Esther & the Passive Life of Faith

This was my sermon for Grace Anglican Church on 7 August 2016.

The Story So Far

About fifty years have passed since the Persian Empire conquered Babylon and the new Persian King, Cyrus, issued a decree that the Jews could return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple that was there.  About thirty years have passed since that Second Temple was finished.  Now a fourth Persian king is on the throne, normally known as Xerxes though named in Hebrew as Ahasuerus.  He rules over the largest kingdom the world had known to that point – about 8% of the planet pays homage to him.

But despite this great empire, with all its power and wealth, there are still two things that haven’t bowed to him.  One was the Greek lands to the West, whom he had just tried to conquer and failed miserably.  The other was his wife Vashti whom he got rid of after she refused to be treated as an object for public viewing during a great banquet and celebration.  So now King Ahasuerus is looking for a new queen, and his young advisors (true to their tender age) have planned a kingdom-wide beauty contest.  Young virgins from all over the Persian Empire are being gathered to the citadel of Susa where they can prepare themselves to impress the King and win his hand in marriage.

How the Beauty Contest Works

This beauty contest is described as an affair of large proportions.  Women from all over are brought to Susa, collected in the King’s harem under the care of a eunuch named Hegai, and given cosmetics.  As with a number of the details in chapter 1, verse 12 here uses an amusingly exaggerated duration of time – six months of certain oils and fragrances followed by six months of others – to highlight how big of a deal this preparation process was for these girls, and the extreme lengths taken to try to impress the King.

When I say “impress the King,” feel free to give in to a depraved imagination.  Much of the language of this story uses the same words and phrases found in the book Song of Songs, and the oft-repeated phrase “go in” to the King is likely meant to be double entendre.  As the text describes, these young women would enter the King’s chambers in the evening and leave in the morning.  Like the classic tale 1,001 Arabian Nights, these women get just one chance with the King; unlike that story, though, these women at least survived their visit.  After their night with him, they were returned to the harem where they would remain – in comfort but without freedom – unless or until the King asks for her again.

For the most part, as I suppose many of you might be thinking, this is a very degrading position for someone to be in.  World history is unfortunately full of examples of such objectification of others, especially against women.  There is, however, a small nod to some sort of dignity and personality to these women: they were allowed to bring whatever they wanted along with them when they got to visit the King.  No examples are listed here in Esther, but reasonable possibilities include aphrodisiac foods or fragrances, musical instruments, games, clothing, and jewelry.  The women were able to express their personality and make use of their strengths and interests in the course of trying to win the heart of King Ahasuerus.  It was slavery, but it was not the brutal form of slavery that we are usually taught to imagine.

Esther rises through the system

 In the midst of this system arises one Jewish girl called Esther.  As the book notes briefly, Esther is her Persian name; pointing out that her Hebrew name was Hadassah.  This signals to us that even though she’s living far away from Jerusalem and the Promised Land, she’s still at least somewhat faithful to her heritage as a member of God’s people.  She’s introduced alongside her cousin Mordecai who has adopted her as a daughter.  Their family history is briefly described; the significance of the genealogy is something I’ll save for next week, but the note about when their exile began is a connection to prior biblical history.  The exile with King Jeconiah of Judah was not the final conquest of Judah, but one of the smaller defeats leading up to that end.  During those defeats, only the wealthy and the rulers were taken away captive; so Mordecai and Esther’s family can be assumed to be of some respectable noble heritage among the Jewish people.

In that light, it is probably of no surprise that Esther does pretty well for herself in this crazy Persian situation.  She was gathered up for the king’s harem, along with countless other young women, and verse 9 says she “won favor” with Hegai the eunuch overseeing the harem.  Another way the Hebrew could be translated here is to say Esther “lifted up” favor, indicating that she was actively trying to be the best she could be in her new situation.  Additionally, the word for “favor” is the same word translated in other parts of the Old Testament as “steadfast love,” referring to the faithfulness of God Himself to his covenant – the favor Esther received was serious!  Still, we can’t read into this too much; there’s no indication here that she received special treatment compared to the other women, but rather, that she rose to prominence “quickly,” according to verse 9.  Additionally, Esther is not cut off completely from the outside world.  As it turns out, Mordecai is able to stick around and hear how she’s doing and what’s going in there.  For reasons unknown to us, he instructs Esther to keep her Jewish identity a secret.  This may just be a plot device to ensure that the next chapters of the story make sense.

The way this chapter is written, Esther first is introduced, and then the beauty contest is described without mentioning her at all.  This provides some build up of dramatic tension – we hear about the selection process and get hints of what these women are able to do in order to win the king’s hand in marriage, but Esther is kept out of the picture for those verses.

Finally, Esther’s turn comes.  In verses 15-18 Esther is brought before the King sometime in December or January, bringing with her only what Hegai the eunuch advises her to bring.  Perhaps he knew the King’s favorite foods for her to bring, perhaps he knew the King’s pet peeves for her to avoid.  Most likely, though, I suspect he advised Esther simply to be herself and not try to impress the richest man in the kingdom with his own wealth.  Where the previous paragraph made a number of potential sexual references, the description of Esther’s winning of the King’s favor reads much more cleanly, though it’s still fair to say that anything could have happened when she had her night with him.

The point, at the end of all this, is not about her beauty or her womanly wiles or even her personality per se, but that she immediately won the King’s favor and was chosen to be Queen (seemingly) that very day.  Again, the book of Esther is a story-telling book, not a strict history, so we don’t want to try to over-analyze the details.  Instead, we must hear it as a story: the heroine of our story “was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her,” as verse 15 puts it.

 With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Just as chapter 1 began, chapter 2 brings us full circle to another banquet – this time in honor of the new queen, Esther!  This is a moment of triumph in the story, and as we listen to the story-teller reading us this book we can cheer along for the brave Jewish girl who has won the heart of the king.  Not only Esther, but even Mordecai is elevated at this point in the story.  He seems to have taken up an official role in the Persian bureaucracy: the “king’s gate” is a building where palace administration is housed and justice is dispensed; perhaps he has become some sort of secretary.  This closeness to the King and Queen enables Mordecai to continue his adoptive father relationship with Esther, which is an important plot point for the rest of the book.

But of course, as the gospel according to Spiderman says, “with great power comes great responsibility.”  Esther is now in a situation that can be very degrading and dangerous for women.  Remember from last week how quickly and easily Queen Vashti was discarded!  And by the way, the Persian court was not all fun and games, banquets and parties.  They also had their fair share of palace intrigue, including assassination attempts.  The final three verses of chapter 2 give us a quick straight-forward story to further advance the plot of the book.

Two conspirators gang up to assassinate the King; one of them (Bigtha) is among the funny-named eunuchs mentioned in chapter 1.  No historical record (that I know of) confirms this assassination attempt, but it is known that King Ahasuerus was killed by an assassin in 465BC who was let into his private chambers at night by a traitorous servant; so this incident fits right in with known practice of the time.  Anyway, Mordecai heard about the plot, reports it to Esther, Esther reports it to the King, and the whole plan is stopped and the conspirators executed.  A subtle irony can also be seen lurking in this story: despite the King’s strong network of palace spies who were somehow able to uncover this plot, he never figures out that Mordecai and Esther are Jewish until they reveal it a few chapters later!  Again, the powerful and wealthy king has an air of bumbling comedy about him.

This little episode also highlights one of the major themes of the book of Esther: honor and shame. We also saw this dynamic in chapter 1 as the King and his officials were trying to figure out how to deal with Queen Vashti. In this chapter Queen Esther was rightly honored as the new Queen; the King should have been honored by his eunuchs but wasn’t; Mordecai should have been honored for his help in uncovering the plot, but wasn’t; and the traitorous eunuchs were rightly shamed in their deaths. The lack of due honor toward Mordecai is an important plot device for later in this book. As far as can be said right now, these sorts of extreme situations and sudden reversals of fortune are things that continue throughout the book of Esther.

