Monday, November 25, 2013

Hanukkah and Thanksgiving: Two Holidays in One

For most Christians, Hanukkah means little more than brass menorahs with nine branches, toy dreidels, tiny candles, and dark blue and white decorations. Yet, as with most Jewish holy days and feasts, this one, too, is significant for non-Jews as well.

Were it not for Hanukkah, the Jewish nation could have easily become just another Greek province.  There would have been no distinct Jewish nation or family for Jesus to have been born into.  in short, there would be no Christmas.

Hanukkah is the Hebrew word meaning "dedication."  What may surprise you is that this Feast of Dedication is actually found in Scripture.  John 10:22 records, "Then the Festival of Dedication took place in Jerusalem, and it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon."

The Messiah was in the temple at the time of Hanukkah, no doubt celebrating in remembrance with His fellow Jews. 

The eight day Hanukkah celebration serves as a reminder of the period of time immediately preceding Christ's birth when Alexander the Great and the Greeks sought to assimilate everything and everyone in their path, including the conquered nation of Israel.

As you might imagine, there was pressure from the upper classes and priests for Israel to fit into this Greek culture.  Conforming would just make life easier, right?

Sure...except for the parts where Hellenistic Greek culture was filled with rampant immorality, worship of false gods, and disregard for the non-progressive idea that Jehovah was the sole God of the universe and not Zeus. 

Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria, held this part of Alexander's empire and, two hundred years before Christ's birth, decided to turn all Jews into Greeks, to force them to assimilate.  How better to do this than to conspire with several Jewish leaders to conscript the temple of God for Greek worship.  The result was God's temple transformed into a temple for Zeus with his statue placed inside the Holy of Holies.  What's more, the corrupt priests sacrificed pig's blood to this idol within the temple walls, an abomination and flagrant disregard for God's instructions regarding the purity of His holy temple.

Then there was King Antiochus, himself.  His second name meant "the epiphany of the gods," a personal attempt to claim divinity in flesh for himself.   In short, he claimed to be a god made flesh, dwelling among them. Immanuel, with a lowercase "i."

In 165 B.C.E., a devout group of Jews called the Maccabees revolted against this attempt at assimilation.  They reclaimed the temple, cleansed it after the desecration, and then dedicated it once again so worship of God could continue as He had prescribed in the Torah.

Dedication.  Hanukkah.

Fast forward to that Festival of Dedication in the New Testament.  Into the temple walks another man of flesh claiming to be God and saying, "I and the Father are one" (Jn. 10:30).  With memories of Antiochus Epiphanes fresh in their mind at this Feast, it's no wonder the crowd picked up stones to use against Jesus "'for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God'" (Jn. 10:33).

The sad thing is that while Antiochus had been mere flesh, Jesus was the one they had all been waiting for.  He really was God dwelling among them. Immanuel, God with us, but this time with a capital "I."

This year, Hanukkah begins in the evening of Wednesday, November 27 and ends in the evening of Thursday, December 5, 2013, is one of those rare occurrences when Hanukkah and Thanksgiving overlap.

We Christians already gathering to give thanks for God's blessings could benefit from pausing to remember Hanukkah as well.  As Messianic Jewish Rabbi Derek Leman says, "Hanukkah is about more than Jewish survival--it's about Jewish people resisting the temptation to assimilate and disappear.  It's about Jewish people remaining Jewish, no matter the cost" (Leman 110).

Sound familiar?  In a modern world where Christians are fighting this same battle to not assimilate, to not take the easy road and disappear into the throngs who refuse to acknowledge Scripture as God's revelation of Himself and His holy requirements, our remembering Hanukkah  could be as simple as reminding us to dedicate ourselves to purity and holiness in our worship of God.

It's about God's children remaining God's matter the cost.

*Source: Leman, Derek.  Feast: Finding Yourself at the Table of Tradition.  Lifeway P, 2008.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Setting Your Internal GPS to the Right Destination

Last Thursday evening was one of those moments when I dipped low, frustrated with the struggles of this life that seem to persist.  No matter what I do, no matter what I pray, it is always the same short list.  Husband held me as I gave voice to those unspoken feelings of both sadness and anger I didn't realize was still within.

It has been almost eight years since one woman's choice to deceive and tell a single lie completely incinerated any plans we had framed up for a future.  A career, financial security, and husband's good name lay in the ashes that surrounded us, but back then, I still held out hope of justice in this lifetime, of us rebuilding something...somewhere else. 

Husband is always quick to rattle off a list of how far we have come in those eight years.  God has given us three children when we thought there would be none.  He has provided a house that we call home.  Our relationship with our extended family has grown closer.  And our faith walk with God has deepened to levels I never imagined possible.

Yet, in those darker moments, I can't see these mile markers.  All I can see is the same problems plaguing me year in and year out; in those times, they are like a dense wall of smoke, keeping me from seeing any progress.  Instead, I look down to see my feet cemented permanently in those ashes, unable to move as the world whizzes by around me.  And all I can think is "What if this is all there will ever be? If these struggles really never will cease?  If I must fight them until my dying breath?"

