THE ENEMY OF CHRISTMAS.
December 11, 2005; Revelation 12:1-12 (17) Matthew 2:13-18
Narnia Image: The White Witch who makes it always winter and never Christmas.
Theme: There is real evil in the world. Revelation opens the curtains of heaven and we see it in personal form. This evil wreaks havoc on our world and lives.
Subject: Why does the church suffer and what shall we do about it? How shall it respond?
Complement: The church’s fight against oppression is part of an age-long struggle between God and Satan. It calls for faith and endurance (even to death)
Do you have in mind: an image of the way Christmas is “supposed to be?” Maybe it’s a quiet night snuggling by fire with your one and only. Your children are quietly tucked in bed.
Maybe your ideal Christmas is a grand feast, a festive dinner gathering: fine wine and succulent lamb or deserts, all savored with a few close friends or treasured family members—all the kids come home or you’ve gone home and everyone’s together.
Maybe your ideal Christmas is putting aside accumulating and instead focusing on sharing. Your ideal Christmas is to spend time with folks for whom life is more of a struggle. Folks whose families are split, folks who are homeless.
Maybe your ideal Christmas includes a worship service filled with your favorite music and a sermon/environment shaped by biblical images, phrases you’ve heard so often they’ve seeped into the deepest part of your psyche/heart: Maybe some Old Testament: “A virgin shall conceive and give birth to child and she will call his name Immanuel…” And New Testament: “And there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night….”
When I was a child my ideal Christmas included a visit “downtown.” It was a special trip for us children because we didn’t go downtown very often. When we arrived, the whole downtown was aglow. A big central park had giant, lit candy canes over the sidewalks. One corner of the park had big gigantic glowing Frosty! To a child it looked three stories high. Another corner had Santa’s sleigh and reindeer—big brown ones, the kind a child could touch and sit on. My favorite corner was the corner with the giant “nativity.” It had a rough wooden exterior that felt like a barn. Straw was strewn about. A life-size Joseph and Mary and Magi a bit further off. Maybe a nativity scene is part of your ideal (traditional) Christmas.
This morning we want to add another picture to your ideal Christmas. My hunch is you won’t like it. (at first). It’s like someone altering your favorite painting or radio channel—turning the dial. But I ask you to consider it, because we cannot understand Christmas without it. In fact, all your Christmases will be hollow, phony, sentimental, empty without this picture of Christmas to add to the “traditional” nativity scene.
You might get nostalgic or sentimental or cozy with Matthew. You might get commercial with Luke (lighted angels and plastic shepherds). But John takes you to another world. He makes explicit what is implicit in the other gospel stories. He takes us “behind the scenes” to Jesus being born in a manger attended by shepherds and shows us heaven’s version, put the baby Jesus in heaven attacked by a dragon. Our stories/response to the Nativity cannot be reduced to shutting the door against a wintry world, drinking hot chocolate and singing carols. John offers another Nativity story, a story we need—to understand Christmas. To understand our world. To understand the church. To understand our trouble (protect you from evil). To understand or destiny/future
Read text: 12:1-17
The first person in this heavenly nativity scene is a woman-radiant, beautiful. She is, “Clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet (sign of royalty, etc). Wreath of stars—victorious.
This is quite a different nativity. During this message series we’ve talked about apocalyptic literature. Everyone who reads this book of the 66 in the bible agrees it is a wildly different kind of book. This sort of writing (apocalyptic) was common in 200 years before to 200 years after Jesus. As you can see, it’s rich with imagination and images. During that 400 year span dozens of such pieces were written. But none like this. Unique combination of letter to specific people—7 churches in Asia Minor and prophecy—quoting and re-quoting the Old Testament prophets and Apocalyptic style.
“Revelation” can be confusing. Folks argue over the meaning of sections, but everyone agrees on some things, like this one: the radiant, amazing woman represents God’s people. This woman is a picture of the church, the (Is 50:1; 54:1) chosen people of God. On earth the church appears clumsy, backward, embarrassing, insignificant—a target of scorn and ridicule—but St. John shows us how the church looks to heaven: spectacular, stunning, dignified, noble.
