Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Esther Week 8 - Speaking Peace

The following is the summary notes from the final week of our Esther series.  You can check out the whole series online at our website.

The Changed King
Tax carries a negative connotation in today's society; there is no such thing as a good tax.  And yet here in the final chapter of this epic story we come to the section which is supposed to be the happy ending, and yet we find the opening words of chapter 10 declare, “King Ahasuerus imposed tax on the land and on the coastlands of the sea.” And we are like, wait a minute, why on earth would the narrative finish like this? Surely the imposition of a new tax cannot be a good thing.

But in reality this short statement that rounds out the life and times of King Ahasuerus in our story contains a stunning reason for the people of God to rejoice. Yes you heard me right… the people of God would have rejoiced at this new tax:
  1. The tax here represents a significant change in King Ahasuerus’ economic policy. His last great idea for bringing in much needed funds to the empire’s treasury came from Haman and was basically, "kill the Jews and steal their stuff".  Furthermore other economic policy of ruthless dictators of the time included things like enforced slavery.  So yes the Jews rejoiced in Ahasuerus’ new tax because he was embracing a conventional and just system for raising funds instead of strong arming out of them, enslaving vulnerable people or worse still following through with Haman’s plan.
  2. Secondly, the extent of Ahasuerus’ kingdom is defined as the lands and coastlands of the seas. While we are told very specifically in chapter 1 that he ruled from Ethiopia to India, now in chapter 10 there is just this general description of his empire, “the land and the coastlands of the seas”. Scholars believe that this was a simple phrase that basically meant “all the known world”.  Therefore at the end of our story Ahasuerus' empire was at its strongest and most secure. 
So not only had Ahasuerus been convinced to embrace a fair and equitable taxation system, his nation was the stronger for it. When the text tells us that “all the acts of his power and might... are written in the Book of the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?” it is not lying, this stage of his reign was the most prosperous of his life. But it was not always this way…

If you remember right back to chapter 1 we met the mighty King Ahasuerus and he was throwing a spectacular party for himself.  At the time I told you that this was the actions of a pathetically proud man who needed to feel affirmed and honoured. What I didn’t tell you was what happened next.

See according to historical research the third year of Ahasuerus’ reign marked the beginning of a long military campaign in Greece. Perhaps riding on the high of having the empire worship him, Ahasuerus set sail for Greece in an attempt to extend the borders of his kingdom even further. While they had initial success on both land and sea, eventually Ahasuerus’ pride got the better of him. The Greek ships had retreated to a stronghold and even though he was advised against it, Ahasuerus pursued them in battle and suffered significant losses. He was forced to return with his army to avoid a revolt amongst his troops leaving behind a skeleton army which was thoroughly defeated.

See we have to understand that in many ways the spectacular 180 day feast was a smokescreen to hide the less than spectacular standing of the king. Sure he had wealth, power and territory but he had inherited it all from the dynasty that went before him.  And after the defeats in Greece that dynasty loomed large over him and he was slipping into the shadows of giants. Compared to the great kings like Cyrus and Darius, Ahasuerus was failing badly.

What we have to realise is that while on the outside the King was full of pomp and splendour, on the inside he was wrestling with feelings of insignificance, insecurity and depression. He gave the impression that his empire was vast and strong, but in reality it was starting to crumble on the fringes.  And this explains so much of the story we have journeyed through:
  • It explains the feast in his own honour to puff himself up in the eyes of others
  • It explains why when he came back from Greece, depressed and unsettled, he sought a new Queen for himself
  • It explains why members of his own court would seek to assassinate him as they viewed him as a weak target
  • It explains why he was so insecure that Haman’s deception worked and he moved quickly to eradicate the supposed threat of the Jews
  • It explains why he was up late at night and needed the record of his great deeds read to him to ease his troubled mind
So much of Ahasuerus’ behaviour in this story has been dictated by this hidden insecurity. But time and time again we have seen that God was working behind the scenes to bring this king’s story into line with the story He was writing until they became intertwined. God was working out His purposes through the rise and fall of this proud Persian king.

If you compare Ahasuerus’ story before and after it became entwined with God’s story you see something quite stunning. And ultimately this is what I think the author of this story wants us to see. Yes the salvation of God’s people has been a central theme, but if you look at the bookends of this story you see a dramatic change:
  • Chapter 1 saw Ahasuerus as this despicable, self-indulgent and proud king who magnified himself at the expense of others. A man who trumpeted his own glory to hide the insignificance and insecurity in his own heart. A man who would crush anyone who stood in the way of his pride even if it was his own wife. 
  • But chapter 10 sees Ahasuerus more powerful, just and prosperous than ever before, more truly worthy of honour than ever before, but there is no fanfare or pomp and splendour like in chapter 1. Instead there is the stunning reality that this once proud king shares his glory with Mordecai the Jew. Mordecai’s name, integrity and honour is recorded alongside the king’s own name in the Chronicles of the Kings of Persia. The king shares his lasting legacy with a common Jewish man and elevates him to the highest office in the land. 
In the beginning of the story Ahasuerus magnifies himself even though his character is hardly worthy of praise. By the end of the story his character is actually now worthy of honour and yet he shares this honour with another.  So I guess the burning question is: what happened to cause this change? You can’t seriously read the story of Esther without being drawn to see this radical change in the king and ask this very question.  And the end of chapter 10 slaps us in the face with this answer, “For Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was great among the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brothers, for he sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people.”

The Change Agent
The change in the king was brought about by the fact that he came into contact with the people of God, more specifically he came into contact with Mordecai and his cousin Esther.  Right throughout the story these two people appear not just as the saviours of their own people but as the saviours of the king as well.
  • Esther won over the king and his court 
  • Esther gave her best to please the king 
  • Mordecai acted with integrity and courage to save the king’s life 
  • When Haman had manipulated him into making a huge mistake, Esther and Mordecai exposed this treachery and spared the king from potential disaster 
Basically Mordecai and Esther stood in the gap between the people of God and their enemy and “sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people.” And there is no doubt that coming in contact with the ones that God raised up to be the saviours of his people changed the king’s life dramatically. Esther was the best thing that ever happened to the king’s life.  Mordecai was the best thing that ever happened to the king’s reign as ruler of Persia.

