I grew up on 27,000 acres of land.
Not owned by my family, of course, but land shared by many. It’s land protected by the US Forest Service, owned by Berry College, and preserved for generations to come.
On that land are sights and wonders to behold. I spent my formative years mountain biking down the dirt roads and trails that crisscross these 27,000 acres. There are mountain vistas, there are flat plains of grass, there are forests who seem to hold mystery, there are creeks with rocks to jump.
There’s something about nature that awakens an inner child in us. I see it come alive in Jackson whenever we go back to Berry to go hiking. I feel it in my soul. “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm,” so said Theodore Roosevelt, the president who created more national parks space than any other, speaking on the importance of land conservation.
On these 27,000 acres, I found firsthand examples of “purple mountains majesty” and “fruited plain” of “America the Beautiful.” There, I first experienced the words of our state anthem, hearing Ray Charles singing in my head, “Georgia, a song of you, comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines.”
Conservation preserves a wild sanctuary of revelries.
Land is a powerful resource.
Around here, we know that well. Some of us own timberland. Others of us help maintain timberland. Some of us own farms. Many of us own land of some kind, whether it’s the land upon which our homes sit, land preserved as a family gathering spot, land for hunting and fishing. We buy land as an investment and sell it when prudent, usually returning a profit.
Land is a powerful resource and a privilege to own. I felt that loss of privilege when we sold our home in Cartersville. I no longer own property and that’s something for which Dana and I are saving so that we may be prepared for the future.
Land is a powerful resource. As one church member said this week, quite poetically, resource management is a blessing “to have a profession doing. And that’s why we say thanks to [God] for allowing us to do. It’s a huge and rewarding responsibility.”
A huge and rewarding responsibility. That’s the nature of any resource management, whether land, mutual funds, bank accounts, businesses, or anything else we would call an asset.
A huge and rewarding responsibility. Someone better tell that to the main character of our scripture this morning: Belshazzar, crown prince of Babylon. Hear now Daniel 5:1-9, 24-31.
What we have in this scripture is Prince John of Robin Hood fame.
Growing up, my favorite Disney movie was Robin Hood. I came to know the story well, watching other Robin Hood movies such as the one with Kevin Costner and, of course, Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Reading Daniel 5, I couldn’t help but see Belshazzar as Prince John.
In the tale of Robin Hood, Prince John is just that: crown prince. He’s not the actual King of England. King Richard, the true King, is off in the Middle East fighting the crusades on behalf of the pope. He leaves Prince John in charge of England while he’s gone.
King Richard had a reputation as a good, wise, and decent king. Nabonidus, Belshazzar’s father, is also known as a decent king, although not quite as wise and good as King Richard. And like Richard, Nabonidus is off fighting foreign wars. He’s off to the west, in the Arabian peninsula, the wilderness of Old Testament fame, living in oases and fighting against the bandits he finds there.
While he’s gone Belshazzar is in charge of the empire. And like Prince John, Belshazzar lives lavishly at the expense of the people. The feast at the start of our scripture is just one of many. Rather than conserving, Belshazzar sees the coffers of the kingdom as his personal piggy bank, paying no mind to the needs of average people. Of course, the scripture doesn’t notate that for us, but historical records left behind by the Babylonian empire do.
So here he is, at another banquet, wasting the resources entrusted to him; a wastefulness that has dire consequences for the kingdom.
So dire that it brings about the end of the Babylonian empire.
Over in the east, far away from Nabonidus and the Babylonian army in the Arabian peninsula, the Persians are rising up, gaining power, being wise with their resource management. As Belshazzar spends the Babylonian kingdom dry and as Nabonidus stays occupied in the west, the Persians sense opportunity and attack from the east. They catch Belshazzar off guard and, with his resources squandered, the Persians capture the city of Babylon and begin their conquest of the Babylonian empire.
So, what Daniel forecasts will happen through the writing on the wall is, indeed, exactly what happens. Mene: God has numbered Belshazzar’s days and, by extension, the days of the Babylonian empire. Tekel: God has weighed Belshazzar’s resource management on the scales of righteousness and found him wanting. Parsin: the kingdom will be divided.
This is exactly what happens. Belshazzar has squandered the resources entrusted to him. In his reign, he had that “huge and rewarding responsibility” to manage the resources entrusted to him, to conserve for the future. Instead, he decided to live lavishly, decided opulence mattered more than operation, spent rather than saved, chose distraction over dedication, and squandered rather than sustained.
In fact, these three words on the wall speak that point loudly and clearly. They are related to the words for three kinds of currency. It would be as if, today, God wrote on the walls of this church: single, quarter, c-note; using coded language that we know refers to dollar bills, quarters, and one hundred dollar bills. Belshazzar’s squandering of the money of the empire has left him in judgment before God for his lack of righteousness and responsible resource management.
And the consequences of this squandering, for him and his kingdom, are disastrous. Such is the consequence of nations and their leaders squandering resources.
But we don’t lead nations. We don’t even lead states. Only a few of us hold public office.
