First Sunday in Advent
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
First Sermon in our Advent sermon series “There’s Something About Mary.”
You may be asking yourself, what does this psychedelic trip through the twelfth chapter in the Book of Revelation has to do with Advent. Or Christmas. Or anything at all, even. You may have even found yourself sitting in your pew saying, “oh no… I’m in one of those churches.”
But fear not, this passage has been read to you this morning with a purpose, with a reason in mind. Several, good reasons actually. In many way this is the perfect scripture passage to kick off this, the season of Advent.
First, this passage is perfect because it’s apocalyptic. To which you might say, “duh.”
But the tradition in the Christian calendar is that the Advent season always begins with an apocalyptic text from the gospels. Note the songs we began the service with, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” and “These are the days of Elijah.” Apocalyptic songs.
If you were here a few weeks ago, you’ll have heard Rev. Trevor Malkinson’s excellent sermon on the meaning of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Contrary to popular opinion or belief, though, the apocalypse is intended to be good news. Often, when he hear stories like this, we tend to think spooky, Mayan calendar, nuclear holocaust-type stuff. But, as he reminded us, the word “apocalypse” simply means “unveiling.” Apocalyptic texts pull back the veil on reality, to get underneath things. They try to get at what’s happening in the world beyond what we can touch, see, observe using vivid, symbolic language and images. Not just straightforward visions or dreams, but more like an impressionistic painting. They expose the hidden forces, and powers of evil, yes. But, more importantly, they raise up God’s unseen activity, holding to the conviction that good will ultimately win out in the end. Even if the present seems to suggest otherwise.
That’s why this apocalyptic text was chosen for this Sunday. Advent always begins with the apocalypse, because the birth of Jesus is an apocalyptic event. Advent is about God breaking in, about hope being unveiled in the middle of a world that seems to be without it. A hopeful sign of something larger to come.
Now, the second reason why this text was chosen flows from the first. This Advent’s sermon series is titled, There’s Something About Mary. And this is really the only apocalyptic text in the Bible that has Mary, the Mother of Jesus in the spotlight, as its star.
Here, a great vision appears in the heavens, one of a cosmic woman. She’s clothed in the sun, standing on the moon. And on her head is a crown of twelve stars. She’s pregnant. She’s pregnant, and crying out in labour pains.
And as she’s about to give birth, another vision appears in the heavens alongside it. This time it’s a dragon—a great red one. Seven heads, ten horns, and seven crowns. It swats down one third of the stars with its tail. Then it stands before the woman, ready to devour her child as soon as it leaves her body.
The baby is born, it says. A male child, one born to rule the nations with a rod of iron. But before the dragon can feast, the baby is snatched away, taken to God’s heavenly throne. Meanwhile the woman flees into the wilderness, where she’ll be nourished, and hidden for forty months. The baby’s saved, and the woman flees to safety.
And just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, suddenly a war breaks out in the transcendent realm. Michael, who is the leader of God’s angel armies assaults the dragon. The dragon and its minions fight back, but it’s no use. They’re defeated, expelled from heaven. And thrown down to earth.
Now, if you feel confused, that’s okay. Because, like I said earlier, apocalyptic stories like this one are highly symbolic, and artistically drawn. They’re not meant to be read in a straightforward or literal way.
So what’s going on here?
There’re multiple layers of meaning.
The woman’s psychedelic crown of twelve stars symbolizes three things. First, 12 stars for the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s people. Second, 12 stars also, for the original 12 apostles—the church. And the third: they’re the twelve signs of the zodiac. Ancient people believed you could understand present events, and even the outcome of future events by observing the stars. Should make those of us who are horoscope watchers happy.
Put all three of these things together—Israel, the church, and the stars of heaven—and we’re talking about destiny. There’s the destiny for God’s people, the people chosen, called by God to bear witness to God’s love and God’s way for the world. And there’re stars of heaven. Meaning the destiny of creation. The destiny for God’s people, and the destiny of the created universe. Both of these are coming together in the single figure of this woman.
And she’s giving birth. Meaning that she not only carries the destiny of creation on her head, she’s carrying the destiny of creation inside of her. The baby in her stomach will “rule the nations with a rod of iron.” He’ll bring about God’s reign of peace on earth as it is in heaven. She carries in her, and gives birth to, the hope of all creation.
And so, if you have any knowledge of the Christmas story at this point, you’ll probably have guessed who the woman is meant to be. It’s Mary, the mother of Jesus.[i] The child she gives birth to is Jesus. But the meaning of this apocalyptic vision is that the destiny of the people of God, the destiny of the church, all humanity, and the universe itself are all at stake in Mary’s life, and in the birth of this child.
