Jesus, in John’s gospel, is Jewish, very, very Jewish. Not only is he Jewish he is very devout. John reports him attending synagogues, upholding various laws and attending a range of festivals just as a devout Jewish boy would. Jesus grew up in this environment. His parents were very Jewish and abided by all the appropriate practices and rituals. We can follow them through key incidents in the various Gospel retellings of his story.
There is no doubt about his heritage. Both John and Jesus rely heavily on the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, for images, ideas and connections to the story of the Israelites from Exodus to the promised land and more. Jesus lived the Psalms and understood his life and mission in terms of the stories of his peoples past.
In modern Christianity there is a move away from the Old Testament (the Christian form of the Jewish scriptures) to sole reliance on the New Testament scriptures. This has happened for a number of reasons:
The proliferation of violence, often attributed to God or, at least, carried out in God’s name.
The apparent irrelevance of the laws and moral positions found therein for modern life.
The expectation that the Old Testament must be historically factual and true, and it fails to meet the modern scientific standard for such.
The idea that the Old Testament is fulfilled and superseded by the New Testament and is no longer required reading for Christians.
The idea that the Old Testament was about law exclusively and the New Testament is about love exclusively.
Each of these ideas have developed lives of their own (and I will deal with some of them in posts on my blog over the next few weeks) and a sense of the bleeding obvious for most Christians. Yet it seems to me that that was not the case for Jesus and those who wrote about him. Yes, Paul and others reimagined the story as contained in the Jewish Bible so that it could be understood and embraced by non-Jews, but the truth remains, key ideas and images of the Christian faith continue ideas and rituals at the centre of the Tanakh.
Today we come to one of those stories, the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple. An appropriate story for the baptism/dedication of Oscar. The Festival of the Dedication of the Temple or Hanukkah, commemorates the Jewish people’s successful rebellion against the Syrians in the Maccabean War in 162 BCE. A ritual cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple occurred after the Jewish people’s victory. It is believed that there was only enough consecrated oil to keep the lamp burning for one day but the small bottle of oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Hanukkah, also known as Chanukah, is referred as the Feast of Lights or Festival of Lights for this reason.
Why would John have Jesus walking in the colonnades of Solomon (the wisest of the Jewish fathers and the builder of the great temple) in the temple rebuilt by Herod, the despot? What is the significance of the confrontation with the synagogue scribes about his identity? Why doesn’t he answer them plainly?
Jesus is abrupt and brutal. It is very obvious who I am if you just see the connections, follow the bread-crumbs, join the dots. Those who are able to listen, those you are called to shepherd they understand my identity. Oh by the way, since you have separated your self from the sheep, you fail to hear because you think you know. Jesus continues, but here goes, here’s another clue.
Earlier in John 8 Jesus, in one of the ‘I am’ sayings says: “I am the light of the world”. Here Jesus turns up at the Festival of Lights, the Dedication of the Temple. Paul S. Berge writes, “In the setting of the festival of lights, Jesus is the true light of the world; in this festival of the temple, Jesus is the true temple in whom the presence of the Father dwells.”
The imagery is powerful and very deeply connected to the ritual and imagery of the Old Testament. This story would not work without a deep understanding of the Jewish scriptures. The synagogue people get it and don’t like it. Jesus has appropriated for himself equality with God. In verse 31 ‘The Jews took up stones again to stone him.” Here we find a sense of exasperation the Jews have with Jesus – the word ‘again’ – he constantly provokes them by couching the things he says and does in terms of their scriptures.
His finishing statement – “The Father and I are one” is more than they can take. Yet it is the bringing together of the covenantal relationship begun by God and related in their scriptures. It is what they believed in as a people, a oneness with their God, but were unable to see fulfilled in Jesus or anyone else for that matter.
And perhaps that is one of the major issues we have with the Old Testament.
- We don’t want to recognise ourselves in its stories, violence, legends and failures because we know we are not like that because we are constantly affirmed by family, friends and consumer society.
- We don’t want to recognise the possibility of a God who does in fact get angry, make judgements about us and leave us to stew in our own juices because it is always somebody else’s fault anyway.
- We don’t want to admit that there are time when we want God to be more like a marauding Messiah than Jesus turns out to be, because we do have a hit list of those we would like God to smite.
It’s just a little too real and too close to home.
In the baptism service we recognise our place in God’s economy and commit ourselves, individually and communally to live in relationship with Jesus who is both the light of the world and the true temple. We dedicate, give back, welcome into the church a young person who will live in relationship with Jesus as a light in this world and a temple indwelled by the Holy Spirit. Baptism symbolises our desire to be one with God in this world and the next.
It is the moment we pick up two key ideas of an Old Testament Festival and celebrate them in the life of one individual, in our desire for life to epitomise oneness with God. This connection to traditions of great depth, meaning and longevity give us hope for ourselves, for the one baptised and for the future of our faith. The Old melds into the New as life goes on in the shadow of the past and the light of the present and the future, the light who is Christ, the temple and dwelling place of the everlasting Godhead.
Let us join with Oscar and cast ourselves into the baptismal waters to rise shining and in dwelt by the spirit of Christ. Amen.