Like many communities, a friendly welcome sign stood beside the highway at the edge of the town where I grew up. The sign clearly intended to warm the cockles of its residents’ hearts and offer hospitality to visitors.
But according to my high school buddy Steven, the sign also served a less obvious but-to-him- more-important purpose: It marked the outer limits of jurisdiction for our small town’s police officers.
Steven – who in our teenage years always seemed more worldly than I, at all times apparently privy to the inside scoop on these sorts of things – claimed that being north of the sign meant you were within the city limits. And once there, you’d best keep your eye on your speedometer, because the cops could, and would – and did – nab you for going 26 in a 25.
But south of the sign, all bets were off. It was wide-open territory, and the traffic cops couldn’t touch you. So, every time we left town with Steven at the wheel, he’d excitedly punch the gas just as we were passing the sign. Putting the pedal to the metal took his little canary-yellow Mazda well past the speed limit while the lyrics to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” blared from speakers powered by Steven’s eight-track tape player.
Whenever we returned to town from whatever grand adventure we were on, of course barreling toward the city limits at lightning speed, just before re-entering what he believed to be the local police department’s jurisdiction, Steven would tap the brakes and bring his careening little yellow Mazda back down to earth and under speed limit.
I now doubt that Steven had his legal facts straight about where the Kimberly Police Department could and couldn’t enforce its authority. But his understanding of jurisdiction is helpful in understanding our Scripture lesson this morning from the Old Testament prophet Daniel.
Thinking in terms of jurisdiction is helpful, because most people in Daniel’s world – about 500 years before Christ – held tight to a “theology of jurisdiction.”
Folks tended to believe in the existence of many gods, and each of these gods operated within a fairly limited jurisdiction. One god ruled the hills; another ruled the valleys. One god ruled the sun; another ruled the rain. The God of Israel certainly ruled the holy city of Jerusalem, but other gods ruled in far-off kingdoms like Babylon.
And the Kingdom of Babylon is precisely where Daniel finds himself, living in the squalor and misery of exile with his friends, family, and countrymen – all conquered and subjugated by the brutal Babylonian army. By all appearances – which are really, really sad and depressing, the God of Israel is not the one calling the shots in Babylon. Instead, it is the wicked Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and his gods who seem to be running the show.
Yet, Daniel and his comrades refuse to settle for accepting things the way they appear to be. Despite their sorry state of affairs, they vigorously persist in believing in a hidden-yet-hopeful reality that is truer than what first meets the eye.
They insist that, even in Babylon, the God of Israel who freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt is still the God and they are still God’s people, which makes them servants of a far-different, far-more powerful and gracious monarch than the jackbooted despot who rules Babylon with an iron fist.
In this installment of the long and fractured story of God with us, Daniel experiences a vision that pulls back the curtain on new possibilities empowered by the reign of God.
Daniel envisions the future fall of worldly empires, their soulless leaders, and their corrupt politicians. In particular, what Daniel imagines as future reality is the passing away of the tyrannical king who’s persecuting Daniel and the other exiles. Portrayed as a monstrous, mutated beast, the old kingdom will topple, just as the kingdoms before it had done.
And to fill the void, God will establish a new and eternal kingdom that will never ever pass away!
In the surprising climax of Daniel’s vision, God hands over the keys to that new kingdom not only to a Holy One who is like a human being (yes, that’ll be Jesus) but also to the people whose loyalties lie with the Ancient of Days who is the Most High. (Yes, that’ll be you and me.)
War and violence, destruction and exploitation, oppression and domination, characterize other kingdoms. But the final, eternal kingdom of Daniel’s dream will orient its permanent citizens toward grace and peace, mercy and justice, forgiveness and love – all flowing swiftly and strongly from the very throne of God. In this kingdom, the jurisdiction of God will spread far and wide – not just to the edge of town by the sign but to the very edges of the vast universe.
Revel in that Good News as you listen for the Word of the Lord midchapter in Daniel 7.
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool.
His throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:9-14)
When times are bad – really bad, like coming apart at the seams, flying off the rails, going to hell in a hand basket bad, everyone seemingly at each other’s throat – like the times we’re living in now, the public conversation inevitably turns toward talk of the apocalyptic “end times.”
Fatalistic talk about the end of all things usually scares the bejeebers out of folks – and not without good reason. The return to our world of Jesus Christ in the flesh will trigger unprecedented happenings both jaw-dropping and breathtaking: Tombs will open, and the sea will give up its dead, and bodies long a-mouldering in the grave will breathe and move again.
The freshly resurrected along with the living who belong to God will be transported to a different place of being in which all things are new, tears and pain are no more, nothing but perfect peace and love fill the air. The broken and fearful world we now know will be no more, and the full weight of divine judgment will fall hard upon evildoers large and small from across the ages.
In all that lie not the plot for a zombie apocalypse movie, but rather in all that buzz the hope and assurance of new life that Daniel’s vision anticipates and that Jesus’s Easter resurrection inaugurates. Daniel’s dream come to life in Christ’s sacrifice provides hope to the long-suffering exiles and captives and assurance to the pale and downtrodden that evil will not win out. The Lord is always victorious over his enemies – including but not limited to the Babylonians back in the day and the Russian army of Ukraine’s today, but that victory – and the Kingdom of God that such heavenly triumph inaugurates – will come in stages.
You and I know not the timing of it all. And the older I get, the more comfortable I become just letting the whole divine enterprise remain mostly shrouded in mystery. You and I do know a few kingdom deets, which start with the apparent reality that the first coming of Jesus to earth was the first stage. Jesus brought the Kingdom of God near to us, but the fullness of that Kingdom obviously is yet to come. In the meantime, God calls us to offer to friend, neighbor, and stranger glimpses of the Kingdom in its fullness through the words of our mouth, the work of our hands, and the movement of our feet.
We aren’t told to form a militia.
We aren’t ordered to take up the weapons and kill who and what we perceive as evil incarnate.
We are called to follow our King and Savior in all that he tells us to do and be: Militants who fight against all those people and powers who oppose God and God’s desires for the world – and for ourselves, as we seek to exterminate the last vestiges of sin in our hearts and minds.
The Lord calls us to fight back according to his gameplan – by loving and serving others, such that our actions reveal foretastes of what we know in our hearts to be true of the fully built Kingdom – a place of utter grace and peace, absolute mercy and justice, complete reconciliation, and abiding, unconditional love.
Whenever and wherever, in humility, we put the needs of others above our own, you and I are pronouncing in no uncertain terms that the Kingdom of God has come near and there’s more where that came from.
Steve Hartmann of CBS News recently offered this glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is like.
No matter what life lays before us, no matter the challenge, or fear, or frustration, thanks be to God the end of the story is written in Christ’s blood.
Which means that Jesus holds us close and fight in his love arms now and for all eternity.
Until then, as long as we live on this earth and before Jesus, our King, we must fight evil by sharing and living the Gospel, following Jesus in faith and obedience, and doing the loving work of Christ on a daily basis in joy and humility – perhaps, like major leaguer Brett Phillips, being the MVP – the most valuable presence – in the lost-and-alone lives of people near and far overwhelmed by war and violence, illness and disease, fear and loathing.
For the Kingdom of God is within us, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus, and there’s no road sign along our walk of faith that limits the jurisdiction of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords when he and he alone rules our hearts and minds and dwells in our bodies, souls, and spirits.
So, like Daniel and company, we have no need of flailing our arms in the air in despair and settling for the twisted, out-of-whack way things are. Instead, we push the pedal of faith to metal of compassion, patiently enduring through this life and looking to God through Christ alone for our hope and assurance that the Lord, in heaven’s good time, will do everything necessary to deliver us wholly into the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus has defeated death, and the rest of evil’s filthy handiwork will one day pass away, too!
Ancient words, ever true, changing me, and changing you. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, May 8, 2022. It is part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Peter A. Butler Jr., Steve Hartman, Anathea Portier-Young, Joel Schreurs, and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher inform the message.