A Hanukkah Message for Christmas

For the first time since 1978, the first evening of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve. And while the two holidays share little between them besides historical and geographical context as well as approximate time of observance, Hanukkah has something to teach us this Christmas season.

The following image, contrasting the scene at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1939 with 2014 caught my attention today (it was posted on Facebook by the Israel Project):

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. In 1939 huge Nazi flags were flown from it. In 2014 a large Hanukah menorah was on display.

The survival of the people of Israel through the centuries is more than an interesting feature of history, it is an expression of God’s creation design through which we best understand the world. And what happened at the first Hanukkah preserved the integrity of God’s design.

Few people are aware that without Hanukkah there would be no Christmas, because the survival of the people of Israel was an essential part of God’s plan to make himself known to the nations of the world. Contrary to popular sentiment, the world was not waiting for a Savior to come. The Bible tells us that prior to Yeshua’s coming, the Gentiles (non-Jews) were “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12; NIV). The only ones waiting for salvation (which is what the name Yeshua/Jesus means) were the Jews, having been prepared by God through the Hebrew Prophets for centuries. Among the Messiah’s detailed predicted qualifications was that he was to come from a distinctly Jewish family heritage. Therefore, it was absolutely essential that the people of Israel retained a distinct religious and cultural existence at the time of his coming.

The particular threat that had fallen upon Israel in the second century before Yeshua’s coming was intended to destroy Israel’s national identity. The Greco-Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes had sought to consolidate his rule by imposing Greek culture and religion upon the various people groups within his domain. Many Jewish people of that day went along with his insidious plan. The God-ordained distinctive nature of Israel would been erased through forced assimilation if it had not been for the Maccabean uprising, when a relatively small Jewish army successfully fought off their great oppressors and restored the purity of biblical religion to their land. It was the faith of the few that ensured that a distinct Jewish nation was in place in the Land of Israel at the coming of the Messiah about 160 years later.

Nationhood in general, not just with regard to the Jewish people, is not an accident of history, but the outcome of God’s providence. As Paul made clear in Athens, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). National distinctions are not the result of humanly defined social constructs, but of God. While racial pride, prejudice, and oppression are the results of sin, national boundaries and differences in culture in and of themselves are not.

Christmas indeed marks the dawning of the extension of the Abrahamic blessing to the nations: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14; KJV). The reality of the one true God, which for the most part was the sole possession of a unique people, would now be shared with all nations, but not unto the dismantling of national distinctions. Rather it was to culminate in a gathering “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). It is a misnomer that one of the key purposes of the Gospel is to do away with national distinctives. So-called racial blindness and the breaking down of nationality may sound appealing, but it is contrary to God’s purposeful design.

I believe that one of the reasons why the State of Israel is the object of continued distain is that it is considered a nationalistic relic in the face of ever-increasing globalization. While one-world advocates call for the removal of national boundaries, Israel stands apart. It’s not as if Jews have not been open to being absorbed by the rest of the world. On the contrary, whether it was the assimilated Jews of the Maccabean era or of Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis, we have tried to fit in, but God has had other plans.

God indeed desires unity, but his version of it ingeniously takes into account the beautiful international mosaic of diverse peoples. This was brilliantly established by the early Jewish believers when they decided to not require Gentile followers of the Messiah to embrace Jewish culture in order to be full members of the new messianic community. This opened the door for each nation to work out for itself their unique contribution to the vast family of God. Yet tragically, as the church quickly became predominately Gentile, it failed to effectively provide this freedom, beginning with snuffing out its Jewish component by seeing itself as the New (or True) Israel. Much has changed in this area in the last century or so, but there is still a ways to go. This is largely due to the continuation of replacement theology (defined as “the Church is Israel”) among believers as well as false and destructive notions of unity in the world around us.

God-given distinctives are under constant assault today, not only with regard to nationality, but also having to do with sexuality and gender roles. In the name of equality, social engineers, politicians, and not a few religious leaders are seeking to impose sameness. But God didn’t intend a world of sameness, but one of intentional variety. He began his creation by separating light from darkness and brought it to a climax in the distinction of male and female. Peoplehood distinctions followed immediately afterwards.

That which makes you a unique individual rests upon the foundation of true diversity. This is not a diversity of our own making, one that casts off God’s design. We cannot be anything or whatever we want, but we can be all that God wants us to be. The only way for that to happen is to accept and insist upon our God-given distinctives. Because of the Maccabees, this is something we can celebrate this Christmas.

The Meaning of the Shofar

shofar01_480

Fall Feasts

In the third book of the Bible, Vayikra/Leviticus chapter 23, verses 23-44 is a description of three special observances that were to occur each year around September/October. The first is often referred to as “The Feast of Trumpets,” and became known as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It begins this year the evening of September 13. Ten days later is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning the evening of September 22. Five days after that is the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacle or Booths), beginning the evening of September 27.

These three observances are intimately connected in that the first two provide intense preparation for the third. In the midst of the busy fall harvest time, the people of Israel were to stop for a day of reflection to remember God. This was to get the people’s attention so that they would be ready a week and a half later for a full day of humiliation and repentance on Yom Kippur. The restoration provided by that most solemn day enabled the people to engage the over-a-week-long celebrations associated with Sukkot.

We fool ourselves into thinking that we can rush into thanksgiving festivities without taking the previous two weeks to get ready first. We are so busy with so many distractions. Yet God wisely knows that he needs to get our attention first by reminding us of things we so easily forget.

A Time to Remember

The Feast of Trumpets was to be “a memorial” (v. 24) marked by “blowing.” Most translations fill in what it was to be blown, even though the passage nowhere states explicitly what instrument was to be used. Traditionally it is the “shofar” (English: ram’s horn). Also, while the act of blowing was to function as a memorial, we are not told what it was we were to remember. The connection of this day with the other days mentioned above allows for a general reminder of the things of God, but the use of the shofar in particular brings to remembrance some key biblical events and ideas.

The Meaning of the Shofar

I am going to share several passages that reference the shofar and provide some suggestions as to what therefore we should remember when it is blown. In most English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, the word shofar is translated either as horn or trumpet. Horn, of course, is better, since it clearly shows the difference between the use of a hollowed-out animal horn and a man-made metallic trumpet. In each of the following cases, I have replaced whatever English word was used with the original Hebrew word, shofar.

The Covenant on Mt. Sinai: Redemption and Revelation

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud shofar blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.

Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder (Shemot/Exodus 19:16-19).

The blowing of the shofar reminds us of God’s rescue from bondage, his commitment through covenant faithfulness, and the gift of his Word.

The Walls of Jericho: No Obstacles Are Too Great for God

So the people shouted, and the shofars were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the shofar, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city (Joshua 6:20).

The falling of the great walls of Jericho following the sounding of the shofar reminds us that when we are in God’s will, doing what he wants us to do, nothing can stand in our way.

God Alone Is King: Let Us Boldly Acclaim His Rulership

God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a shofar (Tehillim/Psalms 47:5)

As the shofar blast proclaim God’s rule, so should we, boldly and without fear.

God Is Worthy of Praise

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the shofar
    make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! (Tehillim/Psalms 98:4-6)

The shofar reminds us that God is worth celebrating. We make a big deal over far lesser things. So let us make some joyful noise about God!

The Voice of the Prophet: We Need To Speak Up More

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a shofar;
declare to my people their transgression
    to the house of Jacob their sins. (Isaiah 58:1)

As the voice of the prophet is clear and distinct, the shofar encourages us to not hold back, but to speak up for God and his ways, clearly and unashamedly.

God’s Alarm: It’s Time To Wake Up

Blow a shofar in Zion;
    sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near (Joel 2:1)

The shofar was used as a practical device to get people’s attention. In this passage it is as an alarm to warn God’s people of his coming judgement. One of the great Jewish thinkers of all time was Moses Maimonides. He was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt, who lived between 1135 and 1204 AD. What he said with regard to what people should think of as the shofar is blown goes along with this:

Wake up, wake up, sleepers from your sleep, and awake slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator.

Some of you might catch how these words sound similar to other words written long before Maimonides, from the New Covenant Writings:

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and [Messiah] will shine on you.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:14-16)

The shofar, God’s alarm clock, is to alert us as to the nature of the times in which we live. It is so easy to allow cynicism and apathy to lull us to sleep. It’s much easier to go along with the flow, submitting to the pressures of the culture, than to pursue the things of God day by day. As I write this, the world remembers the September 11, 2001 tragedy, which many at the time said was a “wake up call.” But how many of those same people hit the alarm and drifted off to sleep again. Since then the world has experienced alarm after alarm. Eventually it will be too late. Which brings us to the next one.

The Last Shofar: The Coming of the Lord

Then the Lord will appear over them,
    and his arrow will go forth like lightning;
the Lord God will sound the shofar
    and will march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. (Zechariah 9:14)

The day will come, when God himself will blow the shofar to signal the return of Messiah to call creation to account, and judge the world. No more opportunities to go back to sleep. No more chances. This is reiterated in the New Covenant Writings. Since it was originally written in Greek, we don’t know if it is referencing a trumpet or a horn, but the connection with the shofar is clear as is the point it makes:

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:50-55)

As the final blast marks the end of life as we know it, it also signals the beginning of the age to come, when death and all its effects will be no more. For some it will be a time of absolute dread, but for others the greatest moment of our lives. How can you be assured of eternal life? Here too, the shofar shows the way.

Substitution: Life for Life

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Bereshit/Genesis 22:12-14)

The Hebrew word here is not actually shofar, but a synonym, “keren.” This reference from the first book of the Bible is foundational for everything else the shofar reminds us of. God’s requirement for the offering of Abraham’s son Isaac was fulfilled through the provision of a ram. All through Scripture the sacrificial system, as established by God, reminded the people that an offering of an innocent animal was a satisfactory substitute for sin. While this is foreign to most of us today, it is God’s way, all the while pointing the people of Israel to the perfect and final offering of the Messiah on our behalf. His life was accepted in place of ours, so that all who trust in him would live forever. It is no coincidence that among all the things that happened to him during his unjust arrest, trial, and execution that he was mocked by the Roman soldiers by their placing a crown of thorns on his head. Yeshua, like the ram of Abraham’s day, found himself caught in a thicket, and offered in our place, so like Isaac, we too may go free.

The shofar gives us so much to think about, but it is all meaningless unless we are in right relationship with God. By accepting Yeshua as God’s provision, everything else becomes clear. The shofar sound not only will reverberate in our ears, but the fullness of its meaning will find its way into our hearts.

Listen to the shofar now:

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible