“The Dragon and the Last Word on Politics”
August 7, 2022
Today we’re talking about everyone’s favorite topic: politics! It’s ok if you need to squirm in your seat a little bit or look for the nearest exit. But just don’t blame me; you can blame St. John who wrote the book of Revelation, because he has a thing or two to say about politics.
This week I came across a comic that shows a middle-aged couple walking out from what looks to be a dinner party. The husband is holding his stomach, looking a little sick. And his wife scolds him: “Honey, you know better than to talk politics at a dinner party. You always get a case of acid indignation.”
This acid indignation brought on by bouts of political conversations must be quite contagious, because it is running rampant right now. As congress is holding hearings about January 6, and the Supreme Court is making massive changes, and elections are taking place, and so many big issues are tossed into our lives on a daily basis like abortion and gun rights and immigration and climate change, and depending on your political affiliation that one politician you don’t very much like keeps going and saying and doing things you think are utterly moronic.
And as these political issues swirl in our heads and hearts and are tossed into family dinner conversations like hand grenades and become dividing lines between old friendships, we are constantly faced with the choice: whose side are you on? The lines are drawn in the sand, and that line has become a chasm it feels like. We are expected, or maybe we are the ones who expect others to choose a side and pay allegiance to a cause, a party, a politician. Allegiance. In a nation and a world that is full of acid indignation, everyone wants to know, where does your allegiance lie?
This section of John’s Revelation letter addresses allegiance to a nation, to a political cause or party or politician. Because you see, history likes to repeat itself, or rather, we like to repeat history, so the political landscape in John’s day had much in common with ours today. But rather than tell you about it, let me take a page out of John’s book and show you.
This section of John’s letter is structured by a series of visions he calls signs. Or literally “symbols”. These symbols explore the message of the opened scroll that we saw last week, in greater depth, showing his churches how it applies directly to their situation under Roman oppression.
But before John gets into the nitty gritty of the political situation in his day, he begins by taking a 30,000 foot view, painting the first symbol of a cosmic battle that lay behind the suffering of the churches under Roman persecution.
This cosmic battle has all the elements of a great epic story, and it harkens back to that ancient conflict that began in Genesis chapter 3, between a serpent and a woman. Only this time that snake is a dragon and that dragon is seeking to devour the child the woman is about to give birth to. This section of the book is why my brain automatically reverts to Lord of the Rings parallels every time I preach.
This cosmic battle scene is basically a much more intense retelling of the nativity story—you know, Jesus’ birth that we celebrate every Christmas. But this version is not as quaint or as vulnerable to becoming sentimentalized in the midst of the holiday season.
Can you imagine if this was the Christmas story we read during our Christmas Eve service together? It’s jarring and intense. It can’t be placed up on the shelf next to a snow globe. Instead of singing “Silent Night” we would probably be singing “Violent Night” and we’d be holding up giant flame throwers instead of dinky little candle flames. Maybe we’ll try that one year, we’ll see how many newcomers we scare away.
The intensity of the image that John gives his churches is intentional and fitting. They are oppressed, abused and being killed by Rome. The nice little nativity story doesn’t really cut it here. John needs some imagery that bites and bleeds with his people.
This cosmic battle scene depicts the woman evading the dragon and fleeing into the wilderness to give birth to her son, who obviously symbolizes Jesus. And as the woman is being taken care of in hiding, war breaks out in heaven, and a huge battle takes place between Michael the archangel and his legions of angels against the dragon and his legions of angels. Eventually the great dragon, also known as the devil or Satan, is hurled down to the earth, where he will now breed his deception and conflict against God’s faithful.
We might find ourselves thinking: “well that’s certainly a weird story”, or “what the heck the going on,” or “I don’t believe in angels and the devil.” John begins with this cosmic scale of a great spiritual battle for one major reason: to remind his churches that their battle is not primarily against flesh and blood, but against real spiritual evils at work in the world. John is trying to show that not Rome, not any nation, nor any human is the real enemy, but there are dark spiritual evils that animate them.
This is important, because John, as he is about to address the real-life politics of the day that are hurting and killing Christians, he wants to remind them that their Roman neighbor down the street who has a Vote for Caesar sign in his front yard, that he’s not the real enemy. And that the Roman market vendor who sells them their cabbage and requires them to burn incense to Caesar, that he’s not the real enemy either. And that even the Roman military garrison at the edge of town that is occupying their city, that they are not the real enemy. As Christians they are still called to love them, to take up the way of the lamb, because in verse 11 John reminds them that the lamb conquers the dragon through sacrificial love and compassion.
I wonder how our political conversations and feelings towards our fellow Americans might change if we stopped view them as the enemy, but as someone to love despite their views.
I do believe that there are real evils at work in many of our nation’s policies, institutions and systems, but we must not call the people who vote for them and uphold them “evil.” John is clear about that, because ultimately he shows God’s faithful people as conquering the dragon through the blood of the lamb, by loving their enemy.
Because let’s be honest. Has anyone’s mind ever been changed by hate? Has anyone ever thought to themself, “Hmm, that person just called me a moron and a bigot and told me I’m the problem with this nation. You know, maybe they’re right; maybe I should have more of an open mind and explore new perspectives.”? Said nobody ever.
Hate doesn’t change minds. It is love that opens and changes minds and hearts. We know that. We’ve all experienced it from people who have been patient and loving with us, but it’s so easy to buy that drug that’s peddled everywhere: contempt. Contempt, John would say is the real evil, not your neighbor. Because contempt is what the dragon peddles, as we see in chapter 13.
Chapter 13 tells the same story as chapter 12, but this time using different earthly symbolism borrowed from the prophet Daniel’s visions. The cosmic battle is taken to the streets, as now the dragon licks his wounds and calls forth two beasts to carry on his war against humanity.
And both of these beasts are again, signs and symbols that represent the Roman machine—the de facto politics of the day. The first beast that comes out of the water represents national military power that conquers through violence and control. It is given power to wage war and conquer for 42 months. 42 months is exactly half of seven years, the number of completion. 42 basically represents a duration of time that is long, but temporary. It is also the same number of days that the woman in chapter 12 is in hiding. In other words, Rome’s power/the dragon’s power is temporary.
The second beast that comes out of the earth symbolizes the economic propaganda machine that exalts the power of the first beast as divine. This land beast is clothed like a lamb, but speaks like the dragon. He is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – he looks harmless enough, but once you buy into what he’s selling, you’re in trouble. The dragon’s strategy here is not black mass, but it’s the mass market.
So we have here the Roman military machine, which promises peace through violence and conquering, and the Roman economic machine, which promises a cushy life as long as you play by its rules. John portrays them as beasts that destroy and devour.
And the problem is that both of these beasts claim to be divine—they claim to be the end all, be all of life—they shape the identities and purpose of its citizens to believe that they were created to conquer, to win, to climb the ladders of success and achievement, to live in comfort and luxury, even at the disregard of your neighbor.
And the problem, is that these beasts, claiming to be divine, require total allegiance, represented by the mark of the beast. The infamous 666. 666 is a triple failure sto be 777, the three-times perfect, whole, divine number.
And fair warning, I’m going to nerd out with you for a second: Scholars have also pointed out that John, though writing in Greek, knew Hebrew. And in Hebrew, letters are also numbers. And the Hebrew spelling of the name “Nero Caesar”, who was one of the most despicably horrible Caesars in Rome’s history, who enjoyed killing Christians, equals 666.
But the number is less important than what it represents. It represents allegiance. The number is marked on your hand and your head, the places that is supposed to be reserved for you to write the Shema, a famous Hebrew mark of devotion to the one true God. The mark of the beast seeks to displace the mark of God’s faithful.
And the brilliance of John’s imagery of the beasts, is that while no doubt representing the Roman political machine of his day, these symbols can represent any nation that exalts its own power and economic security and demand total allegiance.
And that is the heart of the issue for John: he warns against any nation, or ideal, or party or cause or politician who demands your total allegiance. There is a sinister evil that lies behind it, John is trying to show us. Because if we’re not careful, and if we take the mark of the beast, pledging our allegiance to a particular cause or a party or a nation, we will become like the beast. We will be wield weapons of hate and contempt that dehumanize and destroy.
As pastor Eugene Peterson writes, “When we live in a world of violence long enough, it is [all too] easy to adopt violent means ourselves, especially when we know that our cause is righteous and the opposition is evil.”
And we are living in an age where politics—whether it be parties, politicians, or causes—demand our total allegiance. There can be no wavering. Because this is war when what the other side represents is evil—anything goes. There can only be one winner. All sides of our political spectrum have gotten increasingly good at using the beast’s tactics of painting the other side as evil, as inhuman even.
And we’re stuck in the middle, forced to take a side. Forced to pledge our allegiance and take up cultural and political war against the other side. This party, this candidate, this cause – we’re told – is what has the power to change our nation, to change our lives, to create a better world and a better future.
In other words, we’re sold the lie that our only hope for a better future is in politics. And that is a dangerous lie that carries with it all the power in the world to breed contempt, hatred and violence. We’ve seen it do that already. And in case you think I’m talking to one political party, I’m not. I’m talking to all of us. The left is just as bad as the right when it comes to dehumanizing the other side. Neither liberals nor conservatives have a corner on the market for contempt.
So where do we go from here? The dragon’s tactics seem to be winning, and the beasts seem to be having their way. Things are getting worse, not better. What now?
In a hopeful image, John shows us that standing up to the dragon and his beasts are the slain lamb and the faithful multitudes with him. After this, the dragon and the beasts are destroyed and locked away. The lamb is victorious; the lamb conquers evil. But we must not forget that the lamb conquers in the same way Jesus did. The lamb’s politics are the same as Jesus’s.
If you think about it, the way Jesus did politics was really strange. He was VERY political—almost everything he did was politically charged: he spoke truth to power and stood up for the innocent, the weak, the poor and those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. He calls us to do the same.
But when push came to shove, rather than destroy his political enemies, he died for them. He continued to love them and hope for the best for them. In an incredible act of dying at the hands of the Romans, he chose to win by losing, rather than lose everything in an attempt to win. Jesus chose to lose, rather than destroy his enemies. He chose to become a slain lamb rather than a terrible beast. He chose to invite his enemies into his master plan for redemption, rather than leave them out.
We’re all given a choice. Will we choose the way of the lamb—of Jesus—or the way of the dragon and his beasts? Will we choose the way of love, or the way of contempt? One way might just destroy us all. The other might just have the power to save us. Amen and may it be so.