Daniel 7:1-18, Luke 6:20-31
“In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as lay in bed” (vs. 1). For anyone who has read the first six chapters of Daniel this is a surprising turn of events. Daniel had a dream? Up until now it has been the king having dreams with Daniel doing the interpreting. Up until now the story of Daniel has been one story after another of Jewish survival in the strange land of Babylon. We have read the tale of Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in the fiery furnace because of their refusal to worship the golden statue (ch. 3). We have watched as Daniel interprets the writing on the wall - “Mene, Mene, Tekel & Parsin” (ch. 5). And we have seen King Darius tricked into a law that requires devout Daniel to be thrown into a lion’s den (ch. 6). Along the way Daniel has gained promotion through the ranks of the civil service because of his capacity to interpret King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams (chs. 2 & 4). “The story of Daniel,” writes Walter Breuggemann, “is about Jews trying to maintain their acute faith identity in a complicated social environment where they had to deal with real worldly power ... Such an identity requires commitment and shrewdness and some deep resolve" ("The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann", p. 239) In other words, the story of Daniel is for a time like ours and for a people like us. For, the truth is, maintaining Christian identity in our complicated social environment surely requires commitment and shrewdness and some deep resolve. It leads me to suggest that the Book of Daniel be given much more attention when, and if, the Revised Ecumenical Common Lectionary ever becomes the New Revised Ecumenical Common Lectionary. As it stands the Book of Daniel is read but once in the three year cycle of the lectionary - on All Saints Day this year. We would miss it altogether if it were not for our custom of using the scriptures assigned for All Saints on the Sunday nearest November 1st.
Which brings us to Daniel’s dream - a dream that marks a dramatic turn in the book of Daniel. The first six chapters have been colourful, dramatic tales of survival, even flourishing, in a foreign culture. The second half of Daniel is an entirely different genre altogether. Here we are immersed in the biblical world of apocalyptic literature. The word “apocalypse” means “to reveal.” Apocalyptic visions claim to reveal what is really going on behind the scenes. Daniel’s glimpse behind the veil troubles his spirit. He is terrified. Daniel has a nightmare. It is altogether appropriate the text is set to be read by the church on the morning after Halloween. With Daniel we wake up to a world of terrifying beasts that haunt our imagination.
This is the starting place of apocalyptic literature. It begins with terror and trouble. It says that things are bad, really bad. This is the reason that apocalyptic texts speak with such power to oppressed peoples and the enslaved, to the broken-hearted and downcast. Lying on his bed in Babylon Daniel sees the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea - the source of chaos and dread. Then not one, not two, not three but four beasts arise out of the sea. Yes, when John the Revelator sees the four horsemen of the apocalypse he is living out of Daniel’s vision. Each of the beasts in Daniel’s vision are terrifying: one like a lion with eagle’s wings and a human mind; one like a bear with three tusks told to devour many; one like a leopard with four wings and four heads given dominion. Then, after this, “a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong ... different from all the beasts that had preceded it” (vs. 7), with ten horns and then another little horn. “There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly” (vs. 8). Troubling. Terrifying. Scary.
In Daniel’s dream things go from bad to worse. One terrifying beast is only the beginning of the trouble. Reading Daniel is like being on a therapist’s couch and reliving a haunting memory only to discover that behind one suppressed trauma lies another, and another, and another. Reading Daniel is like trying to understand the nature of poverty and addiction only to realize that solving one bestial problem will do no good - for the problems are inextricably complex and deep. Perhaps this is the reason that we have so carefully avoided Daniel. To enter Daniel’s world is to come face to face with the massive size and scope of the pain and suffering, the greed and oppression, that haunts the earth.
Or perhaps the reason that we have steered clear of Daniel’s peculiar dreams has to do with the ways in which so many have tried to use his visions as a template to map human history, trying to identify which beast matches which king or emperor or potentate or president or prime minister. None more so than the terrible fourth beast and its little horn. Who or what does it represent? Daniel himself wonders. In the second half of this chapter (in the part we did not read this morning) Daniel seeks the truth about the fourth beast and learns that this is what makes the fourth beast different from all of the rest: “He shall speak words against the Most High, shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law and they shall be given into his power for a time, two times, and half a time” (vs. 25). Here is the greatest terror that Daniel’s vision can name: A power that speaks words against God and that wears out the people of God; a power that sets out to change their ways of marking time - Sabbath, Passover, Yom Kippur - and the laws, the teachings, the God-given ways of life they have received and that set them apart.
