Sunday, December 5, 2021

Consecration of the Shepherd

It was a chilly day as Jonathan and Judah walked through where the gates should've been into the temple courts. For years they'd known this area like the back of their hand. But this... this was not it as they'd ever known it. For the first time they saw the damage done. Cracks in the pavement were filled with tall weeds poking where they didn't belong. The priests' chambers ringing the court had been just demolished. The ruins of the gates were still charred and ashen. Stones were knocked out of place. And the altar... well, the altar of burnt offering was stained, hidden under a hideous fraud. Nothing could have dismayed Jonathan more than that sight – and he had seen the horrors of war and death. But to him, this was worse. It broke his heart. Tears welled up in his eyes. As they carved their way down his face, he grabbed his shirt and ripped it. Wailing, he fell to his knees, grabbed a handful of ashes and smeared it over his moistened face and hair, and just dropped to the stones and sobbed to God. And he wasn't alone in his cries of lamentation.1

Jonathan and his four big brothers had grown up here in Jerusalem. And it had seemed that they'd grown up in the temple itself. Their dad Mattathiah was one of the many, many priests who gave his life to God by serving in the holy temple – a calling which each of the brothers, in coming of age, had one by one been entering upon.2 But it had been a somewhat frustrating experience. They'd had ring-side seats, as it were, to the corruption of the very institution they were joining. For Judea, their people's land, was under the thumb of a foreign power to the north, the Seleucid Empire, ruled by Greeks out of Syria. Filthy pagans, Mattathiah had thought. But this Greek king had enough power to bully mortal men around. Mattathiah had somewhat admired the high priest a few years back, a man named Onias. But the pagan king, with just an order, stripped the holy high priest of his office. Why? Because Onias' little brother Joshua, who'd changed his name to Jason, had bribed the king to buy the office for himself, and had promised to help lead Jerusalem to be like a Greek city. So with bribery and betrayal, Jason was made acting high priest of Israel at a pagan hand. And with that authority, the traitorous Jason built an arena for nude wrestling, and led Jews to try to erase the sign of God's covenant with them.3

Jonathan remembered how utterly disgusted his father had been, to see Jason grab the high priesthood, to see that gymnasium built, to watch as so many of God's people were swept up in an obsession with all things Greek. It got to the point even many of Mattathiah's fellow priests seemed bored with their holy work. While praying or sacrificing, all they did was think about running off to play sports.4 The corruption was growing. Of course, many of the faithful weren't happy about all this. A few, like Mattathiah, spoke out, calling for repentance and resistance. But most just complied – go along to get along, don't rock the boat, keep quiet, be a silent majority.5 “And great wrath from the LORD will be upon the sons of Israel because they have left the covenant and have turned aside from his words..., because they have made themselves like the Gentiles.”6

Three years had passed of Jonathan's youth, and some of his older brothers had entered the priesthood, when word came that Jason was out, deposed, thrown by the wayside. He'd sent more bribes to the king by the hand of a man named Menelaus, and Menelaus used it to bribe the king to make him high priest instead – what a perversion!7 And if Jason was bad, Menelaus was worse. Even more than Jason, Menelaus was bent on helping to 'modernize' Jewish life – to get with the time, to join the 'sophisticated' Greek world. Not only that, but soon Onias – the last good high priest – stood up in a public square and denounced Menelaus for actually selling off holy furnishings stolen from the temple for personal profit. And not long after that, Onias turned up dead.8 It didn't take a genius to put two and two together there. But after that, Jason – avenging family honor – brought a small army to attack Jerusalem. His own people! Yet there was bloodshed in the streets. Jonathan remembered huddling with his other youngest brother, trying to stay out of the way.

The Greek king, Antiochus, caught wind of all this at just the worst moment, when he was already sore over a failed invasion of Egypt. King Antiochus flew into a rage. He sent soldiers to the temple, and they robbed it of everything that was left – all the gold and silver items, the lampstand, the table, even the woven curtains they tore out.9 It was a terrifying and upsetting time. Then the king issued edicts. All peoples under his rule would live like Greeks, like it or not. So he banned possession of God's word as a crime.10 He banned circumcision, the covenant of God. He banned remembering the sabbath day to keep it holy. All this forbade he on pain of death.11 And he ordered that every city should offer sacrifice, not to God, but to the demons of the nations. And the king appointed inspectors to visit each city and verify that they did it.12

