If someone asked you to tell them the Christmas story, you'd have options. You could tell them about an unwed pregnant teenager, or of angels appearing to shepherds, or of Persian astrologers who understood more than Bible scholars. You could speak of Simeon and Anna in the Temple. You could even put on the Charlie Brown Christmas special in which we're reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, in which they end up reading from Luke 2:
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12 KJV)
But you probably wouldn't tell someone the Christmas story that we just read.
I'd like to look at a very different account of Christmas morning. We're going to see three things tonight as we examine the story: the backstory of Christmas, the conflict of Christmas, and what this means for us.
First, let's look at the backstory.
Revelation 12:1-2 says:
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
I know what you're thinking. This isn't like any Christmas story you've ever heard before. Can we go back to the story of shepherds and wise men? But this is important. Here you have, in two verses, the whole of the Old Testament in a nutshell. John is writing in very figurative, mythical language, and it's full of meaning.
Who is this woman? It's a strange description: she's clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of stars on her head. That's like no woman I've ever seen. But there's a hint. The people John was writing to would have remembered the story of Joseph from the Old Testament. Joseph had a dream one day which didn't endear him to his brothers. He told them, "I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me" (Genesis 37:9). You see the similar language - a sun, moon, and twelve stars including Joseph?
Looking at the imagery, we see that this woman in Revelation 12 is not Mary; it's actually the nation of Israel. The number 12 suggests that this woman represents God's people, from whom came the Messiah.
Here you have in two short verses all of history up until the birth of Jesus. You have a sense of promise. If know somebody who pregnant, you know what it's like to feel expectation and hope. There is a sense of longing and counting down. We buy gifts, and mark the calendars. We wait, we long, and we hope.
This is exactly what happens in the history of Israel. God promises that he will send the Messiah through Israel. This begins in Genesis 3, and continues with Abraham, through whom God promises to bless the entire world. You see this all through the Hebrew Scriptures, in the psalms and in the prophets. You see expectation and hope. Amazingly, in John 8, Jesus says to the religious leaders, "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). What is Jesus saying? What does Jesus mean that Abraham saw Jesus and was glad? He's saying that Abraham had prophetic insight, and was filled with expectation and longing for Jesus. All of the Hebrew Scriptures point to him.
But then we see that there is not just longing and hope, but also pain. "She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth." Here you get a sense of the pain and pathos of God's people. If you know anything about pregnancy, you know that it involves not just hope and expectation, but also pain. There are sleepless nights and there's indigestion and all kinds of other problems, so I'm told. And so it was with Israel. It's why the story of Israel is not always a happy story. We're going to see one of the reasons why in a minute.
This is the backstory of Christmas. The story of Mary and Joseph and the baby is not a random event. The birth of Jesus is the story of all of the Hebrew Scriptures. You can trace the origins right back to the beginning of time. All of history prior to this time points to the coming of this child.
This is the backstory of Christmas.
Second, let's look at the conflict surrounding Christmas.
Let's read verses 3-4:
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. (Revelation 12:3-4)
If the first two verses didn't overwhelm you, then this one will. Now we have a picture of this enormous dragon. Remember that John is writing in highly figurative language. What is he saying?
If you picture the setting of Jesus' birth, you likely picture a serene, quiet night with a baby lying quietly in a manger, sheep bleating, and Mary and Joseph looking contentedly at their baby. We probably think of songs like:
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
But behind the scenes, Christmas was nowhere as serene as that. Behind the scenes, a war was waging. This war is all throughout the Old Testament. If Israel was like a pregnant woman, through whom the Messiah would be born, then it makes sense of how often Satan attacked Israel and tried to destroy her. If Satan destroyed Israel, then he would have wiped out the line through which the Messiah would come. So Pharaoh tries to kill all the male babies, but Moses is rescued from the Nile. Haman plots to kill the Jews at the time of Esther. If Israel's wiped out, the Messiah cannot be born.
It's a conflict that continues in Jesus' life as well. It's amazing how many times Jesus' life is threatened in the gospels. Herod tried to kill all the male babies in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders frequently plotted to kill him all throughout the gospel. God had spoken centuries earlier of this conflict: "He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3:15). Christmas is a battle.