A lesson from the grammar on Passivity

As far as what we can learn from this chapter in the story of Esther, something that particularly stands out here is the proliferation of passive verbs.  It may seem like a bit of a strange thing to preach about grammar, but hear me out!  Chapter 2 is full of passive verbs – nearly everything is happening to Esther.  She does actively participate in her place in the harem, but over all she is not in charge of her situation.  She is taken to the harem, she receives advice, she is chosen by the King, she is elevated in honor… none of these things came about by her own volition.  It’s the same with Mordecai’s promotion.  Even the fact that they’re there in Susa at all is not owed to their active choices; their family was taken in exile.

To a large extent, this is how the book of Esther deals with the relationship between God and His people.  God is the one who is active; we are the ones who are passive.  We do get to act and participate and exercise our free wills, but in the big picture it is God who gets the real work done.  It doesn’t matter where you are, this truth always holds.  In heaven, angels and saints constantly worship God, but the most perfect worshiper in heaven is the great high priest, Jesus, who is God the Son.  In the Church, ministers preach the Word and celebrate the Sacraments, but it is God the Holy Spirit who refreshes our souls.  In the world, godly rulers and judges promote peace and justice in their countries, but God is the King of kings.  And even in ancient Persia, where the kings did not know God, He is still sovereign over all.

This passivity of the life of faith is one that we need to understand better.  Our culture generally derides passivity as weakness, favoring the active, the free agent, the independent thinker and doer.  But godly passivity, as described in the Bible, teaches us that we need to spend more time paying attention to what God does instead of what we do.  So what are some ways that we can develop this sense of godly passivity?  Let’s look at five examples: the ways we worship, sing, pray, read the Bible, and behave can all help us orient ourselves better around the centrality of God’s activity rather than our own.

First of all, worship should keep our focus on God.  How we approach both a worship service and a time of private devotion influences and reflects the true center of our focus.  What is your posture during worship – are you standing, kneeling, sitting comfortably?  How do each of those postures help or hinder your focus on God?  Oftentimes you’ll find different postures fit different forms of worship.  Also, where are you facing or looking at during worship?  Sitting and praying in a circle is going to be different from a congregation in pews face-to-face with the ministers, which in turn is different from the traditional ad orientem in which the minister is facing the same direction as the congregation – all toward the Altar.  And, for that matter, your surroundings also have an effect on how we focus on God – or how well we focus on God.  A crucifix sets a different mood than an plain Cross.  Stained-glass windows, icons, statues, and ornate carvings can be enhancers to an environment of worship, handled rightly.  Art and beauty can also be a distraction, handled wrongly.

Second, music should keep our focus on God.  Ignoring the strengths and weaknesses of different music styles, let’s cut to the chase with the actual lyrics.  Who’s the active party in the lyrics of a given hymn or song?  Like in today’s story from the book of Esther, there is a place for our active participation within God’s works, but we can have a tendency to overemphasize our own importance.  Consider these examples from popular contemporary worship songs:

We fall down (Chris Tomlin, 2001)

We fall down, we lay our crowns / At the feet of Jesus The greatness of mercy and love / At the feet of Jesus And we cry holy, holy, holy / We cry holy, holy, holy / We cry holy, holy, holy / Is the Lamb

10,000 Reasons excerpt (Matt Redman, 2011)

Bless the Lord oh my soul / Oh my soul / Worship His Holy name Sing like never before / Oh my soul / I’ll worship Your Holy name

The sun comes up / It’s a new day dawning / It’s time to sing Your song again Whatever may pass / And whatever lies before me Let me be singing  / When the evening comes

Oceans excerpts (Hillsong United, 2013)

You call me out upon the waters / The great unknown where feet may fail And there I find You in the mystery / In oceans deep / My faith will stand refrain And I will call upon Your name / And keep my eyes above the waves When oceans rise / My soul will rest in Your embrace / For I am Yours and You are mine

And, lest we just blame contemporary Christian music, consider also the lyrics to the hymn All hail the power of Jesus’ Name.

All hail the power of Jesus’ Name! Let angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem And crown him Lord of all!
Crown him, ye martyrs of our God, Who from his altar call:
Praise him whose way of pain ye trod, And crown him Lord of all!

Almost every verse addresses God’s people: Ye seed of Israel’s chosen race, Sinners whose love can ne’er forget, Let every kindred, every tribe…

These are all honest, pious, and doctrinally sound lyrics which are worthy to be sung by Christians.  What we want to be aware of is if we’re properly balancing our acts with God’s acts.  Consider, by contrast, one hymn we sang today:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me; It was not I that found, O Savior true; No I was found of thee.

Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold; I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
‘Twas not so much that I on thee took hold, As thou, dear Lord, on me.

I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole Of love is but my answer, Lord to thee;
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul, Always thou lovedst me.

Or consider a more contemporary song:

In Christ alone my hope is found / He is my light, my strength, my song.
This Cornerstone, this solid ground / Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace / When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All / Here in the love of Christ I stand.

The majority of that song recounts the Gospel story of what Christ has done and applies it to us, rather than focusing directly on our own works or responses.

Thirdly, prayer should focus on God before self.  The first half of the Lord’s Prayer emphasizes strongly the primacy of God, his will, and his kingdom.  The Prayers of Consecration during Holy Communion highlight Christ’s work of salvation, not our faith.  The Gospel reading we heard today (Luke 18:9-14), also is a great example of the difference between God-centered prayer and self-centered prayer.  I also wrote a blog post last week about the danger of self-interested prayer.  Yes, we bring our needs and concerns to God, and we offer ourselves to God; but we cannot allow that to dominate our prayer lives, either in corporate or in private prayer.

Fourthly, Bible-reading should focus on God.  The Bible has been described in a number of ways: “God’s love letters to his people.”  “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”  These are catchy, and do affirm important aspects about what the Bible is, but the primary purpose that the Bible exists is not to tell us what to do, but to tell us what God has done, and who He is.  In particular, the Bible reveals to us Jesus Christ and His Gospel; Jesus said so a number of times.  In John 5:39 he said “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me.”  Therefore Christo-centric reading must come before application to our lives.

Fifthly and finally, good works and pious actions should reflect and reveal God’s glorious work in us.  This is perhaps the most challenging of all; as we get the hang of getting our worship, song, prayer, and Scripture-reading focused on God over ourselves, we become ready to be transformed by the Holy Spirit into people who also direct our actions into God-centered actions.  It makes the difference between “a good person” and “a godly person.”  A “good person” performs a good deed and then explains, “I do this because I care, I love, I am spiritual, I am a Christian.”  A “godly person” performs a good deed and then explains, “I do this because God has loved me, the Spirit compels me, Christ saved me.”

 Being made Partakers in Christ

It is a challenge to get away from self-centered thinking and living.  Devoted study of the Bible and devoted involvement in the liturgy are powerful means of paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s course corrections in our hearts and minds.  We want to be active, we want to be assertive, we want to feel busy and accomplished, we want to be able to take credit for at least some of the good things we do, we want to build up our confidence and self-esteem.  But none of those things give us salvation.  In fact, most of those things hinder the work of the Gospel in our lives.  We have to let go of our egos, our desires, our interests, our strengths, and recognize that it’s in Christ alone our hope is found.  In a short-term earthly sense, we can do some good things in life, but at the end of the day, there is none good but God alone.

This is a challenge both in a person’s initial conversion to Christianity and in our continuous growth in the faith.  Evangelists can be tempted to water down the Gospel, saying, “just make a commitment to Christ,” instead of the tougher but more biblical instruction, “surrender and repent.”  Esther went through a long beautification process just to see the king, and even then it was entirely up to the king whether he chose her or not.  The Gospel picture is annoyingly similar: we are put through a lifelong process of sanctification – being made holy – and start to finish it hangs entirely on Christ’s work on the Cross and the Father’s declaration “well done, good and faithful servant.”  Our good works have a necessary part in this Gospel story, but when it comes down to it our salvation is only by God’s grace to us undeserving sinners.

