Today we have eighteen verses plucked out of their context. Wild and terrifying imagery about creation led astray by hideous beasts that seem invincible. This is the Battle of Armageddon and what could be more tempting to decode or fix or solve? It’s fight or flight in this moment of truth! Will you be marked by the beast or by the blood of the lamb, the choice is yours and make it fast!

This is as far as I got in the “fire and brimstone” version of this sermon.

I can’t bring myself to add to the anxiety that surrounds this text because the cultural reading already gives us plenty to fear: beasts going unchallenged or eternal consequences for your decision in the heat of the moment.

Instead let’s begin by placing this isolated battle back into its wider context: the great war that rages from garden to garden because forces that defy God’s sovereign power are constantly challenging the throne. They always have and they always will.

There is a rhythm to the Revelation of John. While most people read Revelation searching for a blueprint of our linear future, signs of specific and literal events that we should be marking on the Roman calendar and preparing for, heaven keeps time in a cyclical way. The scenes in John’s vision come like changing seasons, full of extremes and curiosities. For several seasons Satan is prowling the earth with evil aggression, but he never has the last word. For every vision that frightens and convicts us, we are returned to the Throne Room to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There we are surrounded by creation’s song. We are filled with forgiveness, salvation, and new life.

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.  – Frederick Buechner

Reading Revelation is like riding a roller coaster: it’s exhilarating – even fun – if you board the ride before the coaster begins to move. You’ve waited in line to watch the way the tracks twist and turn. You’ve noted when other riders scream. So you begin moving well aware that you will be tossed about, but that seatbelt or harness will do its job and eventually you will be released in once piece!

So today’s dicey texts require that we back up to our last visit in the Throne Room, long enough to be reminded that the harness can be trusted in the midst of great terror. And when this battle overwhelms sending our stomachs into our throats, we will remind each other that we have seen the Throne Room and we will live to see it again. Ready? Hang on.

If we are to begin in the Throne Room, we’ll need to back up to the end of Chapter 11 when the Seven Trumpets sound. The seventh horn proclaimed everything we’ll need for this ride:

Voices throughout heaven declared that the Messiah is not only king of heaven but also king of the world. Even though nations rage and humans destroy the earth, God’s power is perfected in Christ and he will bring justice the earth has never known. And then the temple of heaven opened and we could see the Ark of the Covenant, the holy sign of God’s promises across space and time, and from that room came bolts of lightening and earthquakes and heavy hail, creation’s applause.

We can’t face these beasts without first remembering that we have been there! We have seen and heard the promises that bind heaven to earth in Jesus Christ. We are marked with the waters of forgiveness and the blood of the Lamb. They have claimed us already whether we remember or not, whether we like it or not, whether we know what that means or not. This is the harness. Hold on tight, because the rollercoaster is starting to move.

We are distracted from that glimpse of heaven’s temple because we see a woman decorated like the sun. She is pregnant and crying out with birth pangs, for even though her body knows how to bear the child, it is painful and terrifying and filled with mysterious power. We watch in awe of the conversation she is having with her radiant body until a red dragon appears in front of her, licking his chops anticipating her child he will devour.

We begin to understand that the child is holy and innocent. He cannot be consumed by evil, for he is meant to rule the world with heaven’s strength. As the child is born, he is snatched away from danger and the woman flees into the wilderness where she aches for the child who is missing from her breast, safe from harm but left to wander the perils of earth. She is nourished, but scarred and lonely.

We watch her wander like Eve cast out of the garden or Mary the Mother of Jesus and she reminds us of ourselves: the people of God who are called to bear Christ to the world, which is both dangerous and instinctual work, a beautiful and brutal life. For we too have been torn from Christ. We too have wandered the wilderness alone.

The woman, the dragon, the child: this ignites a full blown war in heaven. Michael and the angels defeat the dragon and his angels, causing them to be thrown to earth below. He finds and torments the woman who has been wandering, chasing her with rivers that flow from his mouth and making war with the rest of her children. But the woman endures and is given wings like an eagle so that she can fly beyond the reach of his violence. And if the dragon wasn’t already riled up, now he’s really enraged.

This is how we got to our reading for today about the Two Beasts. Are you still with me?

Are you still holding onto that safety bar of promises from the Throne Room? I hope so because we’re going to need them.

You see, the dragon is the one who conjures these beasts, one from the sea and one from the land. While they appear as new threats, they are the same old evil repackaged. The first beast rises from the sea with the appearance of strong and agile land animals. It is covered in profanity and we watch as the dragon fills it with authority. The beast has taken a blow to the head and it has healed, which suggests it is invincible.

The whole earth follows it. Not suddenly or in unison as zombies, but because the theatrics are horrifying, entertaining, and curious. Creation is watching the beast, talking about it, and wondering about it until they have been tricked into being consumed by it. Their fascination corners the market on worship as they marvel:

Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?

Does your heart break hearing this cheap praise song for the beast? It’s the sound of people at a loss for creativity, hope, and perseverance. It’s the sound of the earth resigning itself to violence, pain, and misery.

It’s the sound we make when we’ve spent the better part of an evening going down a rabbit hole of cable news sensationalism.

It’s the sound we make when we are isolated from a greater whole, uncertain of what our own behavior, prayer, stewardship, or time can accomplish anyway.

It’s the sound we make when we’re reclining into our personal privilege instead of leaning into confession and action about systems we can either perpetuate or disrupt.

It’s the sound we make when we are running in the wilderness without wings when we are trying to survive the rollercoaster without that trusty safety bar.

Who is like the beast and who can fight against him?

What kind of question is that?!  The beast is like the dragon and Michael already threw him down from heaven. And that dragon couldn’t even catch a postpartum woman wandering around the wilderness. This beast is nothing new!

And who can fight against him? Whoever gave it a crack on the head, for starters. If this beast gets its power from the dragon and the dragon has already been defeated in heaven, and the Throne Room was just singing about how the Messiah is Lord of heaven and earth, then we know that Christ the Lamb can fight him and will!

But God is not done yet. In verse nine we are spoken to directly: Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, then into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance of the saints.

Without the Throne Room, this sounds like a threat. It sounds like God has turned on us. But we have seen the Ark of the Covenant. We have been surrounded by the heavenly choir and we know that Christ prevails.

So hang onto your harness and listen again: Fight this battle with your whole life, trusting that it has already been won. If you are taken captive, go into captivity knowing that you are truly free. And proclaim life with your whole being because you already know that life prevails over the sword.  Here is a call for the endurance of the saints.

Perhaps you heard this reading today and felt dread because this battle sounds like God is demanding the impossible of you: fearlessness, unshakable confidence, superhuman strength, or daily perfection.

But the call is to “endurance” (to withstand hardship or adversity).

We are asked to “stand with the hard things”

all the while knowing that we are marked with Christ Jesus in baptism,

given wings for the wilderness,

something to hold onto when the ride gets wild with terror.

So when that second beast rises, just another tricky iteration of Satan’s prey on our constellation of human weakness, keep your hands on the harness. Stay buckled in so that:

  • you recognize its voice like the dragon’s.
  • you can look at its signs without being deceived.
  • you stand with the hardship, wherever fear or violence are used to enslave creation.

And when we stumble or forget or lose hope (because we do), we are whisked back to the Throne Room for a glimpse of the promise: Christ prevails. And there our lungs are filled with songs that praise beyond the beast’s breath and the dragon’s voice. They tell the truth about God’s love and earth’s war:

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.  – Frederick Buechner

Sisters and brothers, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Period.

This is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

So show up and stand with all that is hard trusting that this harness will keep you until the very end. Amen.