‘A Changing World: The Writing on the Wall’

‘A Changing World: The Writing on the Wall’

Most of us find ourselves in situations where the name of God is mocked. This was happening at Belshazzar’s great feast described in the Book of Daniel, chapter 5.

Persia, under the military leadership of Cyrus at the time, was threatening Babylonia’s hegemony. Belshazzar was on Nebuchadnezzar’s throne. On the night of the Medo-Persian victory he was feasting, drinking from the vessels that had been brought from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Until a finger started writing on the wall.

In Daniel chapter 5, verse 25, we read: And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.

Mene, Tekel, and Parsin were small weights, in descending order, used in the market place. Here they are metaphors for God’s justice. Daniel interpreted them, saying in effect, ‘Belshazzar, mene means your days are numbered; tekel, ‘weighed’, means God has weighed your life and found it short on goodness; parsin, means your kingdom is divided and given to others. Tonight God will remove both your kingdom and your life.’

Denying the obvious, Belshazzar commanded that Daniel be honored. But no last minute compliment to God’s man was going to alter God’s plan. Humility and repentance towards God were far from Belshazzar’s heart. That night he was slain and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom.

What Belshazzar failed to learn while he had the opportunity was that everyone is accountable to the God who made us all. It is only by God’s grace that we enjoy whatever good things, power or position we might have. Nebuchadnezzar had learned the lesson, but Belshazzar hadn’t.

As well as this warning, there is also encouragement for us: God will always have the last word. The writing was on the wall, not just for Belshazzar, but for everyone who thinks they can trample on the name of God with impunity.

Today Christianity is lampooned by television comedians, dismissed by the gurus of radio and marginalized in the corridors of political power. Many of us feel isolated in the office, in the professional world, in the classroom, and even in our family. But no matter what happens, we can be confident. ‘Be assured’, Daniel 5 tells us, ‘the writing is on the wall. God will have the last word.’

Reflect. Do you really believe that you are accountable to God – the Lord Most High? Do you carry this conviction into your prayers for others who mock your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?

You may find it helpful to read Daniel, chapter 5 and Acts 17:22-31.

A Prayer. Lord God, our savior and our guide, make your love the foundation of our lives; so may our love for you express itself in our eagerness to do good for others.  Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

© John G. Mason

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‘A Changing World: The Writing on the Wall’

‘A Changing World: Stand Firm…!’

It takes courage to stand up for what you believe to be the truth.

In the sixth century BC, leading lights in Jewish society: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were, with Daniel, exiles in Babylon at the time of Nebuchadnezzar.

Like Daniel they enjoyed the privilege of Babylonian education and a place in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. However, encouraged by those around him, Nebuchadnezzar had constructed a huge golden statue that he commanded everyone to worship. The three Israelites, despite certain death, refused.

In Daniel chapter 3, verse 18 we read their response to the king: “…Be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up”.

These men were intelligent, highly educated, articulate young men who held office in their land of exile at King Nebuchadnezzar’s pleasure because of their abilities and leadership qualities. They knew that now they had to take a stand.

Nebuchadnezzar needed to know the God of Israel was not only the God of the Jewish people. He was not simply another God in the pantheon of gods for the Religious Departments of universities to analyze. He alone is the Lord. There is no other.

They spoke of God as, “our God whom we serve”: they had a personal relationship with him built on trust. They were confident that God had the power to deliver them from the fiery furnace they faced. But if he chose not to protect them they would still trust him.

For the Jewish readers of this book who were also in exile, the examples of men like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Babylon were significant. They had to ask how far they should get involved in this foreign country: would it compromise their faith? The answer in the Book of Daniel is, ‘No! It won’t. Providing you continue to trust and serve God’.

This question is important for us too. Some Christians say they can only fully serve God if they become a Christian minister or missionary. But that is not how God works: he involves all of us wherever we are. And he expects us to continue to trust and serve him in the secularized world of our day.

Reflect. Do you pray for opportunities to talk with others about your faith? As you do, let me suggest that you ask yourself what opportunities you may have had. Pray for those with whom you have chatted about the good news you have found in knowing the Lord Jesus Christ.

You may also find it helpful to read Daniel, chapter 3 and Colossians 4:2-6.

A Prayer. Almighty God, creator of all things and giver of every good and perfect gift, hear with favor the prayers of your people, so that we who are justly punished for our offences may mercifully be delivered by your goodness, for the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

© John G. Mason

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‘A Changing World: The Writing on the Wall’

‘A Changing World: A Dream…!’

Dreams fascinate us. They can tease us with hopes that they may come true, but they can also terrify.

In the past, as in some cultures today, dreams were often treated as portents of the future. So people called on the ‘wise’ and fortune-tellers to interpret their dreams.

These days modern psychology suggests that dreams can reveal our subconscious desires and fears. However, there are well-documented occasions when individuals have some kind of premonition of the future – particularly of disaster.

Daniel chapter 2 records a dream King Nebuchadnezzar experienced. It was so real that he called in his wise men and scientists, wanting them to tell him its meaning. However, he had forgotten what it was.

They were threatened with death if they couldn’t interpret the forgotten dream. Then Daniel was called in. Being acquainted with the situation Daniel informed his three companions and asked them to pray. Prayer was an essential part of Daniel’s life. He prayed because he trusted God.

In Daniel, chapter 2, verse 19 we read: Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night

In answering Daniel’s prayer God showed him both Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its meaning. In essence, the dream revealed to Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and the Israelite exiles in Babylon, that there would be the rise and fall of four great empires (Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome). But over all and throughout it all, God would be there, working out his purposes for his people.

This is an extraordinary glimpse into the nature and work of God. He is sovereign over the universe. What is more, unseen behind the noise and drama of human decisions and events, God is tirelessly working out his purposes, especially for his people.

The purpose of the dream Nebuchadnezzar experienced was to encourage God’s people to persevere. They were going through dreadful times. Exiled from Jerusalem, they had lost all that was dear to them. ‘Never give up,’ God was saying to them. He says the same to us today: ‘Never give up your trust in me, your prayer, or your courage to serve’.

Reflect. We cannot live a meaningful life in the present unless we believe something positive about the future. What hope do you have for the future? Is your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ such that it keeps your life fresh and filled with great expectations in God’s plans?

You may also find it helpful to read Daniel, chapter 2 and Romans 5:1-5

A Prayer. Lord God, you declare your mighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: grant us such a measure of your grace so that, running in the way of your commandments, we may obtain your promises, and share in your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

© John G. Mason

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‘A Changing World: The Writing on the Wall’

‘A Changing World: Times to Say, ‘No’!’

In our changing world the words, ‘In God we trust’ are fading into the mists of time. We’re now living in a brave new world where, in the west, powerful and influential voices believe they can chart a path to a secure future, even though it may mean silencing freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Such experiences are not new. In the sixth century BC, God’s ancient people found themselves in a world of uncertainty and confusion. In 586BC Nebuchadnezzar had sent his army into Jerusalem; the city was destroyed, and the stones of Solomon’s great temple razed to the ground.

King Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest devastated the Jewish people. Their national pride was in tatters and their religious faith was challenged to the core. For they believed that their God was the one true living God, sovereign over all the gods of the nations. Yet he had allowed this to happen.

An important part of Nebuchadnezzar’s strategy in developing his empire was to take the cream of the Jewish people to Babylon and provide them with a top-rate education and cultural program.

Today, and over the coming Wednesdays, I am touching on key themes we find in the Book of Daniel under the title, ‘A Changing World’.

In Daniel, chapter 1, from verse 5 we read: Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah.

Nebuchadnezzar expected exceptional men like Daniel and his friends to welcome the intellectual and cultural challenges of the three-year program. However, Daniel drew a line when it came to the food menu.

In verses 5 and 8 we read: But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.

The words, Daniel resolved, suggest he was wrestling with his conscience about Nebuchadnezzar’s plan. The result was that he made a personal determination to take a stand on a principle. He said, ‘No’ to the feasting.

Daniel may have stood firm on the matter of food because in diplomatic circles eating a meal with someone usually implied an alliance. As a member of a nation that had food laws prescribed by Yahweh, the Lord, that loyalty came first. And there was probably something else: Daniel was surrounded daily by dozens of temptations to turn away from his walk with the Lord, temptations to which he knew well he might succumb.

If he was to remain true to the Lord, he would need great self discipline. He could not afford to let himself be softened up by the king’s hospitality. There may have been nothing morally wrong with enjoying the delights of the Babylonian royal cuisine, but it symbolized a threat to his own spiritual commitment. Significantly, as Nebuchadnezzar’s program progressed, Daniel’s decision was honored by God.

Reflect. If we are going to live as believers in a changing world where God is dismissed, we need to have the wisdom to identify temptations that could threaten our faith and the courage to be different. Let me encourage you to pray for God’s wisdom and grace in identifying where it would benefit you to make a stand, and at the same time challenge others around you.

You may also find it helpful to read Daniel, chapter 1 and Ephesians 4:17-32.

A Prayer. Almighty and eternal God, by whose Spirit your people are governed and sanctified: receive our prayer for the many different members of your people; that every one of us in our life and calling may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

© John G. Mason

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‘A Changing World: The Writing on the Wall’

‘Songs for Today – Mercy…’

‘Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done,’ are the words of an old Christian song. How easily we forget to thank God for the countless good things he provides for us. We take it all for granted.

But there is something else we often forget; King David wrote about it in Psalm 103. It seems he wrote this for the great choir he established in Jerusalem. It reflects his personal growth in his understanding of God.

With his opening and concluding words, Bless the Lord, O my soul, we find that this song has the tone of a personal reflection. His exhortation is directed to his inner self – a theme that he especially develops in the first five verses.

In reminding himself of all God’s benefits he begins by focusing on the forgiveness and healing that God held out to him. This suggests the psalm was perhaps another reflection on his affair with Bathsheba and his sickness in the aftermath when he was deeply depressed and ill. Assured now that the sin that had caused his sickness was forgiven, he reflects on the extraordinary mercy of the Lord.

Significantly, David didn’t attribute his recovery to good medical care or healthy foods. Rather, he sees his deliverance as nothing less than God’s personal involvement in his life. He doesn’t even attribute his deliverance to the power of prayer. Instead, he reflects on God’s mercy: The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel (103:6-7).

‘My experience,’ he says, ‘is an example of a general truth about God that I read in the Scriptures.’ At the time of Moses God broke into the experience of an entire nation. He revealed what a just and righteous God he is when he delivered his people from oppression in Egypt and opened a way for them to enter the land of Canaan. God showed himself to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (103:8).

Now, it’s important that we think about this. We can’t scientifically prove that God is at work in our lives. Nor can we prove that God answers our prayers. If anyone wants to interpret events some other way, we can’t prove them wrong. All we can say is that our personal experience and the testimony of the Bible mesh together in a way that we find personally convincing. We know God is real because somehow everything hangs together and fits. It rings true. This helps us when we think about our faith, or we are looking into faith.

Years ago, when I was re-thinking my position about my faith, I looked for some kind of logical argument that concluded, ‘The New Testament is true’ and ‘Jesus did rise from the dead’. When I found that the Bible never even tried to offer reasoning along these lines, I felt let down. Then I realized that faith, as the Bible reveals it, is not a logical deduction. We can’t prove that God exists and then decide we’re going to believe in him. This doesn’t mean that faith is a leap in the dark: it is grounded in historical reality.

As others have observed, ‘faith isn’t a logical deduction, it’s closer to what scientists call a paradigm shift’ – what the Germans call a Gestalt phenomenon.

Faith is a new way of looking at the world that makes convincing sense of it. David wasn’t speculating when he spoke of a God who forgives his sin and heals his diseases. He was reflecting on the point that the Bible makes compelling sense of human experience. God had proven himself in David’s experience to be the same God he had revealed himself to be in the Scriptures. The Bible and David’s experience of God meshed together. This is how it feels when we come to faith.

Significantly, David didn’t go on to list all the specific things God had done for him. Rather he focused on essential features of God’s character – God’s justice and his steadfast love.

God’s just anger: God will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever (v.9). Martin Luther once commented, ‘Wrath is God’s strange work.’ Anger is alien to God: it is his response to our failure to honor him and give him the thanks that is his due. There was a time when there was no anger in God; equally, there will come a time when there will be nothing further to rouse his anger.

God’s steadfast love: For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him (v.11). Children sometimes ask their parents, ‘How much do you love me?’ and they open their arms saying, ‘This much, or this much?’ When David said this to God, he realized that not even the expanse of the universe can illustrate the vast dimensions of God’s love.

So he continues: As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us (v.12).  We can’t watch the sun rise and set at the same time. We have to turn our back on one to see the other. Through the lens of the New Testament we see that through the cross of Christ, God found a way of detaching our sin from us, so he could condemn the one without condemning the other. The illustration means that when we ask God for mercy, he has to turn his back on our sin when he looks at us because he puts us and our sin on two different horizons.

We have even more reason than David to bless the name of God, for we live on the other side of the cross that once stood on Calvary’s hill. That cross is a far, far greater measure of God’s love than the unfathomable depths of the universe about which David spoke. The arms of the cross show us the grief that tears the heart of God because of our sin. In Christ, God not only lifts us out of the pit, he lifts us from the depths of hell and raises us to new life forever.

Is there any real praise of God in our hearts? It’s easy to go to church, to sing songs and hymns, and say Amen to the prayers, but to have no real personal connection with him. It’s easy to hear sermons that move us, but we’re not really listening to God because we’re more impressed with the preacher than we are with relating to God.