Holy Communion gives a very simple picture of this reality.  Jesus said “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).  Christ provides himself to us as the bread of life and the cup of salvation.  In the course of the worship service, the bread and cup is handed to us, or in more traditionalist churches put directly on our tongues for us!  Eternal life in Christ is not something we choose, let alone earn.  Rather, it is handed to us by God; he makes us partakers in Christ.  Salvation is like a marriage: Jesus is the groom and we are the bride; Jesus chose his bride, proposed, takes her up in marriage, and a preview of the wedding banquet is celebrated in Holy Communion.

Thanks be to God: our great high priest who makes intercession for us, who bore our sins for us on the Cross, who ascended on high so we could be seated with him, who makes us to be born again, and who feeds us the food of eternal life.  As Jesus said, “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  Let us pray.  O God, who declares your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may obtain your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

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I Have a Goodly Heritage

This week I finished reading through the book of Ezekiel.  These verses in chapter 46 stood out to me:

Thus says the Lord God: If the prince makes a gift to any of his sons out of his inheritance, it shall belong to his sons, it is their property by inheritance.  But if he makes a gift out of his inheritance to one of his servants, it shall be his to the year of liberty; then it shall revert to the prince; only his sons may keep a gift from his inheritance.  The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people, thrusting them out of their property; he shall give his sons their inheritance out of his own property, so that none of my people shall be dispossessed of his property.”

Just another “boring” Old Testament law about land inheritance?  Think again!  Ezekiel makes a point of emphasizing that even if a prince gives his land to a servant, it eventually reverts to his children no matter what.  Now what does the New Testament have to say about servants versus children?
 
The heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. – Galatians 4
One of the critical parts of the Gospel message is the news that we are adopted as God’s children, or specifically sons in biblical language, emphasizing the fact that we are to receive an inheritance.  And so although there is some servant or slavery language in the New Testament (mostly referring to ordained ministers but occasionally to all Christians), the primary image of the relationship with God under the New Covenant of Christ is one of sonship.
Bringing this back to Ezekiel, the inheritance of land belonging only to the prince’s sons is a marvelous clarification of the more ancient inheritance laws found in the earlier books of the Old Testament, showing us that God’s gifts are only for his people and cannot be taken away from them in the long run.  The New Testament shows us that God has made provision for us non-Jews to enter into His inheritance also, by faith, such that there need not be any distinction between Jew and Gentile, slave or free, male or female – all who are united with Christ by faith are co-heirs with him (cf Galatians 3 & 4).  And as the middle of Romans 11 explains, God is perfectly capable of cutting out the unfaithful and grafting in the faithful, so that in the end his one vine, Jesus, and Israel, will be all his people and no pretenders.
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The land allotment according to Ezekiel’s vision; image from strictlygenteel.co.uk

 

By way of a side note, this serves as a correction to the erroneous assumptions made by a number of Christians today about the Holy Land.  To assert that it belongs the Jewish nation, people-group, or religion, is to continue to read Ezekiel (and the previous land inheritance passages of the Old Testament) as if the New Testament didn’t exist.  In other words, Christians have begun reading the Old Testament as if they were Jews, not Christians.  This is a categorical error.  Instead, when we read of the inheritance of land, we should not get caught up with trying to identify and locate ancient tribes (such arguments over genealogies are fruitless, Paul reminds us) but look to the bigger picture: the land allotment described in Ezekiel’s vision is bigger than it was in the Torah, just as the Temple in his vision was also a lot bigger, just as the New Jerusalem in John’s Revelation was impossibly huge.  Put more simply, as Jesus said, “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Thus our response to reading Ezekiel 46’s inheritance laws should be with the psalmist:

Preserve me, O God, for in thee I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “Thou art my Lord;
    I have no good apart from thee.”

As for the saints in the land, they are the noble,
    in whom is all my delight.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
    their libations of blood I will not pour out
    or take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
    thou holdest my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    yea, I have a goodly heritage.

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King Ahasuerus: to fear or not to fear

This is my sermon on the prologue of the book of Esther (1:1-2:4).

Ah, the book of Esther… those who grew up going to Christian Sunday School classes are probably already familiar with the basic story.  But, unlike a lot of Sunday School versions of Bible Stories, Esther’s story has a lot more in it than we heard as kids.  Most Bible Stories are really short, and so the kid’s version is embellished with details to capture their imagination.  Esther’s story, on the other hand, is basically a novella.  Unlike a lot of other Bible Stories, Esther actually reads like a story.  Slogging through the stories in the books of Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles is a very different feel to reading Esther.  The general tone and style of this book, as a result, has been a matter of considerable discussion among biblical scholars.  Is it a strict account of historic events?  Is it a fable or legend based on a long-lost true story?  Is it a Greek-style comedy, a Jewish drama, a Persian chronicle?  It’s something of a mixed bag.

One indicator of its rich writing style is the very beginning of verse 1.  The ESV translation simplifies the phrasing of this opening, as it reads “Now in the days of Ahasuerus,” while others like the NIV read “This is what happened during the time of Xerxes.”  The feature here that I’m pointing to is that two different standard phrases are being mashed together.  The first part – “this is what happened” – is a feature of historical writings like the books of Kings or Chronicles; the second part – “during the days of…” – is a feature of prophetic writings like Isaiah or Haggai.  By putting those two standard opening lines together into one compound introduction, the author of Esther is indicating that the style of this book is not going to be straightforward history.  There are going to be embellishments.  At first, a 21st century Bible-believing evangelical Christian might recoil hearing me say such a thing.  “Are you questioning the truthfulness of God’s Word!?”  But we must remember that just as Jesus used parables in his teaching – made-up stories to illustrate a point – so too could other biblical writers deviate from what we modern folks consider proper history writing, for the purpose of teaching us something important.  The style of the book of Esther, I would like to suggest, is not meant to be read as a straight-up historical narrative, but as a dramatized version of a true story rooted in historical events.  More specifically, as we’ll see at the very end of the book of Esther, this story has been preserved for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Purim, and the reading of this book is part of that holiday’s celebration.  Therefore, the best way to read this story, in my understanding, is to read it as if you’re a storyteller surrounded by children.  Read it loudly, with a sense of adventure, and be ready to make people laugh.

Seriously, give it a try.  Read Esther 1:1-2:4 out loud like you’re sitting on the edge of a stage surrounded by kids as their parents watch (and laugh along) from the seats in the audience.

What did I just read?

Okay, now let’s look at what’s in here that makes this story so dramatic and funny.  As a melodramatic story, there is a great deal of exaggeration, absurdity, and irony built into it.

Right away in verse 1 there is a big number: Persia is said to have 127 provinces.  Historically, there were only 20, or as many as 26 Satrapys.  The number 127 is either an over-the-top exaggeration, to emphasize the fact that the Persian Empire was the largest the world had ever known up to that point, or it’s possible that 127 is the number of sub-sections of the Empire.  Imagine if we described the USA as having 3,143 counties, instead of 50 states?  The country sounds bigger when you use larger numbers.

Next, King Ahasuerus has a funny-sound name in Hebrew: (אֲחַשְׁוֵר֑וֹשׁ) Achashuerush.  He is better-remembered in history by the name of Xerxes, which some English translations use, but his Hebrew name can elicit a bit of a giggle from the kids.  Similarly, the names of the seven eunuchs that he sends to fetch Vashti also have funny-sounding names.  According to one commentary, their names are normal Persian names, but modified a little so they’re harder to pronounce.  I guess this is a universally human thing; if you want to elicit humor from something foreign, just use a fake accent and make it sound hard-to-pronounce on purpose.

And then these banquets are described.  The lavish riches listed here are actually probably realistic.  Susa was a very wealthy city, built by artisans from across the vast Persian Empire, and some of it has been excavated by archaeologists, who have confirmed a variety of beautiful art and architecture was present.  But what is exaggerated is the 180-day party.  Even a big successful empire can’t spare its king and officials for half a year straight!  But the absurdly long length of the first celebration, on top of the lavish supplies and the two other celebrations that follow, and the “no compulsion” edict (meaning you’re allowed to drink as much as you want, even if you out-drink the king) all work together to paint a picture of something truly enormous.  Great wealth and power can be found here.

