A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian
May 2, 2010
Rev 12:1-6, 13-17
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.
So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she was nourished for a time, and times, and a half a time. Then from his mouth, the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth.
The Book of Revelation occupies an odd place in our culture. There are references to Revelation in movies, books, and even in the news, but few of them are taken in the context of the book. Because a lot of people think they know what Revelation is about, but few of us actually read the book.
And we don’t read it because it is weird. It is a genre of literature with which we are not familiar. It uses imagery that is unfamiliar to us. It talks about things in very visual and allegorical language.
It is NOT a news report. This is not literal history. This isn’t literal anything.
It is also NOT a fortune telling book. This isn’t a book to read like a map, seeking clues to predict the future.
It is a book, perhaps surprisingly, of HOPE. Written for people who need to be reminded of God’s love and care for all of creation, even when the lives they may be living can make it hard to see.
And it is a book that is consistent with the rest of the Bible. You don’t have to agree with me about my interpretation of Revelation, but I do think you need to read it with the rest of the Bible in mind. Because God creates the world and humanity in Genesis and calls it good. God cares enough for humanity to send the son, Jesus Christ, to save the world.
And Jesus, in his living, teaching, and dying, tells the world that God’s kingdom is different than the kingdoms of this world. Jesus consistently refuses military power and strength. Jesus consistently shows power in weakness. So, to get to Revelation and then read it as if God is going to demolish the world God so lovingly created? To read Revelation as if Jesus is going to become just like the powers of this world he stood against? I don’t buy it.
The word “Revelation” is the English translation of the Greek word apocalypse. Apocalypse does not mean the end of the world, even though it is used that way in popular culture. Apocalypse means to reveal, to unveil. And it is a particular kind of book.
Daniel is also an apocalypse—a book of mystical symbolism meant to give hope and direction to people in pain. The best illustration of apocalypse might be the apostle Paul. According to Acts, he was on the road to Damascus, when he encountered God. And he became blind. And the more he learned about God, the more things were revealed to him, the scales fell from his eyes and things were made clear. In Galatians, Paul describes his conversion as a revelation, an apocalypse.
If you haven’t been coming to Sunday school after worship, I invite you to come for our next few weeks as we finish up a discussion on this book. Because it is worth reading. And it is easier to read, I believe, in community.
So our text this morning is from the middle of Revelation. And if the woman at the well in John’s gospel is my favorite character in scripture, this woman in Revelation is a close runner up.
I don’t know about you, but this was NOT one of the Sunday school lessons I heard as a child. David and Goliath. Noah’s Ark. Jesus and the little children. The woman who gives birth in space while a dragon waits to eat her baby.
We have been offered female “role models” from scripture before. We’re told we can be like Ruth or Esther, fulfilling their destinies as best they are able in a world that denies their full humanity.
Or we can be like Mary, the pregnant teenager who ponders all these things in her heart.
Or the other Mary, the one who sat at Jesus’ feet.
Of course, we can’t be that Mary until we’ve first been Martha and gotten the cassarole in the oven, the table set, and the laundry hung to dry.
We’re even told we can be like Christ, as long as we are the suffering servant Christ, emptying ourselves in service to others.
But how come, in all my years, nobody has ever suggested this woman in Revelation, clothed in the sun, as a role model for us?
Because she’s amazing and a model for men as well as women. And here’s why:
She knows how to dress. Stars on her head. The moon at her feet. Actually wearing the sun. She’s got style.
She’s strong. How do I know that? Well, for starters, she is giving birth. in space. Additionally, she’s giving birth, even though there is a seven headed dragon standing there, just waiting to EAT her baby.
That also shows the woman has courage. Dragon, schmagon. She is bringing a child to life who will rule all the nations with a rod of iron.
Which means she has faith. Faith that the dragon she sees in front of her will not have the final word.
She is resourceful. While the cosmic forces are conspiring against her, she commandeers the moon, sun and stars as clothing. She flies with the wings of the great eagle. She gets the earth to come to her aid, swallowing up the flood.
I don’t know everything about the symbolism of Revelation, but I recognize a strong woman when I see one. Which was why I was surprised when I read a commentary and the author called the woman “passive”.
I don’t know anything about the author, but I would be willing to bet he has never seen a woman give birth. passive. Honestly, I find it hard to believe he’s ever seen a woman.
Here are his words:
“On the other hand, John depicts the woman of chapter 12 as a passive figure. She is the subject only of the verbs connected with birthing and fleeing. It is perhaps fair to say that she does not usually act in this text but rather is acted upon. She is threatened by the beast, and consequently she has to flee into the wilderness, to a place which had been prepared for her by God. The next part of the scene reinforces the passive nature of the woman. In the wilderness, the woman is fed and protected by God. Later in the text she is pursued, again by the beast, and again she is saved, this time by the earth. Note that the active roles in this text belong to the beast, the deity, and the earth.” (Paul B. Duff “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing” in Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students edited by David Barr (Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta 2003) p. 73-4.)
Is that what it means to be passive? To have life happen to you and to react to save yourself, save the ones you love, and trust that God will provide?
I’m not sure I need his mandescension. What he calls “passive”, I call living your life.
Because, you know what? Some days there are seven headed dragons standing at your door. Some days you have to flee to the wilderness to be nourished. Some days you have to use all of your wits to escape the beast and the flood he’s sending your way. She flies away on eagles’ wings and convinces the earth to swallow the flood and he calls her passive?
What he calls passive, I call not being in total control.
I’m certain that if this woman had choices about how she was going to bring her baby into the world, it would not have involved the moon and a dragon. She might have wanted a quiet, candle lit room, attended by midwives, with her partner holding her hand and supporting her through the experience.
But that wasn’t what she got. She ended up as a cosmic figure giving birth in front of a dragon.
Which cable channel is it that has the show about birth stories? TLC? Discovery channel?
In any case, can you imagine the promo for the episode that told this birth story?
Tonight! 8 pm eastern. Woman gives birth in space! Watch the doctor be eaten as he asks a seven headed dragon to leave the room! Will the baby make it? Does the woman need an epidural or does zero gravity alleviate the pain? Tune in tonight to find out.
Because what TV shows like that illustrate is that no matter how much you plan, no matter how well you prepare, you can’t control everything that happens to you. Women don’t give birth in taxis on purpose, after all. We are not as in control as we pretend to be.
Another reality about birth stories is that not all experiences are the same. Women giving birth today in Darfur or in Haiti during an earthquake as their hospital was being evacuated certainly know more than I what it is like to give birth in the presence of a dragon and without control.
But, whether or not we’ve given birth to babies, our lives are like this. We are not in control. Life happens to us. And this doesn’t make us passive.
I don’t know what the seven headed dragon looks like in your life. Cancer or health problems, maybe. Or financial insecurity because of the economy. Family problems.
But there are days, and sometimes years, when we think we have it all in place. We think we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, being good Christian people, and then a funny thing happens on the way to the hospital and you’re giving birth in space. With dragons.
The Book of Revelation was written for people like that, for people like us. People who do their best to follow God and end up being persecuted by Rome. People who live the best lives they know how to live and are waking up today in Nashville and across the South to discover that their churches and communities flooded because of horrible storms this weekend. People who wear their seatbelts and obey the laws, but are killed in a car accident because the other driver was typing a text message on their phone while they drove down the highway.
Life is not in our control. And we don’t like it.
We get hung up on the vagueness of John’s language in this book. Only rarely does it feel as if anything is being “unveiled” or “revealed”. Who is the seven headed dragon, we wonder? Why does it have 10 horns? What does it all mean????
But I wonder if the author used such highly unusual images so that we’d be able to find ourselves in the story. Rather than saying, “the bad emperor in Rome is afflicting God’s people”, the author gives us language that allows us to interpret our own situations in light of the text.
So, back to my new role model. What does she do after she gives birth in the presence of a dragon? In space?
She hands the baby over to God, who snatches him away and keeps him safe at the throne. A dragon may show up on the moon, but even a seven headed beast KNOWS he can’t get at the baby in the throne room.
Then the woman flees to the wilderness, where God has provided for her. She will be there for a time, for times, for a half a time. And Jesus went to the wilderness as well, remember. After Jesus is baptized, as soon as God says, “you are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased”, Jesus is whisked away for temptation in the wilderness.
I find some comfort in the fact that Jesus was God’s beloved and was still sent into the wilderness. By the Spirit, no less. And it was the beasts and the angels who took care of him.
So, the wilderness is the place we wander for 40 years, or only 40 days if you’re Jesus. But the wilderness is also the place we are intentionally sent by God for our own safety and for our nourishment. For a time, and times, and a half a time.
And I recognize that what is wilderness to me might be someone else’s walk in the park. But whether our wilderness is the relatively tame foothills of Boise or the untamed deadly parched earth of Somalia, God is with us. Perhaps that is easier for me to say than for some others, but it is none the less what I know to be true.
As the writer of Revelation shown us, in his somewhat metaphorical way, there is a battle being waged. In the cosmos. On earth. And that battle has been won. Not by us. Not by our brilliant thoughts or plans, but by Christ. We may not be in control. But God is.
I know this to be true. And the rest of the book of Revelation will show this to be true as well.
You may or may not feel as if you are located in a wilderness today, but whenever you do find yourself there, I pray that you will feel nourished and cared for. I pray that you will not see your time there as a time of passivity, but as a time of life. While life happens to you, may the hope that comes from Christ give you the strength to face your dragons. For a time, and times, and half a time.