John’s picture was well known to his original hearers. Some Roman coins of that era showed the Roman emperor with the sun radiating from his head. She’s one person to put in our new nativity. Here’s the second:
An enormous, red dragon with seven heads and ten horns (symbol of power) and seven crowns upon each head...” Sometimes, this is always helpful, as John writes Revelation he tells us what a certain sign means. In verse 9 he says the dragon is “that ancient serpent called the devil (diabolos) means slanderer. Dragon: Canaan dragon = female monster of chaos. The original hearers immediately understood this beast as the archenemy of God. Red-symbolize murderous character. Presumptuous claim of authority.
Satan leads the whole world astray.” (12:9) Satan was not originally a proper name/name of a person. Hebrew word “satan” means accuser or adversary. A satan brings an accusation in a law court. In Job we learn he spends time to and fro on earth collecting evidence and brings it to God. In the prophet Zechariah he is the Accuser who puts the high priest Joshua on trial. Someone who spread lies or tell tales. Comes to be more specific person with the help of this book? He’s wearing “crowns of arrogated authority” (not victory). Destructive power. Dragon: cruel. Savage, vicious. Immense (so big tail sweeps third of stars).
Every Christmas has “bad guys.” Matthew’s gospel story has King Herod who tells the magi, “tell me about this new child so I can worship him too.” Right. After the Magi double cross him—going home another way—King Herod massacres babies two years and younger. Rachel weeping for her children.
White Witch: always winter and never Christmas. Charming. But deceptive and ugly—as finds out when visits her in his home. Most of our traditional tales of the season--Scrooge and Grinch get converted. The White Witch will not. Herod does not. Neither will this enormous, red dragon. This is God’s opponent (not his equal) for all times and all places. (Remember: John is a pastor giving this nativity story to his churches so they know how to live in the time and place God called them to live.
The third character in this nativity: the child. We first learn this woman is pregnant. Then we learn she’s having a boy. Then we discover this is the long-awaited one. The promised one (hero). In all myths and in all cultures: Japanese and Hindu? We all long for someone—a suitor or champion to come riding in on his white horse and make our life better/to straighten it out.” Superman; Batman, Prince Charming, Frodo/Gandalf; Robin Hood. God’s people have been expecting this child to be born ever since Genesis 3:15 a seed of the woman…” For now John says quotes psalm 2 which says this great figure will “rule all nations with an iron scepter.” Psalm 2:9. (Hitler seen as “savior” from political and financial chaos…)
The first scene unfolds (12:1-6) The seed refer to Jesus Gen 3:15 and Gal 4:4. (put child two?) Messianic child of promise. Long awaited one. Coronation ceremony. Savior (intro other myths at this point—idea of savior in Roman –it is Apollos. Caesar at the time of John’s writing) and it is Egyptian person.
John’s original hearers would have instantly recognized this scenario. The Canaanites had a version, so did the Egyptians and Romans. John re-writes these well known myths and tells us Jesus saves. “His use of this myth is an astonishing example of communicating the Christian faith through an internationally known symbol, comparable in a fashion with the Evangelist’s exposition of the incarnate ministry of the Lord in terms of the Logos, also an internationally known symbol in his day.” 192 His readers would have known other versions, and he makes clear that Jesus fulfills both OT and pagan hope. the Messianic claims of deity of the Roman Emperors are lies of the devil. The redemptive death and resurrection of the Christ, confessed in the gospel which has conquered the Devil. John, the pastor, taking this common and ancient myth and retelling in biblical terms so his church knows how to think and act. It will help us too…
The child escapes. And then there’s what we might call SCENE TWO (12:7-12), a response to the Christmas story. What a response. The immediate consequence of birth is not Christmas carols, but war over heaven. (120). In verse 7 we have an all out attempt for Satan to gain throne of heaven. The birth of the child—it mans WAR! The response here is WAR in heaven: If this nativity was placed in Bronson Park we wouldn’t hang harps and trumpets up in the rough wooden rafters , we’d have swords and spears. .