But all this grandiose display of wealth and power is brought to a screeching halt when the king sends his funny-named servants to bring the Queen to him “with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty.”  Now, you may recall Queen Vashti was hosting a banquet of her own, for the women.  This was not an uncommon thing, and the reason is actually quite familiar: it was poor taste to include women at a banquet where men are getting ridiculously drunk.  Whether the king is breaking protocol or not by calling for Vashti at the end of his banquet is beyond my knowledge, but the circumstances of his invitation are dubious at best.  Apparently, many Jewish scholars have surmised that when he said she should be wearing her royal crown, he meant only her royal crown.  And to make matters worse, the narrative explicitly says he wants to show off her beauty.  So it’s not altogether surprising that she refused.

What’s intriguing here is the king’s response to Vashti’s refusal to be treated like a mere possession.  He’s enraged, of course, and his anger burned within him along with that wine that was making his heart “merry,” but he doesn’t act according to his anger like you would expect.  He suddenly sits back, looks to his wise advisors, and asks for advice.  The narrator even makes the point of adding the fact that he always follows this procedure, of looking to the wise men of great rank in the empire.  The character of this king has just been given a bizarre twist: he’s a wealthy powerful egotist, yes, but now he’s also insecure and indecisive.  This can be pretty humorous – here’s a big powerful dude who rules 8% of the planet and can’t make decisions!  And so the kids in the audience laugh as this bumbling king stumbles around trying to figure out what he should do.  But at the same time, the grown-ups in the audience shudder as they realize this man can be extremely dangerous.  With all this power, but easily swayed by others, who knows what evil he could be manipulated into doing.  And if he’s always asking others about the law of his own country, there’s no guarantee that he’s going to remember the kind policies of his predecessors who had protected the Jews in the past.

Anyway, the advisors speak, and come up with some more simultaneously funny and worrying advice.  The “insubordination” of Queen Vashti sparks an exaggerated fear of other wives disregarding their husbands, throwing the whole country into chaos.  The self-interest displayed by these advisors is rather worrying, as they look to protect their own honor in the face of the king’s embarrassment.  It’s also kind of ironic that this king who couldn’t command his wife is now issuing an edict that all husbands should have command of their wives.

And then, at the beginning of chapter 2, some time has passed – probably a few years in which the Persians launched a catastrophic failure of a campaign against Greece.  Back home, kind of dejected, and still insecure, the king misses his wife Vashti, and again turns to advisors to solve his problems for him.  The solution makes sense in a weird way, but still is a little funny: let’s have a nation-wide beauty contest!  Once again, the king receives this advice without question, and the plan is put into action.  The story of Esther has been set up, and next week we’ll meet Esther herself.

What the audience should get out of this Prologue is not about feminism or the comedic male-female relational dynamics, as some people like to focus on.  Trying to compare Vasthi with Esther is not what this story was written for.  Rather, this story prologue is setting up the situation of King Achashuerush as a wealthy, powerful, yet indecisive man, and his court in Susa as a group of self-interested manipulative people who are just as egotistical as he is.  This spells bad news, and paints a foreboding picture for God’s people, the Jews who live in various places throughout the Persian Empire.  The contrast of power and vulnerability is unspoken by the storyteller, but expected to arise in the minds of the listeners.

What to make of this?

Now, because the book of Esther is one continuous story, it’s a little difficult for me to deliver a “sermon application” for just a small piece of it, especially when it’s just the prologue.  One thing that I can point out is the recognition of earthly authority.  The power wielded by kings and governors is very real, and can be used both for good and for ill.  Vashti stood up to that power, and was punished for it.  In her situation, I think we would all agree that she made a good decision in protecting her dignity, but the hard lesson is that sometimes the earthly authorities are corrupt and make bad decisions and we just have to deal with it.  The witness of Jesus Christ, plus the countless numbers of Jewish martyrs before him, and Christian martyrs after him, is a testimony to the reality of what happens to good people under evil regimes.  Perhaps one of the more challenging aspects to this lesson is the fact that if we do stand up against a government, we should still expect to face the punishment issued by that government, no matter the cost.  We don’t know what happened to Vashti, if she just lived in exile outside the palace or if she was executed.  In a way it doesn’t matter – the lesson is the same: she made a stand and took the consequences.

Now, if you’ll permit me to anticipate the rest of the book of Esther, I’d like to take this a step further.  Not only should we recognize the power of earthly authority (for good and for ill), but we should also recognize the authority of Christ “above all earthly powers.”  As the book of Esther continues, the entire Jewish people is put in danger of genocide, but at the last minute God rescues them.  The reality of God’s rule over all creation overrides all earthly powers.  The classic hymn A mighty fortress is our God reflects on this in verse 4 – the Word of God, “above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abides.”  With the supremacy of Christ established, it then goes on to apply it to us: “The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sides.  Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.”

As you think about that, you may find this both greatly inspiring and perhaps little nerve-wracking.  It’s encouraging to know that Christ is supreme, and the Holy Spirit is with us, and “God is for us.”  But it’s not exactly fun to think about the possibilities of persecution unto death.  I don’t want to let my goods and kindred go.  And in my more self-centered moments I might even dare ask what good it does me if God’s truth abides after my body is killed.  The uncertainty of this life is not something we like to face; we want to believe that God will make everything good and easy and right, and will do so promptly!  But that is not what Jesus promised.  In our Gospel reading this morning (Luke 19:41-47a) Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”  This was fulfilled in the year 70 during the last Roman-Jewish War when the city of Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed for the last time.  It was in light of that warning that Jesus went on to focus a lot of his final teaching time on warning his disciples to flee from that coming destruction.  He knew that powerful evil in the world would continue to bring destruction, and that even Christians would not be exempt from its effects.

To this day, we can see versions of King Achashuerush in all sorts of places.  Think about that presidential candidate who would cause such devastation if he or she got elected.  Think about that dictator across the globe whose insecurity and impulsiveness contributes to a volatile international situation.  Think about that famous historical figure who was surrounded by people feeding him evil advice, and how he went on to commit atrocities the likes of which the world had never seen, and we pray will never see again.  I don’t even have to name names, and you’re already feeling the same sense of foreboding that the audience of the story of Esther is meant to feel.  Just as the Jews were back then, so now are Christians scattered throughout the world with no earthly king to protect us.  Certain countries have positive track records protecting us or even giving us special rights, as the Persians did for the Jews early on, but that is no guarantee for the future.  We are just as vulnerable to the machinations of the world, the flesh, and the devil as any other people-group.

We are not alone!

Except there is one thing that we do have which nobody else has: a promise.  Over and over again throughout the Scriptures, God repeats the same promise to his people “I will be with you.”  When we went through 2 Chronicles we saw numerous reminders of God’s promise to Solomon to be present in the Temple for anyone who sought Him there.  In Ezra when God stirred up King Cyrus to allow Jerusalem to be rebuilt, God was inviting his people home to be with Him again.  In Haggai, God told the people “my Spirit is in your midst.”  And now, in Esther, although the storyteller does not report any special word from the Lord, the audience is expected to know the history and the covenant: God will save his people.  Jesus’ last words in the Gospel of Matthew are the same: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”

The presence of God makes all the difference the world.  No matter what happens to us – our goods, kindred, or body – God is with us.  No matter what the earthly powers do, Christ is above all of them.  No matter how unjust or wicked or deceitful earthly governments can get, the righteousness of God will eventually conquer them all.  Even when God seems far away, remote, invisible, on vacation, or whatever, the truth is that God is with us.  Jesus was not abandoned even on the Cross.  He cried out to his Father about feeling abandoned because the weight of the sin of the world was upon him – he took up our infirmities, he identified with our sufferings, he became a high priest who can sympathize with our greatest woe.  Even in death and his descent into hell, God the Son did not abandon Jesus the man.  Jesus, fully God and fully human, went through death, made it a paradise, and in three days returned to earth to declare the good news.  As Psalm 30 (verse 5) wonderfully puts it, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

There is much in this world that is evil, much in this world that is scary.  It alright to be nervous; it is natural to recognize danger and shy away from it.  Sometimes the Lord tells us to flee from the wrath to come; that is good.  Sometimes the Lord raises people up to confront the world’s evils; that is also good.  Don’t assume upon yourself the role of the hero without God’s calling.  Don’t sound the retreat without God’s calling either.  If you see calamity coming, seek the Lord in prayer.  There’s a time to dig in, stick it out, endure what’s coming, and be a light in a dark place; and there’s a time to “move to Canada” as we Americans sometimes like to joke when faced with unfavorable political situations.  What’s important is that no matter who’s on the throne of Persia, or in the White House, or holding the judge’s gavel in front of you, Christ is the Lord above all earthly powers, and in His time justice will be served.  As our Lord (and many of his angels) said over and over again: Do not be afraid; peace be with you.

