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A Different Version of the Christmas Story
A good number of years ago, while I was still in the parish, I was struggling to choose a text for my Christmas Day sermon. I wanted to do something a bit different to bring out a new aspect of Christmas for the people. In my search I came across a very different version of the Christmas story. I was hesitant to use the idea at first. After all Christmas is a beloved and sacred time. One rightly treads lightly when introducing something new.
So where does one find a different version of the Christmas story? Well, how about in the book of Revelation? I have it printed here for your ease of reference. As you read it you will notice that it is obviously about the birth of Christ but told using very different imagery.
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. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 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. 5 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. 6 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. Revelation 12:1-6
Different right? Perhaps a little explanation will help make the meaning more evident.
The woman presented here is symbolic of the people of God, both Old and New Testament. We see this in the crown of twelve star that she is wearing; twelve being symbolic of God’s people (as in the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles). Also, being clothed with the sun and having the moon under her feet indicates that her place/home is truly in heaven. In addition, verse 5 makes her identity clear as she gives birth to a child “who will rule the nations with an iron scepter.”
The woman’s pregnancy and her crying out in birth pains places this scene into the birth account of our Lord in Bethlehem.
The enormous red dragon that appears is Satan drawing upon the imagery of Satan appearing in the Garden of Eden to tempt Adam and Eve as a serpent. The seven crowns on his heads presents him as an imposter. See Rev. 5:6 where the Lamb has seven crowns and 13:13, 17:8. Satan is never original but always false, an imposter, and a deceiver.
Most commentators agree that the dragon sweeping a third of the stars (angels) from the sky refers to the fall of Satan and his angels.
The dragon standing before the woman about to give birth so as to devour the child the moment he is born brings to mind Herod and the slaughter of innocence (Matthew 2:16) when he sought to kill Jesus.
The child being snatched up into heaven is a reference to Christ’s ascension. Yes, the absence of the death and resurrection of Christ is odd but the passage focuses our attention on the victory of Christ and his heavenly nature.
And what of the woman, the Church? Well, God has a place of safety prepared for her where she may remain until Christ comes again to take her home to heaven.
I trust that with these few explanations the passage and its Christmas message is quite clear. Different? Certainly! Absent are the supporting stories of
But perhaps the most significant take away from this different version of the Christmas story is the reminder that the birth of Christ is a significant portion of a great spiritual battle. At times we want to accentuate the positives of Christmas. We place up front for all to see the love, joy, and peace of Christmas. We speak of light and life, of giving and generosity, of goodwill to all. This is all good, right and salutary. But we need to remember that Christmas is spiritual warfare; it is a battle between God and Satan with people in between.
As with the Christmas stories in the Gospels, the Christmas story in Revelation, although using very different imagery, proclaims joy to the world through the birth of the Christ-child.
One of the morning sessions with Dr. Bruce Hartung presenting Holding Up the Prophet’s
Hands at Somerset Hill Lutheran Church, Basking Ridge.
Pastor Appreciation Month (October) has long since passed but our concern for the well being of our pastors has not. In the past month or so we have had two events here in the NJD to highlight the need for worker wellness. The first was a session of the NJD University in which we invited Rev. Greg Walton from LCEF/Grace Place to speak about the importance of worker wellness and how to do it better. For the rest of our churches we invited Dr. Bruce Hartung to speak on the same subject. If you were there for either of these two events, I encourage you to follow through with some of your intentions to perhaps form a Worker Support Team and take a few steps to support your workers.
For those of you who did not go to one of the events I encourage you to purchase Dr. Hartung’s book Holding Up the Prophets’ Hands and read about some of the things you can do. It is my contention that a healthy pastor leads to a healthy congregation and, vice versa, a healthy congregation leads to a healthy pastor. It is a mutually dependent relationship. Congregations do well to care for their pastor so he can care well for them.
Initiative for Ministry Development (IMD) and New Jersey District University (NJDU)
NJDU is now completed. Over seven monthly sessions, seven 7 congregations gathered to work on ministry plans. The last session was an opportunity to put some final touches on plans and to share those plans with the District. I was remined once again how this was not a cookie cutter program. Each congregation presented a plan that was not only different from all the others but also organized and presented in a different way.
In addition, we emphasized that this is not a one-off type of deal. Rather the intention is for these plans to be dynamic and renewable. In other words, these plans can and should be revised as the year goes on and new needs arise. Also, they are to be used as the basis of an annual planning session in which the plans are reviewed, evaluated and amended for the coming year.
IMD, in its third phase intends on providing a guided session in which congregations can work on evaluating and amending their ministry plans. This third phase of IMD will also feature other seminar/workshops that will address special ministry needs congregations have. These sessions are currently in the planning stages.
Some Good News from Our Concordia Universities
At the last Council of Presidents, we met at Concordia University, Irvine, CA. It was a great opportunity to see the campus and the work this university is doing to educate students in a Lutheran Christian environment. Representatives from some of the other Concordias were also present. Here are a few snippets on the good news they shared with us.
