Thursday, October 2, 2014

Esther Week 2 - Our best for the pagans

Here is a summary of the second sermon in our Esther series. You can download the sermon online and/or use this summary to help with your own study of Esther. Read Esther Chapter 2 yourself and there are some reflection questions at the bottom. You can find the week 1 summary here.

Confusion in a post-Christian world
With church attendance down, the moral standards of society changing, legislators debating laws that push a godless agenda and our tolerance obsessed society is becoming more and more intolerant of our faith... it is easy for Christians living in the west to feel as though society is slipping away from us all too quickly.  And so I sense there is great confusion, doubt and fear that surrounds us when we think about engaging the post-Christian world we now live in. 

But being in the minority is something that God’s people have often had to confront… We have our Richard Dawkins brand of atheism, godless education system and materialistic consumer society… but the people of God living in Susa had Ahasuerus!

If you remember from last week King Ahasuerus was infatuated with himself to the point of cutting off and shaming his most favoured queen because she cramped his pride.  The city of Susa and the whole nation to some degree was flavoured by the pride of their king.  So when we left the people of God last week they were living under the yoke of this proud king longing for the day of their rescue... longing for a better king!

Proud to choose another queen
Well about 3 years later we pick up the action in chapter 2 when King Ahasuerus discovers what all people obsessed with their pride eventually discover... Pride is a terrible idol.  Pride caused him to cut off his nose to spite his face.  His pride had forced him to cut of Vashti but now his pride wouldn't let him be happy without her.  He longed for someone to fill the void left by Vashti.  So his advisers propose that a whole bunch of hot women are rounded up and taken to a palace where they will be pampered and vie for the affection of an overly rich king who will choose one of them to make his wife... no this is not "The Bachelor Susa"... it is a contest that no one would really want to be in.

Think about it.  How would you feel if you were a young virgin and you were told that you were to spend a night with the king and then in all likelihood spend the rest of your days living in the harem as property of the king... as spent goods... never fulfilling your dream of getting married, starting a family in the normal way?  That was the fate of the women in this contest... unless they won.  And if they won they were faced with the prospect of having to please the king or, like Vashti, they would be thrown on the rubbish heap, shamed publicly... or worse.

Esther appears
It is into this contest that our heroine first appears... and straight away we are drawn by the storyteller to make a stark comparison between the king and Esther and her cousin Mordecai.  Where the king had everything go his way in life and even if it didn't he cast others away to get it... Esther and Mordecai have known nothing but trial.  Living far from their homeland, oppressed and bearing the pain of lost loved ones... 

But when Esther is thrust into the centre of this contest we see that instead of kicking up a stink and whinging for their own way Mordecai allows her to go... allows her to go into the palace of the proud king where her whole life might be swallowed up and rendered useless by the fickle king... and Esther goes in obedience and trust.

Where we wrestle and complain against the pagan world as it encroaches more and more on our lives... or we pull back in and hide from it to protect our own... Mordecai and Esther embrace their situation with courage and trust in the timing and providence of God... and so Esther is cast out into the centre of our story... and as providence would have it, the centre of God's purposes.  And so as we meet Mordecai and Esther we will see how we can live as a minority in and among our world... because God's purposes are rarely found in retreat.

Invest rather than impose
While God does want us living in and among the pagan society we find ourselves in, He does not want us going out blind.  And Mordecai certainly did not let Esther go into the palace unaware.  You get the impression throughout the chapter that Mordecai has fathered Esther with great affection and wisdom.  Twice we are told that Esther obeyed Mordecai’s instructions without question and we know this comes from love not fear because twice we see that Mordecai cared so much for Esther that he made his way to the palace every day to find out how she was travelling.  

Sometimes we get so busy trying to protect our children or fellow church members from the big bad pagan world that we invest more time in fighting off the world than we do in them. And we end up just enforced on them the rules and restrictions of traditional Christianity obscuring the joy, hope and peace of the gospel.  We impose regulations on people rather than investing Jesus into people! If we learn anything from Mordecai’s raising of Esther it is that it came in the context of a personal relationship based on love and trust. He invested rather than imposing ...
  • Parents… we need to impart a faith to our children that is more concerned with the person of Jesus than the rigours of religion 
  • Church… we need to disciple one another in a way that invests love rather than imposes rules 
  • Brothers and sisters… we need to care so deeply for one another that we will seek them out in the world in which they walk and pray for, encourage and guide them
Living out our faith in a pagan world requires us to model true living faith in Jesus to one another rather than cold moralism… we need to model faith in God not fear of the world and assurance that comes from trust in Jesus not trust in the external code of the law.

