Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sermon: Daniel 8:1-27 The Ram and the Goat

This morning I’ve got a question for you: Does God know what will happen in the future? Do you think that God can tell what the future holds before it happens?

The reason I ask the question is that it’s one of the questions that some people ask when they read the later chapters of Daniel. They look at some of the detail that is written, things like the way the kingdoms rise and fall, or the 2300 evenings and mornings of devastation, and they decide that this must have been written afterwards.

Daniel may well have been in Babylon around 600BC, but surely these chapters must have been written after the things they’ve described in 200BC? Is it someone else who has pretended to be Daniel, to make him look good, that he was able to tell all these things in advance? Because, let’s get real - no one can tell what the future holds, can they??

But when we come to the Bible, we aren’t just dealing with words that people have written down. These human words are the very words of the living God - the God who says that ‘I am God and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.’ (Is 46:9-10).

After all, if you were writing it to make it look like Daniel was the hero, you wouldn’t include the bits where Daniel says I don’t understand this - in verse 15, but also in verse 27 after the angel Gabriel has explained it!

This is Daniel writing, recording a vision he received in the third year of Belshazzar - two years after the one from chapter 7. Once again the living God is declaring the end from the beginning. God is telling him what the future holds. So what is it all about, and why is Daniel told?

In the last chapter we encountered some scary beasts - the lion with eagle wings; the bear with tusks and teeth; the leopard with four wings and four heads; and the unmentionable beast. In this new vision there are just two beasts - perhaps more familiar to a farming community, but still scary in their own way.

Daniel sees a ram with two horns which charges about to the west and north and south. It rules the roost (to mix metaphors). Every other beast is powerless to withstand it. Perhaps you would have a ram or a bull that is (excuse me) top dog. Everyone leaves it alone. No one challenges it. Now we don’t have to guess what this is all about. We’re told in verse 20. The ram with the two horns is the kingdom of the Medes and Persians (you know the guys who would conquer Babylon later in Belshazzar’s reign, when the writing appeared on the wall). The Medes and Persians became the new superpower. No one could challenge them. They captured countries all around. They look unstoppable, for a while.

But then, from the west, comes a male goat. It’s almost a cartoon portrayal - you know when Roadrunner zooms along, not really touching the ground... You know what’s coming next - the goat tackles the ram, its one horn set to destroy. The goat throws the ram to the ground; it tramples over it.

Now again, we’re not left guessing. We’re told who this is: ‘The male goat is the king of Greece, and the great horn between its eyes is the first king.’ (21) You’ve heard of Alexander the Great? He was this king of Greece who had conquered the whole world by the age he was 30. I had barely conquered joined up writing! Greece defeated the Medes and Persians. But then Alexander died suddenly at the age of 32. The unified kingdom then divided into four lesser kingdoms, just as the four prominent horns grow up (8).

You can see why some people might be skeptical. How could Daniel know that all this political intrigue was going to happen? Surely this is more like reading a newspaper report or a history textbook rather than prophecy? But remember the claim of God in Isaiah 46: ‘declaring the end from the beginning.’ Can God do it?

From the big sweep of world history, suddenly the vision focuses in on one little character. From one of these four horn kingdoms comes a little horn. It grows exceedingly great towards south, east and ‘the beautiful land.’

Do you remember the opening titles of Dad’s Army? The arrows spreading across Europe showing the advance of the German army? It’s a bit like the advance of this little horn, this king who history records is called Antiochus Epiphanes. He advanced towards Egypt, but also toward the beautiful land - Israel - the place where Daniel is now far from, the place of his childhood.

So Daniel sees that this king will come against the restored Jerusalem in the future. Overthrowing the sanctuary (the temple) and removing the regular burnt-offering - the sacrifices of the temple. Even worse, he sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple - an abomination (or desolation) to bring and sacrifice an unclean animal on the Lord’s altar.

Imagine how this all sounds to Daniel. He remembers seeing the temple being destroyed. He longs for Jerusalem to be restored. And yet here God is telling him (something that is sure and certain to happen) that worse days are coming. Another attack, the removal of sacrifices, the defiling of the temple. It’s almost too much to take in.

Now why does God tell him all this in advance? Why would God get him to write it down several hundred years early? Well, for a start, it’s confirmation that God knows the future - when later generations read this and saw the rise of the king of Greece and then this little horn, they could be sure that God was in control.

We see it in even greater detail as we come up to Advent and Christmas and recall again the prophecies about the coming of the Lord Jesus. They are fulfilled to the smallest detail, showing that God is in control, that he knows the future, that history is His story.

But more than that, even in the darkest days for God’s people, there is the assurance that evil will not finally win. The holy ones ask ‘How long?’ It might be a question you have asked. It’s the question the martyrs ask, as they wait for final judgement in Revelation 6. The answer is given in Daniel: ‘For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful place.’

After Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple there was a revolt, led by a priest called Judas Maccabeus. His fellow Jews retook the city and a great festival was held to re-purify the temple in 165BC. It’s still remembered today as Hannukah. And it came on the very day of the fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy.

There is a God in heaven. He knows and declares the end from the beginning. The temple and its sacrifices point us to the fulfilment of all the prophecies; of that pure sacrifice that will never be defiled. And so we remember that sacrifice today. We hear the God who speaks, who gives us his precious and great promises. We can trust what he says. The end is near. So take courage, and keep going.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd November 2013.

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