As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: "As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever--forever and ever."
Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped what was left with its feet; and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and concerning the other horn, which came up and to make room for which three of them fell out--the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke arrogantly, and that seemed greater than the others.
As I looked, this horn made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them, until the Ancient One came; then judgment was given for the holy ones of the Most High, and the time arrived when the holy ones gained possession of the kingdom.
This is what he said: "As for the fourth beast, there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth that shall be different from all the other kingdoms; it shall devour the whole earth, and trample it down, and break it to pieces. As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise, and another shall arise after them. This one shall be different from the former ones, and shall put down three kings. He shall speak words against the Most High, shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law; and they shall be given into his power for a time, two times, and half a time. Then the court shall sit in judgment, and his dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and totally destroyed. The kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them."
Jesus said to his disciples, "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
This final day of the church's year continues the call to blend practical realism with an exalted hope. We need to see the heavy clouds from both sides; on one side, darkness and signs of persecution, on the other side, bright sunlight and the enjoyment of eternal peace. The readings affirm that the transition from darkness to light will be certain and sudden. Meanwhile one must live with faith in God's eternal plan for us and for the entire world. Whether in darkness or light, we are not alone but are united with all of God's holy ones.
In Daniel, the prophet writes how he was terrified by the visions of the mind. The great persecution still raged and the beast made war against the holy ones and was "victorious until the Ancient One arrived." Daniel was living in the midst of that period of time when the beast reigned, "for a year, two years, and a half-year." Three and a half years is a symbolical number for great distress which must extend its full course but must also end. It may be tedious to trace the symbolism of numbers through the Bible, but the Scriptures affirm that we must persevere through the entire time of trial, and that this time will certainly end. Only at the end will we see everything in proper perspective and for now many details remain wrapped in darkness.
Though his gospel was composed after one such period of severe trial (the destruction of the Holy City of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.) Luke actually wrote during a peaceful breathing-space. Therefore, he warns, "Be on guard lest your spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares. The great day will suddenly close in on you like a trap." It seems that faith thrives more during adversity than during peace and financial prosperity. So Luke also advises, "Pray constantly." Live in God's presence and then you will "stand secure before the Son of Man" when he comes in full glory.
The thirty-four weeks of the church year are coming to an end. They do so with an announcement that the Lord Jesus will come suddenly, soon and gloriously. We have been gifted with the long preparation of the church year. We will now be further graced with four weeks of special alertness during Advent. Since in our life's pilgrimage we are surrounded by all of this spiritual force, we can lay aside every hindrance of sin, and with eyes fixed on Jesus, persevere in running the race which lies ahead, to reach the glorious destiny he has won for us.
Jesus warns against becoming so immersed in the attractions and cares of life that we fail to see beyond them. We need to step back and find a space in which we can become aware of the Lord and his presence to us. In the language of the gospel we are to watch, to become watchful, attentive to the Lord within and beyond all of life. Such watchfulness and attentiveness is at the heart of prayer. That is what prayer is, which is why the gospel says, "stay awake, praying at all times." That exhortation to pray at all times may sound strange to our ears. How can we pray at all times? Is prayer not something we do from time to time? Paul says something similar at the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians when he calls on the church there to "pray without ceasing." Jesus and Paul were calling for a contemplative stance towards life, a prayerful attentiveness to the Lord at all times, before all situations, in the midst of all our tasks. To help us do this, we could take a very short prayer drawn from the Scriptures and allow it to echo quietly in our hearts as we go about our day, a prayer like, "Lord, make haste to help me," or, as we begin the season of Advent this evening, the simple Advent prayer, "Come Lord Jesus."