Seeking welfare and speaking peace
The people of God living in Persia were exiled, trapped and longing to be home. They were in the minority and their voice was unable to be heard to the point where a simple decree form the king threatened to wipe them out completely.  And it is easy for us, living here in Brisbane and Rosalie to feel like this as well.

We probably don’t have kings threatening to end our lives but we do have:
  • Scores of people living all around us who honestly believe that the church and Christianity are bad for society 
  • People who don’t think we have anything to contribute to modern society; that our views are unhelpful, narrow-minded and draconian 
  • People who will actively fight to make sure that we have no voice in the public arena 
  • People who have embraced life outside of the boundaries of God’s good design and present their lifestyle as the best for society 
And to generalise the church has reacted to this in one of two ways:
  1. To retreat into a private faith. A faith where we feel comfortable to live out our convictions within the safety of church and home, but not pull back from society and let them taste the consequences their godlessness 
  2. To develop a negative and aggressive outlook on society and jump up and down about every step away from God’s design that they take. To climb on a moral high horse so to speak and seek to point the finger at the world 
But this is not what God called the people of God living in exile to do. Mordecai and Esther are presented here in this story as the ones who lived out God’s desire for His exiled people. And God desire for His people was that they might be the best thing that ever happened to the proud, pagan king. The palace was different because they were there, the empire was different because they were there and the trajectory of the king’s life was different because they were there.

People of God living in Rosalie, Brisbane, the question that you must be confronted with from the book of Esther is this: How is your city, your workplace, your street, your school, your sporting team, your family different because you are there? God does not want His people to retreat to safety and live a private faith.  Nor does He want us to climb on high horses and live a finger pointing faith.  He wants us to be present in the world and live out a peace speaking faith; a welfare seeking faith.

And I want to make this insanely practical for you as we finish.  The question I want you to wrestle with is this: How could the trajectory of people’s lives around you be changed simply because you are present in their life?
  • What if instead of subconsciously expecting our children to be popular at school we encouraged them to befriend the outcast kids who are caught at the bottom of the social pecking order 
  • What if you were the person in your street who looked out for others and invested in their lives, their marriages, their families
  • What if you were the person in your workplace who didn't join in the criticism and negativity but instead breathed life, joy and job satisfaction into the work environment
  • What if you were the political activist who didn't just write letter after letter of complaint, anger and venom, but took the time to write letters of honour, respect and blessing
Basically what I am asking you to consider is how you might speak peace and seek the welfare of the people in your life regardless of how hostile to you or your faith they are.  I am asking us as a church to consider how the trajectory of our community here in Rosalie might be changed if we speak peace and seek welfare.  How might the school be changed, how might the kindy be changed and how might the shops and restaurants be changed?  Will Rosalie be better off for having a church? And if so how?

The Ultimate Peace Speaker
Because ultimately this what Jesus did for us!  See the trajectory of our world was headed towards disaster.  The trajectory of my life was headed towards ruin. The trajectory of humanity was headed towards hell.  And yet Jesus came and sacrificed His life to speak peace to us and seek our welfare.  Jesus came to change the trajectory of our world and our individual lives and He wants us to do the same for the people and communities around us... He wants us to help them find the trajectory transformation that only He can provide.  And it is only when you are captivated, empowered and filled by this Jesus that you will ever have the power to do it.

As we round out our series in Esther you have to let the story question your heart: has God placed you in the neighbourhood, school, workplace, family, community that you are in for a time such as this?  So that you might be His hands and feet to see the trajectory of people's lives changed forever?


  1. Can you see the change in King Ahasuerus' life?  Consider the lives of the most hostile people around you. Do you believe that God can change their life trajectories?
  2. Which response do you think you have tended towards the most?  Private and silent faith or finger pointing high horse faith?  What is wrong with these responses?
  3. Think about the communities God has placed you and your family in.  Where does peace need to be spoken?  Where does welfare need to be sought?  What are the great areas of need in your community?
  4. In what tangible ways can you be God's hands and feet to speak peace and seek welfare?  How could your church or bible study group do this together?
  5. How does seeing the sacrifice of Jesus fuel your trajectory changing desire?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Esther Week 7 - The Appointed Day

The following is a summary of week 7 of our Esther series "A time such as this".  You can check out the note from other weeks in previous articles on this blog or go to the Rosalie Baptist Church website

The Accusation
"You Christians think your God is without flaw or moral imperfection but your bible is littered with accounts of atrocities committed against nations, men, women and even children, atrocities that your God commanded be carried out."  This is the charge that often gets thrust in our face as we seek to share the message of God in our day to day lives.  And while the question can rock us and force us to wrestle with our own understanding of God, we need to commit to that wrestle.

Because surely we want a study of the bible that actually deals with the harsh realities of life rather than the kind of collection of cheesy, feel good inspirational quotes that you find on a Hallmark calendar?  If we are going to live in a real world, with real issues, real questions and real accusations being thrown at the church, we will not get anywhere by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the less-than-palatable stuff in the bible. We must tackle the numerous passages of violence in the Old Testament head on.

Violent Judgment
And here we have a prime example of such violence. Chapter 9 takes a turn in a direction that perhaps we did not see coming.  Right through this story the Jewish people have been a threatened minority but now that they had seen relief we kind of expect this to be the end of the story... But chapter 9 makes us a little uncomfortable.

The 13th day of Adar, the appointed day that the Jews were to be slaughtered by their enemies, arrived.  But because Esther had secured their salvation we are told in verses 1-2 that, “the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them. The Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could stand against them, for the fear of them had fallen on all peoples.”
And the Jews took no prisoners, verse 5 declares: “The Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the citadel itself the Jews killed and destroyed 500 men…” The text goes on to explain how they also killed the 10 sons of Haman and hung their bodies from gallows to make an example of them. And finally we are told in verse 16 that across the Empire 75000 people were slaughtered in total.

