HANUKKAH (2) – FEAST OF DEDICATION

Look at my servant, whom I strengthen. He is my chosen one, who pleases me. I have put my Spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations. [Isaiah 42:1 (NLT)]

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16 (NLT)]
menorah

Most of us associate Hanukkah with Judaism’s menorah. Although the books of the Maccabees mention the relighting of the Temple’s lampstand/menorah, they make no mention of a miracle of oil. However, the Talmud (a collection of discussion and commentary on Jewish history, customs, law and culture) does. It claims that, while only one small flask of consecrated oil was found to light the menorah that first day, the lamp remained lit the entire eight days of celebration until new oil could be consecrated.

Although the Temple’s menorah had seven branches with wicks that burned fresh olive oil, Hanukkah’s menorah usually has nine branches with nine candles. Eight of those candles represent each day of the feast. The ninth candle, often placed in the center and slightly higher than the rest, is called the shamash, meaning servant. Rather than lighting each candle with a match, only the shamash is lit. It is this “servant” candle’s flame that is used to ignite the rest. Upon learning this, I couldn’t help but think of the Messianic prophecies of a suffering servant found in Isaiah 53. That servant was Jesus—He was the shamash who brought God’s light into the world and, like the shamash candle, He gave His light to our lives. By trusting in Him, Jesus said we become  “children of the light,” and, as His children, we are His servants. The Great Commission tells us that we are to be the shamash candles who continue to bring His light into our troubled world.

Thinking of Hanukkah merely as a festival of lights, however, misses the heart of this story—the rededication of the Temple. When a ragtag group of Jewish rebels retook the Temple from the powerful Seleucid army, the Temple had been desecrated and profaned. Before resuming worship there, the Temple had to be cleaned, the idols removed, the pagan altar dismantled, and a new altar consecrated. Only after they made it a fitting place for Jehovah to live did they re-dedicate the Temple to God.

For the people of Judah, the Temple was where God resided. For the people of Jesus, however, it is our bodies—our hearts, minds, and souls—that serve as a temple for God’s Holy Spirit. As believers, we are God’s temple individually and, as the body or church of Christ, we are His temple collectively. As His temple, we should be as holy and pure as were the Temple’s menorah and altar. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to walk through this sinful world and not have some of its filth contaminate us. Things like hate, anger, prejudice, envy, pride, deception, and greed defile us as much as that pig’s blood and idol of Zeus defiled Jerusalem’s Temple. Worse, as the collective temple of God, we’ve seen His church desecrated with things like corruption, exploitation, abuse, hypocrisy, bigotry, and shoddy, distorted and false doctrine. Like the Maccabees, do we need to do some cleaning of His holy temple?

The season of Hanukkah reminds us that Jesus is the servant whose light overcame the darkness of the world. My prayer for this Christmas season is that we allow Hanukkah’s story and traditions to inspire us so that we rid our lives of all that defiles His temple. Let us rededicate ourselves to the Lord and, as His servants, may we glorify Him in all we do.

He that chooses God, devotes himself to God as the vessels of the sanctuary were consecrated and set apart from common to holy uses, so he that has chosen God to be his God, has dedicated himself to God, and will no more be devoted to profane uses. [Thomas Watson]

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. [1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NLT)]

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RELIGIOUS PRIVILEGES

But it is no shame to suffer for being a Christian. Praise God for the privilege of being called by his name! [1 Peter 4:16 (NLT)]


Before my evening prayers, I often reflect on a prayer from The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers edited by Arthur Bennett. In a recent selection, the prayer’s author asked the Lord to let him know his “need of renovation as well as of forgiveness,” and confessed, “I am often straying, often knowingly opposing thy authority, often abusing thy goodness….” He went on to admit, “Much of my guilt arises from my religious privileges, my low estimation of them, and my failure to use them to my advantage.” His words gave me pause.

