War & Conflict

This was my sermon this morning on Esther 9:1-16.

It has often been said that we live, today, in the midst of a “culture of death.”  We afford no legal rights to the unborn.  We have perhaps the most-armed populace of any developed country in the world.  And there are almost weekly incidents now of killings at home and broad – by terrorists, by tribal wars, by border skirmishes, even by policemen.  In all this, people generally agree that killing is bad and peace is good, but then you get some people saying that killing is wrong unless I’m really really angry, then it’s okay.  Or you get other people saying that killing is wrong unless the other guy had it coming.  Forgiveness, peace, and love are nice ideals, but when push comes to shove, sometimes you’ve just gotta shoot the bad guys.  That assumes, of course, that we know who the bad guys actually are.

Into this fray of confusion over how to handle killing, murder, and war, comes the Gospel.  The Good News of Jesus Christ is a radical message of love, the story of God’s quest to rescue the world from sin and death.  You could say that Christianity is a pacifistic religion, showing the way of peace in the imitation of Christ.  He taught us to love and forgive our enemies, and demonstrated that by allowing himself to be captured, tortured, and brutally executed on the Cross.  The Church ever since has recognized the powerful witness of martyrdom, and most of the great Christian heroes (at least the early ones) were in fact martyrs.  Of all the ways someone can come to be recognized as an official Saint in the Church, martyrdom is the most surefire way.  A life of radical non-violence instantly became a major feature of the Christian witness.

But soon after, as Christians occupied political offices and the unimaginable happened – one Roman Emperor converted to the faith and another made Christianity the official state religion – and a new dimension of Christian ethics had to be explored: what role does the State have in handling death?  When is war justified?  Is all killing murder, or can a distinction be drawn?  Christian theories of Just War were quickly developed in the Early Church, though how that translated to the level of the individual Christian often remained contentious through history.  Despite tolerating and allowing war and even capital punishment under certain conditions, Christianity keeps coming back to its underlying foundation of pacifism.  Saint Paul captured this tension perfectly in his letter to the Romans: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:18).

These issues of war and peace are not just puzzles of Christian theology, the people of God in the Old Testament also had a long history of struggle with this challenge.  So before we get to our sermon text in Esther chapter 9, I want to take you on a brief tour through the Torah – the law and teaching of the Mosaic Covenant which governed the people of God through ‘till Christ’s day.

Torah

There is no one single passage in the books of Moses that sets out all the rules for warfare in ancient Israel.  Deuteronomy chapter 20 is one of the foundational chapters, but there is information scattered throughout the books of Moses on the subject.  Two types of wars can be gleaned from these laws.  One is a regular war of defense: God’s people had many enemies and frequently had to defend themselves from invasion.  In that sort of war the leaders could draft up an army, the soldiers could be paid, and plundering the enemy encampments or towns was permitted.

The second type of war could be called a Holy War.  This was much more restricted in how it was to be carried out:

  1. All the soldiers were to be volunteers, nobody could be drafted.
  2. The soldiers were not to be paid; the reward was in the victory itself.
  3. Even further, no plunder could be taken; everything belonged to God.
  4. Holy War was only for the conquest or re-conquest of the promised land.  No conquest beyond the God-given borders was permitted.
  5. Holy War could only be waged at God’s direct call.
  6. Furthermore, it took a Prophet to announce God’s call to war.
  7. The battle belongs to the Lord.  Ideally this meant that the size of the Israelite army didn’t matter, and casualties would only happen if they somehow broke God’s laws in the course of the war.
  8. Because Holy War was a religious undertaking, prayer and fasting accompanied the battle preparations.
  9. The enemy was to be totally annihilated.  The Promised Land was promised for the people of God, so all the peoples who rejected God were to be removed.
  10. If any Israelites broke these rules, they became enemies of God worthy of destruction also.
  11. Exceptions could be made, such as if a people marked for destruction agreed to convert to faith in the true God.

Most examples of Holy War in the Old Testament are found in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel.  There you can find examples of when things went well (especially under Joshua’s leadership) and lots of examples of when things didn’t go well.  Earlier in this series through the book of Esther I mentioned that Mordecai is a descendant of King Saul of Israel, and that Saul had failed to comply with the Holy War laws of total destruction.  By letting one of the enemy kings live, he not only disobeyed God’s laws in subduing the promised land, but also left a family of hostile people who continued their hatred of God’s people which eventually produced Haman, who very nearly wiped out the Jews in return!

Esther’s Holy War

Now, all this talk of Holy War provides us an important backdrop for understanding what’s going on in the first half of Esther chapter 9.  As with many stories in the Bible, there are both good examples and bad examples of faithfulness to God’s laws in this story.  When Mordecai and Esther wrote up the edict empowering the Jews to wipe out their enemies within the Persian Empire, they both imitated Haman’s edict against them and made subtle reference to a call to Holy War.  The goal was good: peace and rest for God’s people.  The defensive or retaliatory aspect of the edict was also good, even though it wasn’t specifically about defending the promised land itself.  But they made a mistake in authorizing the plundering of their enemies’ goods.

These first sixteen verses of chapter 9 tell the story of how this all worked out when the day of the edict arrived.  500 men were killed in Susa, women and children seemed to have been spared.  Haman’s ten sons are specifically pointed out to have been killed.  You may recall early in this book there were other lists of names – like the seven eunuchs working for the King – which were written to sound comical and make the kids laugh as they listen to this story being told.  But this list of Haman’s ten sons is put together with formal grammar: it’s a solemn list declaring victory.  We’re not laughing at this part of the story, we’re listening in relief that such wicked enemies were wiped out before they had a chance to wipe us out instead!  It’s also emphatically repeated three times in this passage that the Jews took no plunder.  The edict permitted them to do so, but they took the moral high ground, applied the Holy War rules to this fight, and left the wealth and possessions of their enemies alone.  This was not a fight for personal gain, but a fulfillment of God’s divine justice.  The reward was not to be in money, but in the bare fact of their own survival.

As with many of the numbers in the book of Esther, the 500 killed in Susa on the first day, and the 300 on the second day may be rounded or exaggerated numbers.  This is especially true in the last verse when it gives the death toll from the provinces of the Empire.  The Hebrew version of this story says 75,000 died; the Greek version of the story says 15,000 died.  The enormous difference in reporting suggests that the accurate headcount is long forgotten.  And besides, the point of the story isn’t the exact death toll, but the reality of God’s judgment being carried out powerfully and effectively.

Listening to this story and its bloody end, the storyteller directs our attention to the fact that God’s people enjoyed “relief from their enemies” as a result.  This, like most Old Testament war stories, gives us an imperfect temporal picture of the perfect eventual divine judgment on the Last Day.  Some of Jesus’ last teachings deal with judgment at his return.  The book of Revelation also contains a number of pictures of Christ as conquering King and Judge.  A number of the songs we’re singing this morning make reference to role of Christ as King and Judge; keep in mind as we sing them that even though stories like these in Esther aren’t perfect in how justice is meted out, God’s justice will be perfect in its accuracy and accomplishment on the Last Day.

War & Peace Today

The challenge now, of course, is to work out how we receive such teachings in our own lives.  None of us in this congregation are political leaders (and I would be very surprised if a high-up government official is reading this blog), so the question of when and how and if to wage war is kind of moot; none of us have to make those decisions.  We are all affected by such decisions, of course, and a number of you have served this country in a military fashion, and are thus aware of how real and perhaps how difficult the ethical questions can get surrounding war, just war, peace, and forgiveness.

Perhaps I should return us briefly to Deuteronomy chapter 20.  Verse 10 there reads “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it.  Even in the Old Testament, then, which is often characterized as being overly violent, we find a high place for mercy and love.  So, please, when you think of the Old Testament Law, don’t think about doom and gloom, judgment and death, as the prevailing themes.  Some people say the God of the Old Testament is capricious, jealous, nasty, and violent, while the God of the New Testament is loving, merciful, kind, and forgiving.  That is a myth and a heresy, and has absolutely no place in the teaching of the Church.  God is a God of grace, and always has been!  When you hear the words of Jesus about the Summary of the Law – that it’s all about loving God and neighbor – that is not a New Testament innovation, that is the summary of the law, the Old Testament.  When Jesus makes this statement, the scribe agreed with him; love has always been the center of the Law, even before Christ.  We would do well to remember that lesson not only as we learn to understand the Bible better, but in our own dealings with those we would consider enemies: the goal of love and peace is never to be absent from war and conflict.

