When I started this series in January, it felt like there was time to give each section of Revelation good attention. We began with John’s exile on Patmos and the background of the book. We were able to cover two of the seven letters to the churches—Ephesus and Laodicea. We had two weeks to dive into the dramatic action of the heavenly throne room, with the lion/lamb, the four living creatures, the 24 elders, the scroll, and so much more. (For reasons beyond my understanding, my drawing is now hung on the wall in the Lounge if you need a refresher.)
But now we’re zooming through highly complex material. It’s material that we’ve referred to as a symphony, where each sequence of events—like the seven seals or seven trumpets—is like following one particular instrument in the symphony, giving us one part of a greater whole that is unfolding as the book moves on. Pastor Kristine likened it to a mosaic—how each piece tells of a greater whole.
It’s been humbling to walk with you trying to interpret this beautifully challenging text, and I’m mindful of G. K. Chesterton’s admonition, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” I’m mindful that I have now joined the voices of those commentators. I can only hope I do so faithfully.
Today’s text is part of a much bigger story, and that bigger story is yet another line of the symphony or another tile in the mosaic that helps us see what God is up to. The good news on this text? Even if you only come to church for major services like Christmas Eve, you know the story of what is happening here. Chapter 12 is another version of the birth of Jesus, although instead of shepherds and magi there is cosmic danger and a seven-headed dragon. (Maybe we should add this to next year’s Christmas pageant…)
Our text begins with a great sign appearing in heaven. There’s a woman clothed with the sun. The moon is under her feet, and she’s wearing a crown of twelve stars on her head. John is borrowing from familiar Near Eastern imagery. The woman is pregnant and going into labor. Who is this woman? There are lots of options. Most directly, she’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, the God-bearer. We know this because in verse 5, the child she bears is “to rule all the nations with an iron rod,” which comes from Psalm 2:9, which has long been interpreted as a psalm about how the Messiah will put the nations back in order.
But she’s more than Mary. She’s faithful Israel, bearing the crown of twelve stars on her head, just like the twelve tribes of Israel. She’s also Eve, the mother to all of human creation. After Eve and Adam disobeyed God, there is a first proclamation of how God will work to defeat the evil that is in the creation. It will be the offspring of Eve who will “crush the head” of the one who fights against God’s good work. But the woman is also the faithful church that is at war with evil in the world. Just like the crown could represent the twelve tribes, it can also represent the twelve apostles. I wanted to call this sermon “There’s something about Mary,” but there’s so much more going on with this great sign!
A second sign appears. This time is a great fiery red dragon. It has seven heads. It has ten horns. It’s seven heads have seven crowns. This description shows its great power. It’s not something to be trifled with. Both the number seven and the number ten are symbols of completeness, so this dragon has full power and strength and even wears crowns to reflect that it is ruling too. With a swipe of its tail it wipes out a third of the stars, which fall to earth. We learn in verse 9 that this dragon is “the old snake, who is called the devil and Satan.” This dragon is terrible and frightening.
But it is also frightened. The dragon knows the power of this woman and knows that the offspring she will bear is the one who will ultimately remove those crowns from his head. So the dragon tries to stop things before they can get started. He stands ready to devour the child, but God protects the child. In the matter of a verse, we move from Jesus’ birth to Jesus’ ascension to reign at the right hand of God the Father.
We can recall the danger Jesus faced, particularly at the hands of Herod, the would-be King of the Jews. Matthew’s gospel shares how Herod wants to wipe out the possibility of a rival, so he orders the killing of all the boys born in the past two years. Once again, our Christmas tableaus fail to convey the majesty and the gravity of what is happening. Eugene Peterson puts this well, “Jesus’ birth excites more than wonder, it excites evil: Herod, Judas, Pilate. Ferocious wickedness is goaded into violence by this life. Can a swaddled infant survive the machines of terror? Can promise outlast horror? We want him to live, we long for this rule, but is it possible in this kind of world?”
So, yes, Christmas. But also the very real challenges that life continues to hurl at us, both as a church and as individual members of the church. Notice in verse 6, after the child is safely with God, the woman—that is, the church for our purposes—flees into the desert. But the desert isn’t a mistake. God has prepared a place for her to be while this grand work takes place. The text says that she is taken care of in the desert for 1,260 days. In other words, three-and-a-half years. You’ll know by now that it’s a mistake to take this vivid, imaginative writing literally, so let’s not do that with this number either. Why 1,260 days? John uses seven as a number of perfection, so seven years would mean everything is complete. This is three-and-a-half years, which means we’re still in the struggle between this starting and ending. We haven’t arrived. The battle is ongoing between the powers of evil and God’s way.
The second half of our passage moves the battle on. Michael and his angels battle the dragon and his angels. The archangel Michael was considered the heavenly patron of Israel—see Daniel 10:13, 21 and 12:1—and so John says that Michael is also battling on behalf of the new people of God. The dragon and his legion are hurled to the earth, where the battle will continue into the next couple of chapters.
You may be thinking, “This is all fascinating information and vivid imagery, Pastor Troy, but so what? What’s the ultimate purpose of this? Well, John’s word to the church is this: We—the church—are a part of this ongoing cosmic battle. We are the woman in the desert—the place prepared for us by God—but this is not home. It is not comfortable. The time is not complete. When we pause to consider the state of the world, we can be overwhelmed by the evil that is present. We see it in bullying. We see it in an infant ignored in a freezing car because the parents are strung out on drugs. We see it in discrimination. We see it in greed that destroys the earth.
This may be an uncomfortable truth for us prim-and-proper Presbyterians, but Satan has been cast down to the earth, and the church must struggle against his wicked work. We’re still here in the desert because God has placed us here. We have work to do. “The church needs to know that its present struggles and sufferings are not a sign that God has gone to sleep on the job. They are the sign that a great, cosmic drama is being staged, in which they are being given a vital though terrible role to play.”
The woman and the dragon will be with us through much of the rest of Revelation, so keep them both in mind going forward. To close, I want to remind us that John is telling us about the cosmic battle between God and Satan as a great symphony. Today’s text is only one part in this majestic score. We do know the end, however. Right before our chapter come the familiar words that Handel used in The Messiah for the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,
and he will reign forever and ever.