True Confessions. I love the Lord of the Rings. Book, movie. Doesn’t matter. If I played video games, the Lord of the Rings would be my choice. Has anyone ever NOT read or seen it? (WHAT???)
Well, let me tell you all about it. Something in nature and the moral compass of that land has gone terribly wrong. The animals are barely recognizable in their terrifying malformation. Former humans are rebred into monstrous, seemingly indestructible hulks. The lust for power is destroying the world.
And who stands up before this horrifying creation from the bowels of hell? Vulnerable humans and hobbits, fairies and dwarves whose soft bodies rip under the tusks of the mammoths, under the swords of giants.
There is no way these small, frail creatures can stand up to the hundreds of thousands unnatural, colossal monsters and titans before them. They have no impenetrable armor. Their weapons are simple swords, arrows, and a magic stick. They are no match for the powers of evil before them. They cannot save themselves, much less their world.
The Lord of the Rings was written throughout the midst of the Nazi occupation of Europe and North Africa. The writer, JRR Tolkien, used these tales of darkness and light in the midst of a terrorized and terrified time in world history, to reflect on the evils of the day, and to give hope that a good and moral people could overcome the evils before them.
It’s an old theme, as old as the human imagination. Let me tell you of another time when this story was told. It was 168 BC. Jews were in revolt against the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanus, whose name means “God Made Manifest.” He believed he was God. Antiochus ran rampant over Jerusalem, slaughtering Jews, and then set up the worship of Zeus in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, desecrated it by pouring pigs blood all over the holy altar. But he was not that first to do this. For the past five centuries, the Jews had been overrun by giant empires, one after the other, without respite.
In the midst of this unending horror, a Jew we know as Daniel envisioned a tale of terrifying evil. His vision was of violent monsters: a lion with eagle’s wings (7:4); a bear with tusks and three ribs between its teeth (7:5); A 4-headed, winged leopard (7:6); and a beast with large iron teeth and ten horns (7:7-8) And from this last beast arose one more horn, a little horn, blasphemous and loud, which overwhelmed all the other horns.
These 4 monsters coming out of the sea were representations of the 4 empires which had repeatedly crushed Israel and overcome the known world:
- The winged lion was the Babylonian Empire, which taken captive the Jewish leaders and exiled them to Babylon;
- The tusked bear was the Medean & Persian Empires;
- The four-headed leopard was the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, which expanded its reign clear to India;
- And finally, the 10-horned beast: the Roman Empire, who, Daniel wrote, will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it (7:23). The ten horns are the ten kings who will come of this Empire, followed by a future king, the “Little Horn” who will cast out 3 of the others.
It’s not prophecy: it’s history, it’s nightmare. Writers and graphic illustrators have an “unlimited special-effects budget” (Gaiman) to tell the stories they see in their heads — so did the book of Daniel. Its beasts and monsters are not to be taken as literal monsters with wings, heads, tusks, and horns, but as real monsters which crush the human spirit and destroy God’s good creation. It’s the Lord of the Rings all over again, as darkness overwhelms God’s people.
But the medieval Jewish scholar, Rashi, noted that there was to be a fifth kingdom after these four. It would be God’s gift, the kingdom of the Messiah, the Chosen One of God, the Human One. In the Lord of the Rings, his Chosen One is Aragorn, the legitimate heir of the human world. In the book of Daniel, it is the Truly Human One:
“As I watched in the night visions,” Daniel writes, “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One, the Ancient of Days, and was presented before Him. To Him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and His kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (7:13-14)
The Kingdom that Daniel describes is not an empire of tyranny, but the fulfillment of time, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and there will be no more crying, no more pain. It is the hope of all fantasy writers, when the horrors will come to an end, and God’s people will be able to stand without fear.
What might that look like for us? These worlds of darkness and light, of horror and of restoration? Each of us have things in this world we dread, which seem too much for us to overcome. I was at Ashley Berman-Kinney’s meeting of the Women Activists of Lake Country this past Monday. In it, representatives of a group called Powers were speaking to us about their attempts to give accurate information and referrals for all pregnancy options in Wisconsin. One of those options is abortion.
