Five Kingdoms

November 5, 2017

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace, using Daniel 7.1-18 and Luke 6.17-31 at Mattins on Sunday 5th November 2017, All Saints Day.

As we move into the month of the November the church has crossed a threshold into a time of year which some call All Saint’s tide and others call Kingdom Season. Some dispute the season’s very existence, and yet the Lectionary clearly begins to take an apocalyptic note, being concerned with matters of the tension between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of This World. And we can see that tension within today’s readings from the book of Daniel and the gospel of Luke.

The vision that Daniel experiences in chapter 7 clearly causes him some distress which is particularly poignant given the fact that Daniel met a direct threat to his own life in the lion’s den of chapter 6 of the book of Daniel with calmness and prayer.

Daniel’s vision describes four great beasts, symbolising four kingdoms. The first like a lion, the second like a bear, the third like a leopard, and a  fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong; a beast with iron teeth devouring, breaking in pieces, stamping, and destroying everything it encounters.

A common Christian view, espoused by St Jerome and Calvin amongst others, is that these kingdoms represent empires which are to come for Daniel but are viewed as historic by ourselves:  the Babylonian Empire, the Medo-Persian Empire, the Greek Empire and the Roman Empire,  Yet there are some who dispute this. Some regard the kingdoms as eschatological, speaking of end times and describing events which are yet to come.

Ultimately, whether historic or futuristic, these kingdoms are terrifying, and to my mind, identifying the actual kingdoms is less important than understanding the message as a whole. The visions are meant to be a horrific revelation of earthly power and the struggle of empires. It may be helpful to find yourself picturing some of the more destructive images of the empires of our age and in living memory: the devastation and loss of life caused by the Russian revolution, the terrors of Nazi Germany and the Second World War, the Cambodian genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, the so-called Islamic Caliphate causing so much bloodshed in the Middle East and terrorist attacks in diverse cities and communities to name but a few. Others may spring to your mind.  The images that are painted in our mind’s eyes as we remember the news are terrifying and one of the dangers of hearing of so much bloodshed is that we become desensitized to the real human pain and cost of this violence and oppression.

Yet the text in Daniel isn’t simply one of oppression and fear. The vision also contains the promise of another kingdom, a fifth kingdom. The image of the Ancient One, the “Ancient of Days” and the one like a human being (“Son of Man” in some translations) in our Christian context clearly refer to the Father and to Jesus Christ and there is reassurance that this kingdom will judge and conquer all terror and violence, and that this kingdom will not simply be longlasting, it will be everlasting.

This theme of an everlasting kingdom is picked up in the gospel of Luke. Healings occur, signs of the coming kingdom breaking through into the present world order, and a double set of blessings and cursings are peached, “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, but woe to you who are full, who are rich, who are laughing,” laughing at the misery of others instead of doing something to relieve their pain.

Faced with the sheer power and terror of the forces of empires described in Daniel’s vision the words of Jesus seem at first sight to be ineffectual in worldly terms. Surely Jesus is promising spiritual benefits in a world to come? Yet the words of Christ are far more powerful than that. In the words of the beatitudes, a longer version of which will occur next week, “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the peacemakers” Jesus is actually giving a manifesto of the only way that the powerless can be given power and dignity within an utterly oppressive regime, by being subversively meek, poor, peaceful, and in doing so moving beyond the oppression to a place of human dignity.

This approach was epitomised by St Maximilian Kolbe. He is one of the twentieth century martyrs depicted on the front of Westminster Abbey. Kolbe was a highly educated Franciscan friar, possessing two doctorates, he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz for publishing religious pamphlets and assisting two thousand Jewish people to escape the holocaust.

The entire terrible regime at Auschwitz was designed to degrade and dehumanise. As I’m sure you know, the prisoners were transported in cattle trucks, branded with a number, given only a small crust of bread and small bowl of soup every day, barely clothed and their shoes were taken away. Yet Kolbe’s way of fighting this brutality was through self-sacrifice and deep subversive compassion. He moved to the back of queues, and despite his own hunger, he would often give his own tiny rations away or share them with others. He did not have the power to obtain more food, but he had the power to give-away what he had.

Kolbe was regularly beaten and once whipped so badly he ended up in the camp hospital. Yet although he was suffering greatly, he secretly heard confessions in the hospital, prayed with and spoke to the other inmates of the love of God.

His final act of love and self sacrifice was in 1941 when a prisoner had escaped and a commander picked 10 men to be starved to death in a waterless underground bunker to deter further escapes. When one man, cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place saying that he himself had no wife or children. Then, even in the pain of starvation, he led his fellow prisoners in songs and fervent prayers, singing so rousingly that prisoners in neighbouring cells joined in the song. The prayers faded to whispers over the coming days but they continued, and Kolbe was the last to die having comforted so many others as they were dying. Witnesses of his body say his face was radiant in death.

A camp survivor declared that Father Kolbe’s death was ‘a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.’ Kolbe brought the Kingdom of God into the darkest corner of the Nazi empire and in doing so gave an inspiration to us all of how to fight terror with the love of the beatitudes. He has inspired many, including a lady called Elizabeth Scalia who has his picture on her desktop. She writes. “ Every time I see his good, open face, I feel him asking me, “and what small thing — what small, subversive thing — have you done, today, to counter the empty illusions of the world and advance the Kingdom of Heaven?”

I feel that is a question I should be asking myself. May we too, find small subversive ways of blessing to counter the forces of oppression and dehumanisation wherever we may see them. Amen.