A Son of Man
14/01/2007 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
Do you ever find yourself thinking life would be easier if you weren’t a Christian’?
E.g., if you weren’t a Christian, you’d avoid certain fears. The fear of school-friends calling you the God Squad (and worse) – which happened to me and I know happens to some of you in CYFA. Or the fear, as a university Christian Union, of the Student Union trying to ban you from campus (as has happened in other places). Or the fear of our laws and police becoming anti-Christian - e.g., a retired Christian couple recently complained to their council about its promotion of homosexuality, and were investigated by the police.
And if you weren’t a Christian, from one point of view, you’d also avoid those feelings of futility that come from being in a minority and feeling that any influence you try to have is neutralised by the overwhelming non-Christian culture around. E.g., you’ll be tempted to think your efforts are futile as the only Christian student trying to influence the Freshers’ Week committee or the student newspaper. Or as the only doctor in your practice who won’t prescribe the morning-after pill. Or as a teacher, when for every Christian assembly you do, your colleagues do ten misleading, multi-faith ones. Or working for an organisation where you disagree profoundly with some of its values and activities. Or working for change in a country where you see the law-makers becoming more anti-Christian.
Well Daniel, whose book we’re studying on Sunday nights, felt more sharply than most of us ever will the fears and the feelings of futility that come from being a believer in an anti-God world. And God inspired his book to help all believer ever since face that situation. So would you turn in the Bible to Daniel 1. This time last year, we studied Daniel 1 to 6. You’ll see the NIV Bible translator’s heading to chapter 1 is ‘Daniel’s training in Babylon.’ Daniel was one of God’s Old Testament (OT) people who were exiled when God allowed the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to invade his people as a judgement. Now turn over to chapter 2 – you’ll see that’s headed ‘Nebuchadnezzar’s dream’. God enables Daniel to interpret a dream the king has, and as a result look at 2.48:
48 Then the king placed Daniel in a high position [in the Babylonian government] (2.48)So Daniel knew the feelings of futility of working for a boss whose values and activities he profoundly disagreed with. Turn over to chapter 3 and you’ll see it’s headed, ‘The image of gold and the fiery furnace.’ Nebuchadnezzar now sets up a false god and makes it the state-enforced religion: refuse to participate and you die by burning. And three of Daniel’s fellow-exiles refuse. Look at 3.16:
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." (3.16-18)And God does in fact miraculously save them. Look on to chapter 4, headed ‘Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a tree.’ Daniel interprets another dream that says that, like cutting down a tree, God is going to humble Nebuchadnezzar for his arrogant, anti-God way of life - and then restore him when he acknowledges God. Which happens – and Nebuchadnezzar becomes a more God-respecting ruler, if not actually a believer. But look at chapter 5, v1: Next comes King Belshazzar, who’s far more arrogant and anti-God than Nebuchadnezzar ever was, so things get even worse. But he gets assassinated at the end of chapter 5, and, chapter 6, v1, Darius comes next as ruler. He promptly outlaws Biblical faith on pain of death; Daniel refuses to give up his faith; he’s thrown to the lions but saved as miraculously as his friends in chapter 3.
So by the end of chapter 6 the question is: in a situation as anti-God as this, how do we overcome our feelings of futility - that we can’t make a difference? And how do we overcome our fears of what might happen to us if we live as uncompromising, public believers? And the answer lies in the second half of the book, in chapters 7 to 12. Now last week, we had an introduction to them. And we saw that the account of Daniel’s present life in Babylon gives way to God-given visions of the future, designed to help us overcome our feelings of futility and fear. And we’re going to look at the most famous of those visions tonight – in chapter 7. So, look at 7.1:
1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon [i.e., when things have just got even worse and believers need even more help to keep going] Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream. (v1)
And what God shows him are,
Firstly, THE KINGDOMS OF THIS WORLD
2 Daniel said: "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. [That symbolises the fact that everything we’re going to read about in this vision happens only because God allows it to happen – he is sovereign.] 3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.Now in last week’s introduction we learned that this part of the Bible, like the book of Revelation, uses all sorts of images and symbols that have to be interpreted. And we’re used to doing that today. Eg, imagine you saw a cartoon in the paper of a duck with a human head and wild eyes and big sticky-out ears, limping along on crutches towards a door with a number 10 on it. Well you can interpret that. It’s saying: ‘Tony Blair’s a lame duck Prime Minister’. Well these beasts stand for the kingdoms of this world. We know that because in the second half of the chapter, having given Daniel the vision, God also gives him the clues to interpret it. Look on to v15:
15 "I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. 16 I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this. "So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: 17 'The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth.’ (vv15-17)So with that clue, now look back to v4. The first beast – the lion with eagle’s wings – stands for the Babylonian kingdom. How do we know that? Partly because in the book of Jeremiah, the Babylonians are described as a mixture of a lion and an eagle. And partly because archaeologists have dug up pictures of lions with wings which show that’s the symbol the Babylonians used for themselves. (In fact if you go to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, you can see the main gate and the processional way into ancient Babylon (dug up and brought home by German archaeologists). You can see what Daniel must have seen. And pictured trotting out of the city are golden lions on the walls – as if to say, ‘Nebuchadnezzar is coming to get you.’) But look at the end of v4: we’re told that this first beast‘stood on two feet like a man, and the heart of a man was given to it.’ Which probably means there was at least something noble and humane about Babylonian society – at least under some of its successive leaders. It wasn’t completely beastly, with human beings living and treating one another as if they were no more than animals. Whereas the second beast, in v5, looks more beastly. And the fourth in v7 looks the worst of the lot.