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On Self-Interested Prayer

It’s been nearly ten days since the Republican National Convention of 2016 opened with a controversial prayer that raised both enthusiasm and face-palms from people across the country.  It was interesting to me watching how people responded to it.  The vast majority of critics were pastors, theologians, and otherwise intelligent & educated Christians.  And they weren’t just in my denomination, but from a variety of traditions, so there was clearly a broad Christian negative response to that prayer, and it was clearly a negative response.  If you’re so inclined (and patient) you can watch a video of it, which I have linked above, assuming that copy on YouTube remains up.  Otherwise, here is a transcript.

bad prayerAh, where to begin?  There are several layers of problems involved here – from his introduction, to the context of the prayer, to the content, wording, and so forth.  Thankfully I am by no means the first blogger to provide a critique of Mark Burns’ oratory at the RNC, so I am free to point out specific things that others have only glossed over.

First of all, there’s an issue with his self-introduction.  A Pastor is supposed to be a representative of his Lord, Jesus Christ, or at the very least a representative of his Church or congregation.  But instead he identifies himself as a resident of South Carolina.  Sure, that state has a reputation for having a lot of Evangelical Christians in it, but why couldn’t he have just said so?  As a Pastor, his priority is the Gospel, of which he makes no mention in his entire speech or prayer.  Hans Fiene, writing for The Federalist, expounds Mark Burns’ massive missed opportunity for Christian witness here.

A second issue is his identification of Donald Trump as a man who believes in Jesus Christ.  Yes, there was an article floating around recently about how Dr. Dobson claimed Trump has just converted to Christianity.  But the fatal flaw in that claim is that Trump was purportedly “led to Christ” by Paula White, a known “Word of Faith” heretic.  So any claim of Trump’s conversion is erroneous at best, and at worst, blasphemous, as Anne Kennedy has pointed out on her blog at Patheos.  Because, really, at this point, they’re just using the name of Jesus purely for the sake of political gains.

Thirdly, this prayer was introduced as a Benediction, but it wasn’t.  A biblical scholar much more famous than I, Peter Enns, has pointed out the difference between a benediction and a prayer in a recent article, as well as pointing out the general biblical context for why this attempt of marrying the cause of the Gospel with the cause of politics is such a silly idea.

As for the content of the prayer itself, John Mark Reynolds on Patheos has provided an excellent line-by-line examination of why this prayer is just so terrifically terrible.

With these references and links in place, I am free now to throw in my two cents regarding another issue of this prayer.  Structurally, many formalized and public prayers contain the same basic ingredients: 1) an address, 2) a request, 3) a reason, and 4) a closing.

An Address is to God, and usually names something about God’s identity or works that has to do with the request that is coming up.  In this prayer, the address is the simple cliché “Father God.”

The Request in this case begins with a thanksgiving, which is fine.  The content of this thanksgiving is quite presumptuous, however, in its assertion that God is guiding Trump and giving him the words to say.  Such a claim should never be made lightly, and the previously-linked articles have already deconstructed all legitimacy to Mark Burns’ claim of Trump’s divine endorsement.  Other parts of the request are fine: “give him the words, give him the peace,” are good prayers for anyone. “Give him the power and authority to become the President” is not a request I could personally say “amen” to, but as prayers go it’s a legitimate request.

The Reason for the request is where what any shred of decency this prayer had is utterly lost.  A good thoughtful public prayer is biblical.  When we ask our heavenly Father or the Lord Jesus Christ for one thing or another, we do so in the name of Jesus and we (at least try to) ask it according to his will.  Thus, when providing a reason for our request, we make a point of saying something biblical or theologically accurate.  “For Your glory, O Lord” is an easy example of a good reason which fits pretty much any request we could ever make of our Creator and Savior.  Mark Burns’ reason, however, is “Because we are the U.S.A. and we are the conservative Party under God.”  Excuse me?  National and political affiliation has absolutely no bearing upon our place before God and our right to ask our heavenly Father for anything.

And so this is why I’ve entitled this blog post “On Self-Interested Prayer.”  Mark Burns’ prayer at the RNC is an example of a prayer asked out of expressly self-centered motives.  If he desired the glory of God he should have said so.  If he meant to say it but forgot, that is no excuse for a purportedly Christian Pastor.

Our practical take-away lesson from this nationally-viewed debacle is that when we pray, we are to seek God with His glory in mind.  The Lord’s Prayer says “thy will be done.”  Every time we “pray” with our own motives in charge, we are blaspheming the name of Christ by putting ourselves before God as people who are worthy through our own merit to make demands of God.  No, Christ told us that there is one way to the Father, and it is through himself, the Son.  Even after we are Baptized into the Christian faith and become members of the Church, we still only ever approach God through the one mediator Jesus Christ.  To throw off our need for Christ in prayer is to claim a relationship with God that we simply don’t have.  When you pray, seek the purposes of God, and let yours fall by the wayside.  Trust Jesus on this one; it’s for the best.

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Haggai part 4: Hope for the Future

Introduction to Haggai 2:20-23

We’ve reached the end of Haggai’s short book.  This is the fourth and final sermon, or word from God, that Haggai received and recorded for posterity.  Last week we looked at his “bad news and good news” message about the contagious sinfulness of the people and the promise of God’s blessings on the people.  I described, that day, that Haggai was speaking to a large audience including priests and laypeople.  Well, on the same day that he delivered that word, December 18th, he also got this final word, specifically for the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel.  This brief message, or sermon, was a message of hope and consolation that God is still sovereign, still in control, and has a plan for his people down the line.  Where the previous sermon promised temporary blessings (namely good crops in the coming harvest), this sermon promised blessings that would be much more long-lasting in impact.  In fact, these promises would have eternal effect!

Historical Exposition

God makes two promises in this sermon.  The first one is that God will “shake the heavens and the earth,” and the second is that he will make Zerubbabel a signet ring.  Haggai packs a lot of material into just three verses, so let’s unpack it a bit and get a better sense of what he’s talking about.

The first promise, to shake the heavens and the earth, is similar to something we heard earlier in chapter 2.  The previous mention of the shaking of the nations resulted in the treasures of the nations of the Gentiles pouring into Jerusalem and the Temple; this mention of the shaking of the nations leads to their subjection under God’s kingship.  Look at how verse 22 repeats itself emphatically: God will overthrow thrones, God will overthrow chariots and riders, God will destroy horses and riders, they will “go down” by the sword.  Horses and chariots were like the tanks of their day – fast, defensible, maneuverable, and intimidating to the ordinary foot soldier – they were not just symbols of military strength, they were military strength!  But Haggai insists that God will sweep away these foreign kingdoms and their armies.  His “shaking” of the heavens and the earth will be like the shaking of a sieve: all the wicked will fall through, and all God’s people will remain, safe and sound.

