Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sermon: Daniel 5: 1-31 God's Graffiti

All the talk these days is of obesity and fat. At least once a week, there’ll be some survey or news report on the latest findings. Obesity among children. A rise in diabetes. Just on Thursday past, the BBC were reporting that people in Northern Ireland are becoming healthier, but obesity is also on the rise.

The focus is on your weight. Getting weighed can become a frightening thing, and the calculation of your BMI (Body Mass Index). I’ll not ask your weight - it would be rude to - but what if we were to be weighed by God? Not our body mass index, but our SSI - our soul sin index?

As we come to Daniel 5, we notice straight away that we have moved forward a few years since the last chapter - there’s now a new king, Nebuchadnezzar has died, and Belshazzar is king. Will the new king be like the last one? Last week, you might remember, finished with Nebuchadnezzar’s confession and humility. Will Belshazzar follow in his father’s footsteps? How is Belshazzar’s SSI? What’s his sin weight?

We meet Belshazzar in the context of a great feast he has organised - a thousand guests, a great time, and plenty of drink.

In order to get the party started, he orders that the gold and silver vessels - the chalices, cups, jugs and all the rest that were brought from the Temple in Jerusalem are brought out to drink from. Using these holy things which were used in the worship of God, he turns to idolatry, praising the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone. The vessels set apart for the worship of the Lord, and he uses them for idolatry.

But immediately some fingers appear, writing or engraving a message on the wall. Belshazzar is already afraid - verse 6 says his colour changed, his thoughts alarmed him, his limbs gave way and his knees knocked together. Not so great and powerful a king now, is he?

The message is there, but is unknown - just as before, the wise men of Babylon, the Chaldeans can’t understand the message, and don’t know what it is saying, despite the great rewards promised for the one who can interpret it.

A message from God, without interpretation. Yet there is someone who hasn’t forgotten the old days. The queen (probably the queen mother, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar) remembers Daniel, the one with the ‘spirit of the holy gods’ who could interpret Nebuchandezzar’s dreams. A message from God needs a man of God to interpret it.

It seems that Belshazzar knows who Daniel is - look how he greets him in verse 13: ‘You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah...’ He knows all about who Daniel was, but must have dismissed him from his position as chief of the magicians when he became king.

Daniel refuses the rewards the king offers, and begins to address the matter at hand. But rather than reading the words and explaining the message, Daniel begins talking about Belshazzar’s father instead. If you were with us last week, you might even be thinking that we’re just covering old ground again - that the story is being repeated from verses 18 to 21. He was humbled until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will.

Verse 22 gives us the reason for the repeat: ‘And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven.’ Belshazzar, you might think that you’re greater than your dad - but you forget that God is even greater again - he is the one who rules over everything, and you have set yourself up against him. You have rebelled, even though you saw what happened to your father - you haven’t learnt the lesson he learnt, but have instead repeated the folly.

How did he lift himself up against God? He defiled God’s holy things, and he committed idolatry. Idolatry is praise in the wrong place. It’s praise of the created things rather than the Creator. It’s praise of dead and false things rather than the living and true God.

He praised the gods of silver and gold - which do not see or hear or know. A lump of gold isn’t going to save you. A lump of silver isn’t going to hear you. And while he praised all these, he forgot about the living God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways.

It’s a bit like working for one company, being paid by them, yet using all your time to work for another company. Or it’s like loving the gifts you received (for Valentine’s Day) but hating the one you received them from - enjoying all these good things, but turning from the good giver.

Daniel then gets to the heart of the message: four words for the king. Mene mene tekel parsin. Numbered, weighed and divided. The living God, in whose hand is the breath of Belshazzar, is the one who can bring his breath to an end. The living God is the one who judges his stewards - and Belshazzar has been judged.

Your days are numbered - your wickedness has reached its limit, you have crossed the line, and your reign will come to an end. Why? Because you have been weighed and found wanting. It’s the image of scales, and his sin is great. His SSI is huge, and his sins are piled up in the negative balance. And what will happen? His kingdom will be divided and given to others. God is the judge, the king, the one who rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom we will (21).

Notice that there is no opportunity for repentance here, as there was offered to Nebuchadnezzar in 4:27 - just the message of swift judgement. God is free to act as he will - ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’ (Romans 9:15 quoting Exodus 33:19). God’s election and purposes stand - some to life and some to destruction.

Belshazzar follows through on the rewards he promised, but in the end, they were hollow rewards. God carries through his judgement swiftly. Darius the Mede becomes king as Babylon is overrun by the Medes and Persians that very night.

So what is this passage teaching us? What is it that we can take away today?

1 - God has no grandchildren. Belshazzar saw his father bring converted, but he rebelled all the more. Each is responsible for what they have done in the light of what they know. Belshazzar had seen the change in his father, but had continued in his own sin.

Christian parents, perhaps this is a great burden for you - as you see your children walking away from what they know. This may not be because your witness is lacking - they will make their own choices and will be responsible for them. For your part, keep praying for them, and being a witness to them.

Or if you’re the son or daughter of a Christian, don’t think that you’re all right that way. You too must turn from your sin and humble yourself as you have seen your parents humble themselves.

2 - Idolatry is foolish - we may not praise the gods of gold and silver, but to love and serve created things rather than the Creator is to turn away from him. Remember who God is, and his great power, the one in whose hand is your breath.

3 - God is concerned for his glory. Belshazzar seemed to cross the line by demeaning and defiling the holy vessels - to use them for a drunken orgy was to defile God too. How do we use the things set apart for God’s name and glory?

Some of the Corinthian Christians had fallen ill and even died due to their disrespect for the Lord’s Supper and their disrespect for the brothers and sisters - for the body (1 Cor 11:30). How do we use the things set apart for the Lord - our bodies? ‘You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.’ (1 Cor 6:19-20)

4 - God is active in history, in judgement. God reacts to Belshazzar’s wickedness and removes his reign, enabling the Medes and Persians to conquer his kingdom. Do not think that God is far off, or uninterested - that he just wound up the universe like a clock and has left it to run by itself. God is not distant - he sees the wicked in their wickedness and will judge at the proper time - whether in time or on the great day of the Lord.

God is in charge - God is the king, no matter what is happening on earth. This is the recurring message we’re seeing right through the book of Daniel - yet hopefully we’re seeing how that is worked out in different circumstances, and how God exercises his rule.

If the Lord were to weigh us, how would we come out? I’m not speaking about your body weight - but weighed as Belshazzar was weighed. Tested, and found wanting?

All of us would be found wanting. Our sins are great, and we have nothing in the other balance. Even our righteous deeds are sinful, like filthy rags before God. We have no goodness, nothing to offset the sins we have committed.

But through the grace and mercy of God, our wrongdoing can be removed, the weight of our sins taken away, through faith in the Lord Jesus, trusting in his death for our sins. He takes away the weight of sin and instead gives us his goodness, his righteousness, his obedience. This is the great exchange that we are counted righteous, and weighed down with the grace and glory of God.

How is your weight today? Are you weighed down by your sin, or by God’s goodness and grace?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 14th February 2010.

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