October 25, 2020
When I was in college I got to be a part of a mission trip where I spent a couple months in Ethiopia. It was through the college ministry that I was a part of, I went with three other students at the time and we spend most of our summer working at a local youth center, kind of like our local YMCA. And while it was a great and rewarding experience, and while I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, it was also really hard at times. It truly felt like going to a different world, a lack of familiarity when it came to just about everything, few, if any of the creature comforts we were used to back home, new foods, a new language, that tested our patience and resolve when it came to everything like finding transportation, or handling money or gosh, even find a bathroom. It was an adventure for sure, but it was tough. And our team of four would regularly gather together to debrief the day or plan the next day or simply to have a time of worship, and when we would worship together, there was one song we would sing often, it was called “Humble Me,” and for a while it was a group favorite. But by a few weeks in, we had come off a long and tiring day and someone requested we sing “Humble Me” and one of the girls Violet, who was part of our group, said in this joking, yet very serious way, “Enough! Enough with the Humble Me song. Haven’t we been humbled enough?!” She had just had it and I guess felt she had enough humbling for one summer.
Now, truth be told, as I was working through our scripture this week and preparing this message for today, I gotta be honest, Violet’s words kept ringing through my head, as we once again come to yet another passage where there’s this theme of humility.
We’ve been going through the Book of Daniel this fall and a few times now we’ve seen this theme and emphasis on humility come up, it’s been a consistent note that’s been playing these past couple chapters. And though it’s not the only theme in this chapter, it’s definitely one of them. And if you’re like me, or like Violet, and have heard more than you can handle on humility, well I get it.
Lord knows, I feel like we’ve been humbled enough this year. I know in talking to many people in our congregation, you all are busier than ever, maybe less scheduled, with fewer set events and things on the calendar, but yet as busy as ever, there’s a mental fatigue setting in. This week I’ve heard a couple times the media use the phrase of there being a dark winter ahead of us, and they’re not talking about daylight savings around the corner. This morning my car almost didn’t start with the sub freezing temps and yes, I drove the three blocks here because I’m a little softer than I’d like to admit. All this to say, my guess is we’re all feeling a little humbled these days.
And so before we dive too far into our scripture today, I just first wanted to be sure to name that. If you hear humility and think to yourself, “I, I just can’t …” Well, I get that. And so if that’s you, it may be best to save this message and put it in your back pocket for a rainy day.
This morning, we come to one of the more famous stories in the Book of Daniel, it’s the story of the writing on the wall, where as Laura just read, there literally was writing on the wall, in fact this story is where that expression comes from. Where King Belshazzar, all of a sudden and later explained by Daniel is told of the inevitable result and imminent danger headed his way.
And here once again, we come to another strange and bewildering story, as has been par for the course here in this book and this one is particularly strange, even unnerving a little bit. And in what seems like an odd coincidence and timing, this story feels a little Halloween-esque, where it feels like it’s more fitting for a haunted house than the pages of Scripture.
And so? How did we get here? What exactly were the chain of events that led to this strange and frightening moment? And what was exactly was it being written on that wall?
Well, I think it’s helpful to briefly look back to Daniel chapter 4, not only because it sets the stage for this story, but even more Daniel refers back to it before he explains the writing on the wall.
Last week, we saw how King Nebuchadnezzar, though he was forewarned about the dangers and consequences of his pride, his pride still got the best of him. And so God sent him into the wilderness to live among the animals, a truly humbling moment. The greatest king in the world, a God like figure, became like an animal. And the good news is, as we saw last week, Nebuchadnezzar changes his ways, and learns once and for all, as the text says, “that the Most High God has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he wills.” And his kingdom was restored.
Now fast forward to our story today, King Belshazzar is now on the throne. And we’re told that Belshazzar decides to throw a festival, or in other words a massive party. And as for this party, there is nothing holy or wholesome about it. And that alone is troubling, but yet there’s something even worse about it. We’re told that he has brought in the vessels of gold and silver that the Babylonians pillaged from the temple of Jerusalem, the Jews place of worship, and are now using those vessels and drinking from them.
And this is an absolute power move. One full of pride and bravado and sheer arrogance. As he holds these sacred vessels meant for worship and uses them for his party, it’s as if Belshazzar is saying, “I’ve got the world on a string. I’m the most powerful man on earth and I’ve got this God of Israel in the palm of my hand.” And as he hosts this party, he’s feeling safe and secure in Babylon, a city that was well protected with city gates that were 87 feet wide. Belshazzar felt invincible. Sadly, he’s learned nothing. Nothing about the past, nothing about Nebuchadnezzar’s story, nothing about who he is and how powerful and mighty this God he’s mocking truly is.
And Daniel calls him out on this before he explains the writing on the wall to him, essentially saying, “C’mon man. You knew better than this. Don’t you remember what happened to Nebuchadnezzar?” Daniel says, “… you have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this!”
And so as Belshazzar and his people danced and partied that night without a care in the world, God stepped in and put an end to their party by writing on the wall. Try to imagine that for a moment – their partying, drinking wine, dancing to the music and all of a sudden a mysterious the fingers of a human hand begin writing something cryptic on the wall. That’s a real party killer and needless to say, it stopped the party right in its tracks.
Now, what exactly do we do or are we supposed to take away from this story? In many ways, our situations are so very different, in terms of our positions of power compared to Belshazzar, or the many facets of his historical context, the egregious misuse of temple vessels and even just sheer arrogance of this King. So what do we do with this?
