This morning, I want to share with you a story. A Christmas story, if you will. And children know that all stories begin with those four special words – “once upon a time”. There was a young girl once who asked her father, “Do all fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time?” And he said, “No, a whole lot of them begin with ‘If elected, I promise…’” But, that’s another story for another time.
This morning, I want to tell you a story that begins, “Once upon a time.” This story involves a king and a fair maiden and a dragon, but unlike the fairy tales we love so much, this story is a true one. And it doesn’t begin the way you might expect it to begin.
Once upon a time a long time ago, there was a man named John who was exiled to the island of Patmos because of his faith in Jesus Christ. Patmos was an isolated place about 60 miles southwest of Ephesus where John had once served as a preacher. John lived in a time when the Roman government didn’t like Christians. The emperor — a man named Domitian – was a cruel man who thought that he was a god. Domitian didn’t just want the people in the land to obey him; he wanted people to worship him. But Christians were not about to worship an emperor or any other human being, and many of those of Christians paid the price for it:
Some of the Christians were murdered. Others were thrown into prison. John was exiled. He was forced to move away from everything that was familiar and comfortable. Exile would have been difficult enough for a young man, but it was even harder for an old man like John who was probably in his 80’s.
Perhaps he walked with a limp. His once strong hands that had gripped fishing nets may have become crooked with arthritis. His face was weathered by the years. Perhaps his eyes didn’t see as well as they once had, but they still sparkled when he talked about Jesus.
This man who was once known as a “son of thunder” because of his temper had mellowed with age. His mind was still sharp, his devotion to Jesus was as strong as it had been the day when Jesus called him to leave his fishing business. Jesus had said, “Follow me.” John did, and he had been following Jesus ever since.
And during the time that he followed Jesus, John was privileged to be an eye-witness to so many incredible things. There was that time on the Sea of Galilee. Though he was an experienced sailor, John was as scared as the rest of the disciples when their boat was being swamped by the wind and the waves. Soaked to their skin and shivering in the cold, they dropped the sail and were at the mercy of the storm—the boat bobbing, weaving, and rocking; the disciples nauseous and fearful. Drowning is a horrible way to die. And all the while, Jesus was sleeping.
The disciples woke him up and asked him, “Master, don’t you care that we’re dying here?” And so Jesus got up. He pulled himself to his feet and staggered to the boat’s bow working to keep his balance in that storm-tossed vessel. Then, Jesus raised his hand and told the storm to stop. And suddenly, the howling wind became a calm breeze, choppy waters settled, and the disciples were suddenly more afraid of Jesus than they had been of the storm. They wanted to know, “Who is this man that even the wind and the waves obey his voice?” John was there. He had seen it with his own eyes.
And John was there when Jesus stood outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus after he had been dead for four days. Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, get up,” And Lazarus got up and came out of the grave wrapped like a mummy. Jesus said, “Unwrap him, and let him go.” John saw that with his own eyes.
And John saw the cross. He was there, right at the foot of it. Jesus even put his own mother into John’s care that day. He said, “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” And John watched Jesus die. At the time, he didn’t know quite what to make of it. Just before he took his last breath, Jesus said, “It is finished.” And John must have thought, “It is finished. The dream is finished. Jesus is finished. I’m finished.”
That happened on Friday. But come Sunday, things had changed. Mary Magdalene knocked at the door of the disciple’s hideout. She opened the door and said, “I’ve seen the Lord!” Stunned by the news, Peter and John raced to the tomb to check it out for themselves. They found it empty. There were burial clothes there and they were lying there in the form of a man, but there was no Jesus. They still weren’t sure what to make of it until the resurrected Jesus showed up in their midst a few hours later. John saw Jesus die. And John saw the resurrected Jesus. Several times.
And John was there to see Jesus ascend into heaven and to hear Jesus’ great commission to his disciples to take the gospel to the whole world. Jesus told his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come. John was there when the Holy Spirit came. And John helped lead the way for the brand-new church. It was a difficult time. Along with Peter, John was dragged before the authorities, beaten, and thrown into jail.
