Sunday, July 26, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "You Have Been Weighed"

Daniel 5:1-9

King Belshazzar threw a huge party for a thousand of his princes, and he drank a lot of wine in front of them. 2 While he was under the wine’s influence, Belshazzar commanded that the gold and silver equipment that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem’s temple be brought to the party so that the king, his princes, his consorts, and his secondary wives could drink wine out of them. 3 So the gold equipment that had been carried out of the temple, God’s house in Jerusalem, was brought in; and the king, his princes, his consorts, and his secondary wives drank out of it. 4 They drank a lot of wine; and they praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

5 Right then the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the king’s palace wall in the light of the lamp. The king saw the hand that wrote. 6 The king’s mood changed immediately, and he was deeply disturbed. He felt weak, and his knees were shaking. 7 The king yelled, calling for the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners. The king told these sages of Babylon: “Anyone who can read this writing and tell me its meaning will wear royal robes, will have a gold chain around his neck, and will rule the kingdom as third in command.” 8 Then all the king’s sages arrived, but they couldn’t read the writing or interpret it for the king. 9 At that point King Belshazzar was really frightened. All the color drained from his face, and his princes were also very worried.  (Common English Bible)

“The Writing on the Wall: Daniel & King Belshazzar,” Week One

It was the very first thing that greeted me when I walked through the door into the fitness center of my hotel at our denomination’s biannual General Assembly this past week: a scale.  Not like a subtle, tasteful, bathroom scale, mind you, or a scale you weigh vegetables on in the grocery store—that would have been pretty funny (“Okay, Joe, now help me fit my other elbow onto this!”).

No, this was one of those floor-to-wall scales you see in doctors’ offices, that they always ask you to take your shoes off before you go onto, and yet you still swear never takes into account just how heavy your clothes really are!

And all I could do was laugh and think to myself, “Okay, so that’s what they think this is about.”  Because unless you’re a competitive athlete or long distance runner, you don’t generally lose a statistically significant amount of weight in the course of a single workout.  But having the scale there, it creates the expectation that you should, and so you find yourself on it, thinking once again that it is adding way too much weight for your clothes, and you decide to exhale completely because it occurs to you: “Hey, air has weight, too!”

It’s funny—air is invisible, but of course we know it is there, when we feel the wind on our hair, or when a tornado blows the hat off your head, or pretty much 24/7 if you’re Wile E. Coyote being left in the dust by the Roadrunner.  And it has weight—if all of the air, essentially our atmosphere, were to vanish, Earth would weigh less.  Which is great for Earth if its training to beat that showoff Saturn in the next Solar System ultramarathon, but not so great for us.

But think about it: air is invisible, yet it has weight (Pastor, couldn’t you have gotten to that point without so many workout jokes?!).  Which is the case for God, too.  And that’s what matters about the first part of this story of Daniel 5: that God is very much present, even if not stated so explicitly.

This is a new sermon series based on a need and a desire that I know has been around here for a while now—last autumn, we read verse-by-verse through the first half of the book of Daniel in our Tuesday morning Bible study.  Why the first half?  It’s not because the sequel always sucks, it’s simply that Daniel really is two books masquerading as one—the first half of the book deals with Daniel’s story and biography, while the second half deal with his prophecies.  We had decided on trying to gain an in-depth understanding of Daniel the man’s circumstances and context, so we spent a couple of months on those first six chapters of the book which bears his name.  The study was so enjoyable and enriching that eventually, this sermon series was born out of it.

The fifth of these six chapters conveys a story from which we get one of our most common English idioms: “the writing on the wall.”  We’ve all used that saying at some point, right?  We all know what it means: that we can see the fate of something or someone before it comes about.  Well, this story is the source of that idiom, and we’ll be going through it verse-by-verse over the course of four weeks, beginning today with verses one through nine, which gives us the exposition of the story and King Belshazzar’s attempts to remedy his present dilemma, although that dilemma for him really comes down to something eminently familiar to all of us, something you can pick up in the Housewares section anytime at Target: his choice of dishes and flatware.

You see, the dishes that Belshazzar called for were the dishes taken from his ancestral predecessor as king Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Judah and the attendant sacking of the capital city of Jerusalem.  Some years previous (we don’t know exactly how many because the writer of Daniel’s biography doesn’t date this story), in 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar led his armies against Judah a second time, having already done so once about a decade earlier, only this time, he took over everything, and fairly effortlessly at that.  Judah—the southern state of what was under David and Solomon the unified kingdom of Israel—was tiny compared to the much larger and stronger empire of Babylon, it would be today as though we decided to invade Lichtenstein or Luxembourg or some similarly small country—it just wasn’t a fair fight, and Judah capitulates almost immediately.

