Sunday, August 9, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "You Have Been Found Wanting"

Daniel 5:17-23

Daniel answered the king: “Keep your gifts. Give the rewards to someone else. But I will still read the writing to the king and interpret it for him. 18 Listen, Your Majesty: The Most High God gave kingship, power, glory, and majesty to your father Nebuchadnezzar. 19 Because of the power God gave Nebuchadnezzar, all peoples, nations, and languages were terrified of him. He did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted: killing or sparing, exalting or humbling. 20 But when he became arrogant, acting in stubborn pride, he was pulled off his royal throne and the glory was taken from him. 21 He was driven away from other humans, and his mind became like an animal’s. He lived with wild donkeys, he ate grass like cattle, and dew from heaven washed his body until he realized that the Most High God dominates human kingship and sets over it anyone he wants. 

22 “But you who are his son, Belshazzar, you haven’t submitted, even though you’ve known all this. 23 Instead, you’ve set yourself up against the Lord of heaven! The equipment of God’s house was brought to you; and you, your princes, your consorts, and your secondary wives drank wine out of it, all the while praising the gods of silver, gold, bronze, iron, wood, and stone—gods who can’t see, hear, or know anything. But you didn’t glorify the true God who holds your very breath in his hand and who owns every road you take. (Common English Bible)

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

The Nobel Prizes.

If you were to ask people, like on Family Feud, what the most highly regarded honor in the world is, the Nobel Prizes in peace, literature, medicine, physics, and chemistry (plus the related prize in economics) would pretty much have to make the shortlist.  Some truly great, larger-than-life souls are Nobel laureates, from Nelson Mandela to Malala Yousafzai, from Desmond Tutu to Elie Wiesel.

But it almost didn’t end up being that way—the Nobel Prize almost didn’t exist.  It was created by its namesake, Alfred Nobel, only after several newspapers mistakenly ran an obituary for him—while he was still very much among the living—instead of his recently deceased brother, Ludvig.
And one of the French headlines for Alfred’s mistaken obituary read, le marchand de la mort est mort.  In English, that translates to, the merchant of death is dead.

Why would the papers say this about him?  Because Alfred Nobel was also the inventor of an effective, yet highly loathed, weapon in his time: dynamite.

This 19th-century warmonger then, being presented with the stark evidence that he had been weighed, measured, and found wanting, dedicated himself anew to a pursuit that would celebrate humanity, not kill it en masse.  And from that desire came his action to dedicate nearly his entire fortune after he died to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes.

All because one man, like Belshazzar, saw the writing on the wall—or the front page—but crucially, unlike Belshazzar, realized that he had been found wanting and strove to tip the scales once more.

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 two weeks ago with verses one through nine, which gave us the exposition of the story and King Belshazzar’s attempts to remedy his fright over the writing on the wall that has just appeared.  Last week, in verse ten through sixteen, the missus, Belshazzar’s queen, appears and suggests for the king and his entourage of stupefied magicians the proper prescription: call upon Daniel.  Belshazzar promptly does so, calls for Daniel, and then lays out the problem at hand, which brings us to today—Daniel’s response to Belshazzar up to the exact translation of the writing on the wall, a response that takes us through verses seventeen to twenty-three.

And Daniel’s response to Belshazzar’s seemingly generous offer of power and gold and fine robes takes some serious courage because, just like last week with Belshazzar’s queen when she told the king what to do in front of God and everybody, Belshazzar could simply have decided to have Daniel killed on the spot for his defiance in the face of such royal munificence.

That is the sort of bravery that speaking truth to power sometimes—maybe oftentimes—requires, though.  Daniel certainly is not lacking in that quality, but he has managed to balance it out with surviving, as he details here, an even madder and more insane monarch in Belshazzar’s forebear Nebuchadnezzar, so we cannot treat this or dismiss this as a story of a fool with a death wish.

No, this is a passage that is about a man—Belshazzar—who, after God only knows how many years of living in a palatial cocoon of his own making, is finally forced to confront the truth about himself, and to confront it from one of the most humble sources available to him: an exiled Israelite, a citizen of the nation his ancestor Nebuchadnezzar trampled over like a boot.  Daniel is literally a nobody to Belshazzar—the king didn’t even think to call on him until the queen flat-out told him to.

But oftentimes, that is what we need for ourselves to be humbled—we need to humbled not always by a king or a wielder of power, but by a nobody, someone who is out of sight and out of mind to us until they are called upon, until they become visible, until they make their presence known to us.

