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August 2023

My Forties: Two Contrasting Years

43 and 44 offer two contrasting years.  2017 was the least eventful year of the decade, by which I mean lacking in major turning points and with few highlights.  While 2018 was chock full of them.  But both years were heavy with emotions, particularly grief, stress, and anxiety.

2017/43--A Grieving Year

I remember that winter as being one where I struggled to sleep, experiencing chronic insomnia.  

One reason was the Trump administration, which of course weighed heavily, bringing some ruin and devastation to pretty much every day.  Professionally we clergy were wrestling with how to do our jobs well in these troubled times.  In 2016 and 17 I attended the Festival of Homiletics and those worries dominated the presentations and conversations.

The one big new thing in 2017 was getting Nash!  We had planned a dog for Sebastian's big second birthday gift, and found Nash early, in March of that year.  


That year we also took a grand trip for our family vacation--the Black Hills.  It was our first big road trip with young child and dog, and so we invited Mom to come along with us.  Having three adults sure helped.  


Grief lay over everything that year, particularly all the holidays and big Sebastian moments, after having lost my mother-in-law at the end of the year before. In August, Michael became overwhelmed with it and spent a few days in the hospital.

That autumn we were frightened by the possibility of even more grief when Mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  At the time she was living in her lake home in Grove (my step-dad was already institutionalized for his Alzheimer's care).  Since the state-of-the-art Buffett Cancer Center had recently opened six blocks from my house, the decision was made that Mom would move in with us for her cancer treatment.  At the time we didn't know how long her residence might be or what all might be involved in her care.  We made the best of the holidays for Sebastian, but we were grieving one mother and anxious for the other one.  And, then, when she had her surgery, they discovered that it wasn't cancer!  Talk about a radical change in emotion.  And so after a few weeks recovering from surgery, she moved back home to Oklahoma.

New Year's

Through some of 2016 and most of 2017 I had been working with Literati Press getting the book ready for publication--editing, copy editing, cover design, and figuring out exactly when we wanted to release it.

2018/44--The Stressful Year

That winter I was home sick in bed, when Michael walked in in the middle of the work day and announced he had just quit his job.  While he had long been overworking and frustrated and burning out, he had talked about looking for something else but had never actually started a job search.  

Two weeks later we were to be in Oklahoma City to celebrate the pre-launch of my book.  A small number of advance copies were being printed, and the publisher would hold the first public event where I read from the book and discussed it, to begin the promotions for the full release that September.  

Cover--Open by Scott E. Jones

I ended up going alone for that event.  While Michael had planned to take those days off, when he turned in his notice, his final days of work conflicted with the event.

While driving home from the pre-release, when I was still about four hours away, I got a call from Michael that he was going to the emergency room.  He had experienced a series of seizures while home alone with Sebastian and had blacked out apparently, for how long, he wasn't sure.  This led to a battery of medical tests that never did find any underlying cause except the stress of his quitting his job, but created much worry since his medical insurance was soon ending.

Fortunately he was only two months unemployed, but his new job changed our lives more radically than we realized at the time.  He was now working for the County Election Commission and was making less money.  But the biggest changes were that he did not have flexible working hours and had half as much vacation as he had had before.  Whereas we had previously had a more equitable sharing of getting Sebastian to and from daycare, or staying home with him when he was sick, it suddenly fell almost completely on me.  Also, he no longer had the time off for the kinds of trips we had been used to taking.  And a final major change I didn't fully realize until a few years later--I became unable to take the time away I had been used to taking, including for work conferences.  And all of this was made even worse during election season, when the amount of overtime was incomprehensible.  

On the path

We had no family vacation in 2018, but took a handful of little excursions to places nearby.  Sebastian also began to travel with me to work events, and we added fun stops along the way, the first one coming that year when the Nebraska Conference of the UCC held its annual meeting in Ogallala.  And that was something new that started in 2018--me and Sebastian traveling together.

A huge part of that year's stress was potty training.

