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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Tell the Truth About the Iron Teeth

This sermon was first preached in Boyd Chapel on Shaw University Divinity School's campus on Saturday, November 12, 2016.  A hermeneutical strategy I'm using here is to take a new look at the heroic figure of Daniel and the confounding images of his visions with a demystifying and humanizing lens.  What if Daniel is a young adult person not so different from us, with real world anxieties and problems as a refugee, an enslaved person from a minority ethnic group? What if Daniel is a person who has complicated vivid dreams (like my sister Jerene and my daughter Naomi), and who in addition to that receives revelation from God through some of them?  My strategy is for the listener, or you the reader, to be able to find yourself close to or even identified with the character Daniel.  Maybe it worked--you be the judge.

Daniel 7:1-20
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.
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.
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."
Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped what was left with its feet; and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and concerning the other horn that came up, and to make room for which three of them fell out—the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke arrogantly, and that seemed greater than the others.

Isaiah 65:17-25
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
  the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
  for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
   and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
  and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
  or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
  or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
  and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
  they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
  they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
  and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
  or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD—
  and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
  while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
  the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
   but the serpent--its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
  says the LORD.

“Tell the Truth About the Iron Teeth”

            I have rarely taught or preached about Daniel.  I grew up in an age and location that overused the book of Daniel.  At every turn, we heard traveling end-times preachers, quoting text after text from Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, filling our minds with horrible images to scare the hell out of us.  Literally.
            Their specialty was to link the images to very specific current events.  One symbol was Russia.  Another symbol was the Chinese Red Army.  Another symbol was the European Common Market.  Some images were nuclear weapons.  They loved to try to count up the numerologies and prove that whatever year we were living in was being predicted in the Bible. They loved grossing us out and scaring us with the idea of blood flowing so deep it was up to the horses’ bellies.
            I eventually theologized my way out of that terroristic preaching.  It was kind of like the boy crying wolf.  How many preachers are going to tell me exactly how history must happen before I start doubting whether they have even a thimbleful of knowledge of God?  How is it that in the story of God’s calling of Israel, it seems like America is turning out to be God’s heroic champion?  Too much sensationalism led eventually, to borrow an image from Daniel, to the handwriting on the wall—they didn’t know what they were talking about.
            So I have avoided Daniel mostly.  I certainly know the stories and remember many of the images.  Yet, it has seemed to me to be a minor book among many giants, and I still hold that to be mostly true.  Even with that judgment, I was drawn to this text as it came up in the lectionary this month.  No small contributor to that interest came because my pastor, Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Jr., took us into this text last Sunday.  I freely admit that some of what I will say today is shaped by his exposition of the text, as I give it my own slant and perspective.  But I also want to bring to your attention this Sunday’s text from Isaiah 65:17-25.  They are two parts of a single story about this season at the end of the Christian year. 
In these final Sundays, the texts point us to the Reign of Christ, our one true ruler and savior.  That theme is highly relevant in an age of many unworthy rulers and false saviors.  At the midpoint of reading these two texts is a young man shaking with fear.  He has seen in a vision the unfolding of horrific events, monsters destroying whole nations, and that last one seems especially arrogant and cruel, and it has teeth of iron.
I would love to work this text in my usual detail, but we have to get out of here in time for your next class.  So I am going to hold back and try to hit the highlights. 
Daniel is a seer, a dreamer of visions, and he is a devoted worshiper who does not neglect his time of prayer.  He is also a refugee, a forced immigrant, who has been enlisted into forced labor in a high level job under the emperor.  Local people resent him, and they look for ways to do him harm.  Since his youth, he has had a commitment to remember who his momma and daddy are.  He shows an unusual discipline to hold to living the way they raised him.  But we should not be surprised that this vision disturbed him.  He had already survived a horrific invasion and destruction of his homeland.  He was now living among enemies under constant surveillance. 
He didn’t dress, talk, or eat like the people around him. They probably thought his food smelled bad.  They resented his speaking another language.  They thought the way he wore his hair and clothes was an affront.  The least harmful interactions were the side eye and sneer.  Many were outwardly insulting.  People threatened him.  He knew his life was always on an edge.
When he woke up from this dream he was disturbed.  In fact, he was already shaking while he was a character in the dream.  Four great beasts symbolizing four great empires.  The winged lion of Babylon who rose up and walked on two feet like a human.  Then came the bear of Medea, whose usual teeth were not scary enough, but had to have three additional tusks in that mouth to devour many bodies of the nations.  A winged leopard of Persia had four heads, four sets of teeth to devour its prey, and it had dominion over everything.
