Here’s a bit from a sermon given at All Saints Sunday, in respect of Daniel 7.
“I said earlier that I wanted to take my starting point from the lectionary readings, but I haven’t really gotten beyond our first text, the Epistle reading! So how about that gruesome reading from Daniel? To be honest, the lectionary reading actually says: read only the first three and the last three verses – but I made you listen to the whole 18 verses!
I thought it would be good to do so because I am not sure that you can really get the point of the text without the long part on the trial of the four beasts. For those four beasts are described in detail to re-create that sense of sheer terror that the visionary prophet has seen. Just think of what he says of the 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.”
In his own time, people would have recognised the links to the myths of the olden days, of Leviathan and Behemoth and other great monsters of the days of chaos. And many interpreters today think, too, that these four monsters are not just that, but also representations of four great enemies if Israel: these are the kingdoms, the powers, that have destroyed Israel and killed its people.
So the text speaks of this monster-show, this ancient horror story, not to entertain, but to teach. This is not idle escapist entertainment: no, it reminds the audience of that fundamental uncertainty and fear that they experience in their lives. This is a tale of reality. And part of that reality is powerlessness: “my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me”.
Yet all of this, this re-creation of the reality of this terror in our text, is just leading up to that simple final verse: “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.”
So by the end of the text from Daniel, we are suddenly confronted with hope. That is what this is all about: the text wants to give hope in the face of unspeakable terror – for the holy ones, the saints, shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever. In the end, this vision says, it is the faithful who will persevere. It is not the violence and killing, greed and destruction of the empires of this world that holds ultimate power – ultimately, it God, who invests it in those who have kept the faith.
It is this theme of hope that also offers the key to our gospel text. Not surprisingly, perhaps, because both of them are written in an eschatological key. Now the point of eschatology is not the ‘last days’ as such. That is one of the basic things misunderstood in today’s fundamentalist fantasies supposedly based on the Book of Revelation. The point of talking about the ‘last days’ in the NT is that those ‘last days’ are already breaking into our reality. The ultimate reality of the kingdom of God, better translated: the rule of God, that ultimate reality throws its light into our present reality already. It is that which gives us hope; it is that which allows us to keep on living in our times. It is that, to speak personally, that makes me get up in the morning, rather than jump out of the window.”