HANUKKAH (1) – FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS

It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication. He was in the Temple, walking through the section known as Solomon’s Colonnade. The people surrounded him and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” [John 10:22-24 (NLT)]

Today is the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar: the first of the eight days of Hanukkah. Last night, our Jewish brothers and sisters lit the first of the Hanukkah candles. Hanukkah isn’t a Jewish version of Christmas and it’s no more about dreidels (spinning tops), gelt (foil wrapped chocolate coins), potato latkes, or gifts than Christmas is about presents, decorated trees, holiday lights, or Santa. Just as Scripture doesn’t require celebrating Christ’s birthday, it doesn’t require Hanukkah’s observance. Nevertheless, because they both recognize events of great significance to Christians or Jews, these holidays continue to be celebrated throughout the world.

The Hanukkah story is recorded in the books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees and celebrates events that took place in 164 BC. Having been mercilessly persecuted by their Seleucid rulers, the people of Judah rebelled when the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes vandalized the Temple and defiled it by erecting an idol on its altar and sacrificing swine. Three years after its desecration, Jewish guerilla forces (led by Judah Maccabee) managed to defeat an army of 40,000 to reclaim the Temple. After thoroughly purifying the Temple, they relit the golden lampstand (the menorah), rededicated the Temple, and celebrated for eight days. Known as the Feast of Dedication (hanukkah means dedication), this celebration also became known as the Festival of Lights in commemoration of the relighting of the seven lamps of the Temple’s menorah.

The books of the Maccabees, however, have never been part of the accepted canon of the Hebrew scriptures and, like other books of the Apocrypha, they won’t be found in Jewish Bibles or in most Christian ones. Nevertheless, the Feast of Dedication was celebrated by Jews in the 1st century and John tells us that Jesus was at the Temple in Jerusalem during its observance. It was at that time that He was asked point blank if He were the Messiah.

Having seen His miracles, the people knew Jesus’ power exceeded that of an ordinary man and, having heard His words, they knew His authority surpassed that of their religious leaders. Nevertheless, they were expecting a military leader like Judah Maccabee—someone who would free them from Roman oppression and Jesus hadn’t spoken of politics or rebellion. Saying that the proof of His identity lay in His works, Jesus accused his questioners of being unwilling to believe. Indeed, rather than being interested in the truth, many simply wanted to catch Jesus saying something that might lead to His arrest. After Jesus made a claim of divinity by saying, “The Father and I are one,” they accused Him of blasphemy. Indeed, if Jesus were a mere man claiming to be God, His words would have been blasphemous. Jesus, however, wasn’t a man claiming to be God; He was the second member of the Godhead who was claiming to be a man!  Wanting to stone Jesus for His supposed sacrilege, the people tried to arrest Him, but He escaped. In the end, however, He died for His truthful words.

How ironic that, at the very time people were remembering God’s deliverance of Israel from the pagan Seleucids, they wanted to kill the One who came to deliver them from Satan! Having been conquered again by Rome in 63 BC, the deliverance they were celebrating had been temporary; the deliverance offered by Jesus would last forever! While celebrating the Festival of Lights, they wanted to kill the One who actually was the Light of the World! The way, the truth, and the life stood right before them and yet some refused to believe!

When we see the brightly colored lights associated with Christmas, let us celebrate the One who truly brought God’s light into the world. Those who follow Jesus will never walk in darkness because He is the Light of Life!

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:10 (NLT)]

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THE REAL STORY

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. [Luke 2:7 (KJV)]

Magi
Between countless Christmas pageants, Christmas card illustrations, nativity sets, and the words of our favorite carols, the Christmas story we know actually may not be the one told by Luke. Although most translations say Mary laid Jesus in a manger because there was “no room for them in the inn,” it probably wasn’t an inn and no mention is made of an innkeeper (or his wife). The word usually translated as “inn” in this verse was kataluma and it appears one more time in Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14 when Jesus sent Peter and John to Jerusalem to determine the location of the kataluma where they would celebrate their Passover meal. Here kataluma  is translated as guest room or guestchamber and Luke described it as a large upstairs room in a person’s house. Rather than kataluma , the word Luke used for inn when telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan was pandocheion which clearly meant inn or public house.

Rather than staying in the 1st century equivalent of a Motel 6, the couple would have stayed with relatives, as was the custom of the time. But, since everyone else in the family also was in Bethlehem for the census, the house would have been overflowing with people. Even though Mary was pregnant, the older family members had priority on rooms. Rather than no room at the inn, there was no room for them in the normal living quarters.

