Don Follis: Don't be scared by dragon bluster in Revelation's Nativity

Don Follis: Don't be scared by dragon bluster in Revelation's Nativity

Today is the start of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Turning to the very back of the Bible, I am beginning Advent with the end in mind. Revelation Chapter 12 features a version of the Nativity story that I can almost guarantee you did not hear as a child sitting around your living room and probably never at your church, either.

We all grew up with the nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Nativity story in the book of Revelation describes a cosmic war that started in heaven, but ends with a decisive victory won on earth.

Three main characters take center stage: a woman, a dragon and a child. The vision given to the Apostle John puts the Jesus in a manager we have come do adore into the cosmos where he is attacked by a red dragon.

Everybody buckle up. When the curtain opens on this retelling of the Nativity story, we see a "women clothed with the sun." She fills the entire sky with "the moon under her feet." Talk about mixing metaphors. Imagine a woman dressed with the sun, standing on the moon. "And on her head a crown of 12 stars." Oh, and by the way, she's pregnant. Try putting that Nativity in your front yard.

Suddenly this woman "cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth." Theologian Darrell Johnson surmises this woman "is the people of God, both before and after the coming of Jesus, representing Israel, Mary (the mother of Jesus) and the church, all at once."

The Apostle John then says "another sign appeared in heaven, and behold, a great red dragon." This dragon has seven heads and 10 horns. John explains the dragon is the devil, Satan, "the serpent of old."

The "serpent of old" phrase makes me think way back to Genesis 3, where Eve is tricked by the serpent. As a result, we read there will be "enmity" (war) between the woman and the serpent, between her seed and the serpent's. One day, though, one of her seed, a male child, will come and bruise the serpent on his head. Thus begins a long line of prophecies concerning the Messiah. (Genesis 3:15)

The woman clothed with the sun "gave birth to a son, a male child." (Revelation 12:5). Who is he? He is Jesus the Messiah. How do we know that? Because the Apostle John says he is the one "who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron," a phrase derived from Psalms Chapter 2, one of the messianic psalms.

As soon as the woman in the sky gives birth, the dragon lunges, trying to kill the child. And isn't that what happened when King Herod, having heard of the birth of "the king of the Jews," ordered that all boys age 2 or younger in Bethlehem be murdered (Matt. 2:16-18)?

Writer Eugene Peterson calls the Revelation Christmas story "St. John's Spirit-appointed task to supplement the work of St. Matthew and St. Luke so that the Nativity cannot be sentimentalized into coziness, not domesticated into worldliness. This is not the Nativity story we grew up with, but it is the Nativity story all the same. Jesus' birth excited more than wonder; it excites evil. Herod. Judas. Pilate." And why would it excite evil? Surely the dragon — the serpent of old — knew what the birth meant for evil.

Following the birth, John saw a war break out in heaven between the Archangel Michael and the dragon. The great dragon is summarily defeated and hurled to the earth, along with his angels, perhaps giving explanation to Jesus' words, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." (Luke 10:18)

The church always has taught that, in the end, the final war is won through the life of the child, the crucifixion of the child, and the resurrection and ascension of the child to the throne.

Indeed, I do cherish the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. This Advent, I will read them again. I draw comfort from them. Still, I confess to wondering if the swaddled infant will outlast the terrors of war.

As the news of each day tries to shackle us with fear, doubt and worry, we then must turn to the cosmic Nativity war in Revelation 12. It will give us adrenaline and hope when faith falters.

In the cosmic battle, when the male child is born, he is whisked into heaven. He survives. Salvation is assured. And though the old dragon is defeated, he stubbornly hangs around like a bedraggled, wounded pest. Knowing his time is short, he snorts and blusters, scaring people with threats of war, dividing the faithful on what to believe and who to follow and even frustrating and puzzling millions of people when another tweet lights up the smart phones of 43 million subscribers.

And yet, this I know. Advent has begun. The dragon has been defeated, and I am once again listening for the voice from heaven that the Apostle John heard when the great dragon was initially routed by the Archangel Michael. "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God, and the authority of his Messiah."

And I am lifting my frail voice, knowing the faithful around the world will join me in proclaiming, "And He shall reign forever and ever!"

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at donscolumn@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

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