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The Writing on the Wall

God's temporal judgment is more common than we are willing to believe.

From the editor

William Willimon tackles the difficult subject of God's temporal judgment in a direct yet conversational way. He begins by mentioning Rabbi Kushner, whose book will come up again in Willimon's second point. Kushner's position—that bad things happen because of chance—is the position Willimon wishes to counter. Willimon builds his case on the story of Daniel 5, in which God's judgment is dramatic and fitting. After a lively retelling of the story, Willimon touches on the chance argument, then reminds his listeners of a truth they find it convenient to forget: not always, but often, we do reap the consequences of our actions. Two examples illustrate this idea. Willimon's conclusion is a story with a twist.

Everybody longs for a just world.

A few years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner made religious publishing history with his phenomenally successful book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. There were those who said Rabbi Kushner had sidestepped the toughest moral question: Why on earth do good things happen to bad people?

One reason we love Bible stories like this one from the Book of Daniel is that people get what they deserve. That's a rare occurrence in life but a virtually everyday one in the Bible.

In real life, creeps are rarely visibly, swiftly punished. Creeps get elected to public office, become presidents of large corporations, pastors of large churches, officers in fraternities. But in the Bible, creeps get incinerated in fiery furnaces. They get eaten by lions. They get drowned in floods. They get their heads cut off—or worse. And don't lie to me: you just love that.

Everybody longs for a world in which there is justice, even if the workings of justice are sometimes gruesome—maybe particularly if the workings of justice are gruesome. Justice seems so rare in real life. But not in the Bible.

The Bible loves to take some sleazy person, let him strut about for his hour upon the stage, and then zap—there's fire or a flood or a lion, and then he's history. It is delicious to see the bad guys get what they deserve.

An example of biblical justice: Daniel and Belshazzar

Who could be worse than King Belshazzar? Belshazzar throws a great party and invites a thousand friends and cronies. Under influence of the wine, Belshazzar gets a great idea: "Bring me those temple vessels, the ones we stole from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem when we ransacked it. Let me drink from them and pass them around to mock these impotent Jews we have here in exile and their stupid God." Thus Belshazzar would show how great he was.

Immediately—you don't have to wait long for these things in the Bible—a great detached, grisly hand began silently writing strange words on the wall in the palace banquet hall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. The king's mocking countenance changes. He grows pale at seeing the large letters written on the wall. Everyone in the great hall can hear his royal knees knocking in terror.

The king calls his enchanters, diviners, and dream interpreters. These people are not worth the money the king is paying them. They can't figure out a thing about the writing on the wall.

The queen, a Lady Macbeth figure, says: O King, stand up and act like a man. Stiffen your resolve. Call that exiled little Jew, Daniel.

You knew this was coming. Daniel is good at reading dreams. He's good at figuring out weird things, interpreting, figuring out problems.

Daniel is brought into the great banquet hall right then—little, exiled, Jewish Daniel.

"So, you're the smart kid I heard about. Daniel, interpret the writing on the wall. I'll give you a whole new wardrobe, jewelry, a cushy government position," says the king.

Daniel, little Daniel, exiled Jew, says, "O King, you can take your job and keep it. I'll read the words on the wall. Any God-fearing person could figure this out."

Before he reads, Daniel launches into this unbelievable tirade against the king. He tells the king, "God gave this kingdom to your father, Nebuchadnezzar. He gave him a long leash to act as he pleased. Then, when he got too big for his royal britches, God brought him low, reduced him to the level of just eating grass like a cow or an ox. His kingdom was stripped from him."

Daniel turns on Belshazzar and says, "Remember your daddy, Nebuchadnezzar? Belshazzar, you exalted yourself above the Lord of heaven. You made a fool out of yourself bowing down, scraping before these false gods of gold and iron and stone and silver. Now you, your wives, and your concubines have been drinking wine out of the sacred vessels of the temple." It was the handwriting on the wall.

Daniel reads the words written by that mysterious hand: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN, roughly translated as "God says the time is up for you and your arrogant kingdom. God has weighed you in the scales of justice and found you a lightweight. Now your kingdom is going to be given over to the Persians."

Little Daniel has become a prophet of God, speaking truth to the powerful. Belshazzar keeps his part of the bargain, giving Daniel a new wardrobe, a gold chain, a well-paying government job. God keeps his part of the bargain: that very night Belshazzar is killed.

You don't have to wait long for divine judgment in this part of the Bible. Good Daniel gets a gold chain and a nice new wardrobe; bad Belshazzar gets a shroud and a coffin. He's the victim of the handwriting on the wall.

We don't believe in sure, swift retribution.

Something tells me that even though you would like to, you don't believe this story, because we're modern, sophisticated, educated people, and we don't believe this bit about the grisly hand writing on the wall. In our sophistication we doubt the possibility of swift, sure retribution or swift, sure reward.

This is the way Rabbi Kushner explains it. He says there's a kind of randomness to life. A lot of times good people receive bad things, and sometimes bad people receive good things. Life is like a big roulette wheel; sometimes good numbers come up, and sometimes bad numbers come up. We call it luck or chance. We make a great deal out of our observation that righteous rebels like Daniel more often get the noose than a gold chain and a promotion, and scumbags like Belshazzar get away with being scumbags. Occasionally we will whine to God that this is so.

