The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 7/19/98
Text: Revelation 12:1-12, John 16:16-33
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

As you are know, it is only in relatively recent centuries that people have come to realize that the world is round. For the thousands of years prior to the scientific work of the end of the Middle Ages, average folks were convinced that the earth was flat, and that if one went too far, there was a danger of falling off.

As you probably also know, map makers of the time did the best they could with the little knowledge they had, and then creatively filled in the information gap with speculation. For example, in charting the seas and oceans, when they arrived at places no one had been before, they simply wrote, "Here be dragons!" Had we been sailors in that day and time, I suspect that words like that on our map would have scared us half to death.

Dragons, after all, have terrified people for centuries. In ancient Babylon, the scaly-bodied, winged dragon Tiamat was Lord of chaos who opposed the "good" god, Marduk. In Egypt, the god Apepi was the great serpent of the world of darkness. For the early Christians, the dragon came to symbolize evil and sin - in the book of Revelation, for example, Satan himself is pictured as a seven-headed red dragon with a tail that could sweep the stars from the sky. And because dragons were such frightening creatures, they have often been used as emblems for war. Even today, some of the street gangs of the inner cities use "dragon" in their names. It is no wonder that those early cartographers would symbolize the terrifying unknown with "Here be dragons!"

To be sure, things are not what they used to be. We do not worry about running into dragons at the edge of our maps - we know better. Times have changed. But that in itself is a bit scary. Over and over in my visits with older church members, the conversation turns to the "good old days," days when people had no need of locks on their doors, days when people could walk down a city street without fear, days when life was simpler and less complex. The feeling comes through like the one the angel Gabriel expressed in the play, Green Pastures - returning to heaven after coming down to investigate the havoc of Noah's flood, the angel said, "Lord, there ain't nothin' fastened down there anymore. Everything nailed down is comin' loose."(1) A life like that is more than unsettling; it is downright scary. "Here be dragons."

Two men lived on a houseboat. One night while they were sleeping, the boat broke loose from its mooring and drifted into the open sea. One of the men got up in the morning and, going out on deck, noticed there was no land in sight. Excitedly, he called to his mate, "Joe, get up quick - we ain't here anymore."(2)

In quiet moments, I guess we all occasionally reminisce about the way things were "back then." But we are no longer living "back then" - we truly "ain't here anymore." It is true we did not have to lock the car to protect the stereo cassette deck - those things did not even exist; it is true that we did not have to worry about anyone breaking into our home and stealing our television - we HAD no television, or even electricity for that matter; it is true that we did not have to worry about AIDS - we were too concerned about our kids getting polio. If we really think about it, we have to admit that the "good old days" were not really all that good. But still, change is unsettling and we wish that some modern St. George would come along and slay the frightening dragon of change.

With life so unsettled, another dragon rears its head - chance. It very often seems as if we get ahead or fall behind in the race of life for no other reason than dumb luck! We see people who are less competent, less hard working, less concerned, less deserving, less EVERYTHING, getting ahead just because they were in the right place at the right time...even if they got the brass ring in some questionable ways.

Face it. Do you really think that the Rockefellers or the Kennedys or the spoiled athletes and rock stars are more deserving of the good things in life than you? Of course not! Why should any of them be in a position to have all the goodies of this world when we have to scrimp and save and mortgage our future just to get our kids through college? Right place at the right time? Who knows? But we do not particularly like it.

On the other hand we see fine, upstanding people have their lives ruined by things over which they have little or no control. Folks lose their homes and lifestyles because the plant where Dad had worked for twenty years suddenly moved its business to Mexico. Families are devastated because the young mother finds she has cancer and the disease costs so much to control that financial ruin is the only end in sight. People are torn apart because they learn that their teenage son has turned to lying, cheating, and stealing to support his drug addiction. These are the people of whom we might rightly say, "If it were not for BAD luck, they would have no luck at all."

What is to explain things like that, the good and the bad? Fate? Horoscopes? Blind luck? God's will? Theologically we might come up with some quick answers, but I am not sure how satisfying they would be lying in the dark of midnight and staring up at the ceiling. Whatever you decide, there seems to be something awfully arbitrary about it, and arbitrariness to people who believe in justice, to people who believe in fairness, to people who believe in "a day's work for a day's pay" - and that means you and me - arbitrariness does not wash. We are tempted to feel the way Charlie Brown does: he says "Life is full of choices, only I never get any."(3) We would like to see someone slay the dragon of chance.

Speaking of choices, that is probably the most difficult dragon with which we are thrown into battle. Despite what Charlie Brown says, there ARE choices we have to make. And DIFFICULT choices too...not between good and evil necessarily (although even those are sometimes questionable), but between better and best. And remember this: being in the right morally is not necessarily going to be greeted with cheers and applause. Was Martin Luther King RIGHT in seeking justice for all Americans regardless of color? Of course. Was everybody happy about his efforts? Ha! For that matter, the original Martin Luther, in his struggle to bring much-needed purification to the church he loved infuriated powerful people. Then, of course, we come to the story of Jesus.(4) Making right choices is not simple...and is sometimes even fatal.

Making our dilemma even more difficult is that fact that there is so much new that confronts our lives that we are now asked to make decisions about which our forebears never had to be concerned. We have no precedents upon which to draw.

For example, consider the painful plight of a husband and wife confronted with a question of life and death for their child. Neil and Wendy Scott were looking forward to the birth of their first baby. The nursery in their home was only half painted, but no matter - the child was not due for another three months. But something happened. Wendy hemorrhaged and went into premature labor and their tiny child, a little girl they would name Katy Michelle, was born weighing all of one pound, four ounces.

