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Friday, February 16, 2018

Ash Wednesday - Joel 2

Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

We open the Bible and listen as the Word speaks to us.

Hear this, O elders, O Church
    give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
    or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell your children of it,
    and let your children tell their children,
    and their children another generation.

15 Alas for the day!
For the day of the Lord is near,
    and as destruction from the Almighty[a] it comes.
16 Is not the food cut off
    before our eyes,
joy and gladness
    cut off from the house of our God?
17 The seed shrivels under the clods,[b]
    the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are ruined
    because the grain has failed.
18 How the animals groan!
    The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
    even the flocks of sheep are dazed.  (1:2-3, 15-18)

Blow the trumpet in Zion; In America; In Chapel Hill;
    sound the alarm on God’s holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
    a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
    a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
    nor will be again after them
    in ages to come. (2:1-2)

            Now, what do we say?  More importantly, what do we do?  The Word has had its say.  The Day of the Lord is imminent, a day of darkness and gloom.  We say, “God is love,” and it is true.  Indeed, God is love, teaches us how to love, and expects us as His followers and worshipers to live in love.  Yes, God is love.  But that is not all there is to be said about God.
            Make no mistake.  The prophet Joel does not mince words.  The day of the Lord is coming; it can’t be stopped.  It is a day to fear.  And the destruction on that day ultimately comes from the Lord.  If we were to add the words of the prophet Nahum to Joel’s prophecy we would see that God gets angry.  Nahum says “the Lord rages against his enemies” (1:2). 
            Joel does not name God’s rage, but rather describes it.  He announces the coming destruction as inevitable and originating from God.  The thing about the prophet Joel is scholars really do not know when Joel wrote his prophecy.  Nahum is clearly aimed at Nineveh and the Assyrians.  Joel does promise redemption for the southern Kingdom of Jews, Judah, and wrath for Judah’s enemies.
            However, Joel cannot be fixed at any point in Israel’s history. The message is appropriate any time.  We understand sin to be humanity in rebellion against God.  Consciously or unconsciously, people choose to be their own authority instead of submitting to God as authority.  We decide we know what’s best for ourselves, for people around us, and for the world in which we live – instead of trusting that God knows the best way for the world to run. 
This notion of human sovereignty usurps God’s authority and this attitude and posture and accompanying actions produce sin.  So the ominous warnings of Joel, the onset of the Day of Judgment fits our circumstance.  We read both Nahum and Joel as divinely inspired prophecy.  The words originally spoke to circumstances in Israel with relation to Judah and to the foreign invaders, Assyria, but a deeper message rings true across the span of history to our day.  In Christ, we are grafted into Israel, into Judah, the inheritance of David.  The prophecies originally for the chosen people speak a fresh word of God to all of us who have been drawn to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. 
The God of love is also a God of wrath.  God takes sin seriously and sin, collective and individual sin, cuts us off from God.  And we all sin. For this reason, Joel is very concerned.

Wake up, you drunkards, and weep;
    and wail, all you wine-drinkers,
over the sweet wine,
    for it is cut off from your mouth.

Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth
    for the husband of her youth.
The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
    from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
    the ministers of the Lord.
10 The fields are devastated,
    the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil fails.
11 Be dismayed, you farmers,
    wail, you vinedressers,
over the wheat and the barley;
    for the crops of the field are ruined.
12 The vine withers,
    the fig tree droops.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
    all the trees of the field are dried up;
surely, joy withers away
    among the people. (1:5, 8-12).

            So, again, the question: what do we think and say?  If we believe this from Joel is truly Word of God, a word to be trusted, then judgment is coming.  We can look back through history and identify possible moments of judgment on worshiping communities.  And we certainly believe this promise of reckoning will be part of the last day, Christ’s return, the end of history, and the beginning of a new age.  Is it inevitable that we must face that day, as Joel says, lamenting in sack cloth, joy having withered away?
            Lament should be a part of our prayer life.  Christians are Easter-focused and rightfully so, but there is evil in the world and even in each of our own hearts.  Lament is a needed form of prayer.  Maybe this year, as you journey through the season of Lent to the cross of Christ, you will learn the discipline of praying prayers of lament.  Heather and I can help you develop a Bible reading plan for this. 
            Joel most certainly lamented.  But that’s not all he did.  He did not know that God would come in human form, Jesus of Nazareth.  What God did in Jesus was so unexpected, even the disciples who walked with Jesus were caught by surprise until they spent time with him after the resurrection.  Yet, lacking the resurrection perspective, Joel still trusted in God’s goodness.  When the terror of that day weighed upon him, he turned the only place he could turn – to God. 

14 Sanctify a fast,
    call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
    and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to the Lord.

19 To you, O Lord, I cry.
For fire has devoured
    the pastures of the wilderness,
and flames have burned
    all the trees of the field.
20 Even the wild animals cry to you
    because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured
    the pastures of the wilderness.

            Walter Brueggemann says that when prophets like Joel speak in this way about God and about the day of the Lord, the prophets intervene between a holy and angry God and his sinful people.  In this intervention, God is “palpably available” to His people both as a threat and as an opportunity.[i]  For us, as we stand, knees knocking, teeth chattering, exposed in an uncomfortable awareness of our own sins before God, which is it, threat or opportunity?
            Again, Joel, the prophet for all times and places, guides us as prophets do.  I fully believe the prophets were as terrified as their words are terrifying.  I believe they wrote with trembling hands.  With a thumping heart, Joel steps past the awful threat to a place of possibility.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13     rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
    and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
    and leave a blessing behind him?

            The dark clouds of wrath gather on the oncoming horizon, but Joel looks past that, past the gloom to the God behind the wrath because he knows that God is indeed a God of love who wants to forgive us.  “Yet even now” there is time to repent.  Repentance is emotional, draining work, but we do it because we want to be a right relationship with God.  He is full of grace and mercy.  His love is endless and unfailing. 
            What do we say?  Lord, I am sorry.  And in our prayers, we name our sins and lay them out before God. 
What do we do? We turn away from the things in life that draw us into sin, draw us away from a close walk with God. 
The story of Joel gains depth for us when we read it knowing we are taking the first step toward the cross.  On the cross, Jesus bears the weight and the punishment for sin.  Sin leads to pain, loss, death, and alienation from God.  Jesus shoulders that entire burden on the cross.  Knowing that, we see the depths of despair Joel only imagined, but we also see the mountain top of hope Joel held so tenaciously. 
“Who knows whether or not God will relent and leave a blessing instead of complete devastation?” 
Who knows?  We know!  We know what God did in Jesus.  Jesus is the Savior of the world and all who receive forgiveness and come to life in his name will be spared God’s wrath and, on Judgment Day, enter the Kingdom as sons and daughters of God. 
The way I am going to center my own life, as I search inside myself for a faith as gripping as Joel’s, is a Lenten fast.  Christians will give things up for Lent and I am doing that this year.  I encourage you to do so as well.  For me, one of the places I spend a lot of time – time where I get distracted and forget to focus on the presence of God – is Facebook.  During Lent, I am going to greatly reduce the time I spend on Facebook and even more, I am going to cut out commenting on Facebook.  If I don’t give a “Like” to one of your posts, it is because I won’t be doing that during Lent.
Now, I cannot complete disengage.  Facebook is the way I get in touch with some of my really good friends.  We are heading to Ethiopia next month, and I will want to post pictures and report about the trip on Facebook.  However, I won’t be commenting and I won’t be deep-diving into Facebook debates.
How will I fill in that time?  I will spend more time praying, more time with my wife and kids, and more time reading and writing about faith and theology.  For some, writing is a distraction.  For me, it is one means by which I meet God.  Abstaining from Facebook interactions and instead engaging in theological thought and spiritual reflection is how I pause to say “Yet, even now, God may relent.”  It is how I return to the Lord with all my heart. 
I encourage you to find the way you can pause.  Understand in your life what needs to be set aside.  What has gotten in the way and is obstructing your view of God?  Fast.  Whatever that distraction is, minimize it or remove it between now and Easter.  You have to figure this out and do it in your life.  (1) Pause. (2) Take a concrete action that you bring into the pause so that you can sit in the thought, “Yet even now, God may relent from judgment.” 
In that pause, that fast, fill in spiritual disciplines of prayer or study that will draw your eyes and heart to God.  Do the work to open yourself to the God who loves you, forgives, and wants to be in the center of your life. 