Those were enough.  They represent the empires Daniel himself would experience.  Babylon would soon fall, and the Medes and Persians would follow one upon the other.  The young man Daniel would grow to be an old man as a captive servant of these conquering empires. 
I’m your professor, so I need to take an aside here to teach.  Some scholars find the book of Daniel to be closely linked to the era of the Maccabean revolt, and they associate the stories of Daniel and the three Hebrew children as exemplary of the discipline the holy rebels will need to overthrow their Greek overlords.  From this point of view, the stories of Daniel are being told by those who look back to his time as an inspiration and guide.  That would mean the writer already knows the history of the four empires, including the Greek empire which came after the book of Daniel comes to an end.  It’s a reasonable theory and one you should study and think about.  But overall, it does not change the impact of what we are examining in this text today.  Whether a vision of future events or a retelling of past events, the theological import is the same.
That fourth monster is almost beyond imagining.  A dragon, crashing its feet as it moves, destroying everything in its path.  It has teeth of iron and ten horns.  The horns start doing some funny stuff, and it really does seem like a dream when a horn on the dragon starts talking.  If I had the time, I would talk with you about Antiochus Epiphanes and the abomination of desolation.  I guess you will have to go look that up in a reputable scholarly work of biblical commentary and criticism.
The parade of monsters is finally interrupted by the appearance of great thrones, and a great, Ancient being enters wearing bright white clothes and having hair all big and wooly.  The throne, well I guess it’s a throne, is made out of fire, and it’s on wheels.  A kind of river of fire flows out, and all around are thousands and ten thousands serving this great one.  Apparently, they are gathering to cast judgment, and the books of the courtroom are being prepared.  The judgment is quick and severe.  The last, most terrifying and loudmouthed monster is destroyed.  The other three monsters lose all their power and dominion.
This is one of those long dreams.  It still isn’t over.  A giant cloud bank is coming, and on it is someone.  It’s someone that looks like a human being.  A plain old human being.  No monster.  No fire chair on wheels.  No giant teeth or horns.  A human figure is riding on the clouds to stand before the Ancient One.  All the power over all things, including all that was taken from the four beasts, gets handed to this human one.  And Daniel learns that this human one will retain dominion forever.
In the dream, all these events had Daniel shook up.  He was troubled in his spirit.  He was terrified by the visions.  So he went to one of the many attendants of the Ancient One to ask what in the heavens was going on.  Especially, Daniel was worried about that fourth beast with iron teeth and ten horns and the new talking horn with eyes.
In this vision of Daniel we get a glimpse into the imagination of another era.  How did they depict great evil and violence?  Huge, powerful, malformed, superpowered beasts, monsters leaving a swath of destruction and death, even eating people, as they move across the land.  For older ones here, it may remind us of the early monster movies about King Kong or Godzilla.  If Daniel were dreaming in our day, he might imagine a giant transformer machine fighter, or a hoard of zombie killers, or vampire armies.  In either era, we find human beings overwhelmed and terrified by the extent of evil and destruction that can occur in our world.  Emperors and armies are depicted as giant monstrous beasts in Daniel’s vision.
There is good reason to display evil in graphic terms.  People’s lives are destroyed by the monsters of lynching.  Mass killings are routine across our country.  Warfare over oil wells and other natural resources bring saturation bombing of towns, improvised explosive devices, and even bombs strapped to the bodies of young people.  Bombs in city streets destroy human bodies and send body parts in all directions.  Drones emerge from nowhere and blow up weddings and hospitals with their targeted missiles.  The violence of conquest and counter-conquest is brutal and monstrous.
Daniel lived on edge in a world of competing empires.  The fall of Jerusalem was one small moment in a centuries-long battle for regional domination.  Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon would soon come under domination of a new world order with succession of destroying armies from Medea, Persia, and Greece.  Off on the distant horizon loomed the most consuming power of all—Rome.  But they aren’t part of Daniel’s vision.
Such strong language to depict evil is not confined to Daniel.  The New Testament brings much of this language into regular use through Paul’s theological depiction of the forces of evil.  We have let bad theology take the iron teeth out of the very real, material evil that devours people’s lives.  Empires and their military might are devastating powers.  The worship of violence as saving power and its ritual enactment of dehumanizing and killing the enemy fuels the fervor of warfare.  Monstrous thirst and lust for blood feeds the sacrosanct idolatrous gods of nationhood.  Paul spoke in ways that should be clear to us—evil becomes structurally embodied in thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, and authorities.  These are words for the ways that human beings organize power in their societies.  But we empty them of this meaning and try to turn them into invisible spirits secretly teasing at our heartstrings.  Thrones are the seats of rulers—rulers who can become tyrants.  Principalities are the regions controlled by princes, who may be despotic and murderous.  Authorities of all sorts exercise domination in our world.
God has made humanity to live orderly lives, and structures of authority are part of God’s good creation.  But there is no assumption in biblical theology that every political structure and every existing ruler is put in place by the hand of God.  Despotic rulers are the enemies of God’s peace and God’s people.  Violent systems of death and domination are opposing God’s purposes for humanity and creation.  Just because someone got appointed king or got elected president does not mean that God put that person there.  God leaves freedom for humanity to seek our own way, and far too often we choose to ignore God’s ways and pursue worldly power and domination rather than shalom and beloved community.  The rise of great and monstrous evil is a turning away from God and a distortion of humanity’s creation and purpose.
