How to Build a Christian Moral Life

The problem with building a Christian moral life is that you cannot just start with the rules.  If you start with the rules you essentially have the same problem as in the Old Testament of having everyone trying to follow the laws.  This is a disaster waiting to happen; as St. Paul observed, “if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin.  I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”  But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness.  Apart from the law sin lies dead (Romans 7:7-8).

Rather, what you need to build a Christian moral life are raw materials and tools. For the Christian, our raw materials are to be found in the Bible and in our theology. Knowledge of Christ and knowledge of God’s word are the necessary building blocks upon which we build a Christ-like life in accordance with God’s word.  The tools, then, are spiritual disciplines: it is in our prayers and our worship and our other devotions that we take the raw materials of Christian faith & knowledge and work them, with love, into a Christian lifestyle.

It is then, with the Christian life built up in the knowledge and In Worship, that the Christian character can begin to emerge.  Without the raw materials, the life that is built will not be a Christian life, but a secular life.  Without the tools, the life that is built will be very easily knocked down or invaded by outsiders, no matter how good the raw materials are.

This means that if we want new believers to become virtuous and upstanding Christian men and women, we must teach them and equip them.

They need to be taught the basics of theology and the contents of the Scriptures.  These, as the raw materials of a Christian moral life, are absolutely necessary – if you don’t know who God is and what He’s like, you have no chance of living in any way like Him.  There are many ways to do this, and most Christian traditions have a catechism or confessional document that can be used.  The issue is rarely a lack of teaching material, but a lack of actually using it.

They also need to be equipped with a range of tools with which to work on those raw materials.  As critical as knowledge is, knowledge alone doesn’t change us.  Again, as St. Paul observed, “the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7:9-10).  It is the tools of spiritual disciplines – of praying, of drinking from the fountain of the Spirit through the Scriptures and writings of the Saints and other great Christians, of tithing and almsgiving, of fasting and self-denial – that transform systematic theology into ascetical theology, that transform the proclamation of the mind into the proclamation of the heart.

Again, various Christian traditions provide various resources for developing one’s spirituality, and here is a place where modern Protestantism has widely lost track of its resources.  Anglicans and some Lutherans and Presbyterians still have a decent hold on the treasures of the past as far as schooling believers in the life of worship, but for many Evangelicals the wheel is constantly being re-invented, and it still doesn’t have a strong axle on which to roll.

What happens when the right tools are used properly, applied to the right raw materials?  Something gets built.  A strong foundation in Christian teaching which is heartily engaged with through prayer and worship other spiritual disciplines will eventually yield growth in Christian character.  This could be summarized more succinctly: Believe, Belong, Behave.  First, if we don’t know what we believe, we will never belong and never behave.  Second, once we know what we believe, then we can settle in and learn to belong.  Thirdly, and finally, it is only in the nurturing context of believing and belonging that we can begin to heal from our sinfulness and begin to behave as Christians.

This, of course, can be a bit of a challenge.  How do we get new Christians into a place where they can be taught the faith, and equipped with the tools of a spiritual life that will together enable them to grow in the ways of Christ?  Preachers often have a favorite subject – telling people what to believe, or how to belong, or how to behave.  It can be difficult to balance out all three.  It’s a similar situation with Sunday School programs and small group ministries and parachurch organizations – a particular group or program often tends towards only one of those three focuses.  So we need to be more attentive to what we’re putting out there, and what people are receiving in abundance versus what people are lacking.

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Back to Basics: The Strength to Go On

a homily on John 4:46-54

It happens every now and then – you’re tired, you’re discouraged, you’re depressed.  You don’t know how things are going to work out.  Circumstances are overwhelming; life’s burdens have become too much to bear.  What do you do?  How do you cope?  Where do you find the strength to go on?

The sermon series we’ve done, going through the Old Testament stories of God’s people surviving in the midst of hostile cultures has also provoked similar concerns about our state of affairs today on a larger scale.  How do we go on being Christians in a world like this?  Last week I addressed that question on the larger scale, summarizing each sermon from the entire series.  Now we’re looking at the same sort of question on a more personal level. How are you, how is she, how am I, going to find the strength to go on being a Christian in today’s world?

It’s popular wisdom to say “when your schedule is full, cut something out.”  It’s exactly the same on the spiritual level; when you’re exhausted from the demands of religion, put aside the extras and focus on the basics.

To give an example, our worship service today is cut back almost to bare bones.  Almost all the optional bits are removed, laying bare the basic essentials.  Even though music and candles aren’t required, I’ve kept them in anyway because certain people really enjoy them.  But look at what’s left: some prayers, some Scripture, some more prayers, some scriptural prayers, and the Body and Blood of Christ.  This is a great example for us.  When the Christian life feels like it’s too difficult to keep up with, it may be time to drop the usual “devotionals” that we frequent, and get back to basics.

Think about the hundreds of years of history when most people didn’t learn how to read.  All these books and pamphlets and internet articles that vie for our attention today would have been of no interest to the ordinary Christian in those days.  Instead they had to memorize the core basics.  Three of the most important things learned were the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.  There we find the basic foundation of Christian teaching, the basic foundation of Christian worship, and the basic foundation of Christian behavior.

