Sermon manuscript for the November 7, 2015, sermon at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Based on Revelation 12, 13, 14.
Revelation 12 begins with a vision of a glorious woman, clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, wearing a golden crown with twelve stars. She is pregnant—great with child. She is the epitome of goodness, sweetness, and promise.
After lingering on this scene for a few moments, the visionary camera pans right into the shadows, and there we see a great red dragon. The dragon is watching the woman, waiting for the birth of the baby.
For the dragon, the essence of life, the hunger that give meaning to his life, is headship, authority. The dragon dreams day and night of arranging the universe so that everything bows his direction.
The baby in the woman's womb is the prophesied king who will rule with a rod of iron. This boy will grow into a man who will whack the dragon on the head with an iron rod. The dragon figures it's now or never. If he doesn't eliminate this child at birth, the dragon's doom is sure.
We who are watching the vision figure the same thing. Our eyes go back and forth nervously from the glorious woman to the slavering beast crouched in the shadows. Will the dragon get the son or will the son survive to wield the iron rod?
The woman gives birth. The dragon lunges. The child is snatched away. And the next minute we are breathing easy. The baby has been evacuated to heaven. Whew. That was a close call. But we know how this story will play out. The baby will grow to manhood. He is going to master the art of cracking dragon skulls with an iron rod. The next time these two meet, it will be doom for the dragon. Hallelujah.
I like the picture of the knight with the magic iron rod vanquishing this terrible dragon.
A personal aside: Right now, my wife and I are taking care of our daughter's cows. Once a week, we go open a new 1200 pound bale of silage for them. These cows have horns. The adult cows have a spread of about four feet. While I'm opening the bale—which takes a few minutes--the cows will crowd in on me and on each other. They fling those horns around, and if you happen to be in the way, too bad. I have to drive them back. My daughter has taught me that cows respect horns. So you have to convince the cows you have bigger horns than they have. So I carry a four foot tool handle with a sharp point on it. When the cows try to crowd in, I spread my arms wide like horns and bellow. At that point, my "horns" are bigger than theirs and they will usually, reluctantly back off. But it that's not enough, I take my "iron rod" to them. I jab them with my pointed handle. Cow hide is really thick. Sometimes I have to jab really hard. But by waving my "horns," making a lot of noise and vigorously wielding my "iron rod," I can manage. I can make even the young bull back off. It's actually kind of fun. They are like bulldozers or tanks and it gives me a real sense of power and manliness to boss them around.
So, when I read about this child with his iron rod, I smile. I imagine the pleasure he will get bossing and ultimately destroying that ugly dragon.
The text in Revelation seems to confirm this perspective. After describing the Glorious Woman, the Slavering Dragon, and the child who has been evacuated to heaven, the child who is going to rule with an iron rod, the text tells us: There was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. Michael wins. The dragon is driven out. The text further explains the dragon is the devil, Satan, the Great Deceiver, the Accuser of the Brethren. The child is Michael, the mighty prince.
This sounds promising. The child is taken to heaven. There is a war there and the child wins. The dragon loses and is expelled. It's good news that the devil lost the war in heaven, but bad news that he wasn't killed. We thought that when the Son and the Dragon met in battle, the Dragon would die. But not only is the dragon still alive, he is banished to earth. On no! This is seriously bad news.
Chapter 13, picks up the earth story, but when we look to see what the dragon up to we don't see the dragon, we a weird, amalgamated beast. It is a hybrid of a leopard, a lion and a bear. It has seven heads and ten horns.
This creature is an evocation of imagery from the Old Testament. The prophet Daniel pictured the great empires of antiquity using animals—a lion, a leopard and a bear, and then a dreadful monster with ten horns. Revelation is telling us the dragon operates through ordinary human agencies, and more specifically through the legal, formal social structures of government.
As we follow the vision, the amalgamated beast is followed by a two-horned monster who has the same character, the same hunger and drive, as the amalgamated beast. Their single objective is headship. They crave homage, respect, obeisance, obedience, deference. They demand that every human either kiss up or die. Bow or die. Honor our headship or we will eliminate you.
The great red dragon, the amalgamated beast, the two-horned monster all have one ambition: headship.
