Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Sermon for October 23

The Writing on the Wall
Daniel 5:1-12

I once had a friend who heard the voice of God. His name was Willie. Willie always made me a little nervous because the things God told him were not very pleasant. God told Willie a lot about judgment and death, plagues, and deadly diseases. No, Willie’s God was not a happy God, and Willie let us know it. For the most part, the messages he shared made me nervous for selfish reasons. I was afraid God was going to tell Willie some secret detail of my past, and I didn’t want to be around if the Lord was going to embarrass me in front of my friends, with Willie as God’s mouthpiece. Let’s just say I haven’t always been the angel I am today.

I had a similar experience once at the Church of Brotherly Love. Sister Bradley, the church’s ancient pastor, invited me out to one of her church’s revival. The speaker was a woman from Florida – a Prophet Lady. After preaching for an hour and a half, the Prophet Lady prayed, and God sent her messages about specific people who needed their lives fixed up. The Prophet Lady pointed to a man in the back and said, “You, over there in the red shirt. Jesus wants to free from your sinful ways.” The man in the red shirt walked forward. The Prophet Lady situated her hands on his head and prayed over him. Then the man in the red shirt fell to the ground, twitching like he was getting electroshocks. The Prophet Lady said, “That’s what happens when you get filled with the Holy Ghost.” Then she called up her next sinner to get the Holy Spirit whammy. That’s when I started praying. “Lord,” I said, “I know what I’ve done. You know what I’ve done. Let’s just keep it between you and me and not tell the Prophet Lady about it. OK?” The Prophet Lady’s voice interrupted my bargaining with God. “You, the young pastor over there.” I knew she was pointing at me. She said, “The Lord has a message for you.” Meanwhile I’m thinking, “God we had a deal here. Don’t make me go forward. I won’t know when to fall down and twitch.” Mercifully, I never had to go forward, and my notorious past was never exposed. She gave an encouraging message, and let me sit back down. God is good!

Do you ever wonder if God still speaks to His people? These days God speaks to us through billboards. Have you seen them? Black backgrounds with bold white letters quote God saying,
· Do you have any idea where you’re going? – God
· That “Love Thy Neighbor” thing... I meant it. – God
· What part of “Thou Shalt Not...” didn’t you understand? – God
· Don’t make me come down there! – God

And, in case you were worried, God has a direct hotline to President Bush. In a BBC series called, “Elusive Peace, Isreal and the Arabs,” The Prime Minister of Palestine says, “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq …” And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.” And by God I’m gonna do it.’“[1]

Does God speak to us today? We walk a fine line when trying to answer this question. If someone claims to directly hear the voice of God, we usually consider the person to be a fanatic or demented. The other side of the line is that we want to hear from God. In our age of competing spiritualities, we want to know that the God we worship is real and involved in our lives. We desire God to communicate His message of love directly to our hearts.

Does God speak to people? It happens in today’s reading from Daniel. It almost sounds like a Halloween story by Edgar Allen Poe. The Babylonian Empire is in decline, and the Emperor, on his way out of power, throws a wild party with free flowing booze and loose women. Feeling superior, King Belshazzar calls for the gold and silver chalices that were stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. He wants to drink his wine from these holy artifacts. At that very moment, the fingers of a human hand appear and write on the lamp-illumined, whitewashed wall of the palace. When the king sees the disembodied hand writing away, he turns white as a ghost, scared out of his wits. His legs turn limp like spaghetti as he watches the hand in a paralyzed fear. No one understands the words: MENE, TEQEL, PERES.

He says, “I’ve seen the writing on the wall. Someone tell me what it means.” But the king’s magicians and fortune tellers are stupefied. The queen mother enters the hysteria and says, “Long live the king! Don’t be upset. Don’t sit around looking like ghosts. A man in your kingdom is full of the divine Holy Spirit. He can do anything--interpret dreams, solve mysteries, explain puzzles. His name is Daniel.”

So, they call Daniel in. The king asks him, “Are you the Daniel who was one of the Jewish exiles brought here from Judah? I’ve heard about you--that you’re full of the Holy Spirit, that you have a brilliant mind, that you are incredibly wise. I brought my wise men and enchanters in here to read this writing on the wall. They can’t figure it out--not a word, not a syllable. But I hear that you interpret dreams and solve mysteries. If you can read the writing and interpret it for me, you’ll be rich and famous with a purple robe, the great gold chain around your neck--and third-in-command in the kingdom.” Daniel answers the king, “You can keep your gifts, or give them to someone else. I will read the writing for you. God sent the hand that wrote on the wall, and this is what is written: MENE, TEQEL, and PERES. This is what the words mean: “They are references coins. Mene is a half dollar. It also means numbered. God has numbered the days of your rule and they don’t add up. Teqel is a penny, and it’s related to the word weighed. King Belshazzar, God weighed you on the scales and you’re not worth much more than a penny. Peres is worth two bits and is related to the word divided. It’s also related to the word Persia. Your kingdom has been divided up and handed over to the Medes and Persians.”

At that moment, the king knows God has spoken. Not the gods of gold, silver, and wood, but the God of Universe. God speaks through the prophet Daniel, and helps the King understand his encounter with God. In return, Belshazzar does what he promised. He robes Daniel in purple, drapes the great gold chain around his neck, and promotes him to third in charge. That same night Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, is murdered.

Does God speak to people? Listen to the book of Hebrews: Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. But now, in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. Jesus Christ is God’s Word to us. In Jesus, God expresses how he feels toward us. Some people would have you believe that we humans are rotten to the core without a shred of worth to God. These are lies. God would never come to us in Jesus Christ if he thought we were worthless. In fact, by sending Jesus Christ to live with us, God communicates a message of hope to us. We may be sinful, we make bad decisions with misguided motives, but God still loves us. Jesus Christ is God’s love letter to us. Remember for a moment the things that Jesus did while he lived on this earth. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He comforted the grieving. Jesus was a friend to outcasts and sinners. God would never heal, feed, or comfort those whom he despises. God wouldn’t have bothered if he didn’t care. God would only show such care to those whom he loves with a passionate, all-consuming love. Jesus is God’s message to us that someone understands us. God became a human being to walk with us, to experience this world with us, and even to die with us.

Do we get it? Sometimes I think I see the handwriting on the wall. As I look at the church and the world around us, I see strange and mysterious signs. I see people who are desperate for spiritual truth, but they aren’t finding the answers they need in Christian churches. I see a country where ethnic diversity is here to stay, and where racial reconciliation is a national concern, but our churches are still segregated institutions. I see a church that is called to care for the least of all people and to be known by the quality of its love. Yet, poverty is prospering in America. At a time when Americans are devoted to seeking spiritual enlightenment, the church is having less and less impact on people’s perspectives and behavior. Where is the church? When did we start proposing tired and trite solutions to secondary problems instead of addressing the nagging anxieties and deep-seated fears of the people?[2]

Do you want to know something else? God is still speaking. God speaks when the people of the church live out God’s love wherever it’s needed. Last year, the UCC came up with a TV commercial as part of the “God Is Still Speaking” initiative. The church planned to run the spot on national television during the month of December. The three major networks refused to air it. They claimed that the ad was “too controversial.” If you haven’t seen it, the opening, scene features a couple of burly bouncers turning several people away from the door of a church, including African-Americans and a gay couple, while welcoming some attractive straight white families. A text then says, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” And a narrator adds, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
It was evidently so subversive, counter-cultural, and distasteful that it had to be kept from the airwaves. As an editorial cartoon in Friday’s Plain Dealer cleverly put it, “The United Church of Christ ad will not be seen at this time so we can bring you another male impotency ad.”[3]

God is still speaking – through the church. The world needs what churches like TCC have to offer . . . The affirmation that Jesus Christ died for everyone . . the declaration that all people belong . . . the conviction that for those who are hurt or excluded, this is home. God is still speaking, through Christ, through the church, and through you. May we listen, and may we boldly speak and live the word of God.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2005/10_october/06/bush.shtml
[2] George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Waco: Word, 1998), 2-5.
[3] Hamilton Coe Throckmorton, “http://www.fedchurch.org/Spiritual_Life/Sermon_Archives/SermonHCT120504.htm

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