In time past, there would have been no question as to what would happen next; the baby would die. But these days, medical science has advanced to such an extent that there was a chance that tiny Katy's life might be saved. The question soon became "SHOULD Katy be saved?" She had serious lung problems, digestive problems, brain problems, would be subject to cerebral palsy and seizures all her days. If her life were saved, what kind of life would it be? How about the rest of the family? The financial drain would be enormous. The emotional toll would be unbearable. What should these parents do? The dragon of choice.

What would you have advised? There were all sorts of folks ready to speak up. The surgeon in the neo-natal intensive care unit was adamant about continuing treatment. The obstetrician who delivered the baby said that would be a terrible mistake. Neil's business partner and best friend could not imagine that they would even CONSIDER letting their baby die. Wendy's friends in a support group of people who had had similar experiences told her of the horrors she would face if the child survived. For the Scotts, "dragon" was probably too gentle a word for the choice they faced.

Finally, they made the gut-wrenching decision: they would stop all the high tech therapy and let their baby go. But even that was not enough. The surgeon kept up the treatment anyway saying it was in the best interest of the child, and that even the parents had no right to interfere - he would take them to court if he had to. It almost got that far, but mercifully... little Katy died before litigation could commence.

What choice would you have made? I doubt that any of us could say for certain until confronted by our own situation. But NONE of us would ever say that the choice would be easy. It would be a dragon.

Another painful choice. The story is recounted in a film called When the Time Comes(5), and is about a young Kansas woman named Lydie Travis, 34-years-old, diagnosed as having terminal cancer. The doctors let her know that the prospects were utterly grim: a slow, lingering, painful deterioration which would eventually leave her as not much more than a vegetable. She did not want to die that way. Who would?

So Lydie Travis decided that she would take matters into her own hands. She had read about a group in Europe that advocated suicide in these extreme cases; she wrote to them and got all the information necessary on just how to go about it.

She asked her husband, Wes, if, when the time would come, he would help her do it...and he blew up. How dare she ask such a thing of him! The man could not bring himself to consider it and he refused to discuss the prospect any further.

So Lydie asked her best friend, Brad, a fellow whom she had known since childhood. Brad's reaction initially was not much more encouraging than Wes'. He said, "It's like murder. It's like murderin' you." But eventually, after going to the hospital and seeing the pitiful condition of others near death who suffered from the same disease as Lydie, Brad relented. He went to Mexico to get the drugs that would do the job, brought them to Lydie "when the time came," and then sat with her while she took the pills.

Another gut-wrenching choice...a dragon. What would you have done?

I think back to some other folks who had dragons to contend with...dragons of change, of chance, of choice. They were the Christians who lived scattered throughout Asia Minor near the end of the first century, AD.

They had surely seen change - from one Roman emperor to the next, there would be varying degrees of toleration for their religious belief. There were times when they were left alone; there were times when they were in danger of being tied up, stuffed into animal skins, and used as food for wild dogs.

They had seen chance...or at least what LOOKED like chance. From one day to the next, they had no idea whether or not they would be arrested and brought before the magistrate and told to deny their faith in Jesus Christ. There was no predicting who would escape...or who would not.

And then there was choice. They had it. They could choose to go along with the powers that be, go up to the temple of the goddess Roma once a year, burn a pinch of incense, and say "Caesar is Lord." Even if they would do all that with their fingers crossed behind their back, that at least would allow them to be let alone. Or they could choose to refuse that minor inconvenience and face major

These were pretty big dragons. But their bishop knew what they were going through. Over in the prison camp on the island of Patmos, John wrote some words of encouragement to them. He talked about the dragon, using it as a symbol for everything that was evil and hateful in a dangerous world. He admitted that it was a terrifying creature, but, guided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John let these early Christians know that the time would come when the dragon would be no more. The bishop's message to his flock was "Hang in there; the dragon might seem to be coming out on top, but whether you can see it now or not, the dragon has already been beaten."

The message of Jesus to his disciples some 70 years before was the same. During that last supper in the upper room, the Lord let his followers know that there would be some unsettling times ahead. There would be CHANGE - he would no longer be with them in the flesh. There would be what would look like CHANCE - arbitrary decisions made by the powers that be that would end up torturing and murdering an innocent man. There would be CHOICE - keep the faith despite the threat of persecution and death or deny the faith to save your own skin. Pretty threatening dragons...and at least as threatening as any you and I ever face.

One thing should be noted here: as we all know, those early map makers were incorrect about the dragons on their charts. As exploration proceeded, no one ever found them. Eventually everyone realized that the maps had been wrong and there was nothing to fear.

It is the same with many of the dragons that terrify us. A story by Edgar Allen Poe tells of a man lying on a lounge one night and seeing through the window a huge and terrible monster coming swiftly down the mountainside toward the house. Looking at the same place in the sunlight of the next day, he found that the monster was only a small moth crawling slowly down the window frame. We are often afraid of dragons that do not really exist.

But as should be obvious, there ARE dragons out there... dragons of change, of chance, of choice. But the message of Christ to us who claim faith in him, is the same as the message he gave to those who were with him that night in the upper room: "Hang in there. I know that days will sometimes be tough. In the world you face persecution...dragons...But take courage; I have conquered the world...I have already beaten the dragons." Hallelujah!

Let us pray.

O God, we sometimes feel faint with fear because of the real and imagined dragons that confront us. Help us to maintain our faith to the end that our trust in you is a witness to a fearful and watching world. For we pray it in the name of Jesus. Amen!

1. Marc Connelly (1930)

2. Pastors' Professional Research Service, 1/89-2/89 - 2

3. Charles Schultz

4. Lewis Smedes, Choices: Making Right Decisions in a Complex World, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), p. 18

5. A Jaffe/Lansing production in association with Republic Pictures; directed & produced by John Erman, 1987

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