The Writing on the Wall

Paula Northwood July 14, 2019

Scripture Daniel 5:1–9, 13–17, 25–28

When my daughter was 2, and we had just moved her out of the crib and into her big girl bed, she proudly told me had something to show me. I was a busy seminarian, so I said: “Just tell me.” No, she had to show me. I should have noticed the crayon in her hand. Anyway, right above her bed on the pristine white wall was some scribbling in bright orange crayon. Now my undergrad degree is in art education, and I was trying to be a good parent, so I stifled my anger and said, “Oh my, tell me about this.” She said, “I’m writing.” I said, “I can see that. What did you write about?” With a knowing smile, she said, “You know.” And I thought, “Uh . . . no, I don’t.” I think she thought that if I could read cursive writing, which seemed like scribbles to her, I could read her writing. Well, I couldn’t, and her little message is still a mystery to this day.

Our text this morning is an odd story about writing on the wall from book of Daniel. The story is apocalyptic in nature, not historically accurate. Belshazzar was not a king of Babylon during the 6th century BCE, and Nebuchadnezzar was not his father. However, Belshazzar was a regent in early Babylonian history. But historical inaccuracy aside, we have an interesting tale that appears relevant today.

The story begins with a king, a ruler who was ruthless, greedy and insecure. He was known for his lavish events to which he would invite hundreds of the country’s nobles, along with their wives and concubines. From the text, we get the impression that the wine flowed freely. A picture is painted of overindulgence and sacrilege, for they bring out the vessels taken from the temple in Jerusalem—likely the booty of war. These sacred chalices of gold and silver were being used as ordinary wine goblets. They were so beautiful that the people praised the gods of gold and silver. It doesn’t get any better than this! Life is good.

As they partied into the night, suddenly it happened—that mysterious writing on the wall. A terrified Belshazzar, knees knocking and pale as a ghost, watched a disembodied hand scratch words into the plaster: MENE MENE TEKEL PERES.

Was it part of the entertainment, some kind of magic trick? No. The king was frantic; he offered a golden necklace, a scarlet robe and third place in his kingdom to anyone who could tell him what it meant. No one could or would.

Of course, anyone who was educated could read the words. They just made no sense. These words are known Aramaic measurements: mene meaning “to count”; tekel meaning “to weigh”; and peres meaning “to divide.”

The advisers attempt to interpret the meaning. However, their normal use of weights and measures were meaningless: “to count, to weigh and to divide.” The Queen suggests asking Daniel, an exiled Israelite taken from Jerusalem, who had served under Nebuchadnezzar. So Daniel interpreted the message that no one else dared read:

MENE—God has numbered or counted the days of your kingdom and will put an end to it.

TEKEL—You have been weighed in the balance and have been found wanting.

PERES—Your kingdom will be divided into two parts and given over to the Medes and Persians.

Shocked, Belshazzar still offered Daniel the promised reward. By doing so, the king acknowledged Daniel’s interpretation to be correct, at the same time demonstrating that he was blind to the truth that it held. The truth was simple: The party’s over and, according to the following verses, his kingdom does fall.

It is interesting to me how much that phrase “writing on the wall” has become a part of our speech and our thinking. We say things like: “I think he resigned because he saw the handwriting on the wall.” Or: “She certainly should have seen the handwriting on the wall and realized that she had to do something very soon.” It suggests that there are times when we should be able to read the signs of the times and know what is coming.

I have been thinking about how much this ancient story stills applies to today: corrupt government leaders and people who are seemingly blind to what is happening around them. The question is, whom do you identify with in this story?

I can identify with the guests at the party. It’s more fun to drink the wine and praise the good life. I see the writing on the wall, and yet I am blind to it or I just want to turn away. If the writing on the wall speaks to the state of our world or country, it’s overwhelming. It’s confusing to know how to respond, and I want to hang on to my comfort, privilege and my power. There are so many things to fear: climate change, violence on our streets and around the world and then all that is happening on our southern border. And, like the king and his guests in our story, I too am afraid, and I want someone to tell me what it all means.

Last Monday, the United Nations Human Rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, condemned how the United States is treating children arriving from Mexico, saying she was “shocked” at the conditions they faced in detention centers when they crossed the border.

She said: “As a pediatrician, but also as a mother and a former head of state, I am deeply shocked that children are forced to sleep on the floor in overcrowded facilities, without access to adequate health care or food, and with poor sanitation conditions. Detaining a child even for short periods under good conditions can have a serious impact on their health and development—consider the damage being done every day by allowing this alarming situation to continue.”

Ms. Bachelet said that countries have a sovereign right to decide how to manage their borders, but that they still have to comply with their human rights obligations, and that the approach “should not be based on narrow policies aimed only at detecting, detaining and expeditiously deporting irregular migrants.”

In five facilities visited by inspectors in June, they found children had few clothes, were given few means to clean themselves, were provided with inadequate and unhealthy food and were held in severely overcrowded facilities.

My friends, this is our wall. This is the writing on our wall.

What would it mean for us to step out of the group of partygoers and be like Daniel? What can we learn from Daniel? In our story, when everyone seems overwhelmed and perplexed, Daniel comes on stage as a sage. He was a person of integrity, deeply spiritual and full of wisdom. Daniel was a truth teller. He had a spiritual maturity and a consciousness that grounded him. He was a contemplative who acted in the world with compassion and truth. What would it mean for us to be like Daniel? How might we respond, for example, to the situation on our southern border where we are building a literal wall?

The conditions forcing these families to leave their Central American homelands are so violent and hopeless that these families are desperate enough to come to our border knowing the danger. Recently, we saw the photo of the father and his child who drowned attempting to cross the river to our land to find safety. We can call them all kinds of names, but they are not migrants: They are refugees who need our compassion and help. Politics aside, God has a great deal to say about how we treat children.

This morning in our baptismal promise, we committed to support Rory and Danielle as they raise Melanie. That’s easier to do because they are in our midst, but the children at the border are our children, too. We believe that each person is a child of God, no matter where they are from or their color of skin; each person carries the divine image. The divine DNA is in each of us; we are all connected! The crying child is my child. The mother torn from her 2-year-old is my sister. Their pain is our pain. This is our family.

Can we move from being anxious guests, paralyzed by fear, lost in nostalgia, waiting for someone else to do something? Can we move to act like Daniel? With power and privilege comes great responsibility. Let us be the ones who move from cynicism, apathy and despair to truth telling and action.

Let us bring our wisdom, our spiritual muscle to this problem. Here is a practical list of some actions to take: call your representatives; send a letter to the White House and Department of Justice; donate to the Refugee Emergency Fund, a UCC-sponsored program, or other nonprofits that offer services to these separated families; attend vigils and protests that are planned in our city; join our Immigrant Welcoming Working Group; or participate in our trip to the border in February. And if you can’t do any of these things, pray. Spend time holding these families and children in the light. Don’t forget them. Don’t turn away from the writing on the wall.

Each one of us can do something. As the reading from Václav Havel [his poem, “It Is I Who Must Begin”] says, “It is I who must begin . . . right where I am, not excusing myself by saying things would be easier elsewhere. . . . It is I who must begin . . . right where I am.”

The writing is on our wall. We must not look away. With God’s guidance, let us each do our part to interpret its meaning and act with compassion and love. May it be so. Amen.