With other communities here in Western Pennsylvania, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are experiencing the difficulty of finding our way through the COVID-19 pandemic. When our part of the state entered the “Yellow” phase of this effort, gatherings of 25 people were permitted. I was delighted to be able invite four confirmands and their families to be present in the sanctuary for worship even as the bulk of our congregation gathered virtually. Today we celebrated the young people who made their public profession of faith and one special young person who received the sacrament of baptism. As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation. Our texts on May 24 included Daniel 5:17-31 and Luke 11:24-28.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the YouTube link posted at the end of the message.
One of the hazards of leading worship on the internet is that I don’t know who’s here or who has been here before. So this morning, let me start by reminding some of you and informing others that we’ve spent the last six weeks immersed in the Old Testament book of Daniel. When we were hit with the Coronavirus and all of the COVID closures, it seemed like a good idea to take a look at what some of our ancestors have experienced, done, and learned. Daniel chapters 1-6 tell a number of stories about a group of people who are taken from what they think of as their “normal” lives, compelled to go to places they don’t want to go, eat what they don’t want to eat, be called by something other than their true names, and live in a culture that is not of their own choosing. We’ve heard of young people resisting pressure from their peers as well as their leaders, we’ve seen stories of God’s power overwhelming that of the idols, and we’ve watched rescues and bravery in many ways. Last week we even heard about one man’s inability to get a decent haircut. So, yes, there have been some parallels to our current situation.
Today’s story fits in nicely with this sequence. This week, we’re back in ancient Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar, who originally kidnapped the young people back in about 605 BCE has died in 562 BCE, and there have been a number of power-hungry and blood-thirsty men who have sought to succeed him. The Book of Daniel is silent about the intervening years, and today we pick up the story on what we are told is October 11, 539 B.C. – 23 years after the old king died and 66 years after Daniel and his colleagues began their exile. The man in charge now is named Belshazzar. He gives a feast, and as he gets drunk, he orders the servants to bring the holy objects that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. And there, as they are toasting the idols and mocking the Lord, something incredible happens.
A disembodied hand appears and begins to write upon the wall. The king is suddenly very sober and very scared – his knees are knocking and the color drains from his face. He calls out for the same bunch of clowns that we’ve seen time and again in Daniel, the royal astrologers, wise men, and magicians. He begs them to tell him what is going on. And once again, they are perplexed.
Then the queen has an idea. Scholars think that because this woman was so bold in her speaking and so familiar with the history, that when the story talks about the queen, it’s referring to the queen mother – perhaps old Nebuchadnezzar’s wife. She reminds the king of the Jewish slave who’s done all right at solving these mysteries in the past. “Send for Daniel,” she says. “He’ll tell you what this is all about.” I should tell you that at this point in his life, Daniel is well over 70 years old.
So Daniel comes in and the king tries to keep his position of power. He tries to buy Daniel’s advice and loyalty by making all sorts of promises of wealth and fame. And what does Daniel do? He says, “Keep your money. I’ll tell you the truth about what the writing on the wall is all about.” And he does.
“Nebuchadnezzar was the king – a powerful man who didn’t care about anything other than himself. But God humbled him – God showed him who was really in control. And you knew this, Belshazzar! But you have ignored it. And tonight you have made that fact crystal clear by praising these idols of wood and stone and metal while you’ve treated the objects that belong to God with contempt. You knew the truth, and laughed at it. And that will cost you.”
And then Daniel goes on to read and interpret the writing on the wall. The words that have been written are, as best we can figure out, are the Aramaic spellings of common coins of the day. At that time, the value of a coin was not seen in its imprint (as we have today, where we accept the fact that a dime is worth ten times as much as a penny, even though the penny is clearly bigger), but rather in its weight of precious metal. There are three coins mentioned: the mena, the peres, worth about half a mena, and a tekel, or shekel, worth about a sixtieth of a mena. These words form a sort of a riddle that we might read this way: “A half a dollar, a half a dollar, a penny, and a quarter.”
Now Belshazzar looks up and he sees the words, but they don’t make sense. After all, why does a king care about the weights of the various coins? Daniel comes in and realizes that God has made a pun for everyone to see. Mena is related to the word for ‘numbered’; tekel is related to the word for ‘weigh’, and peres can mean ‘divided’. Daniel says, “Well, king, it’s as plain as the nose on your face. You have been found to be a real lightweight. You knew what was right, you did what was wrong, and your days are numbered – the kingdom will be divided, or taken away.”
Belshazzar keeps his promise, and gives the goods to Daniel. A parenthetical note here: some of you will recall that in previous weeks we’ve compared the story of Daniel to Joseph, and talked about how the Jews would want to be reminded of the fact that God is present, even when it’s hard to feel that. Here are other reminders. When old Pharaoh can’t make sense of the situation around him, how does he happen upon Joseph? After all of the king’s magicians and wise men failed, someone in the room said, “Hey, I remember a Hebrew slave who’s pretty good with this stuff.” And when Joseph solves the Pharaoh’s problem, what does Pharaoh give to Joseph? A robe and a gold chain.
When Belshazzar is so afraid he needs a new pair or royal underwear, and his magicians and wise men are clueless, how does Daniel enter the picture? Someone in the room says, “Wait a second… remember that Hebrew slave who’s been around for ages?” And what does Belshazzar give to Daniel? A robe and a chain of gold. These are the same stories – they are connected – they are given to remind God’s people that we will endure exile, that we can survive, and that victory and power belong to God, not to any self-important ruler. So at the end of the day, Daniel gets his reward, and fortunately for him, Belshazzar gives it to him in cash, because a couple of hours later, the king is murdered and the kingdom falls.