Similarly, war and conflict is not to be engaged in a spirit of anger.  It is all too easy to say “those barbarians in ISIS have gone too far, I can never forgive them no matter what!”  Even in political conflict, I have witnessed many people, including Christians, who are allowing anger to rule their thinking and decision-making.  To this, Jesus has a sharp rebuke: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).  I have seen people called out for their anger, only to justify their anger with accusations like “they provoked it” or “I wouldn’t be so angry if they weren’t so stupid!”  As if such rationalizations don’t already condemn themselves, Jesus has more hard words for people with such attitudes: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42).  Is there a point when violent retaliation is justified?  Maybe, that is a subject of debate among Christians to this day.  Certainly while we are filled with anger we must not attempt retaliation.  As the Psalmist said, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!  Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil” (37:8).

“But what about righteous anger?” one might ask.  There is indeed such a thing.  The wrath of God is a frequent theme in the Bible, including the New Testament.  It is not an arbitrary wrath; God does not have feelings like we do.  God is perfect – what some theologians call “passionless.”  He is not moved by emotions, but by truth.  He doesn’t feel love so much as He is love.  Same with wrath; He doesn’t feel wrath so much as He executes wrath.  When you look at the appearance of the concept of God’s wrath in the Bible, you’ll find that it is tied to judgment – John the Baptist warned people to “flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7 & Luke 3:7).  God’s wrath is his divine judgment against sin.  Although we, as Christians, are taught to discern what sin is, it never becomes our job to decide who gets forgiven and who remains damned.  St. James, the ever-wise epistle-writer, said “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:19-20).

Thus when we try to understand a godly purpose for violence, we find that there is an enormous pile of challenges to overcome: we have to get past our anger, we have to have a clear sense of right and wrong, we have to see if the wrongdoers might repent, we have to discern God’s will for each situation.  Some Christians look at this and declare it an insurmountable challenge, swearing off all forms of violence and adopting a philosophy of extreme pacifism.  Others take these challenges in stride and pridefully assume that they’re wiser than they think and thus engage in violence and war quickly and lightly.  But most of us – or at least I hope it’s most of us – recognize the difficulties and take care to strike the balance.  When should we take the sword and when we should we take the bullet?

Striking the Balance

After all, one of the most unique things about Christianity compared to other religions and philosophies is the dignity of suffering.  Daniel’s three friends were thrown into the fiery furnace praising God in song.  The Apostles rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ, and St. Peter went on to write “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” (1 Peter 3:14-16).  And Jesus himself said “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

So as we think on the story in Esther 9, hearing of the deaths of the enemies of God’s people, we should both cheer and shudder.  We cheer at a victory of God’s justice, the deliverance of God’s people from genocide, and the reminder of the ultimate happy ending in the future.  And we shudder at the hard reality that lives were lost, families broken, and that we still see such deaths happening today in Syria, in Sudan, in Nigeria, in Tulsa.  Perhaps the only way we can deal with such stories of war and killings, whether we think them justified or unjustified, is to subject them to the Gospel – the much-needed Good News in this world of bad news.

Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26).

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Esther 8: Justice & Solidarity

Our reading this morning from the book of Esther is the beginning of the end of the story.  The main villain, Haman, has had his rise and fall and was just executed.  Meanwhile, Esther and Mordecai have risen to prominence and power.  Esther has grown from a timid girl to a confident diplomat and confidante of her husband, King Ahasuerus.  She started out hiding her Jewish identity and her family relationship with Mordecai, but now stands in complete solidarity with both.  The main crisis of the story started when Haman convinced the King to rubber-stamp for him an edict of genocide – he wanted to wipe out all the Jews throughout the Persian Empire.  Through a carefully-planned sequence of events, and some marvelous divine orchestration, Haman was finally vilified before the King and executed.

Unfortunately, the edict of genocide was still in place, and here in chapter 8 is where Mordecai and Esther turn their attention to solving that last big problem.  The first issue is that by Persian law, royal edicts can’t be undone.  So King Ahasuerus, who has never really taken action on his own initiative throughout the story, is still unable to do anything to help.  And, true to his characterization throughout the story, he doesn’t seem to care all that much either.  “Behold,” he says, “I have given Esther the house of Haman… you may write as you please with regard to the Jews.”  This translation doesn’t bring out the King’s annoyance as clearly as others.  “Now look,” the King says, “You, you write your own edict however you want.”  He’s passing this off to Esther and Mordecai.  He has already given them great royal authority; why should he be bothered?

So they go and write up a new edict.  The language of their edict is modeled very closely on Haman’s original back in chapter 3.  Both begin with the date and proclamation of the imperial power, both use local languages and were distributed quickly and efficiently.  Both called for a group of people on a certain day a few months away to rise up, take arms, and wipe out their enemies and plunder their goods.  In Haman’s edict, enemies of the Jews were invited to destroy the Jews; in this second edict, the Jews are invited to rise up and wipe out those who would destroy them.  There are a couple key differences between these edicts, however, and in each case the new one is better than the old.  This one calls for better and faster horses in its distribution, and that it is to be translated not only into the local languages of each province but also into Hebrew, so all the Jews everywhere would hear and understand.  Additionally, while the first edict was met with mourning, fasting, weeping, and wailing, this new one was met with happiness, joy, gladness, and honor.  These reactions, in both cases, were shared by Jews and Gentiles alike – even the unaffected bystanders were disturbed to hear of their Jewish neighbors’ impending demise, and now are relieved to hear of the reversal of fortunes.

PART ONE: Justice

Perhaps the most prominent theme in this chapter is that of justice.  Previous chapters have dealt with similar themes (honor, shame, consequences), but where the concept of honor is a force that can result in both good and evil, depending upon whose honor is being upheld, the concept of justice is a starker matter of good and evil.  Where in previous chapters we have seen the course of events constantly being dictated especially by respect for the King’s honor, now the underlying problem of justice is finally addressed.

This theme is most notably present in the writing of the new edict.  I’ve already described the contrast between Haman’s edict and Esther & Mordecai’s edict.  Beyond mere analysis, we must now look at them theologically – that is, with the identity of God and the Word of God in mind.

Haman’s edict is an example of worldly justice.  Early in the story, the King told Haman to do “what seems good” to him to do.  To Haman, it seemed good to express his anger at Mordecai by wiping out the entire Jewish race, and that’s what his edict was all about.  As we have seen throughout the story, Haman is a classic villain – the kind you just love to hate – and is an archetypal picture of a man devoted to sin.  He draws up cunning plans to kill people he doesn’t like, he butters up the king with flattery to get his way, he gloats over his success and wealth to his poor minions who don’t even like him that much… everything about him is irredeemably evil.  That is the direction of worldly justice apart from God.

The edict of Mordecai and Esther, on the other hand, is a picture of divine justice.  Rather than the innocent being wiped out, it is the wicked who are to be wiped out.  Even though earthly power and distribution of information is significant, divine power and God’s Word are even greater.  Earthly justice yields emotional upset and social discord; divine justice yields love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so forth.  It may be upsetting to a Christian in this day and age to see Esther and Mordecai advocating such bloody massacre and looting – Jesus told us to love our enemies, and this is not a clear example of that.  First of all, it should be noted that when verse 13 describes “vengeance” against the enemies of the Jews, the Hebrew word behind it (nqm) usually means “justified retaliation.”  It’s a Holy War sort of reference, which in the Old Testament Law is always directly by God’s command under very strict conditions.  And, beyond that, this edict is a sort of foreshadowing of the Day of Judgment at the end of this age, when the sins of all will be exposed and those justified in Christ will be vindicated and those who reject Christ will be punished.

Beside the two edicts, we can also learn about God’s justice by looking at King Ahasuerus here.  Our Lord Jesus told a story that we usually call the Parable of the Persistent Widow.