Esther gives her best
The first we hear of Esther we see that Mordecai's investment in her was worth it.  We see her walk into a situation that would have been a daunting and even terrifying prospect.  She was forced to win the affections of a pagan king who was obsessed with himself.  In fact she may have found the situation repulsive.  And yet she doesn't cower in the corner... she doesn't protest... she doesn't ever just give a half-baked effort; she gives her best!

In fact this chapter paints Esther as a young woman growing in many qualities that endear her to the people of the palace; Esther grows in winsomeness… the more we get to know here the more people she wins over:
  • In verse 9 she wins over Hegai the guardian the king placed over the women
  • In verse 15 she wins over everyone she meets in palace
  • And in verse 17 she wins over the king himself causing him end the contest by declaring Esther the winner and placing the crown on her head 
  • But it was not just his eye or affection that she won... her winsomeness changed him ever so slightly.  Because for the first time in his reign Ahasuerus does something to honour someone else.  He throws a feast for Esther... it is called "Esther's Feast"
Despite being in a situation that most would find repulsive… despite being at the whim of a proud pagan king… Esther, a young Jewish girl, chooses to express her faith in Yahweh not through protest or debate… not through aggressively standing up for her rights… but Esther proved her faith in God by giving her winsome best for God as a gift to the pagan world.

And she surely learned this from Mordecai who also gives his best for the king.  From verses 19-23 we learn that Mordecai overhears an assassination plot against the king.  Now Ahasuerus was the pagan king who reigned over the Jews, a proud, ruthless and horrid king and this assassination plot was really the king's own doing (when you elevate yourself at the expense of others you make a lot of enemies) so Mordecai, as a Jew, would have been tempted to simply forget that he overheard the plot and leave the king to face an unknown threat to his life… But Mordecai acts swiftly to spare the king death because he believed that God wanted him to give his best… even if it was to a pagan king.

God wants us to give our best to the world
Traditionally Christians have seemed to desire to give their best on Sunday while they are at church.  The feeling was that you should give your best on Sunday because we should save our best for God. But God is not confined to church services and God’s call on our lives extends beyond Sunday!
In fact I would rather you are unable to give your best at church on Sunday because you have been giving your best all week out there in the pagan world. Because God wants us to be the best we can be in the contexts that He has placed us in... the best nurse, accountant, speech therapist, chef, photographer, teacher you can be... He wants us to look out for the people around us and give our best so they can prosper and thrive in life… Why? Because He wants us to be winsome people…
  • God wants you to give your best to the pagan world in order to win the pagan world… 
  • God knows the world will not be won through condemnation and judgmentalism 
  • God knows the world will not be won through His people pulling back 
  • God knows the world will not be won through half-measures and false care 
God gave His best
And we know God knows all this because it is how He chose to win the world…
When the pagan world was ignorant of Him… and even when His people the Jews had deserted Him… When the whole world stood opposed to Him… God gave His best!  God gave Jesus… His most precious Son… the One with whom He shared perfect glory, joy and love… God gave His best to a rebellious world in order to win a rebellious world.  And Jesus gave His best to those He walked among… His best teaching, His best miracles, His best love and compassion… Jesus held nothing back from the world even when they hated Him. Ultimately Jesus gave His best on the cross as He absorbed all of our hate and rebellion and still said, “Father forgive them…”

It is only when you see this Jesus… when you see God’s best, given to a pagan world, that you can give your best to a pagan world.

  1. Spend some time thinking through the workplace, university, school or neighbourhood that you dwell in.  What are the aspects of life in these places that are most challenging or confronting?
  2. Be honest, have you tended to shy away from these places and go into protection mode while you are there? 
  3. Are you more likely to want to protect and pull back your children or other loved ones when it comes to their engagement with the world?
  4. How can you invest Jesus into people around you rather than imposing regulations?
  5. In what ways have you found yourself giving less than your best to the world?  How can knowing Jesus encourage and empower you to give your best to this broken world? Name a couple of situations where you can help others to prosper.and thrive.

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