10th Sunday After Pentecost, August 21, 2011
The Book of Revelation is like watching a Harry Potter movie…better yet, like watching all the Harry Potter movies and trying to keep them in order! It’s a wild ride! But not everyone is just wild about Harry. For some he’s too weird. For others he’s too evil, all that witchcraft. Ah, but you can learn more about Christian faith from the Harry Potter stories than from so much of the drivel that makes pretences to being Christian.
Yes, an epistle of St. Paul can be much more straightforward than John’s visions. But like the poetry of the Psalms, like the parables of our Lord, some things of the faith can be expressed only through the figurative, right-brained literary forms, like John’s wild visions.
And with today’s passage we get the classic imagery of the Christian faith in all of its struggles; its Anfechtungen, as Martin Luther called them; the cross which we share with Jesus.
Chapter 12 begins with two figures, two “signs” as John calls them. V1, “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.” Sounds like St. Mary. And among some Christians she is often portrayed in art this way, crowned with stars as Regina Coeli, Queen of Heaven. But in John’s writing, Mary is always a figure representing more than the woman herself!
V3, “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to earth.” We’ve seen enough Bible pictures and heard enough fairytales to accurately guess that this might be Satan. The 7 heads and crowns picture Satan’s greed for God’s power. 7 is God’s number in this book. The horn is a common Old Testament figure for earthly power, with 10 being complete power. So the dragon (like Voldemort in Harry Potter, like Sauron in Lord of the Rings) the dragon makes claims to hold the power of heaven and earth. He’s mistaken, of course, but we’re getting ahead of the story.
Back to v4: “The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.” Now that’s a picture of life for the faithful.
As soon as faith is born, Satan puts us on his menu. Think of Mary’s Child, Jesus, whom Herod sought to destroy as an infant, later on those temptations in the wilderness, all the machinations of the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees. It’s all in this figure of a dragon trying to devour the woman’s child.
It’s also our struggle. All the figures of faith in the Old Testament, born of the woman of Abraham’s promise, to the children of faith in the New Testament, born of our mother the Church in Holy Baptism….it’s a struggle! John frequently uses Mary as a figure, a metaphor for the Church in the Old Testament and in the New. Now the point in this vision, however, is that this cosmic struggle is NOT an even match between God and the dragon. Not even close. So, in v5, God is always able to rescue the woman’s child, His people of faith.
Then in v7 the scene changes. The 7-crown-headed dragon takes on God. He enlists some of the angels with him. Michael the archangel commands God’s army of angels. V8, the fight is very brief. Heaven 1, Dragon 0. V8, Dragon and his allies are cast out of heaven. (That’s the one-third of the stars hurled down by the dragon’s tail earlier in the vision.) And now there’s good news and there’s bad news.
The good news, v10, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.” V12, “Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them!” The bad news… “But woe to the earth and the sea because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”
OK. Remember this is a vision. It’s NOT something you can pinpoint on a calendar, past, present or future. The imagery has been used throughout time. It’s Garden of Eden imagery… “He will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” It’s in Isaiah 14, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Daystar, son of the Dawn”
(literally, O Lucifer). Jesus alludes to it after sending out the 12 the first time. “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” And it’s there at the crucifixion In John’s Gospel: “Now is the time for judgment,” Jesus says. “Now the prince of this world will be cast down. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” The Cross.
So John’s vision is not a once for all time thing. It is a picture of all time, a picture of a dragon making war on the woman’s children, the people of faith. Oh…but like Sauron in Lord of the Rings, like Voldemort in Harry Potter, so this dragon does not fight alone. In chapter 13 we get two beasts. Beast 1, v1: “And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.” In v2, we see the beast has the best bits of the strongest critters. Plus, “The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.”
Beast 2 is over in v11: “Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon.” Looks like The Lamb, talks like The Dragon, looks like Jesus, talks like Satan. Antichrist. In v12, he inspires Beast 1.
So who or what are these beasts? Remember, it’s a vision. In John’s day Beast 1 is Rome, imperial Rome. The heads of the beast are the Caesars, blasphemous in their names, because each Caesar beginning with Julius claimed divinity. One of the heads, v3, is mortally wounded but survives. It’s an allusion either to Caligula or to Nero, both of whom survived assassination… for a while.
And, v4, the human race worships the beast and the dragon behind the beast. No, not consciously…but they do. Romans were commanded by law to confess that Caesar is god, and in time they were to burn a pinch of incense to the image of Caesar. So early Christians were in a spot. Either Jesus is Lord or Caesar is. And the beast, v5ff, is very forceful in punishing “heretical” Christians who do not bend the knee to Caesar. (No, this isn’t about citizenship, or our callings in the public square. It’s this perversion of seeing the state as our Savior.) So, v10, “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness….”
Beast 2, now, is the whole religious cult of emperor worship in John’s day…or today the messianic, divine-like expectations we have of our government. In v13 Beast 2 speaks through the governing regime. V16, Beast 2 shapes the law so that only those faithful to Beast 1 will prosper. And throughout history when Beasts 1 & 2, the political estate and an antichristian spiritual estate, when they collude, they get very creative at keeping the citizenry in line. V18, “This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.”
Ooh…how superstitious we’ve been with that number! John may be alluding to Nero. The title “Nero Caesar”, assigning numbers to letters, 1 to A, 2 to B, etc, it adds up to 666, IF you use the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet. Perhaps that could be John’s little puzzle.
Ah, but during the era of the Crusades, a clever fellow figured that Mohamed’s name, construed a bit, added up to 666. In the Reformation, one side tacked the number on the Pope; the other side tacked it on Martin Luther. The beast and his number has been Visigoth kings, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and more recently, Saddam Hussein. I suspect these days, someone, somewhere has figured out a way to make it add up to Barack Obama or Scott Walker.
But in John, 7 is God’s number. 6 is man’s number. The sixth day on which we were created, the day also on which the Beast rose up to crucify The Child of the woman. So the better interpretation is that 666 is the unholy trinity of Dragon, Beast 1 and Beast 2. For the Christian of any age, that adds up to the worst sort of sum.
And yet…as before…in the midst of all this beastliness, we get a chapter of hope and life and glory. Ch 14. Whether the story we tell is about a boy wizard facing him who shall not be named, or of a group of halfling Hobbits going up against the might of Sauron…or St. John’s visions…for any Christian in any generation who must endure the trials of the unholy trinity, the ending is always the same. It ends with an Easter.
In 14:1 the saints are pictured together with the Lamb, Jesus, and God the Father. All the saints, figured by the 144,000…those who shine in glory and we who feebly struggle on earth. V2, thanks a lot John for the cliché, playing harps and singing. No that’s not really what eternity is like…it’s a picture of glory and praise in heaven. While a trinity of angels announce the Word of Gospel, v6, to those of faith, and the Word of judgment, v8ff, on the Beasts and those who follow them. And in v14 to the end of the chapter we read words that will echo in the poetry of Julia Ward Howe: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.” Marching on to what the Book of Revelation calls Armageddon. But…when we get there in chapter 16 next week…St. John will remind us that we have witnessed Armageddon before. We call it Good Friday!
So in the midst of our crosses, because of The Cross, we know the dragon is being cast down. The Beasts, 1 & 2, are going down, as they have again and again in every age of this world. While the saints of God and of His Lamb, we are held secure. It is as Jesus says to Peter in the Gospel Reading today, “I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
But…living by such faith remains something that requires endurance in this world. So many trials, so many crosses…so many, many beasts. But as St. John never tires of reminding his readers, we have Jesus…We have His Body, the Church. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments! How inscrutable His ways!”