Sunday, 17 January 2021

Crushing Empires: A Sermon on Daniel 2:31-49

Our church is going through Daniel and I preached today. I couldn’t think of a decent title for the sermon, though, so I decided on something that is quasi-clickbait.

Daniel 2:31-49; Luke 20:9-18


Back in 1999, when Britney Spears topped the charts with ‘…Baby One More Time’, and a few months before Manchester United won the Treble, the Sunday Times printed a five-part supplement entitled Chronicle of the Future. This was mostly a light-hearted attempt at predicting what our lives would be like over the next fifty years, from the year 2000 to the year 2050. The Chronicle’s contributors were ‘scientists and experts’ whose ‘research, intuition and imagination . . . can help us look into the future’ (Week 1, p. 2).

Brilliant! Twenty-something Terry lapped all this kind of stuff up! So what were some of the predictions? Well, in the year 2000, toll booths would be introduced to the M1 motorway. In 2002, William Hague would become Prime Minister. In 2003, a nuclear civil war would destroy parts of Russia. And nearer to our own time, in 2012, scientists would create a human–chimp hybrid. Prince Harry’s son Stephen would be born in 2013. And in 2018, Nokia would release its Mediapad, ‘a computer’—and I quote—‘a computer that looks like paper but is a screen you can write on, dictate to, call up data on, make videocalls, then fold away’ (Week 2, pp. 24–25).

As far as I know, none of these things happened. But some of the predictions in the Chronicle weren’t quite so wide of the mark. The Chronicle foretold a massive terrorist attack in New York City, but for 2013 rather than 2001. The aforementioned Nokia Mediapad had its real-world counterpart long before 2018. And in 2015, says the Chronicle, a sexually transmitted disease originating in bats threatened to engulf the world. Well, we all know Covid-19 isn’t an STD, and there’s some dispute about its precise origins, but the word ‘pandemic’ does spring to mind. The Chronicle’s forecast of a ‘global plague’ (Week 2, p. 19) was set just a few years too early.

Predicting the future with any level of precision is difficult. There is a place for what’s known as ‘future studies’ or ‘futurology’, as such studies help governments and organisations extrapolate from current trends to plan ahead. And it’s not just governments and organisations who do this. I wrote this sermon on Friday fully expecting to preach it today, Sunday, even though at the time, on Friday, I couldn’t be one hundred per cent sure that Sunday, today, would actually come without event. If you’re listening to me now, then you know that everything worked out okay—unless, of course, you find my face disturbing, my voice grating, and my sermons over the top or lacking substance or too abstract. Anyway, my point is that predicting the future is a difficult thing to do because, if we’re honest, we’re not even sure what’s going to happen in the next five minutes. Not really.

And that’s where today’s reading from Daniel 2 comes in. Let me turn from the future a moment to reflect on the past—that is, let’s refresh our memories on what happened in our reading from Daniel 2 last week. Basically, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had a dream, didn’t know what it meant, and demanded all his magicians and enchanters and sorcerers, etc., tell him both the dream and its meaning. But none of them could do this—none of them, that is, apart from Daniel. Daniel, our hero, prayed to the God of heaven for help to discern the king’s dream and its interpretation. And when we left Daniel last week, he had just told Nebuchadnezzar that the God of heaven had revealed to him the mystery of the king’s dream.

So what was the dream and what was its interpretation? The king’s dream is not actually that difficult to outline: Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue made from different metals and, towards its bottom—or rather, at its feet—some clay as well. A stone not made ‘by human hands’ (Dan. 2:34) smashes into the statue: the statue disintegrates into nothingness, while the stone itself grows into a mountain filling the whole world.

Daniel’s interpretation isn’t particularly difficult to grasp, either. Essentially, the materials the statue is made from, or the different body parts they make up, represent four kingdoms or four kings, with the golden head standing for King Nebuchadnezzar himself. Eventually, a fifth kingdom comes along, symbolised by the stone, and destroys the previous kingdoms. This new kingdom is God’s kingdom and ‘shall stand forever’ (Dan. 2:44) over all the earth.

