Hanukkah starts this evening, and we’ll be lighting pretty candles and thanking God for his great miracles. But this year I decided to do something I’d never done before, and I’ve started reading through the book of Maccabees, refreshing my mind about stuff we’d been told at school, stuff which can easily get forgotten in the sentimentality of pretty candles, in the sweet, child-centred attitude to a holiday which celebrates something that happened at the end of a very gory war.
People died. People killed people. It wasn’t pretty.
Hanukkah is sometimes referred to as the Festival of Lights, but it is also sometimes called the Feast of Dedication, and this name gives a better clue as to what it’s celebrating – the rededication of the Temple after the Greeks had desecrated it, bringing idols into the place which was supposed to be holy to God. The Greeks had tried to force their culture, including their religious practice, onto the Jews. Some said: oh, come on, it’s not a big deal, let’s just conform to their ways and all will be well. The Maccabees led the revolt, saying no to conforming to the Greek ways, fighting for the freedom to keep worshipping God and living in obedience to Him.
They were willing to die for that.
Thankfully most of us most of the time don’t have to face such a stark choice, most of the time we’re not faced with the Greek army saying: sacrifice to this statue and all will be well with you, otherwise we’ll kill you and your family.
But nonetheless, life is full of choices. And going God’s way is not always the easy road, it’s not always comfortable. It can sometimes mean being willing to lose out materially – refusing, for example, to cheat in order to get something you want (how about being honest at a job interview?) – or sometimes it’s about taking the risk that you’ll offend someone by insisting that you won’t do X because you believe X is wrong, which they can take as personal criticism if they are in the habit of doing X.
Obviously, if you don’t seriously believe in God then it wouldn’t make sense for you to risk anything whatsoever in order to live God’s way. The Maccabees are role models for those of us who do take God seriously – they were people who cared enough about obeying God that they were willing to fight and to die rather than make the convenient compromises that people around them were making.
They won that war. They were a small bunch of guys standing up to the mighty Greek army, but they won. That’s the miracle I thank God for at Hanukkah, that He enabled this small bunch of guys to win that war, because they were fighting for something that was important. The miracle which is mentioned more often is that of the oil lasting for eight days, and as far as I know this is a nice story which was added later – it may very well not have happened, but it’s so much nicer to think about oil for lighting the lampstand in the Temple than to focus on the bloody war that had been fought to take the Temple back from the Greeks and cleanse it from all symbols of idolatry. People died in that war. Mothers who had dared to disobey Greek law and have their babies circumcised according to God’s law – these mothers were killed, and their babies too. Which way would you go if you were faced with the choice? It is only through a real conviction that God’s way is best, only through a real 100% commitment to following Him and only Him, that people can face such choices and go against the most basic human survival instincts – recognising that survival is not the most important thing, weighing up the cost and choosing to do right in the eyes of God.
It’s not that God doesn’t understand how hard it is to make these choices. Jesus faced such a stark choice, and it didn’t come easy. I seem to remember something about the Son of God sweating blood when preparing to be crucified. God knows about the anguish and the pain and the strong temptation to go the way of survival and immediate comfort, the strong instinct of self-preservation, of avoiding death and avoiding pain.
It has been suggested that the word Maccabee was an acronym (in Hebrew of course) of the phrase “who is like you amongst the gods, oh LORD” (which comes from Exodus 15, from the song Moses and the Israelites sang after God got them safely through the Red Sea and rescued them from the Egyptian army – another not very pretty story). I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s certainly something I could imagine the Maccabees using as a battle cry, reminding themselves and the rest of the people of the reason why they were risking their lives. It would have been a reminder not just of an abstract article of faith – we believe that our God is amazing/awesome/totally worth following even to the death – but also of how the Almighty God had come through for us in the past, saved us from the Egyptian army when humanly it seemed like we were completely doomed, so we can take that as encouragement for whatever battles we have to fight here and now.
May you never have to face such life or death choices. But whatever choices you do face, if you believe in God, may He give you the strength and courage to make the right choice.