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Overlooked: King Belshazzar (Daniel 5:1-23)

July 21, 2019

I don’t know if all seminaries are like this, but when I was art Princeton we had to take a full year of speech communication before we could go on to actual preaching courses. And, in those speech communication courses, Daniel 5 has been the assigned text for like, the past 100 years. There’s so much drama and story-telling and narrative and conversation that it kind of gives you a little bit of everything to work with. And, if anyone here has ever done a voice acting workshop or taken a speech class like this, you probably know just how over-the-top you have to be when you're reading the script to the class.


It’s like, did King Belshazzar just have a great festival for 1000 of his lords? No, he had a “GREAT festival for A THOUSAND of his lords.” Was it just the figure of a human hand writing on the wall? No, of course not. It was the “figure of a human hand…” And after a while, it just got to be exhausting because all the drama and twists and turns of this story just got to be overwhelming and it was hard to stay in character for the entire reading. And eventually I realized that that’s kind of the point. I mean, this story is dramatic; there are twists and turns. Until we finally get our bearings, this story can be pretty overwhelming. But we shouldn't let that scare us away, because this story has so much to tell us and we have so much to learn from it, even though it can be a bit much at times.


So, this story starts out with the image of King Belshazzar getting wasted at a party. And, from what we know about this guy, it's pretty much in line with his character. First of all, his dad is actually the ruler, but when he came to power, he basically promoted his son to be a kind of co-ruler. Now, I know what you’re thinking: #AncientBabylonianNepotism. And yes — you’re exactly right. Anyway, King Belshazzar is kind of your typical entitled rich kid who had everything handed to him in life; not used to opposition; not used to people telling him no. He pretty much just always did whatever he wanted. And that’s important because of what we see just two verses into the chapter: “Under the influence of wine, Belshazzar commanded that they bring in the vessels of gold and silver that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem, so that the kings and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them…They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.”


Okay — now, I need you all to go back into your mind palace and try, as hard as you can, to remember back to my sermon from two weeks ago when we talked about King Cyrus. I know you guys usually just sit there and count the seconds until I stop talking, but try to think back to when we talked about King Cyrus and how he rebuilt the temple. I said that David’s son, Solomon, had already built a temple in Jerusalem, but it was destroyed during the Siege of Jerusalem in 587BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II. Well, that guy is Belshazzar’s father who destroyed and, clearly, plundered the temple of all its treasures. So, right now, Belshazzar and all his buddies are getting drunk while using the instruments of the Temple which were meant for use while worshipping YHWH. That’s why this is such a big deal.


And, I know this is a pretty specific scenario, but I think it’s a great metaphor for what’s happening in a lot of the church and the reason a lot of folks come into places like this each week. For many folks, it’s not the deep-seated conviction to come and learn and grow in faith or hear a fresh word from the pulpit or join in community with others to serve the poor and fight for the oppressed. No, for a lot of people, church is just a pill to pop. It’s just something we use to self-medicate so we can get through another week. And it’s not to say that there’s something bad about church’s ability to do that kind of stuff, but it shouldn’t be our purpose. This should be a place where we come to confront the world’s harsh reality; not escape it. This should be a place where you should come and be real and be authentic, if only here.


I told the leadership board this at a meeting a couple months ago — I’m not interested in "Sunday morning only" Christians who just come to get drunk on the bible one more time before they have to go back to work on Monday. If you want to be part of the church only on Sundays, then you need to go find a church that only wants you on Sundays because that’s not who we are. We don’t just want you on Sundays. Anyone can throw on some nice clothes and fake a smile for an hour. That’s not what we’re interested in here. We don’t just want you on Sundays — we want you every day and we want the real you every day. This isn’t a place for you to just come get your next high. This is a place for you to come and live your life amongst other punk sinners and fellow travelers who continue to fail and get up and try again. It’s easy to plunder the vessels of the church — the preaching, the music, the community — and just use it to get a dopamine high, but that’s not what the Christian life is and that’s not what ministry is about. What we’re doing here is about solidarity and liberation and love, through all of life’s ups and downs.


Belshazzar didn’t care about any of that. He just wants to party; he just wants to have a good time, and he does so at the expense of his and his kingdom’s own well-being. We know this because of what happens next: “Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace next to the lamp stand…Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” So, basically, this hand writing on the wall scares the crap out of Belshazzar and he passes out. And, when he comes to, he tells his subjects to bring in the “enchanters, Chaldeans, and diviners” to interpret the writing, with a promise of reward for whoever can tell him what it means. So, these are kind of ancient magicians and astrologers and psychics who Belshazzar calls upon, but they’re not able to figure out the writing. And then in walks the queen.


And I love what she says here: “O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts terrify you or your face grow pale. There is a man in your kingdom who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods…let Daniel be called and he will give the interpretation.” I just love that Belshazzar is like, an idiot who doesn’t know what to do, and the queen comes in and in two seconds has a solution. I love how she’s like, “I don’t know if this helps or not, but there’s a guy actually in your kingdom who does the exact thing you need. Here’s his name and contact information.” It’s actually quite a subversive pattern in the bible that, in a time when women were not looked upon as equals, women constantly come in and save the day and establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with. It’s one of these things that can often be quick and not-very-overt, but nonetheless is something to continue to look for in a lot of these stories we’re looking at.


Now, Daniel comes in and Belshazzar basically says something along the lines of, “Well well well well well… (I’m paraphrasing). Look who we have here.” And, after rejecting Belshazzar’s offer of reward in exchange for interpretation, he launches into this diatribe against Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar’s predecessor: “When his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he acted proudly, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory was God’s judgement and opinion of us. At some point, we have to stop worrying about whether or not we’re going to be universally liked and finally speak truth to power, just like Daniel.


The beautiful thing about the Christian faith is that, despite our worldly convictions and despite how much we might disagree about something, I still get the opportunity to serve each of you communion with the words, “this is the body of Christ, broken for you.” Because, no matter who you are or where you are on the journey, whether you’re Christian or atheist, LGBT or straight, democrat or republican, the body of Christ was broken for you. I pray that, someday, we’ll all be on the same page. But until that happens, we at least have to get on with loving each other. If I didn’t love you guys, I wouldn’t care to speak challenging and convicting truths. If God didn’t love us, he wouldn’t have given us such a challenging and convicting gospel. But I believe in the gospel's power to change and transform this world; to bring out the best in you and to burn out the worst in me. We’re all fellow travelers here. The reason we continue to come into this place each week is because it’s just better to travel together. It’s better to build bridges than walls. It’s better to be in relationship than in isolation, even when it’s hard, and that is how we need to view the world which, at this time, is extremely polarized.


The whole world belongs to God — and whenever we speak truth about this world, especially hard or divisive truth or schismatic truth, we have to make sure love is the lens through which we say it because there’s just not hope in anything else. Let’s pray.


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