Coming with the clouds

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For Starters

Where is everything heading?  –  dream apocalyptic scenario then we have it.  A plague running rife around the world, economic melt-down, ominous noises from Russia and a few rogue states with nuclear weapons. Throw climate change into the pot and the future looks bleak. 

A couple of decades ago, such factors would have created fertile ground for end time speculation.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses would be round, knocking on your door asking if you’d noticed the world getting worse.  Books about the anti-Christ and the rapture would have been flying off the printing presses and the shop shelves and prophecy conferences would have been packed out (if not banned because of the plague). Yet today, we don’t see much interest in that sort of thing. Rather the mood is more that we simply have a bleak, never ending future to look forward to of worsening conditions.

That’s the big picture but I’m also talking to a local context. This is my last Sunday sermon at Bearwood Chapel. Over the past ten years, we’ve enjoyed exciting and fruitful times together but now perhaps the future looks uncertain too. The reason that our pastor and our families worker are moving on is because the church has been hit with a crisis, exacerbated by the wider situation because of COVID-19 resulting in a cash-flow shortage. Perhaps you are worrying about how the church will continue through dark days and if the church has been a source of comfort and stability to you in the struggles of your own life, then these uncertainties are likely to add to your own anxieties.

Well, whether it’s the immediate local context or the wider picture that is causing you to give up and despair, my message is the same. Don’t give up hope, don’t despair.  Find hope in Christ, the Lord of history, the beginning and the end.

A Look at the Text

As with last week, I want to focus first on what the actual text says in context.  The verse we are highlighting is Daniel 7:13:

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven here came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.”

 This verse is quoted a few times in the New Testament and is associated with Christ’s second coming.  The assumption is often that “coming with the clouds” refers to his descent from heaven back to earth though there are good reasons to conclude that this isn’t what is immediately in view.

To understand the verse, we need to look at it in context. First of all, there’s the wider context of the book.  Daniel was one of the young rulers deported into exile with the fall of Jerusalem. The book is all about what it means to live in exile, to live in a time of discipline and to glorify God where you are.  Part of that is about Daniel and his friends simply refusing to compromise with idolatry and to stay faithful to Yahweh. Part of it is about him gaining an insight into how his situation fits into God’s bigger picture and purpose. That’s what is happening here in Daniel 7.

First of all, Daniel has a vision of 4 beasts that emerge one after the othe (v1-8). These represent kingdoms and empires. The third has four heads which is probably a reference to the division of the Greco-Macedonian empire after the death of Alexander The Great. The final and fourth one is significantly different to the others ruling with iron teeth or an iron fist.  This seems to be a description of the Roman Empire. Indeed Daniel’s prophecies were seen as so strikingly accurate about Greece and Rome that many scholars have assumed that it could not have been prophetic and was probably written by someone living much later than Daniel as pseudepigraphy. 

The rise and fall of Empires could cause great fear and distress. Where was God in all of this? Well, Daniel’s visions answer that question. He now sees “The Ancient of Days” (v9-12). This is clearly portraying God and his eternal dominion and power.  These kingdoms appear to exercise authority and power but it is God who sits on the throne and rules.  These empires have only limited and temporary power. God eventually brings it to an end.

Daniel dreams again (v13-14) and sees someone else as well as the Ancient of Days, one who looks like a son of man. We should have of course expected this as thrones (plural) not just one had been set (v9). This is when we see the Son of Man coming to receive authority, power and dominion from the Ancient of Days and it is here that he is described as “coming with the clouds”. This is important because the imagery of “coming with the clouds”  speaks about him going towards the Ancient of Days, not away from him towards earth. The implication is that he will take his place at the right hand of the Ancient of Days, he will take his seat on one of the thrones.

Digging A Little Deeper

So how are we meant to understand the description “coming with the clouds”  what is it all about?  Well Jesus takes on the title “son of man” to describe himself. He is “The Son of man” who receives authority from “the ancient of Days.”  Daniel’s vision is Trinitarian, it is The Father and The Son that he sees. 

So, when Jesus and the book of Revelation both talk about him “coming with the clouds” before we think about his second coming we need to remember that the imagery is first and foremost associated with his ascension, exaltation, his receipt of glory and honour.  Jesus has ascended to heaven, he has sat down on his throne at the right hand of the Father.  He has received rule, authority and dominion. He is the true and eternal king.[1]

Now, does that mean that this has nothing to do with his second coming.  By no means!  You see, Christ’s ascension is intrinsically linked to his return.  He promised his disciples in John 14:1-6 that if he went to the Father, then he would also return for them. The angels at the ascension promised the disciples that Christ would return in the same manner that he had departed and 1 Corinthians 15 talks about Christ ruling until all his enemies are defeated and then he hands everything to the Father.

The assurance that Christ has ascended, is exalted and is already reigning from heaven is the guarantee that he will return and that every knee will bow before him.

A Look at ourselves

How does this help us here and now?  Well first of all, it means that all we are facing now, whatever  might cause us anxiety is part and parcel of God’s plan and under Christ’s control even if we cannot see how and why yet. That includes Coronavirus, Brexit, whatever is going on in Washington now, the manoeuvring of President Putin in Moscow and whatever is going on in King Jong Un’s head.  It includes our future days as we move away from Bearwood and it includes your future days as you remain to serve Christ here.

We cannot predict the future and we don’t receive a get out clause as believers. Like everyone else we will have to face suffering and uncertainty. However the difference is this. First of all, we know that we are not left on our own. Christ is in control and he has given us the Holy Spirit to enable us to face uncertain days without fear.

Secondly, we have the promise and hope that Christ will return. That soon and very soon we are going to see the King. Present trials are temporary. Winter may be here but summer is coming.  We can lift our eyes and look forward in hope.

This means that I do not need to be anxious about the future. It means too that I should prioritise my plans and shape my life on the basis that Jesus could return at any point. If Jesus’ return is imminent then what truly matters? What should I be giving my life to. This motivates an urgency towards sharing the Gospel.

So, don’t give up hope. Don’t despair. Look forward with expectant joy

My hope is hidden in the Lord
He flow’rs each promise of His Word
When winter fades I know spring will come
The Lord is my salvation

[1] See e.g. Matthew 24:30 and Revelation 14:14. 

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