Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon on the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, 19th November 2017

Daniel 10:19-21, Revelation 4 – see

Today’s lessons, (Bible readings), are about visions of the future. In the lead up to our first lesson from the Book of Daniel, the prophet Daniel has met a strange and magnificent man standing on the river bank:

(Dan.10.5) ‘Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz:

His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude.’

I don’t know what sort of image it evokes in you. It’s a very visual passage. I wondered whether perhaps we would think of a superhero in a Marvel comic.

And this superhero – an angel, I think – says what he is going to do to challenge the Persians, the Chaldeans so-called, who have driven the people of Israel into exile in Babylon. And then he is going to go after the Greeks.

The background is the big Old Testament theme of the children of Israel and their relationship with God. When they obeyed the Shema Israel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and shalt have no other gods but me,’ they were obeying their covenant, their contract, with God, according to which if they gave their exclusive allegiance to the one true God, and worshipped only Him, then God would support them as His chosen people, and let them occupy a Promised Land.

But they hadn’t done this; they’d intermarried with the Chaldeans, the people of the land they had gone into, and they’d started to hedge their bets so far as worshipping gods was concerned, and started to worship the Chaldeans’ gods, the Baals. And so they had been enslaved by the Babylonians.

By the rivers of Babylon

We sat down and wept – Psalm 137.

The superhero in golden armour was going to lay out for Daniel what the future would hold.

And our second lesson, from the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, is all about the future: specifically, what happens at the ‘end time’, the end of the world – or perhaps the end of each of our lives. What happens after we die.

I think I’m on fairly safe ground in thinking that we wouldn’t seriously expect to meet men in golden armour, standing on a river bank – the river Mole, say , just outside here, on that pretty part in front of Parkside – or to have a glimpse into heaven, like this:

(Rev. 4:2) ‘And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

3And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.’

I didn’t know what a ‘sardine stone’ was. The Greek is σαρδιον, from Sardis, and it’s a red stone. A good modern translation, the NEB, translates this bit as

‘… and on the throne sat one whose appearance was like the gleam of jasper and cornelian; and round the throne was a rainbow, bright as an emerald.’

It’s reminiscent of Daniel’s superhero, whose ‘… body also was like the beryl,’ a shining jewel. Shining. Resplendent.

But I repeat: we wouldn’t, I think, think in these sort of terms today. We’re not seriously expecting to encounter Captain America or Superman or the Silver Surfer: and not expecting to ‘be in the spirit’ and have a glimpse of Heaven, with another shining, jewel-like figure on a throne.

That may be cultural. I have African friends who are very comfortable with the idea that there are angels, who do look after them; and perhaps my rather rational, humanistic approach comes from my conditioning in the Protestant tradition. If Martin Luther, Bucer, Calvin, Cranmer, Tyndale and the other Reformers were influenced by the rationalist, so-called humanist approach of Erasmus, we see the difference now in the contrast between those places where the Roman Catholic tradition has prevailed – southern Italy, Spain and Portugal, for instance – where people regularly claim to have seen visions and experience miracles, and Protestant Northern Europe (which we’re a part of, despite the best efforts of the Brexit people), where we would tend to stick only to what scientific observation could show us.

But still, this looking into the future is very compelling. It would be nice to know what’s round the corner. There are, of course, different levels of ambition, where futurology is concerned. Looking round a corner can be very important in a battle. Mali, the brave Army dog who has just been given the PDSA’s Dickin Medal, the VC for animals, went ahead of the troops into a building where they thought that the enemy might still be hiding. What was round that corner? Poor old Mali got hurt by two grenades which were thrown at him. Fortunately he has made a full recovery, and is still at work for the Army. Mali foretold the future, in that soldiers could reasonably infer that, if Mali didn’t find someone hiding, they would be able to enter that space safely.

That’s a reasonably understandable type of future prediction. The number of possible things which could affect the outcome is limited. Is there anyone in the building? Are they hostile? If the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively, then it will be safe for our soldiers to enter the building.

But what about much less defined futures? What about the end of my life, or your life? What will happen after that? Immediately we realise that the question is much more complicated. First question, what will happen to whom? To me, or to someone or something else?

Will there be a ‘me’ which can be recognised, after I have died? Let us remember what Plato wrote about the death of Socrates. (Plato is held to be the great philosopher; but arguably he was great only in that he wrote up a comprehensive account of the sayings of his great teacher and mentor, Socrates). Socrates held that there was such a thing as a soul, the essence of a person’s being and identity: and that the soul was immortal. As Christians, we believe something similar, following, for instance, St Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 15 about plants dying and seeds coming up, new life after the old has died off.

‘35But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?

36Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die:

37And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain:

38But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.

39All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.

40There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial..’

But we don’t know, in the way that, for example, a soldier can know what was round that corner, what will happen at the end, or at our end. By and large, with the possible exception of some celebrated near-death experiences, no-one can tell us what awaits us. No doubt an angel would be very handy here.

Maybe so: but maybe not, in fact. If, just let’s suppose, an angel did tell us what to expect, in the way that Daniel was told, then in theory at least, it must be possible for you to avoid what has been predicted. If that happens, then as a matter of logic, the prophecy won’t have been accurate. What was said to be the future, wasn’t what happened.

Or suppose that the angel tells you what is going to happen, because it is necessarily a true statement, there is nothing you can do to change it. But if that’s the case, what about our having free will? One way of explaining why God seems to allow bad things to happen, even to good people, is that we have free will; we can know what is right, but still make bad choices, as St Paul, again, set out in Romans 7.

‘18For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: …

19For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.’

For us to be capable of moral choices, we must be capable of choosing good or bad. But if the angel has shown us what will happen, and the angel saying it necessarily entails the outcome that the angel predicts, then if I know what the angel has predicted, but can’t do anything about it, I am not a free agent any more.

So maybe after all it’s not such a bad thing that we don’t tend to see shining figures with diamonds in their eyes – except in Superman comics, of course.

Let’s not be impatient. Everything will turn out as God has planned it, in God’s good time.