The Last Judgment Sermon

We’re going to be in the book of Daniel this morning—
you didn’t see that one coming did you?

It’s about two-thirds the way through your Bibles,
right after the three major prophets of Hebrew Scriptures.

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…
and then you’ll find Daniel.

Daniel is wacky book,
and we’re going to be jumping into one of it’s wackiest chapters—chapter 7.

This week we’re going to be talking about that bit of the Creed
that says Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead.

I know, I know…
We’re changing our plans a little.

I was finally going to talk about us a little bit this week 
(about the holy and universal church)
and then wrap with the end of the world next week.

But the more I reflected on it—as I prayed through it—I realized that
the way we understand the future changes the way we live in the present.

In the seasons of my life
where things seem to be spinning out of control,
where I can’t imagine what the future holds,
those are the time I’m likely to slip into despair or depression or destructive habits.

When the future seems dark,
the present seems dark.

But the opposite is also true.

Even when the present is painful,
even when the present is hard,
even when the present feels chaotic—
if I can see hope in future then I somehow find hope in the present.

I think this why the creed points us toward the future—toward the ultimate future—
before it starts talking about the church in the present.

I think that maybe before we learn to become the church in the present,
as we learn to confess the future.

And so we’re talking about the future judgment this week,
and then next week we’ll end our series on the Creed by talking about the church.

Sound like a plan?

Now, we’ve arrived at a point in the Creed
that doesn’t quite sound like good news.

Each week we’ve been saying that the good news is about God,
(about what God is like, what God does, etc, etc.).

But judgment—that doesn’t sound like good news.

Jesus is going to come to judge the living and the dead.

How is judgment a good thing?
How is judgment good news?
How is judgment gospel?

But listen to the way the psalmist describes God’s judgment:

(Ps 98.7-9) Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples with equity.

The psalmist is looking forward
to the day when God comes to judge the world.

When we’re confessing
that Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead,
we’re confessing that kind of thing.

A day when the world will celebrate—
when the rivers will break into applause
and the mountains break into song.

And to help us reflect on the judgment of God, we’re going to be reading
one of the most famous passages about judgment in all of the Bible.

(Daniel 7.1-15) 
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream.

Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.

“The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it.

“And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’

“After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule.

After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns.

“While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully.

“As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
    and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
    the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
    and its wheels were all ablaze.
A river of fire was flowing,
    coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
    ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
    and the books were opened.

“Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.”

Yeah. No doubt.

Like most dreams,
this is a little wild, a little psychedelic, a little trippy.

You kinda wonder what Daniel ate before he went to sleep.
(Maybe extra mushrooms on a midnight pizza was mistake.)

What is all of this about?

Thankfully, we’re given some direction from the text itself
on how to interpret all of this wackiness.

Because in verse 16, Daniel asks someone,
“Hey what’s all of this about?”

(7.16-18) “I approached one of those standing there and asked him the meaning of all this. So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: ‘The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’”

We’ll stop there.

The rest of the chapter keeps talking about the dream and thinking about the dream,
but I think we’ve got plenty to think about.

If you’re like me and find it helpful to writing in your Bible,
you might just mark those three verses (v16, 17, 18) somehow.

Underline them, bracket them,
put stars next to them, something.

These verses are key to understanding this chapter.
Even the wildest imagery in the Bible is not a free-for-all.

This dream is about kings and kingdoms.

One kingdom rising after the last kingdom,
and then more kingdoms rising after that one.

The world full of different kingdoms,
different empires, different governments…
one after the next after the next.

That’s almost like the history of the world isn’t it?

Empire after empire,
government after government,
history marches on and on—

it’s like this endless line of kingdoms
trying to rule the world.

Through power,
through economics,
through military might.

The names come and go.

Cairo and Athens,
Rome and Constantinople,
Berlin and Moscow,
London and Washington—

And then eventually
a new kind of kingdom arrives.

A kingdom from God himself (v9),
that burns away all evil and wickedness and pride,
and brings about a kingdom that will never be destroyed (v14).

An everlasting kingdom.

So let’s think a little bit about this dream for a few minutes,
and then we’ll make two reflections on it,
and then we’ll come to the table.

The dream begins with swirling water—
in fact it’s a great sea.

Imagine the last time you were on a beach and looking at the ocean.

If there were ever a place that that was opposed to the order and goodness of God,
it would be the untamable and seemingly unending chaos of the sea.

In the ancient world, it was hard to imagine anything
more mysterious and dangerous and terrifying than that.

And now beasts—horrible, monstrous beasts—
are coming out of that chaos—out of that mysterious, swirling chaos.

These beasts are emerging out of the sea (v3).

And each of these kingdoms is monstrous—
they’re like some kind of grotesque kindergarten project.

(Maybe “Make a Furry Frankenstein.”)

You spread out a bunch of animal pieces on a table—
heads and legs and wings and fur and teeth—
and then just let the kids go for it.

“I call this first one Larry the Ligle.
A Ligle is kind of like Lion, kind of like an Eagle. Isn’t that neat?
And look—his wings come off too!
And he stands like a person too.
That’s because he’s got a person brain.”

Oh? Larry the LIgle, huh?
That’s great, honey.

Not quite the sort of things you find in a petting zoo.
Not quite the sort of things you find anywhere in nature.

But that’s the kind of things that all of these beasts are.

The book of Leviticus would take one glance at poor Larry the Ligle
and say, “That’s unnatural. That’s unclean. That’s nothing like what God had in mind.”

And yet these nothing-like-God-had-mind monsters are ruling the world.
They’re awful, and the fourth one is the worst (v7).

This one has got lots of horns—
ten horns in fact.

This one is really strong—
that’s what horns symbolize in apocalyptic literature.

Heck, that’s what horns symbolize even at the zoo.

You go to the rhino pen,
and you look at the rhinos hanging out,
with their great big horns,

and then you go to the hippo pool,
and look at the hippos floating there
…with their lack of horns.

Who are you going to choose in a fight?

Probably the one
with the sword
coming out of his head.

Horns just look strong.
And this fourth monster has ten of them.

And then another horns—a little horn—is talking (v8).
Whew—this is strange dream.

Thankfully, later in the chapter we get told
that then ten horns are actually ten kings (v27)

So that would make this little prideful horn a little prideful king.
and verse 27 goes on to say that this little horn—this king—
is abusing and hurting and oppressing the people of God.

Verse 21 says that this king is waging war 
against “the holy people” and defeating them.

Things aren’t as they should be.

It’s darkness and dangerous and absolute chaos—
but then God appears (the good news is about God).

The Ancient of Days appears—
the One who is above all,
the One who is before all,
the One who has always been.

And the Ancient of Days
passes judgement.

The Ancient of Days
makes things right.

The final beast, the worst beast—
and his ten horns and the small prideful horn—
is totally destroyed (v11).

The forces of evil are plunged
into into a river of fire (v10) that flows from his thrown—
into the brilliant, purifying presence of God (his very throne is on fire, v9).

And the very presence of God
burns away all evil, banishes all shadows,
and establishes a new kingdom—a new order to the world.

And did you notice what this kingdom is pictured as?

I’ll give you a hint (v13), 
it’s not unclean,
it’s not unnatural, 
it’s not a monster.

It’s not even an animal.

It’s “one like a son of man.”
It’s a human being.

Oh man—breath that in.

Because the dream just shifted
from nightmare to gospel.

The world has been dominated
by the inhumane, by the inhuman,
by all kinds of savagery, by all kinds of barbarism,
by crushing and trampling and devouring and terror.

Things haven’t been the way God meant—
the beasts having been ruling the world.

But that’s nowhere close to Genesis 1.

The world wasn’t meant to be ruled by animals,
the world was meant to be ruled by people—

By people who reflected image of God into the world—
who extended the dancing delight of the Trinity throughout all creation.

And now, with the coming of this Son of Man (v13),
things are finally the way they’re supposed to be—

shadows have been banished,
the king is finally human
and dancing now fills the land.

God has judged the world,
and it’s good news.

Now there are a lot passages in the New Testament
that we could be looking at today…
parables from the Gospels,
the end of 1 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians or 2 Peter,
the middle of Romans,
certain parts of Revelation.

I’m sure we’ll be looking at those passages down the road sometime,
but today there are two primary reasons that we’re thinking about Daniel 7.

First, Daniel 7 keeps us humble
about what we say about the future.

This is a really hard bit of Scripture for us to read.