Grandpa Revis

At the end of August my step-dad Revis entered his final illness.  I had made one quick trip to Oklahoma as we expected he was dying.  While sitting in the hospital, Michael called to tell me that our former foster son had showed up at our front door, with luggage.  So, Alex re-entered our lives for a season.  He stayed with us for a bit, and we got him set up at college, I even went with him to do all the things--housing, financial aid, enrollment, buying books, etc. We helped him move into and decorate his dorm room.  And throughout the autumn he was in our lives again, until the next winter went he drifted away again.

Alex's dorm

Revis died a week after I had been in Oklahoma with him and Mom.  We didn't leave immediately to return to Oklahoma, as we already were scheduled to be there a week later for my book release.  The day we left town, we stopped at Alex's dorm to drop off something, and while sitting in the parking lot, Sebastian vomited all over himself.  We got him cleaned up and waited a while before driving again.  In Nebraska City, he did it again.  We had left our house three hours before, and weren't even an hour's distance from home, and clearly Sebastian was ill, so we turned around and went back home.  Michael would stay home with Sebastian and  I would travel to my book release alone.

Which I did the next day.  I made it for the first event Friday night, and we had another bigger event planned for Saturday.  But, before that big event could be held, Michael called to say Sebastian had appendicitis and was being rushed into surgery.  I told Mom that I couldn't drive back alone, so she threw a few things in a bag (remember her husband had just died too), and we rushed back to Omaha, where Sebastian spent six days in the hospital.  


Think of everything that happened in less than a month's time--it was the most stressful weeks I've ever been through.

A few weeks later we had a fun book event here in Omaha that wasn't interrupted by a medical emergency.  And that October I went on a very limited book tour, and though it wasn't originally planned this way, I had to take Sebastian along with me, because it was election season, and Michael was working overtime and couldn't care for Sebastian.  And after all that had happened, I never even scheduled any of the other promotional trips I had planned to.

My Early Forties

I've been thinking this week of the highlights and turning points of each year of my forties (as I'm in my final six months of the decade).  So I decided to write about them.  

In this post My Early Forties which include some of the most significant years of my life.

2014/40--A Fresh Start

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My forties began on the Big Island of Hawaii, where we had traveled to celebrate the big occasion.  A wonderful trip that included hiking over the caldera of a volcano, exploring lava fields at night, kayaking in the ocean, swimming on beautiful beaches, and a stargazing trip up to the top of Mauna Kea.

With a pastoral excellence grant, that summer I attended the Yale Writer's Conference which was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had, renewing and invigorating.  The three weeks in New Haven (and a side trip to NYC) were the source of new friendships and spending some time with a couple of old friends.  But mostly importantly, that experience was the impetus I needed to finally finish the memoir I'd been working on off-and-on for almost a decade. And I worked diligently writing the rest of the year.

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While in New Haven, I got the call from Creighton University asking me to teach philosophy that autumn. I was thrilled, as I've always wanted to maintain my academic connection and hoped to teach while also engaged in ministry. So that year began six years of teaching, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It also benefited us the next year when Sebastian started daycare there, a place where he thrived (until the pandemic closed the preschool). He (we actually) made lasting friendships with some of the other families.

Some bad news that autumn sent us into couple's counseling to work on our marriage.  As I reflect, more of these moments stand out now.  Where we ended up may have felt surprising, but I realize now how long a road it was to that ending.  

2015/41--The Great Year

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Sebastian was born!  And so many of that year's highlights are connected to that, of course--the call from Jason that Kelsey had picked us, meeting Kelsey, the public announcement, the church shower, the outpouring of generosity from so many, including acquaintances, preparing the nursery, his actual birth, bringing him home, his first time meeting various people, the day we the adoption was final, getting the birth certificate, the wonderful baptism weekend, much less all those precious and first moments with a new born.

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And in the midst of all that celebration came the legal recognition of our marriage, with the Obergefell decision that June.

The pre-Sebastian highlights of the year were completing a first full draft of my memoir and our trip to Costa Rica for a friend's wedding, and what was ultimately our "babymoon."  

