That was quite a scripture Matt just read to you. It appears that on this Sunday that comes after Thanksgiving and just before the Advent/Christmas season begins I have decided to take you back to Halloween. Actually, I can’t really take credit for it. More often than not the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first Sunday of Advent. But there are those times that it isn’t. This is that odd Sunday stuck between seasons. The people who created the lectionary back in the seventies gave it a name. It is called “Christ the King Sunday.” One of the scriptures assigned to this Sunday is the scripture from Daniel 7 that you just heard.
I admit that it is a strange scripture to come right before Advent arrives. In this text Daniel has a nightmare and when he awakes he grabs a pen and begins to write down what happened in his dream. It sounds a bit like a Stephen King novel. He writes, “I, Daniel saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came out of the sea, different from one another.”
In his dream Daniel finds himself standing on a cliff looking down at the limitless, dangerous place of chaos called the sea. Winds come from all four directions and stir up the restless sea and from its chaos there appears a beast that looks like a lion except he has eagle’s wings. These wings are promptly plucked from his body and he is made to stand up on his hind legs and given a human mind.
But the dream was just beginning. Then the second beast arises from the water. He looks like a bear and has tusks in his mouth. The beast is told to “Arise and devour many bodies!” Then a third beast arises who looks like a leopard only he has four wings and four heads and is given dominion over all things. And then, just when Daniel was frightened beyond belief he saw a fourth beast…more frightening and stronger than the three previous beasts. It had iron teeth. It was destroying anything that the others had left behind…. stomping on everything to make sure nothing was left. It had ten horns and while Daniel was looking at them a little baby horn appeared. There were eyes and a mouth in that horn and the little horn spoke with arrogance.
I hate nightmares like that….the kind that wake you up in your fright and you are so grateful for the images to stop….but they don’t….they come with you….back into your wakeful reality. When that happens I don’t grab a pen and write down my dream. I hold still in bed listening for the movement of the beasts in my bedroom, ready for them to slip out from my dream and into my reality and devour me.
My husband, Bryan was a psychologist and so I used him to help me interpret my dreams. Whenever I would tell him about a dream I had he would say, with an ornery glint in his eye, “You really sure you want to know what that one was about?” Everything in a dream carries symbolism. Everything means something. Our dreams are almost always connected to what is happening in our lives. What is causing us worry, distress or joy is carried into our dream state and we try and work it out there. So it makes me wonder, what was happening in Daniel’s life that might explain the four beasts?
In the 6th century BC Babylon was the empire that threatened the well being of Israel. When Nebuchadnezzar took over the throne from his father, he had ambitions to expand his realm, which brought Babylon’s armies to the door of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was no match for such military might.
Once Babylon conquered a nation they took the leadership class captive, thereby creating compliant colonies of those left behind….people too impoverished to mount a campaign against them. That is how Daniel found himself in Babylon, as an aid to the King Nebuchadnezzar.
Imagine how significant this time would have been for Israel. They were minding their own business when they were decimated by the Babylonian Empire…torn apart…some of them taken into captivity and some of them left behind. Somehow they needed to make sense of what was happening to them.
The Book of Daniel is literature meant to encourage the Jews to remain faithful, in spite of the wishes of the empire. Daniel is the hero character…the one who stays true to the requirements of the Torah and true to the worship of his God, even if it means being thrown into a den of hungry lions. In this dream the beasts represent the empires that held his people captive over the years.
I do have those nightmares that seem to live on in the light of day. One of them has me in a movie theater or the grocery store running with other people away from someone with a gun altered by a bump stock. The beast…the empire has arisen from the sea of chaos to make sure the shooter has the deadliest of weapons.
Babylon was, as Walter Brueggemann describes it, “the center of learning, commerce, wealth and religion…devoted to materialism, extravagance, luxury and the pursuit of sensual pleasure…there was injustice, poverty and oppression.” Brueggemann calls Western society with its consumer capitalism, which shows no regard for life or resources, filled with, marginalized and excluded people “Babylon redux.”
We live in the empire and our four beasts are arising from the sea. There is the beast of corporate and personal greed. We just have to look around us to see the impact. A very small percentage of people control most of the money, while other Americans live under bridges. And that is just the part we can see. We export most of our misery to other countries.
There is the beast of environmental destruction. The Great Pacific garbage patch, between here and Hawaii, is estimated to be around 1.6 million square kilometers. A garbage dump filled with plastics and other waste in the middle of the ocean. It isn’t the only one. There is also a North Atlantic garbage patch. We are seeing the impact of climate change all around us and the empire stands behind the curtain and calls out, “It isn’t happening. That is just weather.”
The next beast arises from the chaos and it is racism, sanctioned by the empire. It calls out, “We don’t want those kind of people in our country. We will deter them from coming by separating them from their children and locking their children into cages.” And then the next thing we know we have militarized our borders to defend us from these families.
Just when we are terrified by the chaos brought by these first three beasts, the fourth beast appears in the form of nationalism. The Church of the Brethren from its inception has spoken out against this idol of patriotism…where nation comes before God. But nationalism is a very strong beast and especially powerful when people are frightened by the thought of losing what little they feel they have left.
We stand with Daniel looking at our four beasts and the sight is terrifying. Fortunately, for Daniel and for us, Daniel didn’t wake from his dream after the arrival of the four beasts. He didn’t have to stay in that terrified state because after the four beasts come up out of the sea, his attention shifted to the heavens and the throne room of the Ancient One…who is God. In Daniel’s dream God appears as an elderly man dressed in white with hair the color of pure wool. It is where our image of God as an old man comes from. Gary Larsen can thank Daniel for the thousands of dollars he has made drawing comics using this image. Women can curse Daniel for this patriarchal image we have struggled against in the church our whole lives.
God sits down on the throne on wheels, which is made of fire. Everywhere that God moves, flames follow. The throne room and the fire are all symbols that judgment is imminent. We are witnessing a heavenly courtroom. The books of law are brought forward and opened. The arrogant little horn of the fourth beast keeps talking even while God’s judgment is decided and rendered. The decision — death for the fourth beast of the empire. The fourth beast is killed and the body burned. The other three beasts are stripped of their power.
Then the scene turns back to the heavens. A being in human form comes riding in on the clouds. He is brought to God and God bestows him with dominion, a dominion that can never be taken away.
Daniel is so perplexed with his dream that while he is still dreaming he asks one of the people attending God to interpret it for him. The attendant obliges. (Wouldn’t it be nice if every dream had an interpreter built right into it? That would be so handy.) The attendant says that the four beasts represent four kings of the empire while the human-like being represents the holy ones of God who will receive the kingdom forever and ever.
I don’t know why people leave their Bibles to gather dust. It is an amazing library filled with romance, poetry, history, law, letters, parables and even horror stories. It is wild and beautiful and inspiring and frightening.
The reason that Daniel 7 was placed in the lectionary on the occasional Sunday after Thanksgiving and before Advent was because of the arrival of this human-like creature on that clouds that was given dominion. Ever since that lectionary decision was made preachers have focused on this man and said, “See, that is Jesus foretold in the Hebrew Bible. That is Jesus is about to arrive in the clouds and save us….Jesus Christ the King.” We are heading into Christmas and preachers are eager to crown Jesus the King.
However, if you read the New Testament you will see that Jesus never wanted to replace the kings of the empire. He never wanted to be crowned King and replace Herod. That would have been an anathema to Jesus. The message of the Gospel isn’t Christ is the new King. Give us human beings half a chance and we will muck up the message every time. It is so insidious how we constantly try to fit everything within the framework of the empire. No. The message of Daniel 7 as we head into Advent isn’t one of triumphalism. Advent has an even more beautiful message waiting for us. Jesus, the Son of Man, is about to be born into this very empire….into this place where we are often held captive. God is incarnate on earth in human form. God…born a poor child right into the belly of the beast will change the whole framework. You and I are extended an invitation to choose to live in the divine community rather than the empire. We are invited to worship God and not the idol of patriotism. Like Daniel we will live in God’s world right now, even if Babylon thinks it has made us its captives. Amen.