We wrongly assume Jesus was born in a barn or a stable because of the manger (an animal’s feeding trough) but animals usually weren’t housed in an exterior building. To keep them safe from theft and the elements, they were kept on the ground floor of the house, often under the living quarters. Because of the manger’s mention, it probably was here that Mary gave birth. Had I been Mary and about to give birth, I would have preferred the relative quiet and privacy afforded in the animals’ quarters to the commotion of a house filled with people! While it makes for great drama to think of a cruel innkeeper refusing them a room, it’s rather nice to picture the savior of mankind being welcomed into the wonderful chaos of an extended family oohing and aahing over Him!

Even though animals are included in every pageant and nativity, Scripture doesn’t mention Mary riding a donkey into Bethlehem, the shepherds bringing any sheep, or even camels. Because of the manger, we assume the presence of a cow but that’s mere speculation.

As for the angels—the only mention of angels in Luke’s account is when they announce Messiah’s birth to the shepherds. While it’s logical to think angels watched over the Holy Family that night, Scripture doesn’t say so and there’s no reason to think they were visible. Moreover, as much as I love singing the long “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” in the carol, Scripture only says the angels praised God and spoke their message.

In Matthew’s gospel we read of the wise men (magi) from the east who visited Jesus. While “magi” came to mean astrologers, sorcerers, or magicians, these men probably were Magians, a priestly caste from Media, Persia, Assyria, or Babylonia. Learned in the prophecies of Hebrew Scripture, they were worshipful seekers of the truth. Their number (three) and names come from song rather than Scripture and their kingship and camels may come from their mention in Isaiah 60. Careful reading, however, tells us Isaiah’s prophecy refers to Christ’s return rather than His birth. Nevertheless, an unknown number of Magi brought this young king gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Whether such costly offerings were theirs or on behalf of a foreign king is unknown.

Even the Magi’s appearance in our pageants and nativities is incorrect. Because the Holy Family fled to Egypt immediately after their departure, the Magi must have arrived after Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation in the Temple 40 days after His birth. When the Magi arrive, Matthew refers to Jesus as a child rather than an infant and, based on the age of the boys Herod ordered slaughtered, their visit probably occurred when Jesus was a toddler.

Christmas is a time of great pageantry and kings kneeling in front of an infant in a manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds, and angels, makes for great theater. The facts surrounding Jesus’ birth, however, are more marvelous that any we could imagine! The message that the Son of God came in human form to sacrifice Himself for our sins and provide eternal life to all who believe in Him needs no embellishment.

It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the most profound unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. God became man; Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the incarnation.  [J.I. Packer]

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. [Luke 2:10-14 (KJV)]

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MIRACLE AT CANA – Part 2

The next day there was a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no more wine.”… This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed his glory. And his disciples believed in him. [John 2:1-3,11 (NLT)]

eastern bluebird
Jesus told several parables about the importance of accepting God’s invitation to the feast in His Kingdom. The wedding at Cana, however, shows us what happens when we invite God to our feast! While we don’t know the reason Jesus and the disciples were at the festivities, the men weren’t wedding crashers. In fact, John makes a point of telling us they were invited guests. The story of Cana tells us that Jesus not only transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary but, when invited into our lives, He also changes circumstances, makes scarcity into surplus, exchanges sorrow for joy, and empowers the servants (us) to do His work, just as He did that day in Cana. That first miracle was Jesus’ simple way of saying, “Invite me into your life and see what wonderful things can happen!”

When Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into His home, salvation came as well! When Levi the tax collector invited Jesus home for dinner, he found salvation and the despised publican became Matthew, the gospel writer and Apostle. When Peter opened his home to Jesus, his mother-in-law was healed of her fever. Martha welcomed Jesus to her home and her brother Lazarus was resurrected! After the synagogue leader Jairus begged Jesus to come into his home, the man’s dead daughter was brought back to life. When Cleopas and his friend invited the resurrected Jesus to break bread with them, they finally recognized Him as the risen Lord! Good things happen when we invite Jesus into our homes!

The Old Testament tells us that good things happen when we invite God’s messengers into our homes and lives. Because Rahab welcomed Israel’s spies into her home, she and her family were saved when Jericho fell. Because the widow of Zarephath welcomed Elijah to her table and served him her last morsel, she, her son, and the prophet had food enough for the famine’s duration. After the wealthy woman of Shunem invited Elisha into her home, she was blessed by having a much-desired child and then by having her son brought back to life through God’s power. Indeed, good things happen when we invite God and His messengers into our lives!

Jesus didn’t gate-crash that wedding feast in Cana, show up uninvited at the house of Levi/Matthew, or bully His way into the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus; He was an invited guest. Right now, Jesus politely stands at the entryway of our lives, knocks at our heart’s door to gain admittance, and waits to be invited inside. Because we have free will, whether or not we welcome this guest is our choice alone.