I close with one more reading from Joel.  We are sinners, but in Christ, we are a part of God’s people and we are forgiven sinners.  Through the prophet God said to His people and to us,

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
28 [d] Then afterward
    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
    in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (2:26-32a)


[i] Brueggemann, Walter (1997), Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.649. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

“A Witness for our Day” (Daniel 6)

Sunday, February 11, 2018 
            I open with a question: “Decades from now, what will be written about the public testimony of the American Church in the early 21st century?”  This question requires some explanation.  Fifty years from now, when the writers of history look back at the years 2000-2020, what will they remember about the church in the United States?  In Chapel Hill, North Carolina? What will be said about the way the church in our day represented God and trusted in God?
            It’s an odd way to think about things.  Imagining people fifty years from now as they remember us: who does that?
            That is what we do when we read Daniel.  We remember how the chosen people of God, ancient Israel, lived out their faith while they were exiled in Babylon and then Persia, when that empire overran Babylon.  We learn about faith by seeing how Daniel stayed true to God even when Persian religious leaders tried to corrupt his faith.  We learn about dedication to God by seeing how Jews in Jerusalem in 164 BC were inspired by reading Daniel and thus stood up to the horrible persecution wrought by Antiochus Epiphanes IV.  
            In the days of Daniel, people of faith, Daniel and his friends, gave witness to the goodness and authority of God before powerful Pagan rulers. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Jerusalem Jews gave witness to their faith in God by rebelling against the tyrant who declared himself a god.
            In our day, what is our faith saying?  What is our exercise of faith saying about us and what are we saying about the Kingdom of God that, in Jesus, has invaded the present day and has confronted present day governments?   How does our faith speak?  

            Daniel chapters 1-6 are examples of “martyr stories.”  The Greek word ‘martyr’ actually means witness.  We have taken it to mean one who dies for their faith, but in fact, it means witness.  To follow Jesus is to be a witness, one who has seen and received the salvation Jesus gives.  All Christians are witnesses.  Is our witness strong enough that we would live up to the modern day definition of ‘martyr’ if that were called for?  One commentator describes Daniel as a man with “unflinching faith.”  When future generations talk about the way we represented Christ, will they look at us and say, ‘When they were challenged to deny Christ, they stayed true and did not flinch?’”

