Caution: King on Duty, Enter at Your Own Risk (Esther 5:1-8)

When Abraham Lincoln became President in 1860, along with the trials associated with the pending Civil War, he went crazy with people coming to him to seek out political patronage appointments. Some years later, his secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote a Lincoln biography about their experiences in his administration, and they had this to say about the endless process …

“The city was full of strangers; the White House full of applicants from the North. At any hour of the day one might see at the outer door and on the staircase, one line going, one coming. In the anteroom and in the broad corridor adjoining the President’s office there was a restless and persistent crowd – ten, twenty, sometimes fifty, varying with the day and hour, each one in pursuit of one of the many crumbs of official patronage. They walked the floor; they talked in groups; they scowled at every arrival and blessed every departure; they wrangled with the doorkeepers for the right of entrance; they intrigued with them for surreptitious chances; they crowded forward to get even as much as an instant’s glance through the half-opened door into the Executive Chamber.”

Among statements credited to Lincoln were: “Please, save me from all of my friends,” and “I think the only way to escape this is to hang myself from one of the trees on the south lawn.”

In yesterday’s Scripture section from Esther 4, Esther spoke of the dangers of coming before the King unannounced and uninvited. You would either be accepted, or it was off with your head. She said, All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives.

The ancient Jewish historian Josephus also wrote of this danger of approaching the Persian throne uninvited:  “Now the king had made a law, that none of his own people should approach him unless they were called, when he sat upon his throne; and men, with axes in their hands, stood round about his throne, in order to punish such as approached to him without being called.”

Abraham Lincoln may have at times wished for such a system, though he had to play the political card game in a way that Xerxes had no need.King Darius

The picture with today’s devotional shows an ancient stone sculpture of King Darius of Persia (from just before the era of Xerxes) and you can see the scepter in his hand.

But Esther puts aside the fear and concern and comes before the king to ultimately apprise him of the situation. And as you see, she is going to do it in a multi-step process.

5:1 – On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. 2 When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.

3 Then the king asked, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you.”

4 “If it pleases the king,” replied Esther, “let the king, together with Haman, come today to a banquet I have prepared for him.”

5 “Bring Haman at once,” the king said, “so that we may do what Esther asks.”

So the king and Haman went to the banquet Esther had prepared. 6 As they were drinking wine, the king again asked Esther, “Now what is your petition? It will be given you. And what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”

7 Esther replied, “My petition and my request is this: 8 If the king regards me with favor and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will answer the king’s question.”

I believe it is a rather common experience of believers today to undervalue the nature of the relationship that they have with God. So many see God as very much like an ancient king on his throne … don’t get near him unless you are asked, because he is very random. And frankly, he is quite cranky, you don’t know what you’re going to get from him. So it is better to just stay away and not bother him.

You might add, “But God is a God of judgment” … the Scriptures say it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of an angry God … that He cannot stand anyone in his presence who is not perfectly pure and righteous.

But you see, we don’t stand there simply in our own filth, but rather in the righteousness of Christ and with Christ there as the guarantee of having had our sins paid for by him. We can come before the throne in confidence, and we’ll tell you why over the next two days.

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For Such a Time as This (Esther 4:9-17)

I always find it interesting when people use a Bible phrase without realizing that what they said was originally a part of Scripture before it became an English language idiom, like: “Nothing new under the sun … the four corners of the earth … out of the mouth of babes … the root of the matter.”

And today’s passage contains another of these: “For such a time as this.”  It really is the key verse of the whole book of Esther.

And even though the book never mentions God, there is such a strong emphasis on the idea of divine providence. And with the Jewish people in peril of extinction — surely to include Esther herself – Mordecai suggests that she may have providentially gained her position as the queen for just this occasion.

4:9 Hathak went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, 11 “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”

12 When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, 13 he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

17 So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.

Providence sometimes is very dramatic, like the time when you are perfectly at the right place at the right time. Such events are the occasional, even rare, incredible moments of life … perhaps even when something appears to be going terribly wrong; but it all turns around.

I suggested on Sunday that perhaps many of you have a providential story about how you met your spouse. I then went on to tell how I first met Diana in college (beyond a casual introduction earlier)… relating how I had a date with another girl. A guy friend of mine was in a very bad place emotionally, and so I brought him along to get him out of the dorm and around people. I told my date to go back up the elevator in the girl’s dorm and bring back the first girl she ran into. It was Diana. Late that night, back in the guy’s dorm, I told my friend (who had a fun evening with our foursome) that I really, really liked that Diana girl and that I was going to marry her. He told me I was crazy to think that. Hah! I knew it that night, though it took A LONG TIME to get Diana to think the same way! But the point here is that it was a providential moment when that elevator door opened.

But more often we see providence in the multitude of small things that come together over a long period of time. Circumstances and events that did not look like much at the time (and in fact appeared to be misfortunes) ultimate eventuate as threads of life woven by God into a garment of beauty over time. Those threads did not look like much at the time, analyzing just a few of them up close even gave an appearance of randomness and clashing colors. But in the end, when it is complete and the final product is visible, it is a thing of beauty.

