Daniel 7:7 “After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. 8 “While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully. 9 “As I looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. 10 A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.The court was seated, and the books were opened. 11 “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. 12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.) 13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. 15 “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. 16 I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this. “So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’
For most of us, this may be the first sermon you’ll have heard on on these beasts and talking horns and visions of a fiery throne in Daniel 7. But I had a relative, now deceased, who could probably have quoted this Bible passage to us by memory. She belonged to a sect that specialized in piecing together Bible prophecies to the point that their conjectures about the future were pretty much their gospel.
When I was in high school, the monthly magazine of this sect told my relative that Jesus for sure was coming in 1975. And only those who were members of this sect would live through it. So she really put the pressure on us, constantly, by letter, telephone call or in person, to convert and join her church in order to be ready for Christ’s return. Obviously 1975 came and went and things remained the same. Or did I miss something? I still don’t know how that denomination’s leaders explained that one. But my relative backed off on her non-stop arm-twisting and ear-bending after that. Today you can still tell when people of this sect have been to your door by the colorful glossy brochures they leave on your door knob, with pictures of lions, bears, leopards, dragons and talking horns.
And to their credit, they got these images from the book of Daniel, even chapter 7. Daniel saw four ravenous, frightening beasts, one with talking horns; obvious pictures of global politics and powers. But for all their end-time speculation around these images, what many people overlook is that these images tell us at least as much about Daniel’s story, and Daniel’s time, as they do about ours. There were beasts prowling about the earth then in the form of violent, idolatrous empires and emperors, claiming and doing all sorts of violent and blasphemous things. They’re still prowling about and roaring today. I think I see them in the form of, Oh, let’s say, the growing global pornography industry. Or the global arms and warfare industry. We and our Mexican brothers and sisters are dealing with monstrous, man-eating drug cartels. Our Somali friends and neighbors fled the front line of global holy war to come here.
These things seem at first to have to do with money and politics. But Daniel’s dream pulls back the curtain to reveal that behind them are monstrous moral and spiritual trends and forces. And they bedevil all our attempts to do good. We learn to split the atom for power and we get nuclear weapons. We invent the internal combustion engine and we also get global warming and wars over oil. We invent the internet and we also get scams, spam and pornography. We organize our communities for roads, parks and public education, and we also get empire. Does anybody still doubt the existence of spiritual and moral monsters, like what Daniel saw?
But if we try to arrange these symbols like pieces of a puzzle to figure out what’s happening next week, we’ve missed the main point. The main point of Daniel 7 is not the monsters in the darkness, but the light up ahead, through the darkness, in the thicket of the forest.
That light is another one of the gifts given to God’s people, Israel and us, from Israel’s 70 years in Babylon. If we, like those Hebrew exiles, want to “seek the peace of the city to which God has called us,”–and that verse from Jeremiah’s prophecy has been our banner verse this past year—we need those gifts that Israel received, and which sustained her. Last week I spoke on one of those gifts, the promise of eternal life. This day I shall speak about that second gift, that I call the light in the forest, that we see through the tangle and and the thicket, in the long dark night of the world.
These images of beasts and light come from Daniel’s description of a dream. It starts out as a nightmare. Its a nightmare in his sleep about the waking nightmare that the world is living through still. Its a nightmare like that common technique you see in some scary movies. Flipping through the TV channels to catch the Sunday afternoon game I have several times run across segments of movies in which the screen is dark, except for the main character’s worried face. I always wonder how, if its so dark, we can see his face. He’s walking through the woods, in the dark, guided by a glimmer of light up ahead, one which keeps fading in and out whenever a tree or a branch momentarily blocks the light. In addition to the scuffing noise he’s making in the leaves as he stumbles through the forest, you start to hear other noises in the woods as well. He stops and for a few seconds you can hear other footsteps in the leaves, or a twig snapping. Then the light up ahead is momentarily blocked by the shape of something big passing by. By which time the music is getting more screechy. He’s not alone in these woods and its anyone’s guess whether or not he’ll make it in time to the safety of the light and the shelter that it represents At which point I always wimp out and switch the channel. If you’ve seen the movie, don’t tell me what happens next.
Just like we can switch the channel, we can usually wake ourselves out of a nightmare. But Daniel’s not just having a nightmare. It changes to a dream in which he gets to the light. Or rather, the light gets to him. The light turns out to be a person, God, and then, “The Son of Man.” And that’s all we need to know from Daniel 7: The final score of history, like the dream, is Monsters zero, Son of Man ten thousands upon millions, in terms of his grateful, glorified subjects. In contrast to the blasphemous beasts of Daniel 7, its the Son of Man who wins the planet and the universe.
Who is this “Son of Man?” That’s actually the most important question we’ll ever have to answer. Its the one which we heard Jesus presenting to Peter along the road in Caesarea Phillipi earlier in this service of worship: “Who do people say ‘the Son of Man’ is?” After Peter ran through the short list of the prophets or John the Baptist back from the dead, Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” In that pair of questions, Jesus identifies himself as Daniel’s “Son of Man.”
Peter answered Jesus’ question and confessed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus confirmed Peter’s insight by saying, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but rather, my Father in heaven.” But then Jesus warned Peter not to get too clap-happy and triumphalistic, because there would be much suffering and rejection for him to endure from the monsters of his day before, “the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.” The Son of Man wins, not by out-monster-ing the monsters with their own violence and terror, but by suffering love and patient faithfulness to God.
