George Frideric Handel's “Hallelujah Chorus” features the refrain now famously associated with Christmas: “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah! [and then skipping ahead a bit] King of kings, and Lord of lords! And He shall reign for ever and ever.” To us today, “king of kings and lord of lords” is a beautiful—if archaic—expression of majesty. But to our ancient ancestors in the faith, “king of kings” was fighting words. It was claim to universal power and domination over all rivals. No wonder, then, that the earliest expression of Christian faith was: “Christos kyrios,” ancient Greek for “Jesus is Lord.” Because the kings of old were jealous, greedy men. To be king was to hunt and kill for the prize of being “king of kings, and lord of lords.” There is reason, too, that Jesus Christ received crucifixion: the cross was reserved for enemies of the Roman state, rebels, and those threatening to overturn the social and political order. To say “Jesus is lord” is to say that Caesar is not.
The part of Daniel where today's verses come from has a unique genre, a kind of writing most modern societies have lost: apocalypse literature. When I say “apocalypse literature,” I don't mean writing about the world's destruction per se: no Mad Max, Snowpiercer, or Planet of the Apes here. “Apocalypse” is literally the ancient Greek word meaning “revealing.” And so as a genre, Biblical apocalypse is less about the end of the world... and more about the revealing of God's plan for the world. Why do you think we call New Testament's apocalyptic book Revelation? That's the literal translation of the Greek word “apocalypse” and the literal meaning of what apocalypse as a genre is about: revelation. Apocalyptic literature usually has a few key traits: 1) divine revelation about the secret workings of world history, 2) heavy symbolism and coded meaning, 3) angels appear more often than normal, 4) history is divided into distinct stages, 5) the writing points to a fulfillment of history when God's plan is finally complete, and 6) its purpose is inspiring hope in readers despite present suffering and chaos. So Biblical apocalypses usually feature the end of the world, but that's not the point. The point of apocalypse—where that word gets its name—is in the revealing of God's plan. In some ways, the Christmas story we'll celebrate next month is an apocalypse story, a story of God revealing his divine plan for rescuing the world from evil and chaos.
Our Daniel text today focuses on a revelation of God in full grandeur, an apocalyptic vision, and so God is our focus today. But I would be remiss to overlook what comes before and between today's verses: a vision of four beasts, symbolizing four empires and four stages of history. Their shapes and actions vary, but what's important is what each beast means. Most Bible scholars today argue the beasts symbolize the various empires who would dominate God's people in the near future: first Babylonians like Nebuchadnezzar whom Daniel already knows, then Medes like Darius who conquers Babylon in Daniel's story, then Persians like Cyrus II, and finally a Greek empire forged by Alexander the Great and split among his successor-generals. Four great beasts, four great empires. And these beasts... are hungry, violent, scrabbling with each other for power... just like the ancient empires they reflect. Each empire's overlord—whether Babylonian, Mede, Persian, or Greek—would claim that dread and blood-soaked title “king of kings, and lord of lords” through violence, genocide, and other acts of terror and cruelty. And when the Romans in turn conquer the land, they were quick to claim that title in turn, demanding new subjects swear “kaiser kyrios,” “Caesar is lord.” No surprise, then that the Church's assertion of “Christos kyrios,” “Christ is lord,” caused many of the first Christian martyrs at the hands of Caesar and so many other would-be kings of kings.
But there is a problem, a defect that almost every king of kings succumbs to. Percy Shelley's poem captures it best: “I met a traveller from an antique land, / Who said—'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, / Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, / The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; / And on the pedestal, these words appear: / My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.'” Every mortal king of kings who ever ruled did so on on the backs of countless dead and bloodied. Every mortal king of kings held his title by announcing not joy the world... but rather, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Every mortal king of kings kept his throne by instilling chaos and fear among all who might oppose. Every mortal king of kings who ever lived... is dead. And most are forgotten, lost to the sands of time like the poetic statue of Ozymandias lost to the desert. King of kings is a fool's title for any mortal to claim.
The more I delve into ancient history, the weirder the God of the Bible becomes. Nearly every ancient king claimed to either be the representative of a god or to be a god incarnate. The human kings scrabbling for power clutched at divinity. And in light of every other nation around them, the ancient Israelites' God is... odd. Because while every other nation had kings claiming to be gods, the Israelites had a God offering to be their king. While all other ancient empires had kings claiming to be gods, the Israelites had a God stooping down to ask to be their king. And unlike the emperors and pharaohs of the world, this God-king didn't want statues in his image, for the Israelites' God-king claimed that all humanity was made in his image. And the Israelites' God-king didn't like his people having mortal kings, because mortal lords might confuse the Israelites about who was really in charge. And after taking a homeland for God's people, the Israelites' God-king didn't care much for conquering or dominating others: his plan for becoming king of kings was more subtle, orderly, and peaceful. Instead, this amorphous, spiritual God who rejected human depiction or representation... claimed the mantle of king over the ancient Israelites... but rejected the common trappings of ancient monarchy. That same quirk of elusive royal divinity shows up in Jesus of Nazareth, who when he walked the earth called himself “Son of Man,” in homage to Daniel's vision here. For Jesus was hailed as king, but rejected revolution. Jesus was praised as God, but tossed aside the trappings of divinity to live among the poor and the outsiders. Jesus was filled with power, but he used it not to grow his own prestige but to serve others in the lowest and humblest of ways.
This apocalypse of Daniel's... it wasn't written for folks who had their act together. Daniel's vision is not for the ones who sleep comfortably at night. This book of scripture was written during a time when God's people were in subjugation, slavery, and exile. The four beasts of Daniel's revelation are four rival empires who will batter each other to death for supremacy. And the little nation of Israel to which Daniel belongs is a mere bargaining chip in grand power plays at best... or collateral damage at worst. The promise of a king who will set things right... was not meant for folks doing pretty well under the Babylonians' thumb. The vision Daniel has of God as the true king of kings—the throne of fire, the angelic court, the dominion and glory, the rule over all the world—that revelation is not a validation of human empire but a rejection of it. Daniel's vision of the crowning of the Son of Man does not legitimize human power but subverts all mortal pretension to that title king of kings, for at the end of days Daniel promises every beastly empire will be defanged and every knee will bow to the Prince of Peace. Its a vision declaring that—while beasts may hold the power for now—change is gonna come.
Already stores are covered in Christmas decorations telling us to be happy and start shopping. Already jingles are creeping onto the radio about this being the most wonderful time of the year. We've barely touched the Thanksgiving leftovers, it's not even Advent yet, and a holly-jolly Christmas already is barging in. Daniel's vision was not for folks whose days were merry and bright. The promise of a king, a messiah to set things right, one like the Son of Man who would rescue the people from the beasts of this world... the promise of Christ the king was for the little guys of the world, the ones caught between the gears of history, us ordinary common people. The short-term of Daniel's vision has already come true: the four beastly empires have all died and been lost to history. Now we wait in an in between time, much like Daniel's first readers did while languishing in Persian captivity. It was for the people barely surviving another Blue Christmas... that Daniel reveals this vision of the Ancient of Days at last taking the throne forever. Daniel's vision of flaming thrones and divine lordship is a promise that all earthly titles will one day fall, when the true king of kings rules from a throne of mercy and justice.
So on this Christ the King Sunday, we remember the Christmas call is to “go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is Lord.” For when the Caesars and Nebuchadnezzars of this life claim to be king of kings over us, abuse their power over us, make us feel as if hope itself were pointless... we remember the vision and promise revealed to Daniel. That beasts may rage and tear for now—whatever their power over us may actually be, whether politic, financial, spiritual, or personal—beasts may rage for now. But relief is promised, justice will come. In a world that too often seems so far from merry and bright, we remember that Jesus Christ did not come to earth to remain a tiny baby in a stable manger. Jesus came because Jesus is Lord, because he is at last asserting his rights as the true king of kings. But not through sword or terror... but through gentleness, love, and the sacrifice of his own life. And now the throne has been claimed, the coronation begun, and we in the between wait with eager hope for the trumpet call to at last ring the start of Christ's reign. So as we enter into Advent next week, as you see signs of Christmas on the radio and in decorations… remember that Christmas is apocalyptic, a revelation of God’s plan, a promise to hold onto hope, that love and peace are not in vain. May it be so. Amen.