So often, in the midst of life, things can look very bleak. But looking back gives us a great view from Mt. Perspective, teaching us once again that God was good. And that remembrance gives us confidence going forward.

I have often shared pieces of my own story, of being an illegitimate child that had to be adopted. Everything about it was odd and out of sync. I grew up with my grandparents as an only child (since their three daughters — one of them my actual mother — were all married and gone by the time I could remember much). So that was bad; but no, it was good — because I had a very stable home life and encouragement in all the things that have marked my life.

But when I was age 10, our church splintered into two factions. So that was bad; but no, it was good — because it put me into a church with a great youth program and with the pastor’s sons as my best friends and influences.

So I went to college to study music for a music career, but was more interested in Bible and theology instead. So that was bad; but no, it was good — because music was my foot in the door for a couple of internships and part-time positions.

When in Dallas and an impoverished seminarian, I applied for a significant church music position. The other candidate was (no joking) a total jerk who fooled the church into hiring him. So that was bad; but no, it was good — because two months later I stumbled into a position at twice the pay in twice the church in every way. It was one of the great experiences of my life during those years to serve at Grace Bible Church of Dallas as Minister of Music.

And so on, and so on … the garment of my life has now been woven for a while, and I can look back and see God’s providential hand in every twist of the threads.

So what is the worst or most confusing thing going on in your life right now? Don’t despair. God may have that there to use in some way that you cannot imagine — a way that will result in great good, your pleasure, and God’s glory.

9/28/15 – Living in Dark and Perilous Times (Esther 4:1-8)

We really are fortunate as God’s people in America to live in an extraordinary era. Though we are troubled by the dark clouds of anti-religious, anti-Christian hostility and derision that are gathering on the horizon, still, by all comparisons to most ages in which God’s people have lived, we have it very good.

Persecution and opposition to our faith is par for the course. It is expected. The world’s natural order is in opposition and rebellion against God and truth. Being aligned with God and the Word Incarnate — Jesus Christ — is going to bring down upon us a certain measure of public and personal difficulty.

Jesus said this to the disciples in Matthew 10 — “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.”  Now isn’t that encouraging? What’s all this sheep stuff about? Shouldn’t we be at the top of the feeding chain by being aligned with Christ?

There are Christians today, somewhere in the world, who are giving their lives for believing in Jesus and boldly refusing to deny him in their culture and in the face of their persecutors. Here is a story from this past week (from Voice of the Martyrs):

Two Churches Bombed in Nepal — Two bombs exploded in churches in eastern Nepal last week, while bombs left at a third church failed to detonate. The attackers left anti-Christian pamphlets at each site. Flyers by the Hindu Morcha Nepal, a Hindu radical group were left at each location. The flyers said that all Christian leaders must reconvert to Hinduism and that the Christianization of Nepal is happening with the support of foreign nations.

It was recently reported that close to 100,000 Christians are being killed every year because of their faith, according to statistics from a Pew Research Survey and the International Society for Human Rights, a non-religious organization. These figures mean that about 273 Christians are killed daily, or 11 every hour.

In the story of Esther, as the news spreads of the plans to eradicate the Jews, Mordecai perhaps has a large response to it out of a sense of personal responsibility in causing the situation …

4:1 – When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.2 But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it. 3 In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.

4 When Esther’s eunuchs and female attendants came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. 5 Then Esther summoned Hathak, one of the king’s eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why.

6 So Hathak went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate. 7 Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him, including the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. 8 He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict for their annihilation, which had been published in Susa, to show to Esther and explain it to her, and he told him to instruct her to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people.

Extreme times call for extreme measures, and as we will see in coming days, for Esther to go before the king as an advocate for the Jewish people was an extreme measure. Up until this point, it was not revealed to King Xerxes that Esther was Jewish. I guess he presumed her to be just another pretty Persian girl from his empire with its amalgamation of people groups.

We are going to talk about the idea of advocacy this week, both in the story and as well of the greater advocate we have in Christ. But today, when thinking of the persecuted church around the world, take a moment to pray for our brothers and sisters who face this reality, even while you read these words and advocate for them before the Father.

Hebrews 13:3 — “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

The Timeless Plot to Destroy Israel (Esther 3)

One of the surprising features of the book of Esther is that God is never mentioned in the text. He is assumed to be the sovereign hand behind all that is happening and of the preservation of the nation of Israel.

Here is a great quote from the classic writing: Matthew Henry’s Commentary …

But though sinners are permitted to proceed to the point they aim at, an unseen but almighty Power turns them back. How vain and contemptible are the strongest assaults against Jehovah! Had Haman obtained his wish, and the Jewish nation perished, what must have become of all the promises? How could the prophecies concerning the great Redeemer of the world have been fulfilled? Thus the everlasting covenant itself must have failed, before this diabolical project could take place.

