Landscape with St. John the Evangelist–Image courtesy Wikipedia
There is plenty of darkness in the Christmas story. Here is a sermon that joins the story of Herod with the story of the dragon in Revelation 12. I originally wrote it for Advent, but these are texts that are also appropriate after Christmas. If you are preaching on Matthew 2:13-18, the massacre of the children, it is fruitful to reflect also on the image of the dragon in Revelation 12. The agents of the dragon are still on the loose and still seeking to devour God’s children. Inspired by an article entitled “O Holy Nightmare” that I read in Sojourners Magazine (see citation below). I wrote this sermon in December of 2000. Our situation is much the same. Just update some of the names that the dragon wears…
A Christmas Vision
A Sermon on Matthew 2:1-18 and Revelation 12
The Christmas story thoroughly engages the imagination. When we imagine the scene in Luke of shepherds seeking and finding the newborn in the manger, with angels hovering, and when we imagine Matthew’s story of the wise men bowing low with humble joy, it is possible to forget. It is possible to forget—just for a little while—that there is another terrifying presence in this story, a malevolent presence that would like nothing better than to destroy the child.
But the Christmas story in the book of Revelation will not allow us to forget it. There the story is anything but peaceful and serene. The mother is crying out in hard labor. And crouched in front of her is a huge red, seven-headed dragon, ready to spring and devour the child as soon as it is born. Believe it or not, this really is a vision about the birth of Christ—and, as we’ll see—about his death and his resurrection and his ascension.
The child is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Savior. He is born to Mary, of course. And he is also born to Eve, the mother of all living, whose children tread on the head of the snake. And he is also born to Israel, to the people of God, who shine as twelve stars in the mother’s crown.
The dragon is the ancient serpent, says John, one and the same as the snake we first met in Genesis. It is Satan, a word that literally means the adversary of God. It is the devil. It is the accuser, the one who points at God’s children and laughs and laughs and declares over and over again, “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” It is the great deceiver of all humanity.
This is no silly looking devil in red tights. This dragon is everything evil all rolled up into one great malevolent force. It is the worst monster you can imagine, covered with heads and horns and crowns that John and his first readers would recognize as symbols of its power.
This dragon is capable of dragging the very stars out of the sky. You don’t believe it? Just ask Ann Weems, who writes this in the preface of her book of prayers of grief: “On August 14, 1982, the stars fell from my sky. My son, my Todd, had been killed less than an hour after his twenty-first birthday. August 14, 1982…and I still weep.” (Ann B. Weems, Psalms of Lament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995), p. xv.)
This dragon is crouched, eager to devour all the children of Eve, and even more eager to devour THE Son, the one who can save all the rest. And in every age it has raised up terrible monsters to do its bidding. Think of the beasts in power when Jesus was literally born in Bethlehem, and in particular the beast named Herod. He was more than troubled when visitors from the East informed him that somewhere out there lay an infant, born to be king of the Jews. What did Herod do? He reached into his same old bag of tricks. Here was a monster who had three of his own sons murdered, and one of his wives, and any number of his administrative people.
Herod’s response to the birth announcement? Plot murder. That child must be devoured! “Go find the baby,” he directed the visitors from the East, “and bring me word, so that I can go and worship him, too.” Herod sent them after names, addresses, physical descriptions. Would the wise men get caught up in the dragon’s doings?
Herod was one in a long line of agents of the dragon. The line stretched back to people like Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who enslaved all the Israelites, who ordered all Israelite boy babies to be murdered. And there was Nebuchanezzar of Babylon and his fiery furnace. As Jeremiah the prophet put it in chapter 51, the inhabitants of Zion, Jerusalem shall say, “King Nebuchanezzar of Babylon has devoured me, he has crushed me, he has swallowed me like a monster…” And there was Darius, king of the Medes, and his pit of devouring lions. History is full of these characters.
In John of Patmos day, Rome was a great beast and its emperors agents of the dragon, bearing names like Caligula, and Nero, and Domitian, and under them, Christ’s children paid for their faithfulness to him. They were despised, rejected, denied economic opportunity, and yes, at times, literally devoured by wild beasts.
In every age, the dragon has its agents. In our living memory, they have borne names like Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic. And don’t forget all the non-famous people that do the dragon’s bidding, preying on others, making life miserable for others, gobbling them up economically or emotionally if not literally.
The dragon doesn’t always roar, though. The ancient serpent is always crouched nearby. It slithers into every heart, where it drums up arrogance, hatred, cynicism, destructive thoughts and attitudes of all kinds. “I’m not the problem,” its victims say. “Its those other people those people who…” you fill in the blank. The dragon loves to get people thinking that way. It smacks its lips. And it knows that even if these people don’t actively support the big monsters, they can easily be persuaded to look the other way.
There is no question. That dragon is still around, and it can still drag the stars out of the sky. There is SO MUCH PAIN as we approach Christmas this year. (more…)
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