Concordia University, Nebraska shared about its largest incoming class since 197. They also presented the Paul Scholars Program in which students will work 15 hours/week in return for no tuition; they are recruiting for 10 spots for the first year.
Concordia, St. Paul celebrated its largest enrollment in school history and received the largest gift in school history. It will endow chairs in the theological department.
Concordia University, Irvine celebrated the opening of a second campus in downtown Irvine and shared about their emphasis on Lutheran identity.
Concordia University, Wisconsin and Ann Arbor shared that their enrollment goals were met. A new mission and ministry position has been established and filled.
Concordia University Chicago has exceeded the recruitment goal of undergraduates by 10 percent. New curriculum is being put in pace for the upcoming year that will connect with a new classical program.
We thank God for our Concordia Universities and pray for the education of our young adults in an environment that also nurtures their faith.
Two students performing the postlude at Concordia, Irvine Campus Chapel.
One of the concerns that I hear over and over again from our churches is that their membership is growing older and that they have few children. It doesn’t take much thought to understand this us an unsustainable trend. But how does a congregation reverse this trend?
Dr. Dave Rueter, trained and tasked by the LCMS, has put together a process whereby congregations could learn about and reverse this aging trend. He went to Fuller Youth Institute and learned about the Seven Core Commitments of Congregations that are growing younger. He then teamed that with the LCMS’s Seven Practices for Youth Ministry to come up with a comprehensive program to help congregations connect with younger generations.
One question that may immediately come to mind (and frankly is the first question I had) is “Will this work only in larger churches?” The answer is “No!” The principles and practices that are a part of Growing Young have been tested in many churches of various sizes and have been found to be successful in all! That is good news for us in NJ. Few of our churches are of the larger variety. We need solutions that work for larger and especially smaller congregations.
Dr. Rueter will be coming to NJ to speak to our Spring Pastors Conference in May, 2024. Pastors will be able to hear and evaluate Growing Young to see if it is something that will be helpful for their congregation. Those congregations that are interested in joining a cohort of NJD congregations to implement Growing Young will be able to do so.
The cost per congregation for participating in a cohort is reasonable and the NJD hopes to be able to subsidize those costs to some extent. My hope is that you can begin to have leadership conversations about this possibility over the next several months. Also, please see the separate article about this in this month’s Grapevine.
District Short Clips
Official Visits are on hiatus for Advent/Christmas. The visits will resume in January. I am currently scheduled through mid-February. Soon I will be selecting another 7 churches and sending them an invitation to schedule a visit with me. That should just about finish the first year’s visitation (18 churches) and have me right on schedule to visit every congregation in the three-year cycle.
Call Lists. St. John, Bloomfield and Calvary, Verona are just about ready to issue a call. This will be their third during this vacancy. St. Paul, Closter has received her 1st call list. Christ Memorial, East Brunswick has received their 1st Call List. Holy Trinity, Somerset is awaiting their 1st call list.
Rev. Anthony Iovine has received and returned three calls which he considered. We are pleased to have Pastor Iovine remain with us here in NJ. Rev. Gary Timm has accepted a call to Bettendorf, IA. He will be departing after Christmas. Chris Schneider received two calls. He has declined one to Grace, Huntsville, AL and accepted the other one to Beautiful Savior, Powell, OH. He also will be departing after Christmas. Rev. Phil Ressler has a call to Immanuel, Brandon, FL. Rev. Lawrence Gboeah, Christ Assembly, Newark has retired and Borbor Zolue has completed his studies in the EIIT program. We are looking forward to his ordination and installation at Christ Assembly in January (possibly the 14th but not a definite yet).
Pastors Wives. There is a Pastors Wives retreat coming up in February. Please watch the Grapevine for more details.
Outreach Council. The Outreach Council is working on developing a page on our District website that will be a resource of outreach ideas for congregations to use. Each congregation is encouraged to submit one idea along with a one or two paragraph description of the event/activity. Congregations will be able to go to the page for inspiration and encouragement toward outreach through their congregation. Pastors through their Circuit Meetings and Circuit Visitors are being asked to accomplish this.
Synodical Convention Resolutions. In an effort to bring Synod closer to congregations and to make Synodical resolutions relevant to ministry here in NJ, plans are in the making for District representatives to visit each congregation to share Synodical resolutions that are relevant to congregations. Knowing about these resolutions, congregations can then decide if there are any that can assist them in their ministry or decide to take up something new at the suggestion of a resolution. We pray that this can assist and stimulate us to vibrant ministry here in NJ.
Thanksgiving was just this past week. None-the-less our attention now turns to the coming of our Lord in Advent and Christmas. May this Advent/Christmas be filled with love, joy, and peace. But let us also remember that Christmas is about a spiritual battle in which Christ came among us in human flesh to win the victory for us.
The LORD with you,