There was no room for Jesus when He arrived in Bethlehem that first Christmas. Have we made room for Him this Christmas? Will we open the door to our hearts and lives and warmly receive Him into our homes and lives? Or, as happened that starry night 2,000 years ago, will we ignore His knock the way we would a door-to-door salesman and send Him on His way?

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blessed. Amen [child’s prayer from 17th Century German hymn]

Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. [Revelation 3:20 (NLT)]

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MIRACLE AT CANA – Part 1

It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God. [Galatians 6:15-16 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly
It was while Jesus was a guest at a wedding in Cana that He quietly performed his first miracle and turned water into wine. Wine making, however, seems an odd choice for the Lord’s first recorded miracle. Later in His ministry, He healed lepers, gave sight to the blind, walked on water, fed thousands, calmed storms, and raised the dead. Simply turning water into wine with only a few people even knowing what He did pales in comparison with those other impressive and public miracles. Granted, His act of compassion saved the wedding’s host from humiliation and embarrassment, but Jesus was the Son of God and tasked with the greatest mission in the world. Nevertheless, there He was, at a wedding reception, playing the role of caterer and quietly telling the servants what to do as He turned jugs of wash water into vintage wine.

John tells us that this miracle in Cana was the first time Jesus “revealed his glory” and that His power over creation confirmed the disciples’ belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus, however, didn’t have to be at a wedding to demonstrate His divine power for the disciples; that could have been done anywhere. Jesus never did anything by happenstance and, with only 37 miracles recorded during His ministry, there must have been a specific reason for this miracle and for its inclusion in the gospel. But, since its purpose never is stated, what are we to make of it?

The miracle at Cana, however, differs from the other ones in which Jesus healed, restored, enlarged, provided, controlled nature, resurrected the dead, and made nothing into something (when a coin appeared in the mouth of a fish). Cana’s miracle was one of transformation; Jesus converted one substance (water) into an entirely different one (wine). Throughout His ministry, the One who transformed water into wine transformed the lives of all who came to believe in Him when He converted sinners into saints! He continues that transformation in the lives of His believers today.

The servants brought Jesus jugs of wash water which were transformed into vintage wine. Just imagine what He can do with us when we bring Him our lives!

The same Jesus Who turned water into wine can transform your home, your life, your family, and your future. He is still in the miracle-working business, and His business is the business of transformation. [Adrian Rogers]

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

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WHITE LIES

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. [Leviticus 19:11 (ESV)]

A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies. … A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish. [Proverbs 14:5,19:9 (ESV)]

squirrel
In the movie Liar Liar, comedian Jim Carrey portrayed a glib lawyer who plays fast and loose with the truth. After his son wishes his father would tell the truth, the insincere and conniving man finds it impossible to lie and immediately gets himself into hot water. Many of his problems, however, don’t come from telling the truth as much as they do from his callousness and insensitivity when he does. The self-centered man doesn’t know the difference between brutal honesty and truthful tact, crudeness and candor, vulgarity and restraint, or rudeness and civility. Among other things, the comedy illustrates that lying, while wrong, is often far easier than telling the truth.

At one time or another (probably more if we sell used cars), we’ve all told what we think of as “white lies.” Deception of any kind didn’t exist until Satan, the father of all lies, brought it into the garden. The deceit continued as both Abraham and Isaac lied about their wives, Sarah lied to God about laughing, Jacob and Rebecca tricked Isaac, Laban and Leah hoodwinked Jacob, Joseph’s brothers lied to Jacob, and Potiphar’s wife lied about Joseph. The lies continued as Israel’s midwives lied to Pharaoh, Pharaoh lied to Moses, Rahab lied to the king’s men, Samson lied to Delilah, Saul lied to David, both Michal and Jonathon lied to Saul, David lied to Ahimelech, Gehazi lied to Naaman, Elisha misled the Syrian army, Peter lied about following Jesus, and Ananias and Sapphira lied to Peter!

Some of those liars were good people and others were not. They all lied for different reasons and some of their falsehoods were less treacherous than others. Is there such a thing as an innocent white lie and, if so, when does it become a guilty gray? Since Rahab’s lie protected Israel’s spies, is there such as thing as a righteous lie? Can we lie to protect ourselves or someone else, to prevent needless worry, or to spare feelings? If all lying is wrong, can deception be less wrong in some situations?

