My text this morning is written in Revelation 12:6:
6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
I am reminded that John was writing in code; he and other Christians were being persecuted for their faith and so he needed to write to the Churches in such a way so as not to cause offence and heighten the already horrible time they were having. For the casual reader, it seemed like a colourful fantasy, an ancient equivalent of a science-fiction drama, escapist and harmless. But for the initiated, it is a tale of wonderful encouragement and blessing; a source of inspiration for those struggling with the travail of life and torment.
One the surface, one can take it that references to ‘Babylon’ were references to Rome and most (almost all) the other images come from the Old Testament. The average Christian leader of the day would have been steeped in the Scriptures and so would have known exactly what the images meant. On a few occasions (and this is one of them) they would have required a little more thought. The case in point is the identity of the woman: because the reference to the Son is obviously the Messiah – Jesus - some have thought that the woman was a reference to Mary.
One of my favourite New Testament scholars, Bruce M Metzger is full of insight. He has an excellent little book on Revelation entitled Breaking the Code. On this section he explains that, periodically, John gives us a brief history lesson – a ‘flashback’ to the past as a preface to his future vision. And this is one of those occasions. As James Efird in his Revelation for Today adds, ‘… the author describes the flow of history from an earlier time to the current period of persecution. This serves to show how the present evil time has evolved.’ (page 86) Metzger’s ‘flashback,’ at one level, is telling of the birth of Jesus and the attempt of King Herod to kill Jesus soon after. Instead of just giving a straight historical narrative as Matthew and Luke do, ‘… John presents a heavenly tableau of characters that are portrayed with sensational Near Eastern imagery …’ (page 72) But, as always, John writes a message that has more than one level of meaning.
So, who is the woman referred to in this passage? On closer reflection, Mary does not seem to be the obvious choice. Others have suggested that it could refer to the Christian Church or even to the Jewish people. Most scholars eventually agree that it is probably a reference to a ‘… personification of the ideal community of God’s people, first in its Jewish form, in which Mary gave birth to Jesus the Messiah, and then in its Christian form, in which it was persecuted by a political power as evil as the dragon …’ (Metzger, p. 74).
It was out of the community of God’s original people – the Jews – that Jesus came in history the first time. It is out of the Christian community today that Christ must come, i.e. we must be Christ, for those who have never known him. Today the Church is the Mother. There are going to be challenges and there will be opposition, just as we saw was the case for Jeremiah and Paul and as we know it is a reality for many people still today. But no matter how strong the opposition and how we might struggle as we go through life – both as a community of faith and as individuals seeking to be obedient in what God has called us to do - we are ‘… under the protection of God and, therefore can never be ultimately destroyed.’ (Barclay, p. 76)
Richard Bewes reminds us that this passage enables us to look at a parallel view of the entire era spanned by our Lord’s first and second comings, and we are introduced ‘… to the unseen spiritual conflict that lies behind our world’s struggles …’ (page 63) John reminded his first readers that the persecution they were facing was more than a mere religious community standing against and imperial power – the Romans – it was also part of the ‘… ongoing conflict between the divine and the demonic, between the higher and the fallen power, between light and darkness …’ (ibid.)
True, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of finding a devil under every bush and blaming all our evils on Satan. But at the same time, I believe that the greatest victory that the Devil or Satan ever achieved was to convince the world that he does not exist, because then he can go about his ways without any opposition. It does not take a huge leap into absurdity to recognize the very real nature of evil in our world. We see it manifest in parents hiding their children to gain reward money; we see it in dictators allowing their people to starve, die of curable diseases and live in dire circumstances, while they live in the lap of luxury. It was manifest in Apartheid South Africa, Hitler’s Germany, Polpot’s Cambodia, Stalin’s Russia – the list sadly continues. But could it also be closer to our back garden. Does it include selfish bankers whose irresponsible dealings have forced thousands to lose their jobs and their homes and security and all the misery that has resulted? Could it also be manifest in the selfish business people who exploit their staff for the sake of their own profit? Could it also be in the selfishness of shareholders putting profit above principle?
Earlier I concluded that the mother / woman in the text could be a reference to the people of God throughout the ages. To refer back to history this could have been a reference to the people of Israel and their bondage in Egypt, their wandering in exile and their travail and persecution - these being the birth pangs - but resulting in the delivery of the Messiah from within their midst. We have already seen that some take it more literally and even see Herod the dragon and Jesus being rushed to
the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’. There is some logic in this, because it is
obvious to me that Herod was an instrument of Satan. But I believe there is
more. True, Satan was especially active during the time of Jesus ministry,
culminating on the death of our Lord. It might have appeared to him that he had
won – but he had not! By far the majority of scholars see verse 5 and the
reference to the child being ‘…snatched away and
taken to God and to his throne …’ as referring to our Lord’s Ascension. Bewes
comments: “Jesus’ saving work was completed, at the Cross. The resurrection
established it. The Ascension celebrated it!” (page 64) Egypt
As always, John’s message also has a timeless element. What was true for
for today’s community of God’s people. We continue as the woman, and we
experience birth pangs. We are out in the ‘wilderness’, as was the Apostle Paul
for much of his ministry and as was Jeremiah and others before him. Many
Christians and especially those of us who are ordained ministers will all be
able to identify with the solitude of our Christian position, the pressure to
compromise and sometimes even the adversity we have to endure for our faith,
often in subtle almost impossible to identify ways; for this is the red dragon
at his most powerful, when his presence is not obvious. Israel
And this is where this passage is such a wonderful comfort and blessing; the woman fled into the desert where she found a ‘… place prepared by God so that she could be nourished …’
In this passage, the reference to the child being taken up can be a reference to Christ’s Ascension: but why no reference to anything in between? Barclay comments:
“It is due to the fact that all through the revelation, John’s interest is not in the human Jesus but in the exalted Christ, who is able to rescue his people in the time of their distress.” (Page 78)
Even in the midst of our travail, we Christians often find a sense of real peace and tranquility. I remember well the four times when I was dying because of the (at the time) undiagnosed pancreatic tumour, but throughout, I knew more than at any other time in my life, a real sense of the closeness of God and I experienced, in a deep and beautiful way, the “… peace of God, that which passes all understanding …” This is because the victory is ours; the red dragon has been defeated. We, the Church might flee into the desert, but it is to a place created there for us by God, and there we are nourished. John was probably inspired by the time when Elijah was fed by the ravens in the desert (1 Kings 17:1-7) and again by the angelic messenger (1 Kings 19:1-8). John had also lived through a time when people had to flee into the wilderness for safety. We all know that being a Christian can be a lonely thing, especially when we are called upon to witness to the truth of the Gospel – but, as Barclay adds: “ … even in human loneliness there is divine companionship …” (page 80). We all need to find places of quiet and safety to regain our strength and be filled afresh with God’s love.
6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days. Amen.