(Sermon 4 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.”)
Following Spong’s premise that Matthew is a liturgical document corresponding to the Jewish liturgical year, we have traced the connections chronologically through the major Jewish festivals for the last 4 weeks:
- Shavuot or Pentecost
- Rosh Hashanah
- Yom Kippur
- Sukkoth or Booths
Learning about these Jewish festivals with their symbols, traditions and liturgy, we have seen how Matthew has tailored his Jesus stories to fit the synagogue’s cycle of readings by identifying connecting stories, symbols, themes and scripture.
(For the video version, click here.)
Today we turn to the next major festival – Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
Here’s the story of how Hanukkah came to be celebrated… a long, long time ago… about 175 years before Jesus, the Syrian Empire had taken over Jerusalem and the surrounding land. Antiochus IV, the Syrian Emperor wanted to Hellenize the area and so encouraged the worship of Greek gods and goddesses, as well as built an arena for Greek games. Eventually, the Jewish people were no longer allowed to practice their religion. The Syrians took all Jewish symbols off the walls and desecrated the Temple by placing a pig’s head in the Holy of Holies on the “mercy seat.” Finally a group of Jews decided to fight back. They were called the Maccabees – they were small in number, but very determined. After seven years of guerrilla warfare, the Maccabees finally drove the Syrian army out of Jerusalem.
As the story goes, when the Maccabees walked into the Temple, they found only enough oil to light the menorah (lamp) for one day – but miraculously, that small amount of oil lasted for eight days, which is exactly how long it took to get new oil. The Light of God had returned to the Temple. After the Maccabees and the Jewish people cleaned up the mess, they held a, eight-day celebration to rededicate the Temple to God. The word “dedication” in Hebrew is “Hanukkah.”
Today, the celebration of Hanukkah still lasts eight days, in honor of the miracles that occurred so many years ago. They light eight candles on the hanukkiah (one candle the first night, two the second night, and so on) and eat latkes (potato pancakes) and other foods fried in oil, like special jelly donuts.
Certainly, if you were a Jew celebrating Hanukkah during the early years after the destruction of the Temple, you would have known this history inside and out. Matthew uses the story of the transfiguration to tie the Jesus’ story into Jewish history and tradition. As a devout Jew, you would understand all the references to your great prophets and scripture when you heard the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. When Matthew tells you that Jesus went up the mountain and his face shone and his clothes became radiant, you would think of Moses and how he went up the mountain and his face shone when he gazed upon God. And, you’d think of the priest Joshua (by the way “Jesus” is Greek for Joshua) in Zechariah whose priestly clothes are made new and radiant by God. When you heard that both Moses and Elijah were with Jesus, you’d understand that Moses was in the company of the Father of the Law and the Father of the Prophets. Then you’d hear that Jesus sort of “one-ups” the two of them as God’s voice comes from the clouds and says, “This is my Own, the Chosen One, on whom my favor rests. Listen to him!” Jesus was the completion and the fulfillment of the law and prophets.
Just this last week, I was told that if you are trying to teach someone something new, you need to use 75% of what they already know before you and add 25% that they don’t know. Or if the person is really smart, maybe you can use 50% of what they already know and add 50% of something they don’t know. It seems to me that the author of Matthew was pretty smart this way, because he kept using material that the Jews knew in order to teach them the something new that they experienced in Jesus.
Remember Matthew is being written in the 9th decade of the first century, about 15 years after the destruction of the Temple. Up until this point, Jews had believed that God dwelt in the Temple. This presented them with a new question: where is God now?
Matthew’s answer is Jesus. The Light of God is now found in Jesus.
Have you ever felt drawn to someone because you saw some of yourself in them? Maybe they had the same sense of humor, or a similar hobby, or had similar experiences? Or maybe it was something you couldn’t define, you just felt a pull toward them?
Here’s my theory of the day… the light of God clearly shone in Jesus and people were drawn to him because the light in them recognized the light in Jesus. Like magnets drawn to each other. People recognized in Jesus the Truth of their very selves. Jesus said to the people, “You are the light of the world!” Yes! Yes! We see that to be true because something in us feels that truth when we are around Jesus, and when we hear his teachings and his stories.
OK… so here is sort of silly example. When my Creative Worship group talked about seeing the light of God in people, my friend Chris told us this story. She had recently been to the grocery store and came out with a cart just piled high with groceries. She parked her cart next to her car, and as she started to load all the bags into her car an old guy got out of his car and came up to her. He explained that he was just waiting for his wife to finish shopping when he saw that she had so many groceries to load up and he just thought he’s come over and help. Chris was completely touched with this show of kindness. The guy could have easily just kept sitting in his car and done nothing. Chris experienced the light of God in him.
So, let’s take this theory one step further. We’ve all had stuff like this happen, right? How does it make you feel? It always makes me feel like I’d like to do the same for someone else. Seeing the light of God in someone else puts us in touch with the light of God in ourselves, and hopefully we then let our own lights shine by being compassionate, caring, helpful, generous, understanding and kind. This is how the light grows.
The Light of God, which the Jews had thought existed only in the Temple, was now recognized in Jesus, and taught us to grow and be the light ourselves.