By Fr. John Allen
I’m sure many of you remember the End Time prediction of 2011 by Harold Camping, who claimed to have predicted the exact moment and time of the coming Apocalypse and judgement. News cameras zoomed in on his followers waiting for the exact minute that the trumpet would sound they would be taken up to heaven. I remember sitting down to eat with my rowing team and they started taking bets about whether or not if I would get suddenly get sucked up to heaven a glowing light when the moment struck. Well, as we all know, the supposed hour came and went and nothing changed.
One thing that I thought was funny was a church in downtown Bellingham in its front street sign put read “Well that was awkward, but service is still at 10 AM.”
Zeal and a fanatical obsession with end times and a final judgement being just around the corner is nothing new, it has gripped peoples imaginations for centuries. People saying “here it is! things could not possibly get worse than they are now, it has to be now! You can see it in the signs of the times. Entire books series have been written on such a subject as this!
But this was not the case for the prophet Daniel when he received the vision that we had read to us today. Ideas of the End Times have seeped so deeply into not only our theology and spirituality, but into our culture, that we forget that there was a time where there was really no concept of this whatsoever.
In the times of the Old Testament, the general understanding was that once one dies, they would be placed in Sheol, essentially a place of nothing, almost like an eternal state of sleep. There was little thought of End Times, judgement, and afterlife. All they had for sure was here and now. This is why we see prayers in Psalms and in the histories asking over and over again for God to build up the walls of Jerusalem, to look favorably on His people, to deliver them from the hands of their enemies…. But during Daniel’s life, this had not happened, Jerusalem had fallen, and most of those who had survived had been dragged off into exile far away in strange lands. It would be easy for the Jews of that time, especially for the precious few who had not given in to idolatry, to say “Life just isn’t fair.”
The hopes and desires of a peaceful life, a good life, for Israel were largely dashed. The pagan, barbaric lords were victorious and what hope was there? But along comes the prophet Daniel, with his ability to shock those pagan barbaric lords, with his habit of walking out of lions dens like it was no big deal, and interpreting dreams and visions.
And God gave Daniel dreams and visions of his own, of the future….and they aren’t exactly encouraging dreams. Dreams of great and terrifying beasts and monsters, of powerful empire that will rise and fall, with hungry and corrupt kings. I think anyone who reads through the book of Daniel will, when they get to the second half, will sort of frown and say, “I think I liked the Lions Den better.” It doesn’t sound like a very encouraging message for a conquered and enslaved people without hope, this vision of upcoming empires and beast like emperors. If they were thinking “Life isn’t fair” well this would prove them right! But then the dreams and visions end with this message:
But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise[a] will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.
Now imagine you are someone whose only expectation at that time of the future is an exiled life of hardship, with only the grave and eternal slumber to look forward to. And suddenly you are told “But that’s not the end of the story. But that at the end, when all is said and done, after chapters and chapters of hardship, the end will come, and at that time you will be delivered. There will be a judgement, wrongs will be righted, justice will finally be given, and a reward that will be shining like the stars for ever and ever.” Imagine receiving that news for the very first time, unlooked for and unexpected. Daniel’s initial reaction was simply: “I don’t understand…”
Did that change the physical situation for the Jews in Daniels time at all? Nah, not a bit. They would go on to be under the thumb of the Persians, and then the Greeks, and then the Romans, all these Empires that Daniel’s vision had predicted, and life would continue to not be fair…. For now. But in the last chapter, it will be. That is what had changed. Hope. A hope that no matter how badly things fell apart or went wrong, was still there. A hope that could not be tarnished, or taken away, or mitigated. A hope that rose above this “life that is not fair.”
Because in it was a promise, a promise that God gets the last say at the End, not the rulers and powers of this life, and not death either, but Him,
And what does such a hope do? In the midst of circumstances that remain hard and unchanged? Well it changes one thing for sure: it changes how those who have this hope can live.
We have such a tendency to want this promised Ending to happen here and now, in our lives, almost as if we are saying “Life really isn’t fair these days, it can’t get much worse! So it must be time!” We often think that today, but many Jews in the centuries after Daniel thought the same thing! “This must be it! It must be almost here!” It’s almost human nature to desire an end to this “Life not being Fair.” But that isn’t the reason why God gave us this promise, so that we can look for an escape to this life when it seems to especially be unfair, He did it so that we could be vigilant, be faithful, and be hopeful when we remember His promise of what the End looks like…..when the last chapter has finally, one day been told. And therefore live life as He meant us to.
So often we in the church spend so much time looking for signs of the End Times, that we forget to live life now in the fulness of the hope that has been given to us. How that the hope, that promise allows us to live right now!
The empires that ancient Israelites endured, those giant beasts of Daniels visions, and the beasts of our own lives and times, they don’t get the final say over our futures, over our fate! God does. Yes, life is not fair, I think most people in life even today at some point or another will end up saying this, but God is fair, and at the end His fair and prefect judgement will reign supreme.
Times are changing, the influence of the church over our culture is fading very fast. And in many parts of the church, there has been almost a desire to sort of circle the band wagons, to draw in close, shut the changing, darkening world out, and wait for that final chapter to just show up, let the Rapture begin! But that’s not why God gave us this vision, gave Daniel this picture of the last chapter, for the Jews of that time or for now us to retreat in fear and frustration and just huddle up and wait. It was to give us hope to endure through it! Through anything! Are times changing and are really hard and frightening things occurring in this current chapter of history? Yes, they are. Does that change the End chapter at all? No, it doesn’t! Is the church losing the place in our culture that it has enjoyed for so long? Yes it is. Does that change the End chapter? No! It doesn’t!
We have a rare gift, in that we have the ultimate spoiler ever given away to the end of a story, we know what is coming.
I normally hate spoilers to a story…spoilers giving away the end of a movie, or book or tv show. Camila loves them, and I don’t understand that, because for me, the way that you view all of the story completely changes when you know what happens at the end! I view the tensions and the conflicts differently if I know that there is a happy ending in waiting at the end for the characters in the story. And I think that is true for all of us. So I always try to avoid spoilers to a good story. But I am thankful for the spoiler that God provide Daniel, provided us, because now I can look at the story of life differently, and for the better.
So can we all, as a community, a church, and individually in our lives, we don’t have to face even the bleakest of circumstances without hope. Because we can be confident of what the end of our story looks like.
Advent is just around the corner, when we will anticipate the Second Coming of Christ, even as we prepare to celebrate His First. And it will be a time for us to pray and long for His promised return at the last chapter. But will the power and impact of that glorious event on my life here and now on this earth be lessened if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime? No, it won’t. Because for me, the power of this End chapter is that I can live my life now in its shining light even if it is another thousand years from now! I can live life now and today knowing no defeat is too far or too permanent, and no injustice is ultimately unanswerable, no challenge failed or hardship endured is meaningless. No beast in life too great or terrifying. Because I already know what the end of my story looks like.
This is the power of Daniel’s vision, of promise of the End Times. Not for us to look for a shortcut out of life that’s almost here, but to have the power to live this life fully, as God intended it. As the author of all our stories.