Sometimes we might feel overwhelmed by all the things demanding our attention and attracting our interest: a worship event to attend here, a certification course there, a project at work, a ministry opportunity through the church, volunteer work, small groups, personal downtime for leisure and fun.  How do we maintain that basic but necessary link to Christ and His Body?

A few examples of the basics we need to return to can be found in this morning’s Propers – the Collect and Readings.

#1 – Faith

The Collect of the Day, for this 21st Sunday after Trinity, is a prayer that is also used in the Daily Office; it is a prayer for forgiveness.  After we confess our sins, we pray for God’s pardon and peace so that we can have the strength to go on and live godly lives filled with His peace.  But notice how the Collect begins: “Grant to your faithful people.”  Assurance of pardon, the forgiveness of sins, is not something God throws around willy-nilly in some arbitrary fashion.  Rather, it is given to those who turn to him in faith.  Jesus died for all who put their trust in him.  The whole world is invited to the Cross, even drawn to the Cross, but only those who recognize the Cross as the only sufficient sacrifice for their sins will receive the benefits of the Cross, namely God’s pardon and peace.  So we must turn to the Lord in faith, and thus we can confidently ask and pray for forgiveness of our sins.

#2 – Word & Spirit

In the Epistle reading from Ephesians 6 we heard the famous passage about the Armor of God.  As with the Collect, the role of active faith in Christ is highlighted as a strong source of divine protection.  But what these verses particularly add to this discussion is the offensive weapon: the sword of the Spirit, which is also the Word of God.  This union of Word and Spirit is echoed in many parts of the Church’s ministry.  We see it in the Bible – God’s written word made effective in the hearts of His people by the operation of the Holy Spirit.  We see it in the Sacraments – God’s spoken word made effective in the hearts of His people by the operation of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, the dynamic of Word and Spirit is the very stuff of our salvation: the Word of God died for us on the Cross, and the Spirit of God applies the benefits of that sacrifice unto our own spirits.

#3 – Immaturity

But it is the Gospel reading (John 4:46-54) that I most want us to explore this morning.  There we find all the themes at work together: faith, the Word, and the Spirit.  Jesus, the Word of God, is speaking the word of God, calling a man to true faith.  The official wants to see a miracle, some extraordinary work of God to make manifest His power.  Jesus sees a problem here.  “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” he rebukes the man.

This is a classic problem that we see today too: we often find ourselves wishing and asking for some sort of sign.  Copies of the Bible are on our shelves, by our bedsides, on the internet, in our phone apps, in the church facilities, all over the place, and here we are wandering around wishing God would speak to us.  And so people eagerly chase after all sorts of visions and prophecies by popular Christian authors who claim to have heard these words from Jesus himself.  Similarly, the Sacrament of Holy Communion is celebrated weekly, even daily in some churches, and yet here we are wandering around wishing God would work some sort of miracle.  Is the Spirit still alive and active, we wonder, as we scroll past emails about Confirmations, Ordinations, Baptisms and the like being celebrated all over New England, the country, and the world?  “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” Jesus wisely rebukes us.  If we would just open our Bibles and read, we would hear the word of the Lord we so desperately need.  If we would just visit our churches’ worship services, we would see the powerful work of the Spirit we so aimlessly seek.

#4 – The Need

Undaunted, however, the official keeps up his request to our Lord: “Sir, come down before my child dies.”  Regardless of the state of his faith, the man knew that he had a son who would die without God’s help.  It’s all well and good to be rebuked about insufficient faith and a lack of maturity in discerning God’s Word and Spirit, but how does that help his son right now?  We might almost perceive Jesus’ rebuke as somewhat coldhearted, there’s a boy’s life at stake, and he’s fussing around with the state of one man’s faith?  Perhaps this should give us pause for thought: the state of one person’s faith is itself a matter of life or death, not just for this world but also for the next!

The official was concerned about the life of one person, good for him.  Jesus was concerned about the eternal life of one person, even better!  So our earthly problems, while very real and very valid, are often a lot smaller than the bigger problems of life and death, salvation and damnation.  Before we freak out about money, employment, and comfort, we should be sure to know where our faith truly lies.

#5 – The Test

And so, with this official’s persistent asking for healing for his son, Jesus gives the man both an answer and a test: “Go, your son will live.”  Here’s a big moment of decision for the man.  He has been asking Jesus to come and rescue his son from certain death.  Jesus challenged his own faith first, but now is saying that the boy will live.  Is Jesus just brushing him off, or can he really be trusted to be right even though he’s not answering the request in the expected way?  The man wanted Jesus to heal the boy in person, but can he trust Jesus to heal from a distance?

This is much like the examples I’ve already talked about – we so easily and often want to hear God’s Word and see the work of God’s Spirit in one way, while God has already promised the effective presence of both in another way.  Is the Bible really good enough to be God’s voice to you today?  Is the sacramental ministry of the Church real enough for you?  Is it not enough to see people converted from service to the devil to service to Christ, or does the Holy Spirit need to sweep through the congregation with gifts of tongues and extraordinary visions for you to know for sure that He’s there?

