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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Lonely Center







            It seems human thought on any major issue subscribes to a binary worldview.  You’re either “this” or you are “that.”  And “this” is defined by the ways it is not “that.”  The original Star Trek series even did an episode depicting the ludicrous places such “this or that” takes us.  Captain Kirk and The Enterprise crew encounter a planet that is at war. 
            The people of this planet are completely black and white.  One half of their bodies is pure white.  The other half is pure black.  Captain Kirk looks at them, perplexed, and asks why they are killing each other.  Bele[i] is confused by Kirk’s question.  “Why do hate I them?” He asks Captain Kirk.  “Just look at them!” 
Kirk doesn’t understand.  He says, “But, they look just like you!”
Enraged, Bele responds, “They are black on the left side!  We are white on the left side, black on the right side!  It’s entirely different.”
Later in the show, Bele is locked in mortal combat with his antagonist.  His foe yells at him, “I’ll kill you, you half-white.”  Bele shouts back “You miserable half-black.”
Any reasonable person can see how idiotic this is.  Most people have the ability to be reasonable.  Yet last week, a crowd cheered our president as he mocked a sexual assault victim.  No one in the crowd had any evidence that showed Christine Blasey Ford fabricated her claims against Brett Kavanaugh.  The reason they supported the president is the people in that crowd decided it is in their best interest to be on the president’s side. 
Never mind that sexual assault has been a scourge on justice and on women and on vulnerable people in our country for all of our history.  Only now are women raising their voices in a way that says this evil must stop.  Many in that crowd who laughed at President Trump’s derision of Ms. Ford have themselves been victims of violent sexual assault.  Yet, they laughed because their side was laughing.
On the other side, those who oppose President Trump have not effectively proven that Kavanaugh assaulted Dr. Ford.  As I thought about it, I thought about the immature ways I used to goof off with my female friends in college.  We would should pies in one another’s’ faces, give piggy back rides, and sometimes wrestle around.  And we hugged.  Considering how sexually active college students are now (and were when I was in college), my own experiences sound childishly na├»ve.  But I don’t know if in the midst of innocent shenanigans I have touched a woman in a way that she did not like but was afraid to say.  I was not sexually active, but did I inadvertently hurt someone?  Democrats and feminists have not proven Kavanaugh did anything or intended to. 
It’s OK to say, I believe Judge Kavanaugh.  That doesn’t mean one needs to mock Dr. Ford.  It’s OK to believe Dr. Ford.  That doesn’t mean one has to damn Judge Kavanaugh.
But the loudest voices in our society do.  The voices of those who sit in the center and consider all perspectives are drowned out so that all that is heard are the extremes.  This bipolarity is claiming rule in churches.
In this first quarter of the 21st century, the issue ripping American churches apart is the status of LGBTQ persons.  Can they be full participants, including ordained ministers?  Will the church perform same-sex marriages?  These would be welcoming and affirming churches.  Or, if the church defines Homosexuality as sinful based on Biblical norms for marriage and human sexuality, must the church then segregate LGBTQ persons as “them.”  Doing this, then must that church restrict the participation of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church? 
Is it possible to be a church that includes people who think the Bible says homosexuality is sinful and people who are in same-sex marriages?  Can people from both groups exists as brothers and sisters in Christ in a church?  Or must the church decide for one group and against the other? 
I sit in the middle on most issues.  I can see the reasons people on each side feel the way they do. Being in the middle doesn’t mean I don’t have a position.  I almost always do.  And I feel as strongly about my position as do those at the opposing poles.  But, I don’t feel that just because you and I differ in opinion we have to be on opposite sides.  
·         I’m pro-life, to the extreme.  You’re pro-choice, no compromise!  You and I can sit together in church and sing songs of praise and worship side-by-side.  I know God hears your praise and loves you as much God loves me. 
·         I’m a believer in affirmative action.  You oppose it.  Maybe we’ll have heated conversations about it, but in the end, we can be united in Christ.  We can be a part of the same church family, brothers to each other. 
·         I believe the Bible clearly says homosexuality is sinful.  You’re a woman married to another woman.  You and I can say the Lord’s Prayer together.   Though we differ on the issue, we are united in Christ.
·         I know “white privilege” is one of the great of evils of systemic racism that renders our country broken and threatens to make true justice for all people impossible.  You reject the notion of systemic racism and you insist you have never benefited from any type of privilege.  We strongly disagree.  We can still serve each other communion, the body and bread of Christ.  Even with our differences, we have this in common. We desperately need the life Jesus gives and the only way we get there is through Him.  It’s true for us both. 

