A week and a half ago I spoke at Awana. There’s only I believe at most two people here this morning who were there that night, so for them this might sound a little bit familiar. The topic that evening was straight lines. I asked a few of the kids to come up and draw a straight line on the whiteboard, in order to demonstrate that without a guideline, it is almost impossible to do so. The lesson proved a few things, yes, it’s not easy to draw a straight line freehand, none of them could do it. And I also discovered that kids will go really slowly when they are trying to draw this straight line, like really slowly, I think an ant moving along the whiteboard would be quicker. If you’re wondering, going slowly didn’t help much at all.
Someone did figure out a way to do a pretty good job, though. He drew his line at the very bottom of the board, and thereby used the frame itself as a guide. That worked better, at least until he reached the point where the marker and brush holder caused his line to bump up.
My idea behind this was that after they had made their attempts, I pulled out a framing square to show how close to a straight line they had actually drawn. I had also drawn a line with the square earlier to demonstrate what a straight line looked like for comparison.
I believe that the message was well received by the kids at Awana. Half of them are up at Sunday school, you can ask one later if you are curious. Upon further thought, I decided that if this worked with kids, maybe it’s a good topic for adults as well. Not that I’m going to ask any of you to come up here and draw a straight line, mind you. That sort of thing works a lot better with children in my experience.
It’s interesting when a topic comes up once, it seems to come up again and again. Last Sunday at the breaking of bread someone got up to share a thought, and it sounded a lot like what I had said on Thursday, enough so that Laura leaned over and said “There’s your message again.” And last Sunday night the speaker talked about mowing his lawn in a straight line by focusing on an object in the distance. It seems that this is something that’s on at least a few hearts and minds.
When I went to start preparing this sermon, I looked at my old notes, and what do you know, back in January I had preached a sermon entitled “Straight Lines” and in that I happened to talk about cutting grass. Guess this isn’t the first time this has come up.
I’m not going to talk about cutting grass today, and not about straight lines specifically. What I am going to talk about instead is measuring up. But first, let’s talk about the writing on the wall. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense, either. The passage we read to start is where the expression ‘The writing is on the wall’ originated. King Belshazzar had decided that he was going to do things his way, with no respect toward the God of heaven, with no care for the future, with no thought of consequences, and with no regard for what had occurred in the recent past.
He also had no concern for his present circumstances. At the time this chapter takes place, the armies of the Persians and the Medes were encamped not far beyond the walls of Babylon. These walls were impressive, considered to be the most extensive and significant city walls in the region, perhaps in all the ancient world. They were described as being wide enough for chariots to race on top of. The river Euphrates ran under the walls of the city, which made it impossible for the city to run out of water during an extended siege, but it also provided a possible vulnerability. According to Greek historian Herotodus, the Persians dug trenches to divert the river Euphrates. The Persian army marched in on the dry riverbed and took the city with minimal resistance, so distracted were the defenders with Belshazzar’s festival.
It’s the message delivered to Belshazzar where I would like to draw your attention. Mene, mene, tekel upharsin. Numbered, numbered, weighed, divided. God had evaluated the ruler of Babylon and found him wanting.
God has a standard, and He measures all against it. Belshazzar clearly came up short. We might look at him and see how he failed, but frankly, we don’t measure up all that well either. This hardly comes as a surprise. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. God’s standard is perfection, and not one of us is perfect. We can’t even pretend to be perfect. If we say we have not sinned, then we are liars, and we make God a liar, which of course, He cannot be.
What sort of standard was Belshazzar measured against? You might argue that Belshazzar did not know the God of heaven, he didn’t have the scriptures at hand, and did not have a priest of the most high God at his disposal, so how was he supposed to know that his actions were wrong? And while he did not have his own prophet who had warned him in advance to change his ways, Belshazzar did have everything he needed to choose wisely, apart from the necessary wisdom. He was not operating in some sort of vacuum here. He had the account of his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar, who was certainly the mightiest king Babylon ever had, and his life and experiences would have been widely known. He would have known the provenance of the vessels taken from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, although obviously he didn’t care much about that information, given that he decided to use them for what can only be described as a big drunk. Throwing a big feast during a war when there were enemies at the gate revealed either deep arrogance or a shortage of common sense. This is not someone who was being an effective leader to his people, not someone who was appreciative of the heights to which he had risen, but rather opportunistic and self-serving. He thought everything was going well, but God was not impressed. His lack of respect, for God, for things that were holy, and for his own situation, that lack of respect was appalling, and God judged him for it.
God will always provide us with the necessary measuring posts so that we can know if we have done well. This morning, I’d like to look at three different indicators whereby our actions may be evaluated, which God has provided.