Now this is not the kind of bible story you were hoping to hear when you came into church today. Let’s face it, nobody likes to be confronted with the possibility that the people of God, the ones we are supposed to think are the heroes of this story, the ones who worship and follow God, would exact revenge with such violence.  But as we continue to wrestle there are some things we need to see that help us grapple with this uncomfortable passage.

God is a God of Just Judgment
As we read through Esther and get caught in the story and we are powerfully confronted with the death of 75000 people it is easy for us to assume they are innocent lives that are taken. But the first thing we have to realise is that the people who were massacred were far from innocent. The text tells us that they were enemies of the Jews, but what this really meant in this situation was:
  • They desired to ethnically cleanse all the Jews from Persia
  • They were prepared for violence against the Jews
  • They hated Yahweh and would do anything to free the land of His worship
Basically they were racists, religious bigots and bullies who were waiting in the wings for an opportunity to strike. And they saw the decree of Haman as a way they could finally gain some advantage over the Jews and inflict great suffering upon them simply because of their hatred for the Jewish ethnicity and faith. These are people whose hatred would not stop on account of the decree being revoked. They were not led by Haman and would not give up now that he was dead. They were led by their own hatred and their hatred would never give up.

So what we learn about God here is not that He is cold, ruthless and vengeful like the atheists charge, but rather we learn that He is a God of justice… and if He is a God of justice… He must also be a God of judgment.  Not rash and uncontrolled judgement like a vicious dictator who seeks to assert dominance through fear and terror. But a judge who lets the punishment fit the crime.

The 75000 had rejected God and threatened harm against His people, they had sharpened their swords ready for action, and so God turned the tables on them and they suffered the same fate that they wished to inflict on others. And to prove that this was purely about justice and righteous judgment the Jews do not take the plunder of their enemies. They were not seeking to gain finances or property out of this venture; it was about justice and justice alone.

God is a God of Patient Judgment
Something that we don’t pick up initially in the text is the reality that there would have been several months between the events surrounding Haman’s execution and this Day of Judgment. Long enough it seems for verse 4 to tell us that by the time of the judgment, “Mordecai was great in the king's house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces, for the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful.” It seems that in the time between Salvation and Judgment two examples had gone out to the empire:
  1. The example of Haman and the shameful end that will come to all who betray the king and seek to bring destruction on the Jews
  2. The example of Mordecai and the glorious blessing that will come to those who worship Yahweh and honour the king
This means that the 75000 weren’t without witness. They had seen BOTH the perils of rejecting God and the glories of honouring Him and yet the text tells us that the hearts of the 75000 responded in fear and indifference toward Mordecai, the Jews and God.

So we also learn that while God is a God of just judgment, He is also a God of patient judgment. The fame of Mordecai, an example of faithfulness and trust in God, spread across the whole Empire and yet still the 75000 chose to harbour hatred against God and His people rather than seeing in Him a path to ultimate blessing. There are loads of accounts in the history of the Old Testament of people who were once enemies of God who turned and put their faith in Him: Rahab, Ruth, King Nebuchadnezzar and the people of Nineveh, and God responded in gracious welcome and blessing every time. He gave the 75000 more patient witness than they needed and yet they would not relent.

God is a God who preserves His People & Purposes
Ultimately, the reason that there is violence in the Old Testament is because from the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah in Genesis through to the events we have read about today people have always thumbed their noses at God and sought to destroy His people. There have always been people opposed to the purposes of God. 

It is easy to see God's protection of Israel as a insular and exclusive preservation of just one people group.  But we have to remember that the Jews had been blessed so that through them God could bless the world.  So if the Jews were to be destroyed, then God's avenue for blessing to the world would dry up.  And so one enemy like Haman and these 75000 Persians could rob the whole world of the blessing of His purposes.

And so to preserve His blessing to the nations through Israel, God enabled His people to have victory over their enemies in order to prevent their complete destruction; and often times these victories were violent. But God knew that in this era violence was the only way that the aggressive forces that stood opposed to His people could be stopped.

Jesus: Love your Enemies
That was until God decided enough was enough. Remember I said that God is patient. Well when the time was just right, when God’s patience had stretched and stretched way further than we deserved, God sent His Son Jesus into the world. And Jesus was the fullest and most clear revelation of the very nature and character of God Himself. And when He came He spoke directly to this issue saying radical things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”

The enemies of the people of God were no longer to be defeated with relentless force but to be loved with relentless passion.  Now you might ask: What’s happened here? Has God changed? What happened to the God of the Old Testament and His justice through just judgment against the enemies of the people of God? Well let me tell you for sure, God didn't change! But something did... and it changed radically!

See in Jesus God visited us, and like Mordecai His fame spread. Jesus' fame spread and He was seen by all as the perfect image of what trust in God was all about.  He was the ultimate Jew, the One communicated the blessing of God most perfectly to the nations.  And what humanity did with this beautiful witness to God’s love, peace and faithfulness? They hated Him and they stored up anger and evil in their hearts against Him. They appointed a day when they would conspire to see Him eradicated.

But instead of exacting justice against these enemies, instead of reaching down with His hand of just punishment against those who sought to destroy His Son, God provided Jesus as one who would bear the full weight of our anger against Him.  One who would suffer the destruction that Mordecai and Esther never saw.  But more than that God also provided Jesus as one who would bear in His body the just judgment against our rebellion. On the cross Jesus stood in our place and took the punishment that we deserved.