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary.’  For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.’”  And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.  And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?  I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:2-8)

The parallel between Jesus’ story and the interaction between Esther and the King is striking.  In both cases a comparatively weak woman is going to the man in authority for justice, and he eventually agrees – not because he cares about justice but because he doesn’t want to be bothered about it.  Although at least in Esther’s case, there are indications that the King also cares about her.  The lesson that Jesus draws from this story, which we should also see with Esther’s story, is that even though justice is sometimes slow (or even absent) in this life, God will work justice speedily.  Jesus’ final question, too, is a pointed reminder that we, represented by the “weak” people in both stories, need to keep the faith and continue to be persistent like the widow, and like Esther.

A third lesson about God’s justice to be gleaned from Esther chapter 8, and indeed from much of the book, is the concept of reversals.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ, like the book of Esther, contains many ironies & reversals.  Evil was brought into the world by the fruit of a special tree – salvation was brought into the world by the “fruit” of another special sort of “tree.”  The Devil sought to kill Jesus, but it was through Jesus’ very death that the Devil was to be defeated.  Resurrection and eternal life are attained through dying to self.  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).  Even today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 14:1-11) has an example in Jesus’ words “every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  There are many such reversals in the story of Esther.  It isn’t just funny or satisfying to see Haman hoisted by his own petards, so to speak, but it’s divine justice.  God takes the blind attempts of worldly justice, turns them on their heads, and puts things to right.

PART TWO: Solidarity

Besides justice, another important theme that comes together in Esther chapter 8 is that of solidarity with the Body of God’s people.  As Esther embraces her Jewish identity, she is more and more empowered to serve them.  This began earlier in the story – it was way back in chapter 4 when Mordecai first convinced Esther to stand up for her people and go to the King at the risk of her own life to intercede on their behalf.  After much fear and prayer, she did so, and slowly embraced her true identity as a member of God’s people – both in public and in private.  As we discussed last month, this was a huge step of growth for Esther, a conversion experience, in fact.  And, as the story has unfolded since then, the fruit of Esther’s commitment becomes more apparent.  First she wins favor from the King, then she was able to get rid of Haman, and now she has found a way to work around Haman’s edict of genocide.  If she had kept quiet, or “hid her light under a basket” (Mark 4:21), she would never have gotten this far.

Her example of solidarity inspires others eventually, too.  At the very end of chapter 8, it says “And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them.”  The Greek version of the story specifies that these Gentiles became circumcised – actually converted to faith in God.  This final verse  could also refer to people simply sharing in their joy, rejoicing along with God’s people, or even to people who pretended to be Jews so as to benefit from the temporary high status.  Whatever the case individually, Esther’s stand of solidarity was contagious.  When God’s people stand up for the faith and for one another as a united Body of believers, the Holy Spirit moves powerfully!  It is when we squabble among ourselves and divide that we most readily “quench the Holy Spirit,” as St. Paul warned about (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22).  So the call to active unity – not just “invisible” or “spiritual” unity, but visible tangible unity – is very much a lesson from Esther 8.  Today’s Epistle reading (Ephesians 4:1-6) also calls for unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

PART THREE: In Christ

You might ask, quite fairly, what these two topics – of justice and solidarity – have to do with each other.  Is Fr. Brench just trying to preach two different sermons from the same text at the same time?  No, in fact these two themes do connect.  As is the case with basically all true Christian theology, we find a point of connection at Christ on the Cross.  That is where everything comes together – justice, solidarity, love, creation, life, death, everything!

As far as bringing together our themes of justice and solidarity is concerned, I could put it to you this way: divine justice is found solely in Christ.  Only by the Word of God is creation created, only by the Word of God is truth proclaimed, only by the Word of God is salvation effected.  Sometimes in popular piety we are encouraged to think about our relationship with God as individualized as if each of us goes directly to God with no “in-betweens” to go through.  This is not quite correct: Jesus Christ is the “in-between,” the Mediator.  The only way to the Father is through the Son.  Every tradition of Christianity has some version of this statement, but in the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion, Article 18 states: “They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.”  Thus, in each of our individual journeys to God, we all meet up together at the same place: in the person of Jesus Christ.

As I said a moment ago, divine justice is found solely in Christ; but now understanding Christ as the Mediator between God and mankind, we can phrase it a little differently: we are justified only in solidarity with Christ and His Church.  You see, as we all meet up in Christ, we are spiritually (or mystically) gathered up into His Body.  This Body of Christ is also called the Church, and thus there has been a saying that “there is no salvation outside the church.”  This saying goes back at least as far as St. Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop in North Africa in the 300’s.  One of my favorite early British Saints, the Venerable Bede, put it this way: “Just as all within the ark were saved and all outside of it were carried away when the flood came, so when all who are pre-ordained to eternal life have entered the Church, the end of the world will come and all will perish who are found outside.” (St. Bede, Hexaemeron)

The great reformer, Dr. Martin Luther, said something similar:

“Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.”

Another reformer, John Calvin, agreed, and clarified this by quoting St. Cyprian again: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.”

The Old Testament had a version of this doctrine too.  In Numbers 9:13 it says, “the man who is clean and is not on a journey, yet refrains from keeping the passover, that person shall be cut off from his people, because he did not offer the Lord’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin.”  So not only was belonging to the people of God necessary, but participating in the cultic life, the rituals, the liturgy, or whatever you want to call it, was a necessary part of that “belonging.”  So we can’t just claim to be Christians, in relationship with Christ, a part of the Church, without actually participating in her Sacraments – chiefly Baptism and Holy Communion.

PART FOUR: The life cycle of the church

All this to say: the Gospel of Christ calls us into a covenant community, a mystical body, the Kingdom of God.  This call to solidarity, wherein justice and justification are found, gives us a foundation for understanding the entire lifecycle both of the individual Christian and of the local church congregation.

First, knowing and believing that we are in union not only with Christ but with one another, we live accordingly.  We reckon our fellow Christians as family and treat them especially well.  We stand up for one another, we help one another, and share in one another’s joys and sorrows.

Second, as we make a lifestyle of being a part of God’s people, we witness accordingly.  When people observe our lives, they see not some sort of solitary spiritual guru, but a member of a community, a person who is connected.  As we stand together as a distinct people in the world regardless of race, nationality, political views, or any other divisive issue, we portray a witness of the people of God.

Third, as we give witness to our solidarity with the Church throughout time and space, we evangelize accordingly.  When telling other people about Christianity, we don’t confine it to “my personal relationship with Jesus.”  Rather, we speak also of the relationship that we develop with all God’s people, past and present.  We’re not just trying to “win people for Christ,” we’re inviting them into a family, a spiritual home where they will belong, be loved, and be grown.

Fourth, as people turn to and accept this Gospel of union with Christ and in Christ, we disciple accordingly.  So many discipleship programs and materials out there these days emphasize our individuality to the point of neglecting the Church.  Rather than directing new believers straight to their spiritual gifts, their spiritual dispositions, and their individual callings in ministry or service, we make sure to nurture them as family members, and emphasize that spiritual gifts and callings are for the benefit of the whole Body rather than just the growth of the individual.

Fifth, and finally, as people are taught and discipled to be members of Christ’s Church, they live accordingly.  We’ve come full circle.  Our living, witnessing, evangelizing, and discipling leads to the next round of living, witnessing, evangelizing, and discipling.  This is the life-cycle of a congregation.  As a Body we are called to be disciples who make disciples.  We achieve this not by celebrating extraordinary individuals with amazing talents and skills, but by taking seriously our identity as members of God’s people.  When we focus on certain individuals to “make it happen”, we burn them out.  When we try to jump up and be heroes on our own, we burn ourselves out.  Even though Esther was a hero, she was not working alone; Mordecai helped and advised and encouraged her throughout the story.  And beyond Mordecai there was a whole community of others praying and fasting.

So as we look to the future of the Church – be it this particular congregation or the Church in a larger context – we must keep in mind the call to solidarity.  For it is as a Church that we are saved, and it is as a Church that we must continue to live and grow.  As in everything, may God’s grace both precede us and follow us, that we may be able to live in such unity, to His glory.  Amen.

