Do you know the story of Hanukkah?
Scrape off your history rust for a minute with me here. Go back to that period of time that falls in between when the Old Testament was complete and when Jesus lived; to that period of time after Persia was in charge and before Rome was the chief player on the world stage; to that period of time between Darius and Caesar Augustus.
Wedged right between our Old and New Testaments is some pretty important history, right? Only something called Hellenism! Only a whole civilization called Greek! Only the whole Greco half of the Greco-Roman world!
When Alexander the Great conquered the entire known world, the Jews were a part of that world. Alexander’s program of Hellenism included conquering a people, so that they would pay him tribute; but then to allow that people to continue living their lives much as they always had—to keep their particular religious practices, for instance.
Which is what the Jews did, agreeably enough.
Until a hundred years or so went by and one of Alexander’s successors came to the throne that ruled over Israel. This successor is known to us today as Antiochus IV. He didn’t allow the Jews to continue their religion without interference. And one of his interferences was, you probably know, to sacrifice pigs on the Temple altar.
This practice—the sacrifice of unclean swine—was grievous to the Jews, so grievous, in fact, that a couple Hasmonean Jews rose up in revolt against Antiochus IV’s forces. Judas Maccabeus was one of these Jews, a man whom the nation would call Messiah: this son of David, many hoped, would usher in a new era.
Well, Judas died without ushering in a new era, and thus proved not to be Israel’s savior; and thus Israel’s hope continued (and still continues to this day). Nevertheless, Maccabeus was a savior in a temporary way. For he rid the Temple of the abominable practice; he cleansed the Temple; and he rededicated the Temple.
Hanukkah is sometimes referred to as this rededication—or dedication—of the Temple.
And so we come to today’s Gospel passage, which begins: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem.” Today’s passage takes place during the Jewish festival Hanukkah.
But a good Jew will tell you that the revolution against Antiochus IV is not the real reason for the festival of Hanukkah; for Jewish festivals never honor acts of war. Rather, the story goes that, at the rededication of the Temple, a miracle took place.
The Sabbath was approaching, meaning that lamps had to be lit at least eighteen minutes before sundown. But after Antiochus’s abomination, alas, there was hardly any undefiled oil to be found anywhere in the Temple, certainly less than enough to last one day. And the process to make new, kosher oil would take eight days! How would the priests of the rededicated Temple keep the lamps lit perpetually, as was the custom?
In faith, they went ahead and lit the lamps with what clean oil they had on hand. Lo and behold, the lamps burned through the Sabbath and continued burning through the following Sabbath, through the eight days needed to make new, kosher oil. And thus God miraculously provided for the rededicated Temple.
This miracle, then, is what Jews remember today when they celebrate Hanukkah. The menorah—the candelabrum Jews use over the eight days of Hanukkah—represents these eight days. Also, latkes, or potato pancakes, are traditional Hanukkah food—food fried in oil, remembering God’s abundance of oil given to Israel in the miracle.
But Hanukkah has become largely secularized in the modern world, losing much of its religious significance. It falls near the Christian holiday of Christmas. According to one Jewish writer I read this week, Jews have resorted to lavish gift-giving during Hanukkah in order to prevent their kids from becoming jealous of their Christian friends.
Perhaps lamenting, this writer continues: “It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.”
Perhaps John the Evangelist was being bitterly ironic, too, when he pointed out that this episode between Jesus and his questioners took place during Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. During this very festival, Jesus’ questioners failed to acknowledge that here before them stood the very Light of the world.
“Tell us plainly,” Jesus’ questioners say; “are you the Messiah? Are you another Judas Maccabeus, someone to deliver us from the oppressive hand of Caesar? Are you the Son of David, the Savior of Israel? Are you the Sun of Righteousness, the light of the world who shines so brightly we will never need our menorahs again? Tell us plainly!”
But Jesus doesn’t answer them plainly (not right away anyway). Instead, he points them to his works. “My works testify to me,” he tells them. His works demonstrate that, yes, indeed, he is the Messiah.