And so now that this punishment is gone, taken by God Himself, we are free to love our enemies.  Free to hold back any punishment because their punishment has already been taken:
  • When that atheist in your workplace keep ridiculing you and your faith day after day, to the point where you just want to fire back with a venomous outburst that you know He deserves… you are free to fire up prayers on his behalf instead
  • When the local kids come around to your house, dressed as demons, witches and ghosts and everything in you just wants to slam the door in their face and stare disapprovingly at their parents… you are free to love them by showering them with treats and gospel hospitality
See the God of the Old Testament is not a different god from the God of the New Testament; they are one and the same! But there is a massive difference in where this one God chose to place the just punishment for human rebellion. In the Old Testament, like in the passage we have read this morning, that punishment rightfully fell on the 75000 people who deserved it; those who had rebelled against God and harboured evil intent towards His people. But in the coming of Jesus God chose to place that punishment on His own Son who did not deserve it.  And those who follow Him are free from having to be vessels of God’s punishment but can embrace the call to be vessels of His love their enemies and vessels of prayer for those who persecute them.

It is only in the light of the cross that Jesus’ teachings on loving our enemies make sense. And it is only when people are empowered by the cross that we can forgo the need for vengeance and shower our enemies with love.

Celebrating Freedom, Justice and Victory
Back in the story however, Mordecai spread word of the victories that had been won via a letter sent to each province of the Empire. And included in this letter was the initiation of a feast. See just as the Jews could not help but mourn bitterly and clothe themselves in sackcloth and ashes when Haman’s edict was read in their province, neither could they hold back their joyous celebration when Mordecai’s letter of victory was read out.

The days of the 14th and 15th of Adar would never be the same again. This was the moment of their relief, the moment their sorrow turned to gladness, the moment their mourning turned to celebration! So Mordecai’s feast is established and it is marked with joy to God and generosity to the poor as they lavished one another with gifts of food.  They called the feast and the days Purim, and the text tells us that it is a named derived from the lots by which Haman had chosen the appointed day for the destruction of the Jews.  The lots, like little dice were called Pur, and so when God arranged for the appointed day to be turned on its head and for Haman and the enemies of the Jews to meet the same doom they intended to inflict, well the irony was so striking that they named the feast after the method by which justice was ultimately decided.

And did you know the Jews still celebrate Purim to this very day.  The 14-15 of Adar is during the month of March and so each year the Jews celebrate and rejoice in the victory that was won for them on that day. And they still give gifts of food and show generosity to the poor.  And the feast and celebration still captures the essence of the history behind it:
  • They eat little triangle shaped cookie parcels that they call Haman’s ears…
  • In the synagogue, which is normally marked by silence and reverence, during Purim the people boo and jeer and shake rattles every time Haman’s name is mentioned as the story is read out
  • And they reflect on the current political and social climate and name their modern day Haman and ask God to give them deliverance
And it is good and right for the people of God to celebrate. Just as I said that we should be prepared to worship God in the midst of our greatest sadness, we should also feel free to celebrate in worship today. But so often I think we get in the habit of thinking that exuberant expressions of joy have no place in the church.  But let me tell you just as I gave permission to weep, I give you permission to smile, to beam with joy, to raise your hands and to clap your hands as you sing. Don’t feel restricted here at Rosalie Church.  Our joy needs to be expressed in pure celebration.

Because the Jews host huge feasts, with parades, costumes, food and dancing and their joy exceeds ours by far... but they are celebrating the lesser victory! They are celebrating Mordecai’s victory over Haman, they are celebrating a political and military win and so they are still caught in hatred for their enemies and are longing for their god to repeat this victory in every generation.

Celebrating the victory of Christ
But we are celebrating the greatest victory of all time!
  • We are celebrating the victory that not only frees us from our great enemy, sin and death, but we are celebrating a victory that sets us free from being trapped in hatred and revenge…
  • We are celebrating the cross of Jesus Christ, where He took all our rebellion and dealt with it once for all…
  • We don’t have to keep looking for new victories in each generation because Jesus’ victory was once for all…
  • We have the single greatest victory to sing about in the history of humanity… and it is the same victory we will sing about for all eternity…
So please Rosalie Church.  Let us not be out-shone in celebration by those who celebrate the lesser victory. Can we be the congregation who blows people’s minds with how genuinely joyous we are? Can we be the church who is known in this area for hosting the best celebrations? Can our singing ring out in this community with pure and genuine joy? And can we be so satisfied by Jesus’ victory that we can joyfully shower our enemies with love in such a way that they not only see our love for them but they see how much joy loving them brings to our lives?

  1. Be honest.  Have you thought much about the violence in the Old Testament or have you tended to shy away from it?
  2. How would you answer the charge that God cannot be good and loving because of these acts of violence that He initiated?  What insight have you gained from today's study?
  3. How does seeing Jesus as the one who took the punishment we deserve change the way we view our enemies?
  4. Can you name people or groups that are actively trying to bring down your gospel efforts in this world?  How can you practically love them?
  5. Be Honest.  What do you think when you see someone visibly joyful in their worship? Are you sceptical of their joy? 
  6. How can the church visibly shine the joy of the victory of Christ?  In worship?  In life?  In relationships?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Esther Week 6 - Longing for Justice

The follow are study notes from week 6 of our Esther series.  Find out more at the Rosalie Baptist Church Website.  Read Esther 7-8 to get the context.

Human cry for justice
Just about every year there is a big name film that seeks to capture the common human cry for justice. .We flock to see films like: To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, The Shawshank Redemption, Braveheart and 12 Years A Slave because there is within the collective heart of humanity a cry for justice. We have a finely tuned radar that is quick to spot injustice and a longing to see what is obviously wrong made right.

Over the last few weeks the tension in the story of Esther has been building to this point.  Esther has steeled herself to present her request to the king and when the moment finally arrives she presents the plight of her people in the form of a story of injustice.  Verse 3, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.” They are being sold… but not sold as slaves… sold into death.  Esther has made the injustice of her people personal to the king, they are not some distant people, far away and irrelevant to him, this injustice is being perpetrated against his most beloved queen and therefore against him as well.

The tension in the story is at boiling point right now.  The charge has been laid… The injustice uncovered… The king’s anger has been aroused… And the identity of the enemy is literally hanging in the air and we are just dying to hear it declared!  Verse 6 gives us our satisfaction, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.”  And so the servants present cover Haman’s head to remove the offence of his presence from the king’s view. Then one of the servants tells the king of the gallows that Haman had made to display the body of Mordecai, the one who had saved the king’s life, and the king, without a second thought, sentences Haman to hang.

