Shabbat Shalom. This week we celebrate the holiday of Chanukkah, the festival of dedication. Now I am guessing that everyone here today knows at least some of the history of Channukah. How a remnant of our people led by Judah Maccabee overthrew the wicked King Antiochus who defiled the Lord’s Temple. How the Temple was then rededicated to the Lord with the oil for the Lord’s menorah lasting eight days. This miracle about oil though most likely never happened, it is not found in the historical accounts of 1 & 2 Maccabees. It was likely a Rabbinic addition to draw attention away from our people’s sinfulness in the leadup to the Maccabean revolt.
This morning I will not be talking about Channukah directly, instead we will be examining two “prequel” stories. These stories occurred before the Maccabean revolt and are recorded for us in 2 Maccabees. 2 Maccabees is not divinely inspired but is considered a history accurate book. The first shows how the Lord responds to our dedication to Him. The second is a story you may have never heard that helps explain just why Antiochus was so easily able to march through Israel and desecrate the Lord’s Temple. In these stories we will see the danger of living for a sinful society vs. living dedicated lives to the Lord.
We begin in 2 Maccabees 3 which records the history of the High Priest Onias the 3rd in Jerusalem in the years before Antiochus. During this time Seleucus IV, Antiochus’s predecessor, was ruling over Israel. Maccabees records that a worker in the Temple named Simon, had embraced Greek customs, becoming very corrupt. He went to King Seleucus’s governor and told him that there was more Gold than could be counted in the Lord’s Temple and that the King should have control over it. After hearing this, a Greek minister named Heliodorus was sent to the Temple to take possession of all the gold and silver.
The minister confronted High Priest Onias who informed him that Simon had been lying. There was some gold and silver, but it was set aside to provide for widows and orphans. Other money that was stored belonged to individuals who trusted the Temple like a bank because of how safe it was. But Heliodorus was a greedy man and still wanted all the treasure. So, he came back several days later to count and take the money from the Temple. They began to gather all the gold and silver and it seemed that the Temple was about to be robbed completely. Everyone seemed powerless to stop them.
However, at that time most of our people were still dedicated to the Lord. From the priests to the children everyone mourned what was happening and prayed to the Lord to stop it. Wherever they went they lifted their hands to God in prayer. Imagine that an entire city turning out to pray together to the Lord, stopping everything they were doing to cry out to Adonai.
The Lord heard their prayers and chose to act. While the Greek soldiers were counting the money in the temple, they saw a vision of angels appearing like human men and were struck with fear. The king’s minster also saw this vision and was attacked by the angels knocking him unconscious. The soldiers fled with the minster on a stretcher, all of them acutely aware how helpless they were in the face of Adonai. For all their supposed strength was nothing to the Lord of Lords.
Heliodorus was unable to speak or recover after being carried out on the stretcher. It was only after the righteous high priest Onias offered a sacrifice and prayer to the Lord that he was finally healed. The angels appeared to him again and told Heliodorus to go back to his country and tell everyone about the Lord’s power.
After returning to the king empty handed, he told him everything that had occurred. King Seleucus was not normally denied what he wanted and so asked Heliodorus who would be the best man to send to Jerusalem to try again. We find Heliodorus’s reply in 2 Maccabees 3:38-39: If you have an enemy or know of someone plotting against your government, send him. He will come back badly beaten, if he comes back at all, for some strange power from God is at work there. The God of heaven watches over the Temple; he strikes down and destroys anyone who comes to harm it.
Seleucus finally gave up trying to steal the Temples funds. In this chapter we see how Lord defended our people and His Temple. We were dedicated to the Lord and in His love and faithfulness He responded to our prayers. Sadly, our dedication the Lord will begin to fade in the following years record in 2 Maccabees 4. After the death of King Seleucus, Antiochus becomes king. Onias’s brother Jason then bribes Antiochus to become the high priest. A pattern that will continue for several years. Jason not only gives Antiochus money for the priesthood but also promises to build a large Greek stadium. This was to encourage Jews to become Greek citizens and embrace Greek pagan customs a process called Hellenization.