#6 – The Provision

So this is a big moment for the official; what is he going to make of Jesus’ unexpected response?  Thankfully “the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.”  He didn’t get what he came for in the manner in which he asked, but he decided to trust that God had somehow done what needed to be done.  And as the final verses describe, he got home and confirmed with his servants that his son began to recover at the very hour that Jesus had spoken the word.  And finally he and his household believed.  He had asked for a sign, Jesus warned him that faith based on signs alone was a weak foundation, and he provided a sign on his own terms, and the man accepted it and believed.

This, too, is our position before God.  God does not heartlessly brush off our childish prayers and requests; He hears them all and provides for us, but He does so on His own terms.  St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians begins with the thanksgiving that God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3).  That means, in a sense, that everything we could ever ask for, God has already provided.  Every sign, every strengthening, every empowerment, every testimony for true faith, is already available to us through the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the Sacraments.  The Bible may not be written in a style we like, the Sacraments may not be as vivid as we might like, but they are all gifts from God that bear His promises of His presence and action.  As Isaiah said about God’s Word, “it will not return to me empty; but it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it” (55:11).  And as Paul said about the Sacrament of Holy Communion, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16).  These are the basics of our spiritual life, the solid foundational promises of God’s continued active presence among us through the course of everyday life.

Back to Basics

Jesus’ challenge to the official in our Gospel reading this morning remains a challenge for us to this day.  When life gets busy and complicated and overwhelming, we naturally tend to respond with better time management, time-saving devices, and organizational assistants, all of which eventually seem to make life even more complicated than before.  There comes a point when we’re forced to see the wisdom of the simple call to return to the basics.  What do I really need to know?  What do I really need to read?  Where do I really need to look for God?  The answers, simple and predictable as they may feel, are all but staring us in the face.  Pick up the Bible, listen to it read and preached, get a chance to study it with others.  Attend the worship services of the Church and participate in her three-fold cycle of guilt, grace, and gratitude, where we are confronted about our sinful natures, given grace to heal from our sin-sickness, and have opportunity to express gratitude to our God who has done all this for us.

There are many resources out there to help us overcome this or that challenge in life, but it’s a huge red flag that when you walk into a bookstore you’ll usually find the Religion and Self-Help sections kind of jumbled together.  That may be accurate for some religions, but that is completely untrue for Christianity.  Self-help, ultimately, is worthless.  As sinners, all we can do is sin more.  It is only the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, that lifts us out of the mire and gives us fresh strength and new life.  As Solomon or his spokesman wisely observed, “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12). That one Shepherd is Jesus Christ, and his collected sayings through the Prophets and the Apostles is the Bible.  This doesn’t mean that all other books are worthless, but that we can drown in them if we don’t keep coming back to the one book that God wrote.  If you have time and energy for reading theology, or lives of the Saints, or devotionals, or other such Christian books, that’s a great and useful thing.  But if you only have time and energy for a little bit of reading, make sure it’s the Bible you’re reading.  Of all the books, that’s the one we really need the most.

So, when in doubt, go back to the basics.  It’s no use burning out on busy and complicated things when we could be living simply and strongly on the firm foundation of Christ and his promised provisions in the Church.  Thanks be to God.

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The Character of a Confessor

King Edward the Confessor was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, except for King Harold’s brief and ill-fated reign which ended at the battle of Hastings in 1066.

A Confessor is a Saint who wasn’t martyred, yet confessed the faith through an extraordinary life.  St. Edward the Confessor was a King who cared for his people, strengthened the Church, and advanced the Gospel within his realms.  Lest I turn this homily into a history lesson, I will turn from his specific deeds of Christian charity to the Epistle text from Philippians 4 chosen to commemorate him.  For we are all called to be confessors of the faith, and thus always need to turn to the instructions of the Sacred Scriptures.

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

This is no mere “power of positive thinking” nonsense.  There is no such thing as “good vibes,” especially any that are somehow caused by good thoughts or character.  That is superstition at best, and Paganism at worst.  Rather, the biblical injunction to rejoice always is about our recognition that God is good all the time, and that all the time God is good!  Now, to be fair, there is a difference between “rejoicing” and “being happy.”  Happiness is an emotion that comes and goes with little control on our part.  To rejoice, however, is to find joy in the deeper realities of life – like the goodness of God – even if our present circumstances are saddening or otherwise upsetting.  The next verse also sheds some light on how we are to rejoice always.

5Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand.

When we are able to rejoice in the goodness of God even in the midst of worldly sorrow and pain, that joy becomes a witness.  Knowing the goodness of God, and the great grace He shows us in the Gospel enables us to forebear this life’s sufferings and challenges in a way that would be otherwise impossible.  Faith is no mere crutch for the emotionally needy, but a rock without which nothing can stand forever.  Knowing that “the Lord is at hand,” we can rejoice and forbear the worst of what this world can throw at us, no matter the cost.  The next verse drives this point home even more clearly:

6Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Now there is a real test of a mature Christian!  How often do we go about in anxiety and worry?  How paralyzing such worldly concerns can be!  And yet, in the midst of our sadness and difficulty, we have a place to turn our heads – a God who will hear.  Not only can we turn to God in prayer, but we should turn to God in prayer.  This verse is not making a suggestion, but a command: let your requests be made known to God.  Even the very act of speaking our problems aloud to God – be it in the company of other Christians or not – can be very therapeutic.  But, lest you think this too is some sort of self-help scheme, the next verse sets us straight.

