Vision and Resistance
A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reign of Christ Sunday, November 22, 2015
Today is the day the church marks as Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. Reign of Christ Sunday always falls on the Sunday before we enter into Advent, the season of waiting for the arrival of Christ, who entered the world as a vulnerable baby.
Today’s chosen gospel reading, which we will not read together, comes from the book of John, chapter 18:37, the conversation between Pilate and Jesus as Jesus faces the threat of execution. In this conversation “Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’”[i]
We are invited on this Sunday to wonder together as we read scripture in community, “What is the nature of God’s kingdom – or kin-dom? What kind of ruler is Jesus? How do we live as ones who belong to the truth and listen to Jesus’ voice?”
These are not simply spiritual meditations. As nations war against nations, as the media shows an unending ticker of violence, as walls are raised and doors shut, these questions become serious inquiries into how we as Christians are called to act in the world and to whom we pledge our allegiance.
To guide our questions this morning we’re going to delve into the book of Daniel, chapter 7:1-18, an incredibly vivid apocalyptic vision of crumbling Empires and God’s eternal reign. Daniel was a prophet who lived under the oppressive Seleucid rule of Antiochus IV, a ruler who sought to obliterate the Judean community. What we are about to hear is one of Daniel’s visions or dreams, rich in symbolism and imagery. I invite you to let your mind run wild with these images, picture them, don’t try to make sense of them, but feel the impact of the sight that Daniel saw and then we will wonder together what it means for us today.
Visions of the Four Beasts
In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
Judgment before the Ancient One
As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
Daniel’s Visions Interpreted
As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Though these apocalyptic visions from Daniel are not common Sunday School material, the narrative stories in the first half of the book of Daniel are and perhaps you remember some of them. In the chapters leading up to this first apocalyptic vision:
-Daniel refuses to eat the King’s food in violation of his religious tradition. He and his friends only ate vegetables and water, not the wine and meat offered by the oppressive King.
-Daniel’s friends Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego refuse to bow down and worship the golden statue of King Nebuchadnezzar and they are thrown into a fiery furnace. They walk out untouched by the flames.
-Daniel prays to God in spite of the King’s prohibition which lands him in the Lion’s Den. He stays there overnight but is untouched by the Lions.
In her book, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism, Anathea Portier-Young describes the book of Daniel as resistance literature.[ii] The narrative stories of nonviolent resistance put together with apocalyptic visions in which power is stripped from earthly rulers and recentered in God offered strength and hope to the Judeans living under oppressive power.
The apocalyptic vision that Daniel offers is descriptive rather than predictive. Daniel is not describing future signs of the end times; his vision paints, in vivid symbolism, a reconciling of what was occurring then and there. The eternal reign of the Ancient of Days that Daniel described is not a statement of future hope in the next life or the end of times. This vision was, instead, a defiant statement of confidence in the One who is the true Creator and Ruler of those present times and of ours today.
It’s easy to think of Daniel’s vision as a foretelling of our present moment. I have heard the word apocalypse with great frequency in these past weeks as we’ve witnessed continued violence around the world. The description of the beasts of empire actually doesn’t feel too dramatic a description for the reality in which we’re living in which greed and fear of the other devour human lives.
In conversations this week, I’ve heard friends and coworkers wondering if they could hold all the grief this world churns out. I’ve spoken with others over meals about what it is we need to do to resist the forces of fear. In the multifaith community where I live, these conversations are ongoing and raw, tender to the touch.
Late this week, Laila Lalami wrote an essay for the New York Times titled, ‘My Life as a Muslim in the West’s Gray Zone?’ Laila describes an ISIS document that focuses its threats on Muslims who are in the “gray zone”.[iii] This document describes the gray zone as “the space inhabited by any Muslim who has not joined the ranks of either ISIS or the crusaders.”[iv] Layla describes her so-called “gray” life that weaves together time spent in many countries, friendships with people of many different religions or no religions at all, the complex and beautiful mixing of cultures, languages, and stories that shapes her life and her community.
She writes, “Most of the time, gray lives go unnoticed in America. Other times, especially when people are scared, gray lives become targets. Hate crimes against Muslims spike after every major terrorist attack. But rather than stigmatize this hate, politicians and pundits often stoke it with fiery rhetoric, further diminishing the gray zone.”[v]
This week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to further scrutinize the resettlement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the United States. As refugees continue to flee violence and persecution, this additional scrutiny would translate into devastating delays for families seeking safety. It has been suggested by several politicians that the U.S. lend its support only to Christian refugees. In myriad ways, the voices in power in the U.S. have spent time in the aftermath of tragedy creating a vision of the world that divides into two camps. They’ve painted a picture of a world that is “us” versus “them” and – according to these world powers – we are to choose our sides.
In the midst of the terrifying proposals made this week alone by national voices in the U.S. – to parse and divide this nation by religious and cultural identities – Daniel’s vision gives us strength to resist the pull of fearful divisions manufactured by nations at war. “The writers of Daniel resisted with language and symbol,” Portier-Young writes, “limiting and even negating the power of Antiochus by writing, proclaiming, and teaching an alternative vision of reality. Weaving together story, vision, liturgical prayer, and revelatory discourse, they crafted a composite work of powerfully resistant counter-discourse to Seleucid hegemony. They also presented their readers with a program of active nonviolent resistance.”[vi] With great creativity they poked holes in the reality of the Seleucid Empire to show a better way.
On Reign of Christ Sunday we are invited to write and pray, teach and enact the alternative vision of Christ’s reign, which continues to be at odds with the powers of this world. As I wrote this sermon, I was following a conversation between pastors and other people of faith in upstate NY as they plan for an action outside the office of a Christian Congressman who voted to increase the difficulty of Syrian and Iraqi refugee resettlement in the U.S. The action being planned will feature a live nativity scene to remind the Congressman of Jesus’ beginnings as a refugee, fleeing to Egypt with his parents shortly after his birth. The last I checked, no donkey was available for the action, though a goat has been secured.
The word apocalypse comes from the Ancient Greek meaning a disclosure of knowledge, revelation or unveiling. Daniel’s text unveils the truth of God’s justice and everlasting power. Daniel’s vision reveals that fear is not our ruler, God is. This is the truth that Jesus confirmed in his living and dying. We belong to that truth. Amen.
[ii] Portier-Young, Anathea, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).
[iii] Layla Lalami, “My Life as a Muslim in the West’s Gray Zone,” New York Times Magazine, November 20, 2015. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/magazine/my-life-as-a-muslim-in-the-wests-gray-zone.html
[vi] Portier-Young, 277.