, like with any great piece of religious music, that we shall be caught up with the sound and relegate the words to some unknown area. And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be revealed. And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
On Good Friday, the St. Matthew Passion is always played at the Festival Hall in London. It is difficult to get seats unless you book early. It is a fantastic piece of music and it isn’t performed all that often, so if you want to hear it, this is one of the few opportunities. It is not just an opportunity for Christians but for non-religious music lovers as well. They go for the overall composition and not for the message it conveys about the passion of Christ. It is easy to miss the thrust of the meaning just as it is in such a well-known piece as Handel’s Messiah, And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed .
Are they just words or do they have a real meaning?
To understand this passage from Isaiah, we would need to go back to the time of Solomon and the building of the first Temple. The temple that David wanted to build, but left to his son Solomon to construct. When it was completed almost a thousand years before Christ, everyone said that the glory of Yahweh filled the house . Then, four hundred years later, the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar, from what is now Iraq, but was then called the kingdom of Babylon, destroyed it and the glory departed. Although, some sixty years later, a replacement temple was erected the glory did not return. Prophets like Malachi saw the return of Yahweh to the holy hill of Zion as an event for sometime in the future. The Lord whom you seek, he said, will suddenly come to his Temple. At the time of Jesus, the longing for the restoration of Yahweh, the Lord, had a well-established place in people’s minds.
The Persian king Cyrus overthrew Babylon in 539BCE and he returned all prisoners of war, including exiled Jews, to their homeland. Jews declared Cyrus as a Messiah and many thought that the glory of the Lord would once again be in Jerusalem, but it never happened.
Some had been so long in Babylon they had married local girls and had extended families, and they decided to stay, and although the psalmist said that they sat by the waters of Babylon and wept when they remembered Zion, the truth was that their new life had become stronger than their memory of their homeland. They no longer believed or knew that Isaiah had promised the great revealing of the Lord when the valleys would be lifted up and the mountains flattened out to make a huge wide and flat plain for the Lord to enter Jerusalem.
Whatever role it was that Jesus believed he was fulfilling, the earliest Christians claimed that the glory of the Lord was revealed and fulfilled in Christ. John the Baptist, they said, was the voice crying in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert,’ a highway for our God Jesus was the coming king and the very embodiment of the returning Yahweh. What had not happened after the Babylon exiles returned, was to happen now. The Messiah for whom they longed had finally arrived.
It was not as most people had expected these things seldom are. Herod had begun the building of the Second Temple, five centuries after the first had been destroyed, and although it was the largest religious structure in the world built without expense being spared, the glory of the Lord was still missing.
The priesthood remained corrupt, and groups such as the Essenes railed against them and looked to the time when Malachi’s prophecy that Yahweh would purify the priesthood would come true.
It was not until after Jesus’ death that his brother James was able to convince many people. including the Zealots. and other groups like them, that the Messiah had indeed come and the apocalypse was about to happen. It would be in this final chapter that the brutal rule of Tiberius and Herod would end. The valleys would be filled and the mountains flattened out and the Temple would be filled with the bright cloud of God’s presence in the second coming of Christ. They read the prophecies again and saw Jesus as the fulfillment of their dreams and hopes.
They saw the future with new eyes and expectancy and an accomplishment still to come. Paul speaks of Malachi’s purity to God’s people as a future reality already breaking through into the present time.
Through his death and passion, Jesus had already purified the people and that process was to be brought to completion when the day of the Lord dawns on the new kingdom people. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the new church members saw themselves even more as the new priesthood, indeed, they described themselves as a nation of priests who summoned the prayers and praise of the new creation and presented them to the redeeming God who makes all things new. Thus they anticipated the literal fulfillment of Isaiah’s cosmic prophecy when the whole of the created order was to be set free.
That is not the end. It was not the end for Paul, or the early church, and it is not the end for us. There is one more part to the prophecy that remains true and in which we are still embroiled, it is a price that is still to be paid, and that is the cost of the purification. Each generation needs to be purified in order to enter the kingdom. Our task as present day Christians, as a nation of priests is to bring the whole world to Christ to be refined and changed into something of value. Malachi puts it well when he says that God becomes like the refiner’s fire, and we are the naked ore to be turned into precious metals in which the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. What is taken out of the earth is turned into a thing of value and beauty by the work of God. We are the workers to bring this about, we are the people in whom redemption is being wrought, and we are the ones who are to reveal the glory of the Lord in our lives.