The oppressor gets justice
In this moment it is like every aching justice bone in our body explodes with joy.  Haman, the enemy of the people of God, the one who had sold the people into complete destruction, the one who had sought the life of the innocent Mordecai, was now completely and utterly defeated. And to add to our joy the justice he receives is poetic:
  • He had built the gallows for Mordecai and now his own instrument of fear and malice was turned against him
  • All his life he had strived to be in the highest office in the land, clothed in honour… but now he hung from the highest gallows in the land, clothed in shame
  • Haman had wanted everyone to bow down and look up to him in worship… but now they would point up at him in mockery
Part of us wants to let out a cheer of resounding joy when we hear of Haman’s demise because we long for this kind of justice in our world today.  We secretly hope that the next time we see that maniac driver who cut us off in traffic is a kilometre down the road pulled over by the police getting a ticket.  So many people call this karma, “what goes around comes around”, but if we are honest karma lets us down far too often.  People who hurt us go on living normal, happy, comfortable lives without a care in the world despite what they have done to us; karma promises to satisfy our longing for justice but rarely ever delivers.

The Justice of God Never Fails
But the thrust of the story of Esther tells us that the poetic justice dished out to Haman was not a matter of the universe simply giving back what he deserved. But if the story of Esther tells us anything it tells us that God does not leave us without hope of justice; the justice of God is not a matter of sheer chance or luck.  God actively works behind the scenes to bring Haman to justice. He orchestrated everything.

See karma will let you down time and time again and leave you longing for justice without the hope of ever being satisfied, just waiting in vain for the universe to turn things in your favour; but the justice of God will never let you down. God is at work in this world, to bring justice to those who have oppressed, enslaved and abused others. And even if they don’t see it in this life, God has ordained a day of justice:
  • A day when evil deeds that were hidden on earth will be exposed for all to see
  • A day when those who were wrongfully accused will be vindicated
  • A day when those who lived in fear will see their tormentors tremble
  • A day when every wrong will be made right
One of the joys of the Christian faith is the promise of this Day of Judgment, and the most stunning application of the coming Day of Judgment is that there will be a resounding vindication for all who suffered in silence here on earth. Karma will let you down because it is just random chance, but the justice of God will never let you down because it will reveal the truth that sufferers long to hear.

Esther identifies with her people
So God is at work in this world to bring justice to the hurting and broken people who desperately need it, but in almost every case God chooses to use a human vessel to be the bearer of His justice.  Right throughout this story we have seen Esther being prepared, positioned and privileged to become to vessel of God’s justice for His people. The people of God were scattered across the Empire, they were living in confusion, fear and turmoil.  And there was nothing they could do about it because they had been held captive by Haman, the man who held the highest office in the land, the man who bore the King’s signet ring and gave orders that had to be obeyed.

And yet for this voiceless, oppressed and hopeless people God provided salvation!  Salvation in the form of a young Jewish girl from a family broken by death and sorrow, conscripted into the king’s harem without a choice and thrust into the role of Queen.  In God’s providence Esther found herself as the only Jew in Persia who had any hope of bringing salvation to her people.  And we have seen this girl, who could have lounged in the luxury of the palace, risked everything including her life to step into the very centre of God’s purposes for His people.
  • She became a voice for the voiceless
  • She became freedom for the oppressed 
  • She became hope for the hopeless 
And in this section of the story we see how she did it.  It is easy to miss the fact that up until this moment the king had no idea that Esther was a Jew. Esther was living in the palace and had been far removed from the confusion, chaos and turmoil of the king’s edict until Mordecai told her of their pain. Esther had a choice... She could continue to live in secret in luxury and hope she escaped the destruction or she could identify herself as being part of the oppressed people of God.  The following verses show us what she did: Esther 7:4“For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.” and Esther 8:6 – “For how can I bear to see the calamity that is coming to my people? Or how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred?” (Emphasis added)

Esther identified with the scattered and hurting people of God.  Effectively she stepped outside the comfort of her secrecy and was prepared to put her head on the chopping block alongside her people. Where so many would have ducked for cover and remained out of the firing line, Esther stuck her neck out and stepped into the crosshairs.

The voiceless, hopeless and oppressed
And do you know that there are literally millions of people who are voiceless, hopeless and oppressed living in our world today who desperately need to be set free.  Millions in poverty, millions forced from their homelands by war, famine and terrorism and millions sold into sexual slavery.  Men, women and children scattered all across our world who are in desperate need and yet there are very few people with the courage of Esther to become their voice, become their hope and fight for their freedom.

And it is not even just the big, global problems… because these can seem too monumental for us to have any impact… but we have people all around us in Australia who need us to stand with them as well:
  • There are at least 90 thousand babies who are without a voice aborted every year in Australia
  • There are thousands of single mums who are left without hope when their ex-partners abandon them and give them nothing with which to support their kids
  • There are untold numbers of people with severe disabilities who are trapped without freedom and often times forgotten about in institutional care
We hear of this turmoil around the world and our hearts ache for justice... for about 5mins after the YouTube video finishes and then it is back to my profile page.  So often our response the the cry of humanity is deafening silence! Why? Because we are also oppressed…
  • We are rendered voiceless by our all-consuming thirst for material gain
  • We are made hopeless by our addictions to lust, image and escapism
  • And we are trapped by our desire to be popular
We lack the motivation to step out in Esther-like courage because we are pre-occupied with our own profit, pursuits and pleasures.  We read stories like Esther and we like to think that we identify with the heroine… that we are like Esther, but in reality we are more like the helpless people of Israel, scattered across the empire oppressed and in need of someone to set us free.

Jesus identified with us
The end of chapter 8 sees Mordecai, having been given the king’s signet ring, reversing Haman’s decree and the king’s riders heading out with the joyous proclamation of freedom. Now the voiceless can sing, the hopeless can dream and the oppressed can dance.  And the only way we will ever have the courage to act on behalf of the broken-hearted people of this world is if we hear the joyous proclamation that we have been given a voice, that we have been given hope, that we have been set free!