Yet hear them Belshazzar will, and hear them Belshazzar must.  As too, must we.  I keep reminding you of this, but it remains true, up until the story ends with his murder, but Belshazzar represents us in this story.  He is the closest we get to an audience proxy, someone with whom the audience is defined by and defined with.  And what Daniel has to say to him, he has to say to us as well.

Can we say, with all honesty and authenticity, that we always, in Daniel’s words, glorify the true God who holds our very breath in God’s hand and who owns every road that we take?  Can we say that we have never been as Belshazzar, denying glory to God because we think ourselves in our mere mortal shells superior to the divine?  We may have disapproved, back in the first week of this sermon series, of Belshazzar drunkenly calling for the dishes plundered from the Jerusalem temple in order to express his perceived superiority over God, but have we not all at some point, intoxicated on our own vanity and self-glory, acted as though we knew better than God?

We do it all the time, in a wide variety of ways.  We make Jesus into our image, with all of our same political views and thoughts on people who aren’t like us, we make the church into our image by wanting it to do things exactly same way we have always done them for decades while ignoring what the church could be doing that is new for today as opposed to new for yesterday, and we take a set of tweezers to the Bible, lifting delicately and carefully the verses we like out of context, ignoring the stories and passages from whence they came.

In short, we make our faith in God fit us, rather than trying to drive ourselves to fit our faith.  And do we really do that elsewhere in our lives?  We wait for red lights to turn green, but we cannot abide actually having to wait on God to speak a word into our ears.  We try to lose weight in order to fit into our clothes, but with faith, we don’t bother—our faith becomes exactly as elastic as we want it to be.  We adjust ourselves more to our traffic lights and our wardrobes than to our faith.

Which begs the question: what on earth is a faith like that even good for?

I would even go one step further and suggest that—and I know this will be a controversial notion—that a faith that is so centered on our own selves does more harm than good.  To us, to God, to the world, all of it.  It is a madness of a faith, a madness that can drive us, just like Belshazzar’s ancestor Nebuchadnezzar, far, far away from God.  It is a madness because it is a delusion, just as Nebuchadnezzar deluded himself into thinking he was a wild animal and living like a wild animal, we delude ourselves into thinking

And for this delusion of ours, we have been weighed.  We have been measured.  And we have indeed been found wanting.  Jesus says in John 12 that the Word that He has spoken acts on the last day as our judge, and by the standard of His words, we have indeed been found wanting, for we do not in fact love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, we do not love our neighbors as ourselves, and we do not do for others what we want them to do for us.  Jesus says the first two of those three are upon which the entirety of the Law and the Prophets—that is, much of the Old Testament, including Daniel, as one of the prophets—are hung.

It was true for the Pharisees whom Jesus was responding to, it was true for the Babylonian king whom Daniel is responding to, and it is true for each of us as the Bible responds to our own sins and iniquities, our own inabilities and flaws, our own unwillingness to be Christian as opposed to saying that we are Christian, our own reticence to live our faith as opposed to saying we have faith.

Do we really think that someone as brave as Daniel, as selfless as Jesus Christ, or as loving as God Almighty, would do so much of what we say we do in their names?  Do we really think that they actually approve of our superimposing their names upon our agendas of selfishness, exclusion, and prejudice?  Have we actually deluded ourselves into thinking that slamming the door of the kingdom of God shut in a person’s face is in fact a part of what being a Christian today entails?

If we do, then we are no better than Belshazzar in the heaviest of his drunken stupors, and no more sane than Nebuchadnezzar in the deepest throes of his madness.

But we can undo that me-first mentality that has led to so many of our sins; at least, going forward, we can.  And in doing so, the balance of our lives, of how we are remembered as people and as a church, and of the message we send, the legacy we create, the kingdom we help build, all of it can create an entirely different fate.  One man who was known only for being an established ironmonger who invented newer and more efficient ways to kill enemies of the state, he realized how he had been found wanting, and going forward, he successfully sought to change the balance of his life, and in so doing, genuinely changed the world.

And that—precisely that outcome—is why we ought not to be afraid of being found wanting.  Indeed, we must embrace it, because by being made aware of it, we actually know what needs fixing.  It’s the first step of the twelve—in order to fix a problem, you have to admit that there is one.

We can at long last admit that we have been found wanting.  We have been given that permission. And now, may God choose to work in us, then, something wonderfully and amazingly new.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 9, 2015

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