Finally, one cold December day – even colder in spirit than in body – King Antiochus desecrated the temple of God. He banned the daily sacrifices by which the Jews worshipped God.13 Gentiles paraded in the temple courts, entertaining themselves raunchily by fornicating in sacred places.14 The king covered the altar of burnt offering with a pagan altar built over it, and on it he sacrificed an unclean beast, a pig, for his god Zeus, whom he said must be the god worshipped at this temple from then on. Jonathan was glad neither he nor his family were there to actually witness the swine blood run down around the altar – the abomination of desolation.15 For by this time, Mattathiah had decided it was time to evacuate the city. They'd fled to an out-of-the-way village called Modi'in, hoping to be safe.16 But when an inspector came to Modi'in, and one of the villagers was preparing to sacrifice, Mattathiah couldn't stand it. He was zealous for the Law, zealous for God, and unwilling to see God defied any longer. Mattathiah leapt forward with a knife and ended the would-be sacrificer – and then killed the king's official, too.17 And Mattathiah yelled for anyone else fed up with paganism to follow him.

Jonathan remembered running with his dad and brothers and neighbors into the desert and the hills. It was only a minority who followed them – but they didn't care. “The people who knew their God stood firm and took action” (Daniel 11:32). They began to fight back.18 They started staging ambushes here and there, sneaking into villages by night, capturing strategic positions, and generally just giving pagans and traitors something to fear.19 But Mattathiah was old, and within a few months of having sparked the revolt, he was on his deathbed,20 urging his sons with his last breath to “pay back the Gentiles what they deserve.”21 He asked Jonathan's middle brother Judah, the fiercest of them, to take over for him. Judah was a true warrior-priest, a gifted tactician, a real lion like his namesake.22 Judah trusted his brothers as his top commanders, and as they recruited from the villages and towns, they were ready to take the fight to the pagan military. First, they caught the enemy army in a valley late one afternoon, sealing them off on all sides and then slinging stones like hundreds of Davids. They wiped out the contingent they'd pinned down. Suddenly they had volunteers from villages all around.23

When Antiochus sent a bigger army the next year, Judah managed to catch their general in a frontal assault and pick him off first. The shock to enemy morale was so severe, they surged backward in retreat, atop themselves back down a narrow mountain pass. As the pagans tripped over themselves, Judah, his brothers, and their allies gave chase and won the victory.24 Later that year, when a massive enemy army of twenty thousand was camped at Emmaus, the brothers managed to dispatch it cleverly, and gain control of nearly all Judea except for the holy city itself.25 The next year, Antiochus' regent Lysias personally marched twenty-four thousand soldiers south into Judea. It was the final showdown, and Jonathan was in charge of fifteen hundred men under him. By God's help, though they were all outnumbered more than two to one, they pulled off another victory, as the enemy panicked and fled.26 And there at Hebron, Lysias got the bad news: the tyrant Antiochus was dead, and as Lysias was guardian of his young son, Lysias needed to hurry back to Antioch or else risk losing the empire.27

Now was the opportune time. The tyrant was dead. They had breathing room. Now, now Judah led a march on Jerusalem.28 And that's how they found themselves weeping in the temple courts. They dispatched fighting men to hold the enemy soldiers from the garrison at bay, while Jonathan and Judah lifted themselves up off the stone and got to work.29 What was defiled had to be purified. What was profaned had to be consecrated. And what was terminated had to be inaugurated.30 So the priests set to work. To purify the temple courts, they ripped out weeds, scrubbed away graffiti and the stains of unspeakable things, and began patching up the broken walls.31 To consecrate it again, they tore down the old altar of burnt offering, stashing away the stones in storage because nobody but a prophet could explain how to restore it. Instead, they hauled in new uncut stones and assembled a replacement altar from scratch, and they prayed and anointed it.32 So too, priestly craftsmen began building and anointing replacements for the stolen furniture. What they made was a makeshift rush job, hardly the artistry God was due, but they'd have to make do in the moment. That night, then, they hung new curtains, lit up the lampstand with clean oil, set out fresh-baked shewbread on a new table, and burned incense on the cleansed incense altar.33 They worked tirelessly all day to get things ready.

