This sermon is part of the sermon series "Christmas Stories". See series.
This sermon is part of the “Christmas Stories” sermon series. See the whole series here.
(Read Revelation 12:1-6)
Once upon a time a long time ago, a man named John was exiled to the island of Patmos because of his faith in Christ. Patmos was an isolated place about sixty miles southeast of Ephesus where John served as pastor. John lived in the day when the Roman government didn't like Christians. The cruel emperor—a man named Domitian—fashioned himself to be god. Domitian didn't just want allegiance; he wanted worship. Christians weren't about to worship an emperor, and many paid the price for it: Some Christians were murdered.
John was exiled—ripped away from everything familiar and comfortable and normal. Exile is hard enough on a young man, harder yet for an old man like John who was probably in his eighties, stooped a bit, walking with a limp, shuffling really, which made it difficult to navigate the rocky island of Patmos. His once strong hands that gripped fishing nets like a vice were knotted and crooked with arthritis. His face was weathered by the years and bore crow's feet at the edges of cloudy eyes that still disappeared when he smiled and still retained a sparkle when he spoke of Jesus. This once "Son of Thunder" had mellowed with age. His mind was still sharp, and his devotion to Jesus was as crisp and fresh as it had been the day when Jesus called him to leave his fishing business and take up the kingdom business. "Follow me," Jesus said. John did, and he'd been following Jesus ever since.
And in following Jesus, John was eye-witness to so many incredible things. John, the experienced seaman, was as scared as the rest of the disciples when their boat was being swamped by wind and wave. Soaked to their skivvies and shivering in the cold, they dropped the sail and were at the mercy of the storm—the boat bobbing, weaving, rocking, tilting; the disciples green at the gills, nauseous, fearful. Drowning is such a horrible way to die. And all the while, Jesus slept. The disciples woke him: "Master, don't you care that we're dying here?" Jesus roused. He stretched. Reaching for the edge of the boat, he pulled himself to his feet, and staggered to the boat's bow working to keep his balance in that storm tossed vessel. Then, holding the forward mast with one hand, Jesus raised the other hand and told the storm to stop. And quick as a wink, the howling wind became a whispering breeze, choppy waters settled, and the disciples were suddenly more afraid of Jesus than they had been of the storm. "Who is this man that even the wind and the waves obey his voice?" John was there. He saw that.
And John was there when Jesus stood outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus, now four-days-dead. "Lazarus, get up," Jesus shouted. Lazarus got up and came out of the grave with the stiff-legged walk of a man wrapped up like a mummy. "Unwrap him," Jesus said, "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. "Woman, behold your son," Jesus said, "Son, behold your mother." John watched Jesus die. At the time he didn't know quite what to make of it. "It is finished," Jesus said just before he took his last breath. "Yes," John thought, "it is finished. The dream is finished. Jesus is finished. I am finished."
That happened on Friday. But come Sunday, things cleared up. Mary Magdalene gently rapped at the door of the disciple's hideout. The door creaked as it opened just a crack, just enough to reveal the shadowed faces of Peter and John. "I have seen the Lord!" she said. Stunned by the news, Peter and John raced to the tomb to check it out for themselves. They found it empty. There were burial cloths neatly folded and in place but 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. John saw the resurrected Jesus. John saw the risen Jesus a number of times.
And John was there to see Jesus ascend into heaven, and to hear Jesus' great commission to his followers to take the gospel to the whole world. Jesus told his followers to wait first 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 costly. Along with Peter, John was dragged before the authorities, beaten, and tossed in jail. John had his scars. 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. Nor was he defeated by them. Jesus 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."
Through it all—every twist, every turn, every up, every 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. Jesus met John on Patmos. In the bowels of a cave where John sought shelter from the elements, God gave John the Revelation of Jesus Christ in a sweeping panorama of history from God's point of view.
A book that depicts the greatness of Jesus Christ
The setting of the Revelation moves back and forth from earth to heaven and from heaven to earth. It's a story steeped in apocalyptic images of dragons and beasts and harlots and angels and trumpets and bowls of wrath. The dominant image, the governing 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 aflame, his feet like fire-tempered bronze, his voice like the sound of Niagara Falls. In his large hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came from his mouth. His face was as bright as a high noon sun in a clear summer sky. John was so overwhelmed by the vision of the living Christ that he fainted at Jesus' feet.
Jesus reached down with his right hand and helped John back to His feet. "You've got a story to tell the church, John." God unfolded Revelation before John, who, with those crooked hands, feverishly wrote down what he saw. What John saw is first and last a revelation of the large and in charge Jesus Christ. That is no Jesus meek and mild. This is the cosmic Christ: the First and the Last, the Living One, 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 at war.
Jesus' birth is a cosmic war story
Revelation tells a lot of war stories. Even the birth of Jesus is cast as a war story. The story unfolds not in a spot on the map called Bethlehem but on a cosmic stage. The war is no local shootout between Wyatt Earp's deputies and the Clanton brothers at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona; it's cosmic and epic, more like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars.
