Right from the beginning, it had been no ordinary camping trip. Some friends and I had gone off into the wilderness to camp by the river for three weeks, but our plan was not to swim and barbecue and fish but rather to fast and pray. We wanted to understand more of what God was doing with our people-—the nation of Israel—during our exile in Babylon. One of my friends, Daniel, had had some amazing visions, and we wanted to know more.
So we camped, and prayed, and fasted, and . . . nothing happened. In that whole three weeks, we had no sense that our prayers were being answered: I don’t know if you ever have this experience, but we felt as if heaven was made of brass. If God was listening, God certainly wasn’t answering. Yet out of that silence, in the end, we learned more about prayer and the spiritual life than in the rest of our lives put together.
One morning towards the end of the three weeks, we were just getting up. Daniel had got up a bit before the rest of us, as he often did, and was standing by the riverbank, already deep in prayer. Suddenly, we all knew that some powerful spiritual being was present with us—an angel, a messenger from God, even God himself? We had no idea, and we couldn’t see anything, but we were terrified. Some dived into the tents and lay on their faces. Others hid in the bushes and waited, trembling, till it was over. Daniel was the only one who didn’t run away. We knew he had had visions before, so presumably he was used to this kind of thing–if you could ever get used to such a thing.
How long that Presence was there, I couldn’t tell you. It could have been five minutes or five hours. We lost all sense of time. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the spirit or angel or whatever it was, was gone. We didn’t see anything different, but we sure felt it.
And there was Daniel, still standing at the edge of the river. Slowly, we emerged from our hiding places, a bit sheepish, and crowded around him: “Are you OK?” “What happened?” “Was that an angel?” “Did you have a vision?” “Tell us, tell us.” Daniel seemed rather dazed. I took him by the arm, led him firmly over to the campfire and made him sit down. Someone else put a mug of fresh coffee in his hand. That seemed to help. After a minute, he shook his head as if to clear his mind.
“Wow. Well, I think it was an angel. I think so. At least, some amazing heavenly being. Now I think of it, he didn’t even tell me his name.”
“What did he look like?” someone asked. “We didn’t see anything at all.”
Daniel thought for a moment. You could tell he was struggling for words. “Words can’t describe it,” he said finally. “He was . . . well, awe-inspiring. He was like a man, and yet more than a man. There was a . . . brightness about him that was more than human, a bigness that was more than simply size. He had on a white garment of some sort, like a priest’s, fastened with a belt of gold. His body looked hard, almost metallic, his face reminded me of lightning and his eyes of fiery torches. I don’t know how else to describe it. His arms and legs were gold, like polished bronze. And when he spoke, his voice was just overwhelming, like the sound of a huge waterfall.”
“Sounds very scary,” said someone.
“Well, scary and yet wonderful at the same time,” replied Daniel. “I found I was so terrified, I could hardly stay standing up in his presence. Like in a dream when you want to run but your legs won’t work. You know? But it was a funny kind of fear: I wasn’t scared as if it was a lion, or as if it was a ghost, but just . . . being in the presence of an incredibly powerful beautiful being who was more than human. Do you know what I mean?”
We nodded: that was the kind of fear we’d known too. I guess it was what my grandmother used to call “the fear of the Lord” which she said was “the beginning of wisdom.” I’d never really thought about it before: now I guess I knew what she was talking about. Daniel took a big mouthful of coffee, and went on.
“Then the man with the voice like the waterfall spoke, and that was simply too much. I collapsed unconscious on my face in front of him. The next thing I knew, a hand touched me and I came round. I managed to get onto my hands and knees, but I couldn’t make it any further. Then I heard a voice, and, this time, I could make out the words.
“Daniel, greatly beloved, pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you. Stand on your feet, for I have been sent to you.”
He looked around at us. “Greatly beloved.” To my surprise, his eyes filled with tears. “He called me ‘greatly beloved’.” For a moment, Daniel couldn’t go on.