The Center is becoming a dreadfully lonely place.  I know am I not the only one occupying space in the center.  But there are fewer people here than at the poles.  Newer Christian writers and evangelical bloggers desire to share Christ evangelically and to work for social justice and compassion.  They insist on Biblical Christianity and they love all people including LGBTQ persons.  These new evangelicals don’t fit the Left-Right bipolar paradigm. In their books and blogs, they often search for a “third way.”  That’s probably a futile effort.  Most human beings are more likely to revert to the base simplicity of the poles than to live in the dangerous tension of the uncertain middle.  In the middle, all views are respectfully, thoughtfully considered.  I don’t think there is such a thing as a “third way.”
What I am coming to understand is that the middle is difficult.  It requires that faith and wisdom (reason) wed.  The middle demands that those who live there think things through, wrestle with beliefs, and give love – the love of Christ – fully to all.  People in the middle are there because they choose to be there.  They find blessing in the other middle-dwellers they meet.  And they come to learn (I have come to learn) that the only true seekers are the people willing to venture from the simplistic safety of the poles to the treacherous tempest in the middle. 
So why do it?  Why live in the middle?  I can only give one reason.  The God who reaches to people in the middle is infinitely bigger than the small god of the poles.  The God in the middle exhibits deeper love, more extensive grace, and more transforming compassion.  I want to know that God.  There are days that I absolutely hate the middle.  That I am writing this probably tips you off that today is one of those days.  But I won’t flee to a pole just because I am feeling sad right now.  The God who can truly lift me out of this funk and make me become a better me is here.  The God who will show me how to love as He loves me is here.  Yes, the middle is hard.  And it is where I belong. 


[i] Bele was played by Frank Gorshin, the actor who depicted the Riddler on the 1960’s Batman tv series; https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0331319/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cl_t13

Monday, October 8, 2018

God has Spoken (Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12)





            Who is Jesus?  Pose the question to your neighbor and you’ll get one answer.  Ask someone else and it will be a different answer.  If you ask friend who doesn’t go to church, and she knows you do, she might feel pressure, thinking you’re looking for a “right answer.”  If we went around the room here and had every person write down their response, we’d get a number of different ideas.  Many would be similar to one another, but there would be different points of emphasis.  Even among 80-100 people who worship in the same church every week, the answers to such a basic question, who is Jesus, would vary.
            We won’t get a complete answer to this seemingly short question in the verses we read in Hebrews this morning.  To get a full picture, we’d have to go through the Old Testament, the four Gospels and Acts, Paul’s letters, and the rest of the New Testament to see it.  And we’d have to understand everything we read and have the capacity to hold together all the aspects of who Jesus is.  The short question is bigger than any we could possibly answer.
            But, please try.  Get a pen and the section of your bulletin for comments, and begin writing your definition of who Jesus is.  It might be worth it to spend the entire time this morning writing your understanding of Jesus.  Your faith life might get a boost if you take what you write here this morning and continue working on it throughout the upcoming week.  Who is Jesus?
            Hebrews 1 doesn’t give the complete answer, but it does give an important part. 
            Hebrews is regarded as an epistle, a New Testament letter, but it’s really a theological treatise which begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”  For a moment, stop to digest the claim made here.  God has spoken to us.
            The Raiders of the Lost Ark tells of the adventurous World War II era archaeologist Indiana Jones.  He has to fight Nazis and escape from tombs full of poisonous snakes in order to find his way to God.  When he finally gets to the point that the ark is opened, he has to close his eyes.  It’s too much to see.  In one of the Star Trek movies, the Enterprise under the leadership of Captain James T. Kirk flies beyond the reaches of known space in search for God. 
            You and I cannot match the exploits of the great Indiana Jones, and you and I are not even archaeologists.  We’re not starship captains, and in fact there aren’t really starships, and truth be told, there is no edge of known space.  But these and dozens of other fantastic stories tell the same story, one believed by a lot of people, maybe many who here.  We accept this notion that God is “out there,” “inaccessible,” “unreachable.” 
            In a sense, it’s true.  Human beings cannot work their way to God or figure God out.  But, as Hebrews asserts, there have been prophets.  God has spoken through the mouths of those prophets.  We made this point a few months ago as we studied the prophet Hosea.  God wants us to know His heart and mind.  God has sent prophets.  God has given the Bible.  God has given visions to people like Daniel and Peter and Paul.  We don’t need to undertake a harrowing, death-defying quest.  We need to sit and listen because God has spoken to us.  I am not sure people who don’t participate in church or read the Bible know this.   God loves us and wants us to know it. 
            The primary concern[i] of the author of Hebrews is to show that while in the past God has spoken through prophets and scriptures and kings and priests, in the last days, God speaks through the Son.  The New Testament perspective is that the resurrection of Jesus initiates the “last days,” the end times.  The era of the church, which we are now in, is the prelude to the end of history.  We don’t know when Christ will return to initiate the final resurrection, but we believe he will, and we believe we are living in the end times.  There’s no telling how long it might be, but we are in the last days, God is the communicator, and Jesus is the messages and the way the message is communicated. 
As you’re working on your own answer to the question “who is Jesus,” maybe a part of the answer is this.  Jesus is God’s means of communication.  God is the communicator and shares with us truth, and Jesus is the message but also is the medium, the way the communication is conveyed. 
            He is called “the son” in Hebrews 1 and then is named in 2:9.  The Hebrews author declares 7 affirmations, truths about the person, work, and status of God the Son.  First, the Son is heir of all things.  God bequeaths to His Son, the Lord Jesus, possessions of everything in existence. Second, all that God created, the entire universe, every living thing – all of it – was made through the Son.  Third, when we see Jesus, we see God. “He is the reflection of God’s glory, and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3).  Fourth, also in verse 3, Jesus sustains all things.  Colossians 1:17 says, “in him all things hold together.  Jesus is creator and sustainer. 
            A fifth affirmation of Jesus the Son in the opening verses of Hebrews is purification; sin taints God’s good creation, but Jesus purifies us, washing our sin away and putting his holiness on us.  The theme of Jesus’ covering of our sins introduced in 1:3 will develop in much greater detail throughout Hebrews. 
The sixth affirmation follows the sequence of the Gospel story.  Jesus purifies us in his death on the cross, taking the penalty for our sins on himself.  After the cross and burial, he was resurrected.  After resurrection and appearing to the apostles, he ascended and now sits in body at the right hand of God the Father.  God is currently present in the world through God the Spirit.  The Son is currently in Heaven and will return in His glorified body at the end to inaugurate the final resurrection. 
Seventh and finally, the Son is superior to the angels.  They carry God’s messages to human beings.  They are not restrained by the limits of natural law.  Angels seem vastly superior to us, but, we, not angels, are the ones created in the image of God.  And Jesus, God in human flesh – fully man and fully God at the same time – lived the perfect human life.  He goes before us as the superior one, worshiped by and by Angels too.    
·         Heir of all things
·         Agent of Creation for everything that exists
·         Reflection of God
·         Sustainer of all things
·         The one who makes sinful human beings pure and holy
·         Seated at the right hand of the Father
·         Above all supernatural, heavenly beings

This is the Jesus we meet in Hebrews chapter 1, the means of God’s communication.  He is the messenger and the message.  To hear what God is trying to say, we must listen to Jesus. 
Hebrews 2 adds that though Jesus is now crowned with glory, he has gone through suffering and death.  God is immortal; God cannot die.  Yet in Jesus, God shed divinity and took on human flesh and like you and me was vulnerable to disease, hunger, heartbreak, disappointment, and sorrow.  The end of 2:9 says he tasted death for everyone; for you; for me.  The Son completely identifies with our greatest struggles; sometimes people see pain and evil running rampant throughout the world and have a hard time believing a good God could possibly exist.  In Jesus, that good God suffered in every way that humans do. 
This leads to the third part of the conversation in Hebrews.  It’s the old adage: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noisy crash.  It’s a simple equation for sound.   There has to be a sender, a medium, and a receiver.  The sound waves are produced, they travel through something – air, solid material, water – something.  And then the sound is completed when the sound waves are received.  So, God speaks and the sound travels through Jesus.  Who’s the recipient?  God’s church. 
The moments of divine communication in the Bible fall within the bounds of religious practice.  When Peter met the Roman Cornelius, Cornelius had been praying in an attempt to connect to Judaism’s God.  When Philip baptized the eunuch from Ethiopia, the man had been reading Israel’s scriptures.  When Jesus confronted Saul the Pharisee on the road, Saul’s work of arresting Christians for being Christians was an act of the synagogue.    The reason so many people embrace spirituality while rejecting organized religion is we all have a longing for God, but the church, like human institutions, is broken.
Still, Jesus, the holy God, took on frail human flesh.  The Holy Spirit started the church in the synagogue through flawed people like Peter, Philip, and Paul, and non-Jews like the Ethiopian and the centurion.  Yes, our church in particular and churches in general are imperfect, flawed, and broken. But the God Indian Jones battled Nazis and vipers to find has reached to human beings – those in the church.  God has spoken through Jesus to the church.
This is not to say that God ignores people outside the church.  Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world.  God sends us to the world first and foremost to announce that people can have forgiveness of sin and salvation from death when they turn to Jesus.  That is the great commission: go and make disciples of people who don’t know God.  Yes, God loves the world.
God’s starting point is the word He has spoken through Jesus to the church.  Hebrews was a theological essay written for persecuted Christians in order to encourage them by clarifying their knowledge of the Savior, Christ Jesus our Lord. 
Begin developing your answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?”  Read Hebrews.  And for that view of the exalted, divine Son, read Colossians 1 and Revelation and the Gospel of John 1.  To move through the exciting, surprising twists and turns of God walking in human flesh, read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the rest of John.  Jesus is the God who loves you and me, the one who gives us life.  I urge each one of us this to invest time in re-discovering Him.
AMEN



[i] George Guthrie (1988), The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI), p.54.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A Vision of Church Comes to Life




A Biblical Vision of Church Comes Alive

Revelation 5:6-10
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
    saints from[b] every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving[c] our God,
    and they will reign on earth.”