John even watched his brother James die for his faith at the hands of an angry King Herod. John was not surprised by these persecutions and hardships. But neither was he defeated by them. Jesus had warned them that these things would happen. Jesus said, “I have told you these things so that in me you might have peace. In this world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Through it all — every twist, every turn, every up and down — John kept following Jesus, loving Jesus, loving the church, and loving his enemies. As an old man, John was persecuted once again and exiled to the lonely island of Patmos. And it was there that Jesus met John once again. And God gave John a revelation of Jesus Christ in a sweeping panoramic view of history from God’s point of view.
The setting of Revelation moves back and forth between heaven and earth. It’s a story filled with apocalyptic images of dragons and beasts and harlots and angels and trumpets and bowls of wrath. But the dominant image is a larger-than-life Jesus Christ, standing in the midst of his churches, clothed like a great high priest in a long robe with a golden sash around his chest, his hair as white as the whitest wool, whiter even than snow, his eyes filled with fire, his feet like bronze, his voice like the sound of Niagara Falls. In his hand, he holds seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword comes out of his mouth. His face is as bright as the noonday sun on a clear summer day.
And Jesus said to John, “There’s a story that you need to tell to the church.” And so, God laid out this Revelation before John, who wrote down what he saw. And what John saw, first and foremost, was a vision of a Jesus Christ who is in charge. This is not a picture of a meek and mild Jesus. This is the eternal Christ — the First and the Last, the One who was dead but is alive forevermore, the One who holds the keys to death and the grave. This is the Christ who came, who comes, and who is coming again. This is the Christ who is big enough to sustain and rescue a church that is suffering at the hands of an evil empire. This is the Christ who is big enough for a church that was at war.
And right in the middle of this revelation is the story of Jesus Christ coming to this earth. But there’s no Bethlehem here, no shepherds watching their flocks at night, no wise men following the star as they traveled from the East. No, this story is a war story. And it goes like this:
“And a great sign 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 pains and the agony of giving birth.
“And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.
“And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.” (Revelation 12:1-6)
We’re not used to hearing the story of the birth of Jesus like this. For starters, there’s no one named Mary in this story. There is a woman who gives birth to a child, but this woman is filled with symbols. She’s clothed with the sun, the moon is under her feet, and on her head there is a crown of twelve stars. That number 12 in apocalyptic literature is a number that represents God’s people. There were 12 tribes in Israel, and there were 12 apostles in the church.
So, the woman here is more than just Mary. She represents all God’s faithful people across the ages: faithful Israel and the faithful church. And instead of the calm, peaceful language of Luke’s story, where “she gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger” — this woman here in Revelation is “crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.”
We don’t show up to find this baby in the nursery; John takes us right into the birthing room, and it makes us just a little bit uncomfortable. Apparently, this birth did not involve an epidural or an anesthetic. There is pain and agony. Instead of a baby’s coo, we hear a woman’s blood-curdling screams. We sing the song “Silent Night”, but there was nothing silent about the night described in Revelation.
Instead of humble shepherds who came to greet and worship the newborn baby, and instead of the wise men from the east who came to worship the child-king and bring him expensive gifts, in the Revelation account there is a very different character — a huge, blood-red, seven-headed, ten-horned dragon, with crowns on every head. This is no children’s story friendly dragon. This is a monstrous, violent, angry, evil dragon with a tail long enough and wide enough to sweep up one-third of the stars of heaven and bat them down to earth.
And this dragon is identified in verse 9. “The great dragon…that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” (Revelation 12:9).
This devil-dragon is hungry and he is angry. You can see him there, standing in front of the woman, towering over her, with his shadow covering her. The woman is getting close to giving birth. She’s dilated to 10. The crown of the baby’s head is starting to show. With labored breaths and screams, the woman begins to push this baby out into the world as the dragon waits, salivating, licking his chops with his long forked-tongue, rubbing his dragon wings together. The devil-dragon is ready to devour this child the moment he comes out of the womb.
