SERMON by the Revd RACHEL HAWES
Associate Rector, St Peter’s, Westhampnett
18 November 2018 – 2 before Advent
READINGS: Daniel 12: 1-3
Hebrews 10: 11-14, 19-25
Mark 13: 1-8
We are approaching the season of Advent and the start of a new liturgical year. The key notes of the Advent season are complex: judgement and the end time; readiness and waiting. It is a sombre and penitential season – a time to review the way we live and to take stock of our spiritual lives.
I was listening with horror yesterday morning to the news reports of the wildfires in California. We have failed to be good stewards of our planet and climate change is taking its toll. The town of Paradise turned to Inferno as the flames consumed it and as yet the number of lives lost is unknown. A sophisticated society reduced to ashes in a matter of hours. In the midst of all this, the words of our Old Testament reading this morning from the book of Daniel seem particularly pertinent – ‘a time of anguish’ indeed.
Much of the book of Daniel was written out of experiences of terror and despair. The book is a difficult one in the Old Testament canon – it was, in fact, influential on early Christian thought and yet it is not much known today. Of course, everyone remembers the story of the fiery furnace and Daniel in the lion’s den – but actually the book of Daniel contains two quite distinct types of literature: the first six chapters are the stories about Daniel and his friends in the Babylonian court which everyone remembers; the rest of the book is an extraordinary account of unearthly visions: mythical beasts; winged angels; mysterious heavenly beings; divine conflict. This is a kind of literature called ‘apocalyptic’. The word apocalypse, in modern speech, has come to be synonymous with stories about the end of the world – images of some final great conflict. Although this idea is indeed present in the Jewish apocalyptic it is not the essential point. The word apocalypse comes from the Greek apokalupsis, meaning ‘disclosure’ or ‘unveiling’. So the central idea behind apocalyptic literature is that it is about an unveiling, a making plain of God’s purposes.
It helps to understand today’s reading, if we set in its historical context. No one agrees on how to date the book of Daniel because its chronology it is one which covers a vast sweep of Jewish history: almost five centuries, during which the tiny minority, which was the Jewish people, were tossed to and fro by the much larger political forces that dominated the region of the Near East at that time. The first half of the book starts with the Jews taken into exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC – a time of great suffering and pain. This ended eventually with the joy of homecoming, when the Jews were restored to their homeland, after the Babylonian empire fell to King Cyrus of Persia. The second half of Daniel, although purporting to be written at the same time, appears to refer to events which took place much later – around the 2nd century BC, when Judah was captured by the Greco-Syrian peoples known as the Seleucids. Under these peoples and their king, Antiochus Epiphanes, the Jews were brutally persecuted: their sacred writings were burnt, their religious practices were forbidden and their holy place, the Temple, was desecrated.
As the text says, this was ‘a time of anguish – they were a people pushed to the very edge of cultural and religious extinction. Persecution like this produces emotions of a vivid and particular kind – desperation, hatred of the persecutor, a longing for justice, a looking for the end of things. We have seen such emotions in the aftermath of the conflicts, disasters and atrocities which have dominated the news in the past few years. If people do turn to God in such circumstances, they often look for explanation and vindication. They ask God, ‘Why?’ Why all this suffering, pain, loss and disappointment? It seems senseless. What are God’s purposes in all this?
So this is the context out of which the book of Daniel is written. What it offers the Jewish people is reassurance in the face of persecution. It tells them that tyrants will rise and fall but that ultimately it is God who is in control of human history and that He will set up a kingdom that “will never be destroyed” (2:44). At the end, there will be resurrection and justice for those who have remained faithful – those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, and the wise will shine for ever, like the stars in the sky. (12: 2-3)
The book of Daniel spoke powerfully to the early Christian church which also suffered severe persecution. You can hear echoes of it in our Gospel passage today from Mark. There is imagery in Daniel that reappears with fresh significance in the New Testament. The most memorable being the figure of the Son of Man, in Chapter 7, who appears from heaven, in clouds of glory, to establish a kingdom that will never pass away. “Son of Man” is a title which Jesus takes for himself in the Gospels – something which shows us that the Gospel writers have taken and interpreted the book of Daniel, in their own context, in Messianic terms.
So does Daniel, with its strange apocalyptic language, have anything to say to us today? Well I think it does. As we are constantly reminded, the world is sadly not so very different. There is still natural disaster, horror and death, tyranny and oppression, still the same dreadful drive to erase those with different cultures and faiths and to obliterate the vulnerable. It is impossible not to feel soiled by and in some way complicit in this. We ask ourselves, ‘Are we responsible? Did we in some way cause this/ create the context in which such hated could be born and flourish?’ The book of Daniel is a book of extraordinary affirmation in the face of suffering. It notably affirms the dignity of humanity – its potential for great stature and courage, even under persecution. And most importantly, it affirms, ultimately the faithfulness of God, which is the foundation for human faithfulness. It reminds us that the pain and incompleteness of the world in which we live is not how God ultimately wills it.
As Christians we believe that God has revealed Himself to us through His saving love in Christ, but we know that there is an “already but not yet” aspect to our present life – our world is still, somehow, waiting for healing and completeness. The book of Daniel tells us there is a dimension to our human story which is God’s and which is now partially hidden from view but which will, eventually, be fully disclosed. It tells us to trust and hope, and to look and work, for God’s future – when ‘Death will be no more’ and ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (Revelation 21: 4).