            By the time we are in Daniel 6, Daniel has survived several tyrant-rulers of Babylon.  In fact, he outlasted the Babylonian empire.  Daniel was among a group of young, talented Jews who were essentially kidnapped when Babylonian forces defeated the Southern kingdom of the Jewish people, Judah, and overthrew the capital, Jerusalem.  They brought the brightest and best of Judah’s young people back to Babylon to indoctrinate them in Babylonian court life. As the ultimate humiliation, they intend to take these young people, Israel’s future, and turn them into loyal Babylonians.  
            It didn’t work.  In spite of multiple death threats and execution attempts, Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, stayed true to God.  Now, in chapter 6, Babylon has been replaced by Media-Persia, ruled by Darius.  
As he did under the Babylonian monarch, Daniel thrived under Darius, distinguished himself, and rose in prominence.  He was so impressive, Darius planned to install Daniel as the primary administrator for the entire Persian Empire.  Of course this did not sit well with other administrators, called “satraps” (v.1, 2).  These Persians, Daniel’s political rivals, knew they had no chance of matching Daniel’s wisdom in governing.  However, they held two trump cards.  
First, they understood the connection between Persian law and Darius’s ego.  Under Persian law, no one, not even the king, can go against an established edict.  Once it is written and sealed, it must be observed.  The only way to overcome a hastily enacted law is to enact another that will override the first.  
We see this in the book of Esther.  The anti-Jewish schemer Haman convinces the king to write an edict that will effectively wipe out the Jews.  The feeble minded king allows himself to be manipulated into legalizing genocide.  Once Esther reveals the wicked plot, the only recourse the king has is to write another law that allows the Jews to arm and defend themselves.  Even though he is king, he is powerless to overturn an established law.
The satraps around Darius in Daniel chapter 6 know this.  And they know Darius’s ego will render him short-sighted.  So, they convince him to enact a 30-day law.  For 30 days, no one in the Persian Empire may pray to any god other than Darius himself.  Darius, in his heart of hearts, knows he cannot answer prayer.  He does not have that power.  He knows this.  
But, he think to himself, “This will be cool.  For 30 days, everyone will worship, only me. How awesome!” So he signs it into law.  This is where the satraps play their second trump card.  They know how loyal Daniel is to the God of Israel.  Darius knows it too, but he didn’t consider the consequences of his actions.  He was enamored with the idea of people bowing before him, but he didn’t stop to think of whom the law would affect and how it would affect them.  
The plan devised by the satraps goes perfectly.  As scheduled, Daniel goes to his open window in his upper room, faces Israel, and begins to pray.  They got him!  He’s praying to God, not to Darius.  They run over each other as they sprint to the king’s chamber to report that Daniel has violated the edict.  
And we see just how powerless this king is.  He’s passed a law requiring people to pray to him.  Not only can he not answer anyone’s prayers, he cannot even overturn the law to save the life of one he likes and trusts - Daniel.  He tries!  But the nefarious satraps say, “Know, O king, that it is law of the Medes and Persians that no interdict or ordinance that the king establishes can be changed” (6:15).  He to whom the Persians must pray is a slave to the law he himself established.  Daniel must face the prescribed punishment for violating the law.  He must be thrown into the lion’s den.  
It was an underground cave, with a stone over the opening in the top; a very inhumane existence for the lions.  But we know the ancients did this sort of thing.  Roman, Persians and other ancient peoples would keep what are meant to be wild, free-roaming beasts, lions and other big cats, in captivity.  They kept the beasts hungry, so when a gruesome execution was called for the predators would be eager to devour whatever fell through that hole.  
Because of Darius’s irresponsible edict, Daniel was what went through the opening.  As he was lowered to a certain death, Darius desperately cried out, “May your God whom you faithfully serve deliver you” (6:16).  And the hole was covered with the stone and the king’s wax seal was affixed so that the hole could only be opened at the king’s command.
Then, Darius spent the night violating his own law.  It says he did not eat or sleep all night long.  Everyone in the Persian Empire was mandated by law to pray to this guy. Praying to anyone else led to a date in the lion’s den.  And here is Darius praying to someone else - the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Verse 18 only says that he fasted, but he had just proclaimed, as Daniel was lowered in, that Daniel’s God could save him.  That kind of faith statement leads me to think he spent the night in prayer, asking God to save Daniel from his, Darius’s impulsive foolishness.
Darius was up at daybreak.  He had obeyed the law.  Now he would break the seal, open the hole, and see if his prayers were answered.  “Daniel,” he called, “has your God delivered you” (v20)?
“Daniel then said to the King, ‘O king, live forever!  My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless.  ... I have not done no wrong” (v.21-22).   God, unlike Darius, is not subject to any law.  Daniel technically did violate the king’s edict by praying to God.  
Sometimes that’s the call of faith.   Church goers get uncomfortable when politics shows up in sermons, but if we seriously engage the stories of the Bible, it is impossible to avoid politics.  In Acts chapter 6, the early church appointed seven of those early Christians to be the first deacons, charged with church administration.  One of them, Stephen, was also a preacher.  
He was working miracles of healing and exorcism, and he taught that Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses.  Enraged synagogue leaders rallied the temple high council of scribes and elders and a gang enacted a people’s arrest.  They dragged Stephen before the council who interrogated him about his preaching.  The entirety of Acts 7 is Stephen’s sermon.  The basic content is a recounting of the Old Testament story that leads to a climax of accusation.  Stephen accuses the temple leaders of executing God’s prophet, but not only a prophet; the Holy One of God, the Son of Man, Jesus.
For Stephen, to stay true to God, meant to openly oppose those who possessed political power - the temple leaders.  To preach the gospel meant to participate in subversive politics.  The same was true for Daniel 500 years earlier and for the Jews under Antiochus 200 years earlier.  
The temple leaders stoned Stephen to death. When we are faithful in the face of oppression and challenge, there is not a guarantee that God will spare our lives.  Sometimes our witness brings suffering.  Look at Stephen who died a horrible death by stoning.  Look at Christians today in North Korean and Iranian prisons.  Why was Daniel miraculously spared?  Why was Stephen and many other executed?  Why are our brothers and sisters in the faith in other countries today persecuted and imprisoned?  Much of the time, only God knows the answer to the “why” questions.

Not always knowing the “why,” we can answer the “what?”  What will future generations remember about how we represented Jesus and spoke the Gospel truth to our generation?
I pray they will remember that we were clear: God and only God is all-powerful.
I pray that they will remember we shared hope: in Jesus Christ, there is life.  All are sinners, but he offers forgiveness and in him, we have a right relationship with God in spite of our sins.  Jesus makes us new, adopted as sons and daughters of God.
I pray they will remember that our faith was fearless, unflinching: we did not put our trust in a political party; we did not give our loyalty to a government or a nation.  We lived as God’s possessions, as disciples of Jesus Christ.  
I pray that they will remember what we said about Jesus and that we demonstrated the love and grace of God, and in remembering our witness, future generations will become Christ followers.

It is a choice.  Faith wasn’t a part of Daniel’s life.  Faith was his life.  Everything in life, for Daniel, happened in light of his relationship with God.  We can choose to have church, faith, prayer be a small part of our lives.  I am not sure what to call those who make that choice.  If we choose a Biblical faith, the faith embodied by Daniel and Stephen and many others, it becomes our everything.  Faith is not a part of our lives.  Faith in the living God is our life and we cannot imagine life without it.   We would rather lose, suffer, and die than abandon faith.
Lent begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.  For our church it will be a time to focus on repentance (turning to God) and unity (our interconnectedness in Christ).  It will also be a time of spiritual discipline.  
I will talk a little bit about this in the Ash Wednesday worship service and in next week’s sermon. I urge you to take up spiritual practices that help you grow in your relationship with Christ.  The reason Daniel was ready to face lions is his spiritual life was forged in daily discipline.  He prayed three time a day, without fail.  He recognized God because he was attuned to God through daily practices.  
God is always with us, in our successes and when we suffer.  We are more ready to see and hear God, and to respond in faith, as we condition ourselves to listen.  As we move into the week ahead, I encourage everyone to be ready to take up spiritual disciplines and to grow in the relationship with God.  You might not have a lions’ den ahead of you, but there will be trials.  God is bigger than the trials and will be there to help you.  So, I encourage you seek him and to speak his Gospel whenever the opportunity arises.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Daniel 5

