the penultimate WORD


Series 2008 - December
A Great Miracle Happened There!





A Great Miracle Happened There

Nes (miracle)

Gadol (great)

Haya (happened)

Sham (there)




Young boys have always had their heroes.

Tales of gallantry would find rehearsals following a Saturday afternoon Matinee.  Returning to the neighbourhood like homing pigeons, pals would assign themselves roles and the drama of the silver screen would be re-enacted till supper and again after supper as long as the sun lasted and the street lights came on.  Davy Crockett and Wyatt Erp lived again and adolescent imaginations were fuelled in wondrous adventures.

Earlier generations had their own heroes.  Before there were movie theatres and Matinees and boxes of popcorn, stories of courage and fidelity were found in wonderful books found on shelves and enthusiastically shared with others filling with admiration.

In Alexandria the young Yeshua would have listened to the tales of the Maccabees and their daring rebellion against the Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes.  Joseph would have told him stories he had heard when he was young.  The name Antiochus struck terror in the hearts of those who heard it as the name Napoleon struck later imaginations with fear as he rolled across Europe.


Antiochus had the Jewish High Priest assassinated, and installed a man of his own inclination in his place. Anyone who failed to abide by his decrees, he had executed. His forces desecrated the Jerusalem Temple and its altar by slaughtering a swine on the altar and erecting a statue of Zeus with his own likeness in the sanctuary.

Tradition has it that during the period of Antiochus’ decree (circa 168 b.c.e.), adherents of the faith who learned Torah would quickly hide their scrolls of learning and play games when the Romans would come to check on them. This became the basis for the Dreidle game.  As a young boy Yeshua crouched with other boys playing the game.  Each in his turn would take the top, and spin it.  The letters on the Dreidle – a four sided top – are Nun, Gimmel, Heh, and Shin, denoting... A Great Miracle Happened There!

The story was found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint.

1 Maccabees was known to Greek speaking Jews.  The record would have been familiar to Matthew Levi and the sons of Zebidee, among others.  Yeshua… Jesus would have been familiar with the thrilling account.  “So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; … there was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.”  Every generation that venerates heroes read on: “Then Judas Maccabees and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.”  We read it still, in the Apocrypha.

The triumph of the Torah over Hellenistic civilization was as clear as the triumph of Light over Darkness. The rebellious Maccabees reversed that fortune and set the imaginations of young boys of succeeding generations aflame.

Following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days – which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate new oil.  The oil becomes a metaphor for the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through millennia of trials and tribulations.

The Gospels recount Jesus’ observance.  John reports, “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” He goes on in detail, “So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’”

In this month of Chislev, the occasion of the festival turned on the deliverance of Judas Maccabees.  Jesus’ presence in the Temple provides the subtle revelation of the Messiah, generations later.  Redemption is not the fruit of heroes.  With the spinning of the Dreidle, as with Jesus’ presence in the portico of Solomon the characters – Nun, Gimmel, Heh, and Shin – remind us of God’s deliverance... A Great Miracle Happened There!

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olim, she-asa nisim la-avotainu bayamim hahem bazman haze.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God and Ruler of the World, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in ancient times, at this season.  



Copyright © 2008 James T. Irvine


The Dreidle | Hanukkah


Illustrations: Dreidle, Hanukkah Menorah
and The Nativity by Georges de la Tour

Midi Background: Mary did you know?


 Series 2008

Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton