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.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)