            Who or what holds influence over you?  Answering this takes a commitment to self-examination.  You have to acknowledge that you allow yourself to be swayed by someone.  A TV personality?  A best friend?  Your husband?   Your mother?  A boss?  Whose voice is always speaking in your head?
            Think about these questions.  As we enter the story of Daniel, examine your life.  In your mind’s eye see that person or group or organization that holds sway with how you think and act.  It could be a good influence or maybe one that’s not so positive.  For now, just think about.  Be honest with yourself.  Who influences you?
We’ve journeyed through the first 4 chapters of the book of Daniel with Daniel and his three friends, young, pious Jews in exile in Babylon during the late 6th century BC.  Now we turn the page to chapter 5.  Daniel has spent most of his life in Babylon.  Because of his great successes interpreting dreams for the lunatic monarch Nebuchadnezzar, he has risen to the top of the Babylonian government even though he’s a slave. 
            But now, Daniel is an old man.  Nebuchadnezzar has been replaced by an even crazier ruler, Belshazzar.  This younger Babylonian doesn’t really know Daniel, so Daniel has been shuffled off, some out-of-the-way place, forgotten.  Belshazzar has no time for Jewish wise men.  He’s basking in the glory of being the top man in Babylon.
            We read that he holds a great festival for a 1000 of his noblemen.  These were Babylon’s elite, the richest of the rich.  Belshazzar is the most powerful of them all, a great man displaying his own greatness before an assembly of the upper crust of society. And they were drinking.  A lot.
            Verse 2 says, “Under the influence of the wine” – stop right there.  I’ll take the occasional social drink, a beer here, a glass of wine there.  Jesus did it.  Consumption of alcohol has been a part of human life going back to the days of Noah.  And, going back to the days of Noah, bad things happen when a story begins “under the influence of the wine … .” 
That’s Daniel 5:2.  Verse 1 told us Nebuchadnezzar is off the stage, Belshazzar in his place.  In that role, much as Nebuchadnezzar did, Belshazzar feels he has to extravagantly display his opulence and splendor.  It’s not just a party.  It’s a party of nobles – 1000 of them.  And they all watch in wonder as Belshazzar drinks himself stupid.  Nothing good happens after the point in the story that says, “Under the influence of the wine.”
The wine brings out the worst in him.  What brings out the worst in you?  Fatigue?  Drinking?  Pressure at work?  Certain friends or relationships?  What is that thing that when it comes up in your life leads to you being your very worst self?  Belshazzar drank to the point that the alcohol, not his own mind, was in control.
Then, he commands the vessels of gold and silver that were taken from the temple in Jerusalem to be brought out.  Before it was demolished by conquering Babylonian soldiers, the temple was the center of Israelite worship. Solomon and the priests who served during his reign tried to replicate the practice Moses established for worship at the Tabernacle in the wilderness.  It’s described in Exodus.  Solomon moved that Tabernacle worship indoors, into the temple his workers built.  This is found in the first 11 chapters of 1 Kings.  The golden cups and bowls from the temple were sacred for Israelite worshipers.  These items were taken as the spoils of war before the temple was destroyed.
Now in Daniel 5, Belshazzar in a blatant overture designed to magnify the Jews’ humiliation, parades these sacred cups and bowls out in front of the 1000 nobles who watch him drink.  He’s under the influence of wine.  He’s also under the influence of power. At his command, these items, sacred to the Jews, will be brought out.  Belshazzar is drunk on his sense of his own superiority. 
The Bible is full of characters like him: Goliath; Solomon’s son King Rehoboam; Nebuchadnezzar; in the days of Jesus both King Herod and Pontius Pilate.  Whenever we encounter one of these characters so self-obsessed it reminds us of the importance of humility.  In our relationships with each other and in the way we stand before God, we are called to act humbly and to live in gratitude and generosity.
Under the influence of wine and under the influence of power, Belshazzar tells the servants to fill up the golden temple vessels.  Fill them with wine.  Belshazzar is the under the influence of his sense of Babylonian glory.  He and his wives and his nobles and even his concubines all drink wine from those sacred cups there were used in the worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham.  These Babylonians see the gold and assume it is theirs, up to their standard.
Finally, Belshazzar shows how much he is under the influence of the times – the day in which he lived.  He would have assumed that the God of Israel was in fact a real god.  There were not really atheists in antiquity.  He simply believed that the Israelite god was defeated soundly and permanently by the Babylonian god.  After drinking wine from the temple vessels, Belshazzar and all in his retinue break into spontaneous praise and worship.  They bow before the Babylonian gods.
See how this is depicted in Daniel 5:4.  “They drank the wine and praised gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.”  This formula is repeated throughout the Bible – the Psalms, Isaiah, Revelation.  The religion of Israel critiques other religions for worshipping statues.  Imagine that your god is a 100-foot tall statue of pure gold.  It’s an impressive statue.  Who could imagine the worth of such a thing in dollars?
However, it took workers who know how to melt and shape gold in order to make that statue look as it does.  It was created by people working very hard.  Once they were done, that statue just stands there.  It can’t do anything.  Biblical writers mock those who bow in worship before a statue who can’t walk or talk or think.  The gold idol is beautiful.  In terms of dollars, it is very valuable.  But it is a dumb piece of metal.  That’s it.  And there is Belshazzar under the influence of a dumb, albeit beautiful, chunk of metal.  That’s idolatry: giving adoration, loyalty, and worship to something that cannot give you anything in return.  That system of worship influenced this leader of Babylon – the mighty empire that ruled much of the ancient near east for over a century. 
So he worships his idols while drinking in front of 1000 nobles and suddenly and hand appears; no body, just a hand.  The hand begins writing on the wall.  The 1000 nobles and the king freak out.  The wise men of Babylon are utterly incapable of understanding the deeper meaning of the words written on the wall.  Panic sets in on what had been a great party. 
Then the queen mother, one of the women who went through all of Nebuchadnezzar’s episodes with Daniel and the God of Israel, swoops to save the day.  She tells Belshazzar not to panic.  And she reminds him that Daniel is still around and can probably interpret the signs.  So, he who was forgotten is summoned to once again explain to the pagans what God is saying.
Wine, power, prestige, and idolatry: you know what does not influence Belshazzar in this story?  Worship of the true God, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the one and only God was ignore by this pompous fool.  When young Daniel confronted King Nebuchadnezzar, he had compassion for the king.  He was concerned about the king’s ignorance.  He would warn Nebuchadnezzar, and the king, after being confronted by Daniel and by God, would turn around.  He would give God the praise God is due.  We see this in each of the first four chapters.
Now knowing Babylon will fall, old Daniel only has condemnation for Belshazzar the bumbling blowhard.  Daniel comes in as summoned, but he has no encouragement for the king.  Instead, he recounts the madness Nebuchadnezzar suffered when he strutted in the same pride Belshazzar displays.  Daniel retells this story because Belshazzar should have known.  He should have learned from Nebuchadnezzar’s errors, but he doesn’t. 
So, Daniel says to him, “You, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew.  You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven!”  Daniel names his crimes: exploitation of the vessels of the temple, and the practice of idolatry.  Then Daniel says, “The God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored” (5:23).   Then Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall. 
“God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; … you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; … your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians” (5:26-28).  Belshazzar did not have the encounters with God Nebuchadnezzar had, but he knew the stories.  He was only responsible for what he knew.  He ignored what he knew.
We don’t have the same encounter with Jesus the disciples had.  They walked the highways and byways of ancient Israel with him.  They sailed the Sea of Galilee with him.  We have their stories and the church and the Holy Spirit.  We are responsible for what we know.  Last week, this was the main point in our look at Daniel chapter 4.  The way we experience life is directly related to how we respond to what we know to be true about God.  
To this we add the opening question I asked: what or who influences us the most? 
The Apostle Paul says in Philippians 2:5, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  And in Colossians 3:2, “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth (like statues or gold or status or popularity or wealth), for we have died, and our lives are hidden with Christ in God.  … Put to death therefore whatever is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed” (v.2-4, 6). 
Belshazzar wanted 1000 nobles to see how great he was.  He let power and drunkenness define him.  Daniel was so loyal to God and so confident in God, he defied Belshazzar and condemned him and the 1000 nobles lying prostrate before a statue. 
What happens in our lives if we put to death earthly things?  How are our lives different if we quit trying to impress the people around us?  What if we stop caring about what they think and fix our eyes upon God? 
At times, Daniel surely felt lonely.  It’s hard to tell the truth when you feel like you’re the only one who knows it.  But God gave him the courage he needed and God does the same for us when we keep our minds him.  Read the Bible consistently, over and over.  Pray every day.  Worship God without missing, without allowing other things to take priority in life.  Give yourself to relationships within the church, the Christian community.  These are all ways of helping the relationship with God grow deeper and as we mature in faith, we hear God more clearly. As we hear God, our courage to stand and speak God’s truth increases.  We might not ever be prophets who stare down drunken kings, but we are witnesses who testify honestly and convincingly.  We tell the good news of Jesus Christ to the world around us, a world that’s dying in sin.
That’s the true state of things.  The world in which we find ourselves, a college town in 21st century America, is as ignorant of God as was the court of the pagan Babylonian king in 500BC.  Daniel’s words did not change Babylon.  But, he made sure truth was spoken there.  We do the same when, with our choices, with our decision to love and not hate, and with our words we point people to Jesus.  We tell the truth.  We live under God’s influence and are not distracted or swayed. 
We are God’s possession destined for His kingdom.  We will live our lives with our eyes on Him.