Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Back when I was in college I heard that NBC was to air a new dramatic series titled The Book of Daniel. I was terribly excited, knowing that the Old Testament book spun a great story and I was intrigued, wondering how the makers of this program would capture both the more well-known incidents from the biblical book—the fiery furnace and the lion’s den and so forth—as well as the really weird bits, like Daniel’s dream of the four beasts and that interesting character, the Archangel Michael, whose first appearance is in Daniel in this morning’s Old Testament lesson.

Much to my chagrin, when the ultimately short-lived program aired, I discovered it was not about the book of Daniel at all, but about a pill-popping Episcopal priest named Daniel, his boozy wife, and their dysfunctional family, including Daniel’s father, a bishop who was having an affair with his female suffragan. Even if an unbalanced clergyman and his dysfunctional family might be interesting and troubling in real life, it makes for incredibly dull television, which is probably why it was canceled after five episodes.

If I had been head of programming at NBC, I think I would have gone to the biblical book of Daniel instead. It’s story is far more compelling, and ends with a note of hope, the sort of hope that seemed lacking from the priest’s family in the series.

Like many of the most hopeful tales, Daniel was paradoxically written in the context of desolation. At morning prayer the last few days we’ve begun reading through Maccabees, about how after the death of Alexander the Great the known world got divided up to his forebears, and by the 2nd Century B.C. the King Antiochus Epiphanes came to rule over Israel. Antiochus instituted a program of hellenization, conforming the customs of conquered peoples to the Greek standard. This included mandatory worship of Zeus rather than the God of Israel, and imprisonment or even death for those who failed to comply. Needless to say the Jews were not tickled with this state of affairs, and although a number gave into Antiochus’ pressure, a faithful remnant remained true to God despite certain persecution. A goodly number, despite the personal cost, stayed true to the words of the psalmist:

Their libations of blood I will not offer,*
nor take the names of their gods upon my lips.

It was in the context of this upset that the book of Daniel was written. It’s a funny little book, and in some ways out of place in the Old Testament. Sections of the book were written in Aramaic rather than biblical Hebrew, the only Old Testament book to use the more modern dialect. It was, you see, written for the people alive then to read. Daniel is neither straight prophecy nor standard history, like so many of the other books, but allegory, much like the New Testament book of Revelation.

The author of Daniel was most assuredly writing about the struggles of his people in the present, during the Greek occupation, but he placed the story in an older context, the days of the Babylonian captivity. Instead of Antiochus Epiphanes he wrote about Nebuchadrezzar and Belshazzar. The original audience’s present reality which was implied underneath the text would have been apparent to the faithful Jews suffering under the yoke of foreign rule, but it was not explicit enough to get the author or his readers into more trouble (just like, as you may know, John used coded language in Revelation in order to speak about the Romans without being explicit enough to get his readers crucified themselves).

And the similarities between Daniel and Revelation do not end with the fact that both are obscure and symbolic. Both books are written in the context of horrendous persecution, but both are among the most hopeful books in the bible. Revelation presents us with the vision of a new heaven and a new earth in which God has put all things rights. In the same way, Daniel presents a remarkably hopeful vision in the midst of a situation which would lead most to despair:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, [it says] some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

This is the first explicit mention in the bible of the Resurrection of the dead, the great hope which Jesus himself would define and enable. It was only in the midst of an apparently hopeless situation that the most hopeful message in the history of humanity was revealed.

So it is for so many of us. Christian mystics throughout the centuries have recognized that great hope and joy comes out of apparently hopeless situations. St. Teresa of Avila wrote about aridity, dry periods which seem always to precede spiritual breakthroughs; St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote about the twin experiences of desolation and consolation, the former being the precursor to the latter; and St. John of the Cross wrote of the “dark night of the soul”, a period of pain and fear which preceded his own spiritual awakening.

This is not to say that God causes pain. God did not will that the Jews should suffer under the yoke of the Babylonians and the Greeks, that early Christians should be put to death by Rome, that all the nasty experiences that we might suffer in our lifetime should have visited us. These are the effects of original sin and free will, not of a vindictive God. However, God can and does use those experiences as a means for revealing his glory and love. Just as Jesus said to his disciples in today’s Gospel: “do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come… This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” May we, then, recognize that in the midst of our own troubles, God is still at work, bringing about a new and better creation; let us pray for patience in the midst of these trials, knowing that at the end of every death comes the light of resurrection.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.