Sunday, November 22, 2009
Among the Beasts
We don’t read a whole lot from Daniel in our worship. If anything we can possibly tell the basic story of Daniel who was thrown into the den of lions when he refused to bow to the king, but that story, and maybe a couple of others told of Daniel and his 3 faithful friends are just the first six chapters of the book. For many of us, the second half is largely unknown.
At chapter 7 the tone changes. The stories of faithfulness in exile in the first 6 give way to the visions of God’s deliverance in the last. Mystical and mysterious visions. There are winds and strange beasts – lions with eagle’s wings, bears with giant tusks. The angel Gabriel even comes to help Daniel understand what his dreams are all about. The language and mood might remind us of the New Testament book of Revelation, another book we tend to know very little about. This kind of literature – apocalyptic literature – is often foreign to us, intimidating to come across, and, therefore, unfortunately, is larger left behind in our biblical study. But we’re going to try it today.
The book of Daniel, his story of great faith in a time of great trial, and his dreams meant to encourage others to maintain trust in the faithful God, is set during the Babylonian exile. The people of Judea have been taken into captivity and live under foreign rule, in a foreign land, surrounded by the worship of foreign gods. The temple back in Jerusalem has been destroyed. The sign of God’s presence among them has been demolished; their faith and their lives have been disrupted and decentralized.
But not only have the Babylonians devastated the Judeans, but several kingdoms BEFORE them have also laid ruin to their land. A string of beasts in the opening of chapter 7, each devouring the one that came before, represents the numerous conquerors of the Israel and Judah. When the 4th beast is introduced, however, it is more terrible than the rest – exceedingly strong, with iron teeth, horns, one with human eyes and a mouth speaking arrogantly. The 4th beast is that which represents Babylon, the nation that ultimately destroyed the Jewish land and people.
Listen now for Daniel’s first vision and its words of hope in God in the midst of a terrifying reality.
Christ the King Sunday. Or as some have come to call it, Reign of Christ Sunday. That name avoids the gender specific “king” language in the traditional name. This feast day in the Christian calendar is one of the newest that we celebrate or acknowledge, I learned this year, and I was surprised. It began only in 1925 by an edict of Pope Pius 11. King language and imagery usually takes me back farther than just 84 years ago. Probably because of our own national and political history and strong resistance to rule by kings, royal language and imagery just seems so…old to me, antiquated, or even fantastical.
Our family just returned from a trip to visit my family in Orlando which included our first trip to Disney World, so I’ve got a particular set of images close to my mind – huge castles and deep moats, fortresses, battles, beautiful gowns and sparkling scenes, princes and princesses, kings and queens, lords and ladies. The image is one of untouchable strength, separation from the common world and everyday life.
In fact, this fairy tale-like image is not too unlike the one that got Princess Diana into so much trouble, or earned her the title of “the people’s princess” depending on which side of the fence you occupy. Princess Diana left the usual realm of the British royalty, the castles and the ceremonial life, and moved among the people, and not just the “perfect” people, the “clean” people. She held sick and starving babies. She visited the homeless. She touched patients with AIDS. It made her a heroine on one hand, but it alienated her from her royal position on the other. She wasn’t acting the way royalty acts.
The initial glimpse of royalty in Daniel fits the usual bill. A long white beard suggests longevity. An enormous number of attendants, worshipers even, suggests durability, respect, honor. The Ancient One is seated on a throne of fire, issuing fire from his very being. Unapproachable maybe? To say the least? At least that is what it seems.
But the Ancient One and the human being, some translate it poorly as the Son of Man, who comes riding the clouds of heaven into his presence, these larger than life, grander than grand, king of kings and lord of lords, don’t stay separate. They don’t stay sanitized and sparkling. They don’t stay in a grand throne room, but the royal throne of fire has wheels; the cloud from heaven descends. The divine royalty come down and mix it up among the ravaging, violent, unholy beasts of the earth.
In Daniel the beasts are the kingdoms of the earth that threaten God’s people. They represent the Assyrian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Babylonian empires that have devoured God’s people even as they devoured one another. These days, if we were to take a political reading of this passage, the various people of God in the three Abrahamaic faiths are just as likely if not MORE likely to be the devouring empires than the ones eaten alive, so the imagery in the vision may have more than one meaning.
