For as long as I can remember I have liked to watch war movies. Maybe it is because my dad served in the Air Force during WWII (he was a belly-gunner on a bomber in the Philippines) or that my oldest brother did two tours of duty as a Green Beret in Vietnam. Now, neither of them ever really talked about their experiences, but for whatever reason I’ve always been drawn to these types of movies – especially the old ones. The first battle-type of movie I remember seeing was when I was a child and my dad took another brother and I to the historic Proctor Theater in Schenectady, New York. We drove the 25 miles or so from our home in Delmar one Saturday morning to see the 1939 classic film “Gunga Din”, starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling). Maybe it was something about being in that big, old theater, or eating popcorn out of the square box instead of the typical tub… or maybe it was just the memory of sitting next to my dad as the story played out on the screen. Whatever it was, from that moment on I was hooked.
Christmas is typically the one time each year that evokes feelings of goodwill and togetherness. We are more apt to give to charities, help out in soup kitchens, and show kindness to strangers. Even those who wouldn’t otherwise grace the pews of a church find themselves drawn to crowded candlelight services and can’t help but singing about the birth of that beautiful baby boy. But the reality of that history-changing event that took place in a stable some 2,000 years ago, is that even with as beautiful a scene that we’ve conjured up in our mind, Jesus’ birth was actually the turning point in a great battle that had been raging for at least 4,000 years.
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8 NKJV)
What makes the devil our adversary? That word means “one who stands against” – but why would he want to stand against you and I? The roots of this battle started in the throne room of God even before earth was created. The angel who was called Lucifer was one of the cherubim (the “burning ones”) that literally hovered over the throne, and one day he decided that he was the one due the worship and not God. Scripture tells us that he led a rebellion and that he and a third of the angels were thrown down to earth from heaven. Since that moment, Genesis 3:15 tells us that God told Lucifer, “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 woman here represents Israel, and the offspring mentioned are all who are lovers and followers of God – this isn’t just Israel but all of us who are “grafted in” through our faith in Christ.
So for thousands of years, Lucifer (now called Satan, which means “opponent”, “to attack” or “accuser”) had been bringing his warfare against the Israelites, doing all he could to hinder God’s plans for them. And during all of that time he had been winning battle after battle, especially in the 400 years that lead up to Jesus’ birth. It was during this time that God was silent. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah prophesied that this time of “gross darkness” would come as a result of Israels’ sin and turning their back on God. Without the voice of the Lord being declared, Israel did what all men do when there is silence from heaven – they propped up religion with man-made laws that were impossible to keep. The opening words of that old Christmas carol captures this perfectly:
“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear… Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel”
In the midst of that silence and darkness, Satan must have thought that he’d actually won the war. But then something began to stir. People started to remember more than just the judgement that Isaiah had prophesied – they also remembered his words of hope:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
They gained hope from the words of the prophet Malachi:
“‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (Malachi 3:1)
And imagine the excitement when it seemed like the words of Micah were being whispered on the winds:
“‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.’ Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.” (Micah 5:2-3)
They would be abandoned until the time when she who is labor bears a son… Imagine the curiosity that stirred in Satan’s “camp” when the angel Gabriel was sent with a message… first to John & Elizabeth to announce the birth of the Forerunner, and then to Joseph & Mary to announce the birth of the One who would be called Emmanuel, GOD WITH US!
400 years of silence. 400 years! I can’t imagine the loneliness or despair. As one who’s been in ministry for more than 20 years, I can not fathom the thought of trying to stand to bring a message and have not heard from God. 400 years years of nothing coming back from heaven. 400 years of “gross darkness”.
And then a baby broke through.
God in the flesh had burst through the enemy lines in the form of a helpless child. Satan must have thought how easy it would be to get rid of an infant, so he did what he could by getting Herod to order the murder of all boys in his region that were under the age of 2. But the Father was watching over the Son, and the baby again broke through the enemy’s lines as Joseph carried off his family to Egypt for safe keeping.
A baby broke through.
In that movie that my father took me to as a child, it tells the story of how three British soldiers and a native water-bearer in India must stop a secret mass revival of the murderous Thuggee cult before it can rampage across the land. Gunga Din is the most mild-mannered and unassuming hero you could imagine. The climax of the movie is when a British outpost is surrounded and about to be overrun and a wounded Gunga Din climbs to the top of a tower to sound a battle charge on a bugle. I remember even now the excitement that stirred inside of me when the sound of that bugle broke through the silence – a column of British troops that were passing nearby were alerted to the danger, a massive fight broke out, and the outpost was saved. The water-bearer had saved the day.
How many times have I looked for God to shake the mountains or stir the heavens on my behalf? How many signs have I waited upon before taking a step in the “right direction”? I’m coming to understand the Father more and more, and I am beginning to see that He doesn’t always move in the ways expected. Sometimes, yes, He’ll pick one who is head and shoulders above the rest… or who has been placed in the king’s palace “for such a time as this”. And then at other times He chooses to move through those who none would ever expect. I think it’s in THOSE moments that all of heaven must cheer.
Sometimes it takes a baby to break through.
And how many times has it been a “gross darkness” that seemed to hover over my life? How many times did it seem like Heaven was being silent? That’s when I need to remember that a baby broke through.
“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel”