Texts: Daniel 7, John 18
This weekend, Gibraltar was removed as an obstacle to the Brexit deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Spain agreed to proposed terms of self-determination for Gibraltar, and the European Parliament was free to vote on the terms which the May government will present at Westminster.
‘Solid as the Rock of Gibraltar’ is an old phrase, referring to that ‘cork in the bottleneck of the Mediterranean’, the fortress in the Straits of Gibraltar between Europe and North Africa. From 711CE, when Islam ousted the Goths, it was known as Fort Tariq till the Spanish empire expelled Muslims (and Jews) and held the rock for250 years – then the British empire held it until now, or soon!
Nobody recalls the imperial Spanish Bull, except as the reason Latin American migrants at Trump’s wall are Hispanic. As children, we sang ‘Rule Britannia’ but the British Lion, still roaring, is losing its teeth. The Russian Bear, thought mortally wounded in 1989, still has claws. The American Eagle screams - but we all know it’s the Chinese Dragon that’s rising. You all nodded at all that.
We don’t have much cognitive dissonance in dealing with those imperial symbols and shorthand names. We raised kids with C.S. Lewis’ Aslan the lion, and J.K. Rowling has franchised out her brand into ‘Fantastic Beasts’. Repetition makes these images vivid – our soloist sang ‘Goodnight, Mooon’ after prayers, with perhaps less moral edification, but more familiarity for the next generation.
This Sunday, the end of the religious year, celebrates ‘Christ the King’ – then next week, we begin Advent expecting Christ’s coming – again. The highest icon in every Orthodox church dome over the altar is ‘Christ Pantocrator’.
Every Reformed confession of faith affirms ‘God the Father Almighty’, and
‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ who ‘sits at the right hand of God’.
If God’s so omniscient, omnipotent, why do the wicked prosper? If Christ is King now, why do the innocent suffer? My United Church colleagues generally duck the issue by ignoring this ‘Reign of Christ’, and writing creeds to the effect that
‘Jesus is just a guy’. We are all equal, well-meaning, and sit in circles singing ‘Kum Bai Ya’ at Inshallah interfaith concerts.
I owed you, and tried to deliver in a few minutes, a retrieval of the tradition. Our ancestors in the faith were not stupid. They affirmed God’s rule, while recognizing clearly what was no longer Eden, and not yet Paradise, the real world of our existence. They visualized transpersonal realities, not simply individuals who are blank slates then consumers of things.
We were reflecting today on social, political, economic, ideological realities, things ‘bigger than me, smaller than God’. These are our ‘ologies’, ‘isms’, ethnicities, ideologies, empires, nations, leagues and teams, brands or logos. They are signifiers for entities that do not exist in the modern empirical sense, but absolutely influence and can control our lives, individually and collectively.
The bible construes and constructs those transpersonal realities as beings, entities, enchanting our universe. Our modern disenchantment of scientific reason and modern liberal individualism can’t handle these truths. As our kids re-enchant their universe with Marvel figures and Harry Potter, we remain ignorant – not stupid, but schooled in a ‘multiversity’ no longer a ‘university’.
We once thought more deeply, in formal rather than instrumental reason, about meaning and purpose, the shape of things to come. The ‘eschatalogical’ diction of ultimates, or the ‘apocalyptic’ language of conflict among penultimates, is Greek to us! Marx objected in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’: ‘the philosophers until now simply describe to world – the point is to change it!’ Foucault challenged our institutional constructions – Georg Gadamer invited us to re-enchant it all.
We’re reading the Twelve, or Minor Prophets these days online. Daniel may be a Major Prophet – but not a literary one – inspired like Ezekiel who knows him, we’d likely have diagnosed both with PTSD and locked them up, medicated and labeled with Foucault’s ‘madness’. Jewish Tanakh places Daniel in Wisdom.
The text itself explicitly places itself in Babylon, in the mouth of Daniel. In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar rules, and by chapter 7, Belshazzar does. The timeline almost works for early exile from Jerusalem to that great city, near what we know as Baghdad, in the mid-500’s BCE.
