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?

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