Here is how our story from the past few weeks ends: The Jews returned from exile in Babylon after seventy years. The Persians overran the Babylonians and the Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland. After much struggle, they rebuilt the temple and the wall surrounding Jerusalem.
When the new temple was built, there was a dedication ceremony. The book of Ezra recounts this; this was an extremely spartan affair compared to the dedication of Solomon’s temple. There was much weeping during this ceremony. I believe this was for two reasons: First, the Jews knew from having read their history that the dedication of Solomon’s temple was a lavish and impressive affair, and this was nothing compared to that. Second, and more importantly, the people realized that they had been unfaithful to God and that their unfaithfulness had led to exile in Babylon. But they had been restored to their land. They had been given another chance that they never thought they would get. They were determined to get it right this time. It was out of this that the Pharisees were born.
Fast-forward a few hundred years. Israel is still in its own land, but it is nothing like what it was under David and Solomon. It has not had even a whiff of independence since the Babylonian invasion. It has been a vassal state to all the reigning superpowers of the day, first the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans–and an extremely undesirable one at that. The Romans viewed Israel as the “stinking armpit” of their empire. The voice of a prophet has not been heard in Israel for hundreds of years. People who were concerned about such things believed that God had forgotten them. But most people were not concerned; they just went on about the daily business of their lives and did not give the apparent absence of God from their land and their lives a second thought.
And then, one night some shepherds were out in a field and crazy things started happening. A whole bunch of angels appeared in the sky and told them to go check out what was happening in a stable near Bethlehem. They went, and found that a baby had been born.
This was no ordinary baby. This was the one upon whom all the promises of the prophets converged. This was Jesus Christ.