A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter
If you feel disillusioned with democracy (tempted, perhaps, not to vote on Thursday) the book of Daniel offers an antidote as it depicts the big alternative to democracy – which is autocracy.
The earlier chapters see a genuine game of thrones, Daniel and his Jewish exile comrades versus three autocrats in a kind of tyrants’ tag match. The first king in the ring is Nebuchadnezzar, who throws Daniel’s colleagues into a furnace for worshipping their God; then, when they survive, orders equally grotesque fates for those who disparage their God. Next up, Belshazzar, humiliator of the Jews, for whom Daniel translates the ominous, terminal ‘writing on the wall’, and now his successor Darius. Darius likes Daniel but his courtiers trick him into getting Daniel condemned to the lions’ den. Relieved when Daniel survives, Darius (in the very next verse after our reading) commands that the conspirators – and their families – be thrown to the lions instead. Absolute power needs victims, to show that it is absolute; the body count is the tyrant’s share index.
Many think that the book of Daniel is written generations after these events, under another despot. If that’s true, it’s what in the Soviet Union was called samizdat, underground literature. The book itself is not underground but its message is. It does not directly say ‘Down with the king!’ but tells stories of an earlier time that present a challenge (for those who have ears to hear) to the powers of the present age: you may have the big battalions, but we trust in a power truly absolute, a power that will endure when rust and moth have corrupted your swords and your tanks and your immaculately-cut suits.
Whenever it is written, the book of Daniel comes out of a brutal world, a world that the women at the tomb in Mark’s gospel would recognize. For them, to see Jesus’ body in the tomb will be unbearable, but it will be understandable: Pontius Pilate and King Herod have won, and Jesus’ dead body is the necessary proof of that. That’s how absolute power works. But if his body is not there, what does that mean? What they and their friends will discover is that Jesus has won, but this victory is not like the ones they are used to.
The 21st century would be all but unrecognisable to Daniel and the Marys, though their earthly masters – Darius, Pilate, Herod – would recognise people like – say – President Assad and his use of the ancient craft of siege warfare against whole populations. And they would recognise the same fears and fantasies in our world that were at work in theirs. Something in us has always been drawn to the idea of the strong man who can cut though the compromise, who’s prepared to break eggs to make the Great Righteous Omelette. Two contemporary examples. According to the Hansard Society’s recent Audit of Political Engagement, ‘54% say Britain needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’; and think of that character Liam Neeson plays in the Taken films, using his ‘very particular set of skills’ to wreak lethal, vengeful havoc to rescue someone he loves. The myth of redemptive violence, as it’s called, is always good box office.
At Easter, we see how God does redemption. Jesus comes and speaks God’s Word, and it is a word that is forgiving, welcoming, sometimes rebuking, but above all a peaceable word. The killing of Jesus is the way the world tries to shut him up. The raising of Jesus is God’s answer and God’s victory, but it is a strange victory: no reprisals, no revenge on those who tried to destroy Jesus. Herod’s crown stays on his head. Pilate will shortly be recalled to Rome, but for quite different reasons. God doesn’t destroy these people but bypasses them, rendering them increasingly irrelevant to his deep purposes.
Like the women, we too stand at the empty tomb. And we too find the opposite of what we generally expect. If the body is not there, then the story of Jesus and his love is not over, and we are surprised – not just that Jesus’ story does not end with a dead body (his own) but also that in this victory of God there need be no other bodies either: there is only one victim – and he is alive.
There are twenty days left in Eastertide. In these remaining days let us spend some time at the mouth of that empty tomb, and let us see what it says to our own fears and fantasies about power: the power we give to others by the votes we cast, and the power – whether great or small – that lies in your hands and in mine.