 

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The Gospel according to Esther

Those of you who have been following through this series through the book of Esther have been waiting a long time for what happened here in chapters 6 and 7.  If you’re just jumping in now, well, you’ve skipped straight to one of the most exciting parts of the story!  The story’s villain, Haman, has already got a plan in place to wipe out the Jewish people, and now he’s about to enact an additional plan to kill Mordecai, Esther’s cousin.  Esther, meanwhile, is on the verge of revealing her plan to save her people from Haman’s first plot.  Everything has come down to King Ahasuerus, whose side he takes, or simply who gets to him first.  Chapters 6 and 7 are too exciting and interconnected to deal with separately, which is why we replaced the usual Epistle reading with the second reading from Esther.  We’re celebrating the good news in this story of Esther!  And, as we go through this, I’d like for us to see the Good News of Christ in here, too.  This something that we should always do when reading the Bible, and today that’s even the sermon title: The Gospel according to Esther.

Part One: Explanation & Analysis of Esther 6 & 7

Chapter 6 begins with an interesting coincidence that changes the entire course of the story so far: King Ahasuerus can’t sleep.  So he gets up, has his servants read to him from the court records of recent events, and is finally reminded of a little episode back in chapter 2 where Mordecai uncovered a plot against the King’s life.  He realizes that Mordecai was never rewarded for this great service, and decides to set things right.  You may recall that honor is one of the most highly valued things in the Persian court; the actions of the King, Haman, and the other court officials have constantly hinged upon the maintenance of honor.

Verse 4 brings in the next convenient coincidence: Haman is in the courtyard outside hoping for an audience with the King at this very moment.  “Excellent!” says the King, “someone to advise me on how to reward Mordecai.”  So he has Haman brought in, and what unfolds is probably the most ironic and hilarious turn of events in the whole story.  Haman thinks the King is going to honor him, and the King doesn’t know that Haman is waiting to ask for his permission to kill Mordecai.  Like two ships in the night, they talk right past one another and the only people who know what both of them are thinking are us, the audience.  Haman’s suggest of wearing a royal robe and riding a royal horse and parading through the “open square of the city” are pretty serious honors – virtual equality with the King is a big deal indeed!  But it isn’t outside the realm of the King’s generosity.  It’s worth noting here that as Haman recommends parading this hero through “the open square of the city”, he’s imagining himself as the one being honored, and that particular location would most likely result in him being paraded past Mordecai who has been sitting outside the King’s Gate.  Haman think this great bestowal of royal honors will allow him one last triumphal victory parade past Mordecai before he has him killed.

But no, SURPRISE!  It’s Mordecai that the King wants to honor, and so he puts Haman in charge of making sure Mordecai receives all the festive celebration that Haman suggested.  There’s no indication that the King was aware of Haman’s personal hatred of Mordecai specifically, but if he did know then his words in verse 10 might be read with an additional layer of irony.  So now we’ve got this hilarious little scene pictured: Haman leading Mordecai around the city proclaiming to everyone the honor of the King’s favor.  As Psalm 7 says, “Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies.  He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made.  His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.”  This is beginning to happen to Haman already – the good that he planned for himself is going to someone else, and the evil that he planned for someone else is about to land on himself!

This bleak view of Haman’s future is shared by his friends and family when he runs home in utter grief and shame.  Even his own wife, Zeresh, thinks that Haman is doomed now.  We don’t even see any signs of sympathy for Haman from his household – he really is the classic villain that everyone just loves to hate!  And then, as if to emphasize the fact that Haman has completely lost control of the situation, verse 14 says that Haman is “hurried away” by the King’s servants to attend another banquet – a banquet hosted by Esther the Queen.

Chapter 7 continues directly from there emphasizing that not only has Haman lost control of the situation, but now Esther has gained full control: her plan is advancing and cannot be stopped.  The King repeats his offer that we heard about last week in chapter 5 – whatever she requests he will grant.  And now, finally, after all her stalling in chapter 5 and the sidebar of Mordecai’s honor in chapter 6, Esther actually tells the King that she’s a Jew and Haman is an enemy of her people who needs to be stopped immediately.  But let’s note how she says all this; the storyteller is very artful in this dialogue.

Esther begins by repeating the King’s question to highlight her respect for his honor and generosity; he’s less likely to change his mind if she panders to his ego and custom.  Then she quotes the edict’s threefold death sentence of the Jews, revealing both her awareness of the legal arrangement and the seriousness of her people’s plight.  She even goes so far as to say that if the edict merely enslaved her people she wouldn’t bother the King with this request, telling him that his money is more important than one measly little nationality within his empire – this again is a rhetorical move to emphasize the importance of the King’s honor and interests and humble herself before him in the course of making her request.  That way she is able to call Haman an enemy not only of her people, but also of herself and therefore also an enemy of the King!  And of course it works: the King is enraged and storms out of the room to cool off.

Haman, meanwhile, is terrified.  He throws himself on Esther’s mercy, which unfortunately for him looks more like he’s just throwing himself on Esther, so when the King comes back in he accuses Haman of molesting the Queen!  As if Haman’s plot against the Jews and use of the King’s authority wasn’t bad enough, he was dishonoring the King further by assaulting his wife.  So, as in almost everything else in this story, it is the integrity of the King’s honor that dictates what happens: Haman is imprisoned and executed shortly thereafter.

But it’s interesting to note some of the odd features of the story here at the end of chapter 7.  First, Esther doesn’t try to correct the King’s false assumption about Haman molesting her.  She allows a false accusation be the “last straw” leading to Haman’s death, which someone people consider a lie of omission on her part.  It’s also amusing to note that the King, yet again, relies on the advice of others to decide what to do with Haman.  And, of course, Haman’s impossibly huge gallows/pole meant for Mordecai becomes the means of poetic justice against him.

As usual, the story-teller doesn’t explicitly bring God into the story, leaving us to read between the lines and recognize the long string of bizarre and humorous coincidences as God’s masterful orchestration of events to the end of rescuing Mordecai from an unjust death.  As earthly events go, it looked like Haman was going to win because he got to the King first, but God saved the day with insomnia!

The last thing to say about these chapters is that the Edict of Genocide hasn’t been dealt with yet – the Jews are still on death row a few months away.  But its mastermind is gone, and now Esther and Mordecai are in good positions to get that last obstacle solved.  That is what we’ll see playing out over the last three chapters of the book.

Part Two: Finding the Gospel in Esther 6 & 7

Now, we’ve heard this part of the story and analyzed it a bit, but the question of truly understanding it has yet to be addressed.  As with anything else in the Bible, we need to ask ourselves how does this portray the Gospel?  Rather than looking at Esther herself, let’s looks at the two main characters in these chapters to whom things happen.

First of all, there’s Mordecai.  Even though Haman never gets to voice his plan to execute Mordecai, the tense suspense built up in chapter 5 and carried into chapter 6 gives the hearers of the story a real sense of fear for Mordecai’s life.  Even though it didn’t make it to the King’s ears, it was as if Mordecai was on death row for a while, until the King honored him at the end of chapter 6.  This puts Mordecai in a situation very similar to that of Isaac, Abraham’s son, in Genesis 22.  There, you may recall the story, Isaac was bound with ropes on an altar to the Lord to be a burnt offering to God until God provided a ram at the last minute.  The lesson, which Abraham himself observed at the time, is the Lord will provide.  And indeed, we know, God has provided a sacrifice – his own Son, Jesus Christ our Lord – to be the atonement for the sins of the world.  The unjust death sentence upon Isaac and Mordecai are glimpses of the most unjust death sentence upon Jesus.

Secondly, there’s Haman.  Haman is a wicked man who plots increasingly evil deeds and is finally punished for his crimes.  Who does he represent?  Everybody.  The Scriptures teach us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  The great Flood in Genesis 6-8 is another Old Testament story highlighting the universal sinfulness of the human race and the justice with which God punishes us.  As two of the psalms say, “there is none that does good, no not one” (Psalms 14:3 & 53:3).  And thus the just penalty is death – death for you, death for me, death for everyone.