What a great story, with a lot to say to us. I’d like to center on two insights that have gotten me thinking this week.
First, it seems pretty obvious that Belshazzar is in big trouble because he has ‘de-sacralized’ the vessels that had been in the temple. That is, he took those holy objects – the cups and the plates and the trays that had been consecrated – set aside – for use at the temple in Jerusalem and used them for his drunken festival worshipping other gods. More than that, when he did so he ought to have known full well what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar. Belshazzar, this text points out pretty clearly, looked at the God of heaven and earth, the creator of the universe, and said, “Yawn. Whatever.” He took the reign and the rule of God lightly.
And so when Daniel pronounces the sentence indicated by the writing on the wall, we nod approvingly. The king is only getting what he deserves. It’s too bad, but the man should have known better.
Beloved, let me tell you the truth – and it is a hard and heavy truth. We do what Belshazzar did every day. We take what God has made to be holy and sacred and destroy it without thinking twice. We should know better.
Look at the alb that I’m wearing. 100% cotton. In order to grow the cotton that we use in our clothing cheaply and efficiently, the fields are first plowed up. Then they are sprayed with a chemical cocktail that sterilizes the soil so that there are no pests like weevils or fungus. There’s nothing else, either. The soil is so heavily treated that in some cases it takes 5 years before earthworms can live in it. And then, because the soil has been bleached, after they plant the cotton they’ve got to use more chemicals to fertilize the plants. What did we read just a couple of weeks ago? ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it!’ Yet we are turning our farmland into food factories that depend not on the cycle of rain and sun or the virtues of rotating crops or composting, but rather on daily doses of deadening chemicals and cancer-causing pesticides and environment-destroying fertilizers. Whether it’s the clothes we wear, the plastics we toss aside so lightly, or the fuels we burn so freely, we take the reign and rule of God, and God’s care for this earth, lightly.
Here’s another way that we do this same thing. God has created us to be a body, right? We are called God’s people. We live together. We work to build the kingdom here. But how do we treat each other? We gossip. We backbite. We harbor resentment. The Lord has given us clear guidelines about how to deal with conflict when it arises – because it always does. But the sad truth is that sometimes I’d rather talk about you than with you. God has given us a good, good gift – the treasure of relationship – and so many times we don’t value that gift enough to treat each other as though we were owned by and consecrated to the Lord. And then we look up and see the writing on the wall. And then it hits us – that perhaps this applies to us as well.
That leads me to my second insight from this passage, which is this: God expects us to learn not only from our own experiences, but from those of other people. Daniel, a foreign exile, a man of no power or consequence in the kingdom, comes face to face with the most powerful man in the known world, and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for not learning from the mistakes of other people. More than that, actually, he says that Belshazzar’s failure to apply the lessons he ought to have learnt will, in fact, cost him his life.
OK, because I know that you all have Google, I need to be upfront with you about something important right now. This is fake news. That is to say that so far as we know, there never was a “King of the Babylonians” whose name was Belshazzar. King Nebuchadnezzar, who kidnapped Daniel, did have a son, who ruled after him – but his name was Amel-Marduk. Nebuchadnezzar apparently had a grandson, or maybe a great grandson, whose name was Bel-shar-usur, who would sometimes rule in Babylon while his father was away from town, and the timing works out that this Bel-shar-usur might very well have been in Babylon on the evening of October 11, 539 BCE.
So what’s your point, Pastor Dave? I mean, if this didn’t happen, or at least it didn’t happen this way, then why are we even reading it?
Because the point of the book of Daniel is not to make sure that all God’s children know the timeline of the Neo-Babylonian Monarchy of the 6th century BCE! This part of the Bible is written to remind us that there will be times when we are called, or even sent, into exile. There will be times when God’s people will face testing, and live under rules that we don’t like, and watch people who think that they have authority strut around like they own the place.
Right now, I’d like to speak to the young people who will stand up here and affirm their faith in Jesus. Your call, as young disciples, is NOT to be sure that you continue to do things exactly the same way that we’ve always done them, or to come into church as if it’s a museum full of holy relics and life-giving artifacts and it’s your job to protect those things. I’m asking you to learn from the mistakes we have made; to be faithful in your own discipleship, and to, starting now, create a “new normal” for yourselves and our world that is closer to the ways that God wants it to be.
In our reading from Luke, Jesus banishes an evil spirit. He encounters a man who is in trouble, and he cleans things up. But then the person who was healed did not seek to build upon that healing. He didn’t choose a good to replace the evil from which he’d been delivered. As a result, he ended up worse than he started. This time of quarantine, this forced interruption of your lives has taken a number of things from you. You have had to re-invent the ways that you spend your time, do your homework, express your love, grow in faith. I want to encourage you to keep looking for new ways to be yourself, to be faithful, to be anchored in the person that God intends you to be.
So maybe the point is this: who do you want to be in this story? The arrogant king who scoffs at God’s power and makes light of the sacred? The inept wise men who look at the writing on the wall and shrug their shoulders and say, “well, it’s all Greek (or Aramaic) to me”? Or an agent of the living God who is sent to proclaim the truth of God’s presence in the world and to reveal the lifeless idols for what they are?
Beloved, the message of Daniel is clear – you don’t get to choose everything; you’re not in charge. You’re going to be handed some stuff that you don’t want and don’t deserve.
But what you are in charge of is how you deal with it, and seeking to learn from it. As you make your profession of faith in a public fashion this morning let me encourage you to continue to seek out what is holy, to build relationships of trust and where it is safe to wonder about things, and to grow in your ability to be person who is responsive to God’s leading and committed to the friends around you. I’m proud of you. Thanks be to God. Amen.