7And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Whose peace will keep our hearts and minds?  Not ours, but God’s.  Will God’s peace solve all our earthly problems right away like a fairy godfather?  No, God’s peace will keep us in Christ Jesus.  This is a promise of perseverance in the faith, and in relationship with God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  There is no promise in Scripture of “Your Best Life Now,” as I’m sure you all know by now.  The Christian life is marked by its endurance of suffering more than its comfortable prosperity.  Our peace is from God, not from the world, nor from within.  And that peace keeps us safe and secure in the one thing that matters the most: in the hands of Jesus Christ our Lord.

8Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

You may be familiar with the saying, “if you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  This verse takes that thought and runs even further with it: “if you’ve got nothing nice to think about, don’t think about it at all.”  As you know, there are a lot of things in this world that are unpleasant, unsavory, toxic, and evil.  This verse doesn’t tell us to ignore life’s problems.  But it does forbid us from dwelling on evil thoughts.  If you hate the music those kids these days are listening to, stop grumbling about it and put on some Beethoven, or Sinatra, or whatever.  If the political climate of this election season keeping ruffling your feathers, stop reading so many incendiary articles and pick up a good book – or better yet, The Good Book.  For the fruit of the work of faithful Christians always makes for encouraging and helpful meditation.

9What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

Saint Paul concludes these verses with this more personal statement: he wants the church he planted to continue following his good example.  As he said a few verses earlier, “the Lord is at hand,” and now he reaffirms that the God of peace will be with us.  When you know that your parents or your boss was looking over your shoulder, you made sure you were doing what you were supposed to be doing.  Paul is giving us a similar sort of reminder: God is with you, so let that be a motivation for you as you learn to rejoice always, to forbear the difficulties of this life, to make your requests made known to God, and to receive His peace.

Final Exhortation

When we have godly earthly leaders, like when Edward the Confessor was on the English throne, it can be easier to live virtuous lives directed by the teachings of Christ through the Scriptures.  But when the world is more overtly against us, we have to put all the more effort into affixing our hearts and minds to Christ.  But no matter how much effort we find ourselves having to put in, we must always remember that our peace is not only in the Lord, but from the Lord.  When you think you have muster up your own sense of peace and quiet, you are drawing from a well that will go dry in no time.  It is only from the well of the Spirit that we find the waters of life without end.  Turn to the Lord, seek His face, receive His peace, and think on those good things that point you to Him and the truth of His Word.  Amen.

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Now What: the future of the Church

 lessons from biblical history in how the Church can survive (and thrive!)
in the midst of a hostile culture

Since January 17th we’ve spent close to 30 Sunday sermons exploring the end of 2 Chronicles and the entire books of Ezra, Haggai, and Esther, all to the purpose of learning how God’s people not only survived but thrived in the midst of hostile cultures. When you look at the world around us today, you don’t see a Christian culture. Yes, Western culture still has many hints of its Christian heritage here and there, but consider what is gone: church attendance has historically been around 50% in the USA with a brief inflation after the world wars, and now dropping dramatically through the past couple decades – here in New England church attendance is well under 10%. The millennial generation, born between 1985 and 2005, is polled to be the least religious generation ever, vast majorities reporting “none.” They don’t even pretend to be Christian like many of their parents; the veil is off. And with the cultural and legal movement to normalize divorce, sex out of wedlock, and various other deviations from biblical teachings, the gauntlet is thrown down before us.



Like this Cross, many Christians today feel like relics amidst the ruins of a long-gone past.


We know from Church history that Christians have been in worse conditions than these before; there’s no need for us to cry ourselves to sleep over our great misfortune; there’s no need to get alarmist and cry out that the end-times are upon us – that would be terribly self-centered of us to assume that all the great suffering of Christians around the world both now and in ages past wasn’t a sign of the end, but somehow ours is. No, instead, the challenge before us is to reclaim what it means to be God’s people despite the ways of the world. And although a study of Church history does provide a great deal of insight into the sorts of things we might do to get through our present period of history, we’ve instead looked at an even greater source of wisdom: the Bible.

With our exploration through these Old Testament books complete, I thought it prudent now for us to step back and look at the big picture – what have we learned over all, and how might we summarize it? I will provide in this post a comprehensive list of every sermon text and topic that we’ve had in this series. That way you’ve got a point-by-point summary of lessons of how to be a Christian in today’s America. But we also need something even simpler to turn this long list of bullet points into something comprehensible. By way of God’s great provision, our Epistle reading this morning, Ephesians 5:15-21, is a great summary of the whole series.