The second promise is that God will make Zerubbabel a signet ring.  Zerubbabel, you may recall, was the governor of Judah and grandson of Jehoichin, the last king of Judah.  He stands in the royal line of David.  Making him a signet ring is a gesture of giving him power and authority, an acknowledgment of his royal heritage.  This falls short of making him king, which might have been disappointing for the Jews as they continued to live under Persian rule; nevertheless the image of the signet ring was an encouraging picture of God’s commitment to King David and his descendants.  And more than that, it was also an act of redemption.  In Jeremiah 22:24, God says that even though Jehoichin was a signet ring in his hand, he would tear him off!  Thus what Haggai gets to do here is “reverse the curse” – at least partly.  The faithless kings of Judah once again have a faithful man whom God chooses to lead his people.

Theological Exposition

Lest we just look at these words of God through Haggai as merely of historical interest, we should now dig in further: what do these promises really mean, and how did God carry them out?  Both the shaking of the world and the giving of the signet ring point to the same event.

In various psalms, major events in the history of God’s people are poetically described to have occurred with the shaking, trembling, or quaking of the world.  Two events in particular are highlighted with this epic style of language: Psalms 68:8 and 77:18 both refer to the Exodus event, the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of Egypts’ charioteers as a shaking of the earth; and Psalm 18:7 describes God’s choosing of David to be king as an earth-shattering event as well.  Considering that both chariots and signet rings are mentioned here in Haggai, easily reminding its hearers of the drowned chariots of Egypt and the signet ring of the royal line of David, the promise of God shaking the heaven and earth once more should indicate something on a similar magnitude as the exodus or the establishment of the monarchy.  In fact, even better, both of those events led to the establishment of a major covenant: the first to the Mosaic Covenant, and the second to the Davidic Covenant.  Both the Priesthood and the Kingship are established in these epic and grandiose moments of history!

For God to say that he will shake the earth once more is to suggest that another covenant is to be established, and someone greater than Moses or David is going to be raised up.  Zerubbabel is identified here as a “chosen servant,” but we know from this text and from history that he didn’t amount to much.  He was a good leader in his day, but he was no Savior.  He is remembered in the book of Sirach (49:11-12) very simply “How shall we magnify Zerubbabel?  He was like a signet on the right hand, and so was Jeshua the son of Jozadak; in their days they built the house and raised a temple holy to the Lord, prepared for everlasting glory.”  Instead, to see the great shaking of the heavens, we must look to the Cross.  There we see Jesus leading his people out of bondage to sin towards the Promised Land of the Kingdom of Heaven, and we see a King from the line of David enthroned to reign for ever and ever.  Or, you could say, the signet ring is on the hand of Jesus.

 “Now What?”

Now, as we turn to look at what Haggai’s sermon has to teach us in our own day, perhaps now is a good time for me to refresh our memories as to why we’ve been going through these Old Testament books in the first place.  I’ve named this sermon series “Now What?” based on the idea that Christians are no longer the majority force driving Western culture.  As a result of this change of status, we Christians have to re-learn how to be a minority, and more especially, one that is not always liked, appreciated, respected, or even tolerated.  And so we’ve been going through 2 Chronicles and Ezra and Haggai to see how God’s people can survive (and thrive!) in the midst of a hostile culture.

There are different phases in the life of God’s people through this period of Old Testament history, and our present situation relates to each of them in different ways.  In one way, we are still in decline, like those late kings of Judah we looked at during Lent.  As a large number of people who claim to be God’s people continue to reject him and his Word and Sacraments, the Church as a whole continues to grow weaker and sicker.  We have to take our queues from the good kings of that period of decline to show us what true repentance looks like, and how to turn this ship around.

In another way, we’re like the Jews in captivity after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem.  We live in a country that promotes sin and evil and has a disdain for the truth of God.  We are like strangers and foreigners in our own land, and so we have to learn from God’s people in that period of Old Testament history how to be faithful to God without the support of the government, looking instead to the community of the faithful – the Church – as the center of our identity as God’s people, and the place where we are grounded in God’s truth.

And in yet another sense, we’re like the exiles who returned to Jerusalem and are rebuilding upon the ruins of the old.  This is where Haggai particularly comes in.  The people have been released from the punishment of exile, and are happy to be home, but that doesn’t make them immune to sin and corruption and faithlessness!  Many of you have left one church or another and found refuge here in the ACNA – the Anglican Church in North America, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe from sin and temptation.  What we rebuild and how we rebuild it is very important.  There are good legacies to restore, like how the ancient Jews got to rebuild the Temple, and there are bad legacies to leave out, like the pagan shrines, altars, and unjust ways of living.

Application

What I think we should particularly receive from Haggai today, especially this ending part of the book, is the lesson of keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.  It sounds simple, but it’s really quite profound and really quite crucial.  Haggai told Zerubbabel and the people that God was going to perform another earth-shattering event, and that he would make Zerubbabel a signet ring.  As I’ve already explained, that means that God wanted his people to know that something great was yet to come – something greater than the Exodus with Moses, or the Kingship with David.  Rather, that something was a Savior, Jesus Christ, who would judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous, who would lead his people in a new exodus out of their bondage to sin and death, who would take the throne and signet ring of God’s eternal kingdom.  We, as God’s people, are therefore invited to look to the very same promises in the course of our lives.  As we seek to establish a Christian way of life for ourselves and perhaps rebuild the Church in this land, we must keep our hope fixed on the ancient promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ, especially on the Cross, though also in his promise to come again.

In case it isn’t clear by this point, I should point out that Israel’s story is our story too.  These Old Testament stories are not about “those people back then;” we Gentiles have been grafted in to join “those people.”  There is only one people of God, after all.  When we become Christians we are imported into the true spiritual Israel of God.  These promises to Abraham, Moses, and David, are fulfilled in Jesus, to whom we are united.  They looked ahead to Jesus, we look back to Jesus.  Promises to the people in the Old Testament that God’s Kingdom was coming are echoed in what we in the New Testament experience when we hear the words of Christ Jesus, preaching the arrival of that Kingdom.  Constant reference to the past reminded them, and us, that we are part of God’s covenant legacy, the story he is unfolding through history.

So when we read Haggai, or any other Old Testament Prophet, we should find the same encouragement that the original hearers got, and even more encouragement than they because we have seen the Savior, the “salvation that God has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to his people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32), of whom we are a part.  They heard, as the book of Hebrews put it, the “sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them” (12:19).  They could not see where God’s promises led.  But we have the word of “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (12:24).  We do see where God’s promises led.  And even though the story of salvation still is not quite over, we have the final decisive piece of the puzzle, “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.  And thus let us offer to God acceptable worship” (12:28-9), because we have seen God’s greatest act of love on the Cross, God’s greatest show of power in the Resurrection, and God’s greatest promise of glory in the giving of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost!

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John Keble & the Protest of the Innocent

Today In History: Church Decline & Revival

On 14 July 1833, John Keble preached a famous sermon that inspired a religious revival in England and spread to Anglican churches across the world.  That sermon was entitled “National Apostasy,” and it called out the movement towards secularism in the English government, and the liberalizing tendency amongst Christians to turn away from recognizing the true Church of Christ.  It was becoming fashionable to make religion a private matter; you, the individual, get to forge your own relationship with Jesus in whatever sort of faith community you feel ‘works best for you.’  The result of this movement is what we see today as normal: hundreds of denominations to choose from, countless churches and Christians with no accountability to godly authority, and a pervading sense of spiritual anarchy whenever difficult questions in society come up that ought to provoke a “Christian” response.

Keble was insistent that the Church was founded by Christ and the Apostles to be unified – to be one Body.  Although it can and should look different according to local culture and nationality, its unity should be clear both regionally and globally.  If he could see how things have progressed since his famous sermon 183 years ago, he would be most unhappy to see how much more Christian unity has dissolved.  But he would not be without hope.  Towards the end of his sermon, he said,

I do not see how any person can devote himself too entirely to the cause of the Apostolic Church in these realms. There may be, as far as he knows, but a very few to sympathise with him. He may have to wait long, and very likely pass out of this world before he see any abatement in the triumph of disorder and irreligion. But, if he be consistent, he possesses, to the utmost, the personal consolations of a good Christian: and as a true Churchman, he has that encouragement, which no other cause in the world can impart in the same degree:—he is calmly, soberly, demonstrably, SURE, that, sooner or later, HIS WILL BE THE WINNING SIDE, and that the victory will be complete, universal, eternal.

