Scripture: Luke 21:25-36
December is here! We are now entering into that time of year where there are nonstop Christmas specials on our TV screens, and the ever-present stories of the church clashing with the culture. Not only do we have culture clashes outside of the church but within as well. Of all the holy days in the church, Christmas is the most controversial. It is surprising I know, because who would really be opposed to spreading joy and cheer?
In the earliest days of the church the calendar and the progression of holy days was similar to the Jewish calendar. They would then add alternative meanings to the days that allowed for the testimony of Christ to be heard. But Christmas was different. The feast of Hanukkah is around the same time, this year it starts December 8th. This is a feast that began after the exile period of time when and after the return and rebuilding of the temple. We learn about the return to Jerusalem when we read the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, but the feast of Hanukkah is not mentioned, it makes us wonder where this feast came from? Did Jesus celebrate that feast? Yes. In the gospels we read about Jesus and his followers celebrating the Feast of Dedication, this is Hanukkah. They did not celebrate this feast in the Old Testament yet they do in the Gospels, something happened.
History is full of stories. One such story occurs in the books of the Maccabees that tie the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets with the contemporary history of Jesus. The prophets spoke of beasts and the coming of the king, they speak of the abomination that causes desecration. After the return of the children of Israel to their homeland, there was a clash between empires. The Greek and Persian empires met together on the battlefield and Israel was caught between the super powers. Alexander the Great pushed the forces of Persia back to their farthest eastern regions and in the processes gained the territory we know as Israel. Alexander died in this campaign and his empire was split between his generals. Antiochus III became the ruler of Syria, and after a battle with ruler of Egypt; he also became the ruler of Israel. Antiochus III, allowed the Jewish people to live according to their traditions, but his son Antiochus IV wanted all his subjects to be Greek, he outlawed the Jewish faith and took over the rebuilt temple dedicated by Ezra, and erected a idol of Zeus inside and offered sacrifices to it. The temple was no longer holy. It was used in the worship of false gods. This caused the Jewish people to become enraged, and a priest named Mattathias along with his five sons lead a revolt to restore their faith and traditions to the land. This is recorded in the first book of Maccabees. Eventually under the leadership of Mattathias’ son Judah, the temple and nation was restored. From this the Hasmonean Dynasty was established, the kingdom of Judah was reestablished, but this was a short-lived dynasty because yet another empire was marching east. And it was the Hasmoneans that opened the door for Rome.
Notice the names in this story, Mattathias or Matthew, Judah or Judas; these are the names of hero’s of the restored kingdom, and names of the disciples. This could be just a weird coincidence or it could be part of a deeper story. Matthew was the tax collector, and Judas was considered to be one of the most ideological people in Israel. Matthew or Levi was named after the priestly order and the priest that started the revolt to save Israel, yet he lived his life as a traitor to the nation as civil servant of Rome. Judas Iscariot is now being tied to revolutionaries in Jerusalem called the Sacarii or dagger men, these were revolutionaries actively trying to liberate their people from the foreign overlords. The cycle of history seems to be replaying, but it is turned upside down. The priest is not leading the revolt but a traitor, and the liberator is the betrayer. It speaks of the cycles of life, the revolutionaries become the status quo, the reformers become the establishment, and the protestors become the tyrants.
Back to Hanukkah, this feast celebrates the restoration of faith. It speaks of the rededication of God’s people to Him, and restoration of the temple of the one true God to holy worship. The rededication is not as easy as one might think, there must be pure elements to use in the ceremonies. Special implements, oils, animals, and garments all had to be found or made. They built altars, made garments, found the animals, but there was one problem they could only find enough sacred oil for the lamp that needed burn continuously, for one day. The miracle of Hanukkah is that this oil was sufficient to last through the entire feast of 8 days, allowing enough time to do the rededication and bless more oil. Now after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD the celebration of Hanukkah has moved from the dedication of the temple to celebrating the oil that fueled the light.
Easter is a known day in Jesus’ life; we know that Jesus died around the feast of Passover. Passover is a feast day that is easy to track, like most ancient religions it is based on the lunar cycle. We can pin point to the day that Jesus was crucified and when he rose from the grave. But Christmas is more difficult to pin point. Because of the shepherds in the fields at night, many believe that Jesus was born in the spring. Other scholars believe that these shepherds were special shepherds that cared for the temple flocks and were in the process of transporting some to the temple for sacrifices, so it could be that they were out in the elements in the winter. Ultimately no one knows for sure when Jesus was born. If Christmas and Easter were both in the spring what would we do the rest of the year?