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And that autumn we took a wonderful family trip to New England for another wedding.

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When I was sixteen, my Dad died of a heart attack.  He was 41, so over the ensuing 25 years I had always expected 41 to be my weird year, and had told many people such.  Instead, 41 was the greatest year of my life. 

I did cry about Dad a lot that year as I became a dad, but they were good tears.  

But the best year of my life was to be followed by one that ended horribly.  

2016/42--Bizarro World

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On the one hand, 2016 was full of all the wonder and beauty of Sebastian turning one, learning to walk, talking more, and exploring the world. 

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That summer was my sabbatical, delayed from the year before because of Sebastian's birth, but because I had a one-year-old, the sabbatical lacked most of the travel and experiences I had hoped to have, instead staying close to home for much of it to care for him.  I did go hiking in Oregon with Dan Morrow, and it was sublime.

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That June Katie Miller began serving as my full-time Associate Pastor.  There was the sense of professional accomplishment--having spent six years growing the church, its programs, and its funding sources such that we needed and wanted and could afford a full-time associate pastor.  I also hired the person I wanted, having met her a few years before and wanting even then to work with her eventually.  And this relationship became not only one of the most rewarding of my professional partnerships, but she was a dear friend and pastor to me, essential to the years ahead.

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We did get our back patio installed, the conclusion of a multi-year project working on improving our backyard, and just in time for a kiddo who needed it to play.

That October my sister and I fulfilled a promise to take our Mom to Ireland.  A grand and wonderful trip full of so much fun and beauty (and the day I left the country, Hillary was ahead by 14 points).  The best day of that trip was our hike from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher, followed by dinner and live music in the pub in Doolin. 

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That autumn began with the death of Ted Cich, Michael's grandfather, and then the nightmare of my mother-in-law being killed in a car accident that November.  I loved, admired, and respected her.  With her death, it really felt like we entered bizarro world that November (Trump's election being part of that sense of an alternative timeline), and nothing was ever quite the same afterwards.

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Becoming Human

Becoming Human

Jonah 3:9-4:11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

27 August 2023

               On the Day of Atonement every year, Jews read the entire Book of Jonah at their worship service.  The reason is explained by Baruch Levine, “The story of Jonah epitomizes the power of repentance, and serves to reassure the worshipers that God’s arm is extended to receive them.”

               Two weeks ago when I preached about the far more familiar story of Jonah and the whale, one of the themes we drew out of the book was God’s “lavish love.”  That God pursues Jonah out of affection for wanting the best for Jonah.  And that this book reveals the breadth of God’s mercy and grace, because God keeps offering opportunities for salvation to everyone in the story.

               Barbara Green, whose commentary is guiding me into a better understanding of the Book of Jonah, points out this theme of repentance.  She writes that for Judaism, repentance is understood to be “coded into the universe for our participation.”  Part of the very fabric of creation.

               In this book, Jonah first repents of running from God’s call to mission, and then, very dramatically, the entire city of Nineveh repents of their sins and is offered the mercy of God.

               Which then makes Jonah angry. 

               Why exactly is Jonah angry?  What is he angry about?  Is this anger tied to why he fled from God in the first place?  Did Jonah really not grow and transform that much during his three days in the belly of the whale?

               Barbara Green asks a provocative question—“If Nineveh is reprieved, is ‘Nineveh’ the issue, or ‘reprieve?’”  Is Jonah angry specifically that God has forgiven the Ninevites, those awful enemies of Israel?  Or is Jonah angry that mercy and forgiveness are aspects of who God is?

               The answer to those questions is not immediately clear.  Would Jonah prefer that the Ninevites get theirs or would Jonah prefer that God not be so nice?  Maybe he wants a more wrathful, warrior God? 

               Should this sound like something no one would want, did you see the report this week from Russell Moore?  Moore used to be the head of the ethical and political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, but had a major, public falling out with the SBC in recent years.  This week Moore told NPR that he has begun to encounter people on the Religious Right who have decided that Jesus is too weak and too liberal.  They especially don’t like the Sermon on the Mount.

