1977 was a banner Christmas. I got a Marlin .22 rifle with scope, and a fly rod. Nothing else of importance seems to have happened that year. I keep track of time by recounting significant events: 1975—a year in parochial school, 1976 —freshman year of high school, 1977—rifle and fly rod.
The Baby in the Manger Didn’t Click For Me
I remember the venti endorphin surge that Christmas morning, and the warm fuzzy sensation of happiness. None of it was connected to Jesus. In fact, to me, the Jesus angle had been more of a hassle than anything else.
My family typically went to midnight service, which I usually thought of as the last unpleasant hurdle before I tore into the presents under the tree. While I sat in the pew, enduring that spinach-and-egg yolk religious combo meal, I simply couldn’t understand the choruses of joy, joy, joy about a baby in a manger. It seemed the folks singing the loudest might have been fudging a bit.
Okay, shame on me. But I think most people don’t see a straight line connection between seasonal joy and Christ’s coming.
If we take an honest inventory, the upbeat mood seems rather to proceed from sentimentality, tradition, getting time off, décor, Christmas shopping that has gotten done early and cheaply, office parties, excited kids, and loads of treats you’re not supposed to eat. It’s fine to be happy about those things. It just seems a little weird to superimpose Jesus on top of them and insist He is the real reason for the joy, joy, joy.
Before Black Friday or Cyber Monday
You don’t get this sense of disconnect when reading about the birth of Jesus in the Bible. The joint forces of Walmart and Amazon had not yet encumbered the event of His arrival. There you get a definite sense of urgency, hope, and anticipation before His coming, and then deep relief after. Every column inch of those early gospel chapters showcases somebody who is ready to bust out praise for Christ.
Real biblical joy—the kind that can’t be stolen, bought, or returned for in-store credit—stems from the fact that our greatest problems have been solved in Christ.
Yes, you still have problems, but they’re likely ones that come part and parcel with life, that good fortune or elbow grease can fix. The things Christ handled are of the more distinctly nightmarish variety. You don’t luck out of them. They’re the stuff of dark, apocalyptic fare that could make a person wish they’d never been born.
You had problems like this.
The Day That Wrecked Your Life
For a little refresher, I want to take you back, not to a predictable recount of the Christmas story, but to the beginning of the world in Genesis chapter 3, where Adam had committed the first sin. The back story is relatively simple. God had told the man he could eat from every tree of the garden except one. He then added with all gravity, “The day you eat from that forbidden tree, you’ll die.”
Satan had some opinions to offer on the matter. Later, when the coast was clear, he entered the garden not arrayed with the sullied glory of a fallen angel, but joined to the serpent, a character familiar to Eve.
In an extremely short conversation, the serpent led her to doubt God’s word, to deny there would be any consequences in disobeying Him, and to suspect God’s character and motives. In typical satanic sleight-of-hand, the serpent played up the immediate benefits of disobedience—“Your eyes will be opened!”— but concealed any long-range negative effects.
Both man and woman bought it. And as God warned, they died upon eating—not on the outside, but the inside. Their heart of worship and communion with Him instantly pruned up and dried out. The two stood condemned. Their previous sense of peaceful harmony with God morphed into an intense feeling of awkwardness, alienation, shame which they tried to cover up, and worst of all, an expectation of divine judgment.
Yet this is more than the narrative of one man’s fatal mistake, because the Bible tells us they weren’t alone in their fall. They took us with them. According to Romans 5:12, “Sin entered the world…and death passed to all men.” We feel it, too—the spiritual death, oncoming physical death, and somewhere deep inside, a certain expectation of coming judgment where we will answer for the many evil things we’ve done. That final upshot called “the second death,” is so bad it would be better to have not been born than to experience it.
It was a grand train-wreck moment.
Someone is Coming to Get Even
And there they stand, with the devil standing next to them, like Mayhem, from the All-State insurance commercials—I’m the little voice encouraging you to do the wrong thing. Then after everything crashes down, he shrugs his shoulders and gives a sheepish chuckle.
Gen. 3:14 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.
15 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.”
The first few times you read these verses, you might not have known they referred to Jesus at all. Yet Gen. 3:15 has been called the mother of all Bible prophecies. It is the first gospel message ever preached by no less than God Himself, and directly to the devil. It obviously wasn’t good news to the serpent, but it certainly was to the two human beings listening in.
