We interrupt your comfy cozy Advent season with a message from the Apocalypse . . .
It seems odd to read the words “Advent” and “Apocalypse” in the same sentence, doesn’t it? Has anyone ever heard a sermon from Revelation during Advent? We seldom think that the book of Revelation has anything to do with our Lord’s birth.
During the Christmas season our thoughts are usually drawn to the Christmas story as it is told in Matthew and Luke. From Luke 1-2, we learn about the birth of Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, to his aging parents Zacharias and Elizabeth. Then the angel Gabriel makes an astounding announcement to the blessed virgin Mary, whose humility and faith is a model for all of us. Then a decree from the emperor in Rome leads to Jesus’s birth in the apparently insignificant village of Bethlehem (Mic 5:2), the angel’s birth-announcement to the shepherds, and their coming to see Jesus. Luke’s story takes us even further, to the circumcision of Jesus and the holy family’s visit to the Temple when he is 40 days old (Lev 12; Exod 13). Here the prophetic words of Simeon and Anna announce the global significance of all that has happened so far.
The story is different in Matthew 1-2, where we learn how God resolves Joseph’s quandary by a revelation in a dream, and how Joseph obediently cares for Mary and Jesus in response to more dream-revelations. The magi visit, the holy family flees to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath, and after Herod dies they return to Nazareth. Matthew tells us all these things fulfill Scripture.
We should add that John 1 provides a sort of prequel or back-story to Jesus’ birth when it presents Jesus as the Word who came into the world he originally created and revealed the Father’s glory. And while we’re at it, we should remember Paul’s reflection on Jesus coming into the world, when the time was right, to save sinners by humbly taking on human nature (Gal 4:4, Phil 2:5-11; 1 Tim 1:15; 4:16). But what does the book of Revelation add to the story?
Having yourself a merry little Christmas?
We need an apocalyptic view of Advent to keep us from romanticizing the story. Our familiarity with Christmas in Matthew and Luke can lead to our taming it down. Our selective memories pluck the warm and fuzzy sugar-plum verses and leave behind the ominous ones that speak of conflict ahead. The dawn of peace on earth becomes sentimental escapism from a war that’s not over yet. We need a dose of the Apocalypse to wake us up to the transcendent reality that Jesus’ birth signaled a new chapter in the old story of cosmic conflict that began back in Genesis 3. Without the apocalyptic Advent we’re prone to turn Jesus’ birth into little more than a fable that strikes us emotionally but leaves us far from reality.
Have you read Revelation 12 lately? It’s at the center of the Apocalypse. It tells a horrifying story—a helpless woman is in the throes of labor pains. A bloodthirsty red dragon is waiting to gobble up her baby as soon as he is born! His birth leads to a battle in heaven. Michael’s angels win and eject the dragon and his angels.. But the war isn’t over. The dragon continues its murderous rampage on earth— it tries to drown the woman and murder her other children. This story doesn’t exactly lend itself to our wish for a merry little Christmas, but it shows us what is really afoot in the Christmas story–God’s ultimate move to defeat Satan has begun!
- The woman crowned with twelve stars who gives birth to a son is Mary. She embodies God’s people, Israel and the Church.
- The dragon is Satan, the ancient serpent who tempted Eve and nipped at her offspring’s heel. The devil’s destiny is the lake of fire (Rev 20:10).
- The woman’s offspring is Jesus, who will ultimately rule all nations with a rod of iron (Psalm 2) and crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15; Rom 16:20). His Easter-exaltation to the right hand of the Father leads to the dragon’s expulsion from heaven.
- The woman’s other offspring are the followers of Jesus. The dragon is still at war with them!
Why is the story so different in the book of Revelation?
The Gospels emphasize the long-anticipated dawn of joy and peace that came with Jesus’ birth. Revelation emphasizes the resolution of the cosmic conflict—spiritual warfare—that intensified when Jesus the Messiah was born. The apocalyptic perspective shines a light on the sinister forces only occasionally hinted at in the beautiful Gospel stories of Jesus’ infancy. When we read Revelation 12 alongside those Gospel stories we begin to understand . . .
- Why Herod was so troubled at the magi’s search for a king, and why he ordered the atrocity of killing the babies in Bethlehem.
- Why Mary rejoiced that God would scatter the proud and dethrone the mighty.
- Why Zecharia praised God for redemption from the hatred of Israel’s enemies.
- Why Simeon told Mary that Jesus’ birth would result in the rise and fall of many, that it would lead to opposition, and even to a sword piercing her soul.
- Why Satan tempted Jesus in the desert and at other opportune times (Luke 4:1-13).
- Why darkness would not overcome the light brought by Jesus, even though most of the people in the world that Jesus made rejected Him when He came into it.
So, when we think about the dawn of redeeming grace, about a silent night where all is calm and all is bright and everyone is sleeping in heavenly peace, let’s remember that an ancient spiritual conflict is still raging. As we sing “O come let us adore Jesus,” Satan and his minions are plotting to annihilate Jesus and us along with him. We welcome the warm, comfy message of the dawning of messianic shalom, but we’d best not romanticize it because the battle is still raging. Come again, Lord Jesus!
And now, back to your regularly scheduled Advent programming . . .
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Last Sunday at Chapel Pointe Pastor Joel Wayne preached on Philippians 2:5-11, a text that focuses our minds on the real Jesus instead of a romanticized Jesus that merely toys with our emotions. You can watch the service here. Scroll to 7:00 for some great music. The sermon starts at 36:00.
Additional Christmas-related posts:
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” . . . or not (The Advent according to John)
Do You Know Mary? Reflections on the song “Mary, did you know?”
Praying Christmas in 2021 (Lessons on Prayer from the Christmas story)
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A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we,are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.
Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.
Ephesians 6:10-18 NLT