I was brought up with the children’s animated series Veggie Tales, like many of us here. For the uninitiated, Veggie Tales tells stories from the Bible with fruits, vegetables, and silly music. Back in 2019 the creator of VeggieTales, Phil Vischer, was interviewed by Christianity Today in an article called, “Phil Vischer Wants More Gospel in the Veggies.” The article highlights Vischer’s regrets over the moralistic focus of the Veggie Tales series. Vischer says, “it’s so much easier to teach morality. It’s so much easier to just tell a Bible story, pull a moral value out of it, and end with a Bible verse.” It is indeed always far easier to teach moral lessons from Scripture instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a message which Vischer knows is “the message that leads to regeneration that leads to new life that leads to the fruit of the Spirit.” All of Scripture should always be read with a focus on Jesus Christ and as a witness to Jesus Christ.
The Christ-Centered focus of our readings for this Sunday in preparation for Christ the King Sunday next week and the season of Advent following Christ the King Sunday is that we are to prepare our hearts for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ as King. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The end of our liturgical year is preparation for the end of this era in history. It might surprise you to know that the Book of Daniel is about this very topic, Jesus Christ as King at the end of times and the conclusion of history.
Few books of the Bible have fallen victim to moralistic “VeggieTales” storytelling more than the book of Daniel. Daniel is a book with twelve chapters, the first six of which are filled with familiar stories that we love to moralize. Daniel and the lion’s den, the fiery furnace, and the interpretation of dreams. But what makes Daniel so significant is the second half of the book, the hardest part to understand, chapters 7 through 12. Most of us are surely familiar with some form of “end times” theology, and most of it probably comes from very, very weird readings of books from the Bible like Revelation. The apocalyptic obsession in the contemporary church has led many Christians astray, I am sorry to say the “Left Behind” series has nothing to do with what Scripture actually teaches.
If you could identify one problem with how we tend to interpret the end times, it is that we are always trying to connect the images and symbols from Scripture first with our own world. Swarms of locusts are Russian helicopters, the mark of the beast has something to do with barcodes at grocery stores, or the fact that elections are or are not going in our favor means the end is surely just around the corner. But the key to understanding what the Bible actually teaches about the end times is first looking closely at the rest of the Bible, not the world outside of the Bible, and looking with special attention at the book of Daniel.
In the final six chapters of this book, Daniel has multiple visions of how history unfolds from God’s perspective. On Christ the King Sunday next week, we will read from both Daniel’s first vision in chapter 7, and from the book of Revelation. When we do that, we see that the most important vision of all that Daniel has is of Jesus Christ himself, the Son of Man who is also the true king, ruling over all of creation from the throne room of God. This morning, we read the final chapter of the final vision from Daniel.
I want to preach on this passage first by taking a big picture look at what Daniel sees and describes in his visions so that I can provide some context for this passage. Part of why we moralize Daniel is that it is really, really difficult to understand, and we must have the context to understand Daniel’s visions. I would summarize Daniel’s visions like this: Daniel’s visions give us a pattern and a promise. I borrow that nice summary from the Bible Project Commentary series, which I highly recommend. Daniel’s visions first reveal a pattern that plays out over and over again in human history, resulting in unimaginable cruelty and destruction: paired together with God’s promise to break those cycles. Daniel gives us a pattern and a promise.
The pattern of all history which Daniel reveals is that prideful rulers and prideful nations will continually put themselves in a position where only God belongs, and rulers and nations who do this are symbolized in Scripture by beasts. Rulers and nations will demand we give them eternal significance. Every nation and its rulers will demand allegiances and loyalties which only belong to God, resulting in horrible cruelties. The familiar stories from the first six chapters of Daniel provide examples of rulers and nations doing exactly that. The rulers of Babylon tell Daniel what to eat in violation of God’s law. They tell Daniel to worship a human being who is not God and to stop praying to the one true God, and try to kill Daniel. Eventually, God gives the rulers of Babylon visions, which Daniel alone can interpret. Those visions all have to do with the consequences of the pride of human rulers, and the pride of nations.