After Jason was made High Priest, our people were quickly required to adopt a Greek way of life. Jason built the Stadium near the Temple and had the young men complete athletically as part of Greek custom and pagan rituals. Very quickly our people in the cities began to truly abandon the Lord. Listen to this passage from 2 Maccabees 4:13-17:
Because of the unrivaled wickedness of Jason, that ungodly and illegitimate High Priest, the craze for the Greek way of life and for foreign customs reached such a point that even the priests lost all interest in their sacred duties. They lost interest in the Temple services and neglected the sacrifices. Just as soon as the signal was given, they would rush off to take part in the games that were forbidden by our Law. They did not care about anything their ancestors had valued; they prized only Greek honors. And this turned out to be the source of all their troubles, for the very people whose ways they admired and whose customs they tried to imitate became their enemies and oppressed them. It is a serious thing to disregard God’s Law, as you will see from the following events.
What is referred to as “the following events” is the record of Onias’s murder and the priesthood being bought again. All these events occur before Antiochus truly conquered Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple, and the Maccabees through the Lord’s power were able to successfully defeat Antiochus.
When I was a child in Hebrew school, I often wondered why the Lord allowed the Temple to be desecrated like it was. Why didn’t the Lord supernaturally intervene like He had so many other times in our history? I was not told the part of the story I shared with you this morning. When you know the full story, the answer is clear. Our leadership and our people had rushed to embrace the surrounding wicked culture and had chosen to abandon the Lord. While we remained dedicated to Adonai, the Temple and our people experienced His protection. When we chose to dedicate ourselves to our own pleasure, we experienced the punishment of our sinfulness.
When we consider our people’s punishment it is easy to wrongly assume we would have done better. The truth is we are not so different than that generation seduced by greed and pleasure. There are important lessons we need to learn from these stories as well.
First, we see that corrupt leaders lead to corrupt people. When Onias was our righteous high priest, our people experienced blessing. But all it took was one corrupt high priest to begin moving our people towards sinful practices. Corrupt political, business, or spiritual leaders will always guide us towards problems. We need only look at the history of corrupt communist countries, businesses like Enron, or churches that have fallen apart.
Fortunately, we do not live in a country ruled by kings and queens. We have no dictators appointed for life yet! So, it is the duty of every Believer to vote for Godly principled people to lead us well on a local and national level. We need to encourage righteous leaders in all areas of our lives. We also must stand for the Lord, even when the majority has decided to abandon Him.
Being under political and business leaders are important, but having a good spiritual leader is incredibly essential. We must be under pastors and rabbis dedicated to the Lord and not our surrounding society. This is a part of our lives we can control and cannot compromise on. It is a sad truth that often leaders become seduced by the same sinfulness of greed and desire that consumed so many of the Lord’s priesthood.
Today, many leaders are obsessed with money, power, and even the size of their congregations. We see repeatedly the spiritual destruction corrupt leaders bring when it all comes tumbling down. All to often we judge a ministry as worthy based on how large and impressive it is as well. Dedication to the Lord and Messiah’s Community should be what draws us to a congregation. Flashy shallowness and being attractive like the society that surrounds us should not be draws us in.
A second lesson from these stories is that we must not become seduced by the culture that surrounds us. Please do not misunderstand me, I am not saying we cannot interact with society at all or enjoy a good TV show, but we cannot allow the world’s values to become our own.
Values like chasing after mindless pleasure to distract ourselves from the real problems around us. A society that mocks the Lord and mocks the idea there is a real standard for how we are to live our lives. Too often we try to imitate the world around us to be accepted and have fun. But I am reminded of the Apostle John’s warning in 1 John 2:15-17:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
This is the lesson our people learned the hard way. We learned again what happens when we chase after the world and its approval. If we today refuse to become dedicated to the Lord, we will be destroyed with this world as well. Gaining physical pleasure and physical things are not the point of life in this world. They are spiritual traps that will corrupt our walk with the Lord and leave us open to punishment and suffering. So, we must cultivate the spiritual discipline of saying, “No.” Saying no to those we want to us abandon the Lord. Saying no to the approval and honor of this world. Saying no to dedicating our lives to meaningless and pointless things, instead of our Rock and refuge.
As we celebrate this season of Chanukkah it is my prayer that we learn the lessons from its history and not repeat them again. That we would say Yes to the light of the Lord and No to the darkness that surrounds us. May each of us become even more dedicated to the Lord through the sacrifice and example of Messiah Yeshua. May we all experience every promise of the Lord through saying Yes to Him.