Look carefully then how you walk,
not as unwise but as wise,
making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.
Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery,
but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual
songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
giving thanks always and for everything
to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

As one looks at these verses, you might notice something very interesting: in a general way they line up with the First & Great Commandment – love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength. Or in the way this passage orders it, strength, mind, and heart. Check this out: Love the Lord your God with all your strength: look carefully how you walk. Love the Lord your God with all your mind: do not be foolish. Love the Lord your God with all your heart: be filled with the Spirit. Although there is much overlap, one could categorize every lesson we’ve learned from this series according to the three-fold commandment of loving God with all our strength, mind, and heart.  So here are all 28 sermon texts and topics, categorized by these three topics…

Love the Lord your God with all your strength:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,
making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.

2 Chronicles 29 taught us that godly repentance precedes godly reformation – we must look carefully how we walk.
2 Chronicles 32 taught us both to seek and value obedience over success, for true wisdom is following God’s laws, not the world.
2 Chronicles 33 taught us it is never too late to repent and change how we walk, so long as it’s genuine.
Ezra 1 & 2 taught us to answer when God calls, making the best use of the time.
Ezra 3 taught us that the size of your church doesn’t matter if the foundation is right, for God’s wisdom confounds the wisdom of man.
Ezra 6 taught us to take the risk of investing in the Church, since the world apart from God is evil.
Haggai 2:1-9 taught us that our labor in the Lord will not be for naught, for it is the best use of our time.
Esther 1:1-2:4 taught us that although we are vulnerable, Christ has the power, emboldening us to walk in his ways.
Esther 2:5-23 taught us that the Gospel is God’s project; we just join in.
And Esther 9:1-16 taught us to refrain from anger and forsake wrath, so that we walk not as unwise, but as wise.

Love the Lord your God with all your mind:
Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
2 Chronicles 30 taught us that we need to ground our identity in the person & body of Christ rather than any worldly source.
2 Chronicles 34 taught us that, when in doubt, we must go back to what the Bible teaches in order to understand God’s will.
2 Chronicles 36 taught us that Jesus promises salvation through faith despite exile.
Ezra 5 taught us to listen to God’s will through Scripture and in the Church.
Ezra 7 & 8 taught us that our teachers must have both knowledge and character to be effective.
Haggai 1 taught us first to listen to God, then to worship God, then to serve God.
Haggai 2:20-23 taught us that only in Christ is our certainty; fix your eyes on Him and disregard the world’s foolish distractions.
Esther 5 taught us that sin blinds us, and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ opens our eyes.
And Esther 6 & 7 taught us to remember that we are sinners, and that we are saved.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart:
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual
songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
2 Chronicles 31 taught us to put our treasure and our hearts in worship.
2 Chronicles 35 taught us that our strength is in what God has already given us; rather chase after “more” we should be giving thanks always and for everything.
Ezra 4 taught us that non-Christians cannot help build the Church; only those filled with the Spirit can do the works of the spirit.
Ezra 9 & 10 taught us that following God is above anything else, even family; our submission to others is out of reverence to Christ.
Hag. 2:10-19 taught to us to keep growing!
Esther 3 taught us to honor the Lord, for we reap what we sow.
Esther 4 taught us that it is as committed members of the Church that we draw upon the strength of the Holy Spirit within us.
Esther 8 taught us that the very Christian lifecycle is grounded in our solidarity, our submission to one another.
And Esther 9:17-10:3 taught us to engage faithfully with the liturgy and the calendar, as that is a key tool in our life of worship as the one Body of Christ.

To tie this all together, I suppose I should point out that Christianity isn’t for wimps. Something that has been deceptive for too much of our history as Americans is the false notion that Christianity is an easy religion to live by. Being a culturally privileged religion for so long, many have bought into the idea that suffering for the Name of Christ is a thing of the past, or at least something that happens in China and the Middle East. But the truth is that whether your culture and your government makes it easy or not, the call of Christ is a radical calling that makes demands upon your entire life.

You must love the Lord your God with all your strength. The way you walk, the way you live your life, is to be brought to bear under the law of Christ. The call to act in love toward God and neighbor is both difficult to carry out and difficult to understand when situations get tough. It’s easy for us to proclaim that abortion is murder – an evil that must be stopped. But it’s much harder to act on that loving proclamation and live up to Christ’s sexual standards ourselves, and to show compassion on women with unplanned pregnancies, and to reverse the cultural stigma against adoption, and to give the needed care to the mothers, children, families, and singles who are affected by unplanned pregnancy.

You must love the Lord your God with all your mind. Many Christians today complain about the relativism that our culture has embraced. In many cases people seem to have given up on the quest for truth, finding it easier to think that (at least when it comes to religion and worldview) everyone’s opinion is valid. While it is good to be open-minded and slow to judge when dealing with people of different views, relativistic philosophy like we see today can become a form of intellectual suicide – if you don’t know what ground you stand on, you can’t build a sturdy house! Unfortunately, many Christians also have bought into a form of relativism by trying to claim that different interpretations of the Bible are equally valid. Again this is helpful for positive communication between people who differ from one another, but again it is a sort of theological suicide if we don’t know how to ground ourselves in the truth of God. For all our posturing about biblical authority, the primacy of the Scriptures in the teaching and preaching of the Church still has a long way to go in its recovery. So it is encumbent upon all of us to study the Scriptures and read the writings of intelligent faithful Christians who help us to understand the Bible more clearly.