Peter called Jesus, “the Son of God.” And Jesus added to Peter’s statement the title he often gave himself, “the Son of Man.” Don’t get too worked up about what that might say about how much Jesus is divine and how much he is human, as though “Son of God” applied to his divinity and “Son of Man” applied to his humanity. That would be an important issue to work out later. But for the moment, then and there in Caesarea Philippi, near where Galilee met Syria, where Jews and Gentiles rubbed elbows and pagan idols and temples stood next to Jewish synagogues, and Rome was the undisputed monster—I mean, master– probably the fourth beast in Daniel’s nightmare, Jesus was serving notice that he is that person they read about in Daniel chapter 7, the “Son of Man.” The One who said, “I am the light of the world,” is claiming to be the light which Daniel saw in his dream, the light in the dark through the monster-infested forest.
And what a light. Daniel is given something like another movie technique, a flash forward in time, in his dream. In that flash forward we see that the light through the thicket is more than a light, its a glowing, fiery image of God, on his glowing, fiery throne, seated for that great day of accounting and vindication for all who sought refuge in him. But even there, in the presence of blazing, blinding light and fire, the beasts and monsters and talking horns are challenging God with the most blasphemous and boastful claims to victory, they’re so crazy, loony full of themselves. But the monsters are decisively defeated, and cast onto the trash pile of history. Instead, The Son of Man– or The Human One–takes his rightful place of honor and rule, forever.
We are told in verse 18 that this Son of Man figure also represents all the saints of God who remain faithful to God through their time of stumbling through the darkness of the thicket where beasts and monsters prowl. In this sudden substitution of a humble human for a boastful talking horn, we see the complete reversal of the temptation in the Garden of Eden, when because they listened to a snake in the grass and grasped for godhood, the first humans fell from their place of honor and rule. With the victory of this “Son of Man,” humanity is restored to its place of honor and rule in creation.
So, this Son of Man is a person, and he also represents all the faithful who seek refuge in God. By Jesus’ time, Jews were calling this “Son of Man” figure, “The Messiah.” That just means, “The Anointed One,” or king. Every king in Israel was inaugurated by anointing with oil. We use the Greek word, “Christ” for that.
This, again is that other gift that came to Israel, and us, during her difficult years of exile. She lost her own kings and kingdom only to be promised a global, cosmic and eternal king, and a global, cosmic and eternal kingdom. Israel was overwhelmed and nearly annihilated by worldly kingdoms of vast, global power and size, only to emerge from Exile with the promise of a global and everlasting kingdom of God. Israel was the prey and plaything of beastly, monstrous emperors, and she foresaw a glorified, restored and exalted humanity. That restoration is what Jesus had in mind when he preached, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Either they were crazy, or they were right.
If they were right, as I believe they were, then this is a gift to the world as well. Among other things, it means that time is going somewhere, that God has the last word on history, and that God’s last word is “the Son of Man,” the Human One, a restored and glorified human—and a restored and glorified humanity. If Daniel’s vision was right, then humanity wins, compassion wins, so do we, and the angel with the flaming sword at the gate of the garden lets us back in while keeping the monsters out. In a way, that’s what history comes down to: a fight between arrogant, violent monsters, and our humanity, represented by the Human One, the Son of Man. The nightmare of man-eating beasts gives way to Daniel’s glorious dream.
Each of us has a piece of that dream, for example, in the fight to ban cluster bombs and land mines, or to humanize our punitive immigration system, or lack of system. That was brought home to me with extra force this week as someone in this neighborhood told me about his dehumanizing treatment in a federal detention center, while he was seeking asylum here. Maybe its in our partnership with those who are working to raise this neighborhood and community from one known for its many needs and problems to one known for its many gifts and delights. Or in our efforts to reach across the barriers between the church and the gospel and communities closed to the church and the gospel. Or in the care, time and attention many people here give to the nurture of our youth and children. At times we experience the fight not only out there, against persecution, indifference to God, injustice and oppression, but within ourselves, against the ravenous beasts of our own nature. For me, my piece of the dream is the church, and all its saints and friends and partners growing in Christlike character and relationships, growing in partnership and participation in the growth of God’s kingdom, here in the Phillips Neighborhood, and around the world. My piece of the dream is seeing everyone grow in godliness and giftedness, leveraging my ministry and leadership to encourage and equip everyone’s ministry and leadership.
Whatever our piece of Daniel’s dream, we are encouraged to hold onto it and to pray and labor for it, because we know who wins: “To him [The Son of Man] was given a kingdom, an everlasting dominion.” The honors go to us, too, not because we’re more powerful than the beasts, but because of the One who takes our place, our humanity, and who takes on the battle for us. Of course I’m talking about Jesus.
I wouldn’t be talking about Jesus if he had not claimed that very title, from this very passage, for himself. We may read Daniel looking for inspiration and encouragement for our lives of resistance to the beasts and monsters around us. And within us. That’s how Daniel’s dream spoke to his fellow Hebrews and encouraged them, in the last centuries before Jesus. But Jesus read Daniel and saw the script for his life and ministry: He is the Son of Man, the Human One, who represents us to God, and God to us. He is God’ s man on earth, and our man in heaven. He is God before us, and us before God. Through his triumph over the boastful beasts and monsters, we triumph as well.
The ultimate gift then of Israel’s years of Exile is Jesus, “The Son of Man.” And with this Son of Man comes our new humanity, a restored, a glorious, and triumphant humanity. Keep your eyes on that light which Daniel saw in the darkness of exile. Hold onto your piece of that dream and pursue it, and we’ll make it through the thicket of the world’s long dark night.