See instead of staying hidden in the luxury of heaven Jesus Christ identified with the broken and lost people of the earth, and not just with empathy and compassion, but He actually embraced our situation; He embraced our flesh! Jesus spoke out for the voiceless, He gave hope to the hopeless and He set captives free.  And like Esther He did it by identifying with His people; even to the point of dying our death!

See unlike Esther and Mordecai, Jesus was not spared injustice, in fact He suffered the greatest injustice of all time. Though completely innocent He was beaten, mocked, tortured and killed. He was hung up high for the world to see His shame; but God did not leave Him without a voice!  When God raised Jesus from the dead He vindicated Him and the joyous proclamation of freedom for the people of God rang out across the land.

When we see this Jesus who shed the luxury of Heaven and identified with broken and hurting humans like us, and who suffered the greatest of human injustices in order to secure our freedom, that we can shed the shackles of our pre-occupation with self and tackle the injustices those around us are suffering.

  1. How do stories of injustice make you feel?  What emotions do they evoke?  Think of some examples.
  2. How did you feel when Haman was finally revealed as the enemy and received the punishment and shame he deserved?
  3. Esther identified herself with the Jewish people, stepping outside of the privilege of her title.  In what ways can you identify with broken and hurting people around you?  What privileges might you have to step outside of?
  4. Be honest. What things are you consumed by that dampen your passion for justice?
  5. How does seeing Jesus identifying with us and suffering our injustices help you to shed those things and embrace the task of bringing justice to this hurting world?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Esther Week 5 - Living Gospel Irony

The following is a summary of week 5 of our Esther series.  Full sermon downloads and more information about Rosalie Baptist can be found at the website.

Two different approaches
In chapter 5 the storyteller shows us both Esther and Haman going to see the king to plead with him for assistance... in doing so the two character are placed side by side and we are drawn to compare them:
  • Esther - having steeled herself to confront the king despite the peril it would put her life in, Esther clothes herself with honour and dignity presents herself to the king.  She does not approach in boldness, anger or panic even though the situation was urgent and the stakes high. Though she was not invited she does not come on her own terms, she bows to the expectations of the court and the King and comes dripping with nothing but reverence.  And even when the king receives her and offers her the assurance of a generous reply, she continues to shower him with honour by inviting him to a feast she had prepared in his honour. Twice she delays presenting her petition in order to lavish the king with this honour.  Esther displays stunning patience in the face of turmoil because it was what the situation demanded... 
  • Haman - meanwhile the driving force of Haman's petition to the king was a deep love for himself.  Haman's heart once happy with the honour of being invited to queen Esther’s feast is immediately overrun with hatred, rage and evil intent when he sees Mordecai at the king’s gate. Haman’s only source of solace was gathering people around him to bask in his glory and worship at his splendour… But not even unpacking the trophy cabinet of his triumphs was enough to cool Haman’s rage this time. As in verse 13 he announces the cause of his sorrow, “Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate.” Mordecai is the thorn in Haman’s side, the bane of his existence, the hindrance to his happiness and so Zeresh his wife comes up with what is really the simplest of solutions… kill him! Basically she says, “Why wait for the appointed day? Why torture yourself any longer? Why not exact your revenge on this Jewish scum right now?” And so he rushes as fast as he can to gain the king's approval for Mordecai's death.
Where Esther was able to be patient in the face of great personal peril, Haman could not even wait a few months… he had to be rid of Mordecai now! So the gap between good and bad in our story widens.  Esther’s patience, honour and respectfulness magnify her winsome ways where Haman’s rage, impatience and pride magnify his despicable nature.

The perils of self-idolatry
And the reason for Haman's deterioration is apparent in verse 13.  It did not matter how many goals Haman kicked in life, if there was but one man like Mordecai who refused to worship him he would never be satisfied. Haman had chosen to worship the idol of self and found out that this idol had an unquenchable appetite and no matter how much he tried to feed it… he would never be satisfied. And so when he sees Mordecai this one last time he finally snaps.

And so it is with anyone who chooses to worship the idol of self.  Idols demand more and more of us with an increasing thirst for our attention, effort, money and time… but will never ever satisfy us in return!  And there is no more relentless idol than the idol of self.  Haman had met all of the demands of his idol but was actually more bitter, more impatient and more frustrated than ever before. The circumstances of Haman’s life may have improved dramatically but the quality of his life was dying every day that Mordecai lived.

And it is so easy for us to find ourselves on the never ending treadmill of futility as we feed and feed our idols but never feel as though we are getting anywhere:
  • A girl can strive really hard to gain acceptance in the most popular group at school but still be left feeling empty because the shine rubs off when she realises their lives seem even more lost than hers 
  • A young man can strive and strive to win a promotion only to find that the grass wasn’t greener on the other side and that the demands on him are greater and the stakes are higher if he fails 
  • A young mother can bust her guts trying to juggle all the components of her culturally perfect life (career, looks, children, marriage and friends) but never feel as though she is truly fulfilled 
If we are honest many of us run that treadmill… striving and striving for whatever it is we think will fill the hole in our heart… but the more we run… the bigger the hole gets!

God Opposes the Proud and gives Grace to the Humble
But not only do our idols fail to satisfy, they also move us closer and closer to destruction… as Haman is about to find out.  Chapter 6 begins with the king unable to sleep and so seeking solace he turns to the one source that he knows will sooth his troubled mind, the story of all the great and memorable deeds of his reign as king.  And it is into this sleepless night that God chooses to insert Himself with stunning and unmistakable timing.  Because in God’s providence the section of the annals that the servants choose to read him included Mordecai's rescue of the king from the scheme of two would-be assassins.  And so the king seeks someone to give him counsel on how to best honour Mordecai's bravery.  And Haman comes into the court to seek Mordecai's death right at the very moment the king was seeking to honour him.