And yet, a question remains. It’s the statement used to judge Belshazzar. Tekel: if put on the scales of righteousness for your resource management, would you be found wanting?
We all have resources entrusted to us. We all bear that “huge and rewarding responsibility” of managing whatever resources God has given us. Another way to think of this is privilege. We all have privilege in our various statuses and in whatever resources we own.
And, if put on the scales of our resource management versus God’s expectations, would we be found wanting?
In how you utilize the land you own, tekel, would you be found wanting? In your use and care for it, does opulence matter more than operation? Does spending trump saving? Does distraction outweigh dedication? Does squandering overcome sustaining?
In your businesses or other assets, tekel, would you be found wanting? In your use and care for it, does opulence matter more than operation? Does spending trump saving? Does distraction outweigh dedication? Does squandering overcome sustaining?
In how you spend your money, tekel, would you be found wanting? In your financial habits, does opulence matter more than operation? Does spending trump saving? Does distraction outweigh dedication? Does squandering overcome sustaining?
These are uncomfortable questions. But, these questions matter because the assets we own, the finances we have, the land we manage, all of it is a resource entrusted to us by God. They are not really ours. Sure, the deed on the land has our name, the bank and investment accounts have our name, the business or other holdings are in our name, but God gave them to us.
God gave them to us not for us, but for God’s purposes. God gave them to us to be good stewards of them, to care for them, to better the world and each other with them.
Now this is where pastors tend to get in trouble: telling their congregation how to manage their finances. This morning, I’m not going to do that. In my life experience, the best way to manage finances and other assets has often been a complicated and challenging question.
So, this is not a sermon where I tell you what to do with your money, much less your businesses, land, or other assets. I don’t think that’s my place and, certainly, this scripture doesn’t offer any clues about what good stewardship looks like.
Except this: to not squander. In other words, conserve your resources for God’s purposes. As in our spiritual lives, discipline is the answer to the question: if your resource management was put on the scales, tekel, would you be found wanting?
Disciplined use of our resources that are entrusted to us prevents us from being found wanting. Discipline in our financial management, in our land use, in our business practices, ensures that we are being righteous with them; that we are living into God’s expectations.
That’s the point, too, of a famous parable in Luke 12 in which a master gives gold coins to slaves. Those who made disciplined use of the resource entrusted to them were rewarded. The one who hid the coins in the ground and forgot about them was punished. At the end of this parable, Jesus says:
“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48)
Discipline is the standard for our resource management. What that looks like for each of us will be different. There’s no ready made, single, one-size-fits-all, answer to how God wants us to use our resources for God’s purposes.
But there is the call to discipline. The word in resource management for discipline is conservation; to preserve the resources God has given us for God’s purposes and future generations.
The writing on the wall demonstrates that. The chief sin of Belshazzar is undisciplined use of the resources entrusted to him. There’s blasphemy and gluttony, too, to be sure, but the use of financial terms to judge and condemn his reign demonstrates that God expects much out of those to whom resources are entrusted.
Which includes us. As you engage in managing land, businesses, household finances, does discipline govern you? As you spend your money, does discipline govern you? Do you practice conservation?
Or, for how many of us does a lack of discipline characterize our resource management. Do we spend and use rather than conserve?
That’s a tough question to answer because too many of us have shame attached to our resource and financial management. We’re afraid of others judging how we spend our money. I used to be that way. When I left shame behind, I got wise in my financial management. I became a disciplined steward of the money entrusted to me. That happened because shame had blocked me from talking about it with people in my life who are wise and good stewards of their resources. Shame blocked me from seeking after God’s wisdom, too.
Without shame, I found the wisdom we needed to be effective managers of our income. We do not make a ton of money and yet, God has shown us how to utilize it to great effect. That’s the power of leaving shame behind with our money management.
Shame, I think, is the barrier for most of us to become disciplined in our spending. Shame was certainly what the king felt as God wrote tekel, proving his resource management to be wanting.
And I left shame behind in managing our household finances when I began praying this prayer as I would sit with our budget and our financial decisions:
God, it’s your money. How should we use it?
Learning how to answer that question has it’s basis in giving to the church. Nothing so reminds us of whose money and resources we have, whose resources we entrusted with, as giving. God doesn’t care about the amount but God does care that you give.
There’s no shame in the amount and let no one tell you or convince you otherwise. If you currently give but think you should give more, pray to God and say that it’s God’s money, asking God to show you how to make that increase. And if you’re not giving, give something, asking God to show you how.
When we started giving to the church, my shame evaporated and I began to understand how God would have us manage our finances. That’s because giving here, at church, powerfully reminds us that whatever we have is entrusted to us by God to be used for God’s purposes.
Those scales, tekel, threaten shame. Certainly it was the king’s shame. But it need not be that way. Be disciplined in your use of God’s resources. Give to the church. Practice conservation. Remembering that whatever you have is a resource from God entrusted to you.
When the writing is on the wall in your life, will you be found wanting or will God say to you, well done, good and faithful servant?
God, it’s your money. It’s your land. It’s your business. It’s your asset. How should we use it?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.