Today we turn our attention to a book of the Bible we don’t often hear much about in worship: the book of Daniel, one of the books of prophecy in the Bible. Daniel is a book of the Bible that only appears once in the whole three year cycle of lectionary scripture readings, the suggested readings for the Christian church year. Even still, it is just one of four texts suggested for a particular Sunday, and I realize that in the 17 years I’ve been preaching, I have never preached a sermon on the book of Daniel before! Of course, there a couple stories from Daniel you might be familiar with: Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, which are usually great Sunday School stories. But the book of Daniel is much more than that – more complex and complicated, certainly.
The Book of Daniel is both a book categorized as prophecy, and a book categorized as apocalyptic literature. Today when we hear the word prophecy, we don’t always know what to do with it, really. We’re most likely to think of a prophet as a fortune-teller of sorts. Someone who predicts the future. But that’s confusing psychics and prophets. Prophets were truth-tellers. Prophets were truth-tellers, particularly when no one else wanted to say how things really were. You know what I mean – we do it all the time. Everyone knows what’s really going on, but no one wants to speak unwelcome truths out loud. A prophet is the child who tells the emperor he has no clothes. A prophet would tell it like it was, say how bad things really were, talk about where the path they were on would lead if things didn’t change. But a prophet didn’t necessarily want what he or she speculated to come true. Instead, a prophet wanted people to stop and repent before things had gone too far. In its simplest version, you might think of prophecy like this: a parent tells a child that if they don’t get their grades up, they will flunk out of college, live at home for all of their days, and never get a real job. The parent isn’t predicting the future, even though this might be exactly what will happen. Instead, they’re truth-telling. If you don’t change, this is the probable future consequences of your current actions. In this ways, the book of Daniel is a book of prophecy, and we’ll talk more about that.
Daniel is also apocalyptic literature. And this is even more confusing and harder to understand than prophecy is. An apocalypse in Greek literally means an “unveiling” or an “uncovering,” the revealing of a mystery. Several sections of the writings of the prophets are considered apocalyptic, like in Ezekiel, where the prophet has a fantastical vision of a wheel in the middle of wheel, and other crazy images. One entire book of the New Testament is considered apocalyptic literature – the book of Revelation. Messengers of God, angels, reveal many things to John of Patmos, and they’re recorded by John in Revelation. But apocalyptic also has the contemporary meaning of being about the “end of the world.” That’s because apocalyptic can mean a “decisive and terrible event,” “unrestrained,” and “disaster.” In many cases, the visions of the prophets don’t sound comforting. They sound scary. Like the end of the world must be coming about if something so cataclysmic were to take place. And so, for as long as the apocalyptic, mystery-revealing writings of the prophets have been around, people have been trying to figure out what this means for us, and specifically, when does it mean our world is going to end. And pretty much every generation looks around at the world and thinks: things are crazy. So this must be it. The end is near.
The temptation to do this is great, despite Jesus reminding us that even he didn’t know the day and time of the end of days, so to stop worrying about it. That’s why it is helpful to remind ourselves that Daniel and other prophets are truth-tellers, and ones for whom God has chosen to uncover some mysteries. That’s simple enough, and powerful enough. It would be hard to read their writings without seeing in our own world some of the very things they were talking about. But that’s a good thing, reminding us that God’s word is timeless. But the Book of Daniel was written not about future events thousands of years beyond its writing, but about the events and happenings unfolding right then. So what does this story of Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar so long ago tell us about our lives right now? We figure that out by understanding what the story was about back then.
This text takes place when Israel had been conquered by a foreign power – the Kingdom of Babylon. Many Israelites were exiled and living in foreign territory, including a man named Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar had ordered that a group of young men drawn from the elite of Israel who were “without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace” be brought to his palace to be taught the literature and language of his people. They were to serve as counselors, wise men, ready to serve the king. Daniel was one of these men. Eventually, the King has terrible nightmares, so he summons the magicians and sorcerers and enchanters of his people to interpret his dream for him. Only, to test their wisdom and ability, he won’t tell them what he dreamed! No, they have to tell him what his dream was, and then tell them what it was about. Of course, they tell him no one could possibly do this. He threatens to have them executed, torn limb from limb, all of the wise men – including the Israelites he had set aside to be trained. When Daniel finds out about this chain of events, he prays to God – which our morning prayer today drew from – and then goes before Nebuchadnezzar. He tells him that no mortal can tell what he dreamed and interpret it. But, God can reveal this knowledge to someone – God, the revealer of mysteries.
