Friday, December 1, 2017

The Warrior and the Dragon - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

The LORD God said to the serpent,
Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
-Genesis 3:14-15

 What is your image of Jesus's birth? Was it peaceful and quiet? A contemplative moment in the midst of life's chaos? This is often how we picture it. A scene of Hallmark sentimentality as soft as an infant's skin. This image often carries over to how we understand what Jesus came to do. If our picture of the Nativity is saccharine and contemplative, our gospel often is as well. It's the reason Christmas as a religious holiday is so palatable to those who are outside of Christianity.

We can all appreciate the virtues of peace and tenderness, but to elevate them to the sum of the Christian hope is to declaw our religion. And it needs claws, because the world around it is full of wolves. There is a tenderness to how Scripture pictures Christmas. However, that tenderness exists on a backdrop that is anything but soft. The bible's image of the incarnation is one of cosmic warfare.

With the above words, God curses the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent – who stands in for Satan in the story – is cast down to the ground, but then there is something odd. God promises to put an animosity between Satan and the woman, and then between their offspring as well. But that word for offspring, that isn't the plural you would expect. It is singular. Because of this, Christians since the New Testament have understood that there is a hint in that first curse of something greater. A hint of the battle fought by Jesus Christ against the forces of darkness.

This is how Scripture imagines Jesus's coming. The apostle Paul tells us, “but when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman...” (Galatians 4:4a) The language there is a callback to that first promise of a seed, which then explains why he also uses the language of conflict to describe the result of Christ's work. “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities” - which is Paul's language for the dark forces at work in the world, the powers behind worldly powers – “and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Jesus].” (Colossians 2:15)

This is the curse on the serpent being coming true. Satan strikes at Jesus, doing his best to bring him down. But Jesus Christ, in His great work of salvation, emerges victorious. It is the devil's head that ends up being crushed beneath that bruised heel.

Or, to use the language of John in the book of Revelation, Christmas is a story about a warrior come to slay a dragon. Here is how he describes Christ's coming: “And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (Revelation 12:9) That is not something you put on a postcard. It belongs instead in an epic fantasy.

Something seismic shifted in Bethlehem that night two thousand years ago. There had been skirmished in the fight between God and evil throughout history. Brush wars. Now, though, the King Himself was riding forth. He was swinging up on His warhorse to enter the fray.

Of course, all of this was invisible to the watching shepherds and the befuddled family. There were hints of it – the army of angels arrayed for battle in the skies certainly wasn't the pudgy cherubs we imagine – but it was hard to see. In this birth, though, the course of the war behind the world was changing. The warrior was coming to battle the dragon, and though He would stumble beneath the onslaught of evil, yet He would rise again, and the forces of darkness would ultimately be overcome.

Come, Desire of nations, come!
  Fix in us Thy humble home:
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed,
  Bruise in us the serpent’s head;
Adam’s likeness now efface,
  Stamp Thine image in its place:
Final Adam from above,
  Reinstate us in Thy love.

-Charles Wesley, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

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