“Well, then I found I could stand up, so I did, though I was still trembling all over. And he said—well, you know how we were discussing why our prayers hadn’t been answered for so long?—listen to this: he said to me:
‘Don’t be afraid, Daniel. [Easy for him to say!] Remember back to that first day when you and your friends began to pray and to be humble before God? Well, your prayers were heard from day one. In fact, I am here directly as a result of your prayer. I wanted to get here sooner, but [and these are the angel’s words—strange words] the angel who is the prince over Persia stood in my way and opposed me all three weeks. Then [the angel said], Michael, one of our most powerful angels, came and helped me, so I was able to get away. So finally I’m here to help you understand what’s going to happen to your people as this age draws to a close. I have one more vision to communicate to you.’
“You see?” Daniel demanded. I guess our brains were still working slowly at that time of the morning because we didn’t. We waited.
“What we didn’t know was that there were . . . evil powers—like this ‘prince of Persia’–getting in the way of our prayers. I’m sorry: I know this sounds weird and childish, but I don’t know how else to put it: it’s as though God wanted to answer our prayers, but the devil kept deflecting the answer. It’s not that God wasn’t listening. God had actually sent this amazing, huge, powerful, wonderful angel to speak with us. But somehow those puny little prayers of ours made the powers of evil nervous and they tried to stop God answering them.”
There was silence. Then I said, “Gee, I’d never thought of prayer that way. You make it sound as if we were like kids who somehow got hold of machine guns and thought they were just playing a game–but somehow they wandered on to a real battlefield.” Daniel nodded. “That’s right.” “Wow. I don’t think I’ll ever think of prayer the same again. It’s a serious business.”
“Go on,” said someone else impatiently. “What happened then?”
“Well, one of the heavenly beings touched me, and straight away I could feel strength coming back into me. He said to me,
‘Beloved Daniel (beloved Daniel!), there’s no need to be afraid. You’re safe now. Be strong. Be courageous.’
And I felt that I was. So I spoke more boldly:
‘I do feel better now. Please, let me know the message you have for me.’
And the angel told me the final vision.”
Well, you know, that day Daniel did tell us the vision, but for some reason that’s not what I remember. I remember the encounter with the angels much more. I think it’s because what he said made spiritual realities much more real for me. I suppose I had never realized before how much is going on in the spiritual realm that we never see—stuff that’s big and scary and wonderful all at once. If I think I know God, I’m wrong: there’s always more. If I think I’ve figured out prayer, I’m wrong: there’s more. If I think I understand worship, I’ve missed the point: there’s more, much more.
Take prayer, for instance. Daniel helped me see that, when we pray, our prayers have consequences. When we pray, the Most High God sends great, powerful angels to fulfill his purposes, and, as a result, our prayers cause the powers of evil to tremble. Up till that time, I suppose I just thought, Sure, it’s important to say your prayers, you should try and think about what you’re saying, you should try and have faith, and the God of Heaven will hear you. But now I know it’s much more complicated than that. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my prayers—your prayers–somehow play a part in some eternal cosmic battle.
And here’s another thing. Those angels Daniel saw were so overwhelmingly beautiful and holy and powerful that even he could hardly stand before them. I remember Daniel once told us how he had seen a Being like a Son of Man going into the presence of the Ancient of Days, and I thought to myself: what would it be like to be in the presence of that Son of Man and of God himself? What would that be like? How could a human being even survive, let alone stand upright?
Yet I am told a strange thing: that in your day, you know the name of that Son of Man, that he brings you with him into the presence of God. I am told that the Most High God calls you his children, his friends, and that you eat and drink in his presence. I’m told that you know that you are “greatly beloved,” not just by angels but “greatly loved” by the God of Heaven himself, and that he has proved his love for you in ways that even Daniel could never imagine. You are so privileged.
I’m grateful to God for that day by the River Tigris. But, you know, I wish, I wish I could have what you have. I would give up the story of the lions’ den, and the story of the fiery furnace, and angels by the river, a thousand times over, to know God as you do. Don’t take it lightly. Don’t take it for granted. For God’s sake.
Wycliffe College Chapel, Fall 1999