It's early in a new year, and people are full of predictions of what 2007 will bring. Many of them, keen to proclaim the end of the church, the end of faith and consign Jesus Christ to the history books... I've been reading Richard Dawkins book, The God Dellusion. Brian Eno writes on the back cover writes: “I see this as a book for a new millenium, one in which we may be released from lives dominated by the supernatural”.
People love to predict the future... “Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further developments.” Julius Sextus Frontinus, Roman engineer, A.D. 10.
“Despite the trend to compactness and lower costs, it is unlikely everyone will have his own computer any time soon.” Reporter Stanley Penn, The Wall Street Journal, 1966.
In 1823, British scientist, Dionysius Lardner, warned that rail travel at high speeds was not possible because “passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”
Captain E.J. Smith of the Titanic said, “I cannot imagine any condition which could cause this ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” (gathered from blogs...)
Some proclaim utopia. Some proclaim doom. Some of might be down to nothing more than personality... is the glass half full or half empty?
Esther is a story of impending crisis. A true story of great humour and suspense. It's firmly embedded in the pages of the Bible and yet stands alongside the Song of Songs as one of only two books in the Bible that don't mention the hero, God. You may then think it odd that we choose to feast here for three weeks before events week – before our most intensive opportunity to live and speak for Jesus...
This is theology in story, and unexpectedly we will find here an unshakeable confidence in the promises of our sovereign God. And the fuel we need to stoke the fires of our hearts to love our God more deeply, and speak more boldly.
We begin this strange tale in Esther 1-3. A compelling comic tale, certified 18 for scenes of sex and violence. Now as we turn to it, remember the words of Mark Twain who said “The rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated” the day after his obituary appeared in the paper. Crisis is on the horizon... the clouds of Dawkins and doom gather but it's not over yet....
Esther is a story. Meet the key players!
Xerxes the Muppet?
On the face of it these pages look like they should be the story of Xerxes, also known as Ahasuerus. We begin with him, 1v1, and we're told he rules the world from Ethiopia to India - 127 provinces. By any estimate he was the King of the World. But don't be too impressed.
To celebrate himself he holds a lavish half-year party – 1v5 - But when he summons his wife, she refuses - 1v12. He wants to parade her before his friends wearing her crown 1v11. Some suggest this means "come wearing only your crown". Either way she wont entertain them.
Xerxes counsellors - 1v13 - fear that if the Queen can defy the King that their wives and all the women of the kingdom will follow suit.
The king furious - 1v12 - and is advised to irrevocably banish his wife - 1v19. He shows his power, but he'll never see his wife again. He's a muppet. A puppet on the strings of his advisors ...it's not immediately obvious why we're told this story – but it will be later.
His anger subsides but he wants a wife so he launches The Xerxes Factor. Sizzling Esther arrives in his quarters one night. He knows nothing about her, but can't resist her beauty and seduction. So Esther becomes the new Mrs Xerxes - 2v17.
All is not well in Persia though, his subjects plot against him - 2v21 – and then his Prime Minister Haman defied – 3v2. Defying the PM is tantamount to defying the King... And remember what happened last time someone defied the king! He hasn't learned, and this time he rashly sanctions a holocaust 3v8-9 - every Jew must die at the end of the year. It's hugely out of proportion. He's a muppet. But it's not his story. He has his own book - 2v23 – and in the Bible God is the hero – even when he's unmentioned and silent.
Esther the dubious beauty queen?
An orphan of the Jewish exile into Iraq – 2v6-7. That exile happened as God's judgement on his people for their rebellion. But he'd promised a full restoration. It hadn't yet happened. Esther is adopted by by her uncle - 2v7 - who oddly keeps her ethnicity a secret - 2v10. She volunteers to join Xerxes harem. She's pretty hot – 2v7b “lovely in form and features” - and then beautified for a year - 2v12 - ...the most beautiful woman in the world.
Finally she's sent into see the king at night - 2v15 - seduces him - 2v17 - and becomes his wife. A young Jewish girl becomes Queen. Seducing the most powerful foreigner in the world. Jewish girls were only meant to marry Jews so that's not good.
Some make Esther a role model... Be Esther?
Step 1. Young Christian girls should make themselves look gorgeous. Physical appearance is what counts!
Step 2. Find the most powerful non-Christian you can. Sleep with him. And whatever you do, don't tell him you're a Christian.
Ouch! If this was the content of the pure course that'd be interesting!! She's no hero. As yet, just slightly dodgy eye-candy, though things do improve a bit later on.
Mordecai the twit?
This man is - 2v5 - a Son of Kish and a Son of Benjamin. He's part of the line from King Saul. He adopts his orphaned niece, but then lets her join the royal harem. Later in 2v22 he saves the king, and the history books record it. He then defies the Prime Minister – 3v2. Unlike Esther - 3v6 - he has gone public about being a Jew so this brings about disaster on all his people 3v12. An inconsistent man, he's a hero one day and a fool the next...
Haman the villan?
The Prime Minister. 3v1. He's vain – everyone has to bow before him. An Agagite, descended from King Agag the Amalekite. So, – 3v10 - an enemy of the Jews. And he uses he first opportunity he gets to release the King's wrath against them. Plainly, the villan.
So, what's the story?
Events reach crisis point. Esther has joined the Harem and become Queen. And now this wily Jew has taken his stand against the Prime Minister with deadly consequences... The rash despot Xerxes has made his unchangeable vow.
This raises two key questions:
Why doesn't Mordecai bow? - He could have kept it a secret that he was a Jew... like Esther. And besides what's the big deal about respecting the Prime Minister? He had to know it'd be disastrous.