This basic need to see progress in our lives is important to surviving the strains of this life.

The good news is our heavenly Father knew this about us.  Through the pages of Scripture, He inspired men to remind us that no matter how stagnant our lives may seem, we're never standing still.  Instead, we are on a journey.  We are moving forward to that ending point in the distance even when we can't see any movement.

In the Psalms, David writes,

"Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength,    till each appears before God in Zion" (Ps. 84:5-7).

In this passage, the speaker speaks of being "blessed" to be on a pilgrimage to Mt. Zion where he will meet with God in the temple.  The word "Blessed" in verse five is transliterated as "'esher," meaning "happiness."  The word "has the force of an interjection" or exclamation, implying an announcement of good news.*

In other words, the psalmist is exclaiming with much excitement and expectation that happiness in this life is found first when we "set [our hearts] on pilgrimage."  This means we must acknowledge what this life actually is--not a destination but a pilgrimage through temporary circumstances.

Secondly, the psalmist is telling us happiness is to be found in keeping our hearts focused on that destination.  This is where I falter, forgetting that my destination is not a new job, better financial security, retirement, children out of the house, etc.  The psalmist is clear--we pilgrims must recognize that God and God alone, enthroned, in Zion, our heavenly Jerusalem--He is our goal and destination. 

If we want to feel like we're merely spinning our wheels, all we must do is set our eyes on a different destination other than God in Zion.  The blessing, the happiness, the good news to be exclaimed in these verses is not here on this earth.  Yet, we are headed for Him who is our "good news" and our "happiness."  This is the same "good news" the angel proclaimed to Mary.  Jesus.

Paul used similar pilgrimage imagery in Hebrews, although because of his setting in the culture of the day, he utilized the metaphor of racing, encouraging his readers, "let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith" (Heb. 12:1-2).

As did the psalmist, Paul, too, says the key to this life is two-fold: (1) running the race (i.e., setting our hearts on pilgrimage) and (2) keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.  Somehow, I wonder if Paul didn't also employ the racing imagery (versus the image of a pilgrim plodding down a sandy road) because he was showing how this side of the cross, we must live with anticipation that Christ may return at any second. 

This passage comes after the infamous "Hall of Faith" in Hebrews 11, wherein Paul lists one pilgrim after another who faithfully completed his or her pilgrimage to God.  While Christians typically look to those pilgrims as larger than life heroes, wonder men and women of God, Paul reminds us, "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth" (Heb. 11:13).  

These pillars of the faith likely had moments when they, too, wondered if they were making any progress towards that final destination.  At times, I'm sure they, too, focused their eyes on earthly destinations rather than the eternal one.

If we set our internal GPS to any destination other than God enthroned in a heavenly Zion, then yes, our lives may be stagnant and not making any progress.  Yet, if our hearts are set where they should be and if we embrace this life as what it is meant to be--a pilgrimage, a journey where we're just passing through--therein lies one of several keys to happiness in our circumstances.  

The journey is our destination, both focused on God alone.  

He is our peace.  He is our joy.  He is our happiness.  

*Word analysis from Strong's Concordance at

Monday, November 11, 2013

Balancing the Old and the New

As a whole, the modern-day church pays little mind to the Old Testament.  Sure, sermons may dip into that vast inkwell of antiquity for a random verse or two, but aside from camping in the strength and comfort of David's Psalms or delving deep into the books of prophecy for their link to and fulfillment in Jesus, the great bulk of the Old Testament is relegated to history--stored up on the high shelf and draped with a weighty quilt of dust.

I do understand the reasoning behind this choice, to some degree.  A pastor's speaking time is limited and is most likely to be in front of a diverse congregation.  Since there's no telling who might be sitting in that service or even if those persons will ever darken the door of a church house again, it seems quite necessary to present the gospel of salvation, which necessarily requires New Testament Scriptures.

As such, a sermon's primary text usually is situated firmly between Matthew and the book of Revelation.  Yet, what disturbs me is the thought that in the privacy of our own homes, Christians seeking to walk further down the path of righteousness do the same thing--they cling to studying again what they have unconsciously been led to believe is more important in the New as they neglect the "must-be-unimportant-because-the-pastor-rarely-turns-there" Old.

Perhaps my role as a K4-K5 Sunday School teacher allows me to see such a pronounced gap in the overall church congregation's continued exposure to Scripture in its entirety.  In the children's department, my young pupils are saturated with stories from The Old and New Testaments.

Yet, steeping oneself in the Old Testament should not stop once we don a cap and gown and fling wide the doors to adulthood.  These are not mere history lessons full of facts that, once memorized, need not be studied again.  Since we are adopted as sons and daughters, grafted as "wild olive shoots" into the true Vine, these pages are snapshots of our family tree  (Rom 11).  They are flickering glimpses through the veil to reveal who God is.  They are mirrored reflections of our own present-day society's coming demise if it, likewise, continues to turn its face from the Lord in pursuit of idols.

The prophet Isaiah made the importance of Old Testament Scripture clear when he stated,

"Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth.  When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many" (Is. 51:1-2).

