NTS News
NTS Blogs
« DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE BIBLE? | Main | Just How Wesleyan are We? A Historical Perspective »
Friday
Dec052014

ON ADVENT, BATHROBES AND DRAGONS

Dr. Andy Johnson
Professor of New Testament

The first Sunday of Advent was just a couple of days ago. When we light the Advent candles this time of year, warm and fuzzy things swirl around in my mind. Things like majestic angel choirs and shepherds under the stars (aka, kids in bathrobes), lantern lit stables and swaddling (I love that word!) clothes, wise men (aka, more kids in bathrobes), my own kids dressed in cow costumes for the manger scene when we first moved to Kansas City, some years ago. I have to admit that I love those warm and fuzzy things.

But other things swirl around in my mind at the same time. Things like Ebola; a Christian family in the US with three small children being torn apart because their undocumented mother is deported; violence in places like Syria, Nigeria, Ferguson, Chicago and neighborhood just beyond the NTS community; the cancer my friend Jerry is fighting; the two high school girls on the same soccer team who committed suicide on the same weekend…and the list goes on. I’d way rather focus more on the warm and fuzzy aspects of the Advent season than on these kinds of things. After all, this time of year we’re supposed to be celebrating Christ’s first coming and anticipating his coming again. But in the New Testament passages that give us the Christmas story, both the warm and fuzzy and the dangerous and tragic get all jumbled up together.

We get the angel choir and shepherds in Luke (although just to be clear, the stable was probably just the inside of a typical rural house and the manger a cold, feed trough). But we also have Luke telling us ominously that this all happened in the days of Emperor Augustus, during the (often brutal) occupation of Jesus’ homeland by the Romans. We read about the wise men bringing their gifts from afar in Matthew, but it’s right in the middle of the story of Herod the Great, Rome’s puppet “King of the Jews.” He’s the one who murdered all the male toddlers around Bethlehem in a proactive effort to get rid of any future claimants to his throne, particularly Jesus himself who escaped Herod at the time only to wind up later on a Roman cross under a sign that read (sarcastically): “King of the Jews.” This was the world Jesus came into, our very real world, the one that has a whole lot more of the dangerous and tragic than the warm and fuzzy.

I think it might help remind us of this aspect of Advent if we’d visualize the Christmas story in a different version, view it on the big cosmic screen, so to speak. Revelation 12 provides that big screen; it’s the IMAX version of the Christmas story that drives home the cosmic implications of what happened in Bethlehem. But it has a different set of characters than we’re used to, characters like a dragon, a pregnant queen who gives birth to a baby in pain and agony, and angels at war. The seven-headed, ten-horned, fiery red dragon (aka Satan) embodies all the dangerous and tragic forces opposed to God’s good purposes for his creation. In the story he pursues a pregnant woman (aka Mary, Israel, or perhaps Eve) with a twelve-starred crown on her head as she’s on the run in the pain and agony of labor. He’s hot on her trail and winds up standing right over her, ready to devour her child when she gives birth. But this child who “is going to shepherd the nations with an iron rod” (aka Jesus) is snatched up to God’s throne before the dragon can eat him. (In his telling, John telescopes Jesus’ whole birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension into this one movement of being “snatched up to God and to his throne,” the place where John’s slaughtered lamb now sits.) And this sets off a war in heaven between God’s army of angels headed by Michael and the dragon and his angels. The dragon and his angels lose the decisive battle and get thrown down to earth from their lofty place in heaven. But in his now mortally wounded state, the dragon makes war on the woman and her seed (aka, God’s faithful people whose lives look a lot like that of the baby who began life in “swaddling” clothes).

In this cosmic IMAX version of the Christmas story, Jesus’ birth isn’t portrayed in warm and fuzzy ways. Rather it’s the first shot in the decisive battle of God’s ongoing war to reclaim his sovereignty over a world gone awry, a world under threat from the dangerous and tragic forces opposed to his good purposes for his creatures and all of creation. From his birth onward, Jesus himself was threatened by dragon-like embodiments of those dangerous forces (remember the power-obsessed, murderous Herod who reflects the image of the dragon) until he finally winds up on a Roman cross where it looks like these forces have finally won. This really wasn’t the world of peace and quiet, silent nights in a warm manger for a baby about whom it could be said: “no crying he makes.” This dangerous world he came into and shared in completely is our very real world, the world with loads of tears, cold, hard feed troughs, violence in all its forms, injustice, family heartaches, suicide, Ebola, and cancer. But not only did he enter into our world of suffering, pain and death, it entered fully into him and thereby entered into God’s own heart so that he might destroy suffering, pain, and death from the inside out.

Whether or not this makes us feel particularly warm and fuzzy, it is the good news we celebrate every year at Advent. God was really in Christ in order to reclaim us and our world for his sovereignty. And we eagerly anticipate the day when the one who bore the wounds our world gave him—into the tomb and then on to the very throne of God—comes in full triumph to consummate what the Spirit began in Mary’s womb.

Reader Comments (3)

The last sentence is powerful!

12.5.2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Beautiful writing and profound imagery. I am thinking about peace since this is the second Sunday of advent when Christ brings peace knowing that we cannot fully understand the peace of Christ without understanding the chaos of the world. My favorite sentence is:

"But not only did he enter into our world of suffering, pain and death, it entered fully into him and thereby entered into God’s own heart so that he might destroy suffering, pain, and death from the inside out."

Now I really want to take the class on Revelation!

12.6.2014 | Unregistered CommenterLorilee Everleth

Thanks for this post, Dr. Johnson. I've reread it a couple times now. Great message and great imagery!

12.17.2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarissa Coblentz

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>