Since a privilege is a special right, advantage, benefit, exemption, or legal immunity granted only to a particular person or group, I pondered the “religious privileges” we enjoy as Christians. The obvious is that even though we remain sinners, our belief in Jesus gives us God’s forgiveness; because Jesus paid the price for our sins, we are exempt from an eternity in Hell. That, however, was God who willingly gave up His absolute power and privilege to take on mankind’s limitations and die a criminal’s torturous death for us! Do we truly appreciate what He did or do we take that privilege for granted and fail to do the spiritual renovation necessary to show our appreciation for His sacrifice and blood? Do we thank the Lord each and every day for what He did on the cross?

Aside from a Christian’s destiny of having a home in heaven and sharing in the glory of God, what other religious benefits do we have? As Christ’s followers, we have the advantages of the peace that surpasses all understanding and the ability to find joy in all circumstances. We have the blessings of His continual presence, guidance, and protection from the enemy. We have the privilege of sharing the Gospel message and even that of suffering in His name!

Do we value the privilege of direct access to God and the advantage of two intercessors: the Holy Spirit who intercedes within us and puts our concerns into words along with Jesus Christ who intercedes for us in heaven? The Holy Spirit, however, is more than an intercessor. He corrects, teaches, sanctifies, strengthens, comforts, protects, and enables us to recognize the truth and obey God. He gives us one or more spiritual gifts and produces His fruit in us. Do we fully appreciate and use the many privileges and benefits that only Christ followers can enjoy or do we ignore and possibly abuse them?

A Christian’s “religious privileges” are offered to all but accepted by few. May we never be unappreciative, neglectful, or careless with God’s gifts or favor by disregarding the privilege of being one of His adopted children.

It is our privilege to know that we are saved. [ D.L. Moody]

Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.[Romans 5:2 (NLT)]

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IN ENEMY TERRITORY

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. [1 Peter 5:8-9 (NIV)]

anhingaAnhingas are among my favorites of our lake’s birds. Unlike most birds, their bones are heavy and dense and, rather than waders like the herons and egrets or paddlers like the ducks, they are deep-diving swimmers. Lacking the oil glands that waterproof the feathers of other water birds, anhingas (and their cormorant cousins) become water-logged in the water. While making it difficult to remain afloat, that allows them to dive up to sixty feet deep, swim underwater for several hundred feet, and stay underwater for more than a minute. Eventually, however, the birds become so heavy they will sink unless they return to land to dry their feathers.

Every morning I find anhingas resting along the lake’s shoreline and spreading their wings to dry. The wettest ones get barely out of the water but, as they dry, they waddle further back until dry enough to get up onto a rock, bench, or low hanging branch. As their feathers continue to dry, they move higher up in the trees until they are dry and light enough to take flight.

Unlike the lake’s ducks who nest and sleep in the vegetation along the shoreline, anhingas remain on land only out of necessity. Vulnerable to predators, a soaking wet anhinga is like a “sitting duck.” With its stubby legs and large webbed feet, it can’t run; water-logged, the water isn’t a good option and yet it’s too wet to fly up to safety. While hissing, grunting, and trying to look intimidating by ruffling its feathers, raising its tail, lengthening and waving its long neck, and pointing its spear-like beak may deter some birds of prey, that behavior probably won’t dissuade hungry alligators or crocodiles.

Just as being vulnerable to a predator’s attack is part and parcel of being an anhinga, being vulnerable to our enemy’s attack is an inevitable part of being human in our fallen world. Rather than gators and crocs, that enemy is Satan and he can sneak up on us even more adeptly than the wiliest reptile in the Everglades. Rather than the weight of soaking wet feathers, it is the weight of things like pain, illness, betrayal, weariness, conflict, loneliness, loss, disappointment (and even hurricanes) that make us especially vulnerable to attack. The enemy will use every weapon in his armory including lies, half-truths, fear, despair, hopelessness, and (his favorite) doubt to assault our belief in the goodness of God. Fortunately, in His wisdom, God armed us for battle with more than the saber-sharp beak and intimidating appearance of the anhinga. We wage war with the weapons of our faith: God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit.

