NUMBERED, WEIGHED AND DIVIDED

Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. [Romans 14:12 (NLT)]

yellow-crowned night heronIn 539 BC, thousands of Medes and Persians were digging outside Babylon’s walls. Thinking they were futilely trying to undermine the city’s impregnable walls, Babylon’s King Belshazzar was unconcerned. While carousing with 1,000 of his nobles, he gave orders to bring out the gold and silver cups that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from Jerusalem’s temple 47 years earlier. The revelers were drinking to their false Babylonian gods with vessels dedicated to the one true God when a human hand appeared and started writing on the plaster wall. No longer so arrogant, the frightened Belshazzar called for his astrologers and diviners but, when the pagans were incapable of deciphering God’s message, Daniel was called to interpret the words.

The three words on the wall were MENE, meaning numbered, TEKEL, meaning weighed, and PARSIN, meaning divided. The words meant Belshazzar’s days as king were coming to an end, his reign had been weighed and found deficient, and that Babylon would fall and be divided. Even though I don’t rule an empire, I wondered if those three words might apply to me, as well.

Numbered—yes, our days are numbered. That we don’t know how many days are allocated to us doesn’t mean they are limitless. While Belshazzar’s number was up (he died that very night), he wasted his last day in blasphemy, idolatry, and drunken revelry. How will we choose to spend our remaining days?

Weighed—like Belshazzar, our lives will be weighed (on God’s scales, not ours). Of course, no mortal can ever balance on His perfect scales. Nevertheless, God will hold us accountable at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Have we been good stewards of His gifts? Have we served selflessly or selfishly? Belshazzar dishonored God with gold and silver goblets; have we dishonored Him with our own form of idolatry? Do we love fame, wealth, home, career, possessions or beauty more than Him? Would God find us wanting because we’ve been short on grace, forgiveness and love?

Divided—like Belshazzar’s, our personal kingdom will be divided when we’re gone. After the government and bill collectors get their share, our heirs will divide the rest. All of those possessions we worked so hard to obtain and thought so important in this life will be divided among those we leave behind. Much of what we thought so valuable will end up at flea markets, resale shops, on eBay or in a landfill.

I’m not a pagan king, hosting a drunken orgy and committing sacrilege while his nation is under attack but those three words—numbered, weighed, and divided—hit home when I read them this morning. They are a vivid reminder to look carefully at my priorities. Much of my life can be described as stuff and nonsense. How about yours? Are our days spent wisely? Do we appreciate every day with which we are blessed? Will we be found lacking? Do we honor God with our words and actions? What will remain of us when we’re gone? While things are meaningless and will disappear, memories of us and the influence we’ve had on others will continue. Will the kingdom we leave to others consist of stuff that’s divided or love that multiplies?

Numbered, weighed, and divided: what do they mean to you?

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (NLT)]

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WHERE WAS HE? (Daniel – part 3)

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

Frabel - Naples Botanic GardenSomeone was missing from yesterday’s story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace: their good friend Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar’s giant statue was erected on the plain of Dura, word was sent to all of his officials to assemble there for the statue’s dedication. We know Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were there because Daniel reported that they got tossed in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to an idol. But what of Daniel? He’s the one who chronicled the event: the one who wrote that all of the high officers, officials, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and provincial officials were present. Daniel gives no explanation for his absence at the dedication of the king’s golden statue.

We’d like to think that Daniel remained back in Babylon for some important task at the palace, was elsewhere on a vital mission, or even sick in bed. We want to think Daniel wasn’t there because, if he’d been in Dura that day, he should have joined his friends in the furnace. Four men would have been sent to certain death unless, unlike his friends, Daniel had bowed to the idol! Daniel, however, is our hero: the wise prophet who later braved a king’s wrath to pray and survived being thrown into a den of lions. We never want to think that our heroes are real people, with feet of clay, just like us. When we look at the Bible’s heroes, however, they really are every bit as flawed as are we! Among others, we have drunken Noah, lying Abraham, impatient Sarah, deceitful Jacob, thieving Rachel, temperamental Moses, jealous Miriam, weak Aaron, immoral Rahab, psychotic Saul, adulterous David, sex-addicted Solomon, bad dads Eli and Samuel, the thieving publican Matthew, and Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus. They all disappointed God and sinned at one time or another.

We’ll never know if Daniel was in that fiery furnace with his friends, far from Dura that day, or if he bowed to the idol. Oddly, the remote possibility that he might have bowed his head to an idol doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t disturb me because we have a great God of second (third, fourth, and more) chances. If Daniel sinned that day, along with prophecy and history, his story is one of forgiveness and redemption.

What we do know is that that God continued to give Daniel wisdom and revelations during the more than seventy years he served the four rulers of Babylon. We know that, when another opportunity arose to honor his God by rejecting idolatry, Daniel did the right thing. Perhaps he was inspired by his friends’ faith. In spite of knowing that he’d face certain death in a lions’ den, Daniel remained faithful and continued to openly pray to God rather than to the king. “May your God, whom you serve so faithfully rescue you,” said the king, and God did. Daniel, at the end of his story, was as faithful to God as were his three friends that day on the plain of Dura.

For he is the living God, and he will endure forever. His kingdom will never be destroyed, and his rule will never end. He rescues and saves his people; he performs miraculous signs and wonders in the heavens and on earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions. [Daniel 6: 26-27 (NLT)]

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WHAT WOULD YOU DO? (Daniel – part 2)

Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. [Isaiah 43:1b-3 (NLT)]

climbing asterOne night King Nebuchadnezzar had a disturbing dream and asked the court’s wise men to interpret it. Whether he couldn’t remember it (as happens with dreams) or, being obstinate, wanted to test the soothsayers and astrologers, we don’t know, but the king expected them to tell him the dream’s meaning without his revealing its content. Indignant at their failure to do so, he ordered the execution of all of Babylon’s counselors (which included Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). Daniel approached the king and asked for time so that he could discover the dream’s meaning.

That evening the four men pled with God for His mercy and, during the night, the dream’s meaning was revealed to Daniel. After praising God for His revelation, Daniel correctly interpreted the king’s dream. In appreciation, the king praised Daniel’s God, chose Daniel for his court, and appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as administrators over Babylon. While Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged that Daniel’s God was the greatest of gods, he never understood that Daniel’s God was the one and only God!

A large statue, only the head of which was gold, had been part of Nebuchadnezzar’s troubling dream. Perhaps, thinking he could change prophecy’s prediction that his kingdom would come to an end, he erected an enormous statue on a pedestal that was entirely overlaid with gold. When all of the officials were gathered around this ninety foot colossus, it was commanded that everyone, both foreign and Babylonian, was to bow to the image and worship it; those who disobeyed would be thrown into a blazing furnace. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down, the king flew into a rage. Even when they were given a second chance, the men refused to worship the idol.

This was the kind of furnace used to bake bricks or smelt metal. We’re not talking third degree burns here; with a temperature of 1,800 degrees, they’d be cremated! The three, however, had faith in the God they served. This knew the God who kept them healthy and gave them wisdom was both good and powerful. Although confident that He could save them, they also knew that He might not choose to do so. Placing their lives in the hands of God, the three friends stood strong! Although thrown into the furnace, the Angel of the Lord saved them, and the men exited the furnace unharmed.

We only have to look at the fates of most of the disciples to know that angels won’t always save the faithful from incineration or open the doors to their prison cells. The disciples were imprisoned, beheaded, crucified, stoned, and beaten. Sadly, in some places, martyrdom of Christ’s followers continues today. The three men’s statement of faith is one of the strongest we’ll find throughout Scripture. Knowing there was no chance of survival, would we trust God as did they? Could we remain as faithful and strong as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up. [Daniel 3:17-18 (NLT)]

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WHAT’S IN A NAME? (Daniel – part 1)

“But you are my witnesses, O Israel!” says the Lord. “You are my servant. You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God—there never has been, and there never will be. [Isaiah 43:10 (NLT)]

black skimmerAfter Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Judah, he returned to Babylon with the temple’s treasures and some of Judah’s nobility as captives. The best and brightest of the young men were to learn the literature and language of Babylon so they could serve the king. In spite of being captives, they were housed in the palace and given the king’s choice of food. While this would appear to be a pretty good gig for prisoners of war, the boys were probably castrated and made eunuchs as was typically done for palace officials (and prophesied by Isaiah in 2 Kings 20:18).

Among these captives were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all of whom were given new Babylonian names. Daniel, whose name meant “God is my judge,” became Belteshazzar, meaning “Bel protects his life” (Bel was another name for the chief Babylonian god Marduke). Hananiah, whose name meant “The Lord shows grace,” became Shadrach, meaning “Under the command of Aku” (the Sumerian moon god). Mishael, whose name meant “Who is like God?” became Meshach, meaning “Who is what Aku is?” and Azariah, whose name meant “The Lord helps,” became Abednego, “Servant of Nebo” (the god of learning and writing).

“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” added the star-crossed lover. Romeo’s name made him an enemy to her family but his name was meaningless to Juliet. She knew a man’s name did not determine his value or character. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, thought otherwise. By changing the captive boys’ names, he wanted more than just their assimilation to Babylon; he wanted their allegiance. When he took their names from them, he also thought he took their God.

These young men lost their homes and families, their masculinity and their names. To further distance them from the God of Israel, as eunuchs, they wouldn’t be allowed to worship in the temple if they ever returned home. Nevertheless, they never lost their identity as children of the God of Israel and refused to defile themselves by partaking of the king’s food and wine.

Some think their decision was based solely on health and nutrition and now offer a wide variety of eating plans based on Daniel’s diet. Their refusal, however, probably had more to do with the youths’ attempt to regain some control over their lives and faith. The king’s meat would not have been butchered or prepared according to Jewish law and would have included prohibited foods like horseflesh and pork that had first been offered to the pagan god Marduk. The four friends refused it and, working out a compromise with the palace guard, agreed to eat nothing but vegetables and water for a trial period of ten days. Since they looked better nourished after that time, they were allowed to continue observing their food rules. Their fitness, however, had more to do with God’s promise of provision than their diet. God granted them not just health but special wisdom. In spite of their new names, they now knew that, by remaining faithful to God, He would be remain faithful to them. Found superior to all of the others in their group, they entered the king’s service in his court.