The church used the lunar calendar and the seasons of the year to testify the Gospel of Christ. We are now in the Advent season of the year. This means we anticipate the coming of the King, along with that is the anticipation of the return of the king. The Gospel of John introduces Jesus as being the Word of God and the Light. Both of these terms highlight the unique and divine aspects of Jesus, speaking of truth and knowledge coming directly from God. The Jewish people celebrated a festival of Lights during the darkest time of the year, Jesus the light of the world came to redeem and restore relationships with God. Our season of Advent is placed around Festival of Hanukkah to celebrate the coming of Light.
So what does all of this have to do with this passage of scripture, what does it have to do with Christmas? Advent is more than just celebrating the time Jesus spent in the womb of His mother; it is also celebrating the recognition of who he is. A few pages before this passage, is a story of Jesus cleansing the temple driving out the people that were conducting business within its walls. It is a story whose theme is not all that different than a statue of Zeus being erected, because the worship in the temple had turned from honoring God but worshiping money and commerce. The temple is unclean. It also is a prophetic word pointing to the future of Jerusalem when Rome would come in to destroy the temple and change the face of faith forever.
This passage speaks of the Advent of recognizing the king. Jesus speaks in apocalyptic terms just as the prophets honored by the religious leaders. Signs in the sun, moon, and stars, roaring seas and waves, fainting and shaking and the Son of Man coming in a cloud. These were the same terms used to describe what was going to happen just prior to the exile to Babylon, as well as the abomination that causes desolation by Antiochus IV. When the prophets spoke these words people persecuted them, most were drove out of their homes and killed. When Jesus spoke these words not much changed, people plotted for his death as well.
Jesus spoke about the overturning of the status quo, he sparked a religious revolution the threatened the established leaders. These leaders were not totally wrong; they were the children of restored temple, followers of the previous revolution. Many were very religious and righteous men, though the Pharisees are spoken ill of in the Gospels they were very active in converting people to faith in the One True God, King Herod’s family is the product of these missionary efforts. They promoted a lifestyle totally dedicated to God. The problem with them was that they were restrictive in their mercy; they preached before they served, they were focused on the growth of the religious machine as being the sign of success. They established schools and synagogues and in many ways they reflected everything we think is right about religion. Yet Jesus was at odds with them. They represented the very human side of religion, they aspect of what I can do to be holy. This is not what Jesus was about. It might surprise you that Jesus was not opposed to their forms nor their traditions of worship, what he opposed was the spirit of their worship.
Shortly after scaring everyone with impending doom, Jesus went on to speak about Life with God. “Be on guard”, he says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…” The word here that jumps out is dissipation, it means to squander or in some cases the loss of energy to heat. Jesus is saying don’t squander your life or waste energy on the things of the world. He says this in highlight to his temple stampede, highlighting that the religious leaders of the day were squandering the kingdom, losing spiritual energy because they were too focused on the establishment of the religious structure instead of what really mattered, the relationships with God and Mankind. Jesus is saying that very soon everything is about to change dramatically. Within that generation the faith of all followers of God were changed, the temple fell and Jerusalem the city of God was left desolate. These words would be remembered and people would have to look at what was said and determine for themselves, “is Jesus King?”
Life always changes. With each passing day new challenges and opportunities present themselves to us. Some of those challenges shake the very core of our being, as we wonder if our culture and society is on the brink of collapse. With each passing year we listen to the ACLJ representing cities and individuals in legal lawsuits limiting the expression of faith, and we are afraid. But why do we fear? Is it because we are focused on the religious machine and worldly statistics for success? I read this passage and where some see a coming apocalypse I see a Festival of Lights, a rededication of hope and faith. It will be a trial and Jesus says that we need to pray for strength to escape these things. Strength to escape… we read this and dream of getting out or away from the trouble, but what it is really saying is to pray for strength to endure and survival so we can stand tall on the other side.
We anticipate the coming of the King, the Advent of The King. This is far greater than celebrating the birth of the religious leader and founder of the church, but the total foundational shaking of our lives. We anticipate the destruction of the kingdoms of mankind and the establishment of God with us. As we enter a time of open worship and holy expectancy let us consider what Jesus’ kingship means in our lives, in the life of our church, and in our communities. And let us allow His Spirit to come into our lives on a cloud and turn over tables and stones of our hearts and let the new life begin to emerge in us.