In other words, as Christians, we should have this same longing to look back to our roots, which began with Abraham and Sarah

You don't have to look far to find someone in an intense quest to determine who they are and where they came from.  Perhaps that person is you.  Tracking one's ancestry is a booming business.  Now days, all it takes is a painless cheek swab and a couple hundred bucks to one of several genome projects to tell us about our ancestors.

Yes, our nation thrives on understanding its roots, on ferreting out ancient familial and cultural connections once thought lost.  The same must be true of our pursuit of who we are in the family of God.

I challenge you as I challenge myself--to ask what percentage of time this past year you've spent pouring over the inspired words of God found in The New Testament  as compared to the time you've spent pouring over the equally inspired words from God found in The Old Testament. 

If the scales are tipped so far that one side drags the floor, perhaps it's time to "Look to the rock from which you were cut" and see what God would teach you there.

Image: Geno Chip from National Geographic's genographic project.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Living Like An Orphan

"Can I help you," I ask my son.

He hears me but doesn't even look up.  "No.  I've got it." 

I raise an eyebrow and shrug but back away without further comment.  He doesn't have it, of that I'm sure. 

The floor surrounding him is covered with a confetti bomb of magazine clippings and torn out pages yet to be attacked by the snub-nosed black and white zebra scissors.  Emerson works diligently to cut out another tiny picture for his collage, but his brute force approach is no match for the delicate twists and turns needed to cut out the golden tamarin monkey's thin, winding tail.

Sure enough, I'm standing elbow-deep in dishes at the sink when he finally gives up and asks for my help.

The problem is he's not the only one in my household dead-set against accepting assistance.  My other two children and almost forty-year-old husband all suffer from the same I-don't-need-help malady, an illness usually stemming from a belief that the project "isn't that hard" or that they'll "be a burden or inconvenience" to someone else.

Some days, it's maddening to live with these people.  It's when I'm ready to choke the stubborn lot of them that I realize I am guilty of much the same thing.  Five years of raising twins has taught me well that I need to rely on others, to ask for help.  I strongly believe God gave me twins to bring me to the end of my own self-reliance so that I could finally learn to be quick in asking others for help, even when it's something I could do myself but would be easier and quicker with more helping hands working alongside me.

The problem is I can't always say the same is true when it comes to my interactions with the heavenly Father.

All too often, I find myself living like an orphan with no Father, as one who "lacks support, supervision, or care" when nothing could be further from the truth 

I work hard, trying to provide for my own needs, all the while forgetting to petition Him to "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matt. 6:11).

I struggle against various temptations in my own strength, pulling myself up by the bootstraps and forging ahead despite my constant failures, forgetting to simply ask "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (Matt. 6:13).

The story of the Prodigal Son is a tale of a self-declared orphan living in his own self-imposed, wretched state.

Yes, the young man had acted sinfully.  Yes, he had squandered all his material wealth.  Yet, for a time, he chose to live as an orphan: "So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him" (Lk. 15:15-16).

Perhaps he chose to live as an orphan because he was too ashamed to face his father.  Or perhaps he feared his father's rejection were he to return.  Whatever the reason, the Prodigal Son submitted to this life as an orphan, a sub-human life full of physical hunger, social rejection, and a corresponding emotional hunger to return home to the father.

Scripture records, "But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.'' So he got up and came to his father" (v. 17-20).

Whether or not his father chose to accept him back as his son would be his father's choice, but this young man made a decision to leave the life of an orphan and return home.  The words "he came to his senses" could not be any clearer concerning how totally idiotic it is to wallow in the mire of our unrepentant state, to struggle alone in the daily difficulties of this life, and to live as if there is no father to turn to.

The text could also not be clearer concerning the father's response to any child who returns home: "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him" (v. 20).

This parable well demonstrates how God the Father is just waiting with open arms for His children to return home to Him, to realize there is no sin too great for God to forgive, no distance too great that He cannot bridge the gap to reconcile Himself to His child.  In short, any self-labelled orphan need only repent and turn to the Father to be adopted into His kingdom as sons and daughters (Rom 8:17).

But I think this parable doesn't just speak to those far away from the grace of Christ.  Instead, I believe it shows an image of what happens each and every time those of us who are already in Christ attempt to live as if we, too, are orphans.

Each time there is a difficulty, an illness, a concern.  Each time there is a problem, an uncertainty about what to do, a hardship.  Each time I attempt to tackle anything in my own power, I am as guilty of denying that I have a Father as the Prodigal Son lying in the slop with the swine.

Each day you and I live like we don't have a heavenly Father watching over us, waiting for us to turn to Him, extending His hand to help since He is just a prayer away--each moment we live like an orphan, we are doomed to utter failure, frustration, and heartache because to live like an orphan is to try and be someone we were never created to be.

God did not create us to stand on our own two feet.  He never meant for you and me to live as orphans in no (or even "little") need of a Father's moment-by-moment guidance.   He did not save our souls, give us a push toward the right path and say, "Good luck!"

We are sons.  We are daughters.  Moment by moment, may we reject this notion that we are independent, self-sufficient orphans and choose, instead, to be the child wholly and irrevocably dependent on the Father... just as we were created to be.