Here John introduces us (original hearers knew him well). Another figure for our nativity scene: Michael. Revelation is packed with Old Testament imagery. Book of Daniel. Earlier I said that the Hebrew word satan means accuser or adversary. One who brings an accusation in a law court. Often in inter-testamental (the 400+ years between Malachi and Matthew) Michael functions as the defense attorney of God’s people. Michael is the great prince who has charge (defends) of the people of God. He is the Archangel guardian of Israel. Daniel 10:21. He is one of the great Generals under God. He is the (ISBE “the heavenly defender and patron of Israel who supports God’s people against there foes, both human and demonic. )
“As long as there are human sinners to accuse, Satan’s presence in heaven must be tolerated for God himself recognizes the justice of the indictment.” 155
But in this great battle—birth and cross. Jesus wins on cross, Satan is tossed. “no condemnation now for those…” Satan gets “bounced.” He is unceremoniously tossed. 120. eblethe. The effect of atonement and ascension to the throne in heaven. (with birth is ascension!) God’s power vindicated, people who bear witness by perseverance—even to death—triumph. . So satan is filled with wrath. Which takes us to SCENE THREE: (12:13-17): “Woe to the earth and the sea because the devil has done down to you! He is filled with fury.” (12b) This is the current reality. There is WAR on Earth: 12:13-17 (especially 17) Satan is beaten. The outcome has been decided, but the defeated, dying dragon turns his attention to the church. Satan tries to engulf church in stream of lies and delusions but true church not fooled. 3 ½ years—period of Christ’s coming to second coming, the entire gospel age. (chapter 13): shows us the agents and tools the serpent uses. To attack the church. satan persecutes the church in and through nations of this world and their governments.
Two commentators (Fee and Stuart) see chapter 12 as the theological key to the whole book. In these two visions we are told of Satan’s attempts to destroy Christ and his own defeat instead. Satan is a defeated foe (already) whose final end has not yet come. There is rejoicing because salvation has come yet woe to the church because Satan knows his time is limited and he is taking vengeance on God’s people.
Think of John’s original hearers: John equipping his parishioners for call ahead. Live in time of awful political and spiritual oppression. Leviathan and Behemoth. Vision of exercise of coercive force by means of police force and propaganda. 123. Task: fortify believers to face the worst. –see Peterson stuff here.
Think of C.S. Lewis. He wrote the Chronicles of Narnia just after WW II. There was a time when (after D day) the Nazi’s knew they would be defeated but they still killed folks (like Bonhoeffer) and did great damage. Still the allies knew that V Day was coming. Folks in Lewis’ day (and folks still today) live in world of violence. We live between d-day and v-day, a time when Satan tries to do great mayhem to the church.
Caesar, and people in every age, say, “Kill the opposition.” But John is telling his friends, “Killing the opposition is the beast’s way of solving problems, not ours.” Ours is endurance and faith. Kingdom—sound political—and might be tempted to use tools of politics—power and influence. It is coercion. John is calling (the persecuted and attacked) followers of Jesus not to respond to violence with violence. Endure—without violence. Killing is the beast’s way to deal with problems, endurance and faith are ours.
HOW do we RESPOND? (to suffering and persecution and pain) This nativity scene calls us to noble living beyond any that Matthew or Luke or Park scene.)
1. ENDURANCE: (repeated them of book) John is not calling us to passivity, to lay down and take it. He’s not offering timid advice like “Don’t fight because you will lose.” —Josephus. Active in suffering: endurance and faith are aggressive forces in the battle raging between God and Satan. It requires high energy to meet a sword with willed suffering, with embraced sacrifice.” Christians through centuries believe in the redemptive power of suffering. Not seek suffering, not kindle abuse, but believe God uses suffering to build and expand his church.
I attended many chapels/worship services in college and seminary. I remember a handful. One time a seminary teacher who came from Eastern Europe (Romania). He told us of times the Romanian secret police would threaten him. “You know we can kill you.” He responded, you kill me and the tapes of my sermons will be twice as powerful.” (The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, old saying.) The Apostle Paul says,“I fill up what was lacking in the suffering of Christ.. “ In some mysterious way we still participate in suffering.