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart. A lot of contemporary worship music may feel somewhat trite and cheesy, going on about how much I love Jesus and want to follow him everywhere. But where the poetry may be lacking, the sentiment is very much on the right track. We are called to be a worshipping people. If you read through the Psalms you’ll find verse after verse not simply inviting us to worship the Lord, but actually saying things like “I call upon the Lord who is worthy to be praised” (Psalm 18:30) and “great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Psalm 96:4). Simply by virtue of who he is, God deserves our worship. And by virtue of who we are, we need to worship God. Coming together on Sunday mornings to worship the Lord together is a great starting point. But let me put it this way: how many meals do you eat each week? Is one enough? No? Then we must consider how we continue the life of worship throughout the week, and not leave it as just our “Sunday duty.”

Even though there is much to lament about today’s world, there is nothing to lament about the future of the Church. Throughout the Scriptures we see God’s people in danger, under persecution, mocked, overrun, and subjected to all manner of cruelty and evil. Sometimes it’s simply a picture of how evil the world is when confronted with the light of Christ. Sometimes it’s because God is punishing his people for their complacency in obeying, knowing, or worshiping Him. There is certainly much for the Church today to repent of; we must bear our present and future sufferings with humility, knowing that we have not loved the Lord our God with all our strength, mind, and heart. But we also know that our God is not just a fire, but a cleansing fire. Even for that alone we can be encouraged and give thanks.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God (1 Peter 4:12-17).

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The Gospel according to Zechariah

For the past few years I’ve been using various lectionaries (Bible-reading plans) to read through the Bible (or most of the Bible) each year.  I don’t always keep up perfectly, and sometimes end up skipping stuff to catch up, but the cumulative effect over a few years of this is that I am building up a familiarity with the Scriptures that helps me see its big picture more clearly.  This, I am convinced, is the primary reason Bible-in-a-year plans exist, and ought to be used by more Christians than the few who seem to do so at present.  It doesn’t replace in-depth study in groups or sermons, but it provides a more solid foundation for understanding those sermons, studies, and devotionals.  (And it prepares you to recognize false teachers’ inconsistencies better, too!)

One of the most helpful pieces of advice regarding how to deal with the confusing (or dare I say boring!?) parts of the Old Testament is something Jesus said to his disciples:

Jesus said, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  (Luke 24:44-47)

So Jesus himself tells us to look for Him in the Bible – particularly the Old Testament as that’s all that had been written at the time He spoke these words.  And in the process of seeking Christ in the Old Testament that means we are looking not just for his character being revealed, but also his works, centered around the death & resurrection.  And in addition to that, Jesus points out that the proclamation of the Gospel – the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness – is also drawn from the Old Testament Scriptures.

In recent days I’ve been reading the book of Zechariah, the penultimate prophet in the Hebrew tradition, and some excellent pictures of Christ and the Gospel popped up along the way.  Here’s something from chapter 12.

And the LORD will give victory to the tents of Judah first, that the glory of the house of David and the glory of the inhabitants of Jerusalem may not be exalted over that of Judah. On that day the LORD will put a shield about the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David… (Zech. 12:7-8a)


One of the hot-button issues in American politics these days (and for the past sixty years or so) is the appropriate relationship with the nation of Israel.  Beyond the post-war interest in protecting the Jewish people from another potential holocaust in the future, the creation of the state of Israel in the Middle East has been couched in theological language – not just Jewish, but allegedly Christian as well.  Verses like these from the Prophet Zechariah are often interpreted to be promises of a restored kingdom or state of Israel.  But such an interpretation is one of the same mistakes made by the Jews in Jesus’ own day – Jesus preached the coming of God’s Kingdom, and everyone hoped for (or feared) a political revolution.  But that isn’t what Jesus meant, because that isn’t what the Old Testament Prophets meant either.  Let’s read on, and you’ll see what I mean.


…and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, at their head.(Zech. 12:8b)


Ah, now this sounds like Jesus!  Just as He promised, the Old Testament is bearing witness to him.  But maybe this is his second coming to take his seat on the throne in earthly Jerusalem in the restored state of Israel?  Let’s read on for a couple more verses:


And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born. (Zech. 12:10)


Now this is explicitly fulfilled in John 19:37, where the crucifixion of Christ on the Cross is described.  Thus this prophecy is not of the restoration of a nation-state of Israel, but the spiritual Israel known in the New Testament as the Church. This is confirmed by Zechariah a few verses later, after the description of mourning ends:


On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. (Zech. 13:1)


This cleansing & sanctifying fountain, also draws on John 19, so let’s grab that quote in full:
But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.  He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.  For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, “Not a bone of him shall be broken.”  And again another scripture says, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.”(John 19:34-37)

So in the death of Jesus, Zechariah’s “fountain” is opened to cleanse God’s people “from sin and uncleanness.”  John describes it as blood & water in his Gospel book, and a river of life in his Revelation, the former from the victorious Cross, the latter from the victorious throne.  Both of these images point to none other than the life-giving gift of the Holy Spirit.  Again, God’s promises, often couched in political terms in the Old Testament, find a much greater fulfillment taking effect not just on a tiny little promised land but among all His people throughout the whole world!

