In honor of the birth of the Baby King Jesus Christ two thousand years ago, we at ABC are celebrating with four Advent Candles, and a fifth on Christmas Eve. But some of my friends are lighting nine candles this week. What’s that all about? Well, it’s about Hanukkah. Some of us think of this as the “Jewish Christmas,” their way of giving gifts and telling inspiring stories to kids. But there’s a lot more to Hanukkah.
About 700 years before Christ, when Isaiah was prophesying to God’s People, the aggressive Assyrian Empire began its great expansion in the Middle East. During the next few generations, Israel and Judah were swallowed up as part of its vast realm and became slave states under its cruel control. From then on over the next five hundred years, the Israelites were puppets under one autocratic government after another — the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks. With the rise of Rome as the next great power, the Greeks were forced to back off a bit, then tried to reassert their control with a renewed display of cruelty against the Jews. This led to a chapter of great idealism and bravery by Jewish nationalists in what became known as the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BC). A great warrior named Judas Maccabeus (“Judas the Hammer”) led them to victory over the Greeks. The Jewish State’s self-assertion was tolerated by the Romans for the time being, because it was not worth using up military lives and resources on such a minor insurrection. So, Judas installed his family as the royal line that would govern Judah as the Hasmonean Kings over the next 103 years. This was the Israelites’ only period of independence from the time of Isaiah (700 BC) until the founding of the State of Israel in AD 1948.
One important aspect of this new chapter in Jewish history was the revival of Temple worship. Important sacrifices, rites and rituals had been neglected for generations, and the lineages of priests qualified to perform them had even been lost. The Hasmonean leaders made it a priority to reaffirm the presence of God in Jerusalem by re-establishing Temple worship to its former glory. On a particular day in the winter of 164 BC, which became known as Hanukkah (“Dedication”), the restoration of the Temple’s worship was signaled by the lighting of the first candle wick on traditional menorah lamp. The ceremony was to cover eight days, with one more candle being lit each day. Unfortunately, the religious leaders noticed that there was only enough sanctified oil in the lamp for the first day. They prayed that the Lord would help them solve this, and amazingly, the second day, they discovered more oil in the lamp. This miracle happened each day through the ceremonial period, so that on the last day of Hanukkah, all eight candles were lit (plus a ninth which was the igniting candle). This is how Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, became an established Jewish holiday.
In 63 BC, the Roman authorities became tired of seeing Jewish displays of arrogant independence, to the point where they decided to show them who really was boss in the Middle East. They marched into Jerusalem, deposed the Hasmonean monarch and installed Herod, who was from a neighboring Arab nation, as puppet King. This is the complex political/cultural/religious world into which Jesus was born. The ultimate rulers were the Romans, with Herod acting as ceremonial King. The Jewish leadership people he encountered during his ministry — Sadducees, Pharisees and Scribes — were all factions that had arisen during the Hasmonean period. As a faithful Jew, Jesus certainly celebrated Passover, the Day of Atonement and Jewish New Year, but his holiday calendar also included The Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), as we read in John 10:22. He was familiar with the relatively recent period when Jewish self-rule seemed secure, only to be slapped down by harsh geo-political realities. He was aware of the peoples’ longings to be a free nation again. In fact, some of his disciples had been Zealots, revolutionaries who were ready to take up arms against the Romans.
Thirty-three years after his birth, when the crowd cheered for him at his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, a great many of them thought they were crowning the new King of the Jews, who was about to sit on the Hasmonean throne (Luke 18:36-40). As a result, the Roman and other authorities saw him as a definite threat. Within a few days, the were putting a mock royal robe on him and sarcastically “installing” him with a Crown of Thorns. Just to make sure the miracle of Hanukkah would not happen again, they crucified him (Luke 23).
But the Baby King of the Five Candles was not like the Hasmonean Kings of the Nine Candles. His Kingdom was “not of this world,” not subject to the whims of human history (John 18:36). Those of us who live in his Kingdom by faith know the difference, and we rejoice!
– Pastor George Van Alstine