Coming back to the UK after our unexpectedly lengthy tour of Israel, we were particularly struck by the emphasis on Christmas – even our cappuccino at Heathrow had to be decorated with a tree-shaped sprinkling of chocolate!
Christmas lights soon beamed on us from all sides, reflecting less on the theological aspect of the feast as on the usual glitz and glamour and commercial hype we have all come to know and love – perhaps not!
And then there were massive crowds at the shops on Sunday – now the new religion on what used to be the Christian Sabbath. It was also very cold, a brrra-cing contrast to soaking up the sunshine on the beaches of Tel Aviv just a few days earlier. In Bawtry, on the edge of Doncaster, Christmas trees were lavishly bedecked with baubles in a brilliant array of colours – and, as ever, we sense the danger of not seeing the wood for the trees.
I am reminded, however, that festive lights will also now be adorning Jerusalem in celebration of Hanukkah – marking the time when the minorah candle burned miraculously for eight days despite having only enough oil for one following victory over the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus Epiphanes who descrated the Jewish Temple by sacrificing a pig there and blasphemously proclaimed himself God. But focus on what the light means, not on its beams!
For we’re submerged in so much darkness today – not least the marginalisation of the Christian gospel to the point where it has become politically incorrect – and yet we all make a big fuss of this incredibly important Christian festival!
In truth, all these bright lights are, for the most part, dragging us further into the gloom of materialism, partying and pointless debt rather than towards the true light to which they are allegedly designed to draw our attention.
So my Christmas (and Hanukkah) message to readers is: don’t look for the bright lights; look rather for the true light “that gives light to everyone”, according to John the Baptist (John 1.9) – a light that leads to everlasting life, and is not snuffed out with the brief passing of our lives.
Yes, we all like shiny things, but unless it is part of heaven’s treasure, it will fade and rust and turn to dust (Matthew 6.19-21). A famous passage of Scripture, often associated with Christmas, speaks of the light that the Messiah will bring to the world. And its context, most significantly, is of the darkness of the occult, which has gripped so many in our day. “When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8.19)
The prophet, however, goes on to predict a great honour that would be bestowed on the region to which he refers as ‘Galilee of the nations, the Way of the Sea’: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9.2)
A major highway at the time, connecting Asia, Africa and Europe, straddled the coast of Israel before moving inland towards Galilee and then beyond into Syria. Galilee was thus an international crossroads whose people were immensely privileged to have seen a great light when Jesus came among them.
Yet many rejected him and failed to grasp his significance. True, 2,000 years later he is still much spoken against, but he is nevertheless the most famous man who ever lived. He performed many miracles in Galilee – in Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida – and warned those cities that they would be judged for their rejection of Messiah. As for Capernaum, where much of his ministry took place, he said: “Will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades; for if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” (Matthew 11.23)
Capernaum was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 AD. We could only view its ruins. Yet a short distance away is the town of Migdal, still a thriving community where former prostitute turned passionate believer Mary Magdalene came from.
A little further down the coast still is the city of Tiberias, a popular resort frequented by the occupying Romans in Jesus’ day – yet it is not mentioned in the gospel accounts. Also not mentioned is Sebastia, the ancient capital of Samaria up in the hills, which was the in-place for the jet-set of the day with its spa and baths adorned with beautiful columns. Now, apart from a few remaining columns, it is a barren ruin in a dustbowl with little to suggest it was the Las Vegas of a bygone era.
Seemingly insignificant events and people have changed history. One example is Joppa, now known as Jaffa, at the southern tip of Tel Aviv. It was there, in the house of Simon the Tanner, that the Apostle Peter had a vision, and because he acted upon it in obedience to the Lord, it became the means by which the gospel was preached to the entire Gentile world.
The Roman centurion Cornelius, 40 miles up the coast, had a similar encounter, and he acted upon it because he was a god-fearing man who loved the Jews. Genesis 12.3 tells that those who bless the seed of Abraham will themselves be blessed while those who curse them will come under judgment. And so the Holy Spirit fell on these Gentile believers.
Joppa (now Jaffa) is once more significant today as the entry point of Jews returning to Israel from every corner of the globe. Airliners from all over the world fly over this ancient port bringing the scattered seed of Abraham back to the Promised Land. What’s more, many of them are now turning back to the Lord, having acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah. And we worshipped with some of them (in Hebrew), which was an amazing privilege. It was such a moving experience to witness hands and eyes lifted to the skies in praise and adoration of the Lord we love.
And they are reaching out to a world still lost and confused; Tel Aviv is a hedonistic city where many indulge in a club and coffee bar culture that leaves little room for God. But there is a great openness. They may be lost, but they are looking for a Shepherd. Pray that their eyes will be open; go if you can and tell them about Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus). They are looking for fun and fulfilment, but they often find mere emptiness, as at the bottom of a beer glass or coffee cup.
Like us in Britain, they too are looking for the bright lights, but are so dazzled by the glitzy neon signs that they miss the real thing – the true light that gives light to every man. Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8.12)
As I was standing on the Mount of Olives, I contemplated how Jesus paid such a heavy price for our salvation as he sweated blood among the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane below. The olive tree is a symbol of the Messiah. Its fruit is harvested using sticks to beat them down from the overhanging branches. Jesus was whipped for us. And the olives are then crushed for their oil. Jesus was crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53.5). But the oil is then used to light a candle… to bring true light to the world! Let’s focus on the true light this Christmas – and Hanukkah.
As the sheep in the wilderness needed to keep as close as possible to the shepherd in order to hear his voice and avoid danger (from ravines and ravenous wolves – especially at night), so we need to maintain absolute focus and trust as we follow the Lord, keeping as close as possible to the pure source of living water (as with the fresh water at the source of the Jordan compared to the muddy stream further down).
So whether you are celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah (or both), focus on the true light, the living stream and the fresh pasture that only the Lord provides.
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon, and Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com