Sermon: The Birth of a New, Contrast Community

This is a message I gave at First Friends Meeting in Greensboro on December 22, 2019 following Revelation 12 and Matthew 1:18ff. Here is the recorded version of the message.

Rev. 12:1   And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman eclothed with fthe sun, with fthe moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and gwas crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great hred dragon, iwith seven heads and jten horns, and on his heads kseven diadems. 4 His tail swept down la third of the stars of heaven and mcast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child nhe might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, oone who is to rule1 all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was pcaught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for q1,260 days.

Rev. 12:7   Now war arose in heaven, rMichael and shis angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And tthe great dragon was thrown down, uthat ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, vthe deceiver of the whole world—whe was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Matt. 1:18   Now the birth of uJesus Christ5 took place in this way. vWhen his mother Mary had been betrothed6 to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child wfrom the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling xto put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, yan angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and zyou shall call his name Jesus, afor he will save his people from their sins.” 22 bAll this took place cto fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

Matt. 1:23    d“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall call his name eImmanuel” 

 (which means, God fwith us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And ghe called his name Jesus.


Birthday Stories

In our family, the advent season is extra special. M, our middle daughter, was born on Nov 27, 2009. Just a few days before the start of advent on the liturgical calendar.

L, our oldest daughter, was born on December 19, 2007. She was due on Christmas, but thankfully Emily’s prayers were heard and she was born 6 days before. Now she doesn’t have to comete for spotlight with the Son of Man.

As you can see advent is special in our house the baby Jesus notwithstanding.

Advent is a time of waiting that anticipates arrival. It is very much like the Quaker concept of “expectant waiting.”

There is so much build up to the moment of birth.

One of the practices that we do each year with the kids is we have a special birthday dinner where the kids pick what they want to eat. Sometimes we make a meal, sometimes we go out to eat, but in either case, over dinner Emily and I pitch in to tell our celebrant their birth story.

  • L’s is focused around the anticipation of our first child. Her birth made us parents and changed our lives as a family.
  • M’s birth involves being born in water.
  • C’s involves time and patience.

Each one is special. Each year the details remain more or less consistent – thanks in large part to Emily’s high functioning memory – but they also sway and adapt as we get to know our children more and more.

These stories would change dramatically if there was a traumatic loss, a separation, hopes or promises broken.

Can you think back to your own birth story, and how your family talked about these earlier parts of your life? How has that story shaped you over your life?

Beginnings matter because because they tell us where the rest of the story is going. For better or worse, they orient us to the future.

Both pain and promise are often found within origin stories.
Birth stories have the power of building up or tearing down.

Christmas is the origin story of the church and it matters whether to us it is a sweet and quaint little story, domesticated and pretty, with Mary and Jospeh smiling happily as she gives birth in a stable; or if there is a build up to Revolution and change. If Mary and Joseph are refugees who are on the run and homeless, if there is both hope and fear in Mary’s eyes not just for what is now, but for what she knows is to come, then the story is very different.

If you have a crèche in your home, which we do, which origin story does it symbolize? One in which Jesus is a cute baby or one in which those living on the margins of society, living under occupation of the Roman Empire find hope and revolution?

Origin stories shape who we are and who we are becoming.


This is why I like Revelation 12 as an advent text, as strange as it first appears.

Why on earth would anyone read Revelation for advent? Besides the fact that most of you know I love the book of Revelation as a text that teaches the early Christian community how to resist and not assimilate into Empire, besides that, It was Jaimie, she told me to do it.

Actually – when she asked me to preach she wondered whether there was a way to look at Revelation 12 in the context of advent. Admittedly, this was not something I’d ever considered doing.

But lay Revelation 12 alongside Matthew 1, read them together as dialogue partners, perhaps two parents telling different versions of their child’s birth story.

Revelation 12 is the like the revolutionary’s crèche.

It is known to scholars (Blount) as a “cosmic combat myth,” while others talk about it as an example of myth and a counter-myth.

Here in Revelation 12 we see two competing birth stories, one portent from heaven signified by a pregnant women giving birth and a second portent signified by a great red dragon waiting over her, ready to “devour her child as soon as it was born.”

“Portent” – comes from the greek Semion as in semiotics – meaning signs. Similarly a portent, which I know is a word you all use in normal, everyday conversation, but I had to look it up – means:

“A sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.”

Sounds very similar to how we use the word “advent.”

In other words, Revelation 12, is an apocalyptic commentary on the original birth story reminding us that this birth initiated a cosmic conflict between the powers and principalities, between what Biblical scholar WHB calls the “religion of creation” and “the religion of empire.”

Even though we know there has been a conflict between these two religions at least since the time of the tower of Babel, Revelation is telling us that there is something about this birth that brings it to a head.

This is because the birth of Jesus surfaces the possibility of something new. A New, Contrast Community of people who not only do not assimilate into empire and resist its tactics and practices, but one that will actually become a counter-community, revealing instead what God intends for the world. A community seeking to live out Gospel Order.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.”

– Rev 12:10

The rest of this chapter describes a battle and victory of those who follow the lamb in nonviolent resistance. The marginalized ones, the ones oppressed and crushed by empire, are the ones who are a part of what the text calls the “kingdom of God.”

And when we go back to Matt 1 and our traditional Christmas stories we see that it is Jesus who is representative of these people, he is one of them, he is born to them. Jesus’ birth story tells of a God who shows up to and sides with the poor and victims of empire. Those who the dragon accuses and wishes to devour.

This is the power of the Christmas story.

It is not for gentle babes, born to a happy and stable nuclear family, it is – as Mary the mother of Jesus sings in the Gospel of Luke – for the:

51 scattering of the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

So long as we read the Christmas story alongside Revelation’s critique of empire, we won’t loose site of the fact that this is an alternative origin story to what it means to be the people of God. What it means to be the church.


A New/Old Christmas Story

Revelation 12 reminds us there is far more to the story and urges us to keep its revolutionary character in front of us. If this is the birth story we are working from, than it cannot, will not become a story that builds up some of us up over and against some wicked others,

If this is the birth story we are working from we will refuse to scapegoat others, because we know that Jesus and his family are themselves on the run as scapegoats of empire.

If this is the birth story we are working from we will find ways to resist economics that oppress others because we know that Jesus was born to Palestinian Jews living under Roman occupation who extorted, enslaved, and were poor because of a system that was working to benefit some at the expense of everyone else.

If this is the birth story we are working from than we will join Jesus in the work of building towards an alternative reality, a contrast community, one that Revelation calls the Multitude, and Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community.

This multitude is a re-igniting of what God intended for humanity, a new community rooted in the goodness of creation, the love of God; rooted in the call to love neighbor and enemy alike. This multitude is a community that welcomes and centers the wounded, the betrayed, and others who have been victimized by empire.

It lives in active resistance to empire and empire’s origin stories and myths.

We get to choose which version of the Christmas story we participate in and perpetuate.

We get to choose what the creche symbolizes to us.

Our origin stories matter. And sometimes they need to change.

Let us live into the wake of this revolutionary story by narrating and building alternative communities of resistance, revitalization, and love in the face of empire.

Thank you, Friends.

Queries:

  • What role does origin/creation stories play in the formation of community?
  • What is your origin story?
  • What role does those on the margins and “all of creation” play in the our conceptions of community?

Published by Wess Daniels

Teacher, author, Quaker, ​and public theologian. Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

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