(I rarely--perhaps never--post sermons on my blog, but here I make an exception. This week's sermon began as an explanation of Hanukkah, but in light of the killings of innocent black men and boys this past week, it also turned out to be a sermon about racism. It's also an example, I suppose, of how preaching in a Liberal church, during Advent even, isn't necessarily Christocentric--and for a topic such as this one, that seems fine to me. Several people asked me to post it, so here it is.)
Once upon a time, in the fourth century BC, a dashing young Greek emperor, Alexander the Great, conquered most of the known world. Alexander also brought Greek culture—Aristotle, Sophocles, and even the Olympics—to the rest of the world, too. And mostly, people ate it up.
In Israel, it was much the same. Many people of rank and learning, particularly in cosmopolitan Jerusalem, fell in love with everything Greek. Theatres and gyms were built. Athletes, as was the practice of that day, competed in the nude—a shocking change from traditional Judaism.
It seems that disagreements between old-style religious Jews and the new Hellenizers eventually led to civil strife—violence—within Jerusalem. One of the Emperor Alexander’s successors, Antiochus Epiphanes, subsequently went to Jerusalem to restore order. While there, he sacked the temple and slaughtered thousands of Jews—apparently under the mistaken notion that the Jews were trying to throw him out rather than just fighting amongst themselves. Never mind, he went on to sacrifice pigs on the temple alter, and built another alter to the Greek God Zeus nearby. And finally, in a break with the generally tolerant attitude to other religions the Greeks had, Antiochus banned Judaism throughout his territory as a radical, violent, and intolerant religion.
King Antiochus also sent emissaries to the conservative country towns surrounding Jerusalem, also directing them to sacrifice unclean pigs. It was in one such village, Modi'in, that the local priest, Matthias, was so offended by this sacrilegious act that he killed the emissary. Then, fleeing to the hills with his five sons, Mattathias and his sons began a guerrilla war against the Greek King Antiochus. To make a very long story short, they eventually took back Jerusalem in the year 165 B.C. And, as recorded in 1 Maccabees 4, once there, they cleaned out and rededicated the temple.
Hanukkah is the eight-day celebration of the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem to true Jewish worship. The most important part of this celebration, at least in the memory of the Jews, was the relighting of the golden lampstand. Although it is not recorded in our scripture reading, the story goes that when the golden lampstand—actually an oil lamp—was relit, there was only enough consecrated oil to last one day. However, miraculously, that single day’s worth of oil lasted eight days—the exact amount of time it took to consecrate a new supply of oil. Thus the Menorah, which is lit to commemorate Hanukkah and recall the lighting of the golden candlestick, has room for eight candles, one for each day of the miracle. The ninth candle is set apart from the eight, to light the others and serve as light before the others are lit.
So what does it mean? Well, while the candles hark back to the golden candlestick of the temple—the larger meaning Hanukkah celebrates is the survival, against all odds, of the Jewish people, religion, and culture. A well-known Hanukkah Prayer goes like this: