God’s Rule is Near

November 25, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Daniel 5, John 6.1-15, at Mattins on Sunday 25th November 2018, the Sunday next before Advent, Christ the King.

There are many reasons why people come to Church. Here we offer beautiful music and a place to keep out of the rain, which both have their attractions; but nagging questions draw people in, like: is there a God, what is this God like and could this God have anything to do with me?

People who have faith certainly don’t stop asking questions like these. Perhaps, even more, they become drivers in our lives, as we delve into holy realities which at present we only know in part – as we see them in a glass darkly, as one Christian mystic puts it.

However, as we struggle to understand we do have help in our seeking. We have sacred writings in which to seek and find the face of God.

Today in our Scriptures we’ve been given two stories that could hardly be more different, but which both show us what God is like and how he relates to us.

The first story starts in the banqueting hall of King Belshazzar of Babylon – actually he was a crown prince, but stories grow in the telling. He’s having a boozy party for a thousand of his lords, at which he brings out gold and silver vessels looted from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. They use them to toast foreign idols. It would be hard to imagine a greater affront to the God of Israel.

The writing is soon on the wall for Belshazzar, but he doesn’t know what it means. Daniel supplies the interpretation – you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. What an apt image for a king mishandling precious metals.

For his troubles Daniel is made next in line to the throne. However, God’s judgement intervenes and that very night the king and his kingdom are overthrown by the Persian empire.

The lesson about what God is like is clear. The princes and kings of the earth may come and go, but the Lord alone is King over the whole earth.

This is the key tenet of Jewish faith. There is one Lord, to whom we owe our full and absolute allegiance. Daniel and his friends show us how this works out when mortal rulers claim total allegiance and ask us to worship and bow down to them before their false gods. We should resist – stay true to the one and only Lord, the God of Israel.

The second story we heard today also concerns a meal, but one which could hardly be more different. There are no lavish stocks of meat and wine, no golden and silver vessels. We are outdoors rather than indoors. And rather than a thousand lords gathered we have a crowd of five thousand, who are hungry.

What can be done for them with so little at human command, only one boy’s picnic lunch? Quite a lot, it turns out, as Jesus gives thanks for the snack and shares it out, with twelve basketfuls of bread remaining after everyone is fed.

This banquet is offered in the midst of the world, among ordinary people, to a crowd following Jesus. It’s a meal that brings blessing rather than judgement.

We are slowly building a picture of God here. The Lord is king. He rules over the nations. He casts down the proud and raises up the lowly. Often we sum this up by calling God Almighty.

But then we must contend with Jesus. As we look at him and what he does, we see God’s rule in action. He brings it and enacts it. This Sunday we celebrate Christ the King, and king he is. Christ is the one through whom God stretches out his right hand in power.

However, Jesus’ ministry stresses something else about God. God is not only in charge:  he is also with us and, better still, for us. He cares about the stomachs of the poor and needy. If the ministry of God the Father Almighty is first and foremost a ministry of sovereignty, the ministry of his Son Jesus Christ is first and foremost a ministry of solidarity. He stands where we stand.

What is God like? we ask. He is Almighty; he is King; in the end nothing and no-one will stand in his way. And that it good, because if God cannot save us, he is frankly useless and worthless. But an Almighty God can also seem quite daunting.

There are people who come to this cathedral who fear to step across the threshold, or to step very far beyond the west end. The grandeur of the building and the ritual that points to transcendence puts many people off. We have been reminded of this forcibly in the discussions led by the Dean and Brother Stuart on the subject of hospitality in the last week.

It’s not enough to direct people as they enter and give them a book. That is good and necessary, but who is going to stand with pilgrims as they make a slow, spiritual journey into the awesome mystery of God.

The ministry of Jesus Christ is a ministry of solidarity. He stands with us in our territory, the territory of ordinary human life. He is for us and with us, and because he is also for and with God his Father, he himself becomes for us a Temple in which we can meet God and God can meet us.

As we draw closer to God in Him, we find a place of intimacy where we, like the crowd we heard about in our story, can be fed, despite the scant resources to hand, and be comforted and challenged – a place where his life becomes ours.

The more we give our allegiance to God, the more we will come to know him and his ways from the inside. And who better to show us this last lesson than Daniel.

Of course Daniel lived in the days before Christ but, like Christ, his allegiance to God was absolute. As a result, we’re told, he had ‘enlightenment, understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods’. Because of this divine wisdom, he could interpret the message on the wall. Daniel understood the ways of God because he shared God’s life. God’s spirit dwelt in him.

So those nagging questions on our hearts do have answers: how do we relate to a God, who if he exists, seems beyond the horizons of history as we see them? Not by standing proudly against him, toasting ourselves and our idols as we celebrate our own glory and greatness; but in the midst of life, in the midst of our immediate neediness, when what can be shared seems so meagre to do anyone any good, then we see him standing with us, multiplying our resources, leaving us satisfied, with stuff to spare.

And what is to spare, what overspills, is remarkable: not only is the reign of God brought near in Jesus, so that God is no longer a stranger, but actually, as we yield to God, as we give him our allegiance, his Spirit comes to fill us, dwells within us, bringing us intimate insight into his ways. Like Daniel, we can each learn how to discern and interpret the signs of God’s hand at work.

I don’t know about you, but I can hardly think of a situation where the writing is on the wall for a nation and where God’s ways seem less than clear at the moment – with one exception perhaps! But what would it be like if there we more prophets in our disunited kingdom whose hearts and minds were so steeped in Holy Spirit that they could bring enlightenment, understanding and wisdom to the current dismay and confusion?

Questions about God so often end as questions to us, the subjects of his kingly rule.