‘His mercy is on them that fear him, throughout all generations’
Jesus puts a high premium on childlikeness – indeed he goes so far as to say that only the childlike can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Childlikeness has many dimensions, which as the father of five I know all too well – and not all of those things which make up childlikeness are comfortable to live with. In particular the child’s Perception, their clear sightedness. They may not understand the world – but they clearly see it! As embarassed parents can only too well testify. Indeed if you really want to know the truth about an adult, ask their offspring. How often have I known children who have seen their parents far better than their parents see themselves – and indeed I’m sure this is true of me also. I’m frequently reminded of some of my deepest flaws by my children.
This is unsettling. It is Not the way we largely assume things are. We assume that as we get older we see better, that we understand more clearly – yet in truth what we often do is to Rationalise, to ignore so much of what we See in order to make those judgements which keep us secure in the worlds we carefullly construct for ourselves. We mistake knowledge for Wisdom, a few facts for genuine insight. As we age we trade clarity of Vision with all the confusion this brings for ‘Answers’ a form of Security against the Overwhelming nature of Reality, of Light and of Life. We trade deep encounter with Life for what we sense is Power over it. And we mistake our power for maturity. Because we can drive a car, or do higher mathematics we assume we have as it were developed into something better. We smile at childrens’ insights but have lost our way, substituting power and Mastery Over life, for Wonder, Awe and indeed genuine ‘fear’ in the deepest sense of profound Respect for all that Is – that which children apprehend all too well.
This is of course not only true for us as individuals, it is also true for societies. I remember once spending a day with a colleague and friend walking the hills of the Lake District. John, my friend had one of those enviable physiques which meant he just kept going and on the day in question we’d walked nearly 40 miles over the highest hills in England, so as we descended into the valley of Borrowdale it was dark. Without torches the tiny hamlet of Seathwaite beckoned and I cried out – “Ah! Civilisation!” John without a moment’s hesitation replied- “I wouldn’t call it that”.
Not that he longed for the big city lights. No John had worked as a mission teacher for many years in Malawi. Apart from a charming Zambian wife, he’d returned with a deep apprehension of reality having been immersed in life in a way that comfortable modern westerners have never known. He’d only ever had two shirts whilst working in Malawi. One in the wash and one to wear. And that, had been luxurious living in the eyes of some folk amongst whom he lived – but on his return to the UK, he didn’t buy any more, unless they wore out. He didn’t take Western Civilisation’s own story of Advancement and Maturity as self evidently true. For him, the culture he had left, for all its privations was far more Grown Up. Wisdom flourished in amongst the harshness
Mistaking Power for Maturity, Knowledge for Wisdom we might look at this evenings reading from the Book of Daniel – ‘Daniel in the Lions Den’ as we like to call it – and declare “That’s all nonsense for babies!” “Why?” we might think “are we advanced sophisticated mature folk sat here at Choral Evensong, a place for the cultured in the church 🙂 , listening to what we’ve been taught to think (and unless we learn to think we will always be taught to think, unthinkingly) – what we’ve been taught to think are children’s stories?
Those of you familiar with the Narnia books may have recognised that expostulation – “That’s all nonsense for babies!” It comes from Prince Caspian, where the young Caspian is in conversation with his Uncle, Miraz, King of Narnia. Miraz wants to prepare Caspian for ‘the adult world’ – like so many adults, fearful of vulnerablility he projects that fear onto those weaker ones around him – but Caspian is not weaker in one vital respect – that of imagination. Whilst Miraz is encouraging his young charge to learn the way of Horse and Sword, Caspian wonders out loud – [quote from p42-3] – “Oh, but there WERE battles and adventures in the Old Days” and there was much more. Miraz, the adult has taken away from what was the Terrifying Wonder of all that is – and reduced it to a set of skills for getting on in the world – for controlling it
Miraz in his Anger – and how we bully children with our anger – finds out that Caspian’s Nurse has told him these tales. So the nurse – the symbol of childhood is sent away and a Tutor, the symbol of knowledge is employed in her stead – except that unbeknownst to Miraz – his tutor is a dwarf. And in secret he tells Caspian the truth – that Yes, the Old times were as his nurse had told him, but it was his own people, the Telmarines, who had [Quote p50.]
CS Lewis was accused by those who knew him and many who didn’t of doing precisely what Miraz scorned – the Narnia Chronicles seen, as they largely still are as ‘stories for babies’ – at the best somewhat clumsy allegory for the Christian story. Yet in this passage Lewis subtly answers his accusers 🙂
And there are powerful parallels between Lewis’ work and the book of Daniel. Not least in that both are subtly written to Reveal a world of breathtaking richness and yet simplicity, a world which we apprehend in experience and then fearfully and tentatively seek to understand, without reducing it out of fear. So we come to Daniel and this tale, a tale for our times – not because we perhaps live in an age where ‘the end of the world’ is perhaps something towards which one need not be thought mad to envisage – but because Apocalyptic is primarily a Revealing of the Reality of things, it is a tale for all times
For what is unveiled is the arrogance and the blindness of so called ‘Mature Civilisations’. ‘Grown up’ Worlds we create through our own power rooted in fear – the brutal power of a world where we think we understand pretty much what is going on, and act as authors of our own lives. [A reason why we should be far more critical of Science than most would begin to allow – but for another time] In this essentially Secular world, created by Emperors, are thrown Daniel and his three friends – in some traditions interestingly referred to as children . . .
