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True Power & Glory

‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Those are the words of Lord Acton, a 19th century politician and historian and an associate of William Gladstone. His words have surely stood the test of time because they have a ring of truth about them. Powerful world leaders who are not corrupt and use their influence unselfishly for the benefit of their citizens stand out because they are a rare breed. Among such we might include Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and our present queen. It is far easier to name those who have abused their power and been corrupted by it from the Roman Emperors of the first century to medieval monarchs and Russian Tsars to the despots of the twentieth century.
It would be nice to think that given such a long history of power being so woefully corrupted throughout human history that today’s world leaders and politicians would be more enlightened. Sadly, that does not appear to be the case. The two most powerful men in the world, the presidents of America and Russia, both seem to be on a mission to empire build in ways not seen for a generation. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un continues to gloat over his developing nuclear capabilities while many in his small country endure poverty and hard ship. They are given no freedom with Christians and other minorities silenced in prison or labour camps. Incompetent and corrupt governments contribute far more to the grief and misery of the world’s peoples than natural disasters, epidemics and accidents. Venezuela is currently in turmoil as the left leaning government under President Nicolas Maduro has taken more power for itself imprisoning opposition forces.
A particularly sad and poignant example of this trend was highlighted in a piece for BBC news last week on Makhosi Khoza, a member of South Africa’s ruling Africa National Congress (ANC) She is on record as saying of her party: ‘I never thought we would chose corruption.’ As a result, she has been receiving death threats due to her criticism of Jacob Zumba, the leader of the party. This is the party which fought so hard against the injustices of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s own party, which is losing its values and using money, power and wealth in a way which abuses the very people it was set up to support.
Why do things always seem to turn out this way? What is God doing about it? Does he care about the way in which power is so misused with a large proportion of the world’s population suffering as a result?
It is against this background that the book of Daniel was written in the Old Testament from which the first reading came this morning. The book is set during the 6th Century BC when the Babylonian Dynasty was the most powerful on earth having replaced the Assyrians. King Nebuchadnezzar was on the throne. Having defeated Egypt, he went on to subdue Judea, sacking Jerusalem and carrying of many of the city’s leading inhabitants into exile. This was a time when God’s own people were on the wrong end of abusive power.
Among the exiles was a young man of many talents and a profound faith in God called Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar did not tolerate the opinions of others. Those who would not bow down to the image he had made would be thrown into a fiery furnace. This included Daniel, but God was faithful to him and his companions. Having been rescued from the flames, Daniel rose high in the royal court because of his God given ability to interpret the dreams of the kings. These dreams warn the kings that they should not misuse their power in the face of God. Darius decides to do just that declaring that whoever worships any god or being other than himself will be thrown to the lions. Again, God intervenes to rescue Daniel and Darius issues a fresh decree commanding his subjects to worship only the God of Daniel.
So, it is we come to Daniel’s dream or vision in today’s reading. (Daniel 7.9-10 & 13-14) It appears to be a picture of the very court of heaven with ‘an Ancient One’ or Ancient of Days seated on his throne. His clothes are white as snow, his throne is fiery and thousands serve him. I suppose this is the image many of us have of God, but it is intended to be deeply symbolic, the clothing and fire representing purity and throne his power and authority to judge.
As Daniel continues to watch in the night visions, he sees one ‘like a human being’ or ‘one like a son of man.’ It is to this figure that the ancient one gives dominion, and glory and kingship.
But this vision is set against the back drop of another vision contained in verses which surround the excerpts we have this morning. It is an altogether more menacing and less appealing vison of weird beasts rearing up out of a turbulent sea. They kill bodies, speak arrogantly and make war with holy people prevailing over them.
What can all this mean? It is difficult to be precise although many have tried to be. It is however abundantly clear that the beasts do not win the day. When the time has arrived, Daniel sees in his vision that the holy ones gained possession of heaven. We can take it that ‘the Ancient One’ is God. Who then is the one like a human being? Scholars have long argued over this. Is it just a generic human figure or is it the Messiah, the special king so long expected by the Jews? Can we as Christians say that it Jesus?
For the Jews being oppressed by a cruel Babylonian Empire, the message in Daniel’s dreams is thus. Those who use brute force and do not listen to reason, those abuse their power and use corruption to grow rich, whose policies pervert all that is humane and good may prosper for a season but they will not finally triumph. Instead it is the Son of Man who will endure, who will come on the clouds of heaven. The Son of Man is the embodiment of all that God intends humanity to be, reflecting the very love, warmth and vitality of the creator. It is here that true power will endure, the values of truth and equity flourish.
It is in Jesus above all in history that we see this worked out. The one who ‘considered equality with God not something to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.’ (Philippians 2.6) He is the complete antidote to all those who are corrupted by their power, yet he is Lord of the lives of millions. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: ‘…but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’ (Hebrews 2.9)
Today, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, we think of Jesus clothed in dazzling white alongside Moses and Elijah enjoying a taste of heaven, being seen by Peter, James and John as he really is before the he walks to Jerusalem and the way of the cross. The message for us twofold.
If we hope to share in the glory of mount of transfiguration, share in the identity of the Son of Man, we too must walk the way of the cross and be a true servant of others.
We also can take comfort that the ways of cruel oppressors in the world, those misuse and abuse power will not endure beyond a generation or two. In Christ’s strength of the Holy Spirit, we can have the confidence to stand up for the ways of truth even though it may be a costly and painful path.
Feast of the Transfiguration 06.08.2017

Rev Jonathan Smith

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