The Jewish holiday Hanukkah began this past Thursday evening. Many of us know that it lasts eight nights with candles being lit each night, but are uncertain of anything else. In 167 BCE, Seleucid king Antiochus IV invaded Judea and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. He sought to Hellenize the Jews, while Jewish father and son Mattathias and Judas Maccabeaus gathered a group who fought to protect their religion. After a three year struggle that ended with a Jewish victory, Judas called for the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, they found only enough oil to light the menorah in the Temple for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be found. Those eight nights are celebrated by the holiday, progressively lighting more candles on the menorah each night, until all eight are lit.
An Advent Sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11.
As a holiday that comes during the darkest part of the year in the northern hemisphere, there’s also a connection to being a light in the darkness. As Rabbi Shalom Kantor from West Bloomfield, Michigan in a CNN article puts it: “The more light we have, even just a little sliver of light can drive away darkness. The little flickering light, it makes people realize that there’s hope, that there’s goodness.” And in a time when antisemitism is on the rise due to the war between Hamas and Israel, that hope is needed. In fact some Jews are choosing not to display their menorahs this year, keeping them far away from windows. Jean Joachim of Brooklyn, New York said, “While there are many Jews in my neighborhood, one never knows when someone who hates Jews will be walking by, see the lights burning, and decide to extinguish them with a rock or a gun.” However, she continued, “I think I’ll feel a little more defiant as I say the prayers and light the lights. I may be practical, but I’m not going to be scared out of celebrating my own religious holidays.”
It’s been more than two months since Hamas crossed over and attacked Israel, killing more than 1200, taking 248 hostages, and inflicting trauma on hundreds of others. The acts of Hamas—which espouses the destruction of Israel as a core tenant—were terrorist acts and continue to be unequivocally denounced across the globe. In response, the Israeli government has set about to destroy Hamas and any civilians caught in their way in Gaza. They’ve cut off food and water, medical supplies and electricity. Since October 7, at least 15,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza, and the humanitarian crisis is exploding. The Israeli government has chosen to retaliate with excessive force to root out the terrorists, and many lives are being lost, both Palestinian and Israeli. Israeli hostages continue to be held, and Palestinian civilians face dire circumstances. It’s a time of darkness.
Into this situation comes the words of the Prophet: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” These words come from the Prophet into the midst of the people in exile, who have for fifty years been far from Jerusalem as they lived in captivity in Babylon. The people of Judah faced an invasion, saw the city they loved utterly destroyed, and were forced to march across the wilderness. And now the word of God comes to them, not accusing them of sins and wrong doing—which had been the message of the prophet back in Judah before the exile—but filled with comfort, and mercy. Acknowledging that they had paid for their sins. This message, as theologian Kathleen O’Connor puts it, “seeks to bring back to life a people crushed under a shroud of death.” She continues, “This passage creates a theological terra firma for a fearful people, not in the destroyed temple, the collapsed monarchy, or the broken covenant of the past, but in God’s never-failing word.” God offers hope and light in the darkness of that wilderness time not through institutions, but through the deep love of God.
It was 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns who coined the phrase “Man’s inhumanity to man” that I first heard in Mrs. Rumhor’s high school English class. Burns writes,
Humankind’s inhumanity to other human beings continues to this day, and countless thousands mourn. Antisemitism and anti-islamic acts continue to rise in our country right now. Three Palestinian young men shot in Vermont a couple of weeks ago, while reports of antisemitism at college campuses grow. In all of it, hatred. Inhumane treatment of others. The same rhetoric used to dehumanize both Gazan Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East are being picked up here, and in other parts of the world. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence;… violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And yet just as in the time of Isaiah when the people of Judah were exiled in Babylon and their lives traumatized forever, so we continue to the pattern today. We think again and again that violence, power, and hate will somehow make things right, that it will drive out the darkness, but it only creates more darkness in our world.
Isaiah responds: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Into the darkness comes love, and gentleness, and mercy. God gathering up the people as a shepherd gathers the lambs in his arms, and gently leading the mother sheep.
Sara Katz, a Jewish young woman living in Baltimore was excited to celebrate Hanukkah this year with heirlooms she inherited from her grandmother who recently died. Yet she’s chosen to mute that celebration, refusing to put up decorations visible from the street afraid of drawing attention to her home. “It’s a painful realization,” she said. “And it doesn’t just hurt for me. I hurt for the Palestinian and Muslim communities, too. … If you look back at both of our cultures’ histories, we don’t have an easy time. It’s filled with a lot of war and a lot of bloodshed and slavery and all these terrible things. I don’t see the point in it. I don’t see the point in why we all have to make each other hurt.” Neither do I.
I suspect John the Baptizer would simply remind us of the destructive power of sin. That in order to prepare for the one who comes after him, we need to repent, turn around, and amend our lives. To confess where we ourselves have fallen, treating others without dignity, refusing to see the humanity in those we—or our leaders—deem enemies. Because that is at the root of all the backdrop this morning. Babylon’s refusal see the people of Judah as human beings. Hamas Palestinians and Israeli officials seeking to destroy those they consider to be vermin. The people of John the Baptist’s day living under the oppression of the Romans. All of it is a refusal to acknowledge the belovedness of the other given by God.
The voice in the wilderness comes to us show how much we need to find the mercy and love of God. To choose again and again the way that leads to healing rather than destruction, the way of love rather than the way of hate. To hope in the flickering of a candle that it would withstand all in our world trying to snuff it out. We can choose to find the peace that God brings while holding us close to God’s bosom. And we can choose to offer that same mercy, grace, and love to others, refusing to pick sides in a conflict where thousands are dying, choosing instead to stand, pray, and work for peace. For the dignity of every human being. For the need we have for each other in this world. We await the coming of the light of Christ into this world, he who will bring peace. Let us choose to follow in his way.