Scripture, however, doesn’t appear to split hairs when it comes to lies. The Israelites were commanded to be truthful in all things and lying is condemned throughout Scripture. Jesus said he was the way and the truth and truth isn’t relative. Regardless of its size or intent, any lie is a deception and the Bible seems pretty clear about deceit; God doesn’t like it! The end never justifies the means if the means involves sin.

For the most part, a white lie is just the lazy way out of a sticky situation. It’s easier to spin off a lie than to find a way to be honest, tactful, and considerate. Nevertheless, when we tell people the dress isn’t too tight when it is, the check is in the mail when it isn’t, the procedure won’t hurt when it will, or we’re busy when we aren’t, we’ve done more than lie; we’ve given false witness and stolen the truth. Moreover, when people look in the mirror, see the postmark, feel the pain, or discover the duplicity, we’ve lost our credibility both as a friend and a Christian. While it may not be easy, it is possible to be loving and honest at the same time.

On the flip side, perhaps we also should be more willing to hear the truth. When we ask if the pants make our butt look big, do we look tired, were we wrong, or did the family enjoy the tofu casserole, we better not take offense when we get an honest answer.

Hang this question up in your homes – “What would Jesus do?” and then think of another – “How would Jesus do it?” For what Jesus would do, and how He would do it, may always stand as the best guide to us. [Charles Spurgeon]

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ… Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. [Ephesians 4:15,25 (ESV)]

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REMEMBERING

Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. [Psalm 103:1-2 (NLT)]


Any other Thanksgiving, we would have travelled to be with family or entertained friends and family here but my recent surgery meant neither of those options were feasible, so it was just the two of us. Thanksgiving, of course, really isn’t about a bountiful feast of turkey and the trimmings or even about family and friends (although it’s a blessing when we can share it with them). Thanksgiving simply is about giving thanks—and we can do that regardless of where we are, what we’re eating, or who we’re with!

My husband and I spent most of the day looking through old photo albums. Having been married over 55 years, there were decades of memories packed into those old pictures and, with every memory, came a reason to be thankful. From pictures of our first date to our family gathering this year, we had countless reasons for gratitude. We were most grateful for the many years we had with his parents (who lived to 96 and 102) and the years we continue to enjoy with our children and grands; many are not so blessed. Pictures of every holiday and celebration seemed to include our family around a table laden with food and we thanked God that we never went hungry or homeless. Seeing photos of friends who became family, many of whom are gone, made us thankful that God brought them into our lives. As we recalled the trips we took, the places we visited, the houses we owned, the amazing people we met, and the adventures we had, we were filled with gratitude for those opportunities. Red-letter days like graduations, birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and anniversaries were memorialized in photos and we were thankful for the arrival of so many milestones. There also were countless photos of unremarkable times—everything from playing euchre with Grandpa, carving pumpkins for Halloween, walking in the woods with a little one, grilling burgers, and playing house with the grands to snow ball fights, baking cookies, shooting hoops, children running under the sprinkler, and enjoying s’more around the campfire. In retrospect, those ordinary moments were extraordinary and we were thankful for each one!

Of course, we laughed at many of the outfits, hairdos, silly expressions, and crazy situations we saw in those photos. When we weren’t laughing, there were sweet tears of nostalgia leaking from our eyes. All in all, our quiet day of Thanksgiving was a joyful day of giving thanks as we remembered how blessed we have been every moment of every day of our lives. Granted, we didn’t have any photos memorializing the tears, anguish, pain, affliction, hospitalizations, and grief of over 55 years. Nevertheless, evidence that God’s powerful hand was with us in both the good times and bad was in those pictures. They gave witness to answered prayers of things like healing, sobriety, health, achievement, provision, forgiveness, restored relationships, safety, protection, guidance, and success—and we gave thanks.

God told the Israelites to remember His word and commandments, His judgement, the ways He dealt with sin, and the way He tested them while safely leading them through the wilderness. God also told the Israelites to remember His goodness, all He did for them, His wondrous works, and His abundant provision! Yet, when it came time to claim Canaan—a land where they’d eat crops they hadn’t planted and live in cities they hadn’t built—the Israelites forgot God’s wondrous ways, grew fearful, and wanted to return to slavery in Egypt!

It’s in remembering God’s past faithfulness and bountiful provision that we learn to trust God with our unknown futures. Remembering God’s many blessings also leads to thanksgiving and it is the act of giving thanks that leads to us to joy. Indeed, in spite of missing our loved ones, our quiet Thanksgiving was one of the most joyful holidays we’ve experienced!

This way of seeing our Father in everything makes life one long thanksgiving and gives a rest of heart, and, more than that, a gayety of spirit, that is unspeakable. [Hannah Whitall Smith]

But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren. [Deuteronomy 4:9 (NLT)]

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