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Sunday, February 4, 2018
Between Two Worlds Sermon Series, Week 5
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 & Daniel 5:1-12
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I had a conversation with one of our staff this week about Belshazzar, one of the central figures in our text today. He wanted to know the exact relationship between Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar, which is a good question with a messy answer. You see, Daniel 5 is an abrupt jump from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar straight to Belshazzar, giving no details about the transition from one to the next because, of course, the book of Daniel is far more interested in telling us about what God is doing through Daniel than it is in nailing down Babylonian history.
Earlier in the week I did actually take some time to do a bit of research on the relationship between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar – because that’s the type of thing that pastors do on a Monday morning – and let me put it this way: It’s not simple. Imagine the line of heirs to be more like the British monarchy, except incredibly bloodthirsty and willing to do whatever it took to get power. Maybe Game of Thrones is a more apt analogy, although I’m among the few who haven’t worked up the stomach to watch that show yet.
Sometimes it’s helpful to picture biblical scenes through the fertile imagination of others. In this case, I think Frederick Buechner does a great job setting the scene for us. Here’s his description of Belshazzar’s feast.
“There were blocks of ice carved into peacocks, gods, galleons in full sail. There were mounds of peeled shrimp and caviar, whole lambs roasted with their forepaws crossed like crusaders, suckling pigs cradled in lilies-of-the-valley and watercress. There were doves of whipped cream and meringue, a huge silver cake in the shape of a five-pointed star, while the flames from basins of scented oil threw their shadows on the whitewashed walls of Belshazzar’s palace.
“It was all for the Persian ambassadors, who sat there with their absurd bonnets and their beards stiff with pomade. Belshazzar tried to read some clue to their secret thoughts in their little wedge-shaped smiles, but the smiles were as hard to decipher as their cuneiform inscriptions. He hadn’t had a decent sleep for a week. His head was splitting.
“When the handwriting started to appear on the flame-lit wall, most people thought it was more of the floor show, and when Belshazzar offered an extravagant reward to anyone who could translate it properly, several senior ministers proposed various comic obscenities before they saw the king was serious as death. So finally he had them summon Daniel, his late father’s pet Jew and an expert on evil omens.
“Daniel pointed out that among other things, the tables were laden with sacred vessels that had been looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of them were clogged with cigarette butts. A big golden one inscribed with a name too holy to be spoken had been used by a concubine who made herself sick on too much shrimp. A magenta-wigged creature of indeterminate sex was wearing another as a hat.
“Like worshipping gods made of wood and stone, Daniel said, all this was another example of Belshazzar’s fatal habit of getting the sacred and profane hopelessly confused. Pointing to the ice-carved idols whose faces had already started running down their shirtfronts, Daniel said that what the handwriting on the wall meant in a nutshell was: The Party is Over.
“Sure enough, that very night, not long after the last guest had staggered home, Belshazzar was stabbed to death in sight of the Persian ambassadors with their wedge-shaped smiles, and Darius the Great, King of Persia, took Belshazzar’s Babylon the way Grant took Richmond.”
As I consider Buechner’s take on this scene, I hear echoes of the hedonistic festivities of people who think they’re on top of the world and who have no need of God or that because they’re winning that God is definitely on their side. This is the Playboy Mansion, where sex and objectification disfigure the depths of human love. This is the frat party where only the moment matters, where reality is blurred by intoxication and consequences become inconsequential. This is the wedding feast where all the preparations were about the perfect day, perfect flowers, perfect pictures, and not about the covenant commitment before God and family that will survive and thrive over the years. We humans are so prone to write God out of the picture.
“All this was another example of Belshazzar’s fatal habit of getting the sacred and profane hopelessly confused,” Buechner writes. We know the rest of the story, of course. The writing on the wall is clear – Belshazzar is at his end. The Persians come in and defeat the once great Babylonian Empire. And the sun rises, and the sun sets on yet another day of the most celebrated and powerful people on the planet forgetting that the One who ordered it all has a good plan for healing it all from the destructive consequences of sin.
