Sunday, April 25, 2010

Going Somewhere?

Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

The festival of the Dedication, also called the festival of Lights, better known to us as Hanukkah, lasts 8 days in December which happens to correspond with the period of the Jewish month of Kislev though Kislev is not "another name" for December. Christians are not typically familiar with the Jewish calendar or the festival itself aside from its proximity to the Christmas holiday. Hanukkah is NOT, contrary to popular opinion, the "Jewish Christmas" (no such thing), but it is the celebration of a miracle when in about the 2nd century BCE the lights of the Temple menorah had only enough sanctified oil to last for a day and yet kept burning for 8 days.

Hanukkah has it origin as recorded in the books of the Maccabees, which is another reason why Christians typically are not familiar since Maccabees books are found among the books of the Apocrypha and not in the Jewish canon, the Old Testament we're more familiar with. The festival dates back to the time of Alexander the Great who brought Greek culture with him when he conquered Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. The real conflict with the Jews, however, came to a head under the reign of Antiochus IV in about 167 BCE, more than a century after the time of Alexander the Great.

The festival of the Dedication is also not a celebration of a war victory even though a war took place to rid the Jerusalem Temple of Hellenistic influences which had actually led to the desecration of the Temple by the sacrifice of pigs upon its altar, among other acts. To simplify the story, Alexander the Great allowed the Jews some sense of autonomy in their religion and culture even after his conquest of the region, but the Jews over time allowed themselves to be assimilated into a culture that was foreign to Jewish culture and religious practice (an oversimplified definition of "Hellenism").

Two Jewish groups sought to reclaim the Temple AND their religion and free it not only from further assimilation into the Hellenistic culture, but to restore the purity of their faith and religious practices. It probably did not help that Antiochus IV presented himself as of a divine nature as he also is said to have decreed the worship of Zeus as the supreme god. The penalty for disobedience was, of course, death, and many faithful Jews perished. All in all, it was a very dangerous time to be a Jew because the prevailing choice was to fall by the Greek sword or choose certain spiritual death by worshipping a false god.

It has been suggested by some that the Maccabean revolt was not so much a war with outside forces as it was a civil war between the more orthodox Jews who sought to reclaim their traditions and the Hellenist Jews who had allowed themselves to be overtaken by the Greek influences to the point that they were worshipping Zeus in the Temple of YHWH! Slowly and surely, however, over the course of more than a century the Jews had all but forgotten who they were and had voluntarily, if mindlessly, settled in and fell victim to what soon came to be the dominant culture that had little to do with YHWH. Does this in any way sound familiar?

Often we are faced with choices by which we feel more compelled to choose "the lesser of two evils" than to actually make a definitive choice for righteousness. The reason such choices seem so difficult for us is because for all intents and purposes we have become somewhat "hellenized" ourselves to the point that though we call ourselves "Christian", we are better suited for life in this world's more dominant culture than that of the world to come. This is a much generalized statement, to be sure, but it is not entirely off the mark because it is often hard - if impossible - to discern the difference between a Christian and anyone else except MAYBE on Sunday morning. MAYBE.

So Jesus, as Messiah, is standing right in front of the Jews, YHWH's chosen, and they don't recognize Him for what He is; they only see the carpenter's son. Perhaps they see a rabbi, a teacher, a preacher, maybe even a prophet, but they see Him strictly on human terms. They are demanding that their eyes and worldly minds be given some sign, some outward, physical evidence WITHIN THE REALM OF THEIR DOMINANT CULTURE that can appeal to them in worldly terms they are better able - and willing -to understand. They are not looking much deeper or farther than that. One may also wonder what sort of sign they had in mind beyond what they had already witnessed that would have convinced them not only of Messiah Jesus but also compel them to follow Him from that moment, to repent.

Though often infuriated or confused, I can eventually only be amused by the blindness of the great many so-called religious "progressives" who try to convince us that the Bible was written in an ancient time for an ancient people in an ancient culture and cannot - or will not - draw any reasonable parallels between the people of Jesus' time and the people of today! Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson suggests this: "The contemporary significance of any NT writing does not [come] from the fact that it was written expressly for our age but from the [belief] that a truth spoken to the first age of Christians can and does remain a truth for every age of believers." In other words, if it was true then, it must be true now. Modern Christians, however, tend to get tripped up when they mistakenly come to believe that Scripture was written exclusively for our own time - OR exclusively for a time long past.

Are we today any more or less narcissistic or self-serving than they were then? It is reasonable, I think, to believe the people who confronted Jesus were as concerned about their own little world and how Jesus' ministry would affect them personally as we are today. I have a hard time believing they were any less "what's in it for me" than we are today because we don't measure our lives according to Scripture. Instead, we justify our existing life by Scripture. What we have, what we do, and where we are comes first - THEN we fit Scripture in. This is exactly how the Jews became "Hellenized", and it is how contemporary Christians have also become "Hellenized", vainly attempting to blend the dominant worldly culture with the standards of the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

The distinction, however, is clearly revealed in Jesus' answer. He simply dismissed these who insisted upon a "sign" - a physical sign - because He knew that no matter what He did, no matter what He had already done, they were not going to buy into it because to buy into such a premise is to virtually surrender one's life, lifestyle, and autonomy, and become not so much an individual but a member of a "flock" that requires leadership, guidance, and divine protection. It means being as gentle as a lamb and just as vulnerable. It means the surrender of a certain amount of independence. It also means the beginning of an incredible spiritual journey in which nothing will ever be the same again.

Jesus' ministry on this earth was significant in so many ways and on so many levels, not least of which was the reality that He did not settle into a "church" or any sort of physical structure which would have signified a "coming to terms" with the existing world and fitting in with the dominant, hellenized culture. He was constantly on the go, moving from one place to another while blessing, healing, and teaching. To follow Jesus on this path was to put aside all else and, quite literally, FOLLOW Him, to fit in with HIS situation and HIS standards rather than to demand He fit into our own. To be willing to do so without demand but with only a willingness to be led, to be taught, is to become a part of His flock, His sheep. Anything less, and we will remain right where we are - going nowhere. The journey, such as it could have been, will end.

Where Christians choose to go from here is entirely up to us because even if we choose to become a part of the Lord's "sheep" and surrender that independence and autonomy, we do not completely surrender our minds or our wills. We certainly do not choose to settle between the "lesser of two evils" but choose instead between what is clearly wrong and what is clearly righteous.

Choosing righteousness for the sake of the Lamb is to be one day counted among the "great multitude" revealed in the Revelation, the ones "robed in white", the ones "who have come out of the great ordeal" which must surely mean this world and its inherent conflicts with the kingdom of Heaven, this "hellenization" of Christian teaching and faithful living. This "great ordeal" goes far beyond and requires much more than what is simply the "safe" choice that requires very little of us and allows us to stay right where we are, where we are most comfortable.

The ones who make the definitive and unmistakable choice for righteousness are indeed the ones who will "hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the Throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of the water of Life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev 7:16-17).

It is not about the preordained "elect". It is about the choices we make this day and each day to follow, to choose to stand still in a pasture in which the grass will last only so long or move forward behind the Great Shepherd in righteousness which leads to eternal life. This is the choice we have, and it is quite literally the choice between spiritual death and Eternal Life.

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