There's not an individual named Mary in the story either. Instead, the woman who gives birth to the child is a sign. She's clothed with the sun, the moon is under her feet, and on her head there is a crown of twelve stars. The number twelve in apocalyptic literature is the number of God's people. The woman is more than Mary and larger than Mary; she is a sign of all God's faithful people across the ages: faithful Israel and the faithful church. Instead of the serene and homey language of Luke's Christmas story—"and she gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger"—this woman in John's story is "crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth." We don't show up to find the baby in the nursery; John takes us into the birthing room. It neither sounds nor feels very spiritual. There was no epidural and no anesthetic. This is work. This is war: pain and agony and a woman's blood-curdling screams instead of a baby's coo. There was nothing silent about that night.
Instead of humble shepherds who came to greet and worship the newborn baby and instead of magi from the east who came to worship the child-king and bring him expensive gifts, in the Revelation account there is another sign, a huge, blood-red, seven-headed, ten-horned dragon, with crowns on every horn. This is no Puff the Magic 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 the earth.
The devil-dragon is hungry. See him there, standing before the woman, towering over her, casting her in his evil shadow. The woman is now dilated to 10; the crown of the baby's head is starting to show. With labored breaths and screams, the woman begins to push the baby 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 the child the moment the child tumbles out of the womb.
The Child depicted is the promised Messiah
The Child is no ordinary child. The Child is the prophesied Child, the Messiah-ruler of Psalm 2, the pre-existent Word, and the Christ who was with God and is God made flesh to dwell among us. This is the Child who is to rule all the nations with an iron rod. The Child is the mortal enemy of the dragon and all the evil the dragon represents. The dragon could not get to him in heaven. But now that the Messiah's come to earth as a helpless, vulnerable baby put into the care of mere flesh and blood folks like you and me, the dragon sees his opportunity to devour the Child and win the war. How can a helpless Child and an exhausted woman who's just given birth resist the cosmic power of the dragon? It looks like all is lost.
But wait! Suddenly, "the child was caught up to God and to his throne." Before the dragon could put two and two together, the woman escaped into the wilderness where God would take care of her and provide for her for a season until it was time to engage the dragon once again.
That is the way John and Revelation say "Merry Christmas!" You won't find that Christmas story on a Hallmark card. There's nothing sentimental about it. There are no shepherds, no magi, 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 just a screaming pregnant lady at the cusp of birth, a monstrous, evil devil-dragon, and the Messiah-Child the dragon is committed to destroy. This is war.
The victory against Satan was costly for Jesus
You may wonder how this is war since we never really see a battle. The hungry dragon waits, the Child is born, and the Child is caught up to God and the throne. Where's the war? It's 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 apocalypse, this is cosmic, sweeping literature. Revelation cuts to the chase and declares Jesus the victor!
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. 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 beachhead in Bethlehem.
Herod tried to slaughter the child Jesus by running a sword through every crib and playpen in Bethlehem. 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.
There was also the time the devil-dragon tried the same ploy by putting 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 say about it. Jesus won that battle, too. "Get behind me, Satan," Jesus said to Peter.
Then there was Gethsemane, the Alamo of Jesus' resolve to finish his mission by dying on the Cross as a sacrifice for our sins. That was a battle. Jesus was so agitated and in such agony that he sweat drops of blood and took three rounds of prayer to steel himself for the suffering and the Cross that was just hours away. Jesus stayed the course, and the Devil lost again.
That was no easy victory for Jesus. The Roman flogging, flogging that would rip skin from bone, left Jesus' back and ribs mutilated. The long iron nails driven into Jesus' hands and feet shattered bones and tendons. There has never been a death more slow, excruciating, humiliating, and suffocating as death on a cross. Jesus died on a cross. He died miserably, suffering in his body and suffering under the greater weight of our sins. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus cried.
The devil-dragon couldn't defeat Jesus, and he can't defeat Jesus' people either. That is not for the Devil's 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 tried to get to Jesus through Jesus' own disciple Peter. The Devil has many weapons at his disposal and is cunning and relentless. The Devil is a deceiver, a destroyer, a liar, and the "Father of Lies." Sometimes he even works undercover, appearing to as an angel of light. The Devil will win some battles as some of John's other Revelation visions spell out.
Here's the good news: The devil-dragon will not win the war. The war is already won. The Christmas Child grew up, did his work through the cross and the resurrection, and was caught up to God and to his throne. The Christmas Child came to destroy the works of the Devil, and he did destroy them and he continues to do so. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, Jesus is as present with us today as he was when he walked on earth. Jesus is Emmanuel which means "God with us." Jesus came to us at Christmas. He comes to us through his Holy Spirit. As Revelation reminds us at the end, the same Christ is coming back to earth, but things are going to be different that time around! That time, he will come as no helpless, dependent child but as the God-man 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 names of King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He will come with all the saints and hosts of God to make visible on earth what is already true in heaven. He will not suffer so much as a hangnail, but those who oppose him will suffer and be destroyed at his righteous, judging hand. This time the devil-dragon won't get a shot against Jesus. The Devil will be thrown into the lake of fire where he will be tormented day and night forever.
What about God's people? What will become of them at the end of the war? What will become of us? Revelation makes that information 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. You know what becomes of all God's people, don't you? It's the way every good story should end. All God's people live happily forever ever after. Amen.
John McCallum is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he has served for 22 years.