Is this frustrating to you? Why doesn’t Jesus just say yes? He has his chance. I mean, they ask him, are you the Messiah? All he has to do is say the word. So why doesn’t he?
By the way, Holly took me out to see a movie last night, Eye in the Sky. It’s very good, though very intense. Anyway—without spoiling it for you—for most of the movie we the audience are left hanging in just this kind of suspense. We’re waiting for someone simply to say yes. But the man in charge doesn’t! He can’t really; there’s too much at stake.
Is this why Jesus didn’t simply answer his questioners plainly? Was there too much at stake?
But, on the other hand, even if he were to answer them plainly—even if he were simply to say yes—would his questioners have taken him at his word? Would they have believed him?
Belief. This is the more important issue, isn’t it?
If Jesus were to answer them plainly—if Jesus were to say, “Yes, it is as you say, I am the Messiah”—would they have believed him?
To turn the scenario around, if he were to have answered them plainly, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” they would have had grounds according to their law to stone him.
In fact, this is exactly what happened back at the end of John 8, a mere 65 verses ago:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’” (“I am”: You can’t get more plain than that.) “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”
Back in today’s passage, pointing here to the chief issue, Jesus says, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe.”
Belief is the main matter at hand.
Now, to make a couple connections:
First: two weeks ago we encountered Doubting Thomas. Thomas is not there on Easter Sunday when the risen Lord appears to the rest of the disciples. Later, when Thomas hears the incredible story of the resurrection, he doubts, saying that unless he touches Christ’s very wounds with his own hands he will not believe.
The following Sunday, who should appear to Thomas but the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself? Well, to be sure, Thomas believes now. But we are left with these words about belief ringing in our ears: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
And we’re left thinking, “Yeah, that’s me! I believe and yet I’ve never seen. I’m blessed all right!”
As for the second connection: let’s look again at Hanukkah.
The Jews who confront Jesus in today’s Gospel were not present at the rededication of the Temple for the simple reason that they hadn’t been born yet. In fact, they were as far removed from that first Hanukkah as we are from the War of 1812.
Do any of you remember that event personally? Did any of you experience it first-hand?
Similarly, none of the Jews in today’s Gospel experienced first-hand the rededication of the Temple. At the very best odds, maybe—barely maybe—one of their great-grandfather’s great-grandfathers might have been there. Maybe.
And yet—nevertheless!—they all believed!
And I’m not talking a belief that’s merely mental assent, like I believe the War of 1812 happened, because the history books say so. No, their belief in Hanukkah was a part of their national culture, akin to our Thanksgiving, a holiday with cultural and moral significance.
So, here’s the thing. They weren’t there—they didn’t see it—yet they believed. And blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Thomas had to see to believe; when he saw Jesus, he believed.
Jesus’ questioners saw him and yet did not believe.
We think we’re blessed because we haven’t seen and yet we believe.
But Jesus’ questioners hadn’t seen the first Hanukkah and yet believed in it.
Leaving me a little confused, wondering why I believe at all. (After that explanation, are you a little confused too?) Is my belief in Jesus Christ simply cultural? Is it merely moral? Is it both? Should there be something more to it?
Then I remember Jesus’ answer to his questioners—his not-so-plain answer: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”
What are the works he does in his Father’s name?
He turned water into wine once. He healed the sick and demon-possessed back when he walked the earth. Maybe he even kept lamps lit for eight days despite all odds.
But that stuff doesn’t really matter to me so much.
What matters is that Jesus, as our shepherd, has called this unique and special group of people here today together; and we have heard his voice. That’s a work he does in the Father’s name.
What matters is that he meets us here and now in the bread and wine.
What matters is that he gives me strength to make it through each day; and that he watches over my daughter and me when we canoe the river or hike a canyon; and that he gives me my daily bread; and that he leads me not into temptation; and that he—presently, daily, hourly, continuously—delivers me from evil.
What matters is that he calls my name and I hear his voice.
These are the works Jesus does in his Father’s name that testify to him. And these are why I believe.