So Nebuchadnezzar sacks Jerusalem and, in what was pretty much standard operating policy for centuries and continued to be for centuries more, took all manner of loot back with him to Babylon: prisoners to be made into slaves or concubines, jewels, and the fine dishes in the temple to God in Jerusalem, the very same dishes that Belshazzar calls for to drink out of at his latest palace kegger.

Belshazzar does this for a reason—you don’t just ask for the glasses from this one particular temple your dynasty has sacked over the years without some deliberate attempt to make a statement of superiority and insult towards the people you conquered.  It is a statement that may well be invisible to us as modern readers—is that really a dimension of the story that occurred to you as you heard it read here just a little while ago?

So let’s talk for a little bit about what the dishes really represent: not just God—and, in Belshazzar’s mind, his superiority over God—but an invisible God, a God whose meaning is accounted for only by implication, a God who does not announce its divine presence here by means of a burning bush or a booming voice or a Messiah who can walk on water.

Now, you can say that God does indeed come about in a visible way here, because Belshazzar does see the writing on the wall, and he basically has a panic attack—wouldn’t you?  But while he can *see* the writing, he cannot *read* the writing.  The hand could be writing in pig Latin for all the good it does Belshazzar here.  The script may be visible, but its meaning remains invisible.

That invisibility of meaning matters, because it really does cut through the illusions we tend to build up for ourselves.  Forget “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” there’s a reason why “out of sight, out of mind” is an equally well-known saying.  We shove our stuff under the bed rather than actually cleaning.  We shove half-eaten food to the back of the fridge.  And we push God down below us, just as Belshazzar has done here with his sacrilegious use of the temple’s dishware, and then when God comes roaring back to land right in front of us, again like Belshazzar we cannot for the life of us understand what it is God is saying to us.

That tendency to put things and people into the realm of the invisible is not what God would have Belshazzar do, or us do, for that matter.  It may be disconcerting to us to hear that our proxy, at least for now, in the story is a pagan despotic king, but there you have it.  But we try to make God invisible whenever we too have a convenient reason to do so, be it our own personal revelry, or our unwillingness to consider the consequences of our actions and our decisions, or simply our own desire to simply put ourselves first, to take what we want and act like it’s also what God wants.

And for those habitual sins, we are being weighed, just as Belshazzar is, by that annoying gym scale.

That’s why it is so important for us, for each of you, to be able to take what you see that is invisible to others and actually make it visible to them.  For some folks, the genuine nature of God’s great love and grace isn’t fully visible to them yet, because they haven’t been truly loved by other people or haven’t been in a church community that has truly loved them, but you can help change that.

You can help make love visible, in a way that lifts burdens and lowers weights.  I see it happening in so many different ways.  One of the most amazing of them, in all truth, is how active many of our young moms here have been in trying to remove the stigma of breastfeeding in public spaces, that this is a profoundly important part of mothering that has for too long been made invisible, that we have made invisible because that is more convenient for us but decidedly less so for our mothers.

And what else in our lives and our community has been shunted off into the private sphere?  Think about Love Overwhelming, the low-barrier homeless shelter over in Kelso.  It isn’t as though they’ve attracted more shelterless people from elsewhere, no, these are all homeless people in our own Cowlitz county community, they’ve just been made more visible and now we don’t want to deal with them, we want them to go back to being invisible, because that is more convenient for us.

Do you notice a common denominator here?  We make people and things invisible when that invisibility suits us, not them.  And that isn’t how God ever meant for us to live with one another; God became visible whenever it was needed to do so, regardless of whether we wanted God to be invisible or not.  You think Moses wanted God to just show up like that in the burning bush, or that the Pharisees and Sadducees were happy that Jesus showed up on their doorstep on Palm Sunday?

God does not show up or disappear according to our convenience.  That has never been how this covenant works.  And yet, that is often how we treat God and God’s children.  They do not slink off into the shadows just because we would like them to because it would make our lives a little easier.

Nor does God slink off into the shadows, a defeated deity brought low by the military might of Belshazzar’s predecessor Nebuchadnezzar.  God shows up.  God makes Belshazzar sit up from his drunken stupor at take notice.  And take notice the Babylonian king does, going pale and weak at the knees; in fact, he probably had to be helped up, and his weight became visible and tangible to others.

We aren’t here to make people faint from fright at us.  But we absolutely are here to make sure that people sit up and take notice of what God is doing in their lives, of what God is calling them to do.

Which means that for someone else for whom God has long since gone the way of the dodo bird, as invisible and near-weightless as the air we put in our lungs, we have to be the ones to show God to them.  We have to be the ones to say, “God is still alive in you, God is still at work on you, God has not given up on you, and most importantly of all, God still loves you and always will.”

Can we do that, church?  Can other people see God through us?  Or will we be forever relegated to the forgotten state of the temple dishes, thrown away into storage, until a petty king has need of us?

By God’s grace, may we make God known.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 26, 2015

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