            In Revelation 5, John of Patmos shares the vision he has of Heaven.  There he sees “the Lamb,” Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected, reigning in Heaven at the right hand of the Father.  He sees “living creatures,” strange, Heavenly beings.  He sees 24 elders.  And the prayers of all the people who have been a part of God’s church, “the saints” are held in golden bowls. 
            The Heavenly witness declare that the Lamb, Jesus, is worthy to reveal the secrets of Heaven because he has died on the cross and in doing so provided salvation (“ransom”) for God’s people.  God’s people comprise the church and come from “every tribe, language, and nation” (5:9d).  The international community of Christ worshipers will become a kingdom of priests reigning on earth.
            Digest this image as you think about your own experience in church.  My church is currently examining God’s call on us as a community united in the name of Jesus.  From the picture in Revelation we lay hold to certain realities about our community.  First, we are absolutely dependent upon Jesus.  These “saints” were in Heaven because Jesus shed his blood for their sins. These saints are us.  We are who we are because of what Jesus did.  We are united by what Christ has done for us and by our faith in Him.
            Second, the church comes from “every tribe and language and people and nation.”  The very first Christ followers were Palestinian Jews (brown-skinned Middle Easterners).  However, with the coming of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2), the church has expanded in all directions.  Today, people from every nation are included in God’s church.  No group is privileged.  Our church and every church must bear witness to the vision of church cast in Revelation.  If a church exists in an ethnically diverse place, that congregation must reflect the diversity in the community in its membership.   
            Third, the crucified, risen Lamb give purpose to the church.  “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God” (5:10).  Our church’s (and church’s) purpose is to help people who are not following Jesus know of his love and grace. We tell the Gospel story and help people move from being unbelievers to salvation to becoming disciples.  We fight for the poor and persecuted because we see throughout scripture God’s care for and advocacy for those who are disadvantaged and marginalized.  To be “priests” is to stand as a mediator between a fallen, lost world and the Holy God.  We tell the truth about the sin but also, we announce the hope that we have in Christ. 
            In identifying ourselves as a church, we know we are saved, we know we welcome and all are intentional about diversity and universal welcome, and we know that we are sent to share the good news of Jesus with the people who make up our surrounding community.  United in this mission, we see the picture of Revelation 5 come to life in our gathering.  In our prayers, our worship, our fellowship, and in our acts of service and mercy, Revelation 5 becomes our lived reality.

"God at Work Behind the Scenes" (Esther)