Now what does all that mean? Well God is picturing the rise and fall of different kingdoms from Daniel’s time on. He’s picturing the fact that governments and nations will vary over time and across the world. Some, like the first beast, are relatively more humane. E.g., since the Reformation in the 16th century and the evangelical revival in the 18th century, our society has been relatively humane because government has been profoundly influenced by Christians injecting Biblical truth into public life. 2007 marks the second centenary of the abolition of slavery in this country; and those who led that abolition were Christians. But beasts change; and new governments come that marginalise Christian influence and encourage us to behave more like animals than humans. Which is the recent story of our society.
Now thinking from Daniel’s time onwards, beast no.1 would stand for the Babylonian kingdom, no.2, for the Persian kingdom, no.3 for the Greek empire, and no.4 for the Roman empire. But even though God knew those specific kingdoms were coming, he wasn’t that specific. E.g., the lion didn’t have a label on it saying ‘Babylon’ (like the duck in the political cartoon might have the word ‘Tony’ on it). And you might be thinking, ‘Why wasn’t God a bit clearer – a bit more specific?’ Well the trouble is, if he’d labelled the four beasts, ‘Babylon, Persian, Greece and Rome’, Daniel 7 would just look like a history lesson to us. But this way it speaks to us, too: I take it that God left the beasts anonymous so that they’d stand for all the governments and powers-that-be that believers ever since would have to live under.
So sometimes those governments and powers-that-be are more humane - like ours is still, to some extent - and there’s at least the opportunity to try to influence public life at all sorts of levels for Christ. The aim of the Christian Institute is to help all of us do that. And I recommend picking up their annual review at the back of church – ask at the Welcome Desk if you don’t know where to look.
But sometimes, the powers-that-be at all sorts of levels (from government to student unions to school governors and so on) are more anti-God. Now if you look down to v8, in picturing this fourth beastly kingdom, God uses the additional symbol of horns on it. So look on to v20 for the interpretation. V20, Daniel writes:
20 I also wanted to know about the ten horns on its head and about the other horn that came up, before which three of them fell—the horn that looked more imposing than the others and that had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastfully. 21 As I watched, this horn was waging war against the saints [i.e., God’s people] and defeating them... (vv20-21)So God then explains that detail of the vision. Look down to v24:
24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High [i.e. God] and oppress his saints [I.e., believers] and try to change the set times and the laws. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time. (vv24-25)Now, as we heard last week, hundreds of years after Daniel a ruler over occupied Israel appeared, called Antiochus, who fits that picture exactly. He denied the God of the Bible publicly; he persecuted and killed many Jews; and he enforced changes to their festivals and temple. But, as we’ve seen, God didn’t paint this picture that specifically, so that it would speak to all believers ever since who’d face this kind of situation. And our situation in the UK is moving this way. Eg, the Christian Institute has just set up a Legal Defence Fund to help the increasing number of Christians being prosecuted or discriminated against simply for being Christian – the ‘saints’ are being ‘oppressed’. Local authorities have renamed Christmas ‘Winterval’ - trying to obliterate the times when we mark how God has acted for our salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. And government isn’t just changing secular laws out there. Some, eg, want to enforce acceptance of homosexual practice within churches through the Sexual Orientation Regulations that have just been in the news.