But, this child is no ordinary child. This child is the child of prophecy, the Messiah-ruler, the pre-existent Word, and the Christ who was with God and is God, the one who became flesh so that he might dwell among us. This is the child who is to rule all the nations with an iron rod. This child is the mortal enemy of the dragon and all the evil the dragon represents.
The dragon could not get to him in heaven. He’s not powerful enough to storm the gates of heaven. But now that the Messiah has come to this earth in flesh and blood as a helpless, vulnerable baby, the dragon sees his opportunity to devour this child and win the war. And it looks like everything is in his favor. How can a helpless child and an exhausted woman who has just given birth resist the great power of the dragon? It looks like all is lost.
But suddenly, “the child was caught up to God and to his throne.” And before the dragon could do anything else, the woman escaped to the wilderness where God would take care of her and provide for her for a while until it was time to engage the dragon once again.
This is the way that the book of Revelation says, “Merry Christmas!” I’m pretty sure you won’t find this picture on a Hallmark card. There’s nothing sentimental about it. There are no shepherds, no wise men, no Bethlehem, no manger, no cattle lowing in the background, and no Precious Moments angels singing of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. There is only a screaming pregnant woman at the very moment of giving birth, a monstrous, evil devil-dragon, and the Messiah-Child the dragon is committed to destroy. This is a war story.
Why do God’s people suffer injustice and opposition? John says it’s because we are at war. Satan has declared war on those who have their faith in Jesus Christ. Revelation redefines this world as a battlefield and our Christian lives as warfare. One reason why the world looks at us the way that it does is because there is a war going on – and Christians are caught right in the middle of it. This war is not a physical one, but a spiritual one. And we need to remember that this war didn’t begin with us. It has been going on for a very long time.
And it is important for us to remember who the real enemy is. For the Christians of the first century, the real enemy was not Domitian or Rome, although it certainly seemed that way. And our enemy today is not a coalition of atheists, nor is it our government. And our enemy is certainly not Christians with whom we may have some disagreements. The real enemy is the dragon, Satan.
You may wonder how this is war since we never really see a battle here in Revelation 12. The hungry dragon waits, the Child is born, and the Child is caught up to God and the throne. Where’s the war? Well, it takes place between the birth and the ascension of Jesus. John doesn’t give us the details of the battle, but remember: This is Revelation, this is apocalyptic. Revelation cuts to the chase and declares Jesus the victor!
The truth is, though, it wasn’t as easy as it looks in our story. War never is. You don’t get from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day without a lot of blood, battles, and death in between. You don’t get from D-Day to V-E Day without the bloodbath on Normandy’s beaches and the horrible casualties of the Battle of the Bulge. And Jesus didn’t get from birth to ascension without battles and bloodshed either. The devil-dragon waged war on Jesus from the moment Jesus made his entrance in Bethlehem.
The dragon used Herod, who tried to slaughter the child Jesus by running a sword through every crib and playpen in Bethlehem. But Herod missed. When Jesus grew up and was baptized by John, the devil-dragon tried to tempt Jesus in the wilderness to do things the Devil’s way rather than God’s way. The Devil lost that battle, too.
Then there was the time the devil-dragon put words in the mouth of Jesus’ own disciple Peter who told Jesus that the suffering Savior stuff should never happen to Jesus and would never happen if Peter had anything to do with it. Jesus won that battle, too, when he said, “Get behind me, Satan.”
And then there was Gethsemane, where Jesus faced his impending death, and his resolve was put to the test. Was he able to finish out his mission by dying on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. That was a real battle. Jesus was so agitated and in such agony that his sweat fell like drops of blood and it took three rounds of prayer to get himself ready for the suffering and the cross that was just hours away. Jesus maintained his commitment, and the Devil lost again.
It was not an easy victory for Jesus. And, in fact, it didn’t look much like a victory at all. The Roman flogging that would rip skin from bone, left Jesus’ back mutilated. The long iron nails driven into Jesus’ hands and feet. There has never been a slower, more excruciating, more humiliating death than a death on a cross. But as Jesus died, it wasn’t just the suffering in his body. He was suffering under the even greater weight of our sins. As Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, he lost his life, and it looked like the devil-dragon had won.