Also not mentioned in the text, but also assumed to be behind much of what happens, is Satan himself. In thinking through the career of the evil one, he has worked consistently from the time of his fall into sin to destroy mankind and to particularly thwart God’s plans. When mankind fell into sin, and when God determined even in the Garden of Eden that He would in grace establish a redemptive plan, Satan has worked consistently ever since to disrupt and overturn that design. This is especially true of the nation of Israel, since it was through Israel that the Savior of the world would come.

Let’s give some chronological examples … though far from an exhaustive list …

Cain killing Abel – Satan inspired this action, desiring from the start that the more godly line (presumably through which God’s redemptive plan would come) would be wiped out. But another son was born—Seth.

Intermarriage of angelic beings with the human race (understand that this is not a view accepted by all evangelical theologians) – In Genesis 6, it may be that Satan’s fallen angelic hosts (demons) were intermarrying with humans in an attempt to get into the human bloodline. Perhaps this accounts for the ancient stories of powerful mythological beings and creatures. But in any event, mankind was evil to the extent that a flood wiped out all but the family of Noah.

With Abraham and the family of Jacob decreed as the redemptive line, Satan turned his attention to destroying Israel. There were varied attempts of having the nation eliminated while in Egypt, and subsequently as the nation made the exodus to the Promised Land. Aaron allowed an idol to be built for the nation to worship while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Law.

Under Satan’s influence and the nation’s failure to consult God, the Israelites made a foolish treaty with the Gibeonites, thus allowing Satan to have Canaanite peoples to use to pull the nation toward apostasy.

With David and his family being identified as the royal line for the redeemer, there were varied attempts to wipe out the Davidic household. One of these was the attempt of Ahab and Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah, who married into the Davidic line. When her husband died, she declared herself the queen and sought to exterminate the royal line. But one young child, Joash, was hidden away for six years by the high priest and his wife, ultimately to be crowned king as Athaliah was slain.

The sin and rebellion of the nation caused them to be carried off into captivity by the Assyrians and Babylonians, but God in grace promised to save a remnant to re-establish the nation in Palestine and Jerusalem. And thus we come to the time of Esther, where Haman’s attempt was another Satanically-inspired effort to wipe out the Jewish nation and the redeemer.

In the land, varied attempts were made against the Jews to thwart their rebuilding of the city and temple, with a view toward their annihilation. In the Greek period, Antiochus Epiphanes sought to eliminate sacrifices in the temple and establish a common Greek religion. And after Christ was born, Herod attempted to find and kill him.

But Christ made it to the cross as the sinless sacrifice to atone for sin. But still Satan continues to use apostasy and evil people to turn men away from truth. And his desire is to also thwart the coming again of Christ in judgment and to re-establish the nation of Israel and fulfill his promises to them. So Satan has used varied attempts to also eliminate Israel, such as the Nazi efforts of the last century, and to be sure, the efforts and advances of radical Islam in the Middle East today.

But God’s purposes and plans will not be defeated, even as conflicts rage on until the final day of the Lord’s return.

The story of Esther … of Haman’s attempts that we are studying now … is a chapter of God’s bigger story and purposes. It is not merely an isolated story of its own. And it is good for us to understand this and to see how our faith relationship with God aligns us with eternal truths and protects us as God’s own people in the timeless struggles between darkness and light.

The Plot is Hatched (Esther 3:7-15)

Our hearts break these days as we see the pictures of the migration of thousands of people fleeing for their lives from the war-torn ravages of Syria. On little more than a raft with a motor, dozens of them brave open waters (having paid a price of like $1500 a person) to escape to some other shore. Pictures of them coming onto the beaches of Greek territory show them celebrating with mobile phone photos being taken of themselves with raised arms, kissing the ground, etc.

It must be a terrible thing to be targeted for persecution, or worse. Sadly, the world has never been completely free of man’s inhumanity to man.

The Jewish people have particularly been targeted for such over the centuries and millennia, and thus it was with our account today from the third chapter of Esther …

3:7 In the twelfth year of King Xerxes, in the first month, the month of Nisan, the pur (that is, the lot) was cast in the presence of Haman to select a day and month. And the lot fell on[a] the twelfth month, the month of Adar.

This is an especially confusing verse without knowing what is being talked about. From the previous verses, it said that Haman scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.  Having determined this was his plan, the question then was when to execute the execution.

Having surely some general belief in some pantheon of gods, Haman cast the pur. This is a bit like rolling the dice to determine by fate (or through the intervention of the Gods bringing up a number perceived thereby to represent good luck) what day would be best to accomplish a determined purpose. He likely used some sort of diviners in this process.

And the result is the 12th month; recall that this was being done in the first month of that calendar year. So, there would be an expanse of time. But going with this number, Haman comes next before King Xerxes …

3:8 Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. 9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.”

So Haman relates a terrible picture of the Jews. He offers a ridiculous amount of money to be paid for the rights to do this — more money than he or anyone else possessed. But it showed the depth of seriousness and conviction that Haman had on the subject. Who would say