Revelation 12:1–6 (NIV) A great 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. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
My dear friends in Christ,
Have you ever thought about the dark side of the Christmas story? We always hear the exciting parts, like the story Elizabeth and Zachariah could tell about having a baby even though they were too old. We think about the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and telling her she’s going to have a baby. We hear Joseph tell about his dream. Gabriel appeared to him too, assuring him that Mary’s child would be God’s own Son. The angel even told him what to name the child—Jesus! Then we open up our Christmas cards and see the serene, peaceful scene. A clean, slumbering child, Mary and Joseph kneeling around him, as starlight fills the room.
That’s the light, bright side of Christmas. There’s plenty of dark side to this whole story. Zachariah didn’t believe the news that Elizabeth would have a child. Mary had to deal with 9 months of dirty looks and snide comments. Joseph wrestled with the idea of divorce. Then we get to the heart of the story. Bethlehem, packed to the rafters with travelers arriving for Caesar’s census. No room for Mary and Joseph, and she was already starting to feel her labor pains. A place, but not a warm, clean hospital birth suite—a stable smelling of manure and musty hay. Just imagine taking your little one and laying them in a bed of hay and straw. It doesn’t sound so bad until you picture the not quite sanitary manger.
That’s the Christmas story from our human vantage point. John shared what God the Father saw from heaven. A pregnant woman about to give birth cries out in pain. A terrible dragon—a baby-eating monster—stood ready to devour the child as soon as it was born. John described this scene as a wondrous sign from heaven. Wondrous? Sounds more like it’s a frightening, ugly sign. What could it possibly have to do with the Christmas story?
It’s helpful to remember that Revelation is a series of symbolic visions. What John saw in his Revelation is similar to what the painter Claude Monet tried to do with his paintings. He never intended to paint the scene as it actually looked. He used colors and texture to impress on the viewer the emotion he felt when he saw what was in front of him. In the same way, Revelation is not intended to paint things the way they actually are. Here in chapter 12, the vivid images of a woman, a baby, and a dragon are used symbolically to convey the reality behind an actual event. So, as we prepare for our celebration of Jesus’ birth there is a frightening reality behind the pictures we see.
Let’s briefly look at the setting and the scene so we can figure out the message God wants us to understand. Verse 1 introduces a woman. If we had to guess who this woman is in the vision, we might think it’s Mary. After all, she gave birth to Jesus. Listen again to how she is described: “A great 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” (Revelation 12:1 NIV). The crown with 12 stars helps us figure out what she represents. Throughout Revelation the number 12 symbolizes God’s church. The woman symbolizes the church and all believers who are eagerly waiting for this special child to arrive.
The woman isn’t the scary part of the vision. That comes in verse 3: “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born” (Revelation 12:3-4 NIV). Later in this same chapter, John tells us exactly who the dragon is—Satan. The number 7 in Revelation always refers to God. The dragon with 7 heads and 7 crowns symbolizes Satan’s desire to take God’s place and to wield God’s authority over creation. That’s scary! He’s not working alone, either. The ⅓ of the stars represents the other evil angels who had rebelled against God along with Satan. Their goal was to devour the child and destroy any hope that the world would have to be saved.
Despite all the dragon’s efforts he was not successful. The child was born—a descendant of David—a child of one of God’s faithful believers. John wrote that he “‘will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.’ And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days” (Revelation 12:5–6 NIV). No matter how hard Satan—the dragon—tries, he will never defeat this man child. Jesus has all the power and all the authority. In an instant, it seems, he returns to heaven. In this vision, Jesus’ birth folds right into his ascension. From heaven, Jesus rules and reigns. Satan can’t touch him.
The dragon turns his attention to the woman—the Church. She hides in the “wilderness” for what sounds like a specific, short period of time—1,260 days. These 1,260 days represent the interaction of God and man since Jesus ascended into heaven. Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, we have been wandering in the wilderness of this world, eager to go home to heaven. While we wander God “takes care of” us and promises to meet all of our needs, including protecting us from Satan, that terrifying dragon!
In the impressionistic painting / vision John paints we see a wondrous sign, a sign that proves how much God loves us. Have you wrestled with that lately? Have you asked yourself, “Does God love me?” Or maybe the question is even more basic: “Is there a God who loves me?” I can’t prove that in a 20 minute talk, but let me show you the height and the depth and the width and the breadth of God’s love that is waiting for you.
Parents, can you recall a time when you saw your child in a moment of danger—about to walk in front of a car, or fall into a pool, or trying to squeeze between the bars on a fence on the edge of a drop off. Or maybe you were that child. What is a parent’s reaction? Their heart stops beating. They can’t breathe. They can’t speak, let alone shout a warning. A parent will do whatever it takes to protect that child even if it means giving up their own lives.
God the Father did exactly the opposite. He willingly sent his one, true, perfect Son to face an unspeakable horror. How could the Father—how could any father—do such a thing? He did it to protect the rest of his children—you and me—from the dragon’s fierce attacks. The Father who gave us life wanted to adopt us as his heirs. When we see him willingly put his own Son in harm’s way, we can better understand what Jesus said in John 3. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NIV).
There’s one little word in there that we often overlook. Jesus’ Father “so” loved the world. That doesn’t mean “he loved the world so much.” It means “he loved the world in this way—he gave that little baby to us.” There’s the proof that God loves you and me. God never intended to show his love to us by the size of our bank accounts, or how healthy we are (or aren’t), or by how problem free our lives are. God proved how much he loved us. “He gave his one and only Son.” He put his Son in a dangerous, deadly situation, knowing exactly what would happen to him. The dragon would attack him. The people around him would refuse to listen. No matter what Jesus did, his detractors hounded him until he ended up on a cross. Jesus went there carrying our guilt, our mistakes, our darkness. As Jesus lowered his head and died, doesn’t it look like the dragon won? Satan thought so! He leaned in to take a bite. He bruised Jesus’ heel, but that one bite poisoned the dragon. Jesus’ death crushed Satan’s power. As painful and as difficult as it was, God the Father knew he had to allow his Son to go through such pain and suffering, even though he had done nothing wrong. “God so loved the world.” God so loved you!
Does that help as we wander in the wilderness of our everyday lives? What are you struggling with? Did a friend say something that strained your relationship and made it difficult to be close? Has something gone bad at work? Or, is it thinking about sitting down for your Christmas celebration with an empty place at the table? Do you think he’ll abandon us in that wilderness now, after sending his Son into such a vicious battle? Never! Thanks to Jesus we can see where we are at in life as “a place...prepared by God,” a place where we can serve him and each other as we wait to join Jesus in heaven. This life is a wilderness. It’s not always a comfortable place to be. It never will be, but when we remember this wondrous sign—the evidence of God’s love for each one of us, we can keep up the journey until he takes us home to heaven.
Dragons and crowns and a child, oh my! When you see a manger scene this Christmas on a card or in someone’s display, consider for a moment the ugliness and terror behind that quiet scene. Jesus entered a dangerous world on a vital mission. Only when we remember who Jesus came to fight and what he came to do can we understand the size and scope of God’s love for us. Amen.