Daniel’s vision tells us more than about the dragon with iron teeth.  A crucial element of the vision appears also in the unexpected and vague character who appears at the end.  With so much wild monstrosity coming wave after wave, there appears an image of ultimate power in the Ancient One.  Then, one “like a son of man,” really one who looked like anybody or nobody, a human person, showed up.  Somehow, no doubt equally puzzling to Daniel, all the power and authority of all of these deadly empires, all their territory and peoples, all the language groups and ethnicities, came to be under this nondescript, plain human being.  No one is excluded.  No group is tossed out because of the tint of their skin or the curl of their hair.  No language is deemed unofficial, no artificial boundary is honored, no group is classified as an alien or refugee.  One ruler embraces and welcomes all.  And the new dominion of this one would not be quickly replaced by the next monster.  According to the vision, it would be forever.  Nothing could destroy or defeat this human being’s rule granted by the Ancient One.
Daniel’s vision of a meek and lowly ruler, one with not remarkable features or fancy superpowers, reveals an insight into the work of God that is rooted in the long history of God’s presence in the world and calling of Israel.  God’s election is often surprising in using the less admired person, the smaller or weaker or younger one, even the outsider.  God turns the tables on human ambitions for power and honor.  From Jacob to Joseph to Rahab to Ruth to David, no one would have scripted God’s plan in the way God did it.  Choosing an enslaved people to be the sign of God in the world is not what we would have anticipated. 
Did Daniel have access to the scroll of Isaiah?  Scholars claim that the Book of Isaiah had become one of the most used sacred writings among the Jews in the era of the second temple.  If some of the later portions of Isaiah were still being composed in exile, then the ideas and themes of the book may have been familiar.  The themes of the servant songs of Isaiah show some kinship to this vision of Daniel.  Isaiah 53 says of the servant of God, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”  A human person who does not stand out in any particular way.
So in all his experience of tenuous existence and anxiety under imperial power, Daniel probably also had a sense of divine activity to bring an end to the evil machinations of human domination systems.  The Babylonian empire was already showing signs of its demise.  Other empires in the distance were threatening to rise in conquest.  The vision drives home the theological understanding that humanity’s self-made gods are short-lived.  Their days are numbered.  Their compromises with injustice, their inherent viciousness, their deals made with the devil will ultimately bring them down under their own weight of sin.  As the North African theologian Augustine describes in his great volume, The City of God, empires undergo constant revolutions and coups d’etat as one band of robbers comes and defeats another band of robbers to take control.  Evil crops up in human society like weeds, and any show of weakness by one regime will likely be met by an upstart challenger.
The vision offers hope that God will bring an end to this churning and grinding of humanity in the clash of empires.  God will judge the evil that nations and powerful people do.  Their destructive greed will come to an end.  And the one who will replace them all shares with all of us the weakness of a human being.  Through the marvelous and frail human creation, this treasure in earthen vessels, God will bring salvation.  What a wonder!  What a joke on the mighty!  What a flip-flop of human expectation!  What a reversal of all our plans!
Human beings and human societies love power.  We love to follow the toughest football team, the fightingest hockey team, the homerun hitting and strikeout pitching baseball team, the three-point shooting and dunking basketball team.  We admire powerful ships and airplanes, and stand in fearful awe before tanks and cannons.  But it is a misguided awe and admiration.  No giant bear or winged leopard will win in the end.  The iron-toothed dragon, able to chew up even the toughest things in its path, will be put down and replaced by one in appearance as a human being.  A soft-skinned, furless, armorless, easily fatigued, eminently killable creature is the one God elevates to rule in virtue and love.  What a strange and wondrous and mighty God we serve!
Daniel does not have much else to say about what is coming.  The shock of his crazy dream ends with the vision of the human being on the clouds.  If we stretch a bit to look at this week’s text from the prophet Isaiah, we get another imagistic piece of the story of Christ’s Reign.  For Daniel, it is a dramatic reversal, an unexpected elevation of the one who seems least likely to hold dominion and authority, after the world’s all-star team of organized evil does their worst.  Daniel doesn’t try to ask what will be next, or what it will be like.  Maybe he scared himself awake.  The end of the chapter says he could not get it out of his mind.
Isaiah 65:17-25 describes another prophetic vision of a new creation.  The world of violence and domination will pass away.  Where there was destruction and sorrow, there will be joy and flourishing.  Those horrible effects of war, oppression, and poverty will end.  Children won’t die of starvation.  The elderly will see their days extended and enhanced.  The vulnerable are precious to God, and God will act on their behalf.
Moreover, the new creation will bring justice.  People will build houses and grow food in their gardens.  But the emperor or terrorist won’t steal or destroy it.  They will live in the houses they build and eat the food they produce.  They won’t have to fear to bring children into the world.  God is making things right so that we may live with hope and joy.  It will be a time of peace.  The previously monstrous and scary beasts will become peaceful.  Wolves and lambs will play and rest together—this is not a wolf from the horrifying world of Daniel’s dream.  A lion that is hungry will eat vegetation rather than kill.  It is the opposite of the world that Daniel saw coming to an end.  No need for teeth of iron in a world of justice and peace.  None will hurt or destroy.
I’m drawn here to the medieval Latin liturgy and it's recognition of how prophecies like this one in Isaiah anticipate the incarnation:

