A great and wondrous sign appeared.
Does that line from scripture seem familiar? Like maybe it’s somewhere in the Christmas story. Does it precede the angel’s announcement to the shepherds that a Savior is born in the city of David? Or the announcement to Zechariah that he and his old wife are going to have a baby who would grow up to be the forerunner of Christ? Perhaps that line goes with the conception of Jesus himself. A virgin becoming pregnant would certainly be a great and wondrous sign.
But that’s not how any of those stories begin. So let me give you a little more of it. A great and wondrous sign appeared . . . in heaven.
Aha – the Star! The star the Magi saw is the great and wondrous sign. That would be a reasonable guess, but that’s not it either. In fact, you won’t find that phrase anywhere in Matthew or Luke, the two gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ birth. To find it, you have to go all the way to the end of the Bible – to the book of Revelation. Chapter 12. And the really surprising thing is that Revelation 12 is a Christmas story – but unlike any Christmas story you’ve ever heard. This one is about how Christmas looked from God’s perspective.
A great and wondrous 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.
When we imagine Mary, we see a weary young woman in the last days of a surprising pregnancy. We can almost feel her aching back or the child kicking in her belly. Her face is tired, her patience thin and her hair is matted with road-dirt from the long journey she has traveled with Joseph. We see her dingy robe and the worn sandal straps cutting lines into her swollen feet.
But that’s not what God sees. God sees Mary in the radiant colors of the sun, gold and brilliant red, shining like a sequined movie star under the glare of adoring cameras. She wears a crown of stars on her head like an angel’s halo and she rides not a lowly donkey on a dusty road, but the moon across the sky. She is radiant with the glow of motherhood and her skin is pure and clear. All of heaven gathers to gossip the good news that the mother of the Christ is making her way to the blessed city of Bethlehem. The way God sees it, Mary is beautiful in her faith and obedience, robbed in the sun and crowned with the stars. That’s what John reports.
Back on earth a king has heard the news that a rival has been born in Bethlehem. The head that wears the crown is troubled and all the people with him. When kings worry their kingdoms quake. This is not the first time Herod has faced a rival, nor the first time a rival has faced the wrath of Herod. Many, including relatives, have died, victims of his insecurity. So soldiers are dispatched. Cottage doors are kicked in. Sleeping babies are dragged from their cribs to their deaths.
We see a brutal government exercising its power at the point of a sword. We see the same thing today in places like North Korea, Syria and Sudan. Human rights organizations file their protests. Political leaders make appeals. Military strategists plot scenarios. We see a human problem that can be solved by human laws or human politics or human power. We see Herod green with envy at the news of a new rival. But that’s not what God sees.
God sees an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his head. Behind and beneath all the violence then and all the violence now is Satan. It may be a Herod, a Bashar al-Assad, or a Kim Jong-Un giving the orders and sending the soldiers, but God sees a million stars fall from the sky at the flick of the dragon’s tail. God sees Satan, crouched like a wild animal waiting to devour the child the moment he is born. The woman cries out in pain as she gives birth and the dragon waits, mouth open, teeth bared. Jesus’ birth was more than politics. It was spiritual warfare. That’s what John suggests.
We see a tiny baby, wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger. He wakes every couple of hours, crying until his mother nurses him back to sleep. Joseph paces back and forth, now stoking the fire with more wood, now asking Mary for the millionth time, “Are you alright? Do you need anything?”
We see a baby, frail and weak and vulnerable, the infant mortality rates of those pre-med days stacked against him. As the night passes, a few shepherds show up to visit, but no one else. His birth is barely noticed on earth.
But God notices. This baby is more than just another whimper in the night. His voice will one day command millions, cast out demons, cure diseases and control the weather. His tiny feet will walk on water and his eyes will see into souls. His hands will hold more than a carpenter’s hammer – they will hold heaven’s scepter.
We see so dimly. Our little acts of faith seem lost and insignificant in a world either too busy to care or too evil to be swayed. We come to church, we sing our songs, we share the supper, we give our money, we hear the sermon, we say our prayers and we go back home. Did anything change? Has anyone noticed? Not that we can see.
But God sees more. Our little acts of faith shine like stars in the night. One small act of obedience on earth and heaven takes note. It will not be lost in the mists of eternity. The small Christians and their little songs and their routine ceremonies have heaven’s full attention.
The way God sees it, as John explains it, every act of faith, every little obedience, every temptation resisted takes on epic proportion. One person recommitting her life to Christ sends shockwaves through the halls of hell, knocking Satan to his knees. One person confessing his sin and turning from the temptations he has embraced, brings heaven to its feet in celebration. One person overcoming pride and fear to seek the prayers of God’s people for strength fills God’s throne room with the incense of our prayers.
It is a gift of grace that every now and then, we get a glimpse of what God sees. Which is why this season is so special. The lights and music and mystery of Christmas remind us that there is more here than meets the eye.