Stories of the battle between the forces of good and evil have been around forever. In a story that circulated at the end of the first century, the antagonist was a fierce dragon named Python, and the protagonist a woman named Leto, who was the mother of the god Apollo. When Leto became pregnant by the god Zeus, the dragon pursued her in order to kill her and her child. The north wind rescued Leto by carrying her away, so that she found refuge on an island in the Aegean sea. There she gave birth to Apollo and Artemis. Four days later, Apollo set off in pursuit of the dragon, slaying the creature to avenge his mother. Roman emperors used this story by associating themselves with Apollo, whose defeat of the evil dragon was said to have ushered in an age of peace and prosperity: Pax Romana. Caesar Augustus was hailed as a new Apollo. His reign was said to mark the beginning of a new golden age. The Emperor Nero also liked to present himself in the guise of Apollo, his image on coins bears the radiant beams from his head that were Appolo’s trademark.
When, in the book of Revelation, John tells the struggling and at times persecuted churches about a pregnant woman and a dragon, Christians in the seven churches of Asia Minor would have heard echoes of the familiar story of Leto, but they would also find that John’s version reverses the usual expectations. Instead of being the hero, Nero would have found himself as the dragon. He wouldn’t have been pleased.
Chapter 12 of the book of Revelation begins when John sees a great portent in heaven – almost like a constellation coming to life in the evening sky: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4He is so large his tail swept a third of the stars from 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. 5And 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; 6and 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 and sixty days.
7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.13 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. 14But 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 is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river.… 17Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children… 18and the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore.”
So, we have come to the last book of the Bible and another unnamed woman. She is Eve and Mary, Mother Nature, Israel, the Church – some combined image of the maternal, spiritual, co-creative essence of the people of God.
The Dragon symbolizes the powers and principalities that stand between humans and the divine presence. He is the reality of evil – complex and concrete, institutionalized, social and personal. Seemingly inescapable. He is apartheid, genocide and war, hunger and poverty, sexual violence and patriarchy. He is the enemy of community and compassion and justice; the destroyer of peace.
There’s a story of a four-year-old who had learned the Christmas story by heart. He was to open the Christmas pageant. Speaking clearly and reverently into the microphone he started strong, but when he got to the part of the shepherds and the angels proclaiming “glory to God in the highest,….” he forgot what came next. Just as his mom was about to coach him, he started again. “And the angels appeared to shepherd’s and said, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.” It’s a funny story, but it feels more like the truth than “on earth, peace, goodwill toward all.” We can feel the dragon breathing down our necks.
What I like about this story in Revelation, what I find so interesting, is that it’s a woman about to give birth who stands face to face with the dragon. I know it’s not a real woman, but that’s not the point. It is the choice of a woman at absolutely her most vulnerable, in excruciating pain, and at her most powerful – pushing new life – a new being – out of her body and into the world. It’s the same dynamic as the incarnation (almighty God a human baby), as the last being first, of the self-emptying power of Christ that Paul describes in Philippians. It’s the life force of a dandelion cracking cement. (Well, sort of)
Think of the kind of power that women wield in our lives and that we’ve read about this summer in the Bible. There are warriors like Deborah and Jael, field workers like Ruth, wealthy merchants like Lydia, influencers like Naaman’s slave girl, deceivers like Rahab, the power of compassion like Mary Magdalene – they all exert power that can change the course of history, but birth is different. It is power where power is not expected. This woman, clothed in sun, upheld by the moon, crowned with stars – is swathed in the power of Creator and creation. It’s not a wimpy, sniveling cry she makes – this is not the little woman, the weaker sex. Birth empowers as much as it exhausts. This woman giving birth is a power that befuddles the dragon. He has to wait, and just as he’s about to pounce, the child is snatched away to God and the woman disappears, taken – like the Israelites, like Hagar, like Jesus – into the wilderness to be provided for, comforted, nourished. There is something about the creative life force represented by birth – Isiah’s new thing about to spring forth – brimming with life, possibility, mystery that is greater than evil. We need to be reminded of that. Death and destruction and deception are so powerful, so pervasive.
But so is beauty, so is the community and joy of making music together (Fiddle School took place here this week), so is the ordinariness of friendship, of kindness, of consideration. There is a greening power of growth and life and hope even when it’s hard, like giving birth. I’ve been waiting for this Dahlia. I’ve never grown a dinner plate variety before and it has taken forever for that little bud to grow and grow finally bloom. The flower stalk has gotten to be a small tree. Other plants in my little garden have come and gone in the time this one has taken. There’s also a new hatching of finches at my feeder this week. The babies land awkwardly having misjudged their intended landing or they hover not seeming to know quite what to do. They perch near on the feeder, in the seeds shivering their wings and screeching until mom feeds them from the seeds they’re standing on. I’ve also discovered a new bug this year. It’s a flying fuzz ball. Some kind of aphid, I read but it’s vey whimsical and makes me smile. I don’t really know where I’m going with these little spots of life and nature and fiddle school, except that they bring joy. They are worth paying attention to. Not many of us can change the world in a noticeable way, we can’t defeat evil – we can’t seem to defeat this virus – but we can influence and we can help within the realm of our own worlds. And we can try to trust that God is still at work.
[The remainder of the sermon is a reading we can’t republish here!]