           Think of your favorite story.  A fairy tale?  Little Red Riding Hood?  An epic fantasy?  Lord of the Rings?  An American classic?  Wizard of Oz?  I have a suggestion for a favorite story, one that would appeal to literary scholars and middle school readers alike: the story of Esther, a book in the Bible we don’t read in church very often.
            Esther is set in the 400’s, the 5th century BC, in the city of Susa, one of the four capitals of the ancient Persian Empire.  In 586 BC, the Babylonians defeated God’s chosen people, the ancient Jews.  The Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, leveled the great temple Solomon had built, and then enslaved the young, educated class of Jews.  They were taken into exile. 
            Within the next century, the coalition of the Media-Persian Empire overthrew the Babylonians.  Ancient Israel did not become independent under Persian rule, but they did enjoy greater freedoms.  The story is detailed in the Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  Ezra re-established the Law of Moses in Jerusalem.  Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of the city.  God promised his people when they were taken into Babylonian exile that they would one day return.  Ezra and Nehemiah tell of that return.
            However, many Jews, heeding the words of the great prophet Jeremiah, forged a life for themselves in Babylon.  They found that even though the temple was destroyed and they were displaced, no longer living in the land God had promised to Abraham, they could still be the people of God.  The Judaism that developed in that exile community is closer to the way Jews live out faith today.  Esther is the story of Jews who stayed in Persia. 
            The book itself has been the subject numerous debates over the centuries.  There are no miracles in the book of Esther.  There’s no king in the line of David.  There’s no prophet.  There are no messianic hints.  And God is never mentioned.  Why is this in the Bible?
            Also, is Esther a historical account or a fictional account?  I can’t answer that question.  There may have been an ancient Jew named Hadassah, who took the Persian name ‘Esther,’ who through remarkable circumstances rose to prominence in the circles of Persian royalty.  Something like that might have happened in history.  There are no Persian records of a Jewish slave rising to the status of queen, but strange things happen in history.  Whether she is a historical figure, the story as it is written in the Bible is clearly intended to be a farce. 
            This is the story.
            It opens with the Persian King Ahasuerus.  He was actually called Xerxes, but the writers of Esther call him Ahasuerus, which in Hebrew sounds like “King Headache.”  King Headache holds a banquet for 180 days.  One hundred eighty days.  That’s some party!  Throughout the revelry, the king wants to display all his wealth and splendor to his guests, including his wife Vashti.  She refuses to prance around the stage so that the king can be made to look good.  In an act of brazen independence, Vashti defies the king.  His advisors tell him Vashti must be disposed of because if other women see her defiance, they will think they don’t have to listen to their husbands (1:15-17).  Note this!  King Headache does not make any decisions anywhere in this story.  He’s presented as being all-powerful, yet throughout the story, he does what others tell him.
            Vashti’s act of feminism leads to her divorce, and the king needs a new queen.  All the young virgins of the kingdom, from all the exiled peoples are taken into a harem. These women will go through 1 year of beauty treatments.  A year!  Extreme exaggeration is the clearest indicator of what kind of story this is.  A 6-month orgy in the king’s palace?  Is that even possible? Who’s running the kingdom?  A year’s worth of beauty treatments?  Absurd!  
Included in this group of women recruited is Esther.  While she is going through her treatments, we meet other characters.  Mordecai, a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, is her uncle and is the one who raised her from early childhood.  We learn that this Mordecai discovers a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus, “King Headache.”  He saves the Persian King’s life.  This hero’s great act is never recognized by the king.
Hamen is an Agagite and is part of the king’s royal court.  He wants to acquire as much power and glory for himself as he possibly can. He manipulates the king into seriously stupid decisions.
So we have Mordecai the hero and uncle of Esther, and we have Hamen, the ambitious one who will do whatever it takes to advance himself.  The rivalry between the tribe of Benjamin and the Agagites goes all the way back to 1 Samuel 15.  There, the Lord commanded Israel’s first King, King Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, to kill all the Amalekites.  Saul did but disobeyed God by sparing the Amalakite King, King Agag.  Saul ended up dying in shame as a failed king of Israel.  Now here we are in Esther, centuries later, and a descendant of Saul, Mordecai, faces a descendant of Agag, Hamen.
Hamen struts around the city like a peacock, expecting everyone to take notice and bow in obeisance.  Mordecai will give him no such deference.  Hamen becomes enraged that this Jewish exile refuses to rise for him.  While this is happening, Esther has risen to the top of the harem and has been selected queen.  Yet, King Headache did not know she was Jewish. She, Hadassah, had taken the Persian name of Esther. 
In his fury at Mordecai, Hamen convinces the king to make a law – a law that cannot be revoked.  The “lot” (or dice) was cast; also called the “Pur.”  On the 13th day of the 12th month, the month of Adar, all Jews everywhere would be completely destroyed.  Haman wasn’t going to just get revenge on Mordecai.  He would kill all Jews for Mordecai’s insolence.  Haman volunteers 10,000 talents to cover the costs of the Jewish extermination (3:9).  By the way, that’s more money than the entire Persian Empire would take in in taxes in an entire year; another example of the preposterous proportions that show this to be a tale to be a satire.  An additional example is the stake on which Haman plans to impale Mordecai.  Besides annihilating the Jews, Haman plans to impale Mordecai on a gallows stake.  He builds it 7 stories tall.  Whoever heard of a gallows 7 stories high?  That’s taller by far than any of the buildings of ancient Persia. 
King Headache sealed the letters that made this decree an irrevocable law.  Of course, he did not know he was sealing the fate of his new queen he loved so much. 
Then the dopey king can’t sleep.  Restless with insomnia, he has his royal attendants read to him the records of the court.  They read the account of Mordecai saving him from the assassins.  He asks, what reward has been given to this Jewish hero.  When he is told that nothing has been done for Mordecai, he feels this wrong must be corrected.  But, remember, King Headache has no original thoughts.  So he asks Haman what should be done for one the king wishes to honor (6:6).  Haman assumes the king wants to honor him, so he says the honoree should be paraded the streets in royal robes.  King Headache loves this idea.  He tells Haman to make it happen for Mordecai. 
There’s Haman running alongside the horse ridden by Mordecai, his hated enemy.  There’s Haman proclaiming’s Mordecai’s greatness (6:10).
Shamed, he is more determined than ever to bring about Mordecai’s ruin along with the absolute destruction of all Jews everywhere.  Mordecai has told Esther, she must do something.  So she tells him to have all the Jews fast while she breaks the rules.  No one is supposed to go the king unless invited in by the king.  She goes to him unbidden.  She could be killed for such an act.  But King Headache isn’t that decisive.  And he’s completely smitten with his beautiful young Jewish queen.  He offers to give whatever she asks.  She asks that he and Haman join her for a banquet – the king, the queen, and Haman. 
They all happily oblige.  We pick up the story in Esther chapter 7.