So describing the king’s dream and its meaning is not especially complicated. But here are some things I noticed while reading and thinking about them. First of all, as interesting as this dream and its interpretation are, nothing else really happens. Neither Nebuchadnezzar nor Daniel does anything with it: it’s just information. Information about the future, sure—but just information.

Second, some of the words and phrases used in Daniel 2, words and phrases such as ‘end of days’ in verse twenty-eight and ‘hereafter’ in verses twenty-nine and forty-five, don’t need to mean anything more technical than ‘in the future’ or ‘after this’ or perhaps ‘at the end of this particular period of history’. This means that the king’s dream isn’t necessarily some kind of account of what’s going to happen in the distant future or even at the end of time.

If this is true, then the dream seems to be more for Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel’s own time: the sixth century bc. Nebuchadnezzar is the statue’s head in the dream, and the second and third body sections—that is, the second and third kingdoms or kings—come after him. Some people believe the second and third kingdoms prophesied here are the Medo-Persian and Greek empires, both of which came ‘after’ Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire. But it’s also possible that these refer to the kings mentioned in Daniel chapters three to six, or even to Nebuchadnezzar’s immediate successors. The thing to note here is that other than identifying Nebuchadnezzar as the statue’s golden head, nothing else is explained in this level of detail—and neither Nebuchadnezzar nor Daniel seems bothered by this.

But what is the fourth kingdom? Some people believe this is Greece or even the Roman Empire; but without a clear identification of who or what even kingdoms two and three are, working out the fourth kingdom is difficult indeed. It is quite possible that this kingdom can stand for whatever period of time its hearers or readers happen to be in. This is suggested, perhaps, by the way the fourth kingdom is introduced in verse forty: ‘And there shall be a fourth kingdom’ rather than ‘after you’ (Dan. 2:39). Nothing is said about when this fourth kingdom will come, just that it shall come. And so the fourth kingdom could be the sixth-century bc when Daniel lived. It could be second-century Judea, when the Jewish people fought to preserve their traditions in Jerusalem. It could be Jerusalem in the first-century ad when Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans. And it could be the world of 2021: now—today!—with all its political corruption and poverty and discrimination and, of course, Covid-19. But this is the kingdom into which God’s everlasting kingdom is smashing and disintegrating.

You see, if we look closely at the whole of Daniel 2, we should see that the emphasis throughout is not on Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Nor is it on Daniel’s interpretation of the dream. There is no ‘practical application’ to be had from the dream. The emphasis is not on how we can know the future; rather, the emphasis is on the One who holds the future. In verses ten and eleven, Babylon’s magicians point out that only the gods can reveal and explain the king’s dream—and the gods aren’t going to do this any time soon. But Daniel’s God, the God of heaven, is not the gods of Babylon and does reveal the dream and its meaning to Daniel—and more than this, for Daniel informs Nebuchadnezzar that he wouldn’t even be king if it wasn’t for the God of heaven giving him everything he has, including his royal position. And Nebuchadnezzar recognises this, at least to an extent. The entire chapter is punctuated with references to God’s wisdom, to God’s power, to God’s sovereignty.

https://www.uncutmountainsupply.com/icons/of-saints/by-name/d-f/icon-of-the-holy-prophet-daniel-20th-c-english-1da25/
Thus the focus of Daniel 2 is not on the mysteries revealed by God but on the God who reveals mysteries. And this God who reveals mysteries is the same God who has set up and is setting up God’s kingdom even now. We don’t need to refer to the whole of our Gospel reading today, but just to latch onto the final verse about the stone that crushes ‘anyone on whom it falls’ (Luke 20:18b). Jesus self-identifies as the stone in Daniel 2, the stone that shatters kingdoms and deposes presidents and monarchs and leaders of all sorts. Jesus is the stone that smashes all the statues of the world, all the empires and political systems we have built up, all the ideologies we have concocted and bought into to justify our ways of life. Jesus is the stone that undermines and destabilises the foundations of this world, breaking and crushing everything that is corrupt and not of his kingdom. And why does Jesus do this? So that, through God’s Holy Spirit, and by the death and resurrection of Jesus, this world can be built anew on the foundation stone that is the risen Lord Jesus himself.

There is a challenge for all of us here: Will we trust God, the God of heaven, the God who reveals mysteries and holds the future in God’s hands: will we—will I—trust this God, the God made known in the risen Jesus and by the Spirit, wholeheartedly for our future and for the future of this world?

As I said earlier, predicting the future with precision is difficult. This time last year, I never thought that the rest of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 would be spent mostly at home with the occasional trip to Tesco. But that’s why we need to trust God and God alone for our future and not succumb to the latest conspiracy theories or prophecies about what’s around the corner. Trusting God wholeheartedly for our future is hard—I know that. It is for me, too. Trusting God is a daily challenge and a commitment. But we can trust God wholeheartedly for our future because God has guaranteed the future in the risen Lord Jesus, whose kingdom will never end. This is certain because God is trustworthy (cf. Dan. 2:45).

Blessed be the name of God from age to age, for wisdom and power are his. (Dan. 2:20)

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Presently Absent

According to my Facebook memories page, I wrote this eleven years ago today. I don’t recall exactly why I wrote it or why it’s only a Facebook memory rather than a blog post. Anyway, seeing as I’m not posting much at the moment on this blog, I thought I’d reproduce it here. Just keep in mind this is (apparently) eleven years old and I was probably aiming (unsuccessfully, in hindsight) for profundity! The photo is taken from a church in Luxembourg, but I forget precisely which one; I think it might have been from the Abbey of Echternach.

photo © Terry J. Wright, 2018

photo © Terry J. Wright, 2018


Advent is a season for waiting patiently for the Lord to come, to act. ‘Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.’ (Isaiah 64:4, niv). Scripture and liturgy together encourage us to reflect, to meditate, to pray, all the while using the time and space afforded by Advent wisely to anticipate God’s coming and action in the man Jesus of Nazareth.

But I struggle with this noblest, this most pious of attitudes, for I have difficulty focussing on the One who is to come. Instead, I focus on the One who is presently absent.

 

Presently absent. This is a curious phrase. It suggests that God is silent; that God is uninvolved and unconcerned; that God has withdrawn from God’s people and the world that God made. God is presently absent. But contained within the phrase is a glimmer of light, the faintest, occasional flicker of a single candle in the darkness of a night-time wilderness. God is presently absent, but soon – soon, God will be present.

 

Nonetheless, it takes only a zephyr nearly to extinguish that dim, distant flame. Every time I yearn for evidence that the Father has embraced me in his Son’s arms; every time I knock, knock, knock on heaven’s door and find its impenetrability a source of frustration; every time I sin a sin I’ve sinned before; the light dances its death throes, and the Spirit appears a spectator, another of the great cloud of witnesses that encourages from afar. But amazingly, even comfortingly, the light shines in the darkness but is not overcome by it.

 

Advent is a season for waiting for the Lord to come, to act; but I hesitate to include the qualifying patiently. The reason that Advent is a season for waiting is because God is presently absent. And this is where Scripture and liturgy together are vital, literally so, for maintaining my direction and sanity, as I enter the prayers of the longing impatient and make them my own. God knows it’s hard to wait for God, and that’s why the silence of Advent is a deafening cacophony of the discords of protest, lament and questions taken into God’s awesome symphony, the incarnation of God’s eternal Son, the man Jesus Nazareth.

 

Let all that I am wait quietly before God,

for my hope is in him. . . .

O my people, trust in him at all times.

Pour out your heart to him,

for God is our refuge.

Psalm 62:5, 8 (nlt)

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Loss and Crap: A Sermon on Philippians 3:1-16

Luke 9:18-27; Philippians 3:1-16

Then Jesus said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’ (Luke 9:23-25)

We’ve all heard these words before, I’m sure; but how should we hear them? What does it mean to save our life by losing it? What does Jesus mean when he talks about gaining the whole world but losing ourselves? And why does all this matter, anyway? Our reading from Philippians offers us some clues on how we could hear Jesus’s words today.

Let’s begin by looking at the language of gains and losses, which is found in both our readings. ‘Whatever gains I had,’ Paul writes, ‘these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that,’ Paul continues; ‘more than that, I regard everything—everything—as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Phil. 3:7-8). This language of gains and losses comes from the world of business and commerce. It conjures up images of balancing scales used to weigh items of different values to make a fair exchange. Paul’s idea is that he has loaded everything he holds of value on one side of the scales and then positions the risen Lord Jesus Christ on the other side. Which side of the scale plunges towards the tabletop? Which side flings its contents into the air because of the sheer weight and value of the other? You’d be right to think that the risen Lord Jesus far outweighs everything for Paul: the risen Lord Jesus outweighs everything Paul has, everything Paul is, everything Paul has ever done or achieved. In fact, we go on to read in Philippians that Paul regards everything as ‘rubbish’ (3:8)—a word we can translate as literal crap—so that he can focus on gaining Christ and having an intimate relationship with him. Paul sees what the risen Lord Jesus is worth and the value intimacy with him brings. Thus Paul is not afraid to lose absolutely everything if it means the scales tip in favour of Jesus.

This all sounds very pious, but putting it like this is a little vague and even corny: Of course we have to give up everything to follow Jesus! Who doesn’t know that? And so we need to look more closely at precisely what Paul regards as loss—and this is where things get interesting and challenge how we see ourselves.

First of all, let’s remember that Paul, at this point in his life, has lost his freedom: he is in prison because he just can’t stop going on and on about the risen Lord Jesus! Paul has also lost Epaphroditus, his ‘brother and co-worker and fellow soldier’ (2:25), whom he sent back to Philippi. He is about to lose Timothy, Paul’s ‘beloved and faithful child in the Lord’ (1 Cor. 4:17) as well. So even though Paul hoped for an imminent release from prison, at the time of his writing to the Philippians he was most definitely incarcerated and quite possibly suffering from the effects of near-isolation from his friends. These are the sorts of losses I’m sure we can all identify with at the moment, as the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions have made it almost impossible for us to carry on with our normal lives and meet with our nearest and dearest.

Paul also spells out his other losses; verses four to six:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:4-6)

We might be inclined to see Paul being arrogant here, but we should keep two things in mind before leaping to this conclusion: first, that all these things Paul mentions are exactly the things he now regards as loss and even crap; and second, that Paul wants to persuade the Philippian believers that his impressive credentials nonetheless make him worth hearing. But why does he need to do this?

Some people—Paul calls them ‘the dogs’, the ‘evil workers’, ‘those who mutilate the flesh’ (3:2)—some people were teaching the believers in Philippi to submit to certain Jewish practices in order to be fully integrated into God’s holy people. These practices included circumcision, which, if you recall, is the sign of the covenant God made for Abraham way back in Genesis 17. And as circumcision was an important identity marker for Jews, it should come as no surprise to hear that many of the earliest Christians who had been born into Judaism sought to circumcise non-Jewish believers in Jesus of Nazareth. Through the act of circumcision, non-Jewish believers in Jesus would find themselves welcomed into God’s covenant people for sure. But Paul is not convinced by this kind of theology: non-Jewish believers such as the Philippians did not need to adopt the practices and customs of a different ethnic people in order to be part of God’s covenant people. And why? It’s because the risen Lord Jesus is enough!