               Is Jonah’s problem similar?  Maybe.  Again, the book isn’t fully clear, but we can ask our questions and explore the possibilities.

               Barbara Green draws attention to the way St. Jerome in the fifth century interpreted this story.  Jerome thought everyone in the story had some good intentions, so he wasn’t super hard on Jonah.  He believes Jonah’s flight from his call and subsequent anger are because Nineveh is the enemy of Israel, and he doesn’t want to be the agent of their salvation, because he knows ahead of time that God will be merciful, because God is just like that.  She imagines Jonah thinking:

I could have come to Nineveh preaching God’s views gently, and no one would have heeded;

And yet if I preached a God of harshness, it would not have been true!

St. Jerome’s conclusion, paraphrased by Barbara Green is that “Jonah feels angry at being made to look, or feel, like a liar.”

               Another interpretative insight she gains from St. Jerome is God’s handling of Jonah and his anger.  God is “gentle and pedagogic.”  Caring for Jonah.  When Jonah’s so upset, God doesn’t show up and scold him, God asks questions.  Barbara Green writes, “Jerome seems to understand that when one feels as bad as Jonah does and for the serious reasons he is sad, there is no need for reproof; to elicit insight is better.”

               What Jerome sees in the Book of Jonah is a generous economy of relationships.  And Barbara Green draws upon that theme in her own understanding of the book.  What seems to be happening is God’s constant pursuit of Jonah to allow Jonah opportunities for growth. 

               And here at the end God is actively engaging Jonah to examine his own feelings.  God asks a series of questions that provoke thoughts about the nature of relationships, what we feel entitled to, how wide we draw our circle of care.  Also, what is the source of your anger Jonah? 

Barbara Green writes, “In my reading God is prompting Jonah to locate more precisely the core of his frustration, more carefully to probe his desire.”  She points out that often when she is angry, and especially when she isn’t fully sure as to why she’s angry, that anger can get misdirected onto someone or something that does not deserve the anger.  Ever had that experience?  I’m sure we all have.  So probing the source of our anger is often a key step in integration and growth.

At the very end, Jonah is angry about the plant that shaded him and is now gone.  God seems to point out that Jonah didn’t have a deeply invested relationship with the plant, yet its absence has really ticked him off.  God wants Jonah to realize that God had a much deeper, longer, more invested and richer relationship with the city of Nineveh.  And God wanted the best for them, despite their flaws.  God also wants the best for Jonah, despite his flaws.  God even cared about the animals, which is the last word in the book. God’s lavish love is revealed.

And, yes, God’s love is merciful.  Even willing to change God’s mind about what was going to happen to the Ninevites.  God is more interested in the relationship than in sticking with any pronouncements.  The rules can be bent, broken, even discarded if they get in the way of relationships of love.  Green writes, “The key thing is relatedness.  If the creator loves all the creatures and longs for this company, then if and when they approach, God is happy to unbend from past pronouncements.  In fact, God winks, I was there first!”

Jonah does not seem to have fully understood this about God’s love.  Or at whatever level he did understand it, he doesn’t seem to have liked it.  Jonah needed to learn who God really is and why this gracious way of being is good and right. 

Barbara Green writes at length summarizing these points:

God has designed for Jonah a ministry the prophet needed to undertake.  God’s survey turned up evil in Nineveh, but not simply that.  The prophet and the pagans share a need for God’s gentle instruction, each distinctively.  Jonah, assigned, acts out his resistant reaction not once but a number of times.  But God persists, pursues, not in angry determination but in anxious love.  While God woos Jonah, others benefit as well.  There are plenty of God’s gifts to go around.  Care for one creature can splash over onto others.  Lavish love. . . . Jonah cries to God, who responds.  Jonah emerges changed from his experience.  But conversion is never really complete; there are always more possibilities to explore.  So Jonah, re-commissioned, preaches, effectively, successfully; but he is not satisfied.  As is now his integrity, he speaks up his feelings about God’s qualities that seem troublesome instead of comforting.  And God, attentive and patient, helps him push for additional insight.

