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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Of Shepherds, Messiahs, and Men Who Declare Themselves Gods

In other years the lectionary time warp jump back from the post-resurrection stories -set in the spring and garden green of the year-to John 10 where it is “winter” might feel incredibly awkward.  This year, not so much –not, at least, for many in the Midwestern part of the United States. 

So here we are; it was winter and Jesus was in Jerusalem in the Temple under the Porticos of Solomon – which would have been a very good place to be if one was in Jerusalem in the Temple during the winter months.  While it can, and occasionally does, snow in Israel during the winter, it is usually the rainy season.  Temperatures range from the mid 40s (Fahrenheit) to mid 60s. 

It was winter, probably raining, and Jesus was in the Temple teaching under the protective shelter of the colonnaded portico of Solomon during the Festival of the Dedication of the Temple. Jesus never celebrated Christmas, but he did celebrate Hanukkah.  I like to imagine Jesus spinning the dreidel and eating latkes but I don’t think those were part of the Hanukkah traditions of the first century.  He may have lit the menorah, though. 

The roots of the Festival of the Dedication of the Temple or Hanukkah (which the historian Josephus called “the Festival of Lights” though he’s one of the few ancient writers to do so…) go back to those inter-testamental years – the so-called “400 years of silence” between the Old and New Testaments. 

Israel had been under the control of the Seleucid Empire of Syria led by Antiochus IV Epiphanes who ordered that the practice of Jewish traditions and religion be forbidden. They were not allowed to observe the Sabbath or to circumcise their sons.  And, what is more, he insisted that a statue of Zeus (one that looked very much like Antiochus himself) be installed in the Temple in Jerusalem and that sacrifices of pigs be offered to it. 

He wanted to be worshiped as a god.  He wanted the people to refer to him as Antiochus – God Manifest, the Bearer of Victory. And this blasphemy did not sit well with the people of Judea. Judas Maccabee (the hammer) and his brothers led a rag-tag army against the forces of the Syrian madman who thought himself God and, were victorious.  They defeated the would be god-man.

In one account of Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ death it is said that God struck him with a plague – a bowel disease of some sort that caused him great pain.  And that as he was riding along in his chariot, breathing out curses and rage against the Jews, he was jostled from the chariot and run over by the wheels.   And worms swarmed out of his body.
 And the man that thought a little before that he could reach the stars of heaven, no man could endure to carry, for the intolerable stench. And by this means, being brought from his great pride, he began to come to the knowledge of himself, being admonished by the scourge of God, his pains increasing every moment. And when he himself could not now abide his own stench, he spoke thus: It is just to be subject to God, and that a mortal man should not equal himself to God.
2 Maccabees 9: 10 – 12

After this, Judas Maccabee ordered that the Temple be cleansed and purified, and that a new altar be built to replace the one that had been desecrated by Antiochus.  Oil was needed for the new menorah, but there was only enough for one day’s light.  However, this little amount of oil burned for 8 days, the time needed to prepare a fresh batch of oil.  And an 8 day festival was declared to celebrate

The twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev, in the year 164 was the anniversary of the day the Gentiles had desecrated the altar. On that day a sacrifice was offered on the new altar in accordance with the Law of Moses. The new altar was dedicated and hymns were sung to the accompaniment of harps, lutes, and cymbals. All the people bowed down with their faces to the ground and worshiped and praised the Lord for giving them victory.

For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. With great joy they brought burnt offerings and offered fellowship offerings and thank offerings. They decorated the front of the Temple with gold crowns and shields, rebuilt the gates and the priests' rooms and put doors on them. Now that the Jews had removed the shame which the Gentiles had brought, they held a great celebration. Then Judas, his brothers, and the entire community of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at the same time each year, beginning on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days.  1 Maccabees 4:52 – 59

So this is why Jesus was in the Temple under the Porticos of Solomon during the winter, he was there to celebrate the Festival of the Dedication of the Temple.  And there, under the porch, protected from the rain, Jesus was teaching the people. 

He told them that he was good shepherd.  I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.  John 10: 14 – 15

And this wasn’t a new message.   This Shepherd of Israel theme goes back to the prophet Ezekiel who, in speaking for God said, “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” Ezekiel 34: 11 -12

I imagine that the people’s minds were attuned to the themes of leaders and messiahs that day.  They were there in the temple to celebrate the victory of one of Israel’s leaders.  And they asked Jesus, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.  How long will you keep our souls in suspense?”

But Jesus insisted that he had told them – over and again – in his words and in his actions, but that they had not believed.

The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them from my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Fathers hand.  I and the Father are one. – John 10: 25 – 30.

What an inflammatory statement!  In that Jesus claimed that he and the Shepherd of Israel, God the Father, were one and equal.  He had identified himself as not just another leader, not just another shepherd, but as the Good Shepherd, as the Shepherd of Israel, equal to and identifiable with God the Father.  There in the Temple as they had gathered to commemorate their victory over one madman who had declared himself to be god, Jesus was identifying himself as God.
And inflamed they were.  The people who had listened (but not listened to his voice) gathered up some stones that were there and they were going to stone him to death for this perceived blasphemy.

Now I can’t say with absolute certainty that John had this in mind, but when Judas Maccabee and his followers tore down the altar that had been profaned by Antiochus’ blasphemy, they couldn’t decide what to do with the stones.  So they tore down the altar and put the stones in a suitable place on the Temple hill, where they were to be kept until a prophet should appear and decide what to do with them. 1 Maccabees 4: 46 I can’t help but wonder if the very stones that had been used in one blasphemy were now being picked up to put down what they perceived as another blasphemy.

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