Christmas for the Insiders

Revelation 12
Fox Valley Presbyterian Church
December 21, 2008, 8:30am

Pray for us, because at the next service, we’re handing the preaching of the word over to the children. They’re doing a Christmas pageant.

Christmas pageants are not safe. Let’s be honest: when Mary is 8 and Joseph is 5 and the innkeeper is 3, you just don’t know what’s going to happen.  Even if the roles are given to slightly older children, the whole thing is really a little subversive. One year the high school where I taught religion had a Christmas pageant as part of our Christmas program. I’ll never forget the nervous energy radiating out like static from our principal as she watched the whole thing unfold. To begin with, it was a story about a pregnant teenager, exactly the sort of thing inner city teachers are trying to avoid. The high school dean of students had organized the pageant, and had the brilliant idea of setting the Christmas story on the near west side of Chicago, exactly where our school was. By the time the shepherds, dressed as homeless guys , hit the stage, the principal’s knuckles were turning white. And when the wise men showed up, in full baggy pants and bearing armfuls of bling for the baby Jesus, we all knew that the dean was about to get called into the office for a little talking to.

Is the nativity story even supposed to be safe? There’s an episode of the Simpsons, (my favorite yellow-cartoon-theologians) that suggests the danger of the nativity. As a winter storm is blowing into Springfield, the whole town hustles to get everything ready for the stormy winds. Ned Flanders, the Simpson’s super-churchy neighbor looks at his font lawn life-size nativity scene, turns to his sons and says: “Make sure the Baby Jesus is tied down…if he gets loose he could really do some damage.”

It would truly be easier to leave Jesus in the manger, snuggled in his swaddling and hay, than to think about what this really means. And, I worry that we Christians, the “insiders” who show up the Sunday before Christmas even though we’re going to be here anyway for Christmas Eve services, I worry that we buy a little too much into cute-ness of the season.

Luke is by far the most adorable of the Gospel accounts, probably why it gets used in Christmas pageants, with a little side trip to Matthew for the appearance of the wise men.

Maybe this is why John’s Gospel ditches the baby-scene altogether and lets us have the theology right up front:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

John is not cute, but certainly is beautiful. If it only sounds repetitive in English, let me assure you the original Greek is just stunning to hear, spine-shivering stuff.

If Advent is about getting ready for what the manger scene really means, then this 4th Sunday is sort of our last chance. If you’re here this early on a Sunday morning, I can only assume that you wanted to set aside the presents and pine needles, the traffic and the travel, the baking and bundling for an hour, to sit still and take a last chance to get ready for what comes on Wednesday night.

And so I’m throwing us a Christmas curve-ball…the text for the day is not from the gospels or the prophecy about Jesus’ birth.

Be strong and take heart, because we are headed right into the middle of Revelation, John’s hallucinogenic take on all of history, from the perspective of the spiritual world.

As I read Revelation 12, I encourage you to sit back and close your eyes–and you can begin by picturing the classic Luke 2 nativity scene, but from there, let your imagination run wild.

(A link to Revelation 12)

What if this were the picture we illustrated in life-size inflatable plastic scenes in our front yards? A bit different, isn’t it?

This vivid picture comes smack dab in the middle of Revelation. Revelation is a cosmic fantasy story retelling of the struggle for creation. And so, instead of the stories of faithful men and women, of journeying nomads in the wilderness, of simple Palestinian peasants, we get dragons and stars falling and giant, birthing women.

If you’ve gotten a bit too used to the idea of Christmas, this ought to open your eyes a bit.

Behind the fully human struggle of Mary, a mother giving birth that night in Bethlehem, behind that scene, there was something even larger…God’s powerful yet delicate plan to lay hold of the world he loved so much.

Luke gets at this in reverse: in his account of the birth, we start with the big, powerful picture: the Roman Empire, with the entire known world at its beck and call. And from that vantage point, Luke zooms in on one miniscule moment: a peasant child born in a stable in a little no-importance town.

But in Revelation, we pull back from that scene and see it for the important moment that it is: the moment when all history collapses on itself, when God’s great plan comes to be born, when everything is at stake.

