"It will happen in the end of days: The mountain of the Temple of the Lord will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will go and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths. For from Zion will the Law/Teaching come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge among the nations and will settle the arguments of many peoples" Isaiah 2:1-4
This week sees the arrival of both Advent and Chanukah, important dates on the Christian and Jewish calendars. Seemingly these observances have little to do with each other. One focuses primarily on an expectation for the future the other on a commemoration on the events in the distant past. But I feel they are linked, and certainly one was made possible only by the other.
I have been thoroughly enjoying a wonderful programme on the BBC entitled "Ancient Worlds". It never ceases to amaze me how different the societies of the ancient world were in comparison to our own. How very differently they viewed the world both philosophically and empirically. What is more striking is that in every other way they were identical to ourselves and indeed I still remember from the first episode, with some amusement, a letter from an Assyrian woman writing to her husband 4000 years ago, and complaining that their next door neighbour Salima had been able to expand her house, and expressing considerable dismay that her husband had failed to enable them to be able to do the same. Keeping up with the Joneses has a long old history it seems. As it is beyond doubt that essentially we are like our ancient forebears, it becomes crystal clear that the societies we inhabit today have been massively shaped by the world-view of that small, often persecuted and not particularly powerful people, the Jews, subsequently spread by Christianity. (Something that those seeking to de-Christianise Britain and Europe should try and remember). How many people today or how many nations today would publicly declare a beleif that to take the life of a human being for entertainment is legitimate? How many would assert the right of parents to murder their infants because they are the wrong gender or because they are weak? How many would support institutionalised paedophilia? How many would support human sacrifice? All notions quite commonly held in the ancient world. Not all that many I would suggest. And this is simply because the outlook of that one small nation has captured the imagination of the globe and even now those tyrants who would be happy to kill, maim and rape, feel that they must at least pretend to live by that code which has become the foundation of international "morality". Hence even the United Nations, an institution dominated by nations not committed to such positive values, has carved on its masonry the concluding part of my opening quote from Isaiah:
"They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and the spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study war".
This could all have been completely different had the events celebrated by Chanukah not taken place. For in the second century BC a helenic king decided to do away with these pesky Jewish notions once and for all. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was not satisfied with being a ruler of the Jews and their country, but also wished to be owner of their minds and their faith. (A desire shared by dictators and utopianists down the ages). Spurned on by those Jews eager to throw off their ancient heritage, this tyrant set about prohibiting central practices of the Jewish faith. Those Jews who realised that a life without their faith was not a life worth living, decided that they must rebel against the Syrian-Greeks and their Jewish lackeys in what must have seemed like a hopeless battle to save their religion. To cut a long story short they succeeded and they were finally able to observe the laws enshrined in their covenant with God. In memory of this and the miracle of the oil, in which a cruise of oil sufficient for one day, burned for 8 days, the festival of Chanukah was initiated, which to this day is observed as can be seen by the growing number of flickering candles in Jewish windows during the festive days. The outcome of all this was the survival of the Jewish nation which has continued over the past 2000 years to enlighten and teach the world about God. This victory also made possible the birth of a Galilean Jewish child, deeply committed to his ancestral faith, who's teachings would eventually bring the light of God to the furthest reaches of the earth.
Chanukah is Hebrew for dedication. Advent is Latin for coming. But can Advent not be a dedication too? Chanukah is a time to give thanks to God for the survival of His holy teaching, the recognition of which should lead towards a desire to rededicate oneself to observing His instructions, confident that in so doing, He will ensure that the flames of His divine presence will never depart from our world, but will instead continue to illuminate the darkness. For as Desmond Tutu said:
"Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death
Victory is ours through Him who loves us."
I believe that Advent can also be such a time. It is a time to evaluate our lives to see whether or not we are truly living by the teachings of Jesus. In a few short weeks we will be celebrating the birth and life of our great teacher, but how often do we pause to consider how much of our behaviour is consistent with the teachings of his Good News? Do we really take them to heart or simply pay lip service to them?