But the Gospel (the Good News) is that the just requirement of the death penalty has been willingly taken up by someone else: Jesus of Nazareth.  He’s the only one who lived a perfectly sinless life and therefore he had the right to transfer everybody else’s death penalty upon himself.  All we have to do is accept that offer: acknowledge that he made that sacrifice on our behalf and stand united with him on Judgment Day in witness that his blood was shed so that ours doesn’t have to be.  Among other things, God is a God of Justice, and His demand for holiness is serious and rightful.  But as a God also of Mercy and Love, He stepped down in the person of Jesus Christ to make it possible for people to survive Judgment Day.

The Old Testament Law was correct in declaring God’s justice to be “an eye for an eye.”  Any act of sin, any infraction of God’s Law, any impugning of God’s honor, is a rejection of God that calls for the rejection of the offender.  When Jesus chimed in on this in the Sermon on the Mount (particularly in Matthew 5:38-42), he called for a halt in our over-zealous application of “an eye for an eye” in our own laws, because the way we tend to do that is not at all like way God does it.  After all, Jesus’ self-offering on behalf of undeserving sinners like ourselves should lead us to reconsider how we deal with those who sin against us!  We instead should be anticipating Judgment Day, when God has the last word, not ourselves.  We should also be anticipating heaven – that perfected world where sin is no more; where we are called to live for eternity hereafter.  There we will finally know the true triumph of both justice and mercy.  A couple of our last hymns will point us in that direction of heavenward focus.

Part Three: Now What?

We have looked at the story of Esther 6 & 7, we have seen how crucial parts of the Gospel are foreshadowed therein, and now all that remains for us to do is look at how all this impacts our lives.  As Martin Luther famously put it, the Christian is simul iustus et peccator.  We are two-faced; one on hand we are still wretched sinners constantly turning away from our Lord; on the other hand we are gloriously saved by the Blood of Christ and clothed with His righteousness.  This double identity is very important for us to understand and recognize, and can be discerned in the characters of the book of Esther.  So let us turn again to Haman and Mordecai.

 

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I think this is the 1st time I found a meme to fit a sermon!

 

As sinners, we should consider ourselves justly punishable like Haman.  We don’t often want to think of ourselves as the villain in biblical stories, but the Scriptures teach us we were all “enemies of God” at one time (Romans 5:10).  Therefore we should pay attention to Haman, his spiral deeper into sin, and his downfall.  We took an especially close look at him last week, and in case you want to revisit it, I’ve made it available online.  The character of Haman serves both as a warning to what can happen to us when we make selfishness our Lord instead of Jesus Christ, and it serves as an explanation for the various failings in our own lives.  For even though we receive the blessed hope of justification on Judgment Day, we do still experience forms of God’s judgment throughout our lives.  In the book of Hebrews this is called chastisement.  It’s worth quoting this at length:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?  “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”  It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.  Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.   For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:3-11)

So rather than going to the gallows like Haman, we only experience temporary earthly chastisements for our sins as reminders that we have transgressed against God and need to live lives of repentance.  Sometimes these chastisements are severe and sometimes minor; God’s purpose is not to hound us cruelly into submission but to keep us attentive to the reality of injustice – both within ourselves and in the world around us.

On the flip side of all this, as members of Christ, we should consider ourselves rescued like Mordecai was.  How should this influence our lifestyles?  As a saved people, we most definitely ought to be a thankful people!  The liturgy puts these words into our mouths every time we celebrate Holy Communion: “Lift up your hearts.  We lift them to the Lord.  Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  It is just and right so to do.”  And then the celebrant continues by repeating the same thing: “It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give you thanks, Father Almighty…”  There’s a reason that part of the liturgy is sometimes called the Great Thanksgiving!  We must resist the temptation to turn into robots or parrots here; it really truly actually is just and right and a joyful thing to give thanks to God.  He has rescued us!  It is just and right to thank Him for rescuing us.  It is a good and joyful thing to thank Him for rescuing us.  It’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll just say those words automatically and not allow them to sink in.  But always strive to pay attention to what is said, and bring yourself back to these words of thanksgiving and praise.  God deserves more thanks than we can ever offer Him!

Also, just as Mordecai was rescued, but he and Esther still had yet to rescue the rest of their fellow Jews, we should remember that God has sent the Church to be on a rescue mission too.  Consider the Post-Communion Prayers that we say towards the end of the liturgy.  “send us out into the world to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord,” one of them says.  “assist us with your grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as you have prepared for us to walk in” says the other.  Both of these prayers are sending-out prayers.  They point us beyond the liturgy into the ordinary day-to-day life of the Christian man, woman, and child, in which we are participants in God’s great rescue mission to save sinners from their sentence of death.  Today being the 15th anniversary of the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, perhaps it is fitting to consider the situation in New York City that day – the number of people in danger was much larger than the number of people participating in the rescue missions.  It is the same with the Church: we are not a majority force in the world, but a minority movement reaching into a vast world around us with the love of Christ seeking to bring them into contact with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

So from this Gospel of Christ, as we are reminded in the middle of the book of Esther, we have cause for somber self-examination and penitence, joyful thanksgiving, and a serious call to mission, since we have traits in common with both Haman and Mordecai.  The life of a Christian is marked by these two big strands of identity – sinner and saint – and the more honestly we reckon with both sides, the healthier we’ll be as individuals, and the healthier we’ll be as a church body.

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How Wrong Can You Be?

It has been a value in Western culture for well over a century now to embrace a certain amount of diversity and tolerate different ideas.  Just how wide in scope this is has changed over time, of course, some times and places being more open-minded than others, though in recent years the range of possibilities have undeniably grown wider than ever before.  It has become difficult in this day and age to declare something as “wrong” or “untrue” without someone retorting back “well that’s, like, just your opinion, man.”

This valuation of tolerance and open-mindedness has become a popular virtue among Christians as well, and this is where we find a particularly difficult two-edged sword.  On one hand, this openness has allowed for a great deal of ecumenical progress – bringing conflicting Christian traditions closer together than ever before, simply because we’re more willing to talk to one another, listen, and re-think some of the language that divides us.  On the other hand, as people often joke, if you keep too open a mind, your brain might fall out.  That is to say, when we over-value tolerance and agreement, we can lose the ability to discern and declare falsehood and untruth.

When it comes to defining Christian truth we are forced face-to-face with the hard reality that Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, the man who is God.  He is truth; his word is truth.  There is right and wrong, there is right teaching and false teaching, when He speaks, there is no grey area in between.  That which He speaks, is.

But alongside the unpopularly black-and-white reality of Truth, there is still a sliding scale of how serious untruth is.  The Scriptures teach definite things about God, Christ, the Church, the world, and so forth, and conflicting interpretations of the Scriptures is the fault of us sinful fallible human beings, not the fault of the Bible itself.  But not all mistakes are equal – some are worse than others.  It would help many of us, I think, to revisit some standard terminology so we can deal afresh with disagreements between Christian teachers.

Level One: to be Mistaken

Sometimes a mistake is just mistake.  We don’t all study every subject in the Bible in great depth, so we’re bound to misunderstand and misinterpret stuff.  Pretty much everyone makes mistakes.  And yes, that does have an adverse effect on our closeness with Christ, how in-step we are with the Spirit, how clearly we understand the Bible.

An example of this might be the difference between believing that Christians should not drink any alcohol and believing that we may.  One is bound by a legalistic demand, the other is free in Christ to enjoy the goodness of that part of God’s creation.

But a simple mistake is a simple mistake; much of Christian growth involves filling in the gaps of our knowledge and experience, correcting our mistakes, and learning to love the Lord unhindered by falsehoods.  On the Day of Judgment, our simple mistakes might be embarrassing, or even comical, but I don’t believe they’ll be held against us as sin.

Level Two: a False Teacher

Where a mistake is an unintentional belief, a false teaching is an intentional belief; and a false teacher is one who actively teaches (or models) something that is incorrect.  This level of wrongness can be a great hindrance to Christian life or teaching.

