Then God Acted   1 comment

Above:  Belshazzar’s Feast, by Rembrandt van Rijn

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Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.

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THE FIRST READING:

Daniel 5:1-6, 13-31 (Revised English Bible):

King Belshazzzar gave a grand banquet for a thousand of his nobles and he was drinking wine in their presence.  Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar gave orders for the vessels of gold and silver which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple at Jerusalem to be fetched, so that he and his nobles, along with his concubines and courtesans, might drink from them.  So those vessels belonging to the house of God, the temple at Jerusalem, were brought, and the king, the nobles, and the concubines and courtesans drank from them.  They drank their wine and they praised their gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Suddenly there appeared the fingers of a human hand writing on the plaster of the palace wall opposite the lamp, and the king saw the palm of the hand as it wrote.  At this the king turned pale; dismay filled his mind, the strength went from his leg, and his knees knocked together.

Daniel was then brought into the royal presence, and the king addressed him:

So you are Daniel, one of the Jewish exiles whom my royal father brought from Judah.  I am informed that the spirit of the gods resides in you and that you are known as a man of clear insight and exceptional wisdom.  The wise men, the exorcists, have just been brought before me to read this writing and make its interpretation known to me, but they have been unable to give its meaning.  I am told that you are able to furnish interpretations and unravel problems.  Now, if you can read this writing and make known the interpretation, you shall be robed in purple and have a gold chain hung round your neck, and you shall rank third in the kingdom.

Daniel replied,

Your majesty, I do not look for gifts from you; give your rewards to another.  Nevertheless I shall read your majesty the writing and make known to you its interpretation.

My lord king, the Most High God gave a kingdom with power, glory, and majesty to your father Nebuchadnezzar; and, because of the power he bestowed on him, all peoples and nations of every language trembled with fear before him.  He put to death whom he would and spared whom he would, he promoted them at will and at will abased them.  But, when he became haughty and stubborn and presumptuous, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory.  He was banished from human society, and his mind became like that of an animal; he had to live with the wild asses and to feed on grass like oxen, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he came to acknowledge that the Most High God is sovereign over the realm of humanity and appoints over whom he will.  But although you knew all this, you, his son, Belshazzar, did not humble your heart.  You have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven; his temple vessels have been fetched for you and your nobles, your concubines, and courtesans to drink from them.  You have praised gods fashioned from silver, gold, bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which cannot see or hear or know, and you have not given glory to God, from whom comes your every breath, and in whose charge are all your ways.  That is why he sent the hand and why it wrote this inscription.

The words inscribed were:  ”Mene mene tekel u-pharsin.”  Their interpretation is this:  mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought you to an end; tekel, you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting; u-pharsin, your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.

Then at Belshazzar’s command Daniel was robed in purple and a gold chain hung round his neck, and proclamation was made that he should rank third in the kingdom.

That very night Belshazzar king of the Chaldaeans was slain, and Darius the Mede took the kingdom, being then about sixty-two years old.

THEN RESPONSE #1:

Canticle 12, Part I (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

(Part of the Song of the Three Young Men)

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord,

O heavens and all waters above the heavens.

Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord,

Praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew,

all winds and fire and heat.

Winter and summer, glorify the Lord,

praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold,

drops of dew and and flakes of snow.

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord,

praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O nights and days,

O shining light and enfolding dark.

Storm clouds and thunderbolts, glorify the Lord,

praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

OR RESPONSE #2:

Psalm 98 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

Sing to the LORD a new song,

for he has done marvelous things.

With his right hand and his holy arm

has he won for himself the victory.

The LORD has made known his victory;

his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.

He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel,

and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands;

lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

Sing to the LORD with the harp,

with the harp and the voice of song.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn

shout with joy before the King, the LORD.

Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it,

the lands and those who dwell therein.

Let the rivers clap their hands,

and let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD,

when he comes to judge the earth.

10 In righteousness shall he judge the world

and the peoples with equity.

THEN THE GOSPEL READING:

Luke 21:10-19 (Revised English Bible):

Then Jesus added,

Nation will go to war against nation, kingdom against kingdom; there will be severe earthquakes, famines, and plagues in many places, and in the sky terrors and great portents.

But before all this happens they will seize you and persecute you.  You will be handed over to synagogues and put in prison; you will be haled before kings and governors for your allegiance to me.  This will be your opportunity to testify.  So resolve not to prepare your defence beforehand, because I myself will give you such words and wisdom as no opponent can resist or refute.  Even your parents and brothers, your relations and friends, will betray you.  Some of you will be put to death; and everyone will hate you for your allegiance to me.  But not a hair of your head will be lost.  By standing firm you will win yourselves life.

