There is so much meaning in Hanukkah. Much of it is passed on in fun traditions such as the dreidel, but the very most important thing is the miracle of the oil. Everything else is really just to remind us of that.
Neis Gadol Haya Sham — the sentence represented by the letters etched on the dreidel: “A great miracle happened there.” The neis — the miracle — is the climax of Hanukkah. It’s what it’s really all about.
When the Maccabean Revolt successfully ended in throwing off the oppression of the Greeks, the Jews set about to clean up the Temple. This was more than just clearing out wreckage and giving the place a good swipe with a mop.
The Temple had been horrendously desecrated. In an effort to assimilate the Jews, Antiochus (boo, hiss) had ordered pigs (PIGS!) sacrificed on the altar and an image of Zeus erected in the Temple. The Temple needed to be cleansed, not just physically, but spiritually as well. The oil for the menorah was incredibly important in this process.
As the Temple was being cleared and prepared for rededication, a single cruse of the holy oil was found — enough to last only one day. But the oil burned for eight days. That’s the neis, the miracle of Hanukkah.
You know what is really cool — and convicting — about that to me? Personally, I would have said, “Okay, we’ve got one cruse of oil, but that’s not enough. How long will it take to make more? Let’s put off the dedication of the Temple until we have enough oil to get the lamp going like it’s supposed to.”
It’s just a lot more comfortable to have all my ducks in a row, ya know? I’m getting to be this way more and more now. I’ve had too many times when I’ve set out to do something with great zeal and excitement, only to burn out part way through. Or in the terms of Hanukkah — I’ve set out to dedicate the Temple with only one cruse of oil … and fizzled out.
That’s discouraging and embarrassing. Who wants to keep going through that? So I wait and wait until “everything’s right” … and you know what? It’s never all right, so it just never happens. And if it does, then I’m doing it in my own strength. I think many of those times, I was setting out to do something I really shouldn’t have done, or maybe should have been more prepared for. But other times? I think I try too often to do the things God calls me to in my own strength. I don’t give Him the opportunity — or maybe I just am not willing to receive — the neis He has for me.
I’m not saying to just jump into things all disorganized or throw caution to the wind or be irresponsible … not all the time, anyway.
I think there are sometimes when it’s appropriate, though. Like when you’re obeying God. Those of you who know your Bible well … Think through the stories. Think of the many times when God told His people to move. Just go. Do something impossible. And they did. And He did mighty things.
On the other hand, we have Jesus talking about how foolish it would be to build a tower without first thinking about how much it’s gonna cost. (See Luke 14:28)
What’s the difference? How do we know when to just step into the flooded Jordan and when to say, “No, I will not step off the Pinnacle of the Temple and tempt God?” (See Joshua 3 vs Luke 4:9-12.) When God clearly says to step out and do something … It’s at those times that we have to just obey. This is when “God’s will, God’s bill” applies. Not when it’s something you want to do and you’re just hoping God will approve. Or you’re trying to prove you have faith.
But something like rededicating our lives (or the Temple!) to God when we feel the urging of the Holy Spirit. Making things right when He pushes us forward. Stepping up and saying what He’s pressing us to say. Committing to a plan of action that we know He’s calling us to. Going forward to answer the call. And all that’s involved in fulfilling it — those are the things that stretch the oil from 1 day to 8. Those are the things that require a neis.
We have to be so careful not to be presumptuous. Just because it seems good doesn’t mean it’s God’s will. And just because it’s God’s will doesn’t mean that He doesn’t intend for you to work at it.
But when God says, “Do it now,” and we don’t have what it takes, we have to trust that He will provide. This is the time when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is in it, that this isn’t in our power, because He provides. Our energy, resources, inspiration, enthusiasm, etc, may only be enough for one day, but He extends it — miraculously — for the time that is needed.
Something I learned as I was doing some fact-checking for this post: I thought the Temple menorah (not the Hanukkah menorah) was supposed to burn 24/7. Turns out, under normal times, it was only supposed to burn all night — from evening until morning. (Keep this in mind when I tell you about the song, below.) The middle light, the one that was used to light the others, was the only one that was left burning 24/7 — on the same amount of oil as the ones that burned all night. So there was a daily miracle that had been taking place in the Temple for years, completely aside from Hanukkah. In a way, God’s people were already accustomed to having neis with relation to the lamp.
It seems, too, that symbolically, this is when we need the light the most: When things are darkest. The dark of night (whether it’s physical night or the dark night of our souls) is when we doubt, when we waver, when we turn back. We desperately need God’s light during those times. And we need the daily neis to get us to the place where we can believe God, trust and obey, and receive the neis in the darkness.
When I meditate on the Hanukkah neis, I can’t help but think of a fun little song we used to sing in Church sometimes, but especially at camp. It went like this:
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning.
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray.
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning.
Keep me burning ’til the break of day.
Give me unction for my gumption, help me function, function, function.
Give me unction for my gumption, I pray.
Give me unction for my gumption, help me function, function, function.
Help me function ’til the break of day.
Honestly, we used to sing this, not so much as a hymn, but kind of like “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” It was a funny song that had other verses like, “Give me gas for my Ford, keep me trucking for the Lord.” But as I think about it right now, in the context of the holy oil of Hanukkah — forgive me for taking fun things too seriously, but doesn’t this strike you as … almost hallowed? Like we’re begging God, maybe daily, for a Hanukkah neis?
Unction is the anointing. Gumption is a resourceful, shrewd, spirited courage. Don’t we need God’s anointing for that? Don’t we need His unction … sometimes just to be able to function in the “calling with which we have been called”?
To be honest, I’m sharing thoughts with you tonight as they come to me. Don’t take this all as Gospel truth. (You never should with anyone’s teaching, really. You should always check with what God’s Word says. But tonight, even more so.) What I’m sharing with you is my own personal thought process as I meditate on the Hanukkah neis tonight. With my six birthday candles set in dog kibble. Yep. (See the second part of this series if you don’t understand that.) My humble, little, makeshift excuse for a menorah has blessed me more this year than any of the fancy ones I’ve seen or owned previously. Ain’t God cool?
The pictures in this post are from my personal, lonely Hanukkah tonight. (Bill is in Virginia on his way home from Maryland as I write. Yay!) They’re not so great looking, but I wanted to take away the “professional feel” and let you see that you don’t have to do it all “right.” (More about that to come in another post.) By the way, that bright light in the background of the last picture? Not the Bethlehem Star. Just the streetlight from the hospital across the street. Looks cool, though, right? (Pictures: 1) Nearing sunset when it’s time to light the candles. 2) My dog kibble “hanukkiah.” 3) “The candles are burning low.” Five candles for the first five nights, plus the servant candle used to light the others.)
For the next post in this series, go here.
For part one of this series, go here.