When we think of Mary, and the birth of Jesus, it tends to conjure cute manger scenes and dusty Palestinian landscapes. But this apocalyptic vision places Mary center stage in this cosmic conflict between good and evil. All rotating around a small act. One life. A single baby being born.
And it’s this individual woman, this single baby, who being chased down by evil. The dragon has multiple meanings in the same way as Mary: there’s the Old Testament forces of who attempts to spoil God’s good creation. There’s the Roman Empire with its horns and crowns symbolizing the nations of the world under its domination and control. And of course, underneath it all: the serpent, Satan, the adversary. The dragon is the “concrete embodiment of evil power.”[ii] It’s a power that works through nations, peoples, and individuals, trying to crush the hope promised by this child. But the dragon is, in the end, defeated, thrown down. Foiled by the angels, the heavenly armies of God. In the end, he can’t keep God’s plan from coming to fruition.
This is all happening on the heavenly plane, behind the scenes. It’s this huge cosmic showdown. And it all hinges on Mary.
Mary, this unwed, teenage mother. Mary, this unexceptional woman from the middle of nowhere. Mary, not important, nor a success by our standards. That’s why the image of Mary on your bulletin and the screen features the dragon under Mary’s feet. In fact, if you pay attention, there are a lot of Catholic statues of Mary with the dragon under her feet, too. Because this is the person God uses to invade the world in Christ, and overthrow the powers of Sin and Death. The destiny of the world hangs on her. Her and her little baby boy.
So, at this point you might even say that there’s not only “something about Mary.” There’s really something about Mary. But the real something is just how small the act is, how ordinary the life is that makes this all possible. This is what’s happening in the Christmas story. In the invisible reality behind the scenes. This passage really sets the stage for the rest of our sermon series. This apocalyptic vision means that—behind the veil of this ordinary life—the forces of evil that inhabit the world will finally be defeated. And thrown down for good.
Of course, we in the modern, scientific, twenty-first century have trouble imagining the world like this. Imbued with hidden meaning, struggles between powers of good and evil. Our vision of human life has become flattened, two dimensional, dull and boring. Without meaning. What we literally see, what we can touch, taste, investigate, dissect. Life on the surface is all there is.
Which, in the end, means that little lives like Mary’s, little lives like yours and mine don’t really matter. Not in the grand scheme of things anyway.
But, considering the state of the world, we can’t really afford this, can we? Considering the political climate, the literal climate, the epidemic of loneliness, meaninglessness and depression, and a multitude of other afflictions.
We’re usually stuck somewhere between despair and powerlessness. But the Christmas story suggests a different way of seeing and experiencing our world. Mary’s ordinary life is weaved together with eternity. It’s where in a simple act of giving birth the future of all creation hangs in the balance. It’s a is a living stage for in the struggle between good and evil.
If this is true, it means that our own lives do in fact matter, seen in the light of Christ. Every moment, every act of love, justice and mercy matters. Not because we’re supremely important as individuals. But because our relatively unimportant lives can be important simply by becoming part of a story much larger than us. The larger movement, the hidden flow of history.
And if so, maybe giving birth to, raising, loving and caring for a single child, or several children, is one generation closer to healing for all families.
If so, maybe a single act of forgiveness will not only transform one life, but by God’s grace it can become one step towards throwing down both transgression and revenge—permanently.
And if so, maybe there’s more than meets the eye to one little church like ours. A church that welcomes, feeds, and proclaims Christ’s love to the loveless ones who walk through its doors. Maybe it means that this gang of relative nobodies is part of God inching one toe closer to crushing under foot that which ails the human race, and our beloved creation.
If we’re able to take this passage seriously. If we can see Christmas apocalyptically, maybe we can start to see our lives apocalyptically, too.
If we can see our lives like this, then we’ll not only reclaim the idea that there’s more to life than what we can see. It means that we’ll start living our own lives like Mary’s life. Simple as they are, ordinary as they are… they matter. They’re where God’s eternal purposes are being carried out, in a thousand small, and beautiful ways. And that in and through us, pregnant with God’s Spirit, the universe will eventually come to full term. Giving birth to the future we all long for.
So, this Advent season, I pray each of us begins to see our lives as ones lived at the crossroads of eternity. May you be clothed in the undying light of Christ, with a crown of destiny placed upon your head. May the King of Heaven be born in the middle of your rather ordinary, mundane life. And may you, like Mary, find each step you take in your home, at work, or in the street, find the adversary crushed under foot.
May it be so. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
[i] The metaphor is complex, and I’m really only holding up one dimension of the text in this sermon. “The woman is not Mary, nor Israel, nor the church, but less and more of all of these.” Eugene M. Boring in Revelation: Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 152.
[ii] Christopher Rowland, “Revelation,” in the New Interpreters Bible Commentary, 655.