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. In John of Patmos’ day, Christ’s people mourned the suffering and deaths of the faithful. Some lost heart. Some went through the motions of bowing to Rome and pledging divine allegiance to the emperor. But as far as John was concerned, that was the same as meaning it. It still betrayed Christ. It still amounted to cooperating with the dragon!
Thanks be to God, the wise men didn’t cooperate! They took themselves out of Herod’s scheme. Deep in their psyches from whence dreams come, the wise men heard a warning from God. They dreamed. Did they perhaps dream of a dragon, crouched to devour a child? Who knows?
Joseph and Mary also heard the word of the Lord in a dream and snatched the infant away from Herod to safety in Egypt. Now, the dragon didn’t get Jesus that time. But didn’t it get him eventually anyway? Look at the gospels. The dragon was always crouching nearby. Early on Jesus’ opponents began plotting to destroy him. And at Calvary they got their wish. These agents of the dragon mocked Jesus, beat him and condemned him to a gruesome death. The dragon got Jesus in the end, right?
WRONG! Says the Christmas vision in Revelation, which is also the Easter vision. God snatched this precious child away, God snatched this shepherd of all the nations away from the dragon and raised him up to the very throne of God, to reign forever and ever. When Christ Jesus walked into the dragon’s mouth, God resurrected him and lifted him up to rule over the universe.
Through Christ’s faithfulness on Calvary, and through his resurrection, the dragon was thrown down, mortally wounded, doomed to death. “Lo, his doom is SURE!” says Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.”
This is war, says Revelation 12, and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the forces of good have thrown down the dragon and all the forces of evil.
But like a wounded beast, the dragon is hurting. It is enraged. It is lashing out in its fury. It is like the Nazi regime that continued to fight, even after it was clear that the allies had won. Just as the allies were pulling up to the gates of the camps, Hitler’s agents feverishly slaughtered as many of their prisoners as they could. The doomed dragon is trying to inflict as much damage as it can before the King of the universe finishes him off.
That’s what it’s doing now, writes John. The angry dragon made war on the rest of the woman’s children, the sisters and brothers of Jesus, his people. But John also heard this message, and urged his readers to believe it: 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 comrades, our sisters and brothers, has been thrown down. But our fallen comrades have conquered the accuser—remember the accuser, the one who laughs at our guilt and enjoys it? The one who keeps telling God what trash his children are?—they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb, that is the one who died on the cross, and by their witness, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. They were faithful to death. No compromising with the dragon! Rejoice then, you heavens, and those who dwell within them!
The message is this: Don’t cooperate with the dragon or any of its agents. Don’t cave in to the beast! Don’t cave in to Rome! Don’t save your own skin at the cost of eternal life. For just like your Savior, you will be rescued from the dragon and you will belong to the King forever.
Another way to put it is this: Christ is born! Christ has died. Christ is risen. And Christ is coming again! And he will finish off the dragon forever.
An article I read recently includes a drawing of the nativity scene that was made in 1952, which would have been the Korean War era. It shows a sleeping child, nestled in the hay, and attentive animals all around. A star points to him. But if you look closer, you can see way off to the edge of the picture a bombed out city in flames. Even under the hay is hidden a soldier’s helmet. The dragon was near in 1952 . (You can see this drawing by Fritz Eichenberg, in Bill Kellerman, “O Holy Nightmare” (Sojourners, December 1985, pp. 34-36).
It still is near, making its presence felt in every kind of heartbreak and hurt, as we make our way to the manger. Rachel weeps for her children this very day in the land where Jesus walked. People mourn this day for many reasons, because the dragon is still on the loose.
But it shall not be so forever. Christ is born! Thanks be to God. Christ has died and Christ is risen! Thanks be to God! Christ is coming again! Thanks be to God! Even so, come, come, Lord Jesus!