Sunday, May 28, 2017

Putting our hand in the hand of God at work in the world (Daniel 5, John 20:21-23)

Banksy is probably the world’s best known, unknown, graffiti artist. His works are displayed on the walls of public spaces all over the world. they are preserved, treasured, photographed and pondered by thousands. They are collected and displayed in the most prestigious art galleries. They are worth copious amounts of money. But his identity remains a secret.

His work is satirical and poignant and critiques the world in which we live. This Banksy was painted on a wall of a Bristol Youth centre. It’s called ‘mobile lovers’ and challenges the addiction society has to mobile phones, and how that impacts on the face to face relationships we have. Are we present in the moment or is it a moment simply to be presented on social media and lived out or even missed out upon, captivated by cyber space?

  I’m not sure of the impact that Banksy has, whether his art has the power to initiate change.  But writing on walls has been a way in which unrest, disagreement and opposition to political powers and oppression have been expressed for ages. In the passage that we are looking at today it is how God chooses to speak judgement to Belshazzar, the last ruler of Babylon. It is a wonderfully visual demonstration of the Hand of God at work in human history: that the affirmation of the book of Daniel that God is in control amidst the rise and fall of empires and the whirl and swirl of history is true.

We are working our way through a whirlwind survey of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Moving from hovering over the waters in the Genesis creation narrative, through to the Spirit being poured out on all believers in the fulfilment of the prophecy in Joel chapter two at Pentecost. We are looking at what went on then and there, and through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what it means for us today. In Daniel chapter 5 we see the Spirit of God at work on the big scale, the big canvas of world powers. But also, how the Spirit filled believer is part of, and connected to that work of the Holy Spirit. We see that in the character of Daniel, who interprets the mystical words written on the wall by a finger… Again the hand of God and the finger of God are ways of talking of the Holy Spirit.

The book of Daniel is set in the time of the exile in Babylon, Daniel is amongst the children taken by king Nebuchadnezzar to train up and work in the civil service of the empire. Daniel is portrayed as one of the heroes of the faith in that setting. Despite the pressure to confirm to his new surroundings Daniel and his friends keep their faith, because of that they epitomise all the characterises of someone filled with God’s Spirit. They have wisdom, God has given them gifts, like the ability to interpret dreams, like Joseph in Genesis. Because of that they are promoted and given important roles.

 The real hero of the book of Daniel however is Israel’s God, who despite his people being beaten by the Babylonian army is still the sovereign all powerful God, in control of the flow of human history. In the dreams and visions that Daniel has of statues and strange and ferocious beasts coming out of the water, we see that history is moving towards a time when God himself will establish his Kingdom. The visions and dreams of Daniel point us to the coming of the one like a son of man, who we know as Jesus Christ. In Daniel and his friends being divinely delivered by God from fiery furnaces and lions dens we see the sovereignty of God to defend his people. In chapters four and five, which we are looking at today, we see that it is Israel’s God who speaks to the lives of, and is sovereign over the powerful world leaders of the day.

Daniel chapter five is set in a drunken party thrown by Belshazzar for a thousand of his nobles. During it he calls for the gold and silver goblets that king Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and uses them both for drinking and toasting the God’s of silver, gold, bronze and wood and stone. Belshazzar is a difficult figure to track down in history, what we know of Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar’s death is a series of short lived kings, culminating in someone outside Nebuchadnezzar’s family taking the throne, Nebonidus whose son, Belshazzar, ruled in his place whien he was absent for 10 years from the city. As the party goes on a finger appears and writes on the wall, causing Belshazzar to be full of fear.

Belshazzar asks all his magicians and sorcerers and wise men to explain the words and they cannot. Then we have the queen which is probably, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar, tell him of Daniel being filled with the Spirit of the gods, and having the wisdom to understand such things. The queen is very much a Babylonian and so she couches the understanding of Daniel being filled with the Holy Spirit in very pagan, polytheistic ways. Belshazzar calls for Daniel, and in a very dismissive, derogatory way asks this ’mere captive’ to tell him what these words mean. Which Daniel proceeds to do.

AS Daniel speaks he contrasts Belshazzar to his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar, had ruled with some wisdom and had respected the religious objects he’d bought back from Jerusalem, objects that were set aside for worship and not for common use. Belshazzar had no such respect, this was sacrilege using these cups to worship the God’s of material things.  Nebuchadnezzar, had had a dream which Daniel had interpreted for him, God had spoken to him about his own pride and arrogance, thinking he was the ruler of it all, not simply ruling because the sovereign God had allowed it.  Nebuchadnezzar had heeded the dream and then one day forgot it and had ended up with a mental illness that meant not only did he loose his throne, but ended up living like a wild animal. When he come to his senses and was restored to his previous position, he also started reforms in the empire for just and righteous treatment of people. Daniel chapter four is unique in Old Testament scripture, it is written in Aramaic not Hebrew and it is basically Nebuchadnezzar telling his story, giving his testimony that through that process he now believes in the God of Israel.  Belshazzar had no such humility and had not heeded that story. So God was going to judge him.