It is interesting how comfortable we have become with the realization that this is so. We turn up our noses at this primitive story of a great, mighty king who in one night is brought down low by the writing on the wall and this lowly, little Daniel who is lifted up. We don't care if it's a Bible story. We say, "That's not the way the world works. I wasn't born yesterday."

But sometimes life does work that way. Sometimes there really does seem to be a kind of justice built into the way life works—a kind of moral law to which we must answer. I think if Rabbi Kushner had written about that, he would have sold a lot fewer books, because that scares the wits out of us, and our knees shake at the thought of this justice in the world.

A physician told me he estimated that about 80 percent of people who come to him come to him not because some strange bacteria has invaded their bodies, but because for lifestyle reasons. I'm not going to stand up here and argue some kind of moral cause and effect in life: you do this, and you get that. But according to this doctor, there does seem to be a kind of wage paid for our sin. There's something in us that denies that reality and flees from that story.

As a pastor, I find it interesting that I have never visited a parishioner in the hospital suffering from emphysema or lung cancer—two horrible diseases—who have claimed to have emphysema or lung cancer because he or she smoked. "My doctor tells me that I have a different kind of lung cancer. This is not the kind you get by smoking two packs a day. This is another kind." I think I would have probably said the same thing.

I didn't say we always reap what we sow. I didn't say there are always earthly wages to be paid for our sin. But I'm saying it is curious how often we do reap the consequences.

There's something about us modern people that clings to the notion that life is just a great cosmic roulette wheel, that there is a kind of randomness to life with no moral cause and effect of any kind. There are no dues to be paid and not even a modicum of justice built into the way the world works.

Moral justice is built into life.

This ancient story of Daniel interpreting Belshazzar's dream invites us to consider that sometimes, not always, but sometimes there is for each of us handwriting on the wall in which we do reap what we sow. In that prophetic, truthful moment, we realize that our chickens have come home to roost and that justice has been done. One of the worst aspects of people getting what they deserve and justice being done is when I get some of what I deserve and the handwriting on the wall is for me.

A professor in college once said to me, "You may get some education here at this college, but you will never get wisdom until you come back for your 20th reunion."

"Why is that?" I asked.

He said, "You're going to learn more about life that weekend than we can teach you here in four years. I'll tell you that." What was he talking about?

A friend of mine had a friend from college who died this past summer. He said, "You know, I always envied that guy. We grew up together. Our houses were near each other. We were kids together; we went through high school. He was good looking and popular. All the girls loved him, and he played great tennis. When we went to college together, all the girls loved him, and he played tennis even better. But he was one of those people who always felt the rules were made for everybody else but him. He didn't have to abide by the same standards of judgment as all the rest of us lowly people. I just despised him for it.

"I went to his wedding, and soon there were two children. The next thing was a divorce. He had left his wife, and his daughters refused to have any contact with him because of the way he had behaved during that episode.

"I had lost touch with him, although I kept in contact with his former wife and his daughters. This summer when I was home, I learned that he had died in an old house watched over by his aging aunt, the last person in the world who would have anything to do with him. After he had cheated and swindled and broken promises, he died alone."

I suppose those of us who are not attractive and not that good at tennis or adultery should take heart in this story, with its image of a lonely man now bereft of family, children, and friends, dying alone, staring at nothing but the writing on the wall. But I don't take too much comfort from that story—as little as I take from the story of Daniel and Belshazzar. Because if it's true—as Daniel 5 claims it to be—that God is not mocked, if it's true that we are not forever unaccountable for our lives and the way we live them, then I've got plenty of reason, like King Belshazzar, to tremble. There is the possibility of the handwriting on the wall for me. I, in my affluence and power and smug sense of self-security, more resemble King Belshazzar than little Daniel. What would the handwriting on the wall say to me?

The message of temporal justice is true.

This old story bears a message that is simple and trite and conventional and proverbial and often true. Is it really so surprising that we love the message of Rabbi Kushner and his interpretation of Job: that life is a big roulette wheel, and sometimes your number comes up and sometimes it doesn't; the world is a mess; it's morally confusing; evil sometimes gets out ahead; the good get shafted. We like that more than we love the message of little Daniel to the rich, powerful Belshazzar that God is not forever mocked.

Early in my ministry, I served a little church in rural Georgia. One Saturday we went to a funeral in a little country church not of my denomination. I grew up in a big downtown church. I had never been to a funeral like this one. The casket was open, and the funeral consisted of a sermon by their preacher.

The preacher pounded on the pulpit and looked over at the casket. He said, "It's too late for Joe. He might have wanted to get his life together. He might have wanted to spend more time with his family. He might have wanted to do that, but he's dead now. It is too late for him, but it is not too late for you. There is still time for you. You still can decide. You are still alive. It is not too late for you. Today is the day of decision."

Then the preacher told how a Greyhound bus had run into a funeral procession once on the way to the cemetery, and that that could happen today. He said, "You should decide today. Today is the day to get your life together. Too late for old Joe, but it's not too late for you."

I was so angry at that preacher. On the way home, I told my wife, "Have you ever seen anything as manipulative and insensitive to that poor family? I found it disgusting."

She said, "I've never heard anything like that. It was manipulative. It was disgusting. It was insensitive. Worst of all, it was also true."

To see an outline of Willimon's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize".

William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).

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Sermon Outline:


I. We love to see the bad guy get justice

II. We don't believe in sure, swift retribution

III. Moral justice is built into life