I thought I’d be a little daring and preach a couple of sermons from the Book of Revelation. Last week I preached on the Vision of Christ that opens the Revelation to John; this week, I want to focus on something that John sees in the midst of other things. In between visions that advance the narrative, we have this vision of the woman and the dragon, which, amidst wondrous visions of what is going on in heaven as the angels of God prepare for the judgment, shows us what has been going on on earth.
Two great portents appear: a woman and a dragon. Who is this woman? That’s what I want to talk about today. But it would be easier, perhaps, if we asked, Who is this dragon? and use what we find out to help answer the other question. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the dragon as the devil, as Satan the accuser; and besides, the text plainly labels him as such. But still, as I told you last week, in a vision the appearance of a thing is its meaning, so let’s not just take the dragon’s ID as read, but look at how he is described.
He is a red dragon – and red is the color of sin in the Book of Revelation.
He has seven heads, each with a diadem on it. The seven heads are a way of showing that he pretends to be all-knowing, to have the fullness of the wisdom of God. The diadem – well, that was a kind of embroidered headband worn by royalty. It showed their supposed divine descent, since the gods were also depicted with diadems. If you look on a Morgan silver dollar, you’ll see Lady Liberty wearing a diadem – that’s the ribbon tied around her head with the two ends that flutter behind – because Liberty is at least notionally a goddess. So the seven-headed dragon with his seven diadems is claiming to be God: a counterfeit god; a substitute god; an anti-god. But he is defeated and evicted from heaven by angelic forces led by the Archangel Michael, which shows that Satan was never a real rival to God; his native power is no more than that of the Archangel he was.
He has ten horns on his various heads. Horns stand for rulers, kingdoms, dynasties, and such – which shows that the normal way the devil seeks to rule mankind is by corrupting political leaders, who then act as his agents, whether they know it or not. But when this doesn’t work – when rulers and politicians fail to take care of the woman and her son, he vomits a river like a flood from his mouth.
Violent waters are a symbol of peoples and tribes and mobs in the Book of Revelation; in effect, it says that when rulers fail the devil, he will whip up pogroms, witch hunts, riots and mob rule to pursue his enemies. Sometimes, those are physical mobs; sometimes, they are ordinary people who set out to shame and punish those who won’t “go along to get along.” You can see them doing it on social media, as well as in face-to-face encounters. Bullies, blowhards, and bigots are as much the devil’s agents as emperors, bureaucrats, and “dear leaders.”
Well, that’s who the dragon is; now, who is this woman?
She is clothed with the sun, shining as brightly as Christ did in the earlier vision. But the Shekhina (the glory of God) is not coming from within her, but is merely shining upon her. She is a great personage, but she is not a goddess, does not claim to be a goddess. Which is also shown by her crown of stars.
Her crown (Greek stephanos) is not the same thing as a diadem. Crowns in ancient times were made of leaves of oak, bay, olive, and such and were used to recognize heroes. They were given to athletes and poets for winning competitions like the Olympic games, but also given to soldiers for bravery in battle and acts beyond those normally expected of even the good and the brave. So she is a hero of the faith. Her crown has twelve stars in it; and while stars often stand for angels in the Book of Revelation, here the number is probably more important, for twelve is the number of the People of God. There were twelve tribes in Old Testament Israel; twelve apostles were chosen by Jesus to head the New Testament Church.
And she has the Moon under her feet, perhaps as a birthing stool, for she is in labor, and gives birth to a son even as John watches. Now the Moon is an obvious symbol of natural womanhood; the fact that it is “under her feet” says something about her transcending her mere biological destiny. She is cooperating with God to bring forth this male child: she wills her own necessity, and thus converts it to a free choice of her own. And the boy she brings forth is destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron, and is hated by the dragon.
Well, the first and most obvious suggestion to the question we started with is, this looks an awful lot like a portrait of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She is divinely favored, "full of grace," and her reply to God’s call is “behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She is a hero of the faith, as important to the early Church as the all-male apostles. She and the other women were primary witnesses to the saving acts of Jesus Christ.
Well, it’s an attractive idea, but I don’t think the woman in the vision is only to be understood as Mary the Mother of Jesus. I think we could also see her as Eve Redeemed -- Eve as she should have been, and someday will be. For remember, after she acted so foolishly in disobeying God, Eve was told that her part in God’s plan would now be in her child-bearing, and that he would put enmity between her seed and the serpent’s seed. Her child would stomp on the serpent’s head, even as the serpent attempted to turn and bite him in the heel.
On this Mother’s Day, it might be good to reflect on what motherhood can mean, when it is sought and welcomed as a chance to work with God. It can, of course, be taken as an imposition, or as an exercise in egotism, or without serious thought at all. But all mothers who will and welcome the task they are given, who seek to raise their children in the fear of the Lord -- to help them do right and be right and love the right -- do as much to set the devil’s plans at nought as all the preachers and teachers and lawgivers can do.
And be very sure, the devil hates them for it. The devil always seeks to degrade women, to make them hate themselves, to delude them in all kinds of ways. And he hasn’t forgotten his best line – the one he used on Eve: “Yea, hath God said . . .? Really?”
Another possibility for identifying the woman in the vision is to see her as the People of God – as Israel bringing forth the Messiah, or as the Church. The idea of her being caught up on eagle’s wings and hidden safe in the wilderness looks like a promise of protection in times of persecution, which would more properly belong to the Church than to Mary or some other individual. Now, in our day, gendered language is seen by some as an affront, but I like the fact that in old-fashioned English, the Church is always feminine, always called “she.” It was Cyprian of Carthage who first said, “He can no longer have God for his father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
Think about it: None of us invent the faith by our own cleverness. We are taught the faith by others, shown it by others. And for most of us, that begins before we can even understand the words of our faith. We are brought to this place and shown how to pray, and signed with the cross, and we learn a thousand things through the example of others before we begin to work out in our heads the whole system of what we are asked to be, and do, for God. In turn, we learn to will our own necessity when we accept God’s call on our lives and take our place by free choice in the midst of the company of the faithful. And then we, in our turn, hand on the faith. We are the Church. All of us are called to be heroes of the faith, in one way or another. All of us are clothed with the glory; all of us are the children of Eve – and of Mary.
And all of us will face times of great testing. There will be doubts, perhaps – and fears, certainly – and from time to time hostile people. In our day, we are gradually getting used to the idea that we believers no longer set the agenda for our culture, and we face many challenges today. You need to be aware that there will come times when you will be threatened in various ways by those who are offended by what you believe and how you live. So we need to learn to depend on God for our protection and pray for strength to stand fast when everyone else is giving way. Anybody can be brave when everybody agrees with you, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing when you’re all alone. Which is why we also need each other, to strengthen us from without, as much as we need the Spirit of God to strengthen us from within.
The warfare that John saw portrayed in heaven is something going on all over the earth, all the time. And while you and I are not guaranteed that in this instance, or that situation, we will escape harm, we are assured that the ultimate victory will be ours, if we stay true to him who has promised to stay true to us. The devil’s time is short. And Jesus is still with us, and some day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. So give thanks for those who brought you here, who taught you your faith, who showed you how it was done. Follow their example and win or lose, you will conquer.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.