Why three? Take a look at your thumb. It’s approximately an inch wide, maybe a bit more. You can measure an inch half decently with your thumb. Or you can use a ruler, it’s going to be more accurate, and easier to use in a lot of cases. At my work I have a set of vernier callipers; they measure down to one thousandth of an inch. That’s far, far more precise than a human thumb, especially when it comes it measuring machined parts. Different situations may require different measuring devices, but you’re measuring with the same scale every time.
There are three different measuring posts we’ll look at today. All of them point us back to God and His perfection. They are creation itself, the Word of God, and the Lord Jesus Christ. All of these have been presented before us so that we might see God and that we might seek Him out.
The first is creation itself. In Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we read the account of how God created the world. In the last verse of chapter 1, we have a brief summary: 31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day. The world was created in a perfect state, or very good as the verse calls it. Yes, we might look around and things don’t look quite as good as they surely once were, as we have done an impressive job of wrecking up the place, but we do live in an amazing world, spectacularly designed to support life as we know it, and made with the precision that can only come with intent. Nothing we can make or even imagine making comes even close to approaching the marvel of life, growing, reproducing, intelligent life. No matter what aspect of life on this planet you care to examine, when you look closely it can only inspire awe.
Our bodies renew and repair themselves on a continual basis, otherwise we would surely die in a matter of days, either from infection, accumulation of toxins, or our skin would simply deteriorate and our bones and joints would come apart. Our circulatory system, respiratory system, digestive system, lymphatic system, immune system, our sensory system, to name only a few of the systems that keep our bodies operational, there are something like a dozen different systems, all of these operate with minimal input and little to no thought on our part. You eat a cheeseburger, once it’s in your body, your digestive system does the rest of the work without you really paying any attention unless you happen to get heartburn because you used too much hot sauce. And that’s probably the system that we pay the most attention to, seeing as we get hungry several times every day. The rest of them, so long as nothing is seriously wrong with them, we don’t even pay attention to. You don’t worry about your immune system unless you’re feeling sick, for example.
That’s only the human body we are talking about. Other living creatures have the same or entirely different systems, and they likewise don’t need to think about them, they just operate. Some are downright astounding. Birds, bees, and bats can all fly. An average whale can hold its breath for an hour. An octopus can regrow a severed arm. It doesn’t have to stop and think about it, just give it a month or so and hey, new arm. All of those things are automatic, they just happen without planning or intention, it’s just how the particular animal works. To suggest that all these creatures are the result of random chance, that the gravitational and magnetic fields of the earth and the ionosphere serve to protect us and keep life on this planet intact, not to mention the temperature range that permits liquid water, necessary for life, abundant here but exceedingly rare elsewhere in the known universe, all these factors scream of intent and design, design that is very good indeed.
How does this provide us with a standard, apart from very good, which of course if we are being honest, we are not? The wonder of creation points to a creator, as Romans chapter 1 states. Reading from verse 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.
Those verses hit hard, in particular the words “without excuse.” If I look at the world around me and say “Clearly someone greater than me made all of this,” then I have a certain level of accountability to whomever it was that made it. I am accountable to my maker. If I follow that up with “I don’t care who made this, I don’t need to worry about that or be thankful for any of it,” then my heart will be darkened, as it says at verse 21. And if I instead profess to be wise, to think that I know better and come up with some other explanation for how the world is here and how I’m alive in it, then in my imagined wisdom I have become a fool. That explanation can be the theory of evolution, it can be the Hindu cycle of creation and destruction, it can be Norse mythology, it can be the flying spaghetti monster, but in looking at the world around us and denying God as the creator and master, that is without excuse. To believe otherwise is to pretend away the truth and to stick your head in the sand.
The second standard by which we are measured is the Word of God itself. The Bible presents God’s standard in a manner that is clear to any and all who sincerely look at it. I say sincere, because it is possible, and in fact it is sadly all too common a practice to take a passing glance at the scriptures, or to pluck a verse or three here and there out of context and use them to disingenuously justify all manner of falsehoods. That is not meeting the standard at all, that is cherry-picking and is not honest or fair. Abusing the Word of God in order to deceive others or to make yourself feel better about your behaviour or your condition without actually fixing anything, that is foolish and dangerous, and ultimately brings only ruin.
God’s Word brings knowledge of the truth, and knowledge of how we fall short. In Romans chapter 3, we read at verse 19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Without a method of measuring, there is no way of knowing what your condition might be. You can compare with someone else, but unless you compare against a known good standard, it’s meaningless.
We have at home a spot where we have measured and marked the children’s heights. For those who have been in our house, it’s in the backroom in the little hallway to the bathroom and the backdoor. It shows us how tall each of the children were at a certain point in time, over the time have lived in the house, of course, but it doesn’t say how tall they are. You can see that they’re all taller now than they were last year, and there is an indication of how much each has grown, and who is taller than who, but unless you grab a measuring tape, you won’t know how tall any of them actually are. How tall are you? I’m taller than my brother isn’t a useful number, they can’t put that on your driver’s licence. It’s only useful for boasting.
