Revelation 12:7-17; 13:11-18
Hymn # 370 This Is My Father’s World
Prayer of Invocation
God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit, that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Call to Confession
We know that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Let us in freedom confess the wrong we have done.
Prayer of Confession
God of birth, God of joy, God of life, we come to you as a people hungry for good news. We have been so dead to miracles that we have missed the world’s rebirth. We have preoccupied ourselves with pleasures and have overlooked the joy you offer us. We have been so concerned with making a living that we have missed the life you set among us.
Forgive us, gracious God. Open our eyes and our hearts to receive your gift; open our lips and hands to share it with all humanity in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel tells us: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Know that we are forgiven.
Passing of the Peace
Prayer for Illumination
Lord God, help us turn our hearts to you and hear what you will speak, for you speak peace to your people through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. 12 Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.
11 Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15 and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.
Note: This sermon series is a collaborative effort; it is the work of the Rev. Alan Olson (Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Freehold, NJ), the Rev. Charissa Howe (Pastor, Emsworth UP Church and St. Andrews Presbyterian Church), and the Rev. Rebecca DePoe (Pastor, Glenshaw Valley Presbyterian Church and Mt. Nebo United Presbyterian Church).
Sermon: Beast Mode
Good morning! Before we dive into those crazy images from Revelation, I want to tell you a quick story about a friend of mine named Dave. He was one of my best friends in high school. He was a smart guy, and a bit of a smart-aleck.
One day, Dave and I walked into class—I think it was physics. We sat down, and then I noticed that someone had scrawled on my desk: I LOVE SATIN! Now I’m sure the person really meant to say, Satan. I was more annoyed than shocked. I didn’t want it on my desk, but I didn’t want to clean it, either.
I showed it to Dave. He pulled out his pencil and wrote: “I prefer cotton.” We both got a good laugh out of it. As an added bonus, everyone else who saw that graffiti on the desk got to laugh at the idiot who didn’t know how to spell Satan. What Dave did was way more effective than erasing what the first person wrote.
Chapters 12 and 13 present some of the craziest and scariest images in all of Revelation: the dragon, who is Satan, and also the beast from the sea and the beast from the land. We also get images of people with the number of the beast scrawled on their foreheads or hands. What do we do with these unsettling images?
We need to learn to hear these words and see these images as the members of the original audience would have heard and seen them, the members of the congregations at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. They would have recognized references to Greek and Roman mythology that we do not. They probably would have recognized references to the Hebrew scriptures more quickly than we do, too.
I’m going to summarize parts of Chapters 12 and 13, including parts that I didn’t read—I encourage you to read them on your own after worship.
Chapter 12 begins with an image of a dragon pursuing a pregnant woman, who wishes to devour her child. The dragon is pursuing the woman across the heavens. The woman is preserved. Then at one point, the dragon attempts to drown the woman. We later learn that the dragon is also Satan. The dragon is then cast out of Heaven, down to the Earth, where Satan rages because he was cast out of Heaven. He continues to devour believers.
While John’s visions seem astonishing to us, the congregations who first heard this message would have recognized the references to the Old Testament. The woman who is pursued by the dragon is an allusion to Eve in the story of Genesis; the prophet Ezekiel referred to the nation of Egypt as a dragon; the prophet Jeremiah described the king of Babylon as a dragon; and the Book of Daniel also speaks of a beast with ten horns, much like the dragon in Revelation.
In all of these cases, the dragon represents the forces that seek to destroy God’s chosen people, Israel. The dragon represents the empires that threatened or conquered Israel.
The beast that comes from the sea in Chapter 13 also borrows imagery from the Book of Daniel. In John’s vision, the beast “was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth” (Revelation 13:2).
The physical features of the beast recall Daniel 7, which spoke of a series of empires arising before the kingdom of God arrived. The first looked like a lion, the second like a bear, the third like a leopard, and the fourth had ten horns (Daniel 7:1-8). Revelation draws all these features into a single beast.
The early Christian congregations, the original audience to whom John of Patmos wrote, would have caught the references to the Hebrew scriptures (which we now call the Old Testament). They would have caught the references and they would have concluded that this was also a warning about the destructive power of the Roman Empire and its ability to persecute Christians.
But that wasn’t the only way that the Roman Empire threatened Christianity.
The economic might of the Roman Empire was just as great as its military might. Under Roman rule, vast trading networks were developed. All sorts of goods were moved across the Mediterranean Sea and the network of roads that linked the various parts of the Empire, including small towns, big cities, and great sea ports.
Lots of tradesmen made their living as part of the Roman commercial empire. Men built ships and barrels, carts and tents. Big cities had tanners and dyers, weavers and potters. Many of the members of the early Christian congregations made their living in these trades. Every trade had a professional organization, or a guild. If you wanted to be successful in your trade, you had to belong to the guild. And that’s where the problem was.