But on the third day, Jesus rose from dead, and stripped Satan of his greatest weapon – the fear of death. Death could not gain the victory over Jesus, and through his victory, death loses its power over us as well.
The story in Revelation 12 is mysterious, but there are some things that are clear. The Christ child was not born in peace. He came to destroy the dragon who temporarily terrorizes God’s world. Satan does not give up easily, but he will lose. And this story is important because it reveals the true meaning of Christmas, that God defeats evil through Christ.
We tend to celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time of year, but not always for the right reason. How often do we think about the fact that God came in the flesh to defeat the power of evil? Jesus didn’t come merely to give us all a big hug and say God loves you. He came to do real battle with the powerful forces of evil that terrorize our world. Jesus didn’t just come to be adored in a manger. He came to liberate those held captive by Satan. And while Jesus defeated the powers of darkness in a decisive battle, they have not been totally disarmed and we still feel their effects.
For many, the effects of evil are most painful at Christmas. When everything is supposed to be calm and bright, it is especially painful when your life isn’t like a Hallmark card. This is the time of year some feel least like rejoicing. For some, this may be the first Christmas to be separated from a loved one. There’s an empty chair at the table. There’s a laugh you no longer hear.
For others, Christmas brings painful family conflicts to the surface. It’s an emotional mine field and we’re not sure we want to go through it again this year.
For some, Christmas just means another year of dashed hopes: still single, still no baby to wrap presents for, or still stuck in an old house with a dead-end job and no future.
For many people, Christmas just makes us feel worse because this is a time we’re supposed to be happy but we’re not.
For those who struggle to celebrate at Christmas, the cosmic Christmas story in Revelation 12 may provide some encouragement. It helps us see that the hurts and evils that impact our lives are bigger than us. They’re part of a huge cosmic battle being waged in spiritual realms. Christmas is not just about sentimental cheeriness as if everything in our world is all right. There is much in this world that is not right. And that’s why Jesus came.
Christmas is about a God who loved us so much that he would enter our world full of evil and hurt and take on the dragon with us and for us. And while that process is not yet finished, the dragon’s days are numbered and he cannot defeat us if we cling to the blood of the Lamb and the word of his testimony.
The devil-dragon couldn’t defeat Jesus, and he can’t defeat Jesus’ people either. It’s not because of a lack of trying. The devil-dragon harasses and wages war on the church in as many ways as he can. His arsenal includes persecution, Christ-hating governments, and Christ-hating religions. The devil-dragon can even go after Jesus’ people through family members and other close acquaintances. The Devil has many weapons at his disposal and is cunning and relentless. The Devil is a deceiver, a destroyer, and a liar. Sometimes he even works undercover, appearing to as an angel of light.
The Devil will win some battles, but here’s the good news — The devil-dragon will not win the war. The war is already won. The Bethlehem child grew up, did his work through the cross and the resurrection, and was caught up to God and to his throne. The Bethlehem child came to destroy the works of the Devil, and he did destroy them and he continues to do so.
Jesus is Emmanuel which means “God with us.” Jesus came to us in Bethlehem. He also comes to us through his Holy Spirit, who lives with us and in us. And, as Revelation reminds us at the very end, Jesus Christ is coming back to this earth again, but this time, things will be very different. The next time he comes, it will not be as a helpless baby but as the eternal God that he is. He will not come quietly in a little town like Bethlehem. He will come with trumpet blast and angel shout, and every eye will see him.
He will come not through a mother’s womb but on a white stallion; Jesus will come wearing the name “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”. He will come with all the saints and hosts of God to bring his people home. He will not suffer anything this time, but those who oppose him will be destroyed. This time the devil-dragon won’t get a shot at Jesus. The Devil will be thrown into the lake of fire where he will be tormented day and night forever.
And God’s people? What will become of them at the end of the war? Revelation makes that clear — God has prepared a new heaven and a new earth for us where old things like death and sickness and suffering and evil pass away and God makes all things new. And we know how it ends up for all of God’s people. Because it’s the way every good story should end. All God’s people live happily forever after.