Posted by: owizblog | November 25, 2015

God and the Humanization of Humanity: Sermon UCB 22 November 2015

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Advent is a time of waiting, in the world as it is, for the world as it shall be, as God will have it be.

Next week, we cross the threshold into Advent.

1

And this morning, a hundred and fifty miles north east of Paris, the Church of Scotland congregation in Brussels has had to cancel its service because of a credible threat of the repeat of the inhuman terror in Paris that has so shocked us, and altered the way we see life here in Europe.

An inhuman terror that has marked the lives of millions of people in the Middle East, people just as human as us, or the people of Paris or Brussels, for years, now…

Inhumanity. It’s a strange word, isn’t it? Like most of us, I imagine, I’ve had it in my mind over the last few days.

It’s possible, but actually difficult, to use it of things other than people. We can speak of “inhuman logic”, or “an inhuman place” – perhaps an “inhuman desert” – but overwhelmingly, the uses of “inhumanity” are to indicate the absence of humanity where it should be present. People are, somehow always there or thereabouts when the word “inhuman” is used. “This inhuman place makes human monsters…” says Stephen King, while Wordsworth, no less, offers:

 

Perhaps some dungeon hears thee groan,

Maimed, mangled by inhuman men…

 

And then, of course, there’s this:

 

“Many and sharp the num’rous ills

Inwoven with our frame!

More pointed still we make ourselves,

Regret, remorse, and shame!

And man, whose heav’n-erected face

The smiles of love adorn, –

Man’s inhumanity to man

Makes countless thousands mourn!

And it’s Burns’ phrase that cascades down the generations, picked up and rehomed in quote after quote, because it is so resonant, and so defines the concept of inhumanity. Inhumanity is really only ever there as an absence of something that should be present, the denial of something that should be affirmed. Humanity. What we are, or what we should be.

2

The Book of Daniel comes from troubled times – but not the times it purports to come from. It takes stories drawn from tradition, woven around the figure of the “Jewish boy made good,” the Daniel of its title, a figure it places at a very special time in history – the very end of the mighty Babylonian Empire, and the beginning of its successor, the Persian, in the middle of the sixth century BC. But it comes from four hundred years later.

There are themes that run through the Book of Daniel: the persecuted people of God, the clever Jewish boy who can make circumstances work for him in a world controlled by others, because of his cleverness, but also because of his utter loyalty to the God of Israel, the ultimate impotence and deserved destruction of the despots who want to wipe the Jewish people from the face of the earth.

And that’s why the book was written: to present anew old stories of the experience of the Jewish people, powerless under the huge world empires of the Babylonians and the Persians long ago – to present them to an age when again the Jews needed to understand their position under another world empire, but also under their God.

After the Persians had come the Greeks, under Alexander the Great – and the world empire he’d created was, after his death, carved up by his generals, who set up their own dynasties and kingdoms. It was the insane and unboundedly cruel attempt of the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes to destroy everything that made the Jewish people who they were –  their worship, their temple, their history and traditions – that led to the revolt of the Maccabees in the second half of the second century BC.

That’s when the book was written, a communication purporting to be from one time, and addressed to another, and saying “There’s a beyond to this. This present horror is not how it all ends. There are things to be got through, and some of them may be horrible. But they will be got through. What you must do is stay resolute, and keep the faith…

And the Maccabean revolt was ultimately successful.

You don’t need to remember all this detail – just the gist of it – to make sense of the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel. The stories of the Jewish sage and his friends suddenly stop, and the kind of writing suddenly changes.

Daniel, the stories about him told, now relates a vision. A dream. It isn’t hard to see that what’s here is a sort of coded message about a succession of world-controlling regimes, of world-empires. It isn’t hard to recognize the powers under whom the Jewish people had had to live – the inhuman kingdoms you could only represent as frightful, inhuman monsters…

“Four great beasts came up out of the sea… The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings…  lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it… A second one, like a bear… had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and… was told, `Arise, devour much flesh.’ Another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back; and… four heads; and dominion was given to it.

You can’t visualize monsters like this. Not even Hans Holbein quite manages it…

“After this I saw… a fourth beast, terrible and dreadful and exceedingly strong; and it had great iron teeth; it… had ten horns, and.. there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots; and behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things…” I love the Aramaic expression that’s translated “a mouth speaking great things” – pum memallel ravravan. It clearly means “awful things, things you shouldn’t say,” things that would, in previous generations, have got your mouth washed out with soap…

These are monstrous, inhuman representations of something profoundly inhuman; the way human beings treat each other, organize each other, organize against each other, and dominate and are dominated by each other.

Man’s inhumanity to man

Makes countless thousands mourn!

But then Daniel sees a throne placed, and “one like an Ancient of Days” – that is, an old man – take his seat. The court sits in judgment over four monstrous representations of human empires, as they rise in insane, hideous power, and pass away before their successors.

And then, finally, at the last, there comes rule with a new face. A human face. One like a human being. One like a son of man.

And that’s where the expression “Son of Man” comes from. There, and the much earlier prophecy of Ezekiel, who constantly hears himself hailed as “Son of Man” – “human” or “person” or “man”.