You see, every guild had a patron god. The shipbuilders’ guild might have been dedicated to Poseidon or Neptune. At guild meetings, members might have offered prayers to Poseidon or sacrifices to Neptune. And maybe there was an annual festival in that town, dedicated to Poseidon, where a bunch of animals were sacrificed to that god, and then the food was distributed to the community.
This posed a great problem for early Christians: How do you make a living in the Roman Empire when every part of your trade is connected to pagan gods? Anyone who was involved in any of those trades had to participate in the local guild; a person in the trades couldn’t opt out. But participation in the guilds required the worship of idols and making sacrifices to false gods.
What was a Christian supposed to do? Rome showed two hands to the Christian, or anyone who didn’t want to conform to Roman norms. One hand was the closed fist, saying we will destroy you if you fight us or if you don’t comply. The other hand was open; it offered a pile of coins to anyone who would conform.
The dragon and the beasts in Chapters 12 and 13 of Revelation represent Rome and all of the other empires that have threatened God’s faithful children. They represent those who have attacked the faithful over the years. And the beasts want the people to bow down to them and to worship idols. And the people who want to do business with the empires must bear the mark of the beast. John is urging people not to compromise with the Roman Empire, or any other empire that would call for allegiance to something other than God.
So, then, why the crazy images of a seven-headed dragon?
Why have a beast from the sea and a beast from the land?
What’s up with all that?
These images are a mixture of satire and spectacle. The spectacle of the dragon and the beasts catches the attention of the congregations that hear this scripture—then and now. The spectacle shows that God will triumph over evil, eventually. And the satire, the big, ugly beast that represents all empires, allows the early Christians to laugh at their persecutors. The satire deflates the might of the Roman Empire. Kinda like my buddy Dave writing, “I prefer cotton.”
To put it another way, the entire book of Revelation is sort of like a Marvel Comics movie, especially these two chapters. I know that’s a strange analogy, but think about the movie, The Avengers. The Earth is threatened with destruction by aliens from the heavens. There’s a group of superheroes who might be able to stop them, but there’s a problem. No single superhero is powerful enough to stop the alien invasion alone. Yet the superheroes can’t seem to get along with one another. Earth can only be saved if the superheroes remember their responsibility to stand up for the people who can’t defend themselves against the alien invaders.
A lot of the comic books that were created in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were written for nerdy kids—mostly boys—who felt that they didn’t fit in. They were a reminder to kids who felt like outsiders that they could be heroic, too; that they were valuable. They told kids to hang on: high school isn’t the end of the world, even if sometimes it feels like there’s nothing outside of the awful social structures and peer pressure and bullies who want to steal your lunch money.
The early Christians also felt like they didn’t quite belong. Some were persecuted. Many more were seduced by the money that they could make if they conformed with Greco-Roman religious practices. Perhaps the life of the Christian community seemed hopeless to some. John of Patmos is saying to them: Hang on! Rome seems mighty, but its power won’t last forever. Take heart. Keep the faith.
The grace in this story from Revelation is that Satan has already been exiled from Heaven. Satan’s powers will eventually be defeated on Earth. The satire is a reminder to the faithful Christians to laugh at the bully and persevere. It tells us that God’s justice will prevail. God’s love will prevail. Take heart. Keep the faith.
That’s what we need to take away from Revelation, too. Sometimes we feel like we’re in a hopeless situation. In church, we feel like we’re being squeezed—we don’t have the numbers or the finances we used to have. Outside of church, there’s the pandemic, and who knows when that will end? And there’s all of this division in our society. We all feel isolated and we can’t get along with one another. Like the Avengers.
At the beginning of The Avengers, each one of the superheroes is a little too self-absorbed to work with the others. Before they can come together to defeat the supervillains, they have to get past their own self-imposed limitations. They can only become the Avengers when they let go of their pettiness and the parts of their identities that separate them. As a united force, they become invincible.
Each and every one of us is a remarkable and unique witness to the love of God in the world. None of us can rebuild the Church on our own. None of us can cure the coronavirus on our own. None of us can transform the world outside of the church or make God’s love and justice manifest in the world on our own. Yet this is what Jesus calls us to do, as the Church, not as individual believers.
As individuals, we identify and define ourselves in many different ways: We define ourselves by our jobs, our relationships with family and friends, and where we live. Our identities include race and ethnicity, political affiliation, the music we listen to, and the sports teams we root for (and against), or our utter disinterest in sports. None of these are inherently bad or destructive. But in our isolation and self-absorption, we tend to elevate these differences that divide us.
Like the Avengers, we have to get past our own self-imposed limitations. We have to let go of our pettiness and the parts of our identities that separate us from one another. We have to remember that our identity is in Christ, in the lamb. We have to follow the lamb. And be heroic! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymn # 65 Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Prayer of Thanksgiving
We give our thanks through our talents, our time, and our treasure.
Thanks be to God; whose love creates us!
Thanks be to God; whose mercy redeems us!
Thanks be to God; whose grace leads us into the future! Amen.
Prayers of the People
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn # 260 Alleluia! Sing to Jesus
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that the truth of God’s love is always being revealed to us. So, go forth and be heroic! Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!