Dreams can be inspiring, scary, or confusing. Ever try to make sense of your own dreams? How about selecting a passage from Daniel 7 and trying to preach a prophet’s dream to your congregation as the good news for them on a given Sunday? The Lectionary offers us just that opportunity this week. We are given a pairing of passages from Daniel 7 that interestingly avoid most of the details of Daniel’s dream, but close with a resounding message of hope. When we gather on All Saints Day to remember those who have died and gone on from our lives, Daniel 7 reminds us of the reward for God’s faithful people.
My sense is that many of our congregations need a resounding message of hope these days. It’s a good time to preach an apocalyptic biblical text. If you’re already versed in apocalyptic literature, then you have some things to draw on in preaching Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18. You can use your training to paint the picture of a persecuted people (probably historically at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes) and the power of apocalyptic messages of hope. You can explain the importance of God’s resounding reminder that those who belong to God will ultimately be vindicated and rewarded for their faithfulness. We have all sorts of people in our pews/auditorium/chairs who need to be reminded that their present reality is merely one step of a long journey towards or with God who holds the end in hand and offers promises that bring hope. This hope is relevant for the particular meaning and purpose of All Saints Day, but also for the broader context of Christian life in general.
One of my first thoughts upon researching this text came in my first reading–Nothing matters before the “,but…” You may have heard the statement that nothing a person says before they say, but…, matters. Tell me a bunch of kind things then say, but you really don’t like me, and I’m going to see the last half of that sentence as more true. I keep this in mind when I offer students feedback on their assignments. I keep this idea in mind when I talk with people in a critical manner. And I try my best to keep this in mind when I’m having serious or challenging conversations with my spouse, kids, friends, and other loved ones.
In this passage the idea that nothing matters before the “but…” serves to highlight what is most significant in this passage. The vision and dream is the part that can be confusing and counfounding. But what follows after the “but” is clear. It’s a message of hope. W. Sibley Towner states, “modern commentators are generally agreed that chapter 7 is the single most important chapter of the Book of Daniel” (Daniel, Interpretation Series, John Knox Press, p. 91). In this passage we transition from the hero stories (like Daniel in the Lions’ Den of Daniel 6) to “private reception of visions of the future destiny of God’s chosen ones” (91). Chapter 7 offers a few moves that are omitted in the Lectionary: an animal allegory on history, a heavenly scene featuring the judgment of the earthly kingdoms, and the vesting of earthly dominion in ‘one like a son of man.’
And yet, maybe you’re like me—thinking, it’s tricky these days preaching dreams as revelation moments. Most of us who have pastored for a season can become hesitant to immediately associate dreams with God’s revelation. How do we preach this prophetic dream when today those claiming revelation by dream most likely incite our suspicion? And yet, dreams and visions are the preferred way of revelation for biblical writers. Wesleyans rely on a theology of God’s continuing action and revelation through the Holy Spirit to empower lives of holiness. Furthermore– this vision resonates with the thrust of other non-dream-based scriptures. Daniel 7 presents the claim that no matter how bad our present suffering and persecution—God sees and reminds us that in the end God’s people will possess the holy kingdom for ever and ever. We may see people squandering their gifts, harming others, and idolatrously claiming divine favor and importance. However, these world leaders fail to understand the truth about the future and end. In the end, God’s people are the ones rewarded. Not those who seem in power over us now.
There is a lot to the dynamics of chapter 7 in Daniel. The historical context offers the preacher handles to get into analogies to current events and the literary and historical questions of this chapter’s relation to the well-known court stories of Daniel 2-6 would offer further preaching angles. In order for a preacher to handle those well—she or he would need to spend far more time unpacking the historical dating, context and literary connections between the vision in chapter 7 and the vision in a dream in chapter 2. I can recommend the Interpretation series volume on Daniel by W. Sibley Towner and the New Interpreter’s Bible volume VII, (“Daniel” by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher) for those who want to get into the weeds. I do think there is much to be gained by investigating the historical-critical work on this passage. It is ripe with implications for faithful life as God’s people in light of a variety of situations with which your congregation may resonate. However, my advice is to avoid the weeds and focus on the ways that this passage in the lectionary points to its purpose by the selection of verses 1-3 and 15-18. The point seems to be that God had given Daniel a vision—the primary form of revelation for that time—in order to communicate as prophet to an oppressed and persecuted people that God is the one who judges and the holy people of God are the ones who will receive the reward and blessings in the grand scheme of things.
As you prepare to preach this week, I hope you’ll read this passage slowly. Keep the “skipped over” verses in mind. There are interesting parallels with Daniel chapter 2 (the lion, bear, leopard, and beast with iron teeth probably link up with the golden head, silver chest, bronze belly, and legs and feet of iron and clay respectively). And yet, remember that the most true and important message comes after the but. God’s people will be rewarded. Stay the course. Keep the most important things front and center. Resist the temptation to fall in line with ways that don’t lead people to God’s flourishing. This week is an opportunity to remind the hurting and scared people in your context that the future is God’s. Preach boldly and remind people of the Spirit’s comfort and power.