Chanukkah – What Can One Jew Do?

Shabbat Shalom.  Tomorrow night begins the holiday of Chanukkah, a time of eating way too many fried foods and hopefully getting some presents that are not clothing, for certain family members listening to this message please take note.

But what is Chanukkah about? The typical story of Chanukkah which I was taught in Hebrew school, is how the wicked king and general, Antiochus Epiphanies came into Israel and forced our people to give up faith in the Lord to worship Greek gods. His name meant “God Manifest”, which tells you something about how he viewed himself.

In response to the murder and paganism, Judah Maccabee, his brothers, and a small remnant of people who were still loyal to the Lord, began a war against Antiochus.  With Adonai’s help they drove him from the land of Israel and rededicated the paganized Temple to the Lord.  But there was one major problem, there was only enough oil to last one day to relight the Menorah that burned eternally in the Temple.

Even though the oil should have lasted for just a day, a miracle occurred and it lasted eight days until more oil could be produced.  So, the holiday of Chanukkah is celebrated as the festival of lights and we commemorate this holiday with our Menorahs and gift giving.

The problem with this story I learned in Hebrew School, and that you also may have heard, is that the miracle of the oil most likely never happened. In 1 and 2 Maccabees, which record the story of Chanukkah, there is no mention of this miracle; it was most likely invented later by the Rabbis who then recorded it in the Talmud.

But the rest of the story really did happen and so we don’t need to throw away our latkes, menorahs, jelly donuts, and dreidels.

This morning I’d like to focus on a relatively unsung hero of Chanukkah, the man who really got the ball rolling with overthrowing Antiochus and without whom there would literally never have been Judah The Hammer, his father, Mattathias.

Matthias serves as an important example of standing up in the face of persecution for us today.  It seems like every day we hear a new story of corruption and disgusting sinful practices happening around us.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise in our country and we are seeing more and more corruption in Churches and Synagogues as well. Finally, more and more society has turned its back on Messiah Yeshua, His Word, and look with disgust on anyone who claims to follow His teachings.  It seems like everyone is abandoning the Lord on all levels.  It can be very depressing to live in such times.  It can also make us feel helpless.  What can one person do in the face of such an onslaught?  Why should I stand up just to get knocked down by everyone else?  You may even feel lost and abandoned, like you are adrift in a furious sea of darkness with a tiny light in a rickety raft.

Now I won’t blame you if you don’t know much about Mattathias, he died roughly a year into the rebellion, and is not around for much of the story of Chanukkah.  But he was the first to stand firm against the sinful practices happening around him and he serves forever as an example of what it means to be bold for the Lord in the face of a society that has completely turned against Him.

In 1 Maccabees 2 we are introduced to Mattathias, an old and well-respected priest living in Modein.  Eventually word came to his city of how Antiochus had desecrated the Lord’s Temple and how many Jewish people had become idolaters.  Mattathias was incredibly distraught, he began to mourn, along with his sons, and asked why he had lived to see such times.  People were dying, the Temple was in ruins, and he felt completely helpless, even asking why he should go on living.

It seemed like everything was in chaos, that everyone had turned their backs to God and Mattathias felt it would have been better to die than to continue to see such things.  Maybe you have been in a place similar with Mattathias?  Feeling like everything has turned against you? Feeling alone and maybe even wanting to die yourself.

Soon after Antioucus’s officials came to Modein.  All the people, including Mattathias, came out to see them.  They demanded that everyone offer sacrifices to a Greek idol and prove themselves loyal to their new king.  The officials spotted the loyal Priest in the crowd and asked him to be the first to offer a sacrifice:

“You are a respected leader in this town, and you have the support of your sons and relatives. Why not be the first one here to do what the king has commanded? All the Gentiles, the people of Judea, and all the people left in Jerusalem have already done so. If you do, you and your sons will be honored with the title of Friends of the King, and you will be rewarded with silver and gold and many gifts.”

Here Mattathias was presented with a life altering choice.  He could choose to go with the crowd, to bend the knee and offer a sacrifice to idols.  Not only would he live, but he would be rewarded with treasure.  Or he could refuse to worship these idols and know that he would be killed like all those other people in Jerusalem.  It’s easy to say you would make the right choice when in such a situation but it is much harder to do in practice.  The Apostle Peter denied knowing Yeshua three times after declaring with pride that he never would.  He gave into pressure much less than this, would we really do any better?  But Mattathias acted not through pride but out of a lifelong desire to serve Adonai.  With God’s help he made the hard but correct choice.

“I don’t care if every Gentile (referring to the Jews who had abandoned the Lord) in this empire has obeyed the king and yielded to the command to abandon the religion of his ancestors. My children, my relatives, and I will continue to keep the covenant that God made with our ancestors. With God’s help we will never abandon his Law or disobey his commands. We will not obey the king’s decree, and we will not change our way of worship in the least.

With God’s help Mattathias stood up and made the right choice of fearing God more than men.  Let it never be said that you must be young to be a rebel or make a stand.  A certain age is not required in God using you.  Here we have a father in the last year of his life standing up for the Lord and giving everyone an example to follow.