Look again at what Paul says in verses four to six. Notice first of all that Paul highlights his heritage and ethnicity. He was circumcised on the eighth day exactly in accordance with Jewish practices. He was not a convert to Judaism but a Jew by birth to Jewish parents and part of the tribe of Benjamin. But despite all this, Paul is convinced that his heritage and ethnic identity, as well as everything these entail, count as loss compared to the gain of his intimacy with the risen Lord Jesus.

Notice that Paul lessens the importance of his past decisions and achievements as well. As a Pharisee, Paul would have been well-educated and knowledgeable about many things relating to the Law of Moses and the practices of Judaism. He also claims to have kept the Law of Moses and probably sought to make sure other (shall we say?) less enthusiastic Jews kept the Law as well. Lest we miss this point, we should also note that Paul would have chosen to join the Pharisees and chosen the particular path of righteousness he walked. Paul’s choices were for him good choices, even though for us they look like a kind of religious fundamentalism. But Paul’s point is that despite all the effort he put into his religious development, into his education, into his lifestyle choices—all these things, along with his Jewish heritage and ethnicity, amount to no more than loss or crap compared to his intimacy with the risen Lord Jesus.

In short, then, Paul is saying that everything he had, everything he was, every he had done and achieved—his heritage and ethnicity, his education, his piety—everything is loss, everything is crap, compared to knowing the risen Lord Jesus and experiencing the intimacy he now finds with him. Paul’s identity is now in the risen Jesus; nothing else has any value in comparison. And Paul is saying all this to persuade the believers in Philippi that they should stick with the good news about the risen Jesus and not submit to circumcision or any other practice or custom that might cause them to stumble in their faith.

At this point, we might just say this is Paul being his usual intense self—but I can’t disentangle what Paul says here from what Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus says, ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it’ (Luke 9:24); Paul says, ‘I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Phil. 3:8). We have already seen what this meant for Paul—but what does it mean for us? For me, at least, this means regarding my education, my Whiteness, my gender identity; whatever skills and abilities I have, whatever choices I have made, whatever I have done or achieved; anything and everything that has formed my identity I must come to regard as loss, as crap, compared to knowing the risen Lord Jesus. The point emphatically is not that these things are unimportant, but that their worth is limited and can become idols that need toppling. What we see in Philippians 3, then, is Paul encouraging us to reframe and re-evaluate everything we have, everything we are, everything we’ve ever done or achieved—every single thing!—in light of the risen Lord Jesus and the intimacy we now share with him.

There is much more that could be said about today’s passage from Philippians if we were to dig deeper into the details, but instead I’ll conclude with a final observation that hopefully builds on what I’ve already said. One of the significant matters dealt with in both Philippians 3 and in our Gospel reading is the matter of human identity and what or who defines it. If what I have said about these passages is in any way truthful, then as people who claim to follow Jesus alone, it is Jesus alone—and more specifically, the risen Lord Jesus himself and not our impoverished ideas about Jesus—who defines us. God’s Holy Spirit breaks down the identities we have made for ourselves and derived from others in order to remodel us into the image of the risen Jesus. This is why the Christian life is often a struggle and sometimes even a life of suffering: the Spirit’s act of conforming us to the image of the risen Jesus dismantles piece by piece the false and fragile identities we have received and built over time. But despite the pain, it’s worth it. Listen again to Paul:

This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (3:13-14)

Paul says here that the Christian life is like a race where dedication and discipline help you towards the finish line where the risen Jesus himself is waiting with open arms to welcome you. And the more you run towards Jesus, step by aching step, but with eyes fixed firmly on him, the more you will want to run towards Jesus, and, by God’s Spirit, the more you will become like Jesus; like him, having lost your life, only to have saved it and regained it through him.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Christ Among the Disciplines: Online Conference, 18–25 November 2020

I’m sure most people who’d be interested in a conference like this have already heard about it and probably signed up, but I’d like to share the details just in case. Note well that you don’t actually have to watch the sessions ‘live’, either: delegates will have access to video recordings of each one.

https://www.christamongthedisciplines.com/