As I do with Torah or ‘Former Prophets’, I weigh the claimed author more lightly than the implied authorship and editorial process, in conversation with audiences over centuries before this document locks into its current form. There are Greek references that would be anachronistic in the 500’s, and some matters best understood in relation to the Maccabbean crises of 164BCE.
This kind of talk is about the shape of things as they were, are, or are to come: like the ‘Spanish Bull, British Lion, Russian Bear, American Eagle, China Dragon.’
Whenever and wherever these visions originated, in the mind of one person or in successive communities, people for centuries could decode them as easily as you can use our contemporary imperial symbols:
Beast #1, the lion with wings, is Babylon, though the loss of wings might be in the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, or in imperial decline soon after
Beast #2, the bear with unequal sides, an alliance of Medes and Persians, the latter dominant, feasting on Turkey, Babylon, and Egypt in turn
Beast #3, the leopard with the 4 head and 4 wings, is the Greek empire. Alexander the Great drinks a bad bowl of wine in Babylon in 325BCE, and his great empire is split 4 ways by his successors:
Lysimachus Thrace-Asia Minor (Turkey)
Antipater Macedonia - Greece
Beast #4 in this vision is different from the others, and worse, with 10 horns, 3 horns, teeth that talk. Ever since this text circulated, people have been looking for the beast – just as Christians have watched for the beast of Revelation.
The ‘Ancient of Days’, the elder with the white woolly hair, must be visualized as an old black man whose afro and beard has turned white and contrasts with his dark skin. This is the one worthy to identify the ‘Son of Man’ come to rule and replace this series of beastly empires, culminated in the feared Beast #4.
Our ancestors in the faith were not stupid. They were schooled, but not in our ‘multi-versities’, as George Grant lamented our glorified trade schools. They struggled with recognizing the shape of things, stuff bigger than us, smaller than God. They had no idolatrous illusions of universal suffrage democracy, rather than rule by money or birth. They were not liberal reformers.
Our ancestors in the faith were engaged with the 4th gospel, and the Johannine literature including Revelation. They knew the risk of a spiritualized Gnostic version of Christianity, elitist and of no earthly use. They knew of its conflicts and misconstructions with the contemporary Roman empire, and put words in the mouth of Pilate and of Jesus to make a case about authority.
What is the nature of power? ‘The capacity to effect or resist change’ (Alinsky). ‘What you choose for yourself, you choose for all’. (Cohn-Bendit) National sins of pride are different in kind from individual sins of pride (Niebuhr)
Jose Porfiro Miranda wrote ‘Being and Messiah’ as a commentary on John from a liberation theology perspective. One of his chapters is headed ‘The Mistake Known as Christianity’. He laments that we have relegated the eschatological language and the apocalyptic conflicts to the future, or to the skies, rather than hearing them as calls to choice in the world in the present.
The ‘Reign of Christ’ is not simply a reassuring fairy tale or child’s lullaby like ‘Goodnight Moon’. Re-enchanting the universe is disturbing, like the fables of Aesop or Grimm were in their time, and the prophets in theirs. It’s a call to choose loyalties: which side of the fence are you on, and who’s there with you?
The ‘Big Idea’ today came from an old Pontius’ Puddle cartoon, where a character muses: ‘I wonder why God allows so much suffering and injustice, and doesn’t do anything to fix it, or at least show what side God is on?’ The other character replies: ‘I bet God wonders the same thing about you!’
Empires rise and fall – as solid as the rock of Gibraltar! They are bigger than us but smaller than God. Our job is not to run them, or claim too much for the extent to which we speak on behalf of any transpersonal entities ourselves. Our job is to cooperate, to suffer meanwhile, with some passion and compassion, pending the promised vindication of the ultimate, beyond the penultimate.
What word do you have for our hearts, O God, give us ears to hear!
(Later today, somebody pointed out the ‘ear-worm’ they took away today:
“Solid As A Rock” by Ashford and Simpson – before or after they sold it to GM – Chevy trucks… )