Nebuchenezer is a prime example of a King whose pride turns him into a beast. Daniel interprets dreams and visions about Nebuchenezer, the king of Babylon, who is told that he will become a beast if he does not humble himself before God. That is exactly what happens to him. He refuses to humble himself before God, loses his mind, crawls on all fours, and eats grass from a field like a wild animal. He cannot speak, he cannot reason, he becomes a beast, an animal. But he repents to God and has his humanity restored, because standing beneath God is human, and standing above God in pride is beastly. Nebuchenezer’s son, on the other hand, refuses to repent of his pride before God and is assassinated the very same night he makes that decision. These stories are the focus of chapters five and six of Daniel. Rulers and nations who demand allegiance that belongs only to God become beasts.
So it is that the first of Daniel’s visions in chapter 7 is of four beasts, who symbolize nations and rulers, who must be overcome by the mysterious son of man, who we know is Jesus Christ as King. In chapter 8, Daniel receives a vision of a ram and a goat with a large horn growing out of its head. These animals were well-known symbols of two great Empires of Daniel’s time, the Persians symbolized by a ram, and the Greeks by a goat. There is good reason to believe that the particular ruler of Greece that Daniel receives a vision about is none other than Alexander the Great. Daniel also receives other visions of lesser Kings, until finally, he sees a vision of a great, massive beast, who will violate the Temple and the holy city of Jerusalem.
We are then transported in chapter 9 to a much later time in Daniel’s life when he is an old man still living in exile. As a young man, Daniel had been among a group of Israelites taken as plunder from Jerusalem by the Babylonians following the first Babylonian defeat of Jerusalem. Daniel was reading the writings of the Prophet Jeremiah, who predicts that Israel’s exile will only last 70 years, and Daniel knows that date is getting close as he gets older, but cannot see signs that God is doing anything about it. Daniel asks God in prayer, “God, where are you to deliver us from bondage in Babylon?”Daniel receives a sobering vision from a messenger of God, who tells him that because Israel remains unfaithful, her exile will last far, far longer, 7 times the 70 years first promised.
Daniel then receives another vision, his final vision in chapter 10, which is the focus of chapters 10, 11, and 12, concluding with our passage this morning. The content of this extended vision is beastly rulers and beastly nations rising against one another in brutal, horrific warfare, resulting in profound suffering for humanity. These warring nations from the corners of the earth will usher in the end times, and the return of God in Jesus Christ, to reign and rule over and against wicked human beings. It is no wonder that so many Christians have asked, like Daniel, if the time of our own exile is ending soon, for this experience shapes the lives of too many of us, not only in history but today. Just consider what is taking place in Ethiopia, that dear, ancient nation filled with churches and Christian communities dating back to the time of the Apostles.
At the beginning of chapter 12, the messenger in Daniel’s vision speaks of a time of trouble, promises of deliverance for Daniel’s people, and a final judgment of the dead, either to everlasting life or eternal condemnation. Daniel then looks to two figures standing on opposite sides of a riverbank, with God’s messenger standing above the river itself. One figure asks the messenger a natural question, “when will this take place?” And the answer the messenger gives is not very helpful, “A time, times, and half a time.” Daniel then speaks for all of us, “I did not understand.”
But whatever time this will take place, there is clearly a mysterious figure and event standing at the center of when these things will happen. There is a King referred to in our passage this morning as “the abomination that makes desolate.” Jesus himself refers to this in our Gospel passage from Mark, speaking of the end times being connected to “the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be.” Who is this? The image of an abomination of desolation is simply a symbol for all rulers and nations who stand in the place of God, standing in a place where he ought not to be.
If you ever visit the Roman Forum, ancient Rome’s well-preserved main street, you will find victory arches around the ancient city, built as memorials to Imperial Rome’s successful military campaigns. There is one very prominent arch that I have seen twice in person, and if you stand underneath the arch and look directly up, you will find a carving of Roman soldiers carrying a huge menorah, along with other decorations and objects of worship obviously stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a moving experience to see this arch in person, for that arch was made to commemorate the successful conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman Emperor Vespasian, an event which Jesus predicts in all four of the Gospels, that shaped the lives of many early Christians and Jews of that time, with profound suffering for God’s people.
