Monday, December 15, 2014

A Light in the Darkness

At first glance, Hanukkah (or Chanukah) seems to be the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. It is celebrated around the same time of year and contains lights, decorations, gifts and family gatherings with tasty seasonal food. But Hanukkah--the Feast of Dedication, or the Festival of Light--is not Jewish Christmas.

Chanukah (Hebrew for dedication) is not one of the commanded Feasts of the Lord, but is mentioned in the gospels and was celebrated by Jesus (John 10:22-23). It commemorates a miracle which took place several thousand years ago, in the historical period between the writing of the two Testaments. Around 164 B.C. the Jewish people were ruled by a cruel Syrian king. Antiochus Epiphanes tried to make the conquered Jewish people easier to rule by neutralizing their Jewishness. He forced them to worship in a Greek manner as the Syrians did and forbad Jewish customs such as circumcision and Sabbath observance. Study of Torah, their Scriptures, was forbidden and pagan altars were built in every town in Israel. Antiochus placed a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem and had pigs, a ritually unclean animal, sacrificed on its altar to desecrate it. He insisted that all Jews show allegiance to him by worshipping idols rather than the true God of Israel. Those who refused did so at risk to their lives. Antiochus was a foreshadowing of the Antichrist, one of many throughout the years who’ve hated and attempted to eradicate the people of God.

Though many Jews did assimilate to a more Greek way of living, the priest Matthias and his five sons flatly refused to worship as Antiochus demanded. When the king’s officers came to their town to organize pagan sacrifices, Matthias and his sons killed them, then fled into the surrounding hills. Matthias is reported to have said, “Let everyone who is zealous for the Torah and who stands by the covenant follow after me!” A rebellion began, led by Matthias’ son Yehudah (Judah). He was a courageous and effective leader and became known as Judah Maccabee (the hammer). Amazingly, within three years his band of guerilla warriors defeated the much bigger Syrian army.

Jerusalem was retaken and the Temple cleansed. The defiled altar was removed and a new one built. The priests made plans to rededicate the Temple, but when they went to light the menorah, the large, seven branched candelabra which stood in the sanctuary, there was a problem. Scripture commanded never to let the light go out, but there was only enough oil to burn for one day. Not just any olive oil could be used, and the process for preparing the oil took eight days to complete. In faith, the priests lit the menorah anyway and were amazed when instead of burning one day, it burned for eight! This allowed the priests enough time to prepare more oil for the menorah. So Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil when the Temple was rededicated to the Lord. It honors the God of Israel who has faithfully and repeatedly kept the Jewish people from extinction and assimilation.

The Chanukah story is definitely relevant to us today, with growing government intervention into previously protected speech and activities. We face tremendous pressure to assimilate to our culture in order to avoid disapproval--or even legal penalties. Hanukkah teaches that while government is in charge of many things and has power to make our lives uncomfortable or even dangerous, it is God who is in charge of His people. We can therefore take courage to maintain our Christian distinctive in the face of opposition, trusting His provision and protection.

Today Jewish families celebrate Chanukah by lighting special nine branched menorahs, called hanukkiahs. Menorahs are usually lit just after sundown and displayed in windows, so their light shines into the darkness outside. Family and friends gather and eat special Hanukkah foods fried in oil, like latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts. Gifts are usually exchanged. Children receive chocolate coins and play with a dreidel, a special top that has on its sides the Hebrews letters for the phrase, “A great miracle happened there!” 

Some scholars have speculated that Jesus was conceived during the Feast of Chanukah. Though we cannot be certain, it would be so like God to begin the salvation story--the incarnation of the Light of the World during the Festival of Light. Like all the Feasts, Hanukkah is a reminder of God's faithfulness to His people as well as an opportunity to gather and celebrate His goodness to us.

This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 16 and ends at sundown on the 24th. This is a great time to pray that our Jewish friends and family members receive a greater revelation of our amazing God and the best gift of all—their Messiah. Just as the Temple was cleansed and rededicated, let's rededicate ourselves to the One who loved us enough to leave Heaven's glory and come to earth to be a light showing us the way through the darkness. Happy Hanukkah!

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