But it’s here, in this vision of Daniel, that the “Son of Man” is a figure comes to usher in, not just a new period of the future, but the whole culmination of the past. A human figure. “One like a Son of Man…”

3

So when the Gospels have Jesus speak of himself as the “Son of Man” – “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head…” inevitably people hear this and think of that mysterious figure who humanizes, completely and finally humanizes, the way human beings live together, after the hideous succession of monstrous empires and powers.

And it’s this humanization that marks the rule of God. This restoration of what’s human to human beings, and to their shared life.

It’s another component in the complicated, and still-only-partial understanding of what God wants for God’s creation. God wants us to be what we are. God wants us, and our shared lives, to be fully human.

That is what faith should be aimed at, oriented to. That is what any understanding we have of the rule, the kingdom, of God should have at its heart.

If faith does not humanize, if faith dehumanizes, and turns us into monsters, then it is grounded in a lie. If any version of faith, any variant of any faith, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, whatever, dehumanizes its faithful, turns them into inhuman monsters, then it is grounded in a lie. And there have been and are plenty of dehumanizing variants of Christian faith, before we start pointing fingers at others.

And yes, what turned a group of people in Paris into a gang of inhuman murderers is a lie, the same lie that kills hundreds in Syria, and from which hundreds of thousands of human beings have had to flee. How can we be other than human, utterly human, in the face of that? Yet how can we cling to our humanity in the midst of all this, when we ourselves feel dehumanized, and disempowered, and threatened and afraid? Because this is what these things do to us, too. “This inhuman place makes human monsters…” of us, too, if we’re not very watchful…

Revelation 1:4b-8

[Hymn: Lo, he comes with clouds descending]

John 18:33-37

4

This figure in Daniel of the Son of Man, this symbol of the humanization of human life, is drawn into the portfolio, if you like, of things that Israel had come to expect of the “one Israel was expecting.” Messiah, bringer of the new Law, Servant of the Lord, and, yes, Son of Man. When “Son of Man” started to sound like a title, a title for the one who was expected, it was as though “Human Being” had become a title; the one who will show us, and establish,

Advent isn’t about looking back to the Birth of Christ. Does that surprise you? We tend to hear a lot of Christian prickle and complaint about people from about now who are so taken up with the Christmas that’s to come, that they forget about the Christmas that happened two thousand years ago. That sounds all very righteous and principled, but it actually misses a point.

Of course it misses the whole point of Christmas to be rushing around preoccupied with presents, and cards, and food, and party-planning, with no time to stop and reflect on the Christmas story. But it also misses the point if we don’t ourselves grasp that Advent is to do with looking forward, and in two senses. Firstly, by re-hearing the Christmas Story, as though we’d never heard it before, we are looking forward to, rather than looking back on, the coming of the birth of Christ. And spiritually, that’s a very different exercise – making the approach to Jesus’ birth a living thing, rather than something two thousand years ago that we have to try to remember.

But the second point is this. The earliest Christians were still looking forward to a coming of Christ. We tend to make this whole idea unmanageable by bandying about the clumsy and implausible term “Second Coming” – which can then be written off along with the people with sandwich boards who proclaim “The End Of The World Is Nigh!” No sensible person believes that, we say…

Well, no, but that’s  because of the way we frame the idea. But the ancient Christian word for this expectation, this hope, is parousia – and that word means, simply, presence. But it isn’t a simple idea. Of course it means a return, a fullness of Christ’s presence, the final coming of the kingdom of God, that simply isn’t the case now.  And we have to live in the world as it is. A world in which Christ’s kingship, the rule of the fully-human in full, unbroken relationship with God, can only be hope.

But what, in our world, does this hope, this promise, look like?

Our Gospel for this morning, which turns Daniel’s vision inside out. One who comes as a Son of Man, a human being, to stand, not before the Ancient of Days, but the seat of a corrupt Roman Governor – one who comes to subvert monstrous human power, yes, and who does so by suffering all it can do to him, and letting it do its worst to him, and then overthrowing it by turning the world upside-down.

5

In the world we are. And in an inhuman world, where things such as happened in Paris a few days ago, and happen in Beirut, and Baghdad and Damascus all the time, are part of the reality of things, because this is how people are, and so this is how people suffer, in a world like that, we are called to live in a particular way.

Power usually cloaks itself in inhumanity. And Jesus, in the passage from John’s Gospel that Isabel just read, stands before power, in the person of Pilate. Pilate, mind you, though he embodies power as the Roman Governor, is powerless as a human being. He can’t turn off the inhuman machine. He can’t even detach himself from it, certainly not by his compulsive washing of his hands. Inhumanity exercises its inhuman power over everyone in that room. Everyone except one:

Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place…. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’

And that’s it, isn’t it? We are called to take the side of truth, no matter what it costs. Not power. Not might. Not righteous fury. Not any of the things that, in our world, seem to dominate and shape and rule everything.

Next week, we cross the threshold into Advent.

Matthew tells the Christmas story as the story of a small family of refugees who had to seek a welcome in a foreign land because power, in its insanity, wanted them dead, because they didn’t fit into the world as power wanted it to be. The radical story of Christmas opens out onto the even more radical story of Easter, where power and hatred kill love, and that still isn’t the end of it.

We are called to stand with truth in its weakness with love in its vulnerability, and to trust that ultimately truth is stronger than the lie, that what binds is stronger than what dissolves and destroys, and that love, ultimately, is stronger not only than hate, but than death itself.


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