This weekend, I put up my first Christmas tree. It was a three-foot-tall noble fir Charlie Brown tree, and it got just a simple arrangement of bulbs, lights, and miniature star.
And yes, that’s totally a Darth Vader ornament. Impulse buy. Be jealous.
I’ve never put up a tree before. Part of the reason was living alone, who else was gonna see it, etc. But part of it was my typical attitude towards Christmas. It wasn’t a holiday I’ve particularly looked forward to. Not for a while.
It was on a December 27 that I received news of my parents’ divorce. I don’t blame anyone anymore (because forgiveness doesn’t let you); I don’t even blame God; I just kinda blame life. But the fact remains that I haven’t gotten into the Christmas spirit much, either.
Some of you who have faced loss this time of year, or taken hits to that precious refuge of family, can relate. It can be frustrating to feel pressured into joyfulness by the radio stations. A friend of mine is bracing for her first Christmas without her father, a good man who passed on last February. That one carol comes on telling us From now on our troubles will be miiiiiles awaaaay and we’re all like…
Because that’s TOTALLY what Jesus said in John 16:33, right? Well, not really.
So naturally, Christmas has not been my favorite time of year for a while.
But what does the rest of John 16:33 say?
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33b)
We’ve got a game-changer here. That’s where God wanted to take me this Christmas.
It was his answer to a prayer. I have been asking for more of his love lately, the culmination of a long journey of slowly seeing every possible blessing and good thing in life made both dependent upon and secondary to that love. I’m to the point where I know I need that love more than anything. But finding that love sometimes involves removing blockages. I was about to lose a whopper.
Most people don’t know that there’s a third Christmas story in the Bible. We know Matthew’s; we know Luke’s. But the third doesn’t involve livestock, mangers, or wise men. In fact, it’s got an almost entirely different cast of characters and a totally different setting.
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 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. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael 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 serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
How many of our mantletop nativity scenes look like this? Celestial war, signs and wonders, Satan being hurled to the earth (or being included at all)?
Also, “Silent Night”? Why the heck do we have both that carol and one called “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”? This makes no sense. Which is it? Was that night silent or were the hillsides ringing with song? (Perhaps new mothers are best qualified to answer. There ain’t nothing about delivering a child that’s silent. Or so I’ve heard.)
See, this is why Revelation 12 is one of my favorite Bible passages: in many ways, it is the truer reality of what happened at Christmas. The accounts of Matthew and Luke were meant to emphasize the human, intimate side of the Incarnation, but the PG-rated religious gilding it’s accumulated over the centuries (a white non-crying baby Jesus, Herod’s genocide left out of most church nativity scenes) has clouded a lot of that. Revelation 12 gives us the stakes. I daresay most guys might appreciate this version more because we’re turned on by combat (rawr), but what gets me going is the intentionality and purpose of this story. It catapults the whole thing into realms of triumphant cosmic bigness.
Christmas isn’t just a serene, tender caveside birth. Christmas is the first step of a rescue mission. This is Jesus rolling up his sleeves and jumping without a parachute into the mess of the world, because you don’t need a parachute when you have authority to take your own life back up again (John 10:18). The manger led to the cross; the cross was Satan’s final foiling, where Jesus forever broke his lawful grip on humanity’s souls.
Christmas is bigger than our pain.
Fast forward three decades from the manger. When Jesus stands before Israel and says that he has overcome the world, he doesn’t mean preventing all suffering. He went into suffering first, and we his followers are expected to, well, follow. But preventing despair? Overcoming the assault against our inner joy, bringing us an unassailable hope? You bet he’ll do that. His first words were to quote Isaiah 61, talking about “binding up the brokenhearted”. Jesus might not stop every disaster, but he will stop desolation in our hearts; he might not heal every body, but he will heal any soul.
If we ask.
That’s what I had never done, at least not in this area of my life. I did have legitimate disappointment connected with Christmas, though I was learning not to be too Grinchy about it around other people because they’re enjoying the season and why should I be the wet blanket. But to be honest, a bit of self-pity and bitterness had mixed itself into my attitude. It’s sneaky that way. And it doesn’t please God. To struggle with Christmas is natural for some of us, but to hold resentment is to withhold the honor due to all that Jesus has accomplished for us.
I’m not saying God is aloof from suffering; far from it. He cares very much about the hardships of our lives. There are real heartbreaks. Those have a welcome and concerned audience before the Throne.
What I’m saying is, there is still a forward-looking hope for this season,
This is what God spoke to me this month. Something like, I want Christmas back for your life. Not Get over it already, but something much more gracious and understanding. Bitterness had no business burying my joy. I want Christmas back for your life.
So I got a tree.
It wasn’t about family or tradition anymore. It was a handy way for me to make Christ bigger than my past, thunking down in my living room a physical symbol of Christ’s victory. This tree reminds me of Christ’s tree, the mission that started at the manger, finished at the cross and empty tomb, and will culminate one day in the seventh vial.
Oh yes…did I mention that true good really is coming? That one day every tear will be wiped away and all heartbreak and flaw will be redeemed? That we will leave in the presence of Christ forever? That is what was finally kicked into action here. And the nativity scene was the first domino.
If you are struggling with disappointment this Christmas season, give it to God. There’s a hope and a humility to that. That means accepting that God cares very much, that he might do something about it, and that he will heal your soul for sure. There is tremendous grace and love available for your wounds. It also means admitting that your hurt is not bigger than God. I don’t mean to sound insensitive. But John 16:33 is true: whatever pain we experience in this life is only temporary. The best is yet to come.
And given the price Jesus paid to accomplish this, I say, the least we can do is to let Christmas overcome.