For example, the difference between believing in evolution or 6-literal-day creationism results in two very different methods of biblical interpretation, and they both can’t be right.  Similarly, the doctrine of the Rapture is a false teaching that not only distorts one’s ability to understand the Bible, but can also impact the way one perceives the Christian hope, the place of environmentalism, and methods of evangelism.

Teachers will be judged more strictly than other Christians, so whatever false teachings we commit to will be painful to correct.  The work of a false teacher will pass through fire on Judgment Day and may prove to be less fruitful than previously imagined.  But a false teacher isn’t going to hell on account of those incorrect beliefs.

Level Three: a Heretic

This is the end of the road, the type of mistake so severe that the result is definitively non-Christian teaching.  This is a false teaching so off the mark that it actually undoes the Gospel of Christ and proclaims a different religion.  As a result, heresy is a magnitude of falsehood that leads to damnation unless repented of and abandoned.

St. Paul called out the Judaizers as being heretics for requiring the Rite of Circumcision before entry into the Church.  In doing so, they elevated the Law of Moses into the place of Christ as a source of righteousness, whereas the Christian Gospel puts forth Christ alone as the one who justifies sinners.

Another example we’re more likely to see today is to deny the humanity or divinity of Christ.  Any Christian that misses one of these crucial truths about Jesus is no Christian at all.  Many of the “mainline” Protestant denominations have increasingly embraced heretical opinions such as these, thus earning the rightful label of heretic.  All who abide by heretical teachings are indoctrinated into a false religion as lost as the Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and everyone else.  The only difference between a heretic and another non-Christian is that a heretic thinks he/she is a Christian (as is the case with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses).  This can be an advantage in evangelism in that they’re already pretty close to the truth, but it can also be a huge disadvantage because they think they’re already one of us.

Sometimes the most effective lie is the one closest to the truth.

We’re Here to Help

Lest I end this blog post on a scary note, allow me to note a few resources the Church has to protect us from heresy.

The historic liturgy is a wonderful resource.  By making use of pre-written prayers and a careful plan of Scripture-reading, the worship services of the Church constantly reinforce true Christian teaching.  It doesn’t cover everything perfectly, and it’s not really a teaching tool in itself, but it provides a common language with which we speak the truth before God with one another.

The Creeds are authoritative summary statements of belief that are very useful for “fencing off” the safe pastures within which God’s flock may feed.  The Apostles’ Creed is the most basic, and the Nicene Creed is more careful about lining up our teachings about Jesus Christ.  The Athanasian Creed has an excellent treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Biblical scholars, while obviously not infallible, are very helpful in enabling us to understand the Bible accurately.  Next time you pick up a Christian book in the hopes of getting to know God better, look up the author.  Where and how has he/she learned about the Bible and what qualifications does he/she bring to the table?  With all the books and popular authors out there today, there’s a lot of fluff on the Christian bookstore shelves which really aren’t worth your time.  Look for the writings of reliable teachers; your pastor or priest should be able to point you in the right direction.

The clergy are supposed to be holy men of God who know the Bible and theology better than the average Christian.  There are, of course, lots of bad or lazy pastors out there, and hopefully you can tell the difference.  Ask yours who his favorite theologians are, and look them up yourself.  Ask your pastor what his specialties are in terms of theology and biblical interpretation; we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and it’s good to know when someone is working from experience versus relying on the witness of others.  A good pastor is humble and remains constantly in touch with the writings and teachings of others; it can be good both for your pastor and for you to ask him who he’s been reading lately!

The more you learn, the better-equipped you are to recognize heresy and false teaching for what it is.  And although one can’t reasonably expect perfection from oneself or even one’s pastor in this life, we can live a life of constant growth towards our Lord and Savior as we cultivate a habit of learning and a spirit of discernment.  Light has no fellowship with darkness, after all, so the more we walk in the light, the more we can avoid the darkness!

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Esther V: The Empire Strikes Back

This is my sermon on the 5th chapter of the book of Esther for Grace Anglican Church.

The fifth chapter of the book of Esther is a bit like Episode V of the original Star Wars movies: you can tell that it isn’t the beginning of the story, the protagonists are making some good progress, but by the end of it the bad guys have the upper hand and it seems to end on a bit of a cliffhanger.  It’s a fun part of the story in terms of plot development, dramatic tension, and character intrigue, but it’s hard to appreciate without the larger context of the whole story in mind.  So, just as the Star Wars movies have those classic scrolling texts at the beginning to give us “the story so far,” let’s go through a little flashback of our own now.

At this point in the story, there are two main characters: Haman and Esther.  Haman is a very high-ranking official in the court of the King of Persia.  He’s the villain you just love to hate: he made a plan to wipe out the entire Jewish race throughout the empire, and got the king to rubber-stamp it without hardly a care in the world.  Esther is a Jew, but also the Queen of Persia.  Through the encouragement of Mordecai, a cousin who adopted her as his legal daughter, she has hatched a plan to convince her husband to save her people from Haman’s genocidal plot.  But there is one big obstacle in the way: nobody can see the king uninvited, on pain of death, unless he makes a special exception on the spot.  So she’s taking her life into her hands by going to see him unannounced.  For the past three days Mordecai and some other Jewish people in the city have been fasting and praying for Esther, and now it’s time for her to take action.

Analysis Part One: Esther’s Plan

That’s the story so far; now we can see how chapter 5 advances those situations.

We begin with the account of Esther’s audience before the king.  This was a very tense moment – this is where she could have simply been executed and the story ended abruptly.  The Greek version of this part of the story really hams it up to capture a heightened sense of melodrama:

On the third day, when she ended her prayer, she took off the garments in which she had worshiped, and arrayed herself in splendid attire.  Then, majestically adorned, after invoking the aid of the all-seeing God and Savior, she took her two maids with her, leaning daintily on one, while the other followed carrying her train.  She was radiant with perfect beauty, and she looked happy, as if beloved, but her heart was frozen with fear.  When she had gone through all the doors, she stood before the king. He was seated on his royal throne, clothed in the full array of his majesty, all covered with gold and precious stones. And he was most terrifying.  Lifting his face, flushed with splendor, he looked at her in fierce anger. And the queen faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed upon the head of the maid who went before her.  Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. And he comforted her with soothing words, and said to her, “What is it, Esther? I am your brother. Take courage; you shall not die, for our law applies only to the people. Come near.”  Then he raised the golden scepter and touched it to her neck; and he embraced her, and said, “Speak to me.”  And she said to him, “I saw you, my lord, like an angel of God and my heart was shaken with fear at your glory.  For you are wonderful, my lord, and your countenance is full of grace.”  But as she was speaking, she fell fainting.  And the king was agitated, and all his servants sought to comfort her.  (Additions to Esther 15)

The king then makes a generous offer of up to half his kingdom for her request.  This is a standard line of generosity that you find not only here, but also in the words of King Herod when Herodias’ daughter dances for his court and he wants to give her a gift.  It also keeps in line with the king’s characterization of someone who takes advice, grants requests, and goes with the flow without making any decisions for himself.

What might puzzle us, listening to this story, is that Esther does not immediately make any request for saving her people from Haman’s plot of genocide.  Instead she invites the king to a banquet.  She knows she has time before the plot goes into effect and so she is using that time to butter up the king with flattery and honors before getting down to business.  After all, Haman had done the same thing when preparing his plot; it makes sense that Esther wants to make sure she does an even better job at pandering to the king’s ego.

It’s amusing, and almost frustrating, to us when Esther still doesn’t make her request to the king at the banquet, but stalls again for a second banquet.  The way the Hebrew text describes her speech in verses 7 & 8 are actually disjointed statements: “my petition and my request… come tomorrow to the dinner.”  It’s as if she’s about to make her request but changes her mind mid-sentence.  There’s a good chance this is part of her plan all along.  By stalling a second time she’s really drawing out the king’s curiosity.  She’s also gaining his interest and garnering his commitment to fulfilling her request before she even asks it!  And best of all, through all this, she is maintaining a sense of her submission to the king’s authority to grant what he desires to grant, so his ego never feels threatened by her assertiveness.  Esther knows how to handle these guys.  There’s also one last practical reason for stalling her request for the next day: they were at the wine course towards the end of the banquet; that was exactly the point at which the previous Queen, Vashti, challenged the king’s authority and was banished from the palace.  Esther didn’t want to be another victim of the king’s drunken wrath.