Then came the morning. Rising early, ready to awaken the dawn, they inaugurated the new altar by sacrificing the morning lamb for the first time in three years, burning its body with heaven-sent fire from ancient fuel.34 And so worship resumed in the temple, on the three-year anniversary of the cold December day it was taken away.35 Once again, God was being glorified in his house. And oh, how they prayed! They prayed nothing like this would ever happen again.36 They prayed they would be faithful. They prostrated themselves in prayer on the stone, not in sadness but in relief this time. Levite musicians played harps and lyres, they clanged cymbals, they sang the old Hallel hymns from the Book of Psalms, and the people waved palm fronds to hail victory.37 For eight days they kept celebrating, trying to make up for lost time. Sacrifice after sacrifice, they feasted lavishly on meat and began redecorating.38 Then Judah stood up and made the announcement. By official decree as their commander in the enterprise, he ordered that these eight days should be celebrated each year by Jews everywhere, in honor of the temple lost and restored, the worship of God stopped and started.39 But what to call the new holiday? Some might call it the Purification of the Temple, or nickname it the Festival of Lights, or celebrate it as the Inauguration of the Altar. And in Hebrew, that word 'inauguration' is... 'Hanukkah.'40

Now, the war continued to rage on. Some Jews were still loyal to the pagan regime, and in time Lysias marched back with another army. In the middle of all this, some Jews began to write coded stories about what was going on, reflecting on the struggle with vivid imagery.41 To one Jewish writer, the pagans appeared as ravens and other birds and beasts, while the Jews were a flock of sheep.42 Judah Maccabee stood out as a ram with a strong horn, and those fighting alongside him also became rams.43 But most sheep didn't listen to their cry. Most sheep were blind and deaf, silent and passive in the face of predators.44 Some even became wild sheep who joined with the predators to fight the rams and their little lambs – these were the Jewish collaborators.45 But to this writer, God was the Lord of the Sheep, and the Lord of the Sheep at last heard the cries of his faithful rams and their lambs. So the Lord of the Sheep struck the earth and gave Judah a great sword to gain his victory.46

Down through the next two centuries, God's people kept celebrating Hanukkah, as they heard readings from Numbers 7 and the retelling of the story47 and as they meditated on the lampstand's light shining in the winter darkness, the holy flame burning bright.48 And one wintry Hanukkah two hundred years after Judah, Jonathan, and their brothers celebrated in the temple courts, we find Jesus at the same temple, sheltering in Solomon's portico from the bitter east wind,49 as Jesus, too, came to celebrate the holiday, the good works of Judah and his brothers, those great rams who brought Israel deliverance and consecration (John 10:22-23). For, as the author to the Hebrews put it, Judah Maccabee and his brothers were among those“of whom the world was not worthy, wandering about in deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:38), and so “became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” by their faith (Hebrews 11:34). So we shouldn't be surprised to see Jesus celebrating Hanukkah, when his Father's house was restored to working order. There he is, watching as the great lampstand of gold is lit amidst great cheers and songs. And can you hear as Jesus sings the psalms over again under his breath as he paces in the portico?

Then, some people accost Jesus in the portico, in the middle of the holiday. They want Jesus to come out and say it. Does he think he's the Messiah or not? For some are looking for a man like that – a Maccabee-style Messiah, a new Judah to finish the fight and cast out foreigners. They want a battle leader, a brilliant tactician, someone to strike the earth with a sword and restore the kingdom to Israel once and for all. So, they ask, is Jesus the Messiah they're expecting, or not (John 10:24)?

But what's Jesus to say? No straight answer will quite do! He is the Messiah, and he's a greater deliverer than Judah, but not at all in the way they're thinking. Judah was a faithful and skillful leader in his day, gathering and marshaling the rams of Israel as his troops. Jesus has a following, and he has divine strength to keep them all securely as even Judah couldn't (John 10:28-29), but they have no intention of living by the sword (Matthew 26:52). So to prove his point, Jesus points to the kinds of good works he does, works which testify exactly who Jesus is – God's true Son – and also how he uses that power (John 10:25). “I have shown you many good works from the Father,” he tells them (John 10:32). And what are Jesus' good works? “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). These, Jesus hints, are greater acts of deliverance than anything Judah Maccabee performed – and this is how the kingdom will be restored, by ambushes of healing and hope, of love and liberation. Jesus tells them, too, that works like these are signs that Jesus has a unity with God that no high priest ever had – that Jesus and his Father are one, are the one Lord God of Israel (John 10:30).

Now the people talking to Jesus have a problem. They hear Jesus say that, and now they reveal what they think of him. They see him as a new Antiochus. They think Jesus is just like that sick tyrant: a mortal blasphemously claiming godhood, come to defile the temple with his teaching (John 10:33). They treat Jesus as if he's the abomination of desolation standing in their midst. And if they pick up stones to stone him, they don't think they're the heirs of the ancient grumblers against Moses; no, they think they're heirs of Judah Maccabee and his brothers, aiming to purge the house of God by violence by ending this Jesus once and for all (John 10:31).50

In the face of their unbelief, Jesus challenges them back. He's no Antiochus – just the opposite. He's more like Judah than anybody else in the portico. If the temple authorities are willing to honor the good works of Judah and his brothers, the warrior-priests who purified and consecrated the altar and lampstand and temple, then how much more should those same temple authorities be in awe of the divine works of Jesus, a higher priest who himself is consecrated as a new altar, a new lampstand, a new temple, by the Father with whom he's one God!51

