(Psalm 146: Isaiah 2:1-5, 17-18, 22; Romans 8:22-26)
I’m going to start this season of Advent in an unusual way: I’m going to tell the story of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah this year starts a couple of days before Christmas. I know that more than a couple are part of religiously mixed families, Christian/Jewish families. And I know that all of us are part of a religiously mixed society – and I for one thank God for that fact. So it’s always good to acknowledge how much we, as Christians, are indebted to the Jewish tradition. We share the same roots, and we share a lot of the same fruits, even as Christianity has become dominant in the West.
Let me say for the record: the best attitude to religious difference is humility and curiosity and honesty. We have a lot to learn from each other – even when it’s hard – and we’re better off than we do.
So that brings me to why I want to tell the story of Hanukkah today, at the beginning of the season of Advent: it has something very important to teach us about hope, which is the theme of this first Sunday of Advent. Hope is how we open this season of yearning for the dawning of God in our midst, through the birth of the baby Jesus, who ends up being Christ.
Hanukkah is the story about a modest little miracle. A modest little miracle that meant everything: it was the “yes” that a people desperately needed to hear at a very difficult time, a little confirmation that, yes, God was with them, God had not abandoned them.
This is the miracle: A little bit of lamp oil fed a flame in a temple for a lot longer than it should have. That was it. Very modest, for a miracle.
It’s not the heavens splitting open or the earth shaking or the voice of God sounding like a trumpet – it was just a little wink of a miracle. A little flame didn’t sputter out.
Here’s why it meant so much.
A foreign empire had conquered Judea, which happened a lot throughout history. This time the conquerors were a Greek speaking empire, a couple hundred years after Alexander the Great. This empire had conquered Judea, looted the temple in Jerusalem, outlawed Judaism and erected their gods in the Temple, and even slaughtered pigs on the altar, which was a total sacrilege.
This all was horrible. The Jewish people could not worship God in their way. Instead they were forced to pay homage to false gods, who were gods of the empire, just overblown men. What idolatry means is the worship of human forces rather than the true God, worshiping the human forces of violence and greed and domination.
So these were dark days, very uncertain, for this faithful people. Had God abandoned them?
But the people did not give up hope, and they fought to regain control of their land and their religion. And after a long, desperate struggle, they finally succeeded. The first thing they did was clean out all the idols from the temple, purify it, and light again the ritual candles. These candles marked that this was a sacred space, that God, the true God, was present.
The light of these lamps were supposed to never to go out. The problem was that when the priests came back to the temple, after it had been desecrated, they found that there was only a little bit of oil left for the lamps, just enough to keep the sacred flames burning for a day. That was a problem. Because it was going to take seven more days to get more oil and prepare it in the proper way.
They lit the flames anyway. And those flames did not sputter out after one day, they did not sputter out after two days, then three days, four days, and onwards. That was the miracle:
The oil lasted eight days and nights, rather than just one. No one could account for it. This was a tremendous experience. It sounds modest as a miracle, but it was a big deal, and still is to this day. The people had clung to hope through a long struggle, hoping even though there did look like much reason to hope. And to see the sacred candles finally burning again in the holy temple, burning and burning beyond all expectation, this was like a little wink from God, “I am with you. I have always been with you. You did not hope in vain.”
So let’s look at hope. St. Augustine, from our Christian tradition, said “Hope as two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain that way.” This is what it takes to struggle for a better world, even in uncertain times. Last week I preached about anger, about the wisdom from Jesus and our tradition about anger. Most anger is dangerous and petty and self-centered. Most anger is about retribution, about doing to others as we think they have done to us, rather than as we should be treated and treat others.
But anger can be a very important signal to us that something is wrong. Something is very wrong, what is happening should not be happening and we need to do something about it. What we learned from Jesus is that an important signal is if our anger has grief mixed up in it. Then we know that our anger is telling us that there’s harm being done that should not be happening. And we then get a burst of energy to do something about it. That energy can feed our courage to do the right thing, on behalf of the world as it should be, a world in which we live and care for each other in the beloved community that God intends for us.
“Hope as two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Another way to say it is: hope is the fuel for the flames of a prophetic faith, the flames of the witness and the work it takes to struggle for a world that we know is possible, a world that God has revealed to be possible, a beloved community that God has promised. And the promise is also this: this fuel of hope may seem small, it may seem modest, but if we have the courage to light the flame, God will makes sure it is enough. Modest miracles will guide us.
We always open the Advent season with the words of the Prophet Isaiah, words that have fueled the hope – and the righteous anger, and the courage of so many – words that have fed the holy flames of the faithful for countless generations:
The day will come, when,
“God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
And the pride of everyone shall be brought low
And the Supreme One alone will be exalted on that day.
The idols shall utterly pass away.”
This is a grand vision. No more war and exploitation, no more worship of the false idols of human hubris. Swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning-hooks.
This is actually all about modest miracles. This is what can actually fuel our hope, day to day, in this fallen world here below. Modest miracles.
Plowshares, after all, are a modest hope. Compared to swords, they’re kind of boring. Pruning hooks are kind of boring. No offense to the farmers and the arborists here. But you gotta admit, the science of plowing and pruning doesn’t exactly fill stadiums, it’s not exactly the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Leave that to war and blood-sport and political power struggles. And that’s fine. I’m with Isaiah. I’m with Jesus, born of Mary, in whom we ultimately have our hope – all that hype and hate and hubris ain’t where the Kingdom of Heaven is.
The Kingdom of Heaven is about the modest miracles, it’s about the plowers and the pruners, it’s about the salt of the earth, the leavening, the lamp oil. The Kingdom of Heaven is about what actually feeds us, actually warms us and lights the way, actually raises our children, actually nourishes the soul. The Kingdom of Heaven is about what we yearn for above all else, our most intimate and secret hopes, the ways that we are angry at how the world is, the ways that we find courage to do something about it.
This is about little candles and little seeds, my friends. This is about sheltering the little flames of love as the nights get longer. This is about gathering up the little seeds of hope to keep through the winter so we can plant them come spring. This is about caring for each other, and helping each other see the modest little miracles in our midst, and helping each other to be bold in proclaiming them, as we continue together on this journey of hope in the possibility of the beloved community.
Thanks be to God.