Here’s how God’s sermon played out: First, He made it clear that a state of enmity will always exist between the serpent and the woman. Try not to understand this as a religious folk story explaining why human beings don’t like snakes. This passage contains a lot of symbolism and double entendres, and it’s supposed to take us somewhere deep. Bottom line: Satan is the natural enemy of mankind. He hates the very soul of a human being. He is not supposed to be our friend, and our safest course of action is to dislike and distrust him.
More specifically, the enmity occurs between the offspring of the serpent and that of the woman. The serpent’s offspring generally refers to whatever comes out of him, but the woman’s offspring is a collective singular, a personalized “He.”
God thus tells the serpent, “He shall bruise your head.” It’s impossible to say what the devil was thinking at the moment, but he must have been surprised. A man was going to come and deliver a mortal injury to him? How could such a thing be?
But if the wicked angel puzzled over what it might imply for a mere man to hurt him in any sense of the word, the prophecy became even stranger. God indicated a struggle would occur. As the promised man would deal the killing blow—presumably through stomping the serpent’s head—the serpent at the same time would manage to bite, to bruise, the heel of the man’s foot. Naturally, a foot injury is less serious than a head injury, and one from which the man would recover.
But Satan would officially be trashed.
Finally, the Champion Appears
This prophecy germinated a hope within the human race, immediately causing us to anticipate the arrival of the “headbruiser.” Eve had a baby she named “Cain” which means “Acquired.” This perhaps reflected her hope that she had obtained the offspring God promised. But Cain disappointed her maternal expectations as surely as any black sheep has ever done. The boy was the world’s first murderer, but not the promised deliverer.
We kept looking.
Meanwhile, the prophecy conceived in Genesis 3:15 gained steam in the pages of the Bible until explicitly telling us in verses like Heb. 2:14, that “through death, He [Jesus] destroyed Him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” and in 1 John 3:8, where it says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
These verses finally unveil with crystal clarity that the offspring of the woman, the promised Man, the champion of the human race, the head bruiser, is Jesus Christ. It may seem odd to say during a holiday time known for mistletoe kisses, but the Son of Man came to carry out a destroying work, beginning with the manger. He cherished the souls of men and washed their feet, but showed nothing but contempt for the serpent.
Strange, but even toward the apex of His work on the cross, we tend to see only what happened to Him—the whipping, the crown of thorns, the crucifixion—as it were, the serpent striking His heel. We often miss the great simultaneous move of that Man bruising the serpent’s head. The cross invalidated the devil’s work and annulled his power so completely as to destroy him. The resurrection then rolled the heavy stone aside that had sealed us inside the tomb of dark judgment.
Now how should we feel?
You’re Supposed to Feel Something!
The news program 60 Minutes aired a segment last week about early onset Alzheimer’s. This particular strain of the disease strikes people in their forties, a much younger age than those who ordinarily develop it. The descent into darkness is long and excruciating, especially for caregivers. When Alzheimer’s strikes early, the rest of a person’s body is still healthy, so it takes a long time to kill them, upwards of ten years or more.
Researchers noticed a high rate of early onset Alzheimer’s from one particular family in South America. They further identified one mutated gene in the family that 100% guaranteed the disease would emerge in an individual.
60 Minutes gathered six kids from that family into a room for a group interview. Each knew they had a fifty-fifty chance of having the gene. The pressure and anxiety were palpable. They family members cried as they talked about the situation. One said she had decided not to have children because of the risk of passing on the disease. Another said he prayed if anyone in the room had the gene, to let it be him.
When we’re forced into such a game of genetic Russian Roulette, nothing is casual anymore. Every plan must account for an abbreviated life, with a horrible, ignominious end. After the best laid plans, the best you can do is try not to think about it too much.
That sorrowful little interview is a microcosm of all of us, except our chances of having the “sin” gene isn’t fifty-fifty. It’s one hundred percent certain. Everything in our lives has been touched by death, fear of death, and final judgment—our plans, our hopes, our desires, everything.
But Christ has come. For all who believe in Him, those problems are gone. Gone.
You’re supposed to feel something about that.
If you still don’t get it, go back to the room with the Alzheimer’s candidates. Imagine how they’d feel if they were given a new therapy that could free them from the tyranny of that one mutated gene. Nothing in their lives would remain untouched. Everything for them would change, even if they continued having trouble making the car note, or having bad work drama. Even if they didn’t get their dream home, or had rowdy kids, or had to eat generic brands, or couldn’t afford a trip to Disney. They’d deal with it. With a smile.
And that’s what God intends for you—joy that survives everything else, because it is joy bigger than everything else.