This was supposed to be my Christmas sermon this year.1
When we originally outlined the series, I was adamant that the story of the dragon and the woman giving birth in Revelation 12 must happen near Christmas, since this text is purposefully playing on incarnational imagery. The original idea (6 months out) was to talk about the daring of Christ’s insurrection into the “silent planet,” as C.S. Lewis named Earth.
The sheer audacity of the Incarnation – God becoming flesh of all things! – is matched only by the lengths the dragon would go to stop it, and the cosmic dimension in Revelation’s telling gives the story a new perspective. But the secret to the whole thing (which would’ve doubtless been revealed in a great closing moment turn of the sermon) was that the Incarnation happened long before Jesus was born of a virgin.
As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr states:
The incarnation of God did not only happen in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. That is just when some of us started taking it seriously. The incarnation actually happened approximately 13.8 billion years ago with a moment that we now call “The Big Bang” or the First Manifestation. At the birth of our universe, God materialized and revealed who God is.2
If Joseph were not so honorable and had Mary stoned for adultery, or if Herod had succeeded in destroying the Christ child with the other Bethlehem children, the Incarnation was already well underway – The Christ had long before been enfleshed in all matter, in every living being ever to have walked this or any other earth.
It would’ve been a good sermon.
But now we’ve got this, so let’s see what we can make of it.
So in our text for this week, Revelation 12-13, we have what are essentially two visions of the same event: the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness. In chapter 12, we see the story of “the woman and the dragon,” while in 13 we see the dragon gathering about him the two beasts to enact his rule upon the earth. As usual with Revelation, we have to wade through a bunch of images mostly unfamiliar to us to get to the main point John is trying to make, but when we arrive there, we find a glimpse into the always-ongoing victory of Christ and His faithful witnesses, who continue to witness to the power of Christ’s victory on the cross, even at the expense of their lives.
Remember, our two scenes are depicted immediately following the seventh trumpet blast of chapter 11, when we see the 24 elders worshiping God who “has begun to reign” (11:17). They allude to the angry nations of Psalm 2 (an oft-referenced scripture in Revelation) who are to receive God’s wrath, and then in verse 19, we see that “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.”
The main thrust there is that God has already won. As discussed last post, the two witnesses (i.e. the Church) have squared off against the power of the beast and, though he seemed to overcome them with violence (11:7-10), their faithfulness unto death is ultimately vindicated by God and they overcome the world through their resurrection after 3+ days – which looks so similar to Christ on the Cross because it’s part of the same victory, even complete with an earthquake (cf. Matt. 27:54). The Lamb and His Church have overcome and so we get a vision of God’s presence among the people (i.e. the ark of the covenant, Nazis not included).
But now we’ve moved into chapters 12-13 and it seems we’re back to God’s people struggling against the forces of evil. In chapter 12 it seems they are protected and victorious, but in 13, they are systematically destroyed. What gives?
Well first off, we need to remember that as an apocalypse, Revelation is not a sequential walk through of the last days. At all.
Also, John is here making liberal use of the literary device known as recapitulation.
Hold that thought.
When I was in college and studying piano performance, I had the opportunity to play a Beethoven sonata. Although it wasn’t his most difficult piece, nor was my performance perfect, it was still the crowning achievement of my musical career. I had never before nor since played anything so complicated.
I bring this up because the basic idea of classic sonata-allegro form specifically makes use of recapitulation. In the first movement, the writer creates a basic theme, but in the course of that first section, reinvents that theme again and again – perhaps through time or key signature changes, or by simply moving notes around, adding extra passing tones or movement in the bass line. Then, by the time we’ve moved into the second and third movements, we have spent several minutes hearing the same idea presented to us from many perspectives, often hearing callbacks to the primary theme before the resounding conclusion.
So, while there’s a lot we could cover about this as a literary style, the primary thing to know is that when an author employs it, they are “recapping” previous themes, usually by re-envisioning them in creative new ways. John is doing the same thing in Revelation with his primary theme of overcoming. His main challenge is to convince these Christians that resisting the alluring powers of Rome are what will bring them true, eternal victory. So he sets about displaying this theme in many ways, often by setting it in the midst of a dire, apocalyptic, winner-take-all conflict that calls into question our basic idea of what “victory” looks like. We’ve seen this many times in this study already, and here we see it again.
Throughout this book, John is trying to move us to a vision of cosmic unity, but he must continue to address the nature of Christ’s and our victory in order to convince his fellow Christians to resist to the last. So, in chapter 12 we see the victory of Christ and the His people from the vantage point of heaven, and from this perspective – unencumbered by the nature of earthly life – the victory is seen as complete and in favor of Christ and Church:
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death. (Rev. 12:10-11)
This perspective is accomplished by the story of the woman and the dragon. In it, we see a woman in the throes of labor and a dragon who is humanity’s ancient enemy and accuser (12:9) – the literal meaning of the name “Satan” – ready to devour the child as soon as he is born. But at the last moment, God rescues the child, “snatching him up to heaven” and also provides a way of escape for the woman.
The dragon is identified outright and the child is obviously Christ (hence the desire to preach this for Christmas), but the woman is a bit more ambiguous. She could be Mary (the “New Eve,” who first battled with the ancient serpent, Gen. 3). She could be Israel, who was also saved through water and the wilderness (again playing on the ever-important New Exodus imagery). She could be the Church, who is often described as the mother of the faithful and the bride of Christ, and later the Church is directly referenced as her “offspring” (12:17; remember we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters [Matt. 28:10; Heb. 2:11; et al]).