These four young men knew there was nothing in a name. What mattered was their character and their faith in God—a God who was judge, showed grace, and helped them in their troubles. They knew the Lord would honor those who honored Him and it was this knowledge that would carry them through their later trials in Babylon.

Praise the name of God forever and ever, for he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars. [Daniel 2:20-21 (NLT)]

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THE OMEGA

I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.” [Revelation 1:8 (NLT)]

alpha and omegaIn the book of Revelation, when Jesus says He is the Alpha (the beginning), He also says He is the Omega (the end). He’s not talking of alphabets but rather the absolute beginning, revealed in Genesis, and the absolute end, revealed in Revelation. God had the first word when He spoke the universe into existence and He will have the last word when the world as we know it ends.

Much of the prophecy in the Bible is frightening and it was meant to be. Jeremiah’s warnings to Judah were as urgent as the weather alerts on our phones that tell us to take cover because of an approaching tornado. That kind of warning, while frightening, is meant to save lives. On the other hand, there are other prophecies in the Bible that give us hope. Consider Isaiah’s prophecies of a Messiah, the many prophecies that the people of Judah would return from their captivity in Babylon, and Revelation’s hopeful words that describe a time when death is gone, evil disappears, there are no more tears and sorrow, and all things are made new.

Hidden in Revelation’s joyful news, however, is the prophecy that there will be a final judgment which, depending on the person, can be good or bad news. For those who put their faith in Christ—who thirst of His water—there is nothing to fear; Jesus is forever. For those who ignored previous warnings and failed to put their faith in Christ, however, the eternality of hell awaits.

That Jesus is both the Alpha and Omega is a reminder to all of us: be ready! There will be a time when everyone will give an account to God of his or her life. Jesus is not the omega the way Z ends the alphabet. He’s not like the last page of a book with a finite number of pages. Jesus is the end of an eternal and everlasting book. Whether that never-ending book is set in the New Jerusalem, where God lives among his people, is entirely up to us.

And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. [Revelation 21:6-8 (NLT)]

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THE ALPHA

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. [Revelation 22:13 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneHaving forgotten the Greek alphabet he learned as a fraternity pledge, my husband asked the meaning of the symbols on the lecterns in the church sanctuary. On the left was A for alpha and, on the right, was Ω for omega: the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In Hebrew, those letters would have been aleph and tau. Among Jewish rabbis, using the first and last letters of the alphabet was a common way to express the whole of something, from its beginning to its end. Today’s equivalent expression would be “from A to Z” or “from soup to nuts.” Those Greek letters refer to three verses in Revelation in which Jesus claims to be the Alpha and Omega. They tell us that that, as part of our Triune God, Jesus was there at the beginning and He will be there at the end.

As for alpha: only God could exist before time even existed! Although Genesis starts with, “In the beginning,” God was already there! Since time, space, and matter are co-relative and God created space and matter, we know it was God who also created time. God never had a beginning because He is the beginning! He didn’t emerge from something; everything emerged from Him!

One of the basic laws of science is that neither mass nor energy can be created. Simply put, it can only be converted or broken apart and put together in a new way. Strictly speaking, mankind can’t create; we can only synthesize or transform by taking existing materials to make something new. We can’t create ice or steam but we can convert water into those things by freezing or boiling it. We can take that water (H2O) and combine it with carbon dioxide (CO2) and end up with carbonic acid (H2CO3) but we couldn’t create carbonic acid without the building blocks of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. God, however, started from scratch; with no time, space or matter before Him, he created mass and energy. Making something from nothing boggles the mind but it’s the only answer that makes any sense—even to scientists!

Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, and delicately balanced to provide exactly the conditions required to support life. In the absence of an absurdly improbable accident, the observations of modern science seem to suggest an underlying, one might say, supernatural plan. … The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole. [Arno Penzias]

Arno Penzias was the winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. He and Robert Wilson discovered cosmic microwave background radiation. Their discovery supported the Big Bang theory of the creation of the Universe and showed that the Big Bang was not a chaotic random explosion. A highly fine-tuned explosion, it appears that some being guided it along.

The Apostle Paul said, “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command.” [Hebrews 11:3] I don’t think we need faith to know that anymore; it appears that science tells us the same thing. The writers of the Bible, however, didn’t know the theory of relativity, didn’t have telescopes telling them the universe is expanding, and had never heard of the Big Bang, thermodynamics, radiation afterglow, or variations in the temperature of the “great galaxy seeds” – they just knew the truth. Our great God is the Alpha!

I alone am God, the First and the Last. It was my hand that laid the foundations of the earth, my right hand that spread out the heavens above. When I call out the stars, they all appear in order. [Isaiah 48:12-13 (NLT)]

All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen. [Jude 25 (NLT)]

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