Firstly we note the huge historical sweep of this book. It teaches us – Empires come and Empires go! When Daniel and his friends are first brought from Jerusalem to Babylon Nebuchadnezzar Rules – and his Power appears to be absolute – he appears to have power over life and death throwing the three friends into the fiery furnace. It is he who demands that his courtiers not only tell him the meaning of his dreams but the actual dream itself! But Nebuchadnezzar is brought low – he is utterly humbled.
Of course we might think we live in a different time, but still the powers that be exercise the power of life and death. Multinational corporations and Governments conspire to take decisions which lead to the death of many. Just this week it has come to light that Nestle has used its economic muscle to buy up lakes for bottling its water to sell to wealthy westerners – the lakes are in Pakistan – where annually thousands die for lack of clean water. Indeed such ruthless power is now written into international law . . . But Nebuchadnezzar IS brought low . . .Then his Son Belshazzar takes to the throne and holds the famous feast with the writing on the wall – the feast where he has thought nothing of the Sacred things of the Jerusalem temple and has drunk from them – so comes the writing on the wall. and overnight in sweep the Medes and Persians, and Babylon falls. It does not recognise the Sacred . . . a message for our times if I ever heard one. Finally comes Darius King of the Medes and Persians
Note that Daniel has been a fixture throughout all of this – Emperors and their Empires rise and fall – but the Word of the Lord embodied in the Prophet Daniel abides. Immediately we see how the text calls into question our vision of the way the world is – it invites us to see Empires rising and falling – they come and they go – they are as nothing. How the Empires of this world Consume our vision with their promises of being ‘everlasting Kingodms – bringing endless peace and prosperity! My forebears grew up and went to school where the Dominant colour was Pink – The British Empire stretched out across the globe – yet that Empire had passed by about the time New Zealand was being settled by Europeans – Over the past 150 years The American Empire has been seen to dominate world affairs. The American Vision for the world being espoused like the Pax Britannica and the Pax Romana before it as one of prosperity and peace for all – but now we see the clay feet of that ‘civilisation’ as China powers forward, if only perhaps for a brief while. Empires come and Empires go, and the message of Daniel is that they are as nothing. All of them confusing Power for maturity. Ignoring the one who dwells amongst us in Humility and Truth
Darius is like the ‘adult’ – he has enough knowledge to imagine he controls things – but he is trapped in his own conceit – as are all Emperors. From within the world as he sees it he reigns Supreme – he seems to have absolute power, so when the satraps and Presidents come to him in an attempt to trap Daniel, he sees it as not at all unreasonable that people should be required to pray to Him above all gods or people. He sees himself as the centre of the Universe. After all he has built a life for himself – a gilded life, like so may of our contemporaries – but it is a cage, albeit a gilded cage. The only security against the reality of Life is a prison . . .
So Darius is undone. For all he has is his own power – he sets the Law ‘the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked.’ When The Emperor declares a Law, it is the Law! He is trapped in the world he has made for himself and so, like others in scripture who foolishly bind themselves he is trapped by the internal logic of the world he has made for himself lIfe – Daniel MUST be thrown to the Lions
But Daniel is a child before Darius – he is as one who sees – he sees the Empires are but dust – he has seen two Emperors come and go – he has seen a new Empire rise – but in his dreams, his foolish dreams – he has seen these empires themselves turn to dust. The Emperor is not the one who rules over all – he is not the one who grants Life – Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously. Yes Daniel Saw – like a child seeing an adult he saw the deeper reality of the world of Nebuchadnezzar, and Balshazzar, and Darius – he Saw the reality of Empires – and he saw that they were but men, that all the Empires have clay feet – and he SAW God, before whom all these empires and emperors were as nothing – even though it might lead to his death, he would Live in the Truth of the vision of God. And so he went three times a day to pray . . . and God heard his prayers and rescued him from the jaws of death itself
Jesus is the one who comes before us in childlike humility and utter vulnerability – day by day he preached his very being – day by day he spoke Words which gave life. As with Daniel, the presidents and satraps, or the Pharisees and Herodians, plotted – they took Him before the Imperial throne in the person of Pilate – and sent him to his death – but no power could hold him. His Life is Life.
Jesus taught them a parable – his Life giving word was given to all an sundry – some had no ears for it – some received it with joy, but the business of saying no to the Powerful apparently all encompassing stories proved to hard, when trouble or persecution came, they withered – some was just overcome because it tried as it were to have it all – the cares and worries of this world – the lure of the good life held out to us crowds it out . . . but as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears it and understands it, who like a child is captivated with wonder and awe and deepest fear or respect for the Life it sees in Jesus – ‘His mercy is on them that fear him, throughout all generations, all empires, all ages . . . the word of the Lord stands forever’ Amen