Now remember it was Haman’s pride that drove him to come to the king, so it is his pride that is awoken when the king asks him how to honour someone because in Haman’s egotistical mind the king could only possibly want to honour him. And so his answer reveals the true nature of his heart’s desire: He wants royal robes (the king has worn), a royal horse to ride (the king has ridden), a royal crown and the king’s noble official to proclaim his greatness in the heart of the city… Basically Haman wants to experience the splendour and glory of being the king!

And as he unveiled this glorious celebration you get the impression that he can just taste it, that he can sense his greatest honour is there within his grasp.  But as he stands there, heart wide open to the glories that await him the king says, “Hurry; take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king's gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.” It would have felt like a knife had been plunged up under his ribs stealing his breath and ripping out his heart. Haman couldn't even bear the thought of Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate, let alone on the king’s horse, and to have the sheer indignity of serving this Mordecai and proclaiming his honour in the heart of the city; Haman’s pride died a thousand deaths in that instant!

But if Haman had known anything about the God of the Jews he would have known that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble and that God often ensures our haughty words come before a fall.  Even his wife Zeresh and his advisors recognised the hand of the Lord in this for when he arrives home and tells of his crushing shame they say, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him.”  Zeresh and his advisers understand something of the history of Yahweh’s work in this world… they know how the God of the Jews had brought down greater rulers and powers than Haman, they had heard how anyone who defied Yahweh could come to grief even when they seemed to have the victory in hand. Basically Haman’s wife tells him that his fate it sealed.  It may have just been one blow inflicted on him today, but it was indicative of his total defeat.

Gospel Irony
This story seems almost too ironic to be true:
  • Haman had made the gallows ludicrously high so that the city would see Mordecai’s demise… but instead of lifting him up onto the gallows Haman had to lift him up onto the king’s horse so the city would see his glory
  • Haman thought the only way to soothe his pride was to kill the one who wouldn't honour him… but instead he was forced to honour the one who wouldn't honour him
  • Basically Haman did everything he could to enact his greatest victory but it turned out to be his greatest defeat
But this is the way in which our God chooses to work in His world.  And it is how God chooses to reveal His most glorious victory. See the cross of Jesus Christ looked for all intents and purposes to be the greatest victory of Satan.  Like Haman, Satan thought he had Jesus right where he wanted Him; he had manipulated the situation to perfection: Judas had been turned to betray Jesus, the Pharisees had developed a murderous hatred for Jesus, the crowd was incited against Jesus, the Romans took pleasure in crucifying Jesus; Jesus seemed to be clothed in nothing but defeat, death and shame.

But the cross was not the ultimate victory of Satan... in fact it was the most glorious victory of God! And as Jesus was lifted up for all to see His shame we actually get to see His glory; the glory of the one who would give His life in our place, to defeat the powers of sin and death… to triumph over Satan himself.  And so when God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day Satan’s fate was sealed!

And do you know the only way we can be set free from the treadmill of futility, from the never ending quest of feeding our idols without ever finding satisfaction, is to realise that gospel victory will never be seen in our awesomeness, in our strength or in our victories...  The glory of the church is not in steeples and stained glass or strobe lights and rock bands or in programs or people... but the glory of the church is the seemingly inglorious cross of Jesus Christ.  And it is only when we see the one whose greatest glory was being bathed in shame, that we can lay down our quest for the earthly glory our idols promise and embrace the gospel irony of losing our life to truly find it; because true satisfaction can only be found here.

  1. Do you approach difficult situations or people with honour and dignity or with impatience, anger and frustration?
  2. What is the "treadmill of futility" in your life?  What is the thing you strive and strive to gain, investing all of your time, money and energy?  
  3. How satisfied are you by whatever it is you are chasing? 
  4. Haman's fall came after his pride built up his own perception of himself.  Have you ever experienced pride coming before a fall? 
  5. How do you feel about the reality that we must lose our life in order to find it?  Do you find it difficult letting go of the question to build up your own image?
  6. How can seeing the irony of the cross help you to abandon your quest for personal glory?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Esther Week 4 - More Valuable than Life

The following is the summary notes of week 4 of our Esther series.  Read chapter 4 and use the notes and questions below to continue in your contemplation.  You can download the audio of the sermon here. Previous week's notes are also available on this site.

Worship with Sorrow
There is a cultural awkwardness surrounding public displays of grief in our culture.  We have virtually no cultural processes, practices or postures of grief; I mean wearing black at a funeral isn't even the done thing anymore because we force one another to celebrate a life rather than mourn a death. And what this means
is that when we go through times of grief ourselves we can feel as though there is no real outlet for our sorrow. We don’t think anyone will understand, we don’t know of any ways that we can express our emotions without appearing weird, so we bottle up our hurt or we save our weeping for sleepless nights when no one else is around.

In church world it is so easy to let the cultural awkwardness surrounding grief to colour our worship.  Subtly we expect Christians going through hard times to be super-spiritual giants who can testify to how they are soldiering on in the Lord.  Basically we define 'godly grieving' by our capacity not to put other people out.

But with Mordecai we see a man who has one of the deepest trusts in God that we see in all of Scripture and yet when the news of the king's decree reaches his ears he publicly and passionately grieves.  And the whole Jewish community followed. Fasting and weeping and lamenting in sackcloth and ashes. And it is not just because it is culturally appropriate for them… it is because godly sorrow is actually worshipful. Worship is a response of the whole human being to the reality of God in any given situation. So when Mordecai looks at the dire situation that the people of God have been placed in the only honest worshipful response to God he can make is to cry out in anguish.

When a child is lost in the shopping centre she doesn't cry because she doubts her mother or because she doesn't trust her mother, she cries because she desperately wants her mother… needs her mother… because her mother is the only one who can heal her heart… Likewise Mordecai’s weeping is not because he doubts God, but because he needs God and in so many ways this is the most genuine of all worship moments. Mordecai’s tears are tears of his humble recognition that he needs something more than himself – he needs God!