I think we sometimes have trouble getting the sacred and the profane confused. Sure, we don’t go anywhere near the level of Belshazzar or Hugh Hefner – thank the Lord! – but there are times that we fail to see that everything God has created is sacred. Not just the vessels the Babylonians took from the Temple. Not just the elements we keep for special purposes in our sanctuary – like the Bible, the chalice, and the communion table. Not just the hours we devote to things that develop our faith.
Where I want to challenge us today and where I want to point out that Belshazzar truly missed the mark is that everything has a sacred element to it because everything is formed from the matter of God’s creative words going back to Genesis 1. Sure, we set aside things for sacred purposes, but that doesn’t mean that all the other stuff is commonplace. If that were true, then we, too, are commonplace. We are not the stuff of God’s care and attention. We would just be things taking up time, space, and resources for our brief stint on earth. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I find it so fitting that today’s text aligns with a Communion Sunday for us. Belshazzar’s feast and the feast of our Lord serve as perfect foils for each other. Belshazzar’s feast was exclusive to the people who were important in his world. Jesus’ feast is for everyone. Belshazzar’s feast took what was extraordinary – the vessels from the Temple – and treated them as ordinary. Jesus’ feast gives even the most ordinary bread and juice the most extraordinary meanings and pass that on to all who would come. Belshazzar’s feast was out of control, focused on power and pleasure, and ultimately a frightening affair. Jesus’ feast is humble, focused on God’s love for the world, focused on strengthening all who come, and ultimately about creating peace between the Creator and creation. Whose feast would you hope to be invited to? I know which one I would choose.
You see, at the heart of this is the idea that God in Christ is redeeming the whole world to himself. That is, God is in the business of restoring the sacredness of all things, and that work begins with people. People are sacred because God has created people in God’s image. They are sacred because Jesus died and rose again for them. They are sacred because there is space in each life for the Holy Spirit. If you are a person sitting in this sanctuary today, then know that you are sacred and holy because God loves and saves you. There are no exceptions to this. And there is always invitation for you to accept God’s love as your reality too.
That’s part of what I find so beautiful and compelling about following Jesus. There is nothing that escapes God’s love or attention. There is not one molecule over which God doesn’t benevolently reign. And because God is invested in even the tiniest of details, we know that God is worthy of our trust, no matter how many other people or hopes have let us down in the past.
Jesus stands as host at this table, declaring “Holy!” over every last crumb and drop here. Jesus invites all to the feast. All. Not just the worthy. Not the put-together. Not the clean. Not just the educated or rich or beautiful. All. This means that the invitation is for you and for all who would come. Jesus died and rose for you. Jesus invites you to this feast because he loves you as you are. Jesus wants to feed you at this table because he loves you too much to let you stay as you are. And as he feeds you here, he calls you to a new way of life, a way that is holy and sacred because that is who you are in Christ. He calls you to that life so that others would see God’s love through your life so that they too might see how beautiful, loved, and worthy they are to be a part of this feast because they, too, are God’s children through Christ.
David Crowder captures this so well in his song, “Come As Your Are,” where he sings,
There’s hope for the hopeless
and all those who’ve strayed
Come sit at the table
Come taste the grace
There’s rest for the weary
Rest that endures
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t cure
So lay down your burdens
Lay down your shame
All who are broken
Lift up your face
Oh, wanderer, come home
You’re not too far
So lay down your hurt
Lay down your heart
Come as you are
Friends, this world has way too much Belshazzar in it. There are too many people fearfully clinging to power. There are too many people who profane the image of God that resides in all people. There are too many people who are spiritually empty underneath all the trappings of the good life. But the good news is that God speaks to them, to you, to me, to all of us and invites us to come to the feast, to learn a new way of being, and to live securely in the holy love of God, now and forever. If only you would come to the table today and know the grace and love of God!
 Buechner, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures, pp. 18-19.