Or perhaps she’s all the above.3
As per usual, the point here is not to decode the image but to interpret it’s meaning, and the first thing to remember is the purpose of women in Revelation, which are to depict groups of people or cities, such as when Rome is represented by Babylon the Harlot, and the New Jerusalem as the Bride of the Lamb. So, the point here I believe is to be the provision and protection of God’s people – Mary, Israel, Church – from the wiles of the enemy, but we are explicitly told this is accomplished through their faithfulness to the Lamb unto death (see text above).
Although it includes death, the victory of Christ and the Church, from the perspective of Heaven, is without doubt.
However, we immediately follow this by chapter 13, where the “victory” of Christ’s followers is cast in a wholly different light. Here, where the dragon and his cronies are allowed to rule, our vantage point is obscured. From the perspective of Earth, much like with the death of the two witnesses in chapter 11, we see the death of God’s people as an unmitigated disaster.
Using the vision of the beasts in Daniel 7 as a template, we see the dragon call forth the beast from the sea, who openly blasphemes God and God’s people. This beast is the embodiment – the incarnation, even – of power, force, and the lie that they bring peace and stability to the earth. It is the lie of the pax romana in dramatic, apocalyptic guise. We also see that:
It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.
Whoever has ears, let them hear.
“If anyone is to go into captivity,
into captivity they will go.
If anyone is to be killed with the sword,
with the sword they will be killed.” (Rev. 13:6-10)
Then we see the beast from the earth, the cool hipster worship leader (sorry, couldn’t help it) representing the imperial cult, who puts on a stunning light and smoke show and calls all to worship the first beast of power.
(But that is of course of no consequence to modern Christians because we never use our platforms for worship to pursue worldly power and influence through government and military might.)
Anyway, he not only can kill those who fail to worship the image of the first beast (a direct call back to Daniel 3), but also – like an Orwellian fever dream – follows the logic of totalitarian regimes such as Rome’s, making it impossible to do commerce (i.e. to live), without living according to the rule of the beasts.
It’s no wonder that, in light of such conflicting stories, we are told twice in chapter 13 to carefully consider what we’re seeing (vv 10, 18), because without “patient endurance and faithfulness,” and “wisdom,” we can all too easily be deceived into believing that the apparent victory of the beast is the final word.
This is essentially the call of the Gospel and of John’s work, demanding which perspective we will choose to adopt: Heaven’s or Earth’s? Jesus told us to pray for God’s eventual rule on Earth “as it is in Heaven,” and John seems to keep showing us that someday, the illusion of earthly kings’ dominance will give way to the already-present rule of God (Rev. 4). Which reality will we live in?
This is what the late, great philosopher Rene Girard spent his life investigating: how the purpose of religion throughout the millennia, from humanity’s earliest days, has been to use violence to achieve societal equilibrium.4 We are a violent species, carrying a built-in belief that our greatest problems can be solved through the use of force – especially if we can cover that force with the veneer of God’s/the gods’ will.
But Girard and his disciples make the case that, unlike the ancient myths of communal violence, the Gospel tells the story from the perspective of the innocent victim, removing the shroud cloaking the evil of redemptive violence and revealing the works of the dragon, or our accuser “the Satan.” After the Cross, we can no longer believe that violence and force can actually save because, from the Gospel perspective, the jig is up – scapegoating does nothing but continue the cycles of destruction that have plagued humanity since its beginning, dehumanizing both victim and executioner.
Of course, the issue is that we actually can continue to believe in the myth of redemptive violence: the 20th century was the bloodiest in humanity’s history and was marked by especially brutal and explicit instances of scapegoating. And we – the people who are supposed to deeply understand this story – continue it today through fear of the other (“Muslim registry” ringing any bells?) and our myopic “pro-life” stances that ignore literally everyone except unborn babies (you know, because the orphaned and abused children don’t matter. Neither do refugees, embattled peoples, those on Death Row, or like, Planet Earth).
The Christ has always been revealing itself in matter, in creatures, in people, and when we refuse to acknowledge that fact we easily fall to the Accuser’s deception and perpetrate violence upon each other, fellow creatures, and our living, breathing Mother Earth. The Incarnation has always been going on, and our failure to proclaim that victory displays how thoroughly we have bought into the perspective of the beasts.
This might be a dark way to end this post, but we’re playing with live rounds here. The perspective from which we live is directly evident in the lives we lead and the witness to Christ those lives convey. We are called to be the people who view an earthly conflict from a heavenly perspective. We are called to be the people who continue to reveal the lie of redemptive violence. We are the people who say that faithful, sacrificial witness to the victory of Christ is the true source of Life in this world.
Let us be that people: who are neither deceived nor overcome by the dragon and his beasts, but are counted among the children of the Bride. And if that call leads to our death, let it come while we pray for the forgiveness of our enemies, for only then can we show the deceptions of violence and the victory of the Lamb.
1. As much Christmas as you can get when your last Sunday until January occurs two weeks before the 25th.↩
3. Strongly reminds me of Jesus playing on the textual ambiguity of “David’s Lord” in Psalm 110 – His ultimate mic-drop moment (Matt. 22:41-46).↩
4. Space does not permit to discuss Girard’s theory of mimetic violence via scapegoating, but if this is the first time you’ve heard of this amazing thinker and you’re up to the challenge, buy his books and prepare to have your mind blown.↩