O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum (Oh, great mystery and wonderful sacrament)
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio! (that animals should see the newborn Lord placed in a manger!)

Isaiah proclaims to the returning exiles that they can hope for a restoration, a better life than even before, if they will unite themselves to God’s ways.  Jesus, deeply influenced in his theology by the book of Isaiah, embraces this vision of a new creation in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  Moreover, Jesus adopts as his own path Isaiah’s depiction of the servant of God, the lowly one who cares for those who suffer and joins them in their struggle.  One has to wonder whether Jesus intentionally linked these two prophetic images when he chose the name son of man or human being to describe himself in his public ministry.  Mortal one, one like us, one with appearance as a human being—that is the one that the Ancient of Days elevates to the highest glory, honor, and power.
With Daniel, we find ourselves living in this in-between place.  Around us we see organized evil of monstrous proportions.  Hate, division, and killing are the coin of the realm.  We live in the world’s most powerful nation, an imperial power with client states and manufacturing colonies all over the world.  What sort of beast would Daniel have seen if the USA were in his dream?  An eagle with the body of a grizzly bear?  A panther with wings of a vulture?  It’s pointless to speculate, but the truth we must recognize is that we live in a nation destined to pass away.  This empire will fall, as all other have, under the weight of its own violence, its genocide, its weapons of mass destruction, and its constant warfare.  Demagogues rise up to stir the base passions of a nation built on white supremacy and slavery.  Hateful men laud their own debasing behavior toward women.  Before the throne of the Ancient One, every tyrant will be judged, found wanting, and brought down.  The momentary victories of unjust powers and dominions will ultimately find their end under the justice of God. 
In the meantime, we wait under the shadow of empire.  We seek the peace of the city where we live, that in its welfare we will also find peace.  We speak truth to power and say, “No,” to the unjust demands of empire.  We live as resident aliens, not of this world, but loving those in the world where, by God’s grace, we take another breath today.  And we rest in the hope of a new creation.  Our destiny is not destruction, but houses, gardens, joyous life together in a land of justice and peace.  Come, Lord Jesus.  May we see your peace and justice break forth anew, even in our lifetimes.  And may we walk in your way of love and care and standing with and for the ones the world has cast aside, as the songwriter Rick Elias says,

For now, we live on these streets,
Forbidding and tough,
Where push always comes to shove,
And it’s said, “Love’s never enough.”
Where a prophet in rags gave hope to a fearful world.
No injustice, no heart of darkness
Will keep this voice from being heard.
He was a man of no reputation,
And by the wise, considered a fool
When he spoke about faith and forgiveness
In a time when the strongest arms ruled.
But this man of no reputation
Loves the weak with relentless affection.
And he loves all us poor in spirit, just as we are.
He was a man of no reputation.

One like a human being, like a son of man, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, homeless and with no place to lay his head, one you might pass on the street and never notice.  He is our salvation—whom then shall we fear?  If God is for us, who can stand against us?  This one truly reigns, and in Jesus Christ, and in no one else, we place our trust on this day and forevermore.  Amen.

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