Vicar's Sermon - All Saints Sunday
Daniel 7. 1-3, 15-18
The Book of the prophet Daniel is one of the most well known in the Old testament…at least half of it is. You all know the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den. You may well know the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the fiery furnace. These stories feature heavily in Sunday School and in Children’s’ Bibles. Perhaps you can remember why Daniel ended up being thrown to the Lions: it was because he continued to pray to the One True God. Maybe you can remember why Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego ended up in the fiery furnace – it was because they refused to bow down to the great image that he emperor had made of himself. These are stories set in Persia, in ancient Babylon. They are fables directed at helping God’s people the Jews to see how they might live in a world in which they were not in charge. Remember the history: Israel, then Judah ad been dragged off into exile by conquering armies – first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians – ‘how do we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land’ was a real question for those who sought to be true to their God. How should we live when being true to Torah, staying faithful to God’s commands was just so plain hard?
The book of Daniel makes it clear that God’s people can prosper in their new situation. Daniel and his here companions rise to become important figures in the foreign court, they are shown to be people of integrity. They are also shown to brook no compromise when it comes to holding true to the marks of being observant Jews: they refuse to eat the rich food provided by the court because to do so would risk breaking Israel’s food laws and eating that which was not kosher. They do not bow down to idols…and suffer the consequences for not doing so. They are faithful in prayer to God, day by day, unashamed to make their prayers to Israel’s God and, again, prepared to pay the price for doing so: being seen as somehow disloyal to the foreign state and its ‘religion’ by not observing it wholeheartedly.
As a piece of writing the Book of Daniel shows us God’s people trying to work out how to live within a world that does not share its values. The book lifts the reader out of the backwater that Israel had become and places them in a much broader and wider context. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego live amongst people who speak a different language, they may well have become important figures at court but they are still ‘outsiders’, one step up from being ‘slaves’. The stories are set within a world where religion is important but which does not recognise Israel’s understanding of God – so the stories involve conflict: a conflict of ideas and perceptions, they (of necessity) involve suffering as that conflict is resolved.
But most of us only know half of the Book of Daniel. There is no place in children’s Bibles for the second half of the book because it is full of weird and fantastical dreams and visions. There are descriptions of beasts that roam the earth, of kings and kingdoms that rise and fall, of tumultuous happenings in heaven and on earth. No, the second half of Daniel is much harder to read. Some people say that the fables that begin the book are of a much earlier provenance: stories that had done the rounds for a while before being ‘set down’ in the form that we have them. But, be that as it may, by the time we reach Daniel chapter 7 our writer has expanded his vision of Israel’s place in world history even more.
The fables showed us how it was possible for the people of God to stay loyal to their God even when they had been uprooted from their land and found themselves in the great cities of the Babylonian empire. But Daniel’s visions in the night are of a wholly different category. For here, our writer surveys world history and then steps beyond it. It is possible apparently to identify each of the ‘beasts’ that Daniel describes as fighting over the earth- for those so minded they can be seen as being portrayals of the super-powers whose conflicts stirred up the nations all those years ago: the Roman, the Greek, Egyptian and Seleucid empires. Some, without becoming too fanciful, can crack the code to work out who the ‘horns’ are that Daniel describes rising to rule the earth: who the kings and kingdoms are in Daniel’s visions. For us though the wider theme is the important one – Daniel’s writer looks at world history, he sees the upheaval of the nations and holds firm to his belief that God, the Most High, reigns. There will come a time, he believes, when ‘the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever – for ever and ever.’
And that, as they say, is ‘where the rubber hits the road’ for those of us trying to read this scripture from all those centuries ag with the desire to hear what God might want to say to us this morning. Because Daniel asks us some incredibly easy, yet fiendishly hard questions. Try these:
What sort of world do you live in?
Where is there place for hope in your world?
matter most to you in life? How should you live?
What sort of world do you live in? Is Daniel’s author right? When all is literally said and done is it true that God’s faithful people will win through? Or twenty-five centuries after these words were written is the world condemned to wars and rumours of wars, to unending violence, the triumph of might over right? It takes courage to be a person of faith. It is by no means obvious that God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven.
Which is why the second question is important. ‘Where is hope in your world?’ There are more than enough images of ‘hopelessness’ in our newspapers at the moment – think of Aleppo…worse than this, think of those towns in Syria that do not make the news but which have not had food or medical assistance for months: or think of the people of Mosul under the heel of Isis, or the young men moved from the Jungle outside Calais who see their hope of coming to this country slipping away from them after so many years. Daniel speaks to all those who wait for a better world and says ‘it will come’. Don’t give up. Stay strong.
And finally: ‘What things matter most to you in life? How should you live?’ It would be far easier to let go of faith, surely? Daniel and his companions could have ‘gone with the crowd’, let go of their identity as Jews, ceased their religious practice and adapted to life as part of the Persian elite. The rewards for doing so were great. Prestige, wealth, honour. And yet we remember them precisely because they had values by which they lived. Not for them the joke ‘These are my principles and if you don’t like them then I have others.’ Being a Christian in Western Society is no easy option. The values that have served Europe well for centuries are now being overthrown or at least questioned. The practise of faith is regarded as being a minority, wholly personal, choice. Some see faith as being dangerous to modern society. No longer can we assume a voice in the debate about how we should live, how we might educate our children, how we should care for the vulnerable, how we might care for the infirm and the dying: the loudest voices now have no faith and no fear of God. The witness of the saints, the witness of Daniel is that we are to seek God’s blessing on the places where we live but to do so by bearing witness (in our lives) to His faithfulness: though our obedience to His commands and in the worship we offer. May we, like the saints before us, bear witness to another King and another Kingdom, and in and through our lives may that Kingdom come here ‘on earth as in heaven’.