In looking to understand prophesies like Zechariah’s, we must look to Jesus, the Gospel, and the New Testament witness.  The more permeated we are in these, the less distracted we will be by red herrings like the modern state of Israel, which represents an amazing turn of events in history but is not part of the biblical “plan” of salvation.  Salvation is in Christ alone, and it is to him that we look for the redemption of the world, and it is to his Body that we look for his true people and family.

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Esther Finale: Remember

This is my sermon for Grace Anglican Church on Esther 9:17-10:3.

The Place of the Book of Esther in the Canon of Scripture

Have you ever looked at a book in the Bible and wondered, “why is this in here?”  It is true that every book contributes something unique to the Bible as a whole, but that doesn’t always explain how people discerned if a book was to be canonized or not, nor does that mean the unique contribution of a given book is always obvious to the ordinary reader.

These final paragraphs of the book of Esther are a special insight into that process.  Not only does today’s final reading from Esther explain why the book was written, but it also gives us a hint of how complex the origin of Scripture can be.  The book of Esther sets forth a brand new Jewish holiday: Purim, meant to commemorate the deliverance of God’s people described in the story.  But unlike the other major Jewish holidays like the Day of Atonement or the Passover, Purim was not mandated by God through Scripture, but came up naturally in the life of the community.  So it was actually the celebration of Purim that eventually elevated the book of Esther to the level of Sacred Scripture.

As a result, for parts of Jewish history, as well as early Christian history, the book of Esther was a subject of some controversy.  For the Jews before Christ, the problem was that the book of Esther mandated a holiday that was not prescribed in the Torah – the Law of Moses.  Were they going to accept this book and its accompanying holiday even though it was so “new,” and no known Prophet had authored it?  Similarly, for the early Christians who no longer celebrated Purim because an even greater deliverance from an even greater enemy happened on the Cross, what was the point of keeping the book of Esther?  It’s just so Jewish, almost nationalistic in tone… would it have any use in the teaching and preaching of the New Covenant Church?  Obviously the answer came to be yes, but it’s worth being aware of some of those earlier questions.

The Reason for the Book of Esther

In terms of its original purpose, the whole book of Esther exists to explain the Jewish holiday of Purim, and the book itself is part of that celebration – it gets read all the way through twice.  First, on the 13th day of the month Adar it is read with solemnity at the end of a day of fasting, then on the 14th of Adar it is read in a context of joyous celebration: the children dress up (almost like Halloween), families gather and give gifts of food to one another and to the poor, just as commanded at the end of the book.

The Origin of a Holiday

Most of the Jewish holidays were directly mandated by God in the five books of Moses.  God dictated when, how, and why we were to fast and to feast.  The reasons for this are many; here are the big three:

  1. Our use and perception of time is sanctified when we subject it to a religious calendar rather than to a work calendar or a school-year calendar or a fiscal-year calendar. This way, the Gospel becomes the focus of our perception of time.
  2. In the observation of liturgical seasons and holidays different doctrines and lessons are brought to mind, allowing us to focus on various aspects of the faith together at the same times.
  3. And, perhaps most importantly, faithful celebration of holidays brings us into participation with those holiday’s origins.

Remembrance as Participation

This is very important, and something we easily miss or forget: when we celebrate a holiday, take Christmas for example, we don’t just think about the past event of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but we also receive the truth and the effect of that birth, into our own hearts and lives.  The word “remember” is a more powerful word than we usually use it.  It doesn’t just mean to “bring to mind”, but actually to “re-member” or to “put back together.”  Every faithful celebration of a religious holiday is an act of participation, or communion, with the original event.

Thus, when the Passover was commanded to be celebrated by all God’s people, the penalty for skipping it was excommunication – being cut off from the covenant community.  Why?  Not because of mere disobedience, but because participating in the Passover celebration was an act of union with the original Passover in Egypt; if you reject the Passover meal today, you’ve rejected the Passover then, and thus have spiritually died in Egypt.  Similarly, in this age of Christ, we use similar language about Holy Communion: faithful participation in the bread and wine is participation in the sacrificial death of Christ; unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ, you have no life in you.  It’s not about legalism, it’s about being a member of the Body.  It’s not a remembrance in terms of what happens in your brain, it’s a remembrance in terms of what happens in your entire being.

The Origin of Purim

Anyway, that’s how the main holidays worked.  Purim was different; there was no direct mandate from God to celebrate it.  In this case it was an organic outgrowing of the community.  After the Jews had their victory over their enemies, they quite naturally celebrated.  What Mordecai and Esther did quickly thereafter (as we heard in the second half of Esther 9) was take note of those celebrations, and write decrees that the Jews should repeat those celebrations every year thereafter, adopting this celebration of Purim as part of their liturgical calendar for ever after.  The people, in turn, received this decree happily, and Purim has remained a Jewish holiday to this very day.  It still takes place on the 13th and 14th days of Adar, which usually lands somewhere in the month of March, shortly after we begin the season of Lent.