In Romans 3, we read that every mouth will be stopped by the law. That would include boasting and bragging, of saying “I’m better than you are.” It will also stop those who would claim to be doing well enough, because the law reveals that only perfection is going to cut it. Once your know the law, know what God expects, then it is impossible to use it to justify yourself. A few verses down, at verse 23, we read that all have sinned, and thereby all have come short of God’s glory. The law shows us how we have come short of God’s standard.
It doesn’t stop there. In the book of Hebrews, chapter 4, we see at verse 12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. It’s not just the actions we do where God’s Word measures us, it is also our thoughts and our motivations. Like the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s banquet, we are measured and weighed by God’s Word, but also we are divided. The Word of God separates and penetrates, so that there is nowhere to hide from the truth. It is effective and alive, not simply a book of words written long ago, but rather the living word of almighty God.
If you accept that He created the universe, spoke it into being with the word of His power, then the words that He saw fit to have written down for us to follow will surely carry the same power. The holy scriptures are the primary method whereby God communicates with us today, where we find His truth, where we see that without question we are not good enough on our own merits.
If creation itself and God’s Word are not enough for you, I did say there were three standards which God has provided for us to be measured by. The third one is the Lord Jesus Christ. We read in John’s gospel, chapter 15, from verse 22 If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin. 23 He that hateth me hateth my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause.
Christ came to this world to save sinners. To do so He lived without sinning, He attained the standard as set out by the scriptures and by creation itself, so as it was created very good, so likewise was He. God said at both the baptism of Jesus and at the transfiguration that He was well pleased with His Son. God is not well pleased with sinners, far from it in fact. There is a clear distinction there between Christ and everyone else.
In Hebrews 4 where we read earlier, Christ is described as our great high priest, but unlike every other priest that has ever lived, he was sinless. Reading at verse 14 Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. 15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
In the practice of sacrifices as the Israelites did, in the law as given to Moses, the high priest went into the holy of holies in the tabernacle or temple, to atone for the sins of the people. This was accompanied by animal sacrifices, and took place only once per year, every year, on the Day of Atonement. It was not a perfect sacrifice, but it was the best available. The priest was not without sin, he had to atone for his own failings. And there was of course no particular merit in the animals sacrificed. It’s not like they were even capable of understanding what was going on. And so it was done, year after year, because the price for sin has to be paid.
Christ was able to pay the price for all our sins because He had none of His own. This is a wonderful truth, and the world should be thankful for this, but what we find is that this is not the case. Even at this season, where we celebrate His birth, where He is pictured as a tiny baby born into this world to bring salvation and light, still now the world rejects Him.
And why is that? He by his perfection, by living without the flaws and failures that every other person who has walked this earth is punctuated by and filled with, His perfection demonstrates that we do not measure up. When you look at the Lord, you have no excuse for your own sins, no place to tuck them away out of sight. There is no cloak for your sin, not in the presence of perfection. The simple fact of Christ’s existence does not permit that.
Even now, when 20 centuries have passed, still people take His name in vain because the very existence of the perfect Son of God troubles them. They may not consciously realize that, nor would they ever acknowledge it, but you don’t swear by a name that doesn’t matter. To do so is comical. Christ matters. His perfect life and sinless death matter. His sacrifice on the cross matters.
The truth of creation, the Holy Scriptures, and the Lord Jesus Christ all point to the fact that all have sinned and come short of God’s perfect standard. These same three are frequently attacked and dismissed by the world as being irrelevant or outdated or whatever else you want to say, but the world does not like these standards, because the world knows that it does not measure up.
Like Belshazzar, the world pays no heed to past history or present circumstances, and has little thought for the future, not when it comes to what God expects and requires. But deny it, ignore it, run from it as you may, the truth is inescapable. God will weigh and God will measure, and no matter whether you compare against Christ, the Word of God, or creation itself, you will, like Belshazzar, be found wanting.
As sobering as that may be, the news is not all bleak. At this time of year, when as mentioned a minute ago, we remember Christ’s birth, we know that He came into the world to save sinners. He did not do that as a tiny baby in the manger, but as a Saviour, Christ the Lord. As we read in Hebrews 4, we have a great high priest. He is in heaven right now, he intercedes on our behalf. He has paid the price for all our sins of Calvary.
We cannot measure up to God’s standards. It is beyond us. Thankfully we don’t need to. A substitute is available. Christ has measured up, He has become the de facto standard. As it says in John chapter 3, verse 18, if you believe, you will not be condemned. If you refuse, however, the same verse tells us that you are condemned already. All that is required of us is to accept and believe.