An anhinga, aware of its vulnerability when wet, only enters the water to hunt or bathe. With neck extended and eyes wide open, it remains watchful when drying along the shoreline and never dawdles there once dry. Like the anhinga, we must be alert to our vulnerability in our fallen world. Unlike the anhinga, however, we often act as if we’re not sitting smack dab in the middle of the enemy’s territory! A. W. Tozer warns us about thinking of the world as a “playground instead of a battleground.” May we never forget that we live in the enemy’s territory and he is as dangerous as a prowling lion or a hungry alligator!

Anyone who serves the Lord is going to be the target of Satan’s attacks. [Zac Poonen]

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NIV)]

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KNOWING HE’S THERE

And the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. [Acts 13:52 (NLT)]

zebra longwing butterfly
Zebra Longwing butterflies (Heliconius charithonia) live in hammocks and damp forests. Unless they are resting on a plant, however, they are often difficult to spot. Unlike most butterflies, they don’t stay in the sunlight for long. I may see their shadows on the boardwalk but, when I look up, they quickly vanish into the shade they prefer. With their yellow and black colors, shallow wingbeats and languid flight, they float through the woods and often seem to be little more than flickering sunlight glimmering through the trees.

Oddly, I think of the Holy Spirit whenever I get a glimpse of these beautiful creatures. Just as I’ll probably never hold one in my hand, I have difficulty grasping the concept of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I know they both exist and bring me joy. There are times it’s difficult to catch sight of the winged zebras and, unfortunately, there are times I have difficulty detecting the Spirit. Nevertheless, just as I know the butterflies are in the woods, I know that He is present. Some days are better than others when it comes to spotting the Longwings and some days are better than others when it comes to sensing the Holy Spirit’s presence. If I’m jogging down a trail, I’ll never spot the butterflies and, if I’m rushing through life, it’s just as easy to overlook the Holy Spirit.

While I can blame the season, weather, light, or location for not seeing a butterfly, I have only myself to blame when I fail to perceive the Spirit. The times I feel devoid of His presence are when I neglect Scripture and prayer—the times I become so busy with the “me” and “my” of life that I don’t leave room for Him. They are the times I refuse to accept God’s control of my circumstances, ignore His direction, or don’t want to hear His conviction of my unacceptable behavior. Most often, however, I can’t feel the Holy Spirit because I’ve done something that grieves Him. Things like anger, resentment, jealousy, guilt and pride serve as barriers to feeling His presence. Fortunately, unlike the butterflies that disappear as they float through the woods, the Spirit will never leave me, even when I’ve disappointed Him.

In perfect unity with God the Father and God the Son, the Holy Spirit is the power of God that dwells within every believer in Jesus Christ. Just as it’s likely that I’ll catch a glimpse of Zebra Longwings on a certain boardwalk through the mangroves, I’m sure to feel the Spirit’s presence when I walk in His ways throughout the day.

You might as well try to see without eyes, hear without ears, or breathe without lungs, as to try to live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit. [D.L. Moody]

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. [John 14:26 (NLT)]

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GOD THE SON

The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of creation said, “Let us make man.” It was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, “Let us save man.” [J.C. Ryle]

African iris
When reciting either the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds, we express our belief in God, the Father Almighty, who created heaven and earth, and in His Son, Jesus Christ. When thinking of God as the Father and Jesus as His son, however, it’s easy to think of Jesus as sort of a God, Jr. As the son, He’s a smaller, younger, novice, or apprentice version of God the Father—sort of like the son who’s learning the business so He can take over when His father retires. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When we read the first chapter of Genesis, God refers to “us” and “our image,” so the plural nature of God didn’t just happen two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. The Apostle John tells us that Jesus (the Word) existed with God in the very beginning. Our triune God (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) exists beyond time—He always has been and always will be. Having no beginning, He will have no end. Although it was thousands of years between creation and Jesus’ birth, God the Son always existed. In the same way, the Holy Spirit wasn’t born on Pentecost; like the Father and the Son, He always has been!