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The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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First I must deal with raw, documented history.  Historians from ancient times from the present agree that Cyrus II (“the Great”) became King of the Persians the Medes in the year we call 559 B.C.E., and that his forces conquered the Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C.E.  Cyrus, being born circa 600 B.C.E., was approximately sixty-two years old at the time of the conquest.  Thus his age matches that of the mysterious “Darius the Mede” from the end of Daniel 5.  In point of fact, the Book of Daniel is the only ancient source to mention “Darius the Mede” as an immediate predecessor of Cyrus II, who succeeded Cambyses I immediately, almost twenty years before the setting of this story.  There is a simple explanation:  The author of this part of the Book of Daniel was confused as to Persian royal succession.

Belshazzar was a son of and the viceroy of Nabonidus (reigned 556-539 B.C.E.), the last Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian king.   He (Belshazzar) was a powerful prince and a person with whom to reckon, but not a regnal monarch.  History records that he died when the Persian forces, commanded by General Gobyras, captured Babylon.  Gobyras went on to become Cyrus the Great’s governor in Babylon, so some have speculated that Gobyras was “Darius the Mede.”  This seems like a stretch to me, given my propensity for the historical-critical method and my preference for Ockham’s Razor.  It is, however, one way for those who prefer discredited theories of inerrancy and infallibility to explain away a minor (and irrelevant) inaccuracy in the text.

As Galileo Galilei observed in the 1600s, the Bible is not a science book.  And, in certain minor and occasional historical matters, it gets some quibbling and irrelevant details wrong.  This is to be expected, for people wrote many of these texts down a long time after the events the texts describe.   So some out-of-chronological-order references crept into the narrative.  C’est la vie.  Such inaccuracies do not bother me, for I am far from a Biblical literalist.  I prefer instead to focus on the main point of such texts, not permitting minor historical quibbles to become distractions from great spiritual truths.  As a spiritual mentor of mine asked of any Biblical text,

What is really going on here?

That is where I place my emphasis.

Let us  consider the story from Daniel 5 as it is.  The son and viceroy of the last Chaldean king commits sacrilege with confiscated vessels from the late Jerusalem Temple.  He sees a disembodied hand write a text on a wall.  All the viceroy”s usual advisors cannot interpret the text, but Daniel can.  Belshazzar promises Daniel a promotion in exchange for an accurate reading, but the faithful Daniel says that such a nice act is not necessary; he is willing to interpret the text and retain his current standing.  Daniel delivers the bad news.  Belshazzar, much to his credit, promotes Daniel anyway.  The viceroy dies that night, during the Persian conquest.

This is a story about God acting to deliver his people.  History records that the Jews fared much better under the Persians than they did under the Assyrians or the Chaldeans/Neo-Babylonians.  I have covered this ground already, beginning with this post:  http://ordinarytimedevotions.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/week-of-proper-20-monday-year-1/.   It was not always a pleasant political situation, and not all Persian kings were favorably disposed toward Jewish interests, but the Persian Empire did facilitate the building of the Second Temple.

The reading from Luke 21 spoke of circumstances many Christians at the time of the writing that gospel experienced.  Indeed, with a few minor changes in terminology, it speaks of circumstances many Christians face today.  But, Jesus says, persecution is an opportunity to testify to him, himself a persecuted one.  By enduring, our Lord says, we will win our lives, even if we die.  Or, as Paul wrote, if we suffer with Christ, we will reign with Christ.

These are the kinds of passages which cause me to wonder how prosperity theologians can say what they do.  These men and women sell theological snake oil to those who either choose not to investigate their claims or lack enough Biblical knowledge to know where to begin.  It is rather discouraging, is it not?

This day we have two readings which speak of God acting during times of great difficulty.  In the first the good guys live, but in the second they almost certainly die.  Yet they live with God.  The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, is honest:  Sometimes faithfulness leads to persecution, even torture and death.  It is unjust, I grant you, but not entirely unexpected.  If we do not grasp this message, it is not because of false advertising in the sacred anthology we call the Bible.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 1, 2011 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINTS PAMPHILUS OF CAESAREA, BIBLE SCHOLAR AND TRANSLATOR; AND HIS COMPANIONS, MARTYRS

THE FEAST OF SAINT JUSTIN MARTYR, APOLOGIST

THE FEAST OF SIMEON OF SYRACUSE, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONK

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Adapted from this post:

http://ordinarytimedevotions.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/week-of-proper-29-wednesday-year-1/

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One response to “Then God Acted

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  1. Pingback: Week of Proper 29: Wednesday, Year 1 « ORDINARY TIME DEVOTIONS BY KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

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