One of the women speaking is a doula- a person who stands by a pregnant woman throughout her pregnancy, to help guide her through all her experiences. A few months ago, this doula was accompanying a woman to one of the two abortion clinics in Wisconsin (there’s one in Madison and one in Milwaukee. That’s it for the entire state.) When they got there, there was an anti-choice mob waiting for them, taking their pictures and posting them on social media; writing down their license plate and tracking them; yelling horrible things at them and harassing them. There were 30 police officers there behind barricades, but no one was arrested or stopped.
A couple hours later, this doula and her child were at a grocery store, and when she came out, her car was vandalized. Someone had followed her, and tried to warn her off any more accompanying pregnant women to the clinic. The doctor who did the abortion comes to work in a rented car for that very reason, so the anti-choice activists can’t trace her as easily. But even so, she knows that her life, and the lives of those she loves, is in danger because of what she feels is her calling.
Each of us have things in this world that we dread, which seem too much for us to overcome.
Recently there was an executive order passed down which took away basic civil rights for the LGBTQ community- allowing for discrimination in housing, employment, recognition of marriage and social security rights, HIV treatment, adoption, and foster care against all LGBTQ people who work in federal agencies.
Those who instigated this decision are working on another bill which will eliminate discriminations protections for LGBTQ individuals in all Health and Human Services programs. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alez Azar, introduced this bill; the most immediate impacting being on the nation’s $7 billion federally funded child-welfare system, including foster care and adoption programs. (Washington Post, Nov. 1, 2019)
Each of us have things in this world that we dread, which seem too much for us to overcome. And in the midst of them, we try to call out the best, the most moral, the most true parts of ourselves to confront the darkness around us, the darkness within us.
But when we feel like we are standing alone against the forces of darkness, we feel weak, vulnerable. Unable to do this on our own. And we grow discouraged.
But there is one truth yet to be told. You know how, in the Lord of the Rings, there are the companions?
The everyday heroes like hobbits and dwarves and humans and fairies who stand beside each other despite their obvious differences and temperaments. We, too, live in the midst of brave companions, and we ourselves are one of those brave companions. Though there are times when we feel trapped or overcome, we are never alone.
This past Friday was All-Saints Day, the day when we remember that we are never alone; that those of God who have stood up in the past are standing with us even today. Our fellow companions are those alive today, but not just those. Our fellow companions are also those who have gone before us, who have inspired us and stand with our spirits even now.
And if this is so for our fellow companions, alive and dead, how much more so is God with us? The God who says, “I am your refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. Therefore you need not fear, though the earth is transformed and mountains are toppled into the depths of the seas; though their waters road and foam, and the mountains quake in its tumult.”
(Psalm 46:1-3, adapted.)
What terrors can overwhelm us, when we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,
and upheld by the very power of God? In Paul’s words in the Book of Romans 8:38-39: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In the Name of the One- God’s Truly Human One- who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Friends, Companions, let us gather at the table of life that God has set for us,
that we might know the blessing and strength of the God who will never let us go.
Resources: workingpreacher.org for Nov. 6, 2016, Fred Gaiser, Commentary on Daniel 7; Nov. 3, 2019, Kristin Wendland, Commentary on Daniel 7; Washington Post, Nov. 1, 2019, “Proposed HHS rule would strip Obama-era protections for LGBTQ individuals. Foster care and adoption groups that rely on federal grants would be allowed to refuse placement for gay, lesbian parents.” by Ariana Eunjung Cha
SCRIPTURE FOR NOV. 3, 2019
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. Therefore we need not fear, though the earth is transformed and mountains are toppled into the depths of the seas; though their waters road and foam, and the mountains quake in its tumult.”
In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream:
I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, all different from one another. The first beast was like a lion, and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. A second beast appeared that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth, and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another beast appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it.
After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, and breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that had preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them. To make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this little horn, and a loud and boastful mouth speaking arrogantly.
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool. His throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the little horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One, the Ancient of Days, and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.