               And, so, Barbara Green concludes that the central insight of the Book of Jonah is about how we are all related—God, people, whales, plants, etc.  And God is pursuing Jonah in order to teach him, to provide him opportunities to learn, to push him to new insights.  So she identifies that this story is about “the gradual and painful stages of humanization.”

               Which may also explain the abrupt and inconclusive ending.  Because the journey to our full and best humanity is on-going.  We always have more to learn, more changes to make, more realizations to repent for, more insights to probe.

               Around the same time I was reading Barbara Green’s commentary on the Book of Jonah, I also read Randy Woodley’s new book Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview in which he encourages a decolonization of Christian teaching and informing it instead with Native American values and wisdom.  Some of his themes aligned with Green’s take on Jonah.  Woodley writes:

We are all simply human beings, imperfect but learning from our mistakes.  Those mistakes make us human.  And being human by climbing out on a limb in order to reach others is the most spiritual state of being in which we may find ourselves.

               Woodley proclaims that in order to heal from the wounds of the colonial past we need to undergo a process of “rehumanizing.”  This process involves listening, gaining awareness, lamenting together, making restitution through reparations, and finally memorializing the past by telling the history.  This is a process of openness and vulnerability, both of which Woodley says we see modeled by Jesus and the Creator.  He calls the Creator “the most vulnerable being who exists.”  So if we are going to be more like the Creator, then we must open ourselves to vulnerability that brings healing.

               He adds to this that we must also learn to let go of control.  Part of the healing is letting go and not wanting to control everything.  It seems to me that Jonah had a problem just going with the flow of God’s grace.  Part of what he has to learn is that he isn’t able to control everything.

               A key principle of this rehumanizing, according to Randy Woodley, is to not treat people as objects in our own agenda.  If we love people, we must respect their dignity.

               I was struck by this way of framing a core ethical principle.  Woodley’s words resonate with what I’ve learned in my philosophical training, but I think with clarity he states it directly and simply—don’t treat other people as objects in our own agenda. 

               And it seems to me that’s part of what Jonah’s having to learn in his journey too.  The sailors, the Ninevites, the whale, the plant—all of these deserve their own dignity and respect, all of them have their own relationships with God, God cares for them, they don’t just exist as characters in Jonah’s story.

               As a second key principle Randy Woodley teaches us that our responsibility is to keep harmony.  Harmony is a key indigenous value, and Woodly believes it resonates with the Hebrew idea of shalom.  Our responsibility as the Creator’s human children is to keep harmony—inside ourselves, with other people, with the land around us, and with the animals.  While the dignity of each of us must be respected, we are also all interconnected, such that what one of us does affects others.  So we must be aware of this in our actions, so that we are always respectful, loving, balanced.

               This rehumanizing calls us to take risks, so that we might develop better and healthier relationships.  And together we will become more fully human.

               So, like Jonah and the Ninevites, we are being called to repentance by a merciful God, who pursues us, with lavish love, offering us more opportunities to become fully human.

               This summer we’ve gotten in some Good Trouble, as we explored these ancient stories of prophets, rulers, and God’s compassion and justice.  In these stories we’ve discovered teachings about courage, integrity, humility, and conviction.  They’ve lifted up the importance of critical questions, of listening to a myriad of voices, and also standing firm in the face of coercive power.  We’ve explored autonomy, agency, liberty, and dignity, and the ways those values intersect with contemporary concerns, especially the ways that abusive political power continues to threaten core aspects of our humanity.  We’ve learned that compassion is power, and words can change the world.  And we’ve talked about the meaning of history, how the way things turn out depends on the choices we make and the actions we take. 

               And, in all of this, God is on our side.  When the ruler is a tyrant.  When those in power are corrupt or incompetent or even insane.  When chaos seems unleashed, and terrible monsters are on the prowl.  With us in the fiery furnaces and lions’ dens.  With us when we are uncertain and afraid, stuck in the belly of a whale.