We like neat and polished interpretations of Scripture

We want the Bible to give us clear forecast of history,
we want tomorrow’s news today
preferably with colorful charts and timelines of future events.

But instead of that,
we get passages like this.

We want details. God gives a dream.

And even with the help we get later in the chapter,
it’s impossible to nail down details of a dream.

I mean the general shape is clear enough—
especially when the way the nightmare ends—
but when we try to get close, it all gets fuzzy.

And I don’t think that’s just true of Daniel 7,
I think that’s true of those New Testament passages too.

We can get general shapes
from Sheep and Goats,
or from Paul’s correspondence,
or from John’s visions—

that God is going to restore the world, 
that God is going to finally destroy evil,
that God is going to rescue anyone willing to be his people,

…but we can’t say much more than that. 
And we certainly can’t say when.

From what I can tell, there’s just enough of a general shape
to let us know that it’s going to happen.

That should keep us humble.

But Daniel 7 also keeps us hopeful.

There’s a general shape
and it is going to happen.

That’s exactly the point of this dream—
and that’s the point the entire biblical witness is making—
when it talks about the future.

When the biblical writers gave the general shape of the future in dream-like language,
they were not encrypting it in hopes that one day
someone might crack the code
and finally figure it out.

Best I can tell, the reason that God gives us
the general shape of the future
is so that we could have hope in the present.

If the human race has no destiny,
if there’s no higher plan, if there’s no larger story,
then why does the present matter at all?

How can we find hope in the present,
how can we face suffering of today or the struggle of tomorrow
if our bodies are just going to fall apart one day,
and all our loved ones are just going to die one day?

Why would we work for justice in the present,
why would we try to alleviate hunger,
why do we try to cure diseases,
if the human race is one day—inevitably—going to be extinct?

Why would justice or hunger or sickness matter?

What’s the point?
Why does any of it matter?

For two thousand years, the church has said the reason everything matters
is because this world has a judge—someone who is going to set it right.

“One like a Son of Man” will eventually set this world right,
will eventually set history right, will eventually set our lives right.

That title, by the way, (“Son of Man”)
is Jesus’ favorite title for himself.

Other people call him Rabbi or Messiah or even Son of God (a kingly title),
but when Jesus talks about himself, he calls himself “Son of Man.”

That’s his favorite (most frequent) title for himself.

Jesus knew about this wacky dream.
And he says, “I’m that guy.”

“I’m the Human One. I’m the Son of Man.
I’m the one who is going to set things right one day.

“That’s how you can go on,
that’s why you should care,
that’s how you can hope.”

“Because I’ve experienced evil and death, 
I’ve conquered evil and death, 
and one day I’m going to banish evil and death.”

The good news is about God.

That God has given us a judge 
who will banish the nightmare 
and who announces good news.

And as we begin to believe this good news—
that Jesus is going to judge the living and the dead
and the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting—
the future begins to give us hope.

The future isn’t something to fear.
It isn’t full of chaos and monsters and death.

The future is full of the Son of Man. 
The Son of Man who has all power and glory and authority.

The future is a place where Jesus already is—
and Jesus is lovingly, relentlessly, bringing us to where he is.

The future isn’t something we have to make,
to have to earn, or have to build.

The future is something that God freely gives.
Because that’s what God is like.

This table is the place where we come in the present—right now, in fact—
and where we begin to trust the Son of Man.

After all, if every shadow is to be banished forever,
why shouldn’t I be banished forever?

I know my heart, I know my actions—and I’m full of shadows.

This table is the place where we approach the fiery presence of God
and invite him to burn away not only the monsters of the world,
but even the monster within us.

This table is the place where we trust that (mercy of mercy)
the judge has been judged in our place,
and we can trust him with our future.

This table is the place where we find the future freely given
so that we can learn faith and hope and love in the present.

This is the place where we hear that

the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup,
we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Our table is an open table—
open to all who are hungry and thirsty for real and lasting life;
open to all who believe the judge when he says that his body is for them.

In just a moment, you’ll be invited to come down this center aisle,
to receive a bit of bread, to dip it into the cup,
and then return to your seat along the side aisles.

As you come this morning,
may you trust that the world’s darkness will be banished by the light of Easter,
may you trust that the resurrected one is drawing even you into his future.