That night in Bethlehem, Jesus didn’t come as an assistant God or as a lesser version of God the Father. Look at His names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and Immanuel. Those are powerful names given to a baby boy but that baby boy was God Himself. He didn’t come as a god who looked like a man nor did He come as a man who looked like God. Both fully God and fully man, He was co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—they were one in nature, power, action, and will. Rather than God, Jr., Jesus was wholly God—only He was in clothed in flesh and chose to live as a man.

Let us never forget that it was God who came to be born as a man that night in Bethlehem. It was God who was baptized by John and called “the Lamb of God.” It was God who preached the Sermon on the Mount, threw the money changers out of the temple, and called Himself “the bread of life” and the “good shepherd.” It was God who spoke with the woman at the well, healed the lepers, gave sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead. It was God who was tempted by Satan in the wilderness and it was God who lived a sinless life as a man in a sin-filled world. It was God who was betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, sweat blood in Gethsemane, and condemned to die between two thieves. Mocked, whipped, and nailed to a cross, that was God who suffered and died a criminal’s death. And it was God who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. It was God, in the form of a man called Jesus, who did it all just for us!

Our triune God is one in essence and yet three distinct persons. Understanding how each personage of the Trinity can be fully God while there is only one God is beyond my pay grade. Then again, I can’t understand things like quantum physics, the theory of relativity, string theory, or black holes. I can’t even fathom how I can be body, soul, and spirit in one person, so I shouldn’t be surprised at my limited understanding of the Trinity. As John Wesley aptly said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God.”

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. [Nicene Creed]

Jesus said to them, “For sure, I tell you, before Abraham was born, I was and am and always will be!” [John 8:58 (NLV)]

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HOW WILL THEY KNOW US?

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Galatians 5:22-23a (NLT)]

pomegranateThe culture of the 1st century was agrarian in nature so the analogies used by Jesus and the evangelists often were those of agriculture – seeds, soil, fruit, and vines. For example, when writing about the characteristics in the lives of those who follow Jesus, Paul spoke of the fruit of the Spirit. But, if Paul were writing to modern industrial society, he might have used a different metaphor. Instead of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, we might have the Spirit’s toolbox. Rather than fruit, we’d have God’s tools to help us to build His Kingdom. The saw in the box would be God’s peace that cuts worry and fear out of our lives. The sandpaper would be kindness as it smooths out life’s rough edges. Protective gear like safety goggles and steel-toed shoes would be the self-discipline that protects us from sin. Duct tape and WD-40 would be as essential as love, a flashlight would shine our joy, and we’d have clamps to hold us tight to the faith. God’s word would be our blueprint and, instead of being connected to a vine, the power tools would be plugged into the Holy Spirit’s power. Regardless of the metaphor, the Holy Spirit provides us with what we need to be more like Christ.

My son has a variety of fruit trees on his property but, when he moved to his new home, he wasn’t sure what they all were. It wasn’t until the large tree with the pretty red-orange blossoms and shiny green leaves bore fruit that he knew it was a pomegranate and, until the bushes with the oval leaves and small white flowers bore their fruit, he didn’t know he had lemons. Just as a tree is identified by its fruit, a good builder can be identified by his house. Someone could claim to be a master builder but, if the shutters on his house are hanging from the hinges, the windows shattered, the roof tiles missing, the wooden steps broken, the paint peeling, and the walls collapsing, we’d know his claim was false. Just as trees are identifiable by their fruit and builders by their work, it is our behavior that should identify us as Jesus’ followers. The fruit of the Spirit should be evident in everything we do and say and in the attitude we have when we say or do it.

If you were a fruit tree, would anyone recognize the fruit you bear as coming from the Spirit? If you were a builder, would your work resemble that done by a Jewish carpenter’s son from Nazareth? Whether we think of the characteristics of a Christ follower as fruit or tools, the important thing is to let His Spirit make those characteristics a part of our lives so that we end up looking more and more like Jesus! That’s the way we can build His Kingdom!

You will know them by their fruits. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. … Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. [Matthew 7:16,18,20 (NLT)]

 Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. [Matthew 7:20 (NLT)]

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