What happens in this battle? Surprisingly, this passage skips right past his life and tells us what happened after his death and resurrection when he ascended to God's right hand:
She gave birth to a son, a male child, who "will rule all the nations with an iron scepter." And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:5)
The child who was born at Bethlehem, John says, is not just a baby. He is the one who rules all nations with an iron scepter, and who is enthroned with God.
Do you know what this means? It means we can't sentimentalize Christmas. When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China in the sixteenth century, he brought along samples of religious art to illustrate the Christian story for people who had never heard it. The Chinese readily adopted portraits of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but when he produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the God-child had grown up only to be executed, the audience reacted with revulsion and horror. They much preferred the Virgin and insisted on worshiping her rather than the crucified God. They liked the sentimental picture of Christmas, but they didn't like the battle.
Philip Yancey comments:
As I thumb...through my stack of Christmas cards, I realize that we in Christian countries do much the same thing. We observe a mellow, domesticated holiday purged of any hint of scandal. Above all, we purge from it any reminder of how the story that began in Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.
You'll probably never see a Christmas card with a picture of a dragon trying to devour Jesus the minute that he's born. That Christmas card just wouldn't sell. The birth of Jesus was a pivotal moment in the battle between God and Satan, and Jesus triumphed. It's not a tranquil story; it's a battle. It's about battle, but it's also about conquest and of victory. It's a story that we should never tame.
But then let's look, finally, at what this means for us.
I think you'll agree that this isn't your typical Christmas passage. But I chose it for a reason. I think we need this story of Christmas.
For one thing, it puts Christmas in its context. If you only focus on the stories of the manger and the shepherds and the magi, you're only getting part of the story. It's an important part of the story, but it's a tragedy if that's it. This passage reminds us that Christmas is part of a much larger story that stretches back throughout history. It's also a story that takes us to the cross.
If you celebrate the baby who is born at Bethlehem, then also celebrate the larger story of what God is doing. Revelation helps put Christmas in the larger context of the storyline of Scripture. It helps us remember that the manger is part of a larger drama, one that's important for all of us to remember. It's a story that includes us.
Second, it reminds us of who wins. John was writing to Christians who knew the story of Jesus born in the manger. Their problem is that they were facing all kinds of problems: false teaching, persecution, paganism, and immorality. How does the Christmas story help you when your life is filled with all kinds of pressures and troubles? John reminds them - and us - that we are caught in a cosmic struggle, and that the baby who is born in Bethlehem wins. He rules the nations with an iron scepter. And if you read on, you find that Satan loses. He is active, but his time is short. Revelation reminds us of who ultimately wins.
Finally, it calls for a response. If a baby's born, it doesn't call for too much of a response. You can admire the baby, give a few gifts, and then hand the baby back. It's not your problem. A baby doesn't call for much of a response. And if we only see Jesus as a baby, then it doesn't have much of an impact on our lives.
William H. Smith wrote:
Most of us also have not come to terms with the baby in the manger. We sing, "Glory to the newborn King." But do we truly recognize that the baby lying in the manger is appointed by God to be the King, to be either the Savior or Judge of all people? He is a most threatening person.
Malachi foresaw his coming and said, "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap." As long as we can keep him in the manger, and feel the sentimental feelings we have for babies, Jesus doesn't disturb us. But once we understand that his coming means for every one of us either salvation or condemnation, he disturbs us deeply...
That baby was born so that "he who had no sin" would become "sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." The baby's destiny from the moment of his conception was hell—hell in the place of sinners. When I look into the manger, I come away shaken as I realize again that he was born to pay the unbearable penalty for my sins.
That's the message of Christmas: God reconciled the world to himself through Christ, man's sin has alienated him from God, and man's reconciliation with God is possible only through faith in Christ...Christmas is disturbing...
Only those who have been profoundly disturbed to the point of deep repentance are able to receive the tidings of comfort, peace, and joy that Christmas proclaims.
Father, we thank you for this perspective on Christmas. It's different than the one we're used to, but it reminds us of what was happening at Christmas behind the scenes. It reminds us of the victory that Jesus won, and the confidence we can have no matter how bad things seem to be.
Keep us from sanitizing Christmas. Thank you for the work that Jesus came to do. May we respond in repentance and faith. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.