Daniel proceeds to tell him his dream: You saw great statue, with a gold head, and then a section of silver, and then bronze, and then iron, and the feet of iron and clay. And a great stone, not made of human hands, came and destroyed the statue, and became a great mountain that filled the whole earth. And Daniel says that the statue represents Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and the rulers and kingdoms that will come after him, and the stone represents the kingdom of God, more powerful and more enduring than any human kingdom, which lasts eternally. Nebuchadnezzar worships Daniel, and says to him, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery!” This pattern continues in various forms throughout Daniel. Daniel interprets the king’s dreams – mostly in ways the show that the king is fallible, and on the wrong path, and following the wrong gods. Daniel even tells the king that he will lose his mind for years and behave like a wild animal. And indeed, the king does just that. But rather than punishing Daniel, the king honors him, and eventually, he comes to worship this God, revealer of mysteries, whom Daniel follows so faithfully.
We’ve been talking about dreams these past few weeks. And for me, the important part of this text is not so much trying to figure out which kings and which kingdoms the king was dreaming about. The important thing for us to look at here is what happens when there’s a difference between our dreams and God’s dreams, between our plans and God’s plans. Nebuchadnezzar had a vision of leading and ruling forever and being a mighty conquering power. God had other plans.
Have you ever had a moment to stop in your tracks and realize your plans and God’s plans weren’t the same? I had always planned on pastoring a church for 5 years, and then going to get my PhD at Drew in New Jersey where I went to seminary. But as I got closer to that time, things kept seeming to not fit and not fit. The professor helping me with my application kept telling me that what I wanted to do was more like a Doctor of Ministry project than a PhD project, and giving me ways to fix that. But the topics she was suggesting weren’t interesting to me. It took me a while, but eventually, I realized I had been trying to convince God to make my plan into God’s plan. God had other ideas. Years later, when I found the Doctor of Ministry program I had never been interested in before, it just clicked, and I knew I had finally gotten in sync with God’s plans.
I think of my childhood church. Like many churches, they were trying to attract young people into their congregation. They hoped to see more young adults and young families with the children. Sometimes pastors joke about young families being the “holy grail” for churches. If we could just get young families, everything would be ok! So my childhood church started a coffeehouse style worship service. It had cool skits and cool music and a cool setting. And no one came. Well, a few people came. But not young families. Who started coming was actually a group of middle-aged men and women with mental illness and mental health struggles. And the church had to decide: would it go with their own dreams, or God’s dreams? It turned out, there wasn’t really a need right then for a coffeehouse service. That wasn’t really the need of the community, what would best serve the people around the church. What was needed was someone to love and cherish and accept people who had had some serious struggles in their lives. Fortunately, the church was able to choose to follow God’s dreams, instead of their own plan. Most of the folks that got connected to that group nearly twenty years ago now are still connected to the church, and it changed the church for the better.
Sometimes God’s plans for our lives can seem like mysteries, and we’re looking for a Daniel to reveal them to us. But sometimes we have a Daniel in our lives already, a truth-teller, and we’re just not listening. Sometimes we need lots of hints, lots of truth-telling, before we get the picture. Often, God’s dreams and our dreams are right in line with each other. Sometimes, our dreams aren’t bad, but they’re not best – and that’s what God hopes for us – abundant life. I encourage you to spend some time in the weeks ahead thinking about your dreams for yourself and for our congregation. Sometimes we plan and plan and plan and ask God to bless our plans. We can go about it that way – but it is the hard way. It is easier, and more rewarding, to seek after God’s plans – with the blessings already built right in. Listen to the people around you. Where does God need your gifts at work in the world? How are we listening to our community, those around us at Apple Valley? What do we need? How would God reach them? How could God use us? Nebuchadnezzar, who was not an Israelite, not a follower of the God of Daniel, still was able to listen to this truth-teller who could tell him his dreams – even when the dreams spelled bad news for his own vision of his future greatness. If he can do it, surely we, already seeking to follow God, have a head start. It can be hard – to let some dreams go, to watch some dreams change into something unrecognizable, to embrace new dreams. But what God intends to reveal in us and through us will be worth the journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.