Today’s scriptures are all strange and mysterious. Hidden messages and meanings are tightly wrapped up in symbols and metaphors. Taken literally, they are ominous, even threatening, suggesting hidden secrets regarding the end of the world.
The first reading is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, which is one of the weirdest books of the Bible. It is a kind of “mash up” of action/adventure stories regarding a hero of the Israelites named Daniel, who endures all sorts of life threatening and death defying challenges, along with bizarre predictions that seem to insinuate an imminent political catastrophe that is going to shake the foundations of civilization.
Today’s scripture gives us just a small taste of this, with references to Michael the archangel fighting on behalf of the Israelites in a war that seems to culminate in a zombie apocalypse, with the dead rising from their graves to walk the earth and the righteous ascending into heavens.
What the heck?
It’s hard to make sense of any of this in the limited time allotted for a homily. I’ll try.
The archangel Michael was understood by the author of the Book of Daniel as a guardian spirit of the Israelites, a spiritual power that was assigned with the duty of protecting the Israelites against the false gods worshipped by other nations, who were understood by the Israelites as being demonic powers. The Book of Daniel is foreseeing a time of momentous tribulation in which the spiritual and earthly powers will be engaged in a struggle, the outcome of which will decide the destiny of the world. The battle of earthly nations will be an expression of a battle between the powers of heaven and hell, ending with victory of the forces aligned with God (represented by the archangel Michael) and the vindication of the righteous and their exaltation in heaven.
Where or when will all of this take place?
You have to look deeper into the Book of Daniel to find an answer to this question. It seems that the author of the Book of Daniel believed that this conflict would take place after the collapse of several worldly kingdoms and after the collapse of the last of these kingdoms, the rule of the God of Israel over the world would begin. In other words, the God of Israel would launch a massive counter offensive against those worldly and spiritual powers that had opposed him. Those Israelites, who had long suffered the oppression of these worldly and spiritual powers, who aligned themselves with the God of the Israelites would then share in all the benefits of God’s victory, ruling with him over the world.
This might all sound way to fantastic to our modern minds to be worthy of belief, but the strange visions of the Book of Daniel were enormously influential for the Israelites who lived during the time of Christ’s revelation and also for the first Christians. Many Israelites interpreted the bizarre imagery of the Book of Daniel and took it all to mean that the conflict described in that text was about to take place. Thus, when Christ employs imagery and language from the Book of Daniel (as he does in today’s excerpt from the Gospel of Mark and throughout the Gospels) he caused quite a stir. Christ himself confirms in the Gospel that the expectations concerning the Book of Daniel were not misplaced, and were in fact about to be fulfilled. The great war between heavenly and earthly powers, the victory of the God of Israel over his enemies was very close to happening- and in fact, those living during Christ’s revelation would be alive when it all happened.
With this in mind, it might be easier to understand the reason the political and religious leadership of the Israelites were very nervous about what the Lord Jesus was saying and doing. If all the Lord Jesus had been preaching and teaching was a self help program or a benevolent ethical truths they wouldn’t have cared. But that wasn’t what the Lord Jesus was doing- what Christ was doing was announcing that the God of the Israelites had come, and as the Book of Daniel has foreseen, he had come for a fight.
Throughout the Gospels, we hear testimony that God’s coming into the world signaled that now was the time for the faithful Israelites to align themselves with the God of the Israelites, and this meant aligning themselves with the Lord Jesus. The battle was about to begin and you would have to choose sides.
This is the frightening meaning of today’s Gospel. Christ is referencing the Book of Daniel and he is saying that what that biblical text foresees is about to take place. Christ’s proclamation of the “kingdom of God” is not, as so many people today construe it, as a message of personal spiritual illumination that happens in ideas and feelings, but that God’s very real kingdom is coming to earth and once that kingdom arrives, the whole world is going to change. Imagine now being a representative of those worldly powers ruling the Israelites, like the Romans or those responsible for public and religious order in the society, like the temple priests, and you hear about the Lord Jesus attracting huge crowds with a message about the prophecies of the Book of Daniel being fulfilled and him being instrumental to their fulfillment. Imagine all that and you get a better idea as to why they understood what the Lord Jesus was saying and doing to be so dangerous and why they later arrested him and had him tortured and killed. They were not upset with the Lord Jesus because he preached forgiveness of enemies or healed the sick, or because he was inclusive and advocated sharing, (who cares?!) but because he interpreted these things as signs that foreshadowed the coming kingdom of God and with that kingdom coming, what was also coming was God’s battle against the worldly and spiritual powers that opposed him.
If all this shocks you, it is likely because you have become accustomed to an image of the Lord Jesus “meek and mild”, a religious philosopher and social reformer- not the real Lord Jesus who came to announce that God had come to set right a world gone wrong and had come into this world for fight.
Christ’s disciples witnessed the culmination of all this in Christ’s arrest, crucifixion and death, which they understood as being the beginning of the actual battle symbolically described in the Book of Daniel. The fear that Christ’s disciples manifest as they witness the torture and death of the Lord Jesus is not just about their own self-preservation, but the fear that the God of the Israelites had been defeated by dark and fallen spiritual and worldly powers. If this was true, it was truly the end of the world and the worst possible outcome.
The disciples of the Lord Jesus first thought that the victory they had anticipated had been lost and with the God of Israel, defeated and dead, the world now belonged to the opposition.
This perception changed with the revelation of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, in which they witnessed the victory of God, and accepted the responsibility to let everyone in the world know about it. When Christ speaks today about the revelation of the “Son of Man” (which is an image from the Book of Daniel of the strange heavenly person through which God will be victorious) he is speaking about the revelation of his resurrection and ascension, through which God proves his victory after the great and terrible battle. The first Christians saw this victory in Christ’s resurrection and ascension and knew that the world that had ended had been the one controlled by the devil, what they thought had been the worst possible outcome, was actually the absolute best outcome!
The first Christians announced that God in Christ had been victorious and also began living in such a way that would demonstrate to the world that they were allies of the victorious God in Christ and they called this way of life the Church, which they understood to be the worldly expression of the very real and very earthly kingdom of God. Through their announcement, the first Christians knew that they were claiming territory from the powers of the world. The world was now Christ’s territory and the Church was a sign to the world of who precisely the world belonged to- not Caesar and his successors, not the devil and his minions, but God in Christ.
The first Christians were so radical in their commitment to Christ and courageous in the face of opposition because they had seen and believed in Christ’s resurrection and ascension and as such they were willing to stare down the threats of the worldly, even the threat of torture and death, with a confidence that came from knowing that they were allied with God in Christ who could restore bodies broken by torture and raise people from the dead.
It was because of what they claimed about God in Christ being the real ruler of the world that the same worldly and spiritual powers that opposed Christ, opposed the first Christians, and still oppose the Church today. The Church doesn’t have martyrs because we build and maintain schools, hospitals and social service programs, after all, all these things can be used by worldly powers to advance their own agendas. The Church has martyrs because her very existence signals that the world really and truly belongs to God.
Some of you might be thinking, what does any of this have to do with your own life and the answer to that question might first be that you have to stop pretending that the Lord Jesus is nothing more than meek and mild and that the Church is just some kind of faith-based club. None of the first Christians believed this and if we have settled for this kind of distortion, we have settled for a corruption, an anti-Christ and an anti-Church.
The real Christ and real Church is much more dangerous and unsettling and believing in the real Christ and the real Church means that you will accept at times a dangerous and unsettling kind of life- one that necessitates risks and may just get you into a fight.
The risk and the fight would look in your own life like Christ’s cross.
And that’s as frightening, strange and mysterious as anything in the weird Book of Daniel.