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I invite you to open your Bibles or Service Folders to our second Lesson today, Revelation chapter 12.
We have a picture of the first Christmas that is very sterile, very romanticized. We don’t think much of the panic Joseph must have felt as it became obvious that Mary was having contractions and he couldn’t find a place for the baby to be born. Picture the expectant father being told “it’s time to go to the hospital” and rushing out the door leaving the hospital bag and his wife behind because he is so flustered. Joseph’s panic must have been many times worse.
We picture the stable with clean straw, doves cooing and animals with a “precious moments” smile, watching the drama of the birth unfold. How many people in our country today have ever been in a barn? The straw isn’t clean for long. It’s there to absorb animal waste. And I don’t think the animals became suddenly silent and focused on what was happening in part of the stable. They likely continued to bleat and moo and eat as usual.
We picture the shepherds as wonderful, upstanding citizens. After all, God chose to have the angels announce the birth of the Savior to them! But as one devotion pointed out this week, they were working the overnight shift, certainly a shift you only work if you have no other choice. Shepherds were known to be what we might call uncouth, to talk like sailors. And, well, if you were down wind you probably knew they were coming as they would smell like campfire and wet wool.
Our view of the Birth of Jesus has been sterilized and glamorized. Because of that, we tend to overlook the reality of what was happening. The perfect and holy, sterile God, the one without sin who lives in holy perfection, chose to be conceived inside of a woman, to grow to full term. The one whom the universe cannot contain chose to be confined in Mary’s womb. He chose to be born in the normal way, covered with amniotic fluid and blood, in a dirty, smelly, noisy stable where you had to watch where you stepped. He chose to announce his birth to lowly, unkempt, shepherds who tended to use a lot of foul language. Don’t let the sterilized view of Christmas cause you to miss the fact that Jesus was born into the same messy, smelly, mixed up world in which we live. What great love he showed us by being willing to do this!
But even more than struggling to grasp the reality of the physical surroundings of Jesus’ birth, we certainly fail to grasp the spiritual realities that John describes for us. If we have been in a barn, we can probably get an idea of what it was like in the stable. But we don’t have the ability to see what goes on in the spiritual realm all around us. We only know about it by revelation.
Ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin and, instead of destroying them, God promised a seed of a woman, a savior, Satan has been waiting and watching. God was at work throughout history, preparing for just the right time. He had been repeating and elaborating on his promise to Adam and Eve for centuries. This Seed of the Woman would come through one of Jacob’s 12 sons. That’s why John sees a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She represents the Old Testament church, the faithful remnant hidden among the twelve tribes of Israel, hence the crown of 12 stars. The Virgin Mary was among that faithful remnant. As Gabriel pointed out, of all the women of the world who were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David, she was chosen by God to be the one to serve as the mother of the promised savior, the seed of a woman.
Everything looks so wonderful. Jesus is conceived in Mary. He’s about to be born. God has kept his promise. But what we can’t see is that Satan is doing all he can to stop it. He is pictured as a great fiery dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. The use of the number seven seems to indicate that he is trying to be like God. But something isn’t right. The number of heads and horns don’t match. And the word for his crowns isn’t a crown of victory, but a crown of power, a diadem like the one used by some Roman Emperors and Popes to demand that they be worshiped as gods. He is pictured as trying to be the midwife, pushing Joseph away as the baby is delivered, so that he might devour him.
Remember, this is picture language. Satan wasn’t physically present as a midwife in the form of a dragon at the birth of Jesus attempting to kill him as soon as he was delivered. But he, together with his demons, the third of the stars whom he dragged to earth with him when he rebelled against God and lost his place in heaven, did all they could to have Jesus killed. Through Herod they sought to have Jesus slaughtered with the rest of the Baby boys in Bethlehem. John reminds us that such things were the result of an even more intense battle that was raging in the spiritual realms, and that continued until Jesus was snatched up to the throne of God at his ascension.
We call it love when we make sure our children are as safe as possible. We buckle them into car seats that are tested and approved. We get them helmets, elbow and knee pads so that they can ride bikes or skate board safely. We try to teach them about stranger danger and what things are appropriate and what things aren’t so that they aren’t abducted. Some parents are even purchasing bullet proof back packs for their children. But look what God did! He sent his son to earth, away from the safety and comfort of heaven. He sent him knowing that Satan was watching and waiting for a chance to devour him. He sent him knowing the temptations he would face, the spiritual struggles he would endure, the pain he would suffer as he was flogged and crucified, not to mention that he would have to forsake him when he was loaded with the sins of all people. He knew all this, and yet, he sent him anyway.
What does that say? It says that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. It means that he loves us more than we can possibly imagine, because we can’t imagine sending our kids into that kind of situation even if we knew it meant saving someone. This year, try to forget the Hollywoodized, stylized, sanitized view of Christmas and you will appreciate more than ever how much God must love you to send his son into such a dangerous, messy, smelly place to save us, who deserved his punishment instead.
How do we know this vision pictures the birth of Jesus? It tells us that the woman gave birth to a son. And, maybe anticipating some of our problems today, John adds the term male. He lets us know that this is the one who was foretold in Psalm 2, the one who would rule all the nations with a rod of iron. Satan tried to have him killed by Herod, but he failed. He tried to get him to sin by worshiping him and listening to him instead of God, but he failed. He was able to get the Jewish leaders to have him crucified. But he didn’t stay in the tomb. He rose on the third day and has ascended to heaven. His resurrection proves that he won the victory, that he crushed the head of Satan. But Satan hasn’t given up. Jesus is out of his reach at the right hand of the father in heaven, but the woman, the church, those who, like Mary, gladly submit to God’s will in faith, we are now his target.
Later in this chapter John continues the story of the church. Satan is after her. He is filled with fury because he knows his days are short, symbolically, 1260 days. From his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring– those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
It sounds bad. Jesus is safe back in heaven, but what about us? Satan is after us and he’s a roaring lion seeking to devour us! Where is God’s love for us now? A place has been prepared for us. It’s in the wilderness, so it’s not without its troubles and challenges. But Jesus has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against us. Where two or three are gathered in his name, he is with us. The angel hosts of the Lord are encamped all around us, even though we can’t see them. Our battle isn’t just against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. But the Spirit gives us spiritual armor, like the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. In the name of Jesus, trusting in him as our savior, we can resist the devil and he has to flee from us. He’s judged, the deed is done. He is defeated so that we are able to overcome him by the blood of Christ and the word of his testimony. His accusations against us are true, we have sinned, but they are meaningless because Jesus defends us before the throne of God and points to his blood shed on the cross as payment in full for every sin. Our risen and ascended Savior Jesus Christ is with us always, the whole 1260 days, the whole time of the New Testament, until he comes again in glory to lock the great fiery dragon in the abyss so that he cannot bother us anymore.
We see the gift of God’s love in the manger as we marvel at what he was willing to do and suffer for us. We see the gift of God’s love at the right hand of God as we are assured that Jesus is there ruling all things for our benefit, guarding and protecting us from all evil until that day when he comes to take us to be at the right hand of God with him.