On this festival of Hanukkah, Jesus has come to his Father's house to meet with just these people. And Jesus is the Lord of the Sheep – the same Lord of the Sheep who gave Judah victory two centuries ago. But by their inability to recognize him, the temple authorities and others who reject Jesus are only proving that they're wild sheep run astray, refusing to belong to Israel's flock at all. They're the ones jeopardizing Israel's heritage. They become – as the stones in their hands prove – more and more like ravens and wolves by the day. Their worldly mindset, blind to Jesus, is no different from the Greek-mania that swept Jerusalem two centuries before. And so they're deaf to Jesus' voice now (John 10:26). They're especially blind and deaf to his openness to the sheep he has waiting in other pens than theirs – for Jesus is determined that Jew and Gentile will become “one flock” in the love of God, and he will be their “one shepherd” (John 10:16).52 To this end, Jesus does aim to fight – but his fight will not be with sword or sling. His fight will be by laying down his life as the inaugural sacrifice on the altar of himself, and then taking up his life again of his own authoritative accord (John 10:17-18).

And now we come to today, nearly two thousand years later. We call today the fifth of December in the year of our Lord 2021. Our Jewish neighbors call today the first of Tevet in the year 5782. And today is the seventh of the eight days of Hanukkah, as of course you know if you've been reading the news. Our Jewish neighbors light the lamps on the lampstand, the menorah, in the public square and in their homes, and they remember the great and holy restoration that Judah and his brothers worked for God.53 But we know also that One even greater than Judah Maccabee has come as the Messiah, and is coming again to deliver us more fully still.

For us, Jesus is the Consecrated One of God. He's the Temple in which we worship – he is our sacred space, and the building around us is designed to symbolize him. Though the courts of his church on earth can be bedeviled by sin, yet he is our guarantee of purity, him and all our holy brothers and sisters gathered already into heaven. And not only has he purified us, but he consecrates us by his word of command, his call to live by love. So too, Jesus is the Lampstand by which we see the world, and which can never be extinguished, for the Holy Spirit is his oil. Burning bright against the winter darkness, this Lampstand is the Light of the World, and we shine ever and only from his light. And Jesus is the Altar on which we offer up his own Self-Sacrifice to the Father, accomplished once and for all but brought forward daily in our prayers and thanksgivings and especially when we lay out the shewbread of his holy face.

Jesus is, furthermore, the Deliverer, who came not merely to fight off the oppression of man by man, as Judah did, but to lead us into battle against sin and death and hell itself. And even Judah Maccabee was in need of his deliverance. For Judah eventually fell in battle. So then did his little brother Eleazar. And their brother John also was captured and killed. By then, Jonathan had become leader of their rebellion, and gaining a victory, he was appointed governor and high priest. But a decade later, he'd fall into a trap, be taken prisoner, and at last executed by the pagan power. That would leave the second brother Simon as their last survivor. Succeeding Jonathan as high priest and governor, Simon would win full independence for Judea and become its new prince – only to then be assassinated by his own son-in-law. All five brothers, who took up the sword for God, did in the end die violent deaths. All of them descended to the realm of the dead. So all needed a deliverer.

And they got one. When Jesus died on the cross, he descended to the dead, smuggling God's presence into the belly of the grave. He came to be good news for death's captives. And when he rose from the dead and then ascended into heaven, he opened the gates to at last lead the faithful there – including Mattathiah, Simon, John, Judah, Eleazar, Jonathan, and all who with them stood for God in the great tribulation of those days. Jesus led them into his Father's presence, the Father whose house they restored. And in the reality of which the temple was always a shadow on earth, only then did Jesus give Judah and his brothers the gift of eternal life, “that apart from us they should not [have been] made perfect” (Hebrews 11:40).

For Jesus is, at last, Lord of the Sheep. Having stricken the earth with the rod of his cross, he bade our raven-black souls to feast on him and grow tame. All who hear his voice, no matter what they were before, become his sheep. And he shepherds us, too, toward eternal life, the same life he's given Judah (John 10:28). For all that Judah and his brothers fought for, Jesus more fully gained and gave. Judah fought for the circumcision of the flesh, and Jesus gives circumcision of the heart to all who are baptized into him. Judah fought to defend the Law, and Jesus upholds the Law while opening it and making it new. Judah fought for the sanctity of sabbath, and Jesus hands us a share of the heavenly sabbath on the earth. Judah fought for the altar in God's temple, and Jesus, as the inaugurated Altar, has set us free to give his Father a pure worship that can't be stopped and of which the grand festal sacrifices Judah offered were a bright but pale pointer.

And so, in the face of vicious vultures and snarling sheep, of the world's darkness and desolation, of brokenness and blasphemy, and in the bleak onset of winter, let us wave our branches too, as faithful ones did of old, and let us too sing his psalms with thanksgiving. Let us offer ourselves on the altar as living sacrifices, giving God all the glory through Jesus Christ, worshipping the Father in Spirit and in Truth and in endless Light, now and forever, world without end. Amen.


1  1 Maccabees 4:38-40; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.317

2  1 Maccabees 2:1-8

3  2 Maccabees 4:7-12; 1 Maccabees 1:13-15; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.237-241

4  2 Maccabees 4:13-17

5  Daniel C. Olson, A New Reading of the Animal Apocalypse of 1 Enoch (Brill, 2013), 220.

6  Jubilees 15:34

7  2 Maccabees 4:23-26

8  2 Maccabees 4:32-35

9  2 Maccabees 5:15-16; 1 Maccabees 1:21-24; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.246-250

10  1 Maccabees 1:56-58

11  2 Maccabees 6:6; 1 Maccabees 1:43-50

12  1 Maccabees 1:51-53

13  Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.251

14  2 Maccabees 6:4

15  Daniel 8:11-12; 11:31; 2 Maccabees 6:1-5; 1 Maccabees 1:54-55; Megillat Antiochus 13

16  1 Maccabees 2:1

17  1 Maccabees 2:15-26

18  1 Maccabees 2:48

19  2 Maccabees 8:5-7

20  1 Maccabees 2:49-70

21  1 Maccabees 2:68

22  1 Maccabees 3:1-9

23  1 Maccabees 3:10-12; Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, Battles of the Bible (Greenhill Books, 2002 [1978]), 271-273.

24  1 Maccabees 3:13-24; Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, Battles of the Bible (Greenhill Books, 2002 [1978]), 273-276.

25  2 Maccabees 8:8-29; 1 Maccabees 3:38—4:25; Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, Battles of the Bible (Greenhill Books, 2002 [1978]), 276-281.

26  1 Maccabees 4:26-34; Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, Battles of the Bible (Greenhill Books, 2002 [1978]), 282-284.

27  1 Maccabees 4:35; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.315; Bezalel Bar-Kochva, Judas Maccabaeus: The Jewish Struggle Against the Seleucids (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 279-280; Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, Battles of the Bible (Greenhill Books, 2002 [1978]), 284-285.

28  1 Maccabees 4:36-37; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.316

29  2 Maccabees 10:1-2; 1 Maccabees 4:40-42; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.318

30  On the meaning of these three steps – 'purification,' 'consecration,' and 'inauguration' – see Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Baker Academic, 2007), 257-260.

31  1 Maccabees 4:43, 48-49; Megillat Antiochus 68

32  1 Maccabees 4:44-48

33  1 Maccabees 4:49-51; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.318-319

34  2 Maccabees 10:3; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.319; cf. 2 Chronicles 7:1

35  2 Maccabees 10:5; 1 Maccabees 4:52-54; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.320-322

36  2 Maccabees 10:4

37  2 Maccabees 10:7

38  2 Maccabees 10:6; 1 Maccabees 4:57-58; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.323

39  2 Maccabees 10:8; 1 Maccabees 4:59; Megillat Ta'anit, Kislev 7; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.324-325

40  Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Baker Academic, 2007), 261-262.

41  On the imagery in the Animal Apocalypse found in 1 Enoch 85-90, see Ida Frohlich, “The Symbolical Language of the Animal Apocalypse of Enoch ('1 Enoch' 85-90),” Revue de Qumran 14/4 (April 1990): 630-632; and Daniel C. Olson, A New Reading of the Animal Apocalypse of 1 Enoch (Brill, 2013), 210-220.

42  1 Enoch 90:8, 11-12

43  1 Enoch 90:9-10

44  1 Enoch 90:7

45  1 Enoch 90:16

46  1 Enoch 90:18-19

47  m. Megillah 3.6; Megillat Antiochus 69-74

48  m. Bava Qama 6.6; y. Shabbat 2

49  Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John (Baker Academic, 2015), 196.

50  Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic, 2003), 822, 827.

51  John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 138, 171; Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic, 2003), 830; Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Baker Academic, 2007), 263-264; Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John (Baker Academic, 2015), 199.

52  Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic, 2003), 827-828.

53  b. Shabbat 21b-22a; Megillat Antiochus 73

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