So the first half of chapter 5 goes swimmingly well, and things seem to be on the right track.  But then the narrative turns to Haman and the plot thickens.  Just like in Star Wars episode 5, the progress seemingly made by the good guys is suddenly overshadowed by a major setback.  In the movie, Han Solo was captured and frozen in carbonite; in the book of Esther, a gallows is constructed for the early execution of Mordecai.

Analysis Part Two: Haman’s New Plan

As this chapter briefly reminds us, Haman really hates Mordecai.  We explored the reason for this in a previous chapter; the short version is that they have a family feud going back centuries.  Mordecai’s ancestor is King Saul of Israel, and Haman’s ancestor is King Agag of Amalek.  Saul was supposed to wipe out the wicked Amalekites, but didn’t finish the job, and so their descendants survived and carried their hatred of Saul, his family, and the entire Jewish race ever since.  Now through Haman they have a chance to get back at them through Mordecai; the ancient rivalry has been turned on its head.

Besides the obvious wickedness of wanting to kill an innocent man, not to mention his entire race, Haman’s wickedness is expounded further in this chapter when he decides that he can’t wait for the edict of genocide to wipe out the Jews; he wants to kill Mordecai now!  Haman has gone from bad to worse.

This is worth looking at more closely for a moment, since the story itself spends several verses relating to us Haman’s conversation with his friends and family.  He boasts to his supporters about the honor Esther showed him by hosting a banquet only for him and the king, and then wildly swings to the other extreme of lamenting his lack of satisfaction from Mordecai who refuses to acknowledge his nobility.  He boasts of his wealth and power to them, which only adds to the picture of Haman being a megalomaniac – it’s like in a movie where the villain is gleefully showing off his super powers to his poor minions who already know all about it; he’s just stroking his own ego, trying to make himself feel better about himself, and still Haman is filled with hema, the Hebrew word for rage.  There’s also a little twist of ironic humor here for those who already know this story, as he boasts in the invitation he has received to Esther’s banquet the next day at which he will actually meet his downfall!

For the moment, though, Haman is planning Mordecai’s death.  The story-teller uses a subtle plot device here: it is Haman’s supporters who recommend the building of a gallows for hanging Mordecai.  Haman himself doesn’t concoct this plan – it’s a very subtle way of showing that he is already losing control of the situation.  His evil schemes are continuing, but Esther has the upper hand.  The conflict remains unresolved in this chapter, but the outcome is already foreshadowed.  Anyway, this gallows is to be 50 cubits tall, which converts to about 75 feet.  Like many of the descriptions earlier in the book, this is an exaggeration.  Archaeological evidence suggests that the palace itself was probably not even that tall!  The reason for such an enormous gallows is two-fold: first it emphasizes that this death is meant to be a public spectacle for all to witness, and second it highlights the absurdity of the whole plan.  As I said before, Mordecai is already on death row thanks to the edict of genocide; there is literally no reason for this hanging other than Haman’s own sinful impatience.

Now where does this chapter leave us?  We’re very much in the middle of the story; the characters have been established, the plots have been laid, and now everything is coming to a head.  Esther has been biding her time because she knows the edict of genocide doesn’t come into effect for many months yet.  But then Haman has prepared a new plan for an early death for Mordecai.  Both of their plans rely on the king’s final approval, and both of their plans are scheduled to be enacted the next day.  Who will get to the king first?  How will this work out?  To be continued!  Dun dun duhhhhh!

Application Part One: The Lies of the Devil

What do we make of this chapter?  The big picture of the whole book’s story isn’t really in view here; chapter 5 is a pretty detailed close-up of the two main forces preparing to make their move.  Just as, last time, we got to take a careful look at the character of Esther, it now would behoove us to take a careful look at the character of Haman.  Where Esther shows us a picture of growth in the life of faith, Haman shows us a picture of collapse in the life of wickedness.  Most of the time it is better to look at good examples of faithful people who learn to love and obey the Lord, so that we can be inspired and encouraged in the same path.  But occasionally it is useful to take a long hard look at the face of evil to remind ourselves why we are trying to stay off that path.

As I’m sure you all know, sin is fun.  If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t do it so much.  The trick, of course, is that for all sin’s promises of fun, it doesn’t pay off in the long run.  We can get quick short-term enjoyment from sin and wickedness, but in the end evil can’t satisfy us.  You may have heard the popular analogy – we all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and try as we might to fill it, nothing will satisfy that longing, desire, and need, but the love of God Himself.  As a result of this, the pursuit of sin, the path of evil, is one of constantly seeking “more.”  Sure, sometimes we can settle into a sin and feel comfortable with it for a long time without it seeming to grow bigger and bigger.  But at the root level, because sin cannot satisfy, it is always accompanied by a desire for more.  Whether we increase our repetitions of that sin, or expand into other types of sin, or grow our commitment to that sin, it’s always drawing us in.  The character of Haman demonstrates this in his hatred for Mordecai.  At first, he decides to kill Mordecai through the general edict that will wipe out all the Jews; but after a while Haman isn’t satisfied with that plan, and wants to get Mordecai killed immediately.

Another lesson about sin here is that wickedness is narrow-minded.  As Haman sits on his hatred for Mordecai week by week, month by month, it consumes his attention, destabilizes his emotions, and gives him a sort of tunnel vision.  Even though he was established as a crafty character earlier on, there is now no hint that he even suspects Esther of being up to something.  He’s losing his edge.  All he can think about is getting rid of Mordecai.  That’s something sin does to us: it consumes our attention more and more.  Sometimes it’s in an overt manner like Haman’s pursuit of killing Mordecai.  Sometimes it’s in a secretive manner as we spend more and more effort trying to keep our sins covered up.  Either way, our attention and focus is drawn in by wickedness, and the blinders are pulled over us more and more.

Application Part Two: The Grace of God

Grace, by contrast, gives us a wider perspective.  The three theological virtues – faith, hope and love – are spiritual gifts that open our eyes and broaden our horizons.  When Esther began her plan to rescue her people from the edict of genocide, she proceeded deliberately and unhurriedly.  She had perspective; she knew how much time they had left; she was not a slave to her emotions and passions.  Yes, she was able to be passionate about her cause, but her passions did not rule her.  This is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work!  Last week’s Epistle reading was from Galatians 3, and included a list of fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, and so forth.  Today’s Epistle reading from Galatians 6 has a similar reminder: we are to glory in the Cross of Christ, not in “the flesh,” which is one of St. Paul’s terms for the sinful tendencies that we all carry around inside.

When we glory in the Cross, we are focusing on the big picture – the epic work of God throughout history culminating in the person of Jesus Christ to bring about righteousness in his people and peace on the earth.  Our lives are kind of like chapter 5 of the book of Esther: everything is in place, God’s plan is unfolding around us, and even though we can’t see his victory in our own lives just yet, it is but a chapter away.  We see people around like Haman, devoted to sin and wickedness, and it just consumes them bit by bit.  Perhaps we can even see that type of situation in our own lives, past or present, as we struggle against the crafty wiles of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  But Esther is a picture of who we are called to be in this life: full of peace and patience, moving through life deliberately, with God’s plan of salvation the object of our highest attention and passion.

By this point Esther has reached a level of maturity that reflects today’s Gospel teachings (Matthew 6:24-34) that we cannot serve two masters, that we are not to be consumed by worry, that we need not be anxious about tomorrow.  We need to know, like Esther finally learned, that following God is more important than seeking comfort, and that God knows our needs and can provide for them.  The grace of the Holy Spirit within all who believe and are baptized is meant to open our eyes, widen our vision, broaden our perspective, helping us to see just how great and good our God truly is.  The more clearly we see and believe and trust in the Lord, the more readily we recognize just how empty are the promises of sin and wickedness.  The more we become like Esther’s character, the more Haman looks silly, sad, and even pitiful.

