Vicar's Sermon - April 17th
‘It was winter and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.’
Hannukah is a Jewish Feast. It falls on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which means that it falls in what we call December but it doesn’t fall on December 26=5th because the Jewish calendar, presumably following the cycles of the moon, can shift its date around quite a bit.
You know about Hannukah...even if you don’t think you do. Because my guess is that you can picture the candles that are lit on each day of this eight day feast Normally , the Hannukah candelabra will have 9 candles: four candles (with apologies to Ronnie Barker) on each side of a central candle that is raised above the rest.
And what does the Feast celebrate. It is tempting in what the Americans call the ‘holiday period’ to blur the distinctions between the great world faiths. The winter months see the great festival of Diwali in Hinduism, we Christians have Christmas (and we too light many candles at this time) and Judaism has Hannukah. But for all their similarities – special food and the celebration of light – the feasts are very different and can’t be blurred into one. For Hannukah actually celebrates the distinctiveness of Judaism from the world around it. It’s a celebration and affirmation of difference rather than of similarity.
So what is it about? It’s about the Dedication of the temple: we read that in the first verse of our Gospel reading. This is not the Dedication of the first temple built by the great King Solomon way back in Israel’s history. No. It is actually a rededication of the temple after an horrific war that took place in the year 166/165 BC. The conflict was between Jews, led by Judas Maccabaeus and the Seleuid rulers (Greek descendants of Alexander the Great) who attempted to crush the Judaism out of Israel.
We live in a multi cultural society and we rather appreciate doing so: our favourite meal in England is apparently not roast beef but chicken tikka masala. The news this week has been about Dolmio sauces. Last week in Lincoln Kim and I went out for a Mexican meal...but we could equally have eaten Thai, Spanish, American Vietnamese, Polish or Italian food. By the earlier 2nd century BC a third of Jews were quite comfortable with the Greek influences permeating national life but when the Seleucid Empire started fighting it out with the Ptolomaic empire based in Egypt ‘influence’ turned into coercion. Israels Greek rulers placed a statue of Zeus in front of the temple. Circumcision was banned. The Jewish education system (that taught the divine law) was placed under threat and it was only a matter of time before a backlash came in the form of a guerrilla war that ultimately (but at immense cost in life) restored the purity of Jewish practice.
The Feast of Dedication then, celebrates the faithfulness of Israel – willing to die for the purity of her relationship with God rather than to succumb to assimilation by a greater, more powerful people. And the lights, the candles? When the priests came to Dedicate the temple and to cleanse it from the abuse it had suffered under the occupying force, they could only find one day’s supply of consecrated oil to light the seven branched candlestick (the Menorah) in the temple itself , and it would take 8 days to make some more. Yet, the lamps were lit...and they burned, it is said, miraculously for 8 days. Hannukah celebrates a military victory but these come and go: more importantly it celebrates God’s faithful provision for His people.
With this background we read of Jesus’ conversation with ‘the Jews’; Jews who have seen his signs; Jews who have asked him about his true identity and his mission before. John presents them as people who ask a question but don’t seem to want to hear the answer.
‘Are you the Messiah, are you the King, tell us plainly’. At the Feast of Dedication (Hannukah), in a context where, in Jesus’ time, Israel was living with yet another occupying army, the question really was ‘Are you going to take on the Romans? Are you another Judas Maccabaeus? Are you the one who will bring a victory even greater than his and free us for all time to be God’s chosen people?’ It’s no wonder that Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer. And were we to stop to think that the first readers of John’s Gospel will have witnessed the destruction of Herod’s Temple by the Romans in 67AD and that they will have known full well that Jesus’ ministry bore little or no resemblance to that of the Maccabean rulers then the conversation takes on yet another hue. For within a generation of Jesus’ death and resurrection there was actually no physical temple lft for the Jews to celebrate in, to rejoice in, to recall any form of Dedication.
Jesus’ invitation is to find in him all that the temple had once offered: the Presence and the nearness of God, the assurance of God’s faithfulness to His people. It is in following Him that we become assured of the strength of God’s loving intent towards us: no-one can snatch us from His hands.
Whilst there is reassurance here there is also challenge. ‘the Jews’, that faceless group of people whom John lumps together as opposing Jesus find that Jesus doesn’t fit their image of what a ‘Messiah’ should be. They feel that they have got God ‘taped’ – a sure sign that in reality they have not. Jane Williams writes’ thinking you know God and have got him where you want Him is the best possible inoculation against really catching God, (and) the full blown raging fever of His reality.’
All of us try to tame God. We keep Him at arms bay in the same way as the Jews in this passage because, when He comes close we are forced to change...and we don’t like change...but Jesus won’t let us squirm out of making a choice about Him. ‘Are you with me, or against me? Will you listen to my voice or will you choose not to?’
The risen Jesus assures us of the miraculous faithfulness of God but can we, his sheep hear his voice, follow him and in doing so offer our lives (as he did) as lambs for the slaughter in dedicated service to God? For it is doing so that we share in the eternal life (the different category of life and living) that is poured out between God, the Father and His beloved Son – life, that like the oil of the Hannukah candle, never runs out.