They’re singing carols. Putting up fairy lights and mistletoe and fake snowflakes. The stores are full of Crosby, tinsel and Bublé. Yes, Santa’s on his way and, somehow, the list of what’s in his enormous red sack of gifts has appeared on my credit card statement. I know: I’ve checked it—twice!
But pause those jingling sleigh-bells for a moment, if you can, and think: Christmas—what’s it supposed to be about again? Your Christian friends will rush to tell you, no doubt, that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!”
Well, yes, the birth of Jesus Christ is especially remembered at Christmas time, but the question remains: Why is the birth of a baby nearly 2000 years ago such a big deal?
Counsellor and author John Eldredge writes in his 2004 book, Epic, that every human heart has a deep hunger for meaning, which is expressed in the way we are drawn to stories. “All of these stories borrow from the Story. From Reality,” he writes. “We hear echoes of it through our lives. . . . A great battle to fight, and someone to fight for us. . . . Look, wouldn’t it make sense that if we ever did find the secret of our lives, the secret to the universe, it would come to us first as a story? Story is the very nature of reality. Like the missing parts of a novel, it would explain those pages we are holding . . .”
Taken in isolation, the Christmas story is like reading a clutch of pages torn out of a larger book. Sure, it’s an arresting tale, but what’s with the excited angels and shepherds? Without context, it makes no sense.
We need to grasp the Story, as Eldredge puts it; “a great battle to fight, and someone to fight for us.”
The Bible explains this great battle. “War broke out in heaven,” Revelation 12:7, 8 tells us. “Michael [possibly an archangel or Jesus Himself] and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient snake called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”
Even if you’re only vaguely biblically literate, you’ll probably start connecting the dots here. “That ancient snake called the devil” is, of course, the same serpent that deceived Eve and Adam. That infamous fruit incident in the Garden of Eden was how Earth became the battleground for the war that began in heaven.
While much of the Bible is devoted to recording the all-too-human happenings of history, we get glimpses now and then of a larger reality behind the scenes. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12, “but against the . . . the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
In the Old Testament book of Job, we see a man’s suffering explained by this spiritual controversy. “Then the Lord asked Satan, ‘Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.’
“Satan replied to the Lord, ‘Yes, but Job has good reason to fear God. You have always put a wall of protection around him. . . . You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is! But reach out and take away everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!’
“‘All right, you may test him,’ the Lord said to Satan” (Job 1:8–12, NLT*).
Thus begins an ordeal of grief, loss and confusion that I hope I never come close to experiencing—Job has his children, his possessions and his health ripped away. But we understand through this story that while there is no earthly reason for Job’s misery, there is a larger game afoot; a war raging that he cannot see, even though his heart is the battleground.
God’s very character is at issue here. If I am to devote my life totally to this God, I want to know what kind of Person He is. In the story of Job, we see God relinquishing power so that His methods can be tested.
What’s astounding about God is when He again holds back His power; when He steps down from His throne; when He is born as the helpless Baby we remember at Christmas time. And not just any baby, but one born in humble circumstances whose life trajectory continued to go down, down, down . . .
“Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to,” wrote the apostle Paul, referring to Jesus. “Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the . . . position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself . . . and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).
Yes, the God of infinity broke into human history not with a thundering invasion from the heavens, but with first-time-mum’s cry and a gush of bloody amniotic fluid. God’s campaign to win back Earth was launched in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger.
Yes, the prophets had long foretold that a Messiah would come on a rescue mission. But no-one expected the plot-twist: that the great God of the universe would come in humility and love. That instead of smashing the enemy, He would say, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).
In God’s upside-down kingdom, victory sometimes looks strangely like defeat. With a final cry and a gush of bloody pericardial fluid, Jesus proclaimed His triumph as He died on the cross: “It is finished!” (John 19:30–34).
How had He won? At first, His followers didn’t recognise His victory—they scattered. It was only later, encountering the resurrected Jesus and piecing together ancient prophecies, that His early followers began to understand the power of His sacrificial death; the grip of sin and condemnation had been broken. “In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross,” wrote the apostle Paul in Colossians 2:15.
But Paul doesn’t stop there; he explains the implications of Jesus’ victorious death to the early Christians: “You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world” (verse 20). Those who will accept the power of Christ’s death and resurrection for themselves, are themselves empowered and given new life, claiming back the ground from sin and the devil.
Paul uses battle language, making it clear that although the war has been effectively won, the enemy is not going quietly: “Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armour so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. . . . Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armour 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” (Ephesians 6:13–17).
How did John Eldredge put it? “A great battle to fight, and someone to fight for us.” That is the Story; there is a war going on—on both a cosmic and a personal level—in which we are participants, like it or not. But we do have Someone to fight for us. That Baby in a manger was a conquering warrior using not earthly weapons, but much more powerful forces: love, truth and peace.
Can you feel a Christmas carol coming on? “Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth and goodwill to all!”
Kent Kingston is editor of Signs of the Times. He lives with his family in NSW’s Lake Macquarie region.
* Bible verses marked NLT are used with permission from Holy Bible, New Living Translation, © 2015 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, Carol Stream, Illinois.