Early, the morning of April 9, Bonhoeffer was hanged at the extermination camp of Flossenburg. The camp doctor, who had to witness the executions, remarked that he watched Bonhoeffer kneel and pray before being led to the gallows. “I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his
prayer,” he wrote. “At the place of execution, he said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.… In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” In the distance boomed the cannons of Patton’s army. Three weeks later Hitler would commit suicide, and on May 7, the war in Europe would be over. his witness to Jesus
lives on. Bonhoeffer continues to challenge Christians to follow Christ to the cross of genuine discipleship
John’s original hearers were overwhelmed by a huge, powerful government and its lies. Overwhelmed by a whole culture who heard this story (myth) over and over so they all believed—Caesar was unstoppable. Caesar was godlike. John, the pastor, offers an alternate. In so doing, he’s training them to deal with their situation. He’s downsizing their opponents by clarifying who they are. They are pawns of the defeated diabollos, the one who has been bounced from heaven. Yes, he is an awesome foe, but he will lose.
This foe works through intimidation. Think about the time in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where the White Witch lies to Edmund about her identity and Aslan’s true identity. She corrupts his view of Aslan and fawns, himself. This is a battle of good and evil. Spies. Turns to stone. Christmas is not just the story of couple in Bethlehem that can’t find a hotel room. Something far bigger is happening. Something political. Something life-changing. A new kingdom expanding.
Christians of all times have wrestled with what to do in the face of great evil. During the 1930’s German folks were suffering from national disgrace and a world wide depression. Their new leader, Adolf Hitler looked like a savior. Many pastors and Christians agreed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer . what doing in face of great evil
Christianity Today source: there are more martyrs 20th Century than any other. Need to know story of Revelation. How respond to Satan’s mayhem and violence? With violence? That’s Satan’s technique. Revelation trains us with pastoral wisdom and teaching. These believers are equipped to stand fast and discern. Learn to deal with ugly evil. Told this picture/ this nativity scene. Salvation IS at work—even if it is behind the scenes. 128. Great action IS underway on our behalf.
John’s vision helps us understand our faith and not be misled by the flim-flam man and to cultivate a life of holiness in a weed-filled society and helping each other do the task.” 128 says we are doing our best when we worship God, not cave in to powers of the world…
2. Defiant endurance: Polycarp: The early church was also clear that for all the Devil’s temporal The Devil cannot win, and that, ironically, every time he seems to win, he actually loses. Tertullian wrote, "We conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued."
Early Christians were gleeful about this turn of the spiritual tables, a glee based again on biblical revelation: "Death has been swallowed up in victory!"
These were the bald alternatives presented in the second century to Polycarp, bishop of the church at Smyrna. Unwilling to call Caesar God, he let his captors tie him to a stake and set him alight. "Come now," urged his captors, "where is the harm in just saying “Caesar is Lord, and offering the incense, when it will save your life?"
Polycarp replied, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?"
In our century, there are clear records of Christians being put to the choice between faith and life in Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, Armenia, Sudan, China, Chile, Iran--the list goes on. More often, though, a martyr’s determination has been complicated by the layering of political or racial difference over the issue of direct spiritual opposition, and the choice is whether to continue to follow a spiritual call and remain in known danger or to cease. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who could have chosen to escape El Salvador, refused, while others working in the area felt their usefulness to be greater if they removed themselves from the conflict. This does not represent a choice between suicide and survival (the martyr does not yield to the despair that suicide implies), but a willingness to accept the consequences of faith even when this means a threat to safety.
3. Worship: The way our misunderstood and misspoken words are corrected and re-arranged to faith—to truth about ourselves and God—is in worship. Is worship a waste of energy? Not if Lamb thinks not. Think of the action underway on our behalf. 1) lamb leading worship on Mt. Zion angels preaching sermons in mid-heaven and son of man harvesting fields “white unto harvest.” When sing “come and worship” saying something powerful!
So revelation great addition to nativity setting.
What’s in your nativity scene? You might get nostalgic or sentimental or cozy with Matthew. You might get commercial with Luke (lighted angels and plastic shepherds). But John takes you to another world. (title over nativity) He makes explicit (open/clear/precise) what is implicit in the other gospel stories. He takes us “behind the scenes” to Jesus being born in a manger attended by shepherds and shows us heaven’s version, put him in the cosmos attacked by a dragon. Our stories/response to the Nativity cannot be reduced to shutting the door against a wintry world, drinking hot chocolate and singing carols. John offer another Nativity story, a story we need—to understand Christmas. To understand our world. To understand the church. To understand our trouble (protect you from evil). To understand or destiny/future.
© Kevin Adams, 2005