This, in many ways, is liturgy at its finest.  A major event in the life of God’s people takes place, the people find an appropriate way to celebrate it, and the authorities that exist at the time help organize the repetition of that celebration into the future so it can be remembered for generations to come.  It’s not an arbitrary intrusion into the peoples’ lives made by the religious authorities, but a mutually-agreed observance.  “This event is part of who we are as a people,” they said, therefore those who came after them would enter into that story as part of their own identity thereafter.

The Christian Calendar

This is also a prototype for most Christian holidays.  A couple of our major holidays – Easter and Pentecost – are actually New Covenant versions of Old Covenant holidays mandated by God (Passover and Pentecost), but every other holiday and liturgical season in the Christian calendar is “man-made.”  But, like the feast of Purim, our holidays are looking back to critical events or persons in the formation of the Church and saying “this is part of what makes us who we are, therefore we must remember it.”  Again, we don’t simply bring the past events of the Gospel and the lives of past Saints to mind, but we “re-member” them, those events and people live on in our midst.  We are a joyful Christmas people, we are a guilty Good Friday people, we are a resurrected Easter people, we are a Spirit-filled Pentecost people, we are a people in communion with all the angels and Saints of God.

There are many Christians who don’t understand the origin and purpose of such holidays and seasons, who therefore don’t celebrate many of them, or even reject them as unnecessary or even unbiblical.  What they don’t realize is: what you don’t remember, you forget!  And unless the church community remembers together, the meaning of the past will become individualized.  When we observe seasons and holidays together, we bind ourselves together not just with the past events and persons celebrated, but with one another in a common understanding, a common faith.  For example, if you take away Advent from Christmas, if you lose all that time of quiet preparation where you focus on the return of Christ as King, then eventually Christmas loses some of the richness of its meaning too.  The majesty and glory of the Christ child get overtaken by sentimentalist images and songs about what that night must have been like.  This is the situation we see in many non-liturgical churches today; the more holidays and seasons are stripped away, the more superficial the remaining holidays become, and the more fuzzy many of their doctrines become as well.  This is not to say that liturgical worship is a perfect fix-all for preserving the faith, but it is a strong tether that holds the Church together as one not only in the present, but also stretching back through the centuries.

The Book of Esther’s Reminder to Remember

This is, to a large extent, what the book of Esther continues to do for us today; it shows us how and why we remember the past.  It’s not just a history book to inform us of events long past, although it does include that.  It’s not just a parable to teach us some sort of moral or theological lesson, although it does include that too.  Besides all that, the book of Esther is also a brilliant case study of how real history is recorded, celebrated, expounded, and remembered into the future.  As we read the book of Esther our history, as the people of God, is brought to mind; we are brought back to one of the major events that left an impression on the very identity of God’s people; and we are showed that it is good and useful to commemorate such life-changing events and people in our past.

A Call to Worship!

As Christians, we place our liturgical focus on Jesus Christ.  He is the man who is God, and everything about his earthly life is brimming with significance for us and for the whole world.  Thus we would do well to commemorate his conception, his birth, his circumcision, his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, his sacrifice on the Cross, his death and burial, his resurrection, his ascension, and his gift to us of the Holy Spirit.  We also do well to remember the men he called to be his Apostles, and others who played such critical roles in the Gospel story like his mother Mary, and Joseph, and Mary Magdalene, and John the Baptist.  Through the lives and teachings of these New Testament Saints, Christ is revealed to us.

Two of the 39 Articles of Religion speak to this liturgical life of the Church:

XX Of the Authority of the Church

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written…

XXXIV Of the Traditions of the Church

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

As you can see, the tradition of the Church, at its best, is perfectly in line with the authority of Scripture: never contradicting it, and never elevating itself above it.  This, too, like the final section of the book of Esther, illustrates the balance of having great respect for earthly authority while acknowledging its limits.  In our Anglican tradition, the Prayer Book is at the heart of our authoritative tradition.  Unlike the Bible, the Prayer Book and the liturgy can be revised.  Some holidays rise in prominence over time, such as the feast day for Saint Mary Magdalene, which has in recent times been bumped up to Major Feast status.  Some holidays decline in prominence over time, like when Purim and most of the rest of the Jewish holidays were discarded in favor of Christ-centered holidays, or like when the English Prayer Book was first promulgated and a huge host of old Saints Days were removed.

The goal in all of this is, as Article 34 says, that “all things be done to edifying.”  When the liturgy and the calendar are robust, and we faithfully participate in them, the Body is built up and strengthened.  Now, because we are a very small congregation and don’t hold very many weekday worship services to catch the 36 (or so) Major Feast Days that aren’t on Sundays, I’ve tried to make a point of including notes on the back of each bulletin about when such major feast days crop up.  Some of them have had special Scripture readings provided there, and soon I’m going to make sure they all do.  Please, take these bulletins home and take a look at the Scriptures for these holidays when they come up.  These holidays aren’t just there for the extra-pious or the super-Anglicans, they’re there for all of us to grow as the family of God, grounding us in the reality of a history of events and persons that have made us who we are today.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us: O come, let us adore him.

The Lord is glorious in his saints: O come, let us adore him.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God: O come, let us adore him.

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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.


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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