Keble was confident in the promises of God.  As the Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy will be done.”  He believed it.  Even if he stood in a ridiculed minority, mocked for being a stodgy old churchman with antiquated religious views and an intolerance for diversity, he was convinced that Christ would indeed vindicate his people and return for his Bride, the Church, at the end of the age.

In the Bible: Psalm 26’s Cry of the Innocent

Despite this rather political sort of introduction to John Keble, he is remembered just as much (if not more) as a poet.  He didn’t just love the Church as an institution, but he loved her liturgy and worship as well.  Keble wrote a series of poems reflecting on each Sunday and Holy Day in the Church Year.  These expressions of spirituality, love, devotion, and theology were very popular in the 19th century, going through 95 printings during his lifetime alone!  Because of this poetic side to him, I thought it would be nice to take a look at today’s Psalm more closely.  Psalm 26 is appointed for this commemoration of John Keble because it reflects his life so well, so let’s look at what this poetic book in the Bible has to teach us as well.

The first three verses are a plea to God for justice. “Vindicate me…  Prove me, O Lord, and try me… test my heart and my mind.  For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness.”  It is the voice of one who stands as innocent, surrounded by liars and wicked opponents.  John Keble certainly felt that way when he was writing his sermon, “National Apostasy,” and there are many situations today in which we, as Christians, also feel like a tiny bastion of faithful people surrounded by a sea of evil.  But lest we claim our innocence wrongly, the Psalm continues with a description of what this innocence is.

Verses 4-8 describe what it is to be innocent.  “I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites.  I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked.  I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O Lord, proclaiming thanksgiving aloud, and telling all your wondrous deeds.  O Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells.”  Can we really say this about ourselves?  How often do we end up sharing fellowship with liars and hypocrites?  Do we really “hate the assembly of evildoers,” or just certain types of evildoers?  Do we really invest our energy in worship, washing our hands by confessing our sins and coming to God’s altar to proclaim his thanks and praise?  Do we actually “love the habitation of his house” the Church?

It is easy to be self-righteousness.  The anger and urgency of Keble’s writing could easily be perceived as such.  But he was motived by love for Christ’s Church, and his “hatred” was, at his better moments, in line with God’s “hatred” of sin and Church-destroying teachings and activities.  It is easy to “wash our hands in innocence” like Pontius Pilate – only giving an outward appearance of repentance.  But Pilate still sent Jesus to be crucified.  This sort of thing happens all the time – even in American politics.  One of the stranger articles floating around the internet these days is the claim that Donald Trump just became a born-again Christian.  But the claim also says that he was led to Christ to by Paula White, a famous false teacher of the heretical “Prosperity Gospel.”  In a desperate move to wash the hands of a presidential candidate, some people have seen fit to convince themselves that Trump is a Christian like they are.  We must look beyond mere outward claims of innocence, and look to the heart – do we really love the place where God’s glory dwells?

The last four verses of the Psalm return to the plea for God to spare us in the time of judgment, when the wicked are swept away.  It is accompanied with the promise to “walk in integrity.”  This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the whole thing.  Being people of integrity is not a value highly favored in our society.  You’ve gotta say the things that will get you elected.  You’ve gotta do the things that will impress your boss.  You’ve gotta live your life the way that makes you happy, regardless of anyone else.  These, and other lies, all draw us away from being people of integrity – people who keep our word, people who honor God, love what is good, and hate what is evil.  Life too easily is turned into a game of people-pleasing.

Loving God through His Church

What Psalm 26 teaches, and John Keble demonstrates, is that a real Christian life is one focused on the Body of Christ.  Our joy in the Lord is not just a private sordid love affair between “me and Jesus,” as some traditions today have asserted.  Rather, we are grounded in a community, the Body of Christ, the Church, centered around “the habitation of God’s house, the place where his glory dwells.”  When we say we follow Christ, but the Church is just a peripheral feature of our faith, we may have heard the call, but we’re missing what our Lord Jesus has called us to.  The Christian life is a journey through this life into eternal life, a transition from the kingdom of this world to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Remember the Beatitudes, which we heard in the Gospel reading: several times the “kingdom of heaven” is repeated as the final destination of God’s blessed people.  The Kingdom is being built by Christ; the Church is the visible appearance of that Kingdom in the world; if we claim to love Christ, we must also learn to love his Bride.  And it is in the context of that love that our hearts are transformed to love what God loves and hate what God hates, untainted and undistracted by our own sinful nature.

You may not remember much of John Keble’s story soon after reading this, but you do have access to a Bible.  Revisit Psalm 26 from time to time to remind yourself of what true innocence looks like.  Let its sacred poetry teach you, correct you, bring you to repentance, and fill you faith, hope, and love.

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Haggai part 3: Blessings Despite Sin

The story of Haggai 2:10-19

The date was December 18th, about sixteen years after Jerusalem began to be resettled with Jewish people returning from exile.  The Altar and Temple foundation had been built, but then construction was abandoned for sixteen years.  A few months ago, Haggai the Prophet had received some words from God that it was time to get back on track with building the Temple, and the Jews and their leaders were beginning to respond positively to this call.  And now, for a third time, Haggai receives a word from God.  He gathers around him an audience, including both clergy and laymen, and announces “I have some bad news and some good news.”

The people look at each other and groan a bit.  “We already know the bad news,” they grumble.  “Back in August, you got us all excited about getting this Temple built up, and we started giving sacrificially towards the project.  But then the harvest came in and our crops were terrible.  Grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives – you name it – we barely got anything out of it.  Now we’ve got a fruit shortage for our own food, a shortage for the resultant wine and oil for God’s sacrifices, not to mention a shortage of seeds for planting these fruits next year!  Now we’re planting the wheat and the barley grains for the latter harvest, and if these also fail we’re hosed for the next couple years!  We’re on the verge of famine, business is terrible, we’ve already given so much away to God, and we’ve got nothing to show for it.  Thanks, Haggai, but we already know the bad news.”

Haggai patiently shakes his head and turns to the priests.  “Help me with some teaching from God’s Law.  When serving in worship, you carry the sacrificial meat in the fold of your robes up to the altar.  If your robes then touch some other sort of food, does that food also become holy like the sacrificial meat?”  The priests answered, “No, the ordinary food remains ordinary food.”  Haggai continues; “Alright, now, what if someone who is ceremonially unclean touches that ordinary food?”  The priests answer, “that food becomes unclean.”  Haggai nods and explains, “That’s the bad news; it’s the same with this people, this nation, and all their works.  Despite these tough economic times, they still haven’t turned their trust over to God.  Therefore they are unclean.  Therefore the offerings they bring to you to bring to the altar are also unclean.”

A great murmuring spreads among the priests and the people.  “Our holy sacrifices at the altar, offered in good faith and obedience, according to the Law, are still unclean?”  “I thought even if our offerings were imperfect, they’d be made holy by virtue of the priesthood!”  “If unclean offerings have been burnt on the Altar of God, does that mean we have desecrated the Temple, God’s own house?”  “This is very grave news, indeed!”

Haggai quieted down the crowd and continued.  “Just as I said in my first message from God, back in August, I say to you again now in December: Consider your ways.  How was your situation before you began building the Temple a couple months ago?  The stores of grain and the wine and the oil were not even half of what they ought to be.  If you remember, I also said back then that your money was going into purses with holes in them.  Back then, and since then, God struck you and all the products of your work with both extremes: a dry withering wind, and a damp rotting mildew.  Yet you did not turn to the Lord.  But now it’s December 18th; consider your ways, and see what the Lord will do.  Yes, the first harvest of the year has failed.  But here is the good news: from this day on, God will bless you.”

