December 18, 2016
John, the beloved disciple, mentions in his biography of Jesus, something in passing that I wish to highlight. I want to highlight it because it’s this little verse that causes us to have a Christmas Eve in our day. It’s why we are gathered here this evening. It’s why we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th and not on the actual date Jesus’ was born.
In the Gospel of John, chapter ten, verse 22, he writes, “Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter.” The Festival of Dedication is what we call Hanukkah.
Today we know Hanukkah as the Jewish festival of lights. Hanukkah means “dedication” hence why John calls this holiday a Festival of Dedication. It’s called this because the Hanukkah celebrates a rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem about 164 years before Jesus was born. At that time Israel was occupied by the Syrian-Greeks and in the process practically destroyed and desecrated the Temple.
The Syrian-Greeks were overthrown by a guy named Judas the Maccabee, most likely who Judas the disciple and traitor was named after. They defeated the Syrians through a lot of guerilla style warfare in the hills and valleys that surrounds Jerusalem.
There were two key casualties in the temple from the Syrian-Greek occupation. One, the altar was covered in pig’s blood. As you may know, Jewish views swine as unholy. Thus, the altar was unusable in their worship. The second casualty was a perpetual light that was kept in the temple. This light reflected the vision God had for the Israelites. God proclaimed, “I will… make you a light…, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6
Before the Temple was desecrated, the light was constantly fueled by oil that was blessed and consecrated by the priests. After the overthrow of the Syrian Greeks, while cleaning the temple, the workers came across a small bottle of consecrated oil- just enough for one day- and they lit it and placed it in the window of the temple. However, to keep the light burning they needed more oil and it would take eight days to consecrate more oil. Miraculously, the oil that was only to last for one day, stayed lit for the required eight days, until the new oil was ready.
This is why the Menorah has eight lights on either side of the center light, and it’s why while Hanukkah is celebrated over eight days with each candle lit in succession. As we see from the Gospel of John, Jesus celebrated Hanukkah.
When it comes to the light Jesus said this, “Whoever believe in me, believes not just in me but in the One who sent me. Whoever looks at me is looking, in fact, at the One who sent me. I am the Light that has come into the world so that all who believe in me won’t have to stay any longer in the dark.” John 12:44-46
I recall one Christmas where the Light got really real in my life. I was a kid at the time and my part in the churches Christmas Eve program was to walk down the side of the sanctuary with a candle. It was part of the candle light service. These candles were the kind that did not burn out. It had oil inside of them. well, no one told me not to tip the candle and as I was walking I did just that. So the oil poured out of the top, was ignited by the flame and lit the whole candle on fire in a flash! Of course this startled me and I dropped the flaming candle on the floor, which was carpet, which also promptly caught on fire too! The church was hot that night! Literally! I remember the flames and my Dad stomping them out as well.
One thing I do remember about that moment- everyone was looking at the light! That’s what happens when light comes into the darkness. Jesus is the light of the world and the world is looking. Perhaps you are looking.
Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world was foretold by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” IS 9:2, 6-7
What most people do not know is how Hanukkah is related to celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December. Christianity started out being a faith highly influenced by Jewish traditions and principles. Early Christians saw Jesus as the perpetual light. They no longer saw the light in the temple as being light of the nations. However, they still celebrated this Feat of Dedication, this dedication of lights. So on the 25th of Kislev, which loosely corresponds with our 25th of December, early Christians began to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the light of the world. By the end of the third century this became the custom of Christians and the Jewish roots began to fade away. Then more Roman and Celtic traditions came into the scene.
On a starry night a little over 2000 years ago, a light shown in the starry sky. That light led people wise men, and shepherds, to a babe in a manger. The light of the world.
So we have a Menorah here, that is lit up to represent the perpetual light in the temple, except our temple is not a physical building, but in a babe lying in a manger. Jesus, God coming to earth.
So tonight, for our candlelight ceremony, we are going to light them off of this Menorah. Not remember a light lit in the temple, but to look at what this light points too, the light of the world, Jesus Christ.
And I ask you to light from the candle in the middle. This candle is used to light the other eight candles. For our purposes tonight let this central light represent Jesus, the newborn king, and the other candles you and I. For it is Jesus, the Light, who is the light in our life. When you light your candle focus your heart and mind on Jesus being the light of the world.