Summary: While we think of the cute and cuddly baby in the manger and the promise of "peace on earth," John tells a different version of the birth of Jesus... and another true meaning of Christmas
I decided to start today with “The Top Ten Reasons We Should Keep Christmas.” With all the hustle and bustle, I thought we needed to be reminded why Christmas is a good idea. Without Christmas…
• The candied fruit market would completely collapse!
• Our boring, uneventful lives would have no stress at all!
• Eggnog would just be a slimy, high cholesterol beverage.
• Santa would be a strange fat man with poor fashion sense!
• Three words— “No Christmas bonus!”
• We wouldn’t mindlessly sing “Hope Is Just Around the Corner” (Our Christmas play)
• You’d have to spend your own money buying stuff that doesn’t fit.
• We would never wonder if reindeer really know how to fly.
• Your cat would never know the joy of coughing up tinsel!
• Number one reason—without Christmas, there could be no Easter!
That one wasn’t meant to be funny… unlike the rest that just weren’t funny on their own! Without the birth of Jesus, there could be no cross and no resurrection. Without the Christmas story, then Christianity has no message of eternal life. Unless Jesus really was born and resurrected, then hope is not around the corner!
This time of year, we are used to hearing the story of the birth of Jesus. Sometimes, the presentation of that story is more fiction than fact. Like the nativity scenes that have the wise men there at the manger (Jesus and his family were already in a house by the time they arrived). But that is better than the nativity scenes that depict the wise men around the manger dressed as fireman (The Bible says they came from a fire [afar]). Here’s a quiz to see how much you know about the real Christmas story.
• Which writer tells of Magi or wise men coming from the east? Matthew
• Which writer tells of the announcement of angels to shepherds? Luke
• Which writer has a dragon at the center of his birth narrative? John
Like Mark, John in his gospel omits the birth narrative and basically begins the story of Jesus with John the Baptist. He rather chooses to save the birth story for the book of Revelation (12:1-17). His story has no shepherds, wise men or drummer boys— it has a dragon! So John’s version of the Christmas story has something of an edge to it!
Another True Meaning of Christmas
There are two main characters in John’s version of the Christmas story. First, there is a woman clothed with the sun and has the moon at her feet. She is very pregnant; in fact, she cries out in pain as she is about to give birth. This isn’t Mary but rather represents the nation of Israel who gives birth to the Messiah. Later she will morph into a representation of the church. But we immediately recognize her child; this is about the birth of Christ. “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” (Rev 12:5).
Second, there is an enormous red dragon (Satan) who pursues the woman. He has 7 heads (which represent his power), 7 crowns (his authority) and 10 horns (even more power). The dragon pursues the woman, waiting to devour the child she will bear. But as soon as he is born, the child is taken to heaven to God’s throne. The woman is also taken to a safe place in the desert prepared by God. The child is born; there are no carols but cosmic conflict. Eugene Peterson writes—
This is not the nativity story we grew up with, but it is the nativity story all the same. Jesus’ birth excites more than wonder, it excites evil: Herod, Judas. Pilate. Ferocious wickedness is goaded to violence by this life. (Eugene Peterson, A Distant Thunder, p. 121)
So the angels don’t sing in this version of the story. They are rather locked in spiritual warfare with this dragon. But the dragon is defeated by the angelic hosts and is thrown out of heaven. Unlike much of the book, this is a flashback, not a flash forward, “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (Rev 12:9). This sounds a lot like Jesus’ statement, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Lk 10:18). At any rate, the good news is that Satan’s attack on God’s throne is thwarted.
The bad news is that he is thrown down on earth among us, “But it will be terrible for the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you! He is filled with anger, because he knows he does not have much time” (Rev 12:12, NLT). Again, all of this spiritual warfare language is used within the context of the birth of the Christ child.