For our own Christian lives and for those of others, let us pray to the Lord.

Keep, we beseech you, O Lord, your Church with your perpetual mercy: and, because the frailty of man without you cannot help but fall, keep us ever by your help from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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“Does Anyone Actually Read These?”

If you’re reading this, you probably already know what this blog is about.  I’m a pastor of a small church, I post sermons here, I write devotionals, theological tid-bits, the occasional spiritual thought that I’m pondering, or other such things that interest me.  And that’s probably the challenge, isn’t it – things that interest me.

Unlike a lot of other WordPress folks and various other bloggers out there, I’ve kept this one largely impersonal.  I use my last name on the account, I rarely talk about myself as a human being, or my hobbies and interests outside of churchy matters.  I have included a picture of myself a grand total of two times on this blog in the past.  But today’s a weird day, so let’s make it three.

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Hi, my name is Matt, and I like cats!  There’s a cross on the wall, so you still know I’m religious.

 

I’m under no allusions, this blog is almost certainly boring to most folks.  I know another Anglican clergyman who kept a blog for a while which was either titled or sub-titled “Does anyone actually read these things?”  It seems an apt tag line for a pastor’s blog, especially one as irregular as mine.  I know leorningcnihtes boc isn’t a well-curated site, or flashy in its design (or even pronounceable).  I’m a grouchy 90’s kid who still thinks that websites should be more text and fewer graphics.  Occasionally I take the time to add a picture to one of these posts, but I must confess it’s usually because I want its preview on Facebook to be something other than my standard blue cross on green background that my gravatar icon displays.  That cross picture is so… eight years ago.  (The green background is the comforter blanket on my bed in a college dorm.  Classy, huh?)

I guess what I’m trying to say is, that if you’re actually reading this, thank you!  I started this blog for my own interest and benefit, and have slowly tried to make it more accessible and interesting for other readers – not just members of my church or FB friends, but even the anonymous internet-goers in the WordPress community.

How about another confession, while I’m on this rare kick of personal thoughts on this blog.  I don’t know the standard etiquette on WordPress for when to “like” someone’s post.  Do you only “like” a post that you read and especially liked?  That’s what I’ve been doing here and on YouTube.  If that’s accurate, then I’ve got some pretty awesome fans recently.  (Back in college I jumped on the LiveJournal bandwagon, where there is no “like” function anyway.)  Or is it like Facebook, where you just “like” everything you see that you don’t dislike?  If that’s accurate, then I probably come off as somewhat unfriendly to my WordPress neighbors, and I apologize if that’s the case.

Another challenge that comes with maintaining a blog is that I don’t consistently keep up with reading the same blogs forever, and after a while my Blog Roll on the sidebar gets out of date… and despite having worked in an IT Help Desk for three years, I’m still kinda slow and clunky at keeping such details under control.  So instead I’m going to give a quick shout-out to a few of the blogs and bloggers I’ve been reading lately.  This serves, I hope, both as a thank-you for those who’ve been reading my posts as well as a pointer to other bloggers that you might also enjoy if you’ve been able to put up with me for a while.

In absolutely no particular order (I promise)…

Preventing Grace – This is the blog of an Anglican pastor’s wife with an excellent brain and brilliant sense of humor.  Her insight into family life, church life, and American culture is pretty biting and accurate, and she doesn’t beat around the bush when there’s an issue.

The Reformed Arsenal – Mr. Arsenal (yes that’s his real name) is a former coworker and classmate of mine from seminary.  He is a systematic theologian by specialty, at least by contrast to myself, and a very thoughtful writer.  We’re not always on the same page in the theological details, but I’ve long respected his views and ability to communicate them.  Keep an eye on this fellow if you want to watch our generation’s contribution to evangelical scholarship in the next few decades.

Beauty Beyond Bones – This blog is of a more personal nature, chronicling a lady’s journey of recovery from anorexia.  I’m not a long-time follower of this blog, but I have enjoyed reading her insights on spiritual matters.

The Gospel Side – Another Fr. Matt across the country keeps a blog with a very similar range of material as mine, but in a much more hip and exciting fashion.

3375F – I still don’t even know what this title means.  But then again, I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way about mine.  Whateverso, as a pastor I can’t only be reading heavy theological treatises all the time; the spirituality and scriptural musings of all sorts of Christians interests me also, and this woman’s blog shows both wisdom and fun.

Held By His Pierced Hands – This is a Roman Catholic blogger (probably not the only one I follow) who is essentially a traveling evangelist.  I’m not Roman Catholic, so there are theological differences between our respective views, but she’s very well-versed in hers, and I enjoy reading her taking the faith seriously in her context.  If only more of us loved Jesus the way she does (or at least seeks to)!

There are others I follow occasionally like St. Bede’s Blog, the Babylon Bee, Working the Beads, and Deacon Josh Watson, but then this list would just get out of control.

If you’ve made this far, thank you again!  :-)  It’s fun discovering that there are actually people out there who are interested in reading what I write.

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God Vindicates His Name

The following is a devotion on Daniel chapter 5, with reference to Acts 19:11-20.

The episode in the life of Daniel that we heard today is a major turning point in the history of God’s people.  A lot is going on: the Persian Empire is on the rise, about to conquer Babylon, the rest of Mesopotamia, and eventually also India and Egypt and Ethiopia, becoming the largest empire in history up to that point.  The new empire would soon issue the edict that allowed God’s people to return home and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  The long exile was finally about to come to an end!

The experience of exile was something of a mixed bag for the Jews.  Many were poor and lived as slaves for their captors.  Others were able to build new lives for themselves throughout Mesopotamia, and a few like Daniel rose to prominence in the Babylonian Empire.  This enabled Daniel and his friends to be great blessings to their people, although they were in frequent danger of death as they refused to worship the idols of Babylon.  Eventually King Nebuchadnezzar had accepted that fact, and the Jews lived in relative peace.  But his son, Belshazzar, did not continue in his father’s wisdom, and God was now preparing to remove him and his dynasty and prepare the way for a new chapter in the life of His people.

Imagine a group of people breaking in to your church, stealing the chalice and paten – the vessels for Holy Communion – and having a party, using them for beer and chips.  There’s something sacrilegious about that, it’s a mistreatment of objects that were specially set aside for the sole purpose of worship.  What Belshazzar did was like that, except on a much larger scale.  It is no coincidence that God chose that very night to intervene and declare His judgment.  There are times when God allows His people to suffer and His holy place to be defiled – God uses those times to chastise his people and warn them when they’ve gone astray.  But there are also times that God steps in to defend His honor and protect His people, and this story is an example of that.

The brief story in Acts 19 is similar in that regard.  Seven Jewish exorcists, sons of a high priest named Sceva, realize that the Christians are really quite good at driving out demons “in the name of Jesus Christ,” so they decide to give it a try.  It seems as though they were able to get away with it for a while until one demon called them out: “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?”  They were doing the same type of thing as King Belshazzar: they were plundering the name of Christ for their own purposes, handling things which did not belong to them.  Just as the Temple vessels were only to be used by the priests in the course of Temple worship, or our Communionware is only to be used for Holy Communion, so too does the powerful Name of Christ belong only on the lips of those who are His own.  As Saint Paul told the Corinthians, “I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).

The moral of the story is that God is holy, and so is his people, and so even are the objects He consecrates for His glory.  We pray in the Lord’s Prayer “hallowed be Thy name.”  We read in the Ten Commandments “You shall not take the Lord’s Name in vain.”  God sometimes is slow to enact judgment, allowing time for repentance, but in the end He calls all to account.  For those who take refuge in Him, this is a teaching that ultimately gives us comfort, because even though we too are guilty, erring and straying like lost sheep, we are, at the end of the day, his sheep.  And that means that when he judges the world to vindicate His Name, He will also vindicate His people.  Like today’s story in Daniel, God’s judgment can bring destruction, and like today’s story in Acts, God’s judgment can just be a light chastisement.  But at the end of the age the result will be like both stories: God’s people will be freed from their captivity to the powers of this world, and the word of the Lord will “prevail mightily.” Thanks be to God!

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