The words on the wall are Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin, they are weight measurements and amounts of money, going from a high amount to a lesser one, and Daniel says it means, numbered weighted divided. Belshazzar’s days as ruler are numbered, he has been weighed and found wanting; the kingdom of Babylon under his rule had fallen so much, not ruled with wisdom and justice but rather by one who is totally consumed with what’s in it for me, carnal pleasure and material prosperity. Divided, because he would be overthrown and Babylon divided amongst the Medes and the Persians. Which happens that very night as the city is easily conquered by Darius the Mede, the general of King Cyrus of Persia. Belshazzar is killed.

In this story we see God moving in history. Both in the case of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. In Daniel chapter 4, where Nebuchadnezzar, responds to God’s warning and judgement and repents of his pride and changes. In chapter 5 Belshazzar does not repent and so faces God’s judgement. In both cases Daniel is the one who speaks God’s word, as we saw in the call of Ezekiel last week whether it is listened to or not. Daniel speaks to Nebuchadnezzar with more grace and hope than he does to Belshazzar, whom he does not readily give the chance to repent, maybe because Belshazzar has not been willing to heed history and has not even been humble enough to seek God’s advice through Daniel. In the Old Testament, God gives dreams and visions to non-believers but it is the representatives of his people who have the presence of the Holy Spirit who are needed to give people understanding, who are used to speak God’s word clearly into those situations.

So what does all this have to say to us today.

The first is that God is at work through the Holy Spirit in human history. We can think the world is out of control, on some frenzied aimless dance through time, But God is in control, history is moving towards a conclusion, God is working his plans for good and not harm. Daniel shows that in that the whole book points to the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. World history is changed by his coming, his death and his resurrection. We as God’s people are called to have trust and faith in God’s power and presence. It may seem like evil triumphs but in the long view of God’s divine justice this is not the case.

Daniel gives us indicators of how we should live in the light of that truth. We see him faithfully keeping his faith. The only way his enemies can come up with to get rid of him is to make it illegal for people to pray to their own God under king Darius. His spiritual practises of Prayer and meditation are what keeps him focused and going, trusting and serving, and he will not stop them for anything. That is how he ends up in the Lion’s den.

Also we see Daniel prepared to keep on serving and working in the place where he finds himself. When he is called upon to speak, he speaks God’s truth trusting in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to enable him to do it. He can speak with authority and knowledge. Theologian Karl Barth instructed people to read their Bibles and newspapers side by side, and to interpret the newspaper by what they read in the bible. Maybe in today’s world we need to read our bibles on our phones side by side with newsfeeds. It is easy to perhaps to do it the other way round and let what we see in the headlines interpret what we read in the scripture… making it nothing more than old wisdom being pushed to fit the agenda of this world rather than shine the light of God’s Kingdom into this world. We need the spirits help and presence, leading and guidance to do that.

In our New Testament reading from John’s gospel, we also have Jesus teaching on the presence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus breaths on his disciples and sends them out into the world, just as the father has sent Jesus, to bring the kingdom of God. he gives them his Holy Spirit to do this. Jesus outlines our mission as to forgive people their sins. It is about calling people to turn from their own ways towards God’s ways Just as Daniel had done with Nebuchadnezzar, but the challenge is that if we do not forgive people they will not be forgiven. As 2 Corinthians 5:19-20 says, we are called to the ministry of the message of reconciliation with God, as ambassadors of Christ. Sometimes like with Belshazzar in Daniel 5 that message is one of judgement, I the hope that people will respond and know God’s grace. We are always called to speak God’s timeless word and truth in a timely manner, and the spirit enables us to do that. 

Missio Dei or the mission of God is a term used to tie the working of God in our world together with how we live as the Church. God’s work in the world has always being sending, the father sends the son and the father and son send the Spirit. And as we read in John 20 the father also sends us, the mission we are called to as a church is to see what the spirit is doing in the world and go and join in. With God’s grace, and trust and justice. To be carriers of God’s mercy and love, forgiveness and peace.  Historially you can see it in the revivals of England under the John Wesley and others leading not only to a renewal of people’s faith, but leading directly to the enlightenment, the abolition of slavery, the reform of prisons, child labour laws, the establishment of the RSPCA, a desire for universal education and literacy. Renewed personal and communal spiritual vitality resulting in systemic change and transformation. In fact one commentator said that the Wesleyan revival and its impact stopped England from the same bloody revolution that France went through. The way in which the church in the west finds itself pushed out of a position of power and influence at the centre of society is also showing us that the Kingdom of God lies at the edge of society, in caring for the poor, the prisoner, the sick and hurt, disadvantaged and powerless, that is where it can see the Spirit bring the most change and transformation. It’s at the edges of society as we are called to be one people across so many diverse cultures and nationalities, very much like the first century church, where at Pentecost people heard them speaking in their own languages from all over the world. In a world once again that worships material wealth and sees success in terms of what we have, that there is more to life, fulfilment is found in knowing God and sharing what we have as the Spirit leads. As the world sees us doing that it will again seek out what we have to say: the gospel of Jesus Christ. As the world sees that written in our lives not stencilled on a wall, when we are more Christ like (or Christy) rather than Banksy will we see the kingdom of God made known: As we entrust our hands into the hand of God moving in the world.

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