Here Be Dragons
Rev. Drew Stockstill – Feb. 20, 2022
Revelation 12: 1-9; 13-18
John was a Christian evangelist living as an exile on the Mediterranean island of Patmos. His was a time when Christians, as well as other religious groups, were ruthlessly persecuted by the vast and powerful Roman Empire, under the rule of Nero. Saint John knew this punishment first hand.
Recently scholars have suggested that mob violence by Roman citizens was how most Christians died and the form that death took varied widely: a beheading for the lucky elites, or crucifixion, like Jesus. If someone confessed to being Christian, they were likely to be condemned to being publicly mauled to death by lions, leopards, or boars. Some areas of the empire were more tolerant of Christians practicing their religion, others much less. But for the first 300 years of Christianity, to follow Jesus was to risk everything. From hard labor, imprisonment, exile, to excruciating, humiliating death. Threat to life and family lay around every corner, so great were the stakes of simply believing in Jesus. We truly cannot imagine this level of commitment and sacrifice. It is, and I mean this, a miracle that the Christian faith survived the first three centuries. We are here today because those sisters and brothers persevered in the faith and believed that so good was this news that it was worth the great risk continue to follow Jesus, and to raise their children to follow Jesus no matter the cost in this life. The alternative was to worship the Roman Empire and that was no alternative at all.
For John of Patmos and his congregations, this was what was at stake. John was lucky to simply be in exile, separated from the churches he was called to serve. He could now only imagine what fresh horror they were experiencing. It was the Lord’s Day and he was in the Spirit, praying for them, hoping for them, fearing for them. And that’s when he, quite spectacularly, found himself transported into the heavenly realm of angels and lions, elders on thrones, mythical flying creatures, and a seven-eyed, seven horned lamb. And it was there he was told to write everything he saw, write to those churches, the ones held deeply in his heart, and tell them what he saw. Saint John said it would be a blessing, these words, both to whoever read them and whoever heard them. John was given this vision to share with a people who were suffering, who didn’t know what monsters were around the corner: a new emperor, a mob, neighbors turned lynch mob. Saint John believed this vision would come as welcomed news, be a blessing to them, something that would give them hope.
With this expectation, let us listen for the word of God to us today from Revelation 12:
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 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.
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. 1But 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. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 1But 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. 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. Then the dragon took his stand
on the sand of the seashore.
John had seen the four horsemen of the apocalypse wreak havoc on the earth. He heard the four angels blow their horns and saw as a third of the earth consumed by various wars and storms and flaming mountains. All hell was breaking loose, but it was a hell many Christians could recognize. They knew these horrors.
In Saint John’s Revelation, he saw the suffering of the earth for humans, animals, and plants. All that God had made and declared good was under attack. And then the dragon emerged. St. John would have grown up hearing about the red dragon in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet, Ezekiel called Pharaoh, “the great dragon of lies” (Ezek. 29:3). Of course, Pharaoh was the mighty ruler of Egypt that held the Hebrews captive for 400 years. Like an enraged dragon, he pursued the fleeing Hebrews into the desert. God saved them by parting the Red Sea and washing away the dragon of lies.
The prophet, Isaiah, prophesying to the people of God suffering under the ruthless captivity of the Babylonian empire, comforted his people saying, “On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Is 27:1). The dragon represented the political forces that persecuted the people of God. The dragon was the fierce source of suffering that seemed unbeatable to a people beat down and hopeless.
Saint John and his congregations faced their own dragon, the Roman Empire, and more troubling, their own neighbors, their fellow citizens who had grown a hate in their hearts for them. It was the dragon who crucified their Lord on the cross, the dragon that now tormented those simply committed to living as disciples of Jesus, who were so bold as to believe that God may heal the world, and this empire through their commitment to love and live as Jesus. They were those who took seriously Jesus’ sermon we heard from the Gospel this morning, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” To those first Christians, those words weren’t just a mantra for a kindergarten class, they weren’t a recipe for leadership success, those words were a call to action to face down the dragon, even if that dragon was in the heart of their own neighbor and to engage not with a mutual hate but a matchless love. This is how God has chosen to conquer evil, to heal the world, to ask us, his church to play by a separate rulebook, one that outflanks hatred with grace. Jesus preached to those who faced real persecution to engage hate with love.
