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Worship and Preaching

The Monster at the Manger (Revelation 12)

Image: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/kan65hpg

I’m convinced, among the other words it has to offer us, Revelation 12 has a powerful word to speak to us about “the Christmas story.”

This year, I revisited John’s vision of a woman, her son, and a dragon for the third time. (I preached on this text for Marple Presbyterian Church a decade ago, on New Year’s Day 2012; and in December 2020 for Marple Christian Church.)

You can watch my telling of and preaching on the Scripture below. The video contains the entire service; the storytelling and sermon begin at about 20 minutes in.

My manuscript for the sermon (close to but not exactly what I preached) is below.

Monster at the Manger

I.

So many visions in Revelation are so weird.

The church debated for centuries if the book should even be in our Bible.

This vision has fascinated me for a long time.

Yes, it’s partly because it reminds me of an epic fantasy or a fairy tale.

(You know me.

Hopeless geek. Sucker for fantasies and fairy tales.)

Look at the cast of characters:

A beautiful queen.

Her son, the prince, destined to rule.

And a dragon!

Who can resist a good story about a dragon?

And not just any dragon.

This is the most monstrous, malevolent, menacing dragon—.

King Arthur and his knights never had to slay a dragon this bad.

J.R.R. Tolkien never dreamed up a dragon this fearsome for The Lord of the Rings.

We’ve never seen a dragon like this.

But John says we have.

John was an early Christian mystic who had overwhelming visions that showed him the heavenly meaning, the cosmic significance, of earthly events.

He wrangled these visions into words so he could share those truths with others.

And John says we have seen this very dragon before.

The story in Genesis that Karen read never calls that snake in Eden “the devil” or “Satan.”

But John does.

This dragon, John says, is “the ancient serpent… the deceiver of the whole world.”

II.

John says this dragon has been worming its way through the story of God and God’s people since the beginning.

That snake God condemned to crawl on its belly?

See it now! John says.

See it exposed in

all its ugliness,

all its arrogance,

all its hateful, destructive power—

see it dead-set on destroying the full and abundant life for which God created us.

Where and how do you see that kind of life in danger today?

There’s so much pain and sorrow and brokenness in our world and in our lives.

And sometimes we bear some or even much responsibility for it.

But John’s vision shows us something malicious and malignant is at loose.

And whether you want to call it the Devil with a capital D or Evil with a capital E,

it’s real, 

and dangerous, 

and ever-ready to devour—

sometimes to nibble away at full and abundant human life bit by bit,

or sometimes to swallow it whole.

Look at the dragon, John says.

But look also at when the dragon was defeated.

III.

On Christmas Eve, Karen told you about one unorthodox Nativity scene.

I want to tell you about another.

It was one of those Nativity scenes on a lawn.

And in this one, all the figures you’d expect were present.

Mary, Joseph, the baby.

The shepherds. 

Even the wise men, coming in all the way from Epiphany for a special guest appearance!

And in the background, looming over all of them…

A tall, illuminated, inflatable Tyrannosaurus Rex!

John’s vision shows us there was a monster at the manger.

Mary gave birth to a life so radically new, so extraordinarily holy,

those who would come to know him and follow him 

would call him “Emmanuel”—God with us.

And those who believed in him because of his followers’ witness would call him fully divine.

As we sang earlier:

True God from true God, light from light eternal…

They would also call him fully human—

more human than any human they’d ever known, including themselves…

more human than you or I will ever be in this life…

because no human had ever been

  • So freely and fully committed to God’s will.
  • So freely and fully focused on loving each other, and our neighbors, and ourselves as whole people.
  • So freely and fully embodying, in word and action, all that is true, and noble, and just, and pure.

The dragon didn’t want a life like that to be born.

So it stood in front of Mary as she gave birth to a son.

Did it just so happen Jesus was born in poverty?

Did it just so happen there was no room in the inn?

Did it just so happen Mary and Joseph were ordered around by an arrogant Empire that wanted to better control them?

Did it just so happen a crazed figurehead king became so afraid of losing power he had all the baby boys born around the same time slaughtered?

Did it just so happen Mary had to raise her boy as a refugee in a strange land for those first few, formative years?

The dragon was there that first Christmas—

the monster at the manger— 

desperate to devour this new and miraculous life,

to stop God’s decisive entrance into the world, and into humanity.

IV. 

But instead…

the woman gave birth to the son.

The queen brought forth the prince.

He is destined to rule the nations—probably better translated “to shepherd” them…

To govern and guide them not with an iron fist, but with an iron rod, a symbol of the Messiah.

The child is “snatched up” to God.

In John’s vision, it happens right away.

On Earth, it took about 30 years—and it took Jesus to his cross.

On Earth, it looked like a defeat.

In John’s vision, it is God’s great victory.

The dragon has been thrown down.

The dragon can twitch its terrible tail and lick its loathsome chops all it wants—

It has no hope of devouring the new and holy life God brought into the world

when Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ.

That’s the Christmas story as John tells it.

V.

It’s also your story, and mine, and ours together.

Because while the dragon has been thrown down—

it has been thrown down here.

The dragon is doomed to defeat—

but it’s still very dangerous.

And the woman in peril isn’t Mary any more.

It’s us—the beloved people of God.

Sisters and brothers in Christ,

today we all are that woman 

radiant as the sun and magnificent as the moon in God’s eyes.

God has chosen and called and claimed us to be 

the people through whom God gives birth to a radically new and holy and miraculous life.

Mary gave birth to Christ in a unique way.

But we, in our life together—

in the way we treat each other,

in the way we share our joys and sorrows,

in the way we work side by side to care for our neighbors and for God’s world

—we are, God willing, giving birth to Christ in our way.

And that monster from the manger now stands in front of us.

Some of those who first heard John’s vision 

gave birth to Christ by dying for him.

We’re not likely to be called to die martyrs’ deaths.

But there will be moments, big and small,

when love of our lives

and fear of the dragon

tempt us to stay safe and silent…

to make easy but unfaithful choices…

to close off some way we as God’s people might give birth to God’s presence

in a world that desperately needs to encounter God’s presence,

as we have in Jesus Christ.

VI.

I said Revelation 12 almost feels like a fantasy or fairy tale.

The British fantasy author Neil Gaiman has this to say about fairy tales:

Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist,

but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

The next time you see a Nativity scene,

look at it until you see the monster at the manger.

And remember John’s vision.

The dragon has been thrown down.

Though it rages still,

its time is short.

The monster at the manger is no match for the Christ who was in the manger—

who has been snatched up to God’s throne through his life, death, and resurrection,

and who rules in power for us and prays for us,

even as we labor to give him new birth. 

Nothing can snatch those who trust him and hold firmly to his witness

out of his hand, in which he holds us even more firmly.

Amen.

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