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Dining at a Banquet of Consequences

Dr. Bruce Lancaster

May 1, 2016
Daniel 5:13-17, 23-28

A reading from the book of Daniel

Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king said to Daniel, ‘So you are Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard of you that a spirit of the gods is in you, and that enlightenment, understanding, and excellent wisdom are found in you. Now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me to read this writing and tell me its interpretation, but they were not able to give the interpretation of the matter. But I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you are able to read the writing and tell me its interpretation, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.’

Then Daniel answered in the presence of the king, ‘Let your gifts be for yourself, or give your rewards to someone else! Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and let him know the interpretation. You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven! The vessels of his temple have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them. You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honoured.

‘So from his presence the hand was sent and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; tekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’

LANCASTER, BRUCE; (Staff)49Let me set the scene of our scripture lesson.

We are in the palace in Babylon – the Israelites are living in exile there. Belshazzar is the king of Babylon and he’s having a banquet for a thousand of his close friends – and it’s a royal party with a capital P, as the Bible says, “The wine flowed freely.”!

You might find it strange to be having a party at this time because Babylon is under siege by the armies of Cyrus the Great and his ally Darius the Mede. But understand, the Babylonians were very confident that they were safe behind the city’s invincible wall, so why not have a party?

King Belshazzar in the cloudy haze of too much wine, remembered that some gold and silver cups had been taken from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar. He orders that these cups be brought to the party so that he and his guests could use them to toast their own gods – and be clear about it – a deliberate act of contempt by this pagan king…

And as they feasted at their banquet, all of a sudden, a hand appeared and began to write on the wall opposite the king.

Balshazzar had, excuse the pun, a sobering experience!  The story says his knees started shaking, about to faint, and he called for the palace psychic network!  But they had no idea what the words meant.

And then his mother walked in and said not to worry, there’s an Israelite named Daniel from the exile who can interpret these words.  He helped Nebuchadnezzar, now he can help you. So Balshazzar orders Daniel to make an appearance at this royal shindig that has been shaken and stirred up!

First of all, Daniel tells Balshazzar that this is a message from ‘the most High God’ – that is, this is the God whom Daniel worships, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and as Daniel points out to the king, “the God in whose power is your very breath…’ is not happy with you!

Then he tells the king what the words mean:

“Mene” – which means ‘numbered’, and the king was told that his days were numbered; in fact, his hours were numbered because he died that night!

“Tekel” – which means ‘weighed’, and the king was told that he had been weighed in the scales of God and failed the test!

“Parsin” – which means ‘divided’ and the king was told that his kingdom would be divided and given to his enemy, King Darius!

“Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin” – numbered, weighed, divided – this was the message for Belshazzar.

The handwriting on the wall revealed a menu of consequences for Belshazzar’s banquet of life!

For one thing, this story tells you and me that we are accountable to God. This story shows that people who exercise power are accountable to God for how we use that power and influence. This story shows that people of faith are accountable to God for confronting people and practices that are unloving, untrue, unjust.

We interpret God’s word to the people of power because we are God’s agents of love, truth, and justice. And the interpretation of that word in this story in Daniel is a stark reminder that everything you do has consequences.

Johnny Cash, long before he became famous, put this story into song:

Well, the people feasted and drank their wine
And praised the false gods of his time
All holy things they scorned and mocked
But suddenly all their mocking stopped
For on the wall, there appeared a hand
Nothin’ else, there was no man
In blood the hand began to write
And Belshazzar couldn’t hide his fright

For he was weighed in the balance and found wanting…
He was weighed in the balance and found wanting…

Belshazzar thought he was dining at a party of privilege and power, but Daniel tells him he is dining at a banquet of consequences from the actions he had taken in his life, from the choices he had made as king.

The Talmud and the Midrash emphasize Belshazzar’s tyrannical oppression of his Jewish subjects. He had chosen to follow the way of King Nebuchadnezzar. Could he have gone another way – this was not a judgment written before the world began, but a word that came because his actions had consequences.

Mattie Stepanek put it in words I understand in his poem:

Even though the future seems far away,
It is actually beginning right now.

We must ask ourselves each day
What we are doing that may have
An influence on the future.
…if something we said,

Or if something we did or did not do,
Had an impact on a single individual,
Or if it trickled out to touch the whole world.

He calls this poem “Momentous Reality” and so it is – a menu from which you and I choose how to live each day’s banquet of life.

I think about another table, another feast – in an upper room – do you think that they realized that what they were doing would have an impact on a single individual, that the words, the actions, those moments together, would trickle “out to touch the whole world.”

That momentous reality for us as the people of God, as disciples of Jesus Christ – how absolutely crucial that we realize our actions have consequences. Our actions that trickle out to the whole world—the momentous reality of dining at the banquet of communion consequences!

Like when we celebrate communion, the Lord’s Supper–we don’t take the loaf of bread and say, “Oh, all mine!”  We share with each other. We drink from the cup of salvation, share the bread of life – believing it has an impact on the person in front of us, behind us, all around us.

And when you and I live with each other with a sense that our actions have communion consequences, we live to love people, not exploit them. We live to protect people from being exploited by unloving people. We live to challenge prideful and powerful people who would use us as their tools for acting towards others in unloving, unjust ways. When we live mindful that the love of God demands justice, and the truth of God condemns injustice, we live as people of God’s love and truth.

Let’s put it this way: there’s the handwriting on the wall, but there is also for us the handwriting on the heart. Before each action you take, before each choice you make this day from the menu of the banquet of life, ask yourself this question: Will it truly and permanently serve and share Jesus Christ?