Winston S. Churchill said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it;” which is perhaps why author Dan Brown wrote in The Da Vinci Code, “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’”
Today, in order to fully understand our Gospel, we need a history lesson, so sit back and I’ll do my best not to bore you.
In the year 336 BC, Philip II, King of Macedon (northern Greece) was assassinated and his 20 year old son, Alexander, ascended the throne. Over the next 12 years, Alexander would go on to create one of the greatest empires in history. It spanned the territory from Greece to Egypt to India, and the Greek culture and language spread across the region. However, the young king, who we know as Alexander the Great, died at the age of 32 and the power plays began soon afterwards. Four of Alexander’s generals began fighting for control, which lead to civil wars that fractured the once great empire.
The Ptolemies took control of the south (Egypt) and Seleucid (Syrians) took control of the north, which left a small Mediterranean country in the middle: Judea. Eventually the Syrians would prevail in the area and begin a plan of assimilation, for it was believed that all the political tensions and rebellions would cease if the Greek way of life was instituted across the empire.
In the year 175 BC, Antiochus IV became king of the Syrians and continued this plan of assimilation and began enforcing it in every area of life, including religious. Many of the Jews in upper society had already conformed to the Greek way of life, but there were some who would not tolerate the eradication of their faith. In response, Antiochus gave an ultimatum: conform or die. (You can read a more detailed version of these events in 1 & 2 Maccabees, which is contained in the Apocrypha.) To prove his point, Antiochus marched his troops into Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple. He had everything torn down and profaned, including the altar. There, on top of the altar, he sacrificed a pig and then had a statue of the Greek god Zeus erected.
As the oppression of the Jews continued into the smaller villages, the Syrians came to Modi’in, where the Jewish priest Matthias and his five sons lived. The Syrians attempted to force Matthias to practice the pagan worship, but Matthias’ sons were having none of it. They rose in rebellion and killed the soldiers. Matthias’ son, Judah, became their leader and took the nickname “Maccabee,” which means, “The Hammer.”
Under Maccabee, the rebellion grew and in the Jewish month of Kislev (December) they were eventually able to retake the Temple in Jerusalem. They proceeded to restore the Temple and its furnishings, including the Menorah – the sacred lamp stand – that the Syrians had broken. The Menorah, with its candles, represented the light of God in the world, but after it was restored, it was discovered that there was only enough oil for one day and it would take eight days to make more of the prescribed oil. However, the Maccabees believed that it was important to light the lamp as quickly as possible. They did and a miracle occurred: one day’s worth of oil lasted the full eight days until new oil could be made. From that point on, the Jews have celebrated the eight day Festival of Light: Hanukkah, which means “dedication.” It is the Feast of Dedication when the Temple was restored and rededicated to the One True God.
Our Gospel reading today began with, “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple…” We’ve said it before, the seemingly minor details that the Gospel writers include are always important, and help us to more fully understand the message being taught. It wasn’t a coincidence that Jesus showed up on this day. He is about to make a point that will push the religious leaders over the proverbial edge.
They begin by asking Jesus if he is the Messiah, the long awaited savior. Just a few verses after our reading today, Jesus will say, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father,” and that is what he is saying here. If you don’t believe me, then look at what I’m doing; but then he adds, but because you are not of my flock, then you still aren’t going to believe.
He prefaces these comments with, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me…,” and he concludes with, “The Father and I are one.”
About two centuries before the events of our Gospel reading took place, Antiochus set up a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the temple and said, “You will worship this god or you will die.” Maccabees and the Jewish people defeated him and for the last two centuries have held an eight day celebration every year celebrating that defeat and the restoration of the Temple. While this celebration is taking place, Jesus comes to town and states, “The Father and I are one.” Yes. I am the Messiah, but not the one you expected, for not only am I the Messiah… I AM the Son of God. I AM God. This Jesus is doing exactly what Antiochus attempted two centuries ago. He is trying to supplant the One True God. That went over about as well as prime rib at a vegan party. The very next verse, which the lectionary omitted, states, “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
I have come to bring a sword. Jesus claim to be God has been messing up folks lives for centuries, and it will continue to do so until the end. We’ve been reading bits of the Book of Revelation these past few weeks. Here is a passage that never show up in the lectionary, “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’”
Those words make me cheer. Makes me feel like a Marine or something knowing that this is my God. For others, it scares the knickers right off of them, others laugh, and still others get angry.
This Jesus claims to be God, and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we know that he is God. He comes with a sword to divide. Yet, this Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he is our shepherd. “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” This Jesus comes with a sword to “tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” and he comes to lead us beside still waters. To guide us along right pathways. To comfort us. To prepare a table for us. To anoint our heads with oil. To provide an abundance. This Jesus is King of king and Lord of lords, and he will never leave or forsake us. As he tells the religious leaders, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Sometimes, I think we lose sight of who Jesus truly is. We see him as this cute controllable cuddly Teddy bear. Today, we are reminded that this Jesus came to turn the world on its head, to divide with a sword. He brings out the very best and the very worst in people, yet for those who believe, he gives the power to become children of God. This is your Shepherd. This is your God.
Let us pray: O God, by the humility of Your Son, You have raised up a fallen world; to Your faithful people give a lasting joy so that those whom You have rescued from the danger of eternal death may enjoy endless happiness because of You. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.