When foreign armies conquered Jerusalem, as many foreign armies besides the Romans did throughout history, they would plunder the Temple for its wealth, with no concern for sacred spaces where they did not belong, places where God’s presence dwelt most intimately. They would literally stand in a place where God belongs. Whenever that happens, that is the abomination of desolation, rulers standing in the place of God. Is the abomination of desolation one person, and the events described in Daniel and Mark one time in history? Yes, and no. These are patterns of history. Scripture uses real historical figures and events to reveal patterns of history. Human rulers and nations make themselves gods, demand allegiances that belong only to God, stand where they ought not to stand, in the place of God, and become beasts, resulting in human suffering.
I find it so ironic that there are so many people around us, at least many people my age, who believe two great, big lies about patterns of history. The first lie is that human beings are really good inside, and the second is that all of human history is one big story of progress so that we are always certain that we are better than those who came before us, simply because today is not yesterday anymore. Last Thursday was Veterans Day, and we will mark that special day of remembrance in the prayers of the people this morning. That particular day of remembrance began on the anniversary of the armistice for World War I, the first in many horrible conflicts that have marked the past century ironically called at the time, “the war to end all wars.” More people have died in wars, genocides, and famines caused by wars in the past 100 years than in all other conflicts throughout human history combined. Christians do not believe in an optimistic lie about historical progress. J.R.R. Tolkien famously called the Christian understanding of the patterns of history, a “long defeat,” culminating in a final victory.
I had the privilege of growing up around many Veterans and even a few holocaust survivors and had quite a few in my previous parish. I think of one particular veteran this morning, who was a World War Two airplane mechanic, he was my younger brother’s godfather and a retired Episcopal Priest. He died a few years ago at the ripe old age of 99, and I visited him regularly as he was dying. As often happens during that time when someone approaches death, he really opened up about some of his experiences in the war, and particularly the experience of discovering and being tasked with “cleaning up” a concentration camp in Bavaria. What horror. We know all too well what nations and rulers are capable of doing.
The problem with using Nazis and the Holocaust as an example in sermons is that we all feel free to distance ourselves from Nazis. We have seen Indiana Jones, we know Nazis are the bad guys, and we are the good guys. But whenever we place our hope in our nations, whenever we place our ultimate trust in rulers and the outcomes of elections, whenever we treat the rulers, authorities, and nations of this world as if they have eternal significance; we are walking down that same road. Consider how easily our own society discards the lives of those who are unborn, those who are old or very sick, and those who are very poor. We are like pack animals, like beasts of the field. If a member of the pack is inconvenient to us, we need only discard them so that we are not held back from the so-called “advancements” and “improvements” of society. We are never all that far from being Nazis. God, help us. Come, Lord Jesus.
Let’s talk about the promise now, thanks be to God. God’s Daniel promise to us is pretty simple, He will not stand for these cycles of destruction. God has come to free us from ourselves, free ourselves from our pride, free us from beastliness, and restore our humanity in the true King of humanity, Jesus Christ. We need only lead faithful lives of expectation, that is all God asks of us, and he promises to restore us and all creation. The way this promise is given to Daniel is quite beautiful and important enough that the promise is given twice, “Go your way, Daniel… go your way till the end, and you shall rest and stand in your allotted place at the end of days.”
That is not the answer Daniel was looking for in response to his question, “my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” But it is the answer that God gives him, and the answer that God gives us. God did not give Daniel these visions, and record them for us in Holy Scripture so that we would engage in idle curiosities, so that crackpots on cable news could find something to talk about, or so that bizarre fiction could masquerade as biblical truth. He gave them to us so that we would be comforted, as we like Daniel live in exile, at home in no nation, and at peace with no ruler but Jesus Christ. We can be certain of next to nothing about the outcome of history, the whats, the whens, and the hows are not for us to know, as much as we would like to. We can only be certain of who is working in our time and the end time, and who will rule eternally, and that is all really good news. Christ our King is God’s promise to us.
Next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, which will lead us into the Advent season when we prepare our hearts for Christ coming to us once again. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Whether we ask Daniel’s questions, “Lord, how long?” “What is going to happen?” Whether we ask these questions because we are just curious, or because we like Daniel cannot bear the weight of watching humanity suffer and destroy itself in these cycles of history, God has a Word for us. “Go your way till the end, and you shall rest.” Amen.