Love Your Enemies, sculpture by Timothy Schmaltz, 2016
It was a fairly common practice among early cartographers (map makers) when drawing areas that might be dangerous or unexplored to draw pictures of dragons on those areas. On a globe dating to 1504, written on the far edge of the Asian continent it says, hic sunt dracones, “Here are dragons.” Mythical dragons lurked among what was unknown and unexplored. Who can be sure what lies under the bed or in the closet once the lights are out, unless dad comes back into the room, turns on the lights, looks under the bed and explores the closet. Until then, “here be dragons.”
John’s revelation just tells the truth that we all know about this world: Yes, here be dragons. Spiritual forces that afflict us and metaphorical forces that cause pain and suffering in life. We are saved by grace alone, YES, but that does not keep us from facing the dragon. Just as we are taking steps forward in life, in faith, well something can spring out of the sea, descend from the air and threaten to ruin it all. We look at the map of our lives, all the areas we’ve explored, the lessons we’ve learned, the amazing discoveries we’ve made, but there are vast areas were we just
don’t know what lurks there. In Europe sabers are rattling, rumors of war. We don’t know what is to come. There could be dragons, the dragon of war, violence, economic turmoil. We should pray without ceasing for peace, that the hell of war not be unleashed on the innocent and those who would be called upon to fight.
There are other dragons of our time: Just last week we prayed for the precious girls whose parents were killed. In homes with violence, there be dragons. There are still places where people are persecuted and truly suffer because of their religion- there be dragons. A storm or a fire can wipe out a town in a matter of moments- there be dragons. There are those who battle mightily against the dragon of a substance use disorder. Terrorists fly planes into a building one sunny morning – there be dragons. Refugees are forced to flee their homes – there be dragons. Life is a precious gift, and things change fast. What we know for certain is only the present moment, right now. Beyond, well perhaps there be dragons.
But here is the opposing truth of John’s revelation. God is always trying to birth new beautiful life. John saw, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs.” The Apostle Paul said, in order to give hope to Christians waiting for God’s salvation, “in hope creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves” (Rom. 8:22).
John sees this great hope in Revelation, the new life being born in us, among us. This new life we call church. It is our commitment to a new covenant, one of love, community, fellowship, prayer, communion, reconciliation, salvation, new life in Christ. People give themselves to this commitment to Christ every day. We are invited to give ourselves to this new life every morning, to be made new every morning. And John saw that great red dragon ready to devour the child as soon as it was born. That’s how it feels sometimes: one step forward and, two steps, DRAGON!
In John’s own time, the Christian church was being born, blossoming, but would also go on to face centuries more of oppression. He comforts his church by telling them the truth, “Beloved, ahead there be dragons.” But John confirms something else- “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 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.” The story doesn’t end there. The dragon continues to cause harm on earth. It’s not over until it’s over, beloved.
I want to be as honest with you as John is with his church. In chapter 13 John has a word for us that is just straight truth. He says, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” That’s what this is, friends, a call for our endurance and faith. John says, “Hang in there. Don’t give up, saints.” He doesn’t give them false hope, as if just being faithful will keep them from harm, as if being a Christian is a pathway to financial success and prosperity. Those are lies and they don’t hold up. But endure, saints, for God and his angels are fighting for us. Be courageous, remain faithful, keep loving even in the face of hatred, because John said, “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion!” And, “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him” (Rev 20:1-3).
Great is the mystery of this life and this faith. We simply do not know what lies around the next corner, we cannot see into the future, but we do know this, there are dragons, but more importantly there also is God. And God wins, LOVE WINS. There is no shadow where God is not present,
no corner around which a dragon may be lurking that God is not also there. Don’t give up the faith. Endure, saints, keep living. Dragons my rage today, but they will be brought to heel. We will face struggles and loss, but God faces them with us. Weeping may last for the night but joy comes in the morning. Amen.
 Davenport, Caillan; Malik, Shushma, “Mythbusting Ancient Rome – throwing Christians to the Lions,” 11/21/2016. https://theconversation.com/mythbusting-ancient-rome-throwing-christians-to-the-lions-67365  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_be_dragons