I saw a meme the other day of the actor Bill Murray in his TV weatherman role from the movie Groundhog Day – that movie where he woke up to relive Groundhog Day over and over and over and over and… He’s standing under a steely sky, microphone in hand and above his hum-glum face the picture reads, “It’s election day… again.” And so it is, isn’t it? Sunday, November 8th, 2020 – there was morning, there will be evening, and it will have been the 6th day of election day – an election day that seems like it’ll stretch on for a bit yet. And, it’s happened before, of course, but it’s a little disheartening when it does, wouldn’t you agree? Especially because, to put an end to it all or to change the course of things to your desire…well, what can you do? It’s actually just fitting with so many other things in 2020. There are so many things in this year (in any year, truly) that are beyond our control, that make us ask, “What do the people of God do?”
I really like Psalm 90, the appointed psalm for this day, because it answers this question. The question of God’s people throughout history, under all kinds of terrible circumstances. The answer’s right in the title – before the content – psalm 90 is “A prayer of Moses the man of God.” That’s what God’s people do at times like these and worse ones than this: The People of God Pray.
Daniel’s vision that we see this morning helps us understand to whom and for what God’s people pray. And the context is important, because it brings Daniel to the same sort of place as us -feeling distress and at a loss. In ch.7, we’re at the first of Daniel’s visions that end his book, but right in the middle of it. The part that precedes this is important, the situation for which our part is necessary. It’s a vision of four beasts that rise up out of the sea and wreak havoc on the earth. And God explained that these beasts were nations, regimes that would rise in history. And we can pick out which nations of the earth these were: the winged lion of Babylon, the devouring bear of the Medes & Persians, the winged, four-headed leopard of Greece that fell to four pieces when it fell, and the terrible, iron-toothed Rome. Among its many horns – rulers – arose the blasphemous little horn of the Antichrist who wages war still.
And haven’t such regimes terrified the saints throughout history? Daniel and friends ended up in a raging furnace under Babylon. Cyrus the king controlled the lives of Jews for over a decade – sent them where he wished. Alexander’s Greeks brought many good things all over, but I bet the families destroyed in his conquests didn’t appreciate it. And Rome – well Jesus himself was chewed up by its iron teeth, along with Paul, and Peter, and countless others. And under the great Antichrist, people like Martin Luther or Jan Hus were persecuted and killed for simply preaching the gospel.
And others have risen and fallen since and done the same and worse… For us lately it may not always seem as fierce, but tell me, especially at a time like during a divisive election that the super-powers of the world don’t sometimes dismay you. Tell me that things wreaking havoc all over the media landscape, the court cases in play, the whims of governors, the raging beastly things out there – tell me that they don’t dishearten you. No, sometimes they tempt you to fear and doubt and dread – that nothing can be done. In fact, in that way, they tempt you to do nothing and to go along, to judge life according only to all this. Where do God’s people turn in the face of powers they can’t control, under forces that subdue and control them instead?
To that question comes this vision. The terrible beasts rage away, a rising, crushing crescendo, the din of destruction and defeat. But it stops, when the throne-room appears, for judgment. It intervenes and overrules them. The beasts are arrested and silenced and there is only this… the Ancient of Days sits down. Though they may last for centuries, they are only for a time. Finally the terrible beast is slain and the others have their power taken away. This one is the Ancient of Days. About him Moses prayed, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Ps. 90:2) He returns regimes to the dust-bin of history and sees the greatest of men into the sleep of death – they’re like grass, Moses says. They may preen and primp and prance, appear glorious and fierce, but his royal robes are bright white glory and the hair of his head pure holiness. And Princes and governments and kings may exercise power but he’s at rest in the furnace’s heat; fire his ruling throne; he presides over a lava flow. Moses rightly prayed, “Who knows the power of your anger?” Indeed, if this one can set his throne room down among the fearsome powers of this earth and bind them up and cast them down and silence all their terrible noise… Moses says, “your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” (11) Which is why, though earthly powers may gather crowds this one holds thousands upon thousands in attendance for eternity, myriad millions adore him, waiting on his word. And what does his word and his way finally bring? Daniel writes later, at the conclusion, “[T]he court will sit, and the beasts[’] power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High.” (7:26-27)
What do God’s people do in the face and under the power of great and beastly things? They look and see here the only one who can subdue such forces and them to judgment. Who promises his kingdom to his saints. And, like Daniel of old and Moses before him, they pray to the Ancient of Days. But of interest is the question, for what do they pray?
Take our election, for instance. It would be hard for Pastor Free, rightly as pastor presiding over people of various persuasions, to pray that Donald Trump be re-elected. It would be as equally hard that he pray that Joe Biden become president or that Jo Jorgensen win out. God hasn’t commanded these things. He’s chosen no party to divine authority. Each of us might be praying differently in these days – about elections, about health, about government, about money, business, family. This morning, Daniel’s picture is beyond and above all presidents and powers, personal situations, and national concerns. It’s a picture of the end. It prepares for last judgment. For this, “The court was seated, and the books were opened.” (7:10)
In Old and New Testaments, God uses this phrase through his prophets to speak of his judgment. In St. John’s revelation, ch.20, before the great white throne of God the dead are standing and, “and books were opened…and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.” That very same emphasis is in our gospel today, isn’t it? Where Jesus says that the King will deal with what each has done – what you did or did not do for the least you did or did not do for him. (Mt. 25:31-46) And St. Paul, as we could have read from Romans says, God will “give to each person according to what he has done” – whether eternal life or wrath and anger, trouble and distress. (2:9-10)
Daniel’s vision isn’t only a courtroom for presidents and emperors. It is the courtroom for creation, of all. It isn’t just the mighty powers who must fear. Moses, again, rightly says, “We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.” (Ps. 90:7-8) And yours and mine will be written in those books – our iniquities, our secret sins – in his light, nothing is hidden. If we have given in to the sin of thinking that nothing really matters, that all this is all there is and all we’ll seek to be ready for, we should fear. If we have given in to fear and doubted God’s mighty power and despaired of his direction, we should be afraid. Which is why Moses tells us what to pray for, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Ps. 90:12)
How would you number your days rightly? Does Moses mean that we should pray that God would guide what we do each day? Surely. Does Moses mean that we should pray that what we do each day would be more good than bad? Surely. Does Moses mean that we should pray that what we do each day finally be the mark by which we are judged to life at the end? No. For there are two kinds of books – the ones that record what each has done and the one that grants life, the one that records what one has done and writes your name in his.
Near the end of Daniel’s vision, he sees this: “with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty…His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed.” (13-14) This Son of Man is Jesus Christ, who referred to himself so. In the gospels, he promises he will return this way, “coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Lk 21:27) And John tells us the same and what it means, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…” Him “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rv 1:5-7). He makes us clean by his blood, sacrificed at the cross. Jesus supplies forgiveness for our secret sins and our fears and unpreparedness.. And he writes our names in that second book – the one of life – where the purified and holy are marked, those who do not worship this world or its beasts, but in the face of their power love God’s grace and worship him alone.
You see, the people of God pray to the Ancient of Days because he is mighty and powerful, the judge of all things. But the people of God pray to rightly number their days, that is, to count them as ones not with perfect politics or daily blessings, but blessed by the blood of the Son of Man who makes them ready in all they do to meet the judge. The people of God pray with Moses this way: “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” In his unfailing love, they look away from all this and pray, “May your deeds be shown to your servants… May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;” And so that we may be ready to meet him in our own deeds too we pray, “establish the work of our hands for us– yes, establish the work of our hands.”