So the first half of this vision unmasks the anti-God forces at work behind the scenes of the kingdoms of this world. Which begins to answer the question, ‘How do you overcome your feelings of futility and your fears in standing up to them?’ Because this first half of the vision asks us: would you really want to be on the side of something beastly - even if it made life easier? And it reminds us that beasts come and go, and God may use our influence to give the next one more of ‘the heart of a man’. But those are only partial answers. And it’s the second half of the vision that answers the question fully. So,
Secondly, THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Vv2-8 have helped us see behind the kingdoms of this world to the anti-God forces at work. V9 onwards now take us behind the scenes of this whole universe to the kingdom of God – ie, to the reality that God is in control of everything and will ultimately overthrow everyone and everything that stands against him. Look at v9:
9 "As I looked, "thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days [from our New Testament point of view, that’s God the Father] took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. 10 A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened. 11 "Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. 12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)Those verses are a picture of the End of time, when Jesus comes again. We know that because in the New Testament, Jesus identifies himself as this figure in v13, the ‘son of man’. Just keep a finger in Daniel 7 and turn on in the Bible to Mark 8.31:
31 He [that is, Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man [there’s that title from Daniel 7] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. [So Jesus calls himself ‘the son of Man’ of Daniel 7, and says he’s going to die for us, rise again from the dead and return to his Father in heaven. What then? Look on to Mark 8, v38:]
38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels." (Mark 8.31, 38)So, with that in mind, back to Daniel 7. This is a picture of the End of time, when Jesus comes again. So what does it have to say to us? Two things.
It says that judgement is coming - when everyone and everything that’s stood against God will be overthrown - like the beast in v11. So the ultimate reason not to side with those who are anti-God – however much easier it would be - is that to side with them now would mean being judged with them then. It’s tempting in many situations to wish we weren’t Christians, to wish we didn’t have to stand out or speak up, or object or disagree - to wish we could be on the same side as the majority around us. But the question is: whose side do we want to be on in the End – the end with a capital ‘E’? Do we want other people’s approval and acceptance now, or Jesus’ approval and acceptance then? Because having both is not an option.
So here’s the ultimate answer to our fears about living as uncompromising, public believers. It still leaves us with the fear of being verbally attacked, or ostracised by classmates or colleagues, or losing our jobs because of a Christian stand, or being threatened legally, or going to prison, or even facing the threat of death for our faith. Only God knows which of those may become realities for any of us. But what we don’t have to fear is being on the wrong side of the Lord Jesus at the judgement. And that blessing isn’t worth trading for any amount of ease in this life. And that’s what made Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego tell Nebuchadnezzar where to get off (I paraphrase) when he insisted they take part in his state-enforced religion. And that’s what made Daniel stay as public as ever about his faith when Darius banned it.
Whereas those who aren’t trusting in the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and aren’t siding with him now as Lord do have judgement to fear, if only they knew it. (And part of the hard work of evangelism is letting them know it.) And if that’s you, that’s why God brought you here tonight. Because he doesn’t want you to carry on on the wrong side of him and end up on the wrong side of him. He wants to forgive you, whoever you are and whatever you’ve done, and to have you back in relationship with him so that you have nothing to fear from him now or ever.
So this vision says judgement is coming. But it also says Jesus’ kingdom is coming. Verses 2-8 are a picture of anti-God forces apparently out of control and winning. Then vv 9-12 are a picture of God overthrowing everyone and everything that stands against him. And finally, vv13-14 are a picture of Jesus ruling for his Father over a kingdom where everyone recognises him as King. And look at v27, which spells out the implications of that for those trusting in Jesus:
27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. (v27)That doesn’t mean we’re going to rule the kingdom of God in the way God does. But in some wonderful way, we are going to share in the running of his kingdom and have responsibilities delegated to us.
So here’s the ultimate answer to our feelings of futility. The answer is to trust that one day beyond this life, we’ll be in the very situation we long for – working for Someone whose values and aims are absolutely right and good, and that our hearts can be in, absolutely. We may currently have a headmaster or boss or local authority or national government that leaves us feeling that change in a Godward direction will never come. But it will - when Jesus comes again.
And when he does, we’ll look back and say, ‘It was better to have taken little stands - even losing stands - for what was right in God’s sight than to have thrown in our lot with the wrong.’ Rather like those French resistance fighters during World War II who took such apparently little stands like blowing up a railway track here and a bridge there. I’m sure they sometimes felt it was futile – as if that in itself was going to defeat Hitler. But once they heard of the D-day landings, and knew that the inevitable defeat of Hitler had now been set in motion, they’d have believed that every stand they took was meaningful – if only to identify themselves with the winning side as the victory played itself out.
Well, Jesus has died and risen from the dead. That, spiritually speaking, was D-day for this universe. And it set in motion the inevitable defeat of everyone and everything that stands against God. D-day has happened. V-day, as pictured in vv9-14 is coming. So that every stand we take for Christ now is meaningful. What influence our stands actually have in the here and now is ultimately in Gods hands – and we will often not know, this side of heaven. But stand we must – if only to identify ourselves with the winning King and to say with our lips and with our lives, ‘I am trusting in D-day, and I am waiting for V-day.’
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