Today’s reading from Daniel is dramatic, terrifying, and one of the most memorable bits of the Old Testament. Babylon is under siege, the enemies are at the door. But Belshazzar the King is full of hubris and chooses to party instead of dealing with the situation. Horrifyingly, he uses sacred vessels from the Temple to swig his vino, and indulges in a bit of idolatry just for fun. Rather than worship God, for whom the vessels are consecrated he and his mates drink to the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone, gods who were to prove pretty useless that very night.
Right in the middle of the party, like a scene from a horror movie the fingers of a hand write those chilling words: Mene, Mene, Tekel and Parsin which the prophet Daniel is able to interpret thus: You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
This weekend we begin Advent, a time when traditionally the church considers the four last things; death, judgement, heaven and hell. And today’s reading from Daniel really brings home that sense of judgement. We may not be people who loot churches and swig wine out of chalices. But all of us will feel from time to time that Belshazzar’s judgement applies to us. You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Because there is not one human being upon earth to whom that does not apply. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, as St Paul wrote in Romans 3:23 When we look at our story, the story of our families, the story of human beings on this earth, we can see the image of the divine in human love, self-giving, courage, righteous acts and creativity. Inevitably, however, we can also see human beings acting with selfishness, cruelty, violence, greed, and injustice. As St Paul also says, ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’.
In a way, I find the doctrine of original sin strangely comforting. It is realistic about what it is to be human. We are never going to be perfect through our own efforts. That’s rather a relief – God knows we are going to mess up quite a lot. Even in the most holy monastery, far away from any temptation, when the whole of life is centred on prayer and worship there too original sin lurks. God knows we need a saviour, and he has sent one. One who knows what it is like to be human but without sin. Jesus models to us the life that is completely free from sin, and deals with the fact that our lives are rarely like that, in his own body on the cross.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But St Paul goes straight on to say we are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
It’s a wonderful gift to know that the sins we have committed knowingly or unknowingly, in the past and in the future are forgiven when we turn to Christ. So that when are confronted with our weakness, instead of turning inwards to self-hate, we can turn upwards with gratitude and repentance, and outwards with understanding love towards our neighbour who is in the same position.
Yes, Jesus will return as Lord and Judge, but also as our loving saviour, friend and brother. Belshazzar was condemned, by the writing on the wall and died that very night. Like him, we are all weighed in the balance and found wanting.
We however, are not condemned, because of Christ.
‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life’.
Thanks be to God. Come Lord Jesus.
Daniel 5:1-6, 13-14, 16-17, 23-28, Luke 21:36