Sermon for Evensong with the Prayer Book Society on Saturday 16th November 2019

Daniel 7:15-28; Revelation 9:13-21 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=440816069

Earlier this week, some of us were here in this Founder’s Chapel at Charterhouse, also under the auspices of the PBS, for the competition to select candidates to go forward to the finals of the Cranmer Awards in February next year at the Bishop’s Palace in Worcester. Thanks to Revd Chris Hancock’s excellent organising efforts and Fr Tom Pote of Holy Trinity, Guildford encouraging four good students to enter, we had a very good selection of six candidates, four juniors and two seniors, who had to read passages from the Prayer Book and from the Authorised Version of the Bible, which in the final they have to memorise and deliver by heart.

Everybody did really well and we are putting forward from the Guildford Branch two very strong candidates. Competitors in the competition can choose the passages which they use, and because the competition aims to look for people who can bring out the richness of the language in the Prayer Book and the excitement of it, it’s a good idea to find passages which are in themselves dramatic and colourful. So, for example, the conversion of St Paul (Acts 9:1-19) was one passage used and another was the reluctant wedding guests, where one who turned up improperly dressed was cast out into the outer darkness where there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. (Matt. 22:1-14)

We all love the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible for many things but especially for the spiky and memorable words. I don’t know how young I was when I first registered the idea of weeping and gnashing of teeth – possibly at the time when my milk teeth were falling out, the whole idea of gnashing them was even more exciting.

Today’s lessons are cases in point. They are fanciful, metaphorical, colourful evocations of things which no one could literally experience. Prof. John Barton, in his splendid book ‘A History of the Bible’, [J. Barton, 2019, A History of the Bible, London, Allen Lane, at p 369], has pointed out that the mythical animals which you meet in Daniel chapter 7 (just before the passage which was our lesson this afternoon), a lion with eagle’s wings, and a leopard with ‘wings of a fowl’ and four heads, are not animals which anyone could meet in a zoo.

Fr Etienne Charpentier, in his commentary on Daniel ch 7, [E. Charpentier, translated by John Bowden, 1982, How to Read the Old Testament, London, SCM Press, at pp 90-91] has observed that the second half of the Book of Daniel, from chapter 6 onwards, and the whole of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine at the end of the New Testament are what is known as apocalypses; uncoverings, literally, from the Greek ὰποκαλυπτειν, ‘taking the cover off’, literally; the Latin translation of that Greek word being ‘revelare,’ taking the veil off, revealing, so, Revelation. 

We have come to use the word apocalypse to connote a catastrophic end, possibly the end of the world. But this is not the whole story. Certainly in the Bible, in Daniel and in the Book of Revelation, the intention is to give a glimpse into heaven, a glimpse of the Divine at work. But this glimpse is not in the sense of a learned work of history or a Panorama documentary, but rather a metaphor, a myth, a picture of something which we cannot see. Charpentier writes, ‘History is thought to unfold in a straight line, the end of which is hidden in God’s secret.’

Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, speaks of seeing through a glass, darkly [v12], and contrasts that with the clear vision which will come with the coming of the Kingdom. We are not intended to take these things literally. We shouldn’t have nightmares about lions with wings or a beast with iron teeth. Remember that Daniel is supposed to be having his dreams and encountering the powers of evil at the time of the Persian Kings Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Darius, who cast him into the den of the lions, at the time of the exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, whereas in fact he was writing about 165BC, at the time of the Maccabees, the great Jewish revolt against king Antiochus IV’s attempt to impose Greek religion on the Jews by force. 

The historical context when these books were written is very interesting. It gives us a clue why we should still consider them as relevant to our life today. They were written at times of danger, strife, when people were worried about the future, threatened by external forces, not sure what the right thing to do should be, and in particular how to deal with earthly powers opposed to the ways of God. 

Who are these four kings in Daniel, and who are the forces, a third of whom are wiped out in the vision in Revelation? They are mythical forces; but perhaps we can identify them down the ages with particular cases where faithful people have turned to the Bible for guidance and inspiration in their own times of trouble. As one scholar has written, ‘To uphold his people’s hope in dramatic times, God lifts the veil which hides the end, revealing the happy outcome to history as a result of God’s victory.’ This is the theology of apocalypse.

If we are looking for signs of the apocalypse today, you will not need me to add to the chorus of voices shouting the odds about our contemporary situation, with our general election, all the problems of the NHS, the need for food banks and the continuing consequences of the Brexit referendum. If we are looking for signs of an apocalypse, we might class the signs of climate change as ‘apocalyptic’ more than anything else.

What to do in the face of all this? The spiky words of the Prayer Book are very helpful. We pray the Collects; and as we use some of the wonderful prayers, ‘for all sorts and conditions of men’, the Book helps us to bring all those men – and women – before the Lord in humility. Let us reflect on how those apocalypses that we have read about, those revelations, visions of heaven, can tell us the true way to that place where true joys may be found. 

In the words of the psalmist, in today’s psalms,

‘Defend the poor and fatherless: see that such as are in need and necessity have right.

Deliver the outcast and poor; save them from the hand of the ungodly.’  [Psalm 82] or 

‘Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee: in whose heart are thy ways. 

Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well: and the pools are filled with water.

They will go from strength to strength …’ [Psalm 84]

I wish you all a blessed Advent time, not too much Election or Brexit stuff, and a very happy Christmas. ‘O how amiable are thy dwellings: thou Lord of hosts!’