How can God's people survive? God had sent them into exile for their sin, but promises restoration... Not very easy when you're dead... which is what the King of the World has said will happen by the end of the year.
Q1. Why doesn't Mordecai bow?
Relatively obvious to a Jew, if not for us. Genealogy is everything to a Jew – that's why we get Jesus' genealogy in Matthew 1. Most of us don't care about genealogy... But look at my Relay worker, Ed. High Wycombe's own Edward Northey Goode has both his Father's surname, and his mothers. His name tells us about his identity. So too do our protagonists. Its' not just Mordecai vs. Haman. It's:
2v5: Mordecai, Son of Kish, Benjamite, Jew.
3v1: Haman, Son of Agag, Amalekite.
Which clarifies things doesn't it?!!
Three bits of Biblical history will help us...
1. Exodus 17. God resuces Israel from Egypt but King Amalek comes to oppose them. This is the one where Moses prays on the hilltop. When he lifts his hands they win, when he doesn't they lose. Afterwards the LORD says:
Amalek will be blotted out of memory.
Israel and the Amalekites will be at war forever...
2. Then, 1 Samuel 15. King Saul – the Son of Kish, the Benjamite.... is sent to kill King Agag, the Amalekite. But he doesn't obey God. So God kicks him off the throne.
3. In Numbers, Balaam of Beor says that God's people will triumph over Agag. But now Mordecai is required to submit to an Agagite... and he cannot and will not do it. It would fly in the face of his very identity.
Q2. How can God's people survive?
There are two faint glimmers of hope in the story... did you notice them?
2v23, Mordecai is a hero with his name in the book of Xerxes.
2v10, one Jew will survive this holocaust, the secret Jew who is sleeping with the King.
Not much to go by though both things will be vital later. However there is something more than the finger of God's providence. Haman has the advantage, but Esther is a Bible book – set among God's promises:
The bigger story in which God promised through Jeremiah that they would come back from exile. The bigger story in which God promised Abraham that God's people would be a blessed global people. And the bigger story in which the Jews triumph over the Amalekites.
And Esther 1-3 force us to believe those promises against the might of the United States of Ahasuerus and the venom of Haman. Circumstantial evidence says that at the end of the year God's people will all be dead.
And so here is the teaching, the doctrine, that the story of Esther 1-3 requires us to believe:
“The people of God must
prize the promises of God
against the current circumstances”
For the rest of our time we'll consider three uses of this doctrine. Three ways in which holding to this teaching will help us to be those who live and speak for Jesus:
Use 1. “The people of God must prize the promises of God against the current circumstances by prizing the promise of the cross.”
All God's promises are YES and AMEN by way of Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus was punished in our place. And he was raised so we would reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. We have a choice. It's windy and we can either disregard the promise and be swept along like leaves, or hold to it and be like trees that stand. The current is strong, if we disregard the promise we're jellyfish swept along... if we prize it we're dolphins who can swim against the flow.
Esther 1-3 is of immeasurable use. In it God directs us to remember that he is God. His gospel is true. His promises don't fail. We need to be aware not to prize what God has not promised, for example:
God has not promised great revival here.
God has not promised all our ills will be healed.
God has not promised you will pass all your exams.
Great desires and things to pray into, but not promises. But far above them is the promise that we reign in life through Christ. Heirs of the universe with him.
Use 2. “The people of God must prize the promises of God against the current circumstances that tell us to conform secularism and political correctness.”
Mordecai was under pressure to bow to the authorities. On other things he submitted, saving the king, giving Esther for marriage to the King. But here he drew the line.
In the early church the apostles lived under the authorities – except when they made it illegal to speak of Jesus. They broke that rule and went to prison for it. Prison might not await us – but social ostracism of raising the subject of religion can seem much worse... And consider the cause of our brothers and sisters at Exeter CU – contending for the gospel by saying that a Christian mission team – a CU – must have Christian leaders. Their example, like Mordecai – is humbling. They don't want our attention – they direct us to our God. Daily living and speaking for Jesus is fueled not by the example of others – but by God's promises. We do live out of step with the majority. We are few among many. But our culture, like the fickle human heart, is sinking sand. One thing never changes. That which we will sing of for all eternity: the lamb who was slain!
Use 3. “The people of God must prize the promises of God against the current circumstances that might lead us to doubt that the gospel is true.”
Some scorn Christianity... after all they say, it's getting on for 2000 years since Jesus “ascended”... why isn't he back yet? Statistically the church has shrunk in number in this country during our lifetimes. And simple maths says that we're a tiny minority on campus.
We might be tempted to cling to church growth in South America, Asia and Africa... and we should be encouraged by that! It's encouraging, but not ground to stand on.
Instead we hold to God's promise. The promise that because of his death on the cross, Jesus will build his church and not even the gates of hell can stand against that. Predictions come and go. Some whip us up into excitement, others lead us into despair. Xerxes had great power. Brian Eno thinks that in this millenium... we may be released from lives dominated by the supernatural”. No, no, no. Jesus Christ loves his church, gave himself up for us, and is gathering his global people. And he's even doing it here!
We don't know if God will graciously save people this term. We cannot stand on our self-confidence. Our desire. Our intellects. Our innovation. Our fame. All of these are sinking sand. We look outside ourselves to the cross of Christ. To God's ultimate and final promise of life to sinners. And on that we take our stand. “The people of God must prize the promises of God against the current circumstances.” And all His promises are Yes in Christ And so in Christ we say Amen, to the glory of God.
Group discussion questions
What would it look like for us (individually and corporately) to prize the promise of the cross? What false-promises might we cling to?
What sort of things make us doubt God's promises?
How will God's promises at the cross help you to live and speak for Jesus this term?