Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Trinity 19. Two pictures
November 1, 2011, 12:08 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday October 30th, 2011

Daniel 7.1-7; Luke 6.17-26

Our readings tonight give us contrasting pictures: the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, and the humble Rabbi teaching his disciples. Can these refer to the same individual?

Let’s start with Daniel. The Book of Daniel is an example of what is called “Apocalyptic” literature (the Book of Revelation in the New Testament is another). “Apocalypse” is often understood as relating to the End of the World, Judgement Day and so on, but strictly it just means the Revelation of hidden truths. In fact, it is often the concealment of truths that it was dangerous to state openly. Apocalyptic literature in both Old and New Testament appeared in times of persecution, giving a message of hope in a form understood by the persecuted minority, but which would not be obvious to the persecuting authorities.

The Book of Daniel appeared at a time when the Jewish nation was being oppressed by the Syrian Greek Empire that followed Alexander the Great, round about 165 years before Christ. It is presented as a series of visions had by Daniel, a man of God who is supposed to have lived some four centuries earlier, in the time of the Babylonian Empire. What is presented as a vision of the future is in fact a retrospective view of the past.

Daniel sees four monstrous beasts emerge successively from the sea. The first represents King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Kingdom; the second and third are the Medes and Persians. These are treated very briefly. The fourth beast, particularly horrible, stands for the Greek regime that was persecuting the contemporaries of the author.

Just as the fourth kingdom is at its most rampant an boastful, Judgement Day comes. The visionary sees a heavenly courtroom, presided over by a judge of venerable appearance, sitting on a fiery throne. The books are opened, and soon the boastful beast is executed and burnt. The hidden message is, “Look out, tyrant! Your time is up, your fate is sealed!” Other visions in the book have the same meaning: the kings and kingdoms of the earth are all under the judgement of God, who will cast them down.

But then the dreamer sees something else. Coming on the clouds of heaven- so not out of the chaotic sea, like the beasts- he sees a human, not a bestial, form. This personage (whoever he is) is presented to the great Judge, and royal dignity is conferred on him, a kingship that will last for ever. Probably, in the first meaning of the book, we are not meant to identify this with anyone in particular: the point is that the True Kingdom comes from God, not from below; that it is marked by humanity in the broadest sense; and that it is destined to last. Human pride and power will not have the last word.

That is a good message for any downtrodden and oppressed people. The tyrants of the world- Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, Gaddafi- will not last. Sooner or later their judgement will come. But that is only half the story. In their place, God will establish a very different order, a kingdom “not of this world”.

For the author of Daniel and his readers, this was all in the future, expressed in symbolic language, with its manner of fulfilment hidden. The Gospels show us how, in actual historical fact, God has begun to establish his reign on earth, in Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Messiah.

Luke is writing for a Gentile rather than a Jewish readership. Consequently he universalises the message, making it applicable to all human beings, not just one nation. Matthew gives us the Sermon on the Mount, deliberately shaping it to present Jesus as the new Moses, giving the new Law to his people. He starts with Jesus going up the mountain, and ends with him coming down again. Luke, by contrast, shows Jesus going up to pray and choose the Twelve, and then coming down to speak to the crowds. What is more, Luke includes people from Gentile areas, Tyre and Sidon, among the audience.

Matthew begins with eight blessings. Luke gives four blessings and four “woes”. Matthew refers to the recipients of blessing in the third person; Luke has them addressed directly; Matthew “spiritualises” the recipients- poor in spirit, hungry for righteousness and so on. For Luke, they are the literal poor, the literal rich.

In both sets, blessings and woes, the existing order is to be reversed. As in the Magnificat, the hungry and poor are to be uplifted, the rich and powerful cast down. The hungry are fed, the full-fed will go hungry. Those who weep will rejoice, those laughing now will have their smiles wiped off their faces. The poor have something to look forward to, the rich have already had all they are going to get. To be persecuted is a sign that one is on the right side- the prophets and martyrs suffered in the same way. To be popular and praised by the world- that was how the false prophets were treated.

What Luke shows Jesus doing is passing judgement. What is more, he is passing God’s judgement on the world. This is no cheap revolutionary, who overthrows one tyrant just to set up a worse tyranny. That was the pattern of Daniel’s four beasts, each worse than the last. That is the pattern of today’s dictators, who come to power as rescuers of their people, but then cling to power in despite of their people. Luke presents a Jesus who is, on the one hand, a “son of man”, as human as we are; yet who receives his authority and kingship from above, who manifests the justice and the goodwill of the Creator towards humanity.

Daniel’s “son of man” (at least as conceived at the time of writing) was a symbolic figure, just as the beasts were symbolic figures. For us, the Son of Man is not a symbol, but a real person who lived at a particular time and in a particular place, but who still lives and reigns, still a real Person, Divine and human in nature, who has received Kingship from the Father, the “Ancient of Days”, and now as the representative of the Father himself sits as Judge upon the throne.

Yet we must never forget: the awesome King and Judge is still the same person as the humble Rabbi, the man of sorrows who shared all the grief of his people. To the poor, the hungry, the mourner he will always be the gentle and loving Saviour.


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