Wow. Do you see what I see? It so happens that our weekly Bible at Breakfast group is reading Daniel and, miraculously ... providentially, was on chapter seven this week. It was not planned. It just happened. There I was in the White Spot restaurant at seven o’clock on Wednesday morning, preparing for our conversation, when I read this description of the mighty and terrible fourth beast. It is a beast I recognize, a beast we recognize. We know it all too well. It is the wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing that tempts us and our children and our grand-children to believe it is a good thing to give up on the faithfulness of God. This beast is the slow but steady drip, drip, drip erosion of the faith of the people of God that destroys by wearing them - wearing us - out. No dramatic persecutions. No newsworthy imprisonments. Just the incremental loss of memory of the odd ways of being called costly discipleship - "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you" - until one day there is no one who can recall the peculiar rhythms meant to accompany the gracious steps of Jesus’ distinctive, holy, saintly, salty people.
Here is where the testimony gets close to home for me. Over the four Sundays of November it is our custom to invite witnesses to testify to what God is up to in the life of University Hill Congregation. The Stewards have discovered that such testimony regularly calls forth generous giving. We have learned that our focus for this stewardship month rightly begins, not with finances, but with witnesses who tell the truth about what God is up to here, among us. Today it is my turn. And today, for the first time, I find myself preaching a sermon from Daniel ... from Daniel who turns out to be a kindred spirit. Who knew? I do remember a children’s song called “Dare to be a Daniel.” Today I find myself so grateful to have received the God-given gift of two decades in a congregation that, in its own humble way, dares to be a Daniel. Daniel dares to remain true to his identity as one of God’s people. Daniel dares to remain faithful in an environment that is complicated and challenging. When I look at my ministry, at my life, I find myself filled with gratitude that God brought me here into a congregation that sees what I see and hears what I hear: a congregation that sees that Daniel’s challenge is our challenge, that Daniel’s time is our time.
But we see more than this. With Daniel we see that beyond the terrors of the night and the beasts that plague the earth, there is One enthroned - the “Ancient of Days” - whose power cannot finally be denied and whose dominion will yet be revealed (vs. 9). This is the other side of apocalyptic literature. Having portrayed the beasts of a Good Friday world as hugely powerful, Daniel’s dream reveals a God whose Easter energy to overcome the forces of death and destruction is beyond our puny imagination. Yet this awesome God beyond all imagining is to be met in “one like a human being” (vs. 13). In Hebrew, a “Son of Man.” Those who read ahead in scripture recognize this “Son of Man” who comes to reveal God’s power to save. Jesus speaks of the “Son of Man” eighty-one times in the gospels. When Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor, on the hungry, on those who weep, on those who are reviled and excluded “on account of the Son of Man” (Lk 6:20-22) our eyes are opened to see that the one Daniel says is to be given “dominion and glory and kingship” (vs. 14) is none other than Jesus Christ.
It is no small thing to find oneself in a congregation that is willing - more than willing, that is determined - to host and to trust this gospel story in its life together even though this seems so counter-intuitive in a culture marked by its focus on the new and the novel. Oh, I could wish for a larger congregation, for more activities and for more success stories. But I could not wish for a more satisfying company in which to re-discover what it is to live as a one of the saints - as one of those broken, hungry, weeping souls who have found new life through the grace and mercy of the God met in Jesus Christ. Thanks to you I already know the saintly company I am blessed to keep. You see, when you make your way to the table of bread and wine, and to the anointing with oil for healing, I will once again witness the great communion of saints who are already walking, running and marching their way in to the realm of God where the poor are blessed, where the hungry are fed and where those who weep begin to laugh. Thanks to you I know already that I am in that number ... that number that, through the grace of God, is beyond all human reckoning. The congregation of saints is a surprising company made up of all manner of troubled, haunted, heartsick souls who are being saved and redeemed and made whole by the love of God. Do you see? You, too, are in that number. And do you see? There are others not yet here, who do not yet know, who have not yet heard. It is the reason for you to keep the faith. It is the reason for this congregation to dare to be a Daniel. It is the reason for you and for me to respond with lives - and, yes, with wallets - marked by the generosity of the God we meet in Jesus Christ ... the generosity we call grace, amazing grace. Amen.