               God’s justice and God’s power and God’s compassion are on our side.  Pushing us to new insights, pursuing us in love, standing with us in danger.  And always working for our deliverance, salvation, and healing, so that we might be strong, courageous, and free.

A Forever Kingdom

A Forever Kingdom

Daniel 7

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

30 July 2023

               We’ve finished with the legends that compose the first half of the Book of Daniel and today will look at one of the apocalyptic visions recorded in the second part of the book.  Get ready for terrifying monsters and strange encounters.  Hear now the Word of the Lord:

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

            According to commentator C. L. Seow, what we have here is a “vision of chaotic terror.”  Four terrifying beasts arising from the sea. 

            The sea, you might remember, throughout the Old Testament represents primeval chaos over which God’s Spirit moved at the dawn of Creation.  In many Ancient Near Eastern cultures, the sea was the source of chaos and evil, and the creation of the world was brought about by the hero god slaying a sea monster and using her body (for it was usually a she) to fashion the world.

            The Hebrew telling demythologized those stories.  Instead of a pantheon of gods and goddesses and divine monsters, there was one sovereign Lord of all who brought the world into being by speaking.  No fighting.  No defeated monsters.

            But still the monsters lurk in the pages of the Old Testament, like the Leviathan and Behemoth in the Book of Job.  And the sea retains its symbolic force as a representation of chaos and disorder.

            An idea which we have never lost, of course.  Moby Dick terrorizes sailors.  Jaws lurks beneath the waters.  Godzilla arises from the ocean to destroy the city. 

            So it is fitting that these images of terror arise from the sea.  The vision suggests that creation is coming undone.  Order is collapsing.  And chaos has returned.

            According to Seow the vision communicates the danger that “nothing less than world order is at stake as creation seems to become undone.”

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

            If you’ve ever wondered where those images of God as an old man with long white hair comes from, this passage is it.  The Ancient of Days enthroned in judgement. 

            This chapter in Daniel draws upon many images familiar to the people and the cultures of the ancient near east.  Daniel takes them and refashions them and reinterprets them and puts them to new uses.

            The image here of the Ancient of Days draws upon Canaanite mythology and the image of its High God El.  And like that Canaanite deity did, soon a divine council is called. 

            But here instead of a pantheon of various Gods there is one God, Lord of the universe, passing judgement upon the forces of chaos and terror and bringing order and justice back to the world. 

            Before I read the next section, I want to point out that it too will take an image from Canaanite myth and reshape it.  One of the Canaanite gods was Baal, the storm god.  Earlier this summer we encountered Baal when Elijah was contending with Baal’s prophets during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel.  One of the common images of Baal was that he would appear as a rider on the clouds.  So pay attention to how this book reshapes that image.

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And the human came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To the human was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve the human. Whose dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and whose kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

            So instead of a storm god riding the clouds, who appears is a human being.  This image will later develop into the concept of the Son of Man and how that title related to the Messiah.  And the Gospel writers will claim that title and image for Jesus.  And the Book of Revelation will interpret Jesus as the rider on the clouds.

            But I think it is a mistake to read a prophecy about Jesus or incarnation into this passage.  That’s not, I believe, what the author of this text was intending.  Instead, this seems to be just a human, any human, an everyperson. 

            And with that something really incredible has happened.  The agent of God’s judgement upon the forces of chaos and disorder isn’t some divine being or superhero, it’s just a human being.  God will give power and authority to an ordinary human.

            But wait, there’s more.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask her the truth concerning all this. So she said that she would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

            I invite you on your own to read the rest of this chapter, which continues in more detail with the interpretation of the vision.  I’ll summarize that here and then make a few general points that I believe are most relevant to us.

            The divine attendant tells Daniel the meaning of the vision and the four beasts.  They represent human empires.  The forces of terror and destruction then are not really primordial monsters—they are human institutions.  So, while this vision is apocalyptic and strange, it’s true meaning is about human history and power and what we humans do with it.