To a people who risk being the empire more than the exiled, the caution is as strong as the hope. The true king will come. The true royalty will come right down in the middle of the terror you are wielding and defeat the beasts who threaten the weak and the outnumbered in the world. The fear and danger that are your weapons will no longer hold power. The king of glory will be victorious.
To all people feeling threatened by the beasts of the world, however, it is a word of hope. Just as it was a word of hope for the Judean people struggling to stay faithful to God in exile, it is a word of hope as we struggle with our own beasts today. Your true king will come. Your true king will come right down in the middle of your terror and defeat the beast who seems to rule over your life. Your true king has more power than any beast that threatens your life, and you will be delivered from your fear and danger.
But I don’t know about you, but the beast imagery seems so far removed from my understanding, my world. Sure the vampire movies are a hit and some of the comic-based characters like Wolverine draw huge audiences, but as a whole our culture doesn’t dwell in that space between reality and what we would call fantasy today the way cultures did centuries ago. Beasts aren’t a part of our everyday thinking.
But anyway, while physical literal beasts aren’t food for thought for most of us on a daily basis, the fairy tales of our childhood remind us there are beasts among us, beasts, even, inside us that we do face every day. Beasts that threaten to devour our lives and our spirits.
From the outside we face beasts of illness and injury. Sicknesses of body and mind. We face beasts of financial collapse that cause us worry, leave us struggling to provide for ourselves and our families. We face beasts of broken relationships and personal loss – beasts that steal our companionship and circles of comfort.
The inner beasts as just as dangerous, if entirely different. The ugly beast of misjudging others eats away at us as we look down on them with contempt and pride. The beast of greed gnaws at us with the desire to accumulate all that we want, even beyond our need. The beast of superficiality nibbles at our character as it digests our ability to see beyond the surface of other human beings. The beast of arrogance feasts on our humility until we see our selves as slightly less than gods. These beasts threaten to consume our hearts and carry away into exile the beloved creatures God created us to be. The beasts of sin are dangerous, iron-toothed, multi-horned, vicious and savage beasts that battle for reign in our lives.
Beasts that, I think, would be victorious in the battle if I were fighting it alone. That temptation to accumulate? It’s just so strong. There is always more I think I need, but really it’s just what I want. That temptation to judge those I see before I even meet them? Well, we justify it by calling it stranger awareness. It’s a safety measure, isn’t it? You can’t be too careful. Left to my own devices there’s no way the ruler in my life would be anything but the beasts that eat from the inside out.
Which is why this vision from Daniel is so hope-filled. We aren’t left to our own devices. The king of creation, the Ancient One, doesn’t leave us alone to fight the beasts, those inside or outside of ourselves. The ruler of the universe comes down to earth, among the beasts, right into the middle of the battle, to deliver us from the threats. On a powerful throne, on heavenly clouds, the king of all the earth, Christ the King, comes to live and move among us, dirtying his hands, breaking down the barriers between heaven and earth, to battle the beasts we face one after another.
We saw that battle just about at its culmination in the reading from the gospel of John (18:33-37). Jesus in the LEAST kingly attire and posture we could ever imagine, hands tied behind his back, beaten by the powers of Rome, stood in front of Pilate, the representative of the Caesar, the king, in Jerusalem. His hands were certainly dirty. His hands, his face, his feet, his back. His life was covered in the dirt of human brokenness, and he stood there face-to-face with the beasts that threatened his life. His response doesn’t seem that kingly. It doesn’t seem that victorious at first.
But it is. His entire life, lived among the beasts of fear, disbelief, prejudice, and false judgement, his entire life and battle with the beasts of all time is taken up in this scene and the few that follow. Hung on a cross and buried in a tomb, the beasts seem to have won, but three days later his dominion and glory and kingship were made clear. Resurrected from the dead, ascended to heaven, and seated on the throne in the divine court above, Christ the King was revealed to us all.
Christ the King Sunday falls at the end of the Christian year. It is the final celebration in the cycle of remembrance of God’s relationship with creation. But at the same time it is also the threshold, the doorway, into the new year, the new year that begins with the celebration and honoring of the incarnation of God, God made flesh in Jesus our Christ, our King. The rule of Jesus in the world is all about God dwelling with God’s people. It’s all about the promise that we are not alone; we don’t face our beasts alone. Christ our King doesn’t stay locked away in a fortress of protection. Christ our King gets his hand dirty. Christ our King fights our battles. Christ our Lord and King defeats the beasts and frees us for lives of gratitude and worship under his reign.