A sermon by Graham Agnew
One of my favourite passages in the Old Testament is found in Daniel chapter 5. It takes us back to 539 BC when Belshazzar was the reigning king of Babylon. He decided to throw a party….a really wild party, with at least a thousand of his aristocratic friends! In today’s world this guy would be up there with the best of them when it comes to Facebook popularity!
However, at one point the party became so crazy and decadent, even Belshazzar (who’d seen just about everything) was totally unprepared for what he was about to experience. What happened to this hapless monarch and his wild friends was reminiscent a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie. God did something quite dramatic to get Belshazzar’s attention.
There’s a scene in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark where the bad guys lift the lid off the sacred Ark of the Covenant, only to unleash what appears to be the wrath and fury of God, in the form of a swirling mist, which devours everything in its path. And the message is clear: Don’t mess with God!
The scene is similar in Daniel Chapter 5 when King Belshazzar asks for the sacred vessels, stolen from the Israelite Temple in Jerusalem, to be brought to his banquet so he and his partying friends can drink wine from them!
It was an outrageous and sacrilegious act in the extreme! A modern day equivalent would be a party run in the CBD by a notorious crime boss, with someone suggesting they break into the city’s cathedral and bring the ornate communion chalices back to the party. People would be outraged and even those with no religious beliefs would see the gravity of such sacrilege.
In the case of the Babylonians, the result of their outrageous behaviour is the appearance of a hand, which mysteriously appears and starts writing a message on the wall of the banquet hall. The Bible says the King was scared out of his wits – to the point where his knees started knocking. It’s actually quite a humorous incident, if it wasn’t so serious.
At the heart of this story is the message: every action produces a reaction; every sin has a consequence! In Galatians 6:7 we read: God is not mocked and a person will reap exactly what they sow.
One of the appeals of an incident like this is the way the bad guy gets his just desserts and we kinda like that We see it a lot in the Old Testament: an individual or nation violates God’s laws and there’s a flood or a plague, or someone is thrown to the lions or they’re killed in some other gruesome way and in our more carnal moments, that sort of thing appeals to us.
Today, so many bad guys seem to get away with it; today bad guys are elected to public office: they sometimes become CEOs of large companies or union leaders or those who run of children’s armies in Africa – and they seem to get away with it! Sometimes we secretly wish bad guys were dealt with more harshly and not allowed to get away with such things.
In Old Testament times, justice was often swift and sure. In the case of Belshazzar, his city of Babylon (believed to be impregnable) was overrun and he was killed that very night. It was a dramatic end to a bizarre night of revelry, but God had spoken and the outcome was something those involved would never forget!
If only Belshazzar had the wisdom, the discernment and the insight to understand an old truism in life – namely: seeing the writing on the wall can prevent our backs from being up against it! Isn’t that true! When we find ourselves in the midst of a tough time, a time of challenge and despair – often we can trace our predicament back to a wrong decision, a poor choice or an ill-conceived plan. Under these circumstances we’re inclined to say: “I should have seen this coming! I should have seen the writing on the wall”.
Over the years I’ve assisted hundreds of people in pastoral situations, many of whom have had their backs to the wall in different ways. In some cases, they have acknowledged they should have seen the writing on the wall. I’m talking about people caught up in various forms of addiction; people embroiled in financial problems; those who’ve experience moral failure or found themselves caught up in some heavy family dispute. In some cases the cause of the problem is their involvement in a toxic relationship in which they are constantly being put down and held back from aspiring to their full potential.
The warning signs were there but they failed to heed them. As they look back, they realize there have been friends and family members trying to do a bit of “writing on the wall”; offering guidance, counsel and advice – but these people refused to listen.
One of the most remarkable things about this passage, from my perspective, is that in order to make sense of the writing on the wall, they called in the man of God: Daniel himself. You see, the King’s regular supply of fortune tellers, tarot card readers, psychics and so on, couldn’t explain the message on the wall. So the Queen reminded the King there was a guy who had been a legend in a previous era and I love the way the Good News Bibles renders her words. It comes in verse 12 of the fifth chapter: “He’ll tell you what’s going on”.
And Daniel did just that: he explained to the King that the writing on the wall contained a dire warning: the King’s days were numbered; he’d been weighed in the balances and found wanting; his kingdom was about to be destroyed.
He’ll tell you what’s going on………
Do you know, one of the most powerful ways we can influence our work, our neighbourhoods and our families in today’s world is by being true… being real….being available… being “in touch” with what’s really happening in people’s lives.
As Christians, we can help someone find out what’s going on in their lives; we can throw light on the problems and difficulties they are facing by being available with a listening ear: we can bring a faith perspective to some of the issues confronting people. We can play a part in telling them what’s going on.
Don’t know about you, but I would like to think I am developing a reputation among friends and family as someone with discernment; someone who knows what’s going on, or at least who can point a person in the direction of people who do!
The incident in Daniel chapter 5 describes a stunning, awesome and dramatic way God used to get a message across: he wrote it on a wall! But you know, that wasn’t the only time God has made a powerful point through writing. Do you recall the incident recorded in John Chapter 8, the first eleven verses? It’s where a woman taken in adultery is flung at the feet of Jesus by her accusers. It’s a deliberately orchestrated test for Jesus, with these religious leaders reminding Him that according to the Jewish law, she should be stoned to death – and the question comes to Jesus: what do you say?
And in one of the most intriguing moments in the life of Jesus he bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger; no words, no conversation at all, other than to make the statement: “whoever has committed no sin may throw the first stone”.
John records Jesus bending down to write some more and as He does so, one by one the accusers leave the area. Many interpretations have been applied to this incident but I like the one which has Jesus writing various sins on the ground like greed, jealousy, lust and pride. As each person recognizes a sin they were guilty of, they quietly moved off, realizing their own hypocrisy at that point.
Whatever the explanation, one thing we do know is there are some parallels between the experience of this woman and that of Belshazzar. Like him, she’d had her time of pleasure, but then came the moment of reckoning and there were those pushing for swift justice.
However, unlike Belshazzar, who remained defiant to the end, you get the sense this woman is full of remorse, in that she addresses Jesus with extreme courtesy and gratitude. When Jesus asks: “Is there no one to condemn you?” she quietly answers: “No one, sir…”
Belshazzar saw the writing on the wall and was overwhelmed by fear. The woman taken in adultery saw the writing and was overcome by forgiveness.
Belshazzar knew he’d gone too far but made no attempt to repent – he simply wanted an explanation so he could get on with the party! The woman knew she had done wrong, but in being willing to face the music, she was to hear those beautiful words from Jesus: “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more…”
The big difference between the two incidents is GRACE! God’s grace would have been available to Belshazzar if he’d chosen to repent, but he took another pathway.
There’s a powerful message here: God’s grace is available to all, but we must be willing and available to embrace it and receive it for ourselves.
Wouldn’t life be so much easier if God clearly wrote messages for us on some of the walls we pass every day? – Perhaps on our Facebook wall? If only He would spell out what we’re meant to do, how we’re meant to respond in certain situations.
As far as we know, only Belshazzar and the woman taken in adultery actually saw God communicate in this way, but there’s a very real sense in which He uses the guidance of friends and family, the support of the Church, the insights we receive through prayer and the reading of His Word – all of these things to provide the writing on the wall we all need.
Our response is to have the faith and courage to see the writing on the wall so we don’t find our backs up against it!
God our Father, help us to respond to the messages you give us about how we are to live our lives. In your name we pray. Amen.