For the majority of Christians, Advent both commemorates the expectation of the birth of Jesus all those years ago and the Parousia, his expected second coming. As such it carries the connotation and hope for God's intervention in the affairs of mankind to finally bring about that perfected world in which the mourners will be comforted, the hungry satisfied and the peacemakers known by all, as the sons of God. Many such as the Reverend Bill Darlison, however have correctly pointed out that the expected Kingdom of Heaven is to be found here and now. After all Jesus himself told us:
"The Kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say "see here or see there". For indeed the Kingdom of God is within you." Luke 17:20-21
But at the same time Jesus clearly did expect that the Kingdom would also come at some future time as the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the words of the prayer he taught, make clear "Thy kingdom come". I don't see any contradiction. The words of Jesus are echoed in the teachings of the Hebrew sages who also both talk about the coming of God's future kingdom and it's existence here and now. They were want to say:
"take upon yourself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven" Talmud Bavli.
God's rule is in our heart, because we have been given the free-will to choose to obey Him or cast off from ourselves his divine rule. A person who serves God is already living in that blessed Kingdom.
"Not everybody who says to me "Master, Master" shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven." Matthew 7:21
The expected future Kingdom, is simply that era in history when God will assist all in taking upon themselves the duties of its citizenship. May that time speedily come.
Therefore Advent is a perfect season for assessing how much of the Kingdom we have taken upon ourselves, how much of it is alive in our heart.
Another interesting parallel between Chanukah and Advent is the humble nature of the central character or event in each story. Who would have thought that an untrained rag-tag group of priests could lead a poor and divided nation against the might of one of the ancient world's most powerful empires and emerge victorious? Who could have imagined the success of a group of devout Jews in preserving their faith in the teeth of growing numbers of hellenized Jews who passionately strove to "modernise" Judaism and synthesise it to the prevailing mores of Greek society? And who would have imagined that one insignificant cruise of oil could burn for 8 days? Even the humble olive on the shrubby olive tree, who's oil was central to the miracle, reveals nothing of the immense power to illuminate that it contains within itself.
Likewise who would have thought that the birth of a little boy, to simple rural parents would have had such world changing ramifications? For Jesus, during his life, was not a figure of major note. Born quietly in Bethlehem (or as I personally think Nazareth) he grew up far from the lens of history. Even his ministry was short in duration lasting most likely less than a year, before culminating in a criminal's death. And yet from this humble, olive like, life rose a light that has shone powerfully for centuries, despite the often clouded lamps that have surrounded it and obscured it. External appearances are so very often deceptive, how tragic that we so often fall for them. Samuel Longfellow 1819-1892 put it so elloqently in his hymn 'Tis Winter Now:
"Tis winter now; the fallen snow
has left the heavens all coldly clear,
Through leafless boughs the sharp winds blow.
and all the earth lies dead and drear:
And yet God's love is not withdrawn;
for life within the keen air breathes,
A beauty paints the crimson dawn,
and clothes the boughs with glittering wreaths"
From this we must all learn that the potential for greatness lies dormant in all of us. If we are here it is because God has faith in us and despite what up till now might have been a life barren of divine service and spirituality, with an awareness of Him we can grow beyond our assumed limitations, and ultimately we too can become yet another shining candle bringing joy to all around us.
"A man's soul is the lamp of God" Proverbs 20:27
All of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, and even those who just recognise the value of his message, have been given an opportunity during these days of advent to reacquaint ourselves with his teachings and example and by so doing merit to be called his brothers and sisters, for he himself taught that those who do the will of his Father in heaven shall be considered his family. Hopefully people will be able to see in us a reflection of his example. And I for one will also be praying that the spirit of Chanukah fills the hearts of the Children of Israel so that they as one re-embrace their covenant with God, and hold fast to His revelation so that ultimately the time will come when they shall all be gathered to their land, dwell in it peacefully with God's temple acting as a beacon to all the nations and bringing peace and harmony to all the nations finally resolving the conflicts that have plagued us for so long. But that shining future is for God to bring about, in the meantime I hope that we will all do what we can to better our troubled world, and the best way to do this is to start close to home.
Michael Jackson was correct when he sang:
"And no message could have
been any clearer
If you wanna make the world
a better place
take a look at yourself, and
then make a change.
I for one during Advent and Chanukah will be starting with the man in the mirror and asking him to change his ways.