What do we see?
A sermon at Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Archdeacon Wayne Brighton, Rector of Holy Covenant Church, Canberra
Festival of St Michael and All Angels 29 September 2019
DANIEL 7.9-10, 13-14, REVELATION 12.7-12, JOHN 1.45-51.
One of my all-time favourite films is Planet of the Apes. My parents hated it but this film opened up a world of science fiction where ordinary things were routinely flipped on its head. I loved how the ape species were intelligent and cultured while people were viewed as brutish and dangerous. I especially loved the twist when the astronauts discovered that the world was not as it seemed.
Scripture has the power to do the same. It causes us to look again at what we know, to question what we see and to ask big questions about who we are and where we are going. Our readings today challenge the way we see the church and think about its role in the world because what we see differs markedly from what God sees. It takes faith, not simply to hold on to God’s vision but to live it in our present circumstances.
So, this morning, I’d like us to consider what Daniel saw in his dream, what John saw in his vision and what Nathaniel saw in his encounter with Jesus.
SEEING GOD – DANIEL
Daniel is not a book for the fainthearted. The lectionary takes out all the lions, bears, leopards, and other animals that were mind-bendingly indescribable and leaves them on the cutting room floor.
A new king is on the throne of Babylon. Daniel, a trusted advisor, has a dream where he glimpses God – the eternal one – taking up the throne in the heavenly court. God’s throne blazes with fire, moving and shimmering like wheels of fire. It’s a symbol not just of purity and holiness but of righteousness and justice.
Surrounding God are legions of angels, millions upon millions, a heavenly army serving and standing in front of him. In the midst of this scene, a human being comes on the clouds. It’s an entrance rich in drama. This human one is received by the eternal one, who bestows upon him authority, glory and power.
Everything we know is upended. Daniel knows what king looks like and it is most assuredly not the king of Babylon who receives power. The king that Daniel sees has never seen before. This human king receives what the king of Babylon could only have dreamt of – fealty from all peoples, nations and languages, a kingdom that would never be destroyed. All this in a world where palace intrigue required violence, and where dynasties rose and fell – not according to how good they were, but how ruthless the king was prepared to be.
Daniel’s dream is apocalyptic, not because he sees the end of history, nor because he sees God’s judgement. It’s apocalyptic because the veil on God’s activity is pulled back so that Daniel gets a glimpse of the path that lies ahead.
Why would this be necessary? Why give away such spoilers?
As a servant of a foreign king, living in a foreign land, surrounded by many obstacles and challenges – Daniel experiences no end of humiliations, difficulties and compromise. But he is welcomed into God’s presence and glimpses how the salvation of the world would be achieved.
As God’s people, we too are surrounded by petty tyrants who sit on thrones. Whether it is in Beijing, Washington or Canberra, Daniel’s vision reminds us that is the eternal one who is seated upon the throne. None of these beastly kingdoms will last. Only the kingdom of the human one will endure.
SEEING THE WORLD – REVELATION
The Revelation according to John is not for the faint-hearted either. John has a vision, not of the eternal throne room but the world. His vision is of a battleground as the war in the heavenly realm descends upon the earth. The image is of an army causing mayhem and distress everywhere. What John sees with his eyes is bloody and distressing. But what John hears shifts his focus and ours.
What makes John’s vision apocalyptic is not that he sees a battle between good and evil. Nor is that he sees God’s judgement poured out. What makes it apocalyptic is that the veil is pulled back and for all rage and anger, bluster and destruction, he sees he hears that love wins.
Love wins. God’s kingdom is secured by Jesus, the Lamb who laid down his life so that justice and peace might overcome all evil and violence.
Why give away such a spoiler? Why present a scene where what is seen and heard seem so much at odds?
The powers that seem to rage around the world are not nearly as powerful as they seem. The powers arrayed possess all the powers of destruction – to kill and main, bring sickness and collapse. But they do not hold the power of life. The one who wins, is the Lamb who lays down his life to bring life to others.
As God’s people, many feel tempted to take up the cause and fight against the powers of this world. The temptation is to turn inward, to pull up the drawbridge and abandon the world to its own destructive desires. It is not isolation, withdrawal or the desire to preserve religious freedom that wins the day.
It is Christ, who wins not through brute might but by laying down his life. It is the preparedness of his people to lay down their lives – not as passive acquiescence but in active resistance that speaks of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ’s kingdom of peace and justice is inaugurated and constituted through love – love for a world that is fallen and broken, misled and deceived, a world so loved that it is restored and redeemed. It is Christ’s love which overcomes all his enemies, not through the weapons of destruction but by turning them into friends.
SEEING HOPE - JOHN
Nathaniel’s encounter with Jesus is not for the fainthearted. It’s a story about how a group of very imperfect women and men are invited to journey with Jesus. They are ordinary people, living ordinary lives, going about their business, fishing and enjoying some time out, sitting in the shade on hot days.
The journey begins with a simple invitation – follow me. It is not a command nor does it come with an instruction manual or a liability waiver. Jesus simply asks people to follow him – to learn from him by sharing their life together, with him and each other.
Philip tells Nathaniel – we have found him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote. Hmm. This Jesus is no ordinary carpenter. This son of Joseph from the one cow town of Nazareth is the one who will bring Israel out from the dark night of exile into the daylight of freedom, justice and righteousness. Come and see is his invitation.
Of course, no sooner does Nathaniel respond than he discovers how Jesus had seen him first. Jesus knows Nathaniel. What impresses Nathaniel is not the power and might of Jesus. What matters is that Jesus knows Nathaniel, he sees his heart and passion for peace and justice, and has a place for him.
A few people of no particular importance meet in an unremarkable corner of the world, with a guy of no significance. This is what the world sees. In truth, they meet with the one who receives an eternal kingdom from the eternal one. They meet with the Lamb who overturns evil and injustice in this world through love and grace.
To human eyes, the church may not look like much. We are neither many, nor powerful, wealthy or strong. We cannot change or overcome the world through our own strength, cleverness or influence. It is Christ who changes the world. This Christ has chosen to work through us, through all our strengths and flaws, our hopes and fears. Most importantly, it is Christ who still works through love – a generous love that welcomes and includes, blessings and celebrates the wonder of life, the majesty of creation, the splendour of salvation.
Jesus still invites us to follow him - to live and learn at his side. It is an invitation that, should you accept it, will change the way you see God, the world around you, and even yourself. Spend it with God, and the promise is that you will see great things accomplished, the strongholds of the world– things like privilege, discrimination, domination and indifference - shaken and overturned. For it was love that ended the British occupation of India, love that ended Jim Crow, love that toppled apartheid.
God invites you to pulls back the veil to see that what matters is not your past, your status or your orientation, but your future. The only question is, will you come and see?