Well, at the very least, let’s connect the dots this way. In so many ways, God was saying to Belshazzar, “Can I have your attention, please?” And in many ways, he’s trying to get across to us, you and me, in our hard hearted, stubborn selves, who sometimes live lives where we push God out of view.
And truth is, God will often try and get our attention through a variety of ways, through primary ways such as bible reading or prayer, but maybe also through the encouraging or convicting words of a close friend, or maybe through a seemingly serendipitous or coincidental moment.
Friends, how might God be trying to get your attention in this season?
Scott Dudley, senior pastor of my previous church back in Washington tells this great story about when he was a college pastor, and he was working all the time, didn't take any days off. He worked every single day, long hours, just trying to do a good job. And he said, one day these two young guys, who were interns on his staff said, Scott, we want to buy you lunch. Scott, was thinking, “Huh, that’s nice, these interns they were just out of college, 22 years old, probably didn’t have a ton of money … how nice; they want to take me to lunch. That's sweet."
But yet, to Scott’s surprise, when they sat down for lunch that day the first thing they said is, "Scott, you're bumming us out. You work all the time. You never take any time off. You never take any days off. You're neglecting your family." And Scott started making excuses, saying things like, "Well, the job; it's a lot of work, it's just so hard." One of them like slammed his fist down on the table and he said, "No. We see you trying to be an excellent pastor, but we need you to be an excellent husband, and father, and Christian, because that's what we want to be. We want to be excellent men. We want to be excellent husbands, and fathers, and Christians, and you're supposed to show us how, and you're not doing it." I mean c’mon now, that’s gutsy.
In a way, it’s kind of like Daniel in this story, who as a lowly Jewish exile spoke God’s truth to the King, which you have to imagine took courage. And so in a way, like Daniel, these interns spoke truth to power, just like Daniel.
Now, Scott trying to process all this, and admittedly thought, “I’m their boss. I could fire them.” But yet, instead he says, he mostly felt loved, and that he heard God say, "You're breaking the fourth commandment, the Sabbath, one of my top ten. Listen to them. They speak for me." And he said he was convicted, and he got better at being a faithful parent and husband and Christian, not perfect but better over time.
In so many different ways, whether it’s through our bible reading or prayer, the counsel and hard truths from a close friend, or maybe what feels like a serendipitous moment, God in all sorts of different ways I think is looking at us, and saying, “Can I have your attention, please?” And often times, the question is, "Are we humble enough to hear it?" Are we willing to slow down, put down our agenda, swallow our pride, and hear the word that God has for us no matter whether it’s challenging or comforting or somewhere in between? So friends, is there a hard word that you need to hear, or that someone's been speaking into your life that you need to listen to as maybe the voice of God?
It’s been such a strange year … from the pandemic, to racial tension, protests, a divisive political season, fires, hurricanes, floods … do you ever wonder if in midst of it all, God is saying, “Can I have your attention, please?” I wonder if in chaotic seasons such as this he wants us to turn down the volume to some extent on the noise of this world and turn up the volume when it comes to hearing from him.
I’ll finish with this.
In so many ways, this is a deeply sobering story. It’s convicting, unnerving, and deeply sobering.
It’s a reminder to humble ourselves before the Lord. It’s a reminder to not be intoxicated by our own power and success. It’s a reminder that God is sovereign, that he truly is King. And it’s especially so, a reminder of God’s judgment.
It’s a reminder that for those who throughout their lives choose pride over humility, for those who get drunk on their own power and success, for those who rebel and neglect God throughout their lives, it’s a reminder that for them – to use that phrase again – the writing is on the wall and judgment awaits.
And that’s deeply sobering and convicting.
You see, for Belshazzar, the writing on the wall said Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin, which in so many words simply means that his kingdom will be taken away from him and his life will come to a bitter end as he is killed that very night.
For him, the writing was on the wall. But yet, but yet, it doesn’t have to be that way for us.
There are three times in scripture where we see God write with his hand. Just three and together the three create this beautiful progression. The first is in Exodus, where God writes the 10 commandments on two stone tables. There he writes down the law for his people. The second time is this one, here in Daniel. And as we’ve seen, it’s a word of judgment. And yet, there’s one more. And its kind of obscure and at first seems like a throw away detail within the larger story itself, it’s the story of the woman caught in adultery. Brought before Jesus is a woman caught in the adultery and the scribes and Pharisees remind Jesus that the Law states that such women should be stoned and condemned. And so they ask him, “What do you say?” For this woman, in that moment, I wonder if she thought that her fate was sealed – that the writing was on the wall. But yet, Jesus does something strange, that seems a little odd. He bends down and with his finger writes on the ground. Weird, right? And at some point later, he looks up and invites anyone who is without sin to cast the first stone, which of course, is no one, except for Jesus. And as Jesus tells this woman that just as none of those men can condemn her that neither does he, he says, “Go and sin no more.”
Three times God writes with his hand. First the law, followed by judgment, only to be finished with grace. Grace. This woman gets far more than she deserves. Truth is, we all do – anyone who follows Christ gets far more than they deserve. With Jesus, in our guilt and shame, we get grace.
That is, with Jesus, the writing on the wall for you and me, is a word of grace.
So friends, go be with Jesus this week, go find some time of rest and solitude, and hear Jesus speak those words of grace to you, those cleansing, hopefully, forgiving words, where he says, “I don’t condemn you. Go and sin no more.”