Don’t you love nativity scenes? Like the one out in the entryway or like that shades of white and brown, Willow Tree nativity? They’re just so peaceful and idyllic. Mary all beatific, Joseph solemn and caring, little baby Jesus smiling with arms open wide. The shepherds are there hushed, awed. Even the donkey and the sheep seem worshipful. But, as I’m sure you’ve considered before, that’s probably a little off… Births are wonderful but they’re hectic and stressful and messy; they’re tiring and sometimes dangerous. And barns? They’re certainly not hospital grade… Birth in a bed of hay – that the cows ate earlier? Next to the donkeys and the sheep? In reality, this situation was ugly, unsanitary, risky.
But that’s only the half of it. The second lesson for today pulls back the curtain on Christmas Eve and shows it to us as God, the Heavenly Father, saw it. It’s the story of a pregnant woman about to give birth – but it’s a nightmare scene. A baby-eating monster is there, crouching “in front of the woman who was about to give birth,” just waiting for dinner to be served. That’s a terrible picture but it presents us with a wondrous opportunity. Before we focus on the beauty of Christ’s birth, we consider the horror that awaited him. For it is precisely because of this monster that Christ’s birth is so needed. And this terrible picture, then, is a wondrous sign that shows wondrous love.
The picture comes out of St. John’s Revelation, which is in a category called apocalyptic literature. You might compare apocalyptic literature to Impressionistic painting. Claude Monet didn’t intend to paint things just as they actually looked. Rather, with color and texture, he tried to impress upon the viewer the emotion he felt when he looked at whatever he was painting. Apocalyptic literature isn’t meant to convey how things literally/actually are. The text we have this morning – it isn’t teaching us that there is an actual dragon who eats babies. Rather, apocalyptic literature uses vivid images and symbolical numbers to convey the spiritual and emotional reality behind things. So, behind the actual event of Jesus’ birth, there is a terrifying reality.
To help us consider it in the right way, look with me for a few moments at the details that paint this terrible scene.
- We’ve said the child to be born is Jesus – here it’s just as Luke tells it – in v.5 “she gave birth to…a son.” And that might make us think this woman in v.1 is Mary, but that wouldn’t be quite right. In the picture language of Revelation, she wears “a crown of twelve stars on her head.” In Revelation, 12 is the product of God’s number (3 – Triune God, “Holy, holy, holy”) and man’s number (4 – the four corners of the earth, the four winds, etc.) multiplied together. Perhaps you could say, 12 is the completeness God intends as he works in his creation. In addition to that crown, this woman uses the moon itself as her footstool – a picture of ruling power. Later on the in the chapter, her followers are called believers. Where would we find God working in his creation finally to bestow ruling power and authority on those who believe? Perhaps we would think of something like 1 John 5:4 – “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” This symbolic crown and stance of authority can only describe God’s church – the place where God works to bring his complete salvation to ruling status – the group to whom and through whom the Savior of the world was promised to come.
- Waiting for God’s church to bring out the promised Savior, in v.3 the “enormous red dragon” is Satan himself. John says so later in this chapter. Throughout Revelation he is always trying to take God’s place – here, he has seven heads, a number that often describes God’s holiness and rule. On his heads he wears diadems, crowns in John’s day worn by rulers who ruled like they were gods. But you get the idea – Satan is an extremely powerful, scary creature, who wants to rule over us in God’s place.
- And this powerful wicked figure is no fool. He knows that the coming Messiah would stand in the way of his desire to rule all things. He’d heard it over and over since the Fall into sin. So, this dragon snaps his hungry jaws and gnashes his terrible teeth, and waits to eat the child “the moment he [is] born.” And you recall that that kind of terror was working when Jesus was born, don’t you? It isn’t long after that Herod slaughters innocent children in Bethlehem just upon the word that another king was on the scene. There are countless demonic moments and political sins that war on Jesus’ work. Things so twisted and dark surely have this dragon’s claw marks all over them.
- But, the dragon is not the one in control here. No, in v.5, the child who is born “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” Those are words just like those in Psalm 2: “You will break [the nations] with a rod of iron” (v9). These are Messiah words; promises of Jesus’ rule and power. The dragon might want to rule but Christ is King – this vision reminds that all things are under his power.