And sometimes we need to be humble enough to admit that we need God… sometimes like the child lost in the shops we need to realise that our situation is so dire that God is the only one who can heal our hearts… and we need to genuinely and honestly cry out for Him in the midst of our anguish… and if we are a community of worship we need to create space for this to happen!  You might think you are displaying great godliness by suffering in silence, but you might actually be holding back genuine and honest worship from God. There may be no other place in our culture where you can be weak, where you can be broken, where you can weep bitter tears; but let me tell you now at Rosalie Church you can.

The Cost of Doing Right
The palace had sheltered Esther from the confusion and chaos of the king's decree and so when she hears of Mordecai's grief she tries to placate him with fine garments.  But they turn out to be clothes of cold comfort as Mordecai explains to her the terror that hangs over the people of God.  And so he sends a copy of the edict to Esther so that she might read it for herself and be moved to act on their behalf; to appeal to the king for their salvation.

But when Esther reads the edict and hears Mordecai’s appeal her heart must have sunk, because she knew what he was asking her to do was costly indeed.  She sends back a disappointed refusal in verse 11 telling Mordecai of the cost of his request. In fact so costly is this request that for the first time in the story she questions Mordecai’s wisdom. She doesn’t want to disobey Mordecai but she does argue that compliance is virtually impossible. The reality is that Esther stared down the barrel of public disgrace and banishment at best or at worst the death penalty if she dared to confront the king concerning the edict.

And what we have to realise is that there is always a cost for us to do the right thing.
  • A child speaking up against a bully at school will just about always find themselves in the crosshairs of that bully 
  • Sharing the truth of the gospel with a friend may jeopardise your friendship 
  • Nurses and doctors who head to Ebola infested regions of Africa put themselves right in the path of the deadly virus 
  • Missionaries who head into closed countries controlled by anti-Christian regimes to preach the gospel face the very real threat of prison, persecution and death 
Doing what we know to be right often carries a deep personal cost… and if we seek to live the kind of life that speaks up for truth, cries out for justice and gives hope to the broken we will often find ourselves in Esther’s unenviable position.;in the wrestle between knowing what is right and knowing the cost of doing it.  So most of us, if we are honest, take the easy option. We all too often bury our heads in the sand… not wanting to know about what is happening around us in case we are convicted of what needs to be done and end up facing Esther’s dilemma.   Too many of us want to live in safety and ignorance of the palace and let the brokenness of the world float by without us ever knowing.

Esther’s Courage
While I am sure Mordecai was sympathetic to Esther’s dilemma his reply delivers 3 stunning realities that, as we soon see, steel Esther’s resolve and give her the courage that both she and the people of God desperately needed:
  1. In verse 13 he reminds Esther of the her inclusion in the trials they faced.  Basically he says “Death is coming to us all Esther, so you can either face it now trying to intervene for your people or you can wait in the the palace until the appointed day when you will be swept away with us all.” The comfort and luxury of the palace may have been sheltered her from the confusion of the decree, but it wouldn't shelter her from the consequences of the decree. 
  2. In verse 14 Mordecai reminds Esther of her relative insignificance in the scope of God’s sovereign plan for His people. It’s like he is saying, “This is not about you. God is big enough to save His people whenever and through whomever He pleases. He doesn’t need you.” Mordecai knows his history and he knows the salvation of the people of God is ultimately assured by the promise of God not the courage of the people. 
  3. As verse 14 continues Mordecai asks Esther to consider the providence of God, basically saying, “You cannot ignore the way God has been at work in your life, you cannot ignore the reality that a Jewish girl is Queen of all Persia at the very time that the Persian Empire is about to crush the Jews, God might not need you Esther - but He wants you!” 
If you bring these three arguments together you see the weight of what he is saying:  See what Esther needed to know in order to gift her the courage she needed was that she was not throwing herself at the mercy of the King of Persia… she was actually casting herself into the merciful arms of the King of the universe.  Esther needed to know that while the cost of doing the right thing was high, the peace of being in God’s will, the joy of stepping into His sovereign arms and the reward of walking in His providence was infinitely greater!

Esther was now prepared to give up the comfort of the palace, to face the public shame of being stripped of her crown and cut off, to confront the very real possibility of her own death.  She was now willing to absorb the cost of doing the right thing because Mordecai had shown her something in God that was of infinitely greater value.  And so she courageously says, "I will go to the king, though it is against the law,and if I perish, I perish."

More Valuable than Life
And this morning if we hope to be a people who are able to absorb the cost of doing the right thing for the benefit of those around us.  If we want to walk in the providence of knowing that God has put us here in Rosalie for such a time as this.  Then we need to know that Jesus Christ is of far greater worth and value than any cost we might be called to bear.

And this morning Esther has shown us why.  See like Esther, but in a far greater way, Jesus showed us a joy, peace and hope more valuable than the cost of doing the right thing, no matter how steep that cost:
  • He gave up the comfort of His throne to turn away the wrath of the king
  • He didn't just risk the shame of the removal of His crown but He was actually mocked and shamed with a crown of thorns
  • He didn't just put His life on the line but He actually gave His life on the cross
For the joy set before Him, Jesus absorbed the full cost of doing what was needed so that we might be spared the wrath of the king… Jesus perished so that we don’t have to! And it is only when we have this infinitely valuable treasure Jesus that we can absorb the cost of doing what is needed in this world.

  1. Think back to the times you have gone through trial or sorrow.  Do you think you handled it well?  Did you share your burden with the church or did you think the godly response was to bear it alone?
  2. What practical things can we do as a church to foster a community that worships through sorrow?
  3. Have you ever wrestled with the cost of doing the right thing?  Did knowing the cost put you off following through with what you knew was right? 
  4. Think about your life and the situation you find yourself in right now.  What do you think God's providence has prepared you for?  Who does He want you to reach out to?  
  5. How do you feel knowing that God doesn't need you to fulfill His plans... but He does want you? 
  6. How does seeing Jesus' bearing of the cost of doing right empower you to see Him as more valuable than any cost He might ask you to absorb?