            Of course there has long been speculation about the empires involved, even though the Book of Daniel itself doesn’t say.  It seems to most scholars that the references are to the Babylonians, the Medes, and the Persians.  The fourth beast are the Greco-Macedonian empires that came in the wake of Alexander the Great.  And the arrogant horn is that great villain Antiochus Epiphanes IV, he of the abomination of desolation we talked about a few weeks ago.

            Side note on late twentieth century apocalyptic ideas in American fundamentalism that tried to interpret these beasts for our time—the lion was the British empire of course, with the eagle’s wings being the US.  The bear was the Soviet Union.  Etc.  Utter rubbish, but it demonstrates the lasting force of images like this and the ways that they have been used by humans to make sense of history.

            For the interpretation of history is what is going on here.  The author of Daniel is telling us that despite how things look, even when the forces of history seem to be controlled by chaos monsters, God is ultimately in charge and will restore order.

            These images were deeply influential in the century following the Protestant Reformation, as people struggled to make sense of the chaos, war, and violence they were living through.  One of the writers who influenced our Pilgrim parents was the French Huguenot Philippe Duplessis-Mornay.  Mornay drew upon the stories of kings and prophets in the Old Testament in writing his book The Defense of Liberty Against Tyranny in which he claimed that “if the sovereign failed to keep faith with his subjects, and with God, then the people were free to be rid of him.  If the covenants were broken, the people had to repair the breach with the Lord, even if that meant taking up arms against their king.”

            Earlier this year I read a book about how apocalyptic writings such as this were central to the shaping of early modern thought and its new ideas of how societies should be governed.

            For example, this particular vision in Daniel was one of the sources cited by the leaders of the Peasant’s Revolt in 16th century Germany.  The revolt that frightened even Martin Luther and led him to backtrack that he didn’t mean for people to assume they had that much liberty.

            Why did this vision motivate one of the first truly radical revolts on behalf of ordinary people?  It comes at the end of what I read a moment ago—"But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

            To whom is God giving power and authority?  Humans.  C. L. Seow declares in his commentary “the agent of God’s will has not only been demythologized; the agent of God has been democratized.”  Instead of a storm god, an ordinary human.  Instead of one specific human, the many.  God is giving power to a plurality of beings, God’s faithful people.  God’s people will be God’s agents to bring order.  Seow writes, “the oppressed people of God are expected to become triumphant through this rule that transcends time.”

            And so we understand the purpose of all these legends we’ve been reading the last few weeks.  Stories about faithful people trying to live with integrity and courage in the midst of cruel and petty political systems.  These stories have been providing examples of how God’s people persist through the disorders of human history and how they participate in using God’s power to create something better.

            Despite the terrifying images and strange appearances, this vision is about how humans wield power.  Do they create monstrous empires that enact cruelty and oppression upon the people and the world?  Or do they wield it justly and democratically, upholding the dignity and the liberty of all people? 

            Yes, right here in this wild vision of Daniel is one of the sources that fired the imaginations of our predecessors four centuries ago who laid the groundwork for the democratic age. 

            And it remains a challenge to us—how do we use the power God has given to us?  For it’s what we choose to do that makes sense of history.  The meaning of history is in our hands.

            Let me close with a bit of twentieth century political philosophy.  For it says something similar to Daniel’s vision about the power we people have to shape history.  It comes from the magisterial volume The Open Society & Its Enemies by Karl Popper:

It is we who introduce purpose and meaning into nature and into history.  Men are not equal; but we can decide to fight for equal rights.  Human institutions such as the state are not rational, but we can decide to fight to make them more rational.  We ourselves and our ordinary language are, on the whole, emotional rather than rational; but we can try to become a little more rational . . .  History itself—I mean the history of power politics . . .—has no end nor meaning, but we can decide to give it both.  We can make it our fight for the open society and against its enemies. . .  It is up to us to decide what shall be our purpose in life, to determine our ends.

            So, let us resolve to use God’s power for good—for justice and love and beauty and liberty, fashioning an open and pluralistic society where the dignity and conscience and integrity and autonomy of all are respected, so that together we all might flourish.  And this shall be an everlasting reign—forever and ever.  Amen.