As you read through chapter 13, you get a sinking feeling. It appears that the drive for headship, for unchallenged authority is triumphant. It appears that every bit of opposition is eliminated. The two-horned beast wins. The amalgamated beast wins. The dragon wins. The woman loses. Her first born son was evacuated to heaven. Her earth-bound children are eradicated. Righteousness dies in the earth.
That's what it sounds like as you read through chapter 13. Then you turn the page and chapter 14 tells us that, in fact, gadzillion people resisted the threats of the dragon, the beast, and the monster. Gadzillion saints have never even thought of bowing, of paying obeisance.
Literally, chapter 14 says 144,000 refused to bow. But as we learned in last week's sermon, in Revelation, 144,000 means a crowd so vast it cannot be counted. This crowd includes a full complement of people from every people group on earth, even apparently-extinct groups are included.
The dragon does not win. The amalgamated beast does not win. The two-horned monster does not win. The Son wins. God wins. Their people win.
But there is a serious twist in this story. It is one of the deepest spiritual truths in Revelation.
It turns out that the Son does not win by whacking the dragon with his iron rod. The Son does not win by wagging bigger horns than the amalgamated beast or the two-horned monster.
Back in Chapter 5, when the joy of heaven was silenced and the prophet dissolved into tears because no one was able, no one was powerful enough, to open the mysterious scroll, the prophet was consoled when one of the elders told him, “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah is able to open the scroll. He is mighty enough to solve the problem and restore music to heaven.”
But when John turns to see this “Lion,” astonishingly he sees a Lamb. And the lamb looked like it had been slaughtered.
Similarly here in Chapter 12. We first read that it is the Son wielding the messianic Iron Rod who will vanquish the dragon. We read that Michael, the Great and Mighty Prince, vanquished the dragon in heaven. But then when we listen to the song of the saints celebrating this victory, we learn that the victory came not from the Son's prowess with the iron rod, but through his self-sacrifice--through the blood of the Lamb.
The dragon, beast and monster are not defeated by an opposite will to power. They do not lose their claim to “headship” because someone stronger crushes them with irresistible power. They do not fall in the face of a "greater headship." The dragon, beast, and monster collapse because the Lamb successfully woos humanity. The Lamb wins our hearts and draws us into the light. The dragon, beast, and monster are left roaring futilely in the darkness. The Lamb wins by giving away authority. And the people of the Lamb demonstrate their participation in his kingdom by similarly giving away whatever authority flows through their hands.
In contrast to the repeated declarations by the dragon, beast and monster—bow or die—the Lamb says I will die that your might live. In contrast to the threats of the evil trinity, the holy trinity promises shared place on the throne. In perhaps the most astonishing picture in the book, God removes himself from the supreme place of headship in deference to the Lamb. Chapter Five pictures the Lamb at the center of the throne, the center of the beasts, the ring of elders, and the countless residents of heaven. At the end of the book, in chapter 22, God gives full authority to the saints. They are not merely pages and ministers in the heavenly court. They are themselves rulers. There is no headship pyramid. The lust for coercive authority and the need for coercive authority have disappeared. This is the fruit of the love and sacrifice of the Lamb.
The Lamb wins. Because God's greatest desire is for the Lamb to win, God wins. Because we are beloved by God and the Lamb and have been enthralled and wooed by their love and goodness, we win.
Father is the metaphor for God used most frequently in the Bible. Christian theology has appropriately elaborated and celebrated this metaphor. We have also been seduced by it. We who are fathers imagined God would solve the problem of evil with the hammers of authority and punishment. But according to Revelation 12-14, this is false.
In these chapters, the essence of sin is portrayed as the the lust for headship. Heaven's response is not a sterner, tougher version of authority and headship, but a renunciation of the headship principle. The Lamb triumphs by dying. It is the blood of the Lamb, not the Rod of the Son that ultimately vanquishes the dragon and his allies.
Real life application
The Protestant reformers in the 1400s were correct to apply the imagery of the beast to the medieval papacy. It had an insatiable hunger for headship. It demanded that everyone bow.
Adventists are unwise to continue to focus on that historical moment as the only relevant application of this vision. We ourselves, now that we are an 18-million-member corporation, experience our own temptations to lust after headship. We want to be able to command. We want to demand obedience. We are at grave risk of creating an image to the beast.
We cannot save the church by wielding a rod of iron. We can only save the church by “the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony.”