True blessing. Do you have a sense of God’s blessing in your life, a sense of connectedness with him that comes through knowing Jesus Christ? If you do not, then do what Jesus said: Ask, seek and knock. God promises to open our eyes to the truth.

A prayer. Lord our God, fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: have compassion on our infirmities; and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not and for our blindness we cannot ask, graciously give us for the worthiness of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘A Changing World: The Writing on the Wall’

‘Songs for Today – Joy…’

CS Lewis once observed, ‘I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to “rejoice” as much as by anything else’.

Yet, rejoicing is not just an apostolic injunction. Various psalms in the Old Testament Psalter pulsate with exhortations to sing our praise to the Lord with joy in our hearts. So, Psalm 96 begins, O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.

The psalm seems to have been for the celebration of the time, some 3,000 years ago, when King David brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. The Ark was the sign of God’s steadfast commitment to his people. First Chronicles, chapter 16 quotes the psalm almost in full.

As with any good poetry, a number of themes are tightly woven together. Two particularly stand out: sing and tell.

Sing. Three times we are exhorted to sing to the Lord. Vital Christianity always gives rise to joyful singing because we have every good reason to rejoice. The words, the Lord, stir us to lift our gaze beyond the material world: there is one Lord.

The great commandment that Jesus quoted is found in Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 4: Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And Isaiah chapter 45, verse 5 says: I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god…  Paul the Apostle echoes this when he writes in First Corinthians: we know that “no idol in the world really exists, and there is no God but one (8:4).

The world we live in is a most unusual place, and the more scientists discover about it, the more extraordinary it seems. There are high-level chemists and physicists who agree that the universe is not some gigantic accident, but rather the product of a creator’s genius. Indeed, when we look around us with open minds, we see how true this is.

Everything that exists came into being at God’s command, be it the structure of the universe, the atmosphere that surrounds our world and enables us to live, or the proportions of land and sea. All reflect God’s perfect design.

The implications are enormous – both encouraging and frightening. Encouraging because we learn we are not alone in the universe: there is a purpose and direction to life. Frightening because all humanity is called upon to do business with this God, for he alone is the Lord.

But there is something else that is most significant. The psalm-writer exhorts us all to sing to the Lord a new song. While new could refer to new music, the context suggests something far more significant: we are to tell of his salvation from day to day. The Lord is not just creator, he is also a merciful savior. We are to glory in and tell of his mercies that are new every day. I wonder how many of us do this?

Personally, I find it helpful to start the day with a Bible reading and prayer – and to end the day with prayer. This helps me reflect on God’s mercies each day. Furthermore, as I recognise God’s daily work in my life, I am more motivated to sing his praises in church.

Which brings us to a second important theme: Tell. Verse 3 reads: Tell the nations…  We are to sing so that the city and the nations will hear. With the word tell, the direction of the psalm changes – from worship of God, to telling the nations. In fact, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible uses the word from which we get the word evangelize.

There is an important sequence of ideas here. True worship will express itself in gospel proclamation. If we say we worship this Lord, we will want to introduce the nations to him.

From the time of Kings David and Solomon Jerusalem was a busy international city. In Jesus’ day the temple layout included a court for Gentiles where the songs of God’s people would have been overheard by the pagan visitors.

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, the psalm continues. The Lord is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.

The logic is clear: the majesty and glory of God are to be announced throughout the world for the simple reason that there is only one God. And, as we would expect, the focus of exhortation shifts from God’s ancient people, the Jewish people, to the nations (verses 7-10). In the singing of this psalm, visitors in Jerusalem would overhear the exhortation to attend to Israel’s God, the Lord who not only made the heavens, but whose mercies are new each day.

Psalm 96 is so important in providing a link between worship and witness, between ‘songs to God’ and ‘speech to the nations’, between the reality of faith and gospel outreach.

This theme of gospel language develops in the Old Testament. The prophets spoke of a day when God’s anointed king would be revealed and announced to all the world. For example, Isaiah writes: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news (gospel), who announces (proclaims the gospel of) salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (52:7).

The content of the gospel is the news, “Your God reigns”. From the time of these prophetic words of Isaiah, God’s people looked for the messenger who would announce God’s King. As we now look back through the lens of the New Testament we see that the messenger has not only come, but that he himself is the king. God’s king, the Lord, is Jesus.

The theme that there is only one God who is Lord of all reaches its climax in the closing verses of Psalm 96: Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

Martin Luther reflected:

Christ is Himself the joy of all, The sun that warms and lights us.

By His grace He doth impart Eternal sunshine to the heart;

The night of sin is ended. Hallelujah!

A prayer. Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all people. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your amazing love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.

And, we pray, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful, and that we may declare your praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

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