So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”[a]Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” 10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.


            With the problem of Haman resolved, Esther sets about the work of saving her people – God’s chosen people.  Because the decree to exterminate the Jews is irrevocable, all that can be done is issue another decree, one allowing them to defend themselves.  This they did.  Esther 9:5 says, “So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering and destroying them.”
            Slaughter and destroy are not necessarily words that come to mind when we open the Bible looking for good news from God.  Take these words in the scope of the entire story not just of Esther but of the Jewish people.  Egyptians in Moses’ day enslaved them.  Assyrians in the days of the Northern Kingdom tried to completely wipe them out through displacement and intermarrying.  Here in the story, this Agagite, Haman planned a complete genocide of the Jewish people.  And the earliest readers of Esther, the first community of Jews to the read the story as scripture were being severely persecuted by the Ptolemies in Israel in the second century BC. 
            Throughout their history, the chosen people of God have been threatened, displaced, exiled, buillied, and murdered.  Remember that word I mentioned – Pur?  Hamen cast his lot.  He rolled the dice to kill the Jews.  And his intent for destruction ended in his death and celebration by the people he sought to wipe out.  The story of Esther is the source of Purim, the only Jewish festival not mentioned in the Torah, the Law of Moses.  The Jewish Study Bible says,
Purim is a carnivalesque holiday, replete with mock reenactments of the Esther story, partying and excessive drinking, carnivals and masquerades, and a general sense of frivolity uncharacteristic of Jewish festivals.  The Talmud encourages one to get so drunk that one cannot distinguish between [cries of] “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai.”
[The book of Esther] sets the tone for the Purim holiday, “days of feasting and merrymaking” and initiates customs like sending gifts to friends and neighbors and presents to the poor.[i]

            Having faced destruction so many times in their history, the Jews, our forefathers in faith, see the threat as a time for God to show Himself true to his promises.  And so, to commemorate God’s provision, they have a supreme party in which they remember rescue from genocide.
Of course in the 20th century, the greatest of historic threats to Jews came in the form of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.  At Auschwitz and the other death camps, the book of Esther was strictly forbidden, and Jews would recite it to each other from memory.  God may not be mentioned in the book, but the Germans understood the story’s power.   Esther declares that God will always deliver His people and God’s people will never vanish from the face of the earth.
Esther must be read in relation to other books of scripture.  Alone it cannot stand.  But, when seen as one chapter in the grand narrative of creation-sustenance-salvation, it is a key work for all believers.  Christians especially read Esther with an eye toward the Gospel and the eternal salvation we have in Jesus.
As Paul writes in Romans 8,
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

            In the midst of natural disasters like Hurricane Florence, it can be hard to see God from here.  In the middle of an impossibly toxic politic environment, as was displayed this past week in the Supreme Court nominee hearings, it’s hard to believe God is among us.  When we see the suffering in some of the poorest, most war-torn places like Yemen and Syria, we ask, “Where is God?”  Maybe you’re dealing with your own individual crisis that threatens your faith.
            Facing certain death, Esther fasted and prayed and acted.  The Apostle Paul promised in word inspired by the Holy Spirit, nothing can separate us from the love of God that we have in Christ. 
            Allow these stories to penetrate your heart. God is at work in your life, sometimes behinds the scenes, but always to your benefit.  God loves you and has His hand on you.  Seek Him and trust Him. 
AMEN


[i] Adele Berlin (2004) in The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press (New York), p.1623.