- And so, in John’s vision, Christ is born and the picture moves immediately into his ascension – which, in the grand scope of history, makes sense: Jesus’ human life was just like yours or mine, a blip on the timeline. He is taken “up to God and to his throne.” There, having reassumed the full use of his divine power, he is way beyond Satan’s ability to harm. And, later in v.13, upon seeing his defeat, the dragon chases after the woman to devour her instead.
- And, finally, the woman (God’s church) flees away to the wilderness, someplace prepared by God for 1,260 days. 1,260 days is just about half of seven years, the number in Revelation that represents the whole of human history. The half of human history after Christ’s ascension into heaven to Judgment Day is the New Testament era. And, true to form, God’s Church is “not at home” but away in the wilderness during this time. The writer of Hebrews says it just the same in ch.11: “[Those who live by faith are] foreigners and strangers on earth…longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” (13,16)
That’s a wondrous picture in many ways. All the details make you wonder and think. But think about this. Does this sign show you wondrous love from God? We could ask instead, “What would prove to you that God loves you?” I would bet that your answer wouldn’t be a vision of a baby-eating dragon. Probably very easily you and I could slip into a list of things that God could do for us that would prove his love – just bring back this person or take away this hardship or manage that debacle or give this comfort. And that’s because we ask that kind of question all the time. We’re tempted to question whether God loves us depending on what’s happening to us – how terrible our times, how beastly the picture. We’re tempted to make God prove that he loves us.
If we ever doubt God’s love, Revelation 12 helps us remember how wondrously he has already given it. It helps us to think of God as the Father, with a Son… Think of how it is with parents and children… I can remember the first time one of our children fell and split her scalp open and needed stitches. The fall happened in slow-motion. Our parent-hearts stopped for a second. We panicked, wondering what to do. As parents, you’d do anything to keep your children safe. Imagine how it is here at Christ’s birth. God the Father willingly sends his child into unspeakable horror. So that the hungry dragon might never ever eat us up. That’s what God intends us to think about, even in a passage like John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” Often in those words, we hear that God loved the world “so much” – but that’s not really correct. The word really means that God loved “in this way” or “in this manner”. Here in Revelation 12 is how God showed his love. He doesn’t prove his love by filling our bank accounts or giving you ‘gram-worthy road trips or smoothing out your health-experience. He shows his love “in this manner” – he gives his only Son into the worst danger. He was willing to pay any price to save us. And, if we were minded to say that obviously, the Father knew that dragon wouldn’t “get” his Son… then we remember that Jesus would be “gotten” worse than the dragon. When the guilt of our mismeasurements, our wrong estimates of love, our sins, when those were placed on Jesus at the cross, he was devoured by the wrath of God; devoured so that we would never be – he died that we might live.
Even more, we often doubt God’s love when our living feels insignificant. But how significant this picture paints us! Your life of faith is not in some loveless, precarious place. God’s Church is in a “place prepared for her by God where she might be taken care of.” God has his believers right where he wants them to be and takes care of all of their needs – even when threatened by that great dragon, Satan. While you roam “the desert” of this life God cares for you. He supplies you with this Christmas Word, the message of his victorious love, with forgiveness of your sins, with strength against temptations, with the hope of heaven. And he promises that wherever you are, you are in a place prepared by God himself for you to serve him. Here, it may be a desert – not always perfectly comfortable, sometimes difficult. But when the pains of life come our way, we don’t question God’s love. No, great and wondrous signs like this one help us to ask this question: “How has God prepared this moment for me to know that he is caring for me; for me to let others know that he loves me?” We ask that question because, beyond all reasonable doubt, God’s proven his love by “giving” his Son – in this and many others we have wondrous signs that show wondrous love.
As we enter the Christmas holiday – busyness, anticipation, blessedness – keep this text tucked away. Keep it nearby as you come back to church and listen to the children beautifully sing. As you stare at the beautiful Christmas tree with your spouse. As you look over the manger scene again. See what’s really there – the dragon waiting for this baby to be born. With this wondrous sign in mind you’ll be able to properly assess this Christmas – the fight Christ was coming to and bringing, the full scope of God’s plans for you, how he has perfectly prepared everything even now. As the hymn sings it, Jesus the Savior “neither crib nor cross refuses” and in this manner, God shows his wondrous love to us.
For such wondrous love – “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and might belong to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 7:12, EHV)