Explanations & Applications

That is the story of Haggai’s third of four sermons that we heard from chapter 2.  Haggai’s first sermon was mostly bad news – “consider your ways;” his second sermon was mostly good news – “God promises a glorious restoration;” and this third one balances the bad and the good together.  The bad news was not about crops and famine, poor business and poverty; the bad news was sin.  The people, despite having been stirred up to increased obedience to God over the previous few months, were still living in a self-centered world where food and money were their top priorities and concerns.  The good news was that there is grace for those repent, and blessings from the Lord on the way.  Several lessons for us today come through Haggai’s teaching here.

#1 – Grow in Faith

First, of all, if you’ve been following along carefully through the book of Haggai, you might have noticed that both times previously we’ve heard about God’s people responding faithfully to God’s word.  But if they responded with faith then, and now they’re being told they’ve been unfaithful, what’s going on?  The observation worth making here is that people grow in faith.  It’s a step-by-step process.  Sometimes Evangelical Christianity talks about faith like it’s an off-on switch.  You meet Jesus, the Holy Spirit indwells you when you “come to saving faith,” and your faith switch is turned on.

But the reality isn’t that simplistic.  Faith is a spiritual gift that we grow into – just like how we grow in hope and love.  Sometimes we grow in leaps and bounds, and sometimes we grow very slowly.  The people experienced some extremely good growth in faith in response to Haggai’s earlier preaching – their recommitment to the Temple-building project is ample testimony of that.  But they still had a long way to grow, and that’s what we see being identified here in Haggai’s third sermon.  Although some good new habits of faith are being developed, there still remain some trust issues in the hearts of God’s people.

If you’re still worrying too much about food and money, you haven’t placed as much trust in God’s provision as you could have done.  Jesus teaches the same thing in Matthew 6; “do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.

#2 – Sin is Contagious

Another lesson we get here is about just how big of a deal sin is.  There have been times in Christian history where perhaps sin’s damaging effects have been over-emphasized, and penitential disciplines got rather bloated beyond what is biblically necessary and appropriate.  The Reformation did much to restore that balance.  But since then we’ve swung in the opposite direction; today we downplay the damaging effects of sin so much that many Christians seldom even confess their sins anymore.  Catholic and Anglican Confessional booths are in wide disuse, and the majority of Evangelical worship services don’t include any sort of confession of sin at all.  We take sin in stride; “everybody does it, what’s the big deal, isn’t God more gracious than my sins?”

Correcting this laissez-faire attitude, Haggai directs the priests to realize that uncleanness is more contagious than holiness.  So the Old Laws went, if someone touches a dead body (or does anything else that makes them unclean), then also everything and everyone they touch also becomes unclean.  It’s like cooties in elementary school – once it’s on you, everyone has to stay away.  This wasn’t just a game, though, it was a picture of how quickly and easily sin spreads both in a person’s life and in a community.

I daresay we’ve seen this very dynamic happening across the country over the past couple years – even this past week – as more black people are being shot by police officers, and police officers are being shot by other civilians.  One sin provokes another, which inspires another, which leads to another… sin naturally begets a vicious cycle, and it takes great care and caution to make it stop.  Yes, “the blood of Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7), but the more unrighteousness we drum up in the meantime, the more damage we do to ourselves and to others in the course of this life, and the more we hamper the good work of the Gospel.  Not only must we be careful to identify our own sins and faults, but also our handling of the sins of others.  Do we cheer when others suffer or sin?  Do we ignore the plight of the innocent and the needy?

#3 – Receive God’s Holiness

On the flip side of the lesson of sin’s contagious nature is the disappointing reality that holiness is not contagious in the same way.  Yes, good deeds can inspire further good deeds, and certainly good habits set us up for holier lives; but the “fun factor” of works of the Spirit is nowhere near as high as for works of the flesh.

Haggai’s audience had fallen into a sort of superstitious mindset, assuming that because the Priests were handling the sacrifices, their offerings were made holy.  But that isn’t how it worked.  Imagine you robbed someone, or cheated someone out of a lot of money, and then you decided to do something good with that money and you go way past the basic tithe and gave half of that money to the Church.  Does that stolen money become an honorable offering to God just because you put it in the basket and I prayed the offertory thanksgiving over it?  No, of course not.  Like the blood money that Judas returned to the Pharisees after betraying Jesus, it’s an unclean thing that isn’t worthy of being offered to the Lord.  The right thing to do is go back and un-do the sin and restore what has been lost, plus restitution.

For holiness is not simply about “getting around” our sinfulness, nor is it about “making up for” our sinfulness.  Rather, holiness is what God the Holy Spirit gives to us from his own divine source.  Sin is our own, and so we’re free and able to share it with anyone and everyone.  But holiness is not our own; it is a gift from God, and only He can instill it in us and give it to others.

#4 – Recognize God’s Blessings

Last of all, the promise of God’s blessing at the end of Haggai’s sermon is important to observe and understand.  Remember that the people have just been scolded for their sinful lack of trust in God.  They began to have faith, they began to obey, but they still sin and fall short of the glory of God – they still deserve punishment.  This is true with you and me as well; we all still sin and fall short of the glory of God, and therefore rightly deserve punishment.  Only by God’s grace, and his promise of mercy to those who turn to him, is any serious blessing possible.

This is especially illustrated in the fact that God promises to bless his people with fertile crops before they have a chance to respond to this latest chastisement.  This flies in the face of so-called Health Wealth Gospel preachers out there who say silly things like we deserve God’s blessings, or that we can invoke God’s blessings.  No, God blesses his people on his own terms, and that often has absolutely nothing to do with our initiative, and sometimes is not even related to our faithfulness or obedience!

Therefore, we can never expect God’s blessings of prosperity upon our lives as if it’s inevitable that God will make us rich.  Sometimes he does give wealth to his people – be it through a good job, a successful business venture, good connections, family inheritance, or through the sheer generosity of others.  But most of us don’t see great wealth in the earthly sense, and have to understand what God’s blessings are, without the health & wealth image.

To this, I think St. Paul’s words to the Philippians are particularly helpful to keep in mind: “I do not complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.  I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (4:11-13).  That’s the deal: Christ is with us to strengthen us to get through “all things,” be it abasement or abundance, plenty or hunger.  When we share testimonies of God’s great love for us, it’s worth noting how He has blessed some in wealth, blessed others in poverty, and blessed others in between.  God is not a one-trick pony, so the stories of our experiences with Him should probably reflect that.

Concluding Thoughts

So Haggai’s bad news of sin and good news of blessing is really quite a standard story or sermon of God’s actions.  He afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.  He calls out our sinfulness and shows us the way out of it.  He shows us how hopeless we are and then rescues us.  This is the Gospel, really, and no matter how it plays out in anyone’s life, it’s always dramatic.  Our perspectives and cultural biases may not always recognize the drama of the Gospel – the repentance and salvation of a serial killer is always going to look bigger to us than the repentance and salvation of that kid you knew in school who was generally a “nice guy.”  Sometimes the gift of faith is given in abundance and a life is drastically changed overnight.  Sometimes God’s blessings are poured down from heaven and a tough life situation is transformed into a dream-come-true.  Or sometimes spiritual growth is measured in decades instead of days, and the transition from the newly-weds’ apartment to a family house takes many years.  The way God grows us and blesses us and gives us gifts is different for everyone, so we can’t get too caught up with any one-size-fits-all model for a “good Christian testimony.”

But we are called to grow, and as far as we are able, we must seek closeness with God, we must practice obedience, we must ask the questions of faith in order to learn and follow Christ more accurately.  God will bless us in his own time and in his own way.  We cannot presume upon his grace, not because he doesn’t love us, but because grace is (by definition!) free.  If we had to earn grace by our good works or by “being faithful enough,” then grace would not be free, grace would not be a gift, grace would not be grace.  After all, considering how contagious sin is, and how easily it can just eat up holiness, any religious system that requires us to earn God’s grace would just be a picture of utter hopelessness.  If God did not choose to have mercy, there would be no mercy, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Thanks be to God for his great grace!

Let us pray.

Lord of all power and might, Author and Giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

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