Most of you probably had that moment in school or in church when someone explained that the “AD” after a year did not stand for “after death” but for “Anno Domini” “The year of our Lord,” and that the time between BC and AD was divided not by an estimated date of Jesus’ death, but by the estimated date of his birth.

At the moment when Jesus was born in that stable, the entire perspective of history changed. The powerful, the Ceasar Augustses and the Quiriniuses of the world, were outdone by a tiny baby. The Herods of the world were threatened enough to strike out like fearful animals, and both the outcast shepherds and power-broker wisemen were called to visit an insignificant child, barely understanding who he was or what he was about to do.

In Revelation, we get the full perspective of the picture. Because, in fact, it is not just the powers of kings and emperors that are threatened by the birth of a baby. It is the entire order of the world, a world become so twisted and mangled that it looks like a dragon. Herod, in all his jealous cruelty, is just one scale on that terrible creature. Herod is the least of this baby’s worries.

If we have a few more days to prepare for Jesus’ coming, then we need to spend time looking at things with the perspective that Revelation gives us. Now, we Presbyterians are not the type to spend too much time with our noses buried in Revelation, but think of it this way: your task for the next few days is to take the movie camera and pan out into the big picture, and to peek behind the scenes, in order to get ready for what Christmas really means.

To begin with, what is the actual state of this world? It is the place that God created and there is so much good in it, but yet there are forces that mess things up. Stars are thrown down from the sky: in other words, Beautiful things that should be permanent are damaged and ruined. The woman in childbirth is threatened: in other words humanity at its most vulnerable, but also most productive collective moment is in peril. The world is laboring away while wars rage and people scatter in fear.

No amount of wrapping paper or lights can make the bad things go away. We are a world at war, we are people who cannot embrace peace, we are unable to love and share and give as we ought. And if that seems over-dramatic, a few minutes scanning the news should remind you that things are surely not the way they were created to be. We love the world we live in, because God made it, but we know that something has gone very wrong. And part of the reason we wait expectantly in Advent is that we are waiting for the moment when God will make things right, when all of history will collapse on itself and God’s great work of salvation will be made known.

But if we continue to look at that broad perspective, if we are honest about the state of the world, then we also have to look at who God truly is. And one of the great things about the raw-fisted power of the book of Revelation is that God is not hidden behind the scenes, but active and powerful, and altogether present. There is no screen in the way, and we can see exactly who is in control, and exactly how much God would lay out for this world, the world that God made and loves. God is more powerful than any strange, nightmarish evil the book of Revelation throws at us. It is always God who triumphs, and there is no question about God’s power.

And with that perspective, then how would we come to that moment on Christmas, that moment that God’s people waited for then, the fulfillment of that moment that we wait for now?

It is not just about the comfort and coziness of a family in a stable. It is not just about the promise of new life in a baby’s round cheek, it is not just about the people gathered in by that moment.

It is something cosmic. Because behind that moment God is snatching victory away from every that threatens to undo us. That moment is the moment when things begin to turn, and God regains ground against sin and death and evil.

But it is even more amazing than the raw-fisted power of a God breaking into human history.

And it is amazing because it is contained in such a small place, and in such a small person.

What should send shivers up your spine is this thought: in Jesus, tiny peasant baby, all of heaven and earth are cradled and contained.

In the tiny, quick heartbeat of one so small is the mighty power and love of God. And God’s power is so strong that Jesus was preserved. Think of it: not just Herod, but one stray step of a stable animal, one cruel act of a soldier, one small virus, could have stopped the whole thing. But the baby grew into the man, and even when the powers that be hung him to die, God overcame sin and evil, and even death.

And so maybe the danger of the Christmas pageant is right on target. Could there be anything more appropriate than handing over our most precious story, our most incomprehensible moment, to children? Because the truth of the incarnation is that something so powerful was contained in something small. That the great God of the universe came to us as a child, and lived among us so that we might see God’s power and glory.


2 Responses to “Christmas for the Insiders”

  1. Mary Beth Says:

    Preach, girl. Oh, to have heard that sermon in person.

  2. terry Says:

    Great sermon, I’m thousand miles away and I read it twice.