But not everyone thought the same as Mattathias.  Just as he finished speaking a Jewish man went up to make the sacrifice, probably desiring the treasure Mattathias had refused.  The old Priest Mattathias killed him in righteous anger and killed the king’s official.  With this he and his sons gathered all those who were still loyal to the Lord and fled to the mountains nearby.  In this way the rebellion against Antiochus was officially started.

The example of one person lead many others to make the right choice.  But this wasn’t accomplished through his power, it was through the Lord’s.

Mattathias and his sons went from town to town, gathering to them everyone who was still loyal to the Lord and attacking the forces of Antiochus.  Though they were very successful, the war was not finished before the Lord chose to take Mattathias home.  Still trusting in the Lord on his deathbed he gathered his children to him for one last word of encouragement and instruction.

1 Maccabees 2 records his final words and he begins by stating the obvious, that these are times of great trouble.  Violent and arrogant people currently ruled and mocked all those who followed Adonai as fools and idiots.  He then reminded them of our ancestors, Abraham, Joseph, Caleb, Joshua, Phinehas, Elijah, Daniel, and others.  Through their lives we see the power that comes from trusting in the Lord.  They trusted in Adonai while in the minority, stood up in the face of powerful people, and accomplished God’s plans.  Our ancestors received their treasure not from men but from their Creator.

For time eternal their lives serve as examples of being dedicated and faithful to the Lord.  Much like the hall of faith in Hebrews 11, Mattathias is telling his sons that they are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  We too have the inheritance of the example of all those who have come before us, great and small, famous and unknown.  They put their trust in the Lord and it was never misplaced. They found strength not in their own power, but in the overwhelming strength of the Creator Of All Things.  That same strength was available to Mattathias’s sons and is available to us today.  It is available in an even greater way through the Holy Spirit sent by Messiah Yeshua for all those who have placed their faith in Him.

Mattathias summarizes the lessons we should learn beautifully as he ends this teaching:

“Take each of these ancestors of ours as an example, and you will realize that no one who puts his trust in the Lord will ever lack strength. Don’t be afraid of the threats of a wicked man. Remember that he will die and all his splendor will end with worms feeding on his decaying body. Today he may be highly honored, but tomorrow he will disappear; his body will return to the earth and his scheming will come to an end. But you, my sons, be strong and courageous in defending the Law, because it is through the Law that you will earn great glory.”

As powerful and overwhelming as our current circumstances can feel, they will always pass and change.  No matter how powerful a person seems, they will die, and their supposed power will die with them.  Eternal life and eternal reward can only be found in Adonai and everything else will pass away. As we read in 1 John 2:17, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

After giving some final instructions to his children along with a blessing Mattathias passes away.  Though the war was not yet won he trusted in the Lord to save His people.  Mattathias’s trust was not misplaced as we all know.  Years later the foolish man who thought of himself as god would be routed by the sons of Mattathias and their army.

But Antiochus still wanted to turn Jerusalem into a graveyard full of Jews.  However, the Lord had other plans for him.  He struck him down with horrible intestinal pain and injury.  2 Maccabees 9 records that the man who though himself as “God Manifested”, showed the manifested power of the true God to all through the disease Adonai struck him with.  The words of Mattathias became true as worms fed on his body and Antiochus died after acknowledging the power of the only true God.

As I reflect on the life on Mattathias I am encouraged in the times we live in.  Like Israel in his day, we today live in a society whose leaders have largely abandoned the Lord.  Offices are sold for money and corruption happens in all levels of society.  But none of these things are new.  More importantly, the Lord is not new, He is the same today as he was during the time of the Maccabees and the days of all those who have come before us.

By our own power we can accomplish nothing, but through the power of God all things really are possible.  With His power we can stand up in the face of overwhelming odds, to boldly and openly share the Good News of Messiah Yeshua to a lost and dying world.  The story of Chanukkah is about light and dedication but is also about being bold in the face of evil, in enduring suffering and trusting in the Lord to fulfill His promises.

There are many quotes I like from A.W. Tozer, but there is one that comes to mind during this holiday, “We can be in our day what the heroes of faith were in their day – but remember at the time they didn’t know they were heroes.”

Mattathias when he stood against Antiochus’s official did not know everything that would happen after.  He simply trusted and obey in the word of God.  We cannot know everything that will happen when we stand for the Lord, but we can be confident that we stand in good company.  We stand with all those who have walked this path before us.

As we enter Chanukkah this year let us all remember the faithfulness of Mattathias and his sons as they endured suffering during dark times.  May their examples, and the examples of all men and women who have faithfully served the Lord, encourage us when we are upset and sad, to remind us that God is still in control and He is faithful to His promises.

With the Lord’s help may each of us have the boldness of Mattathias, the strength to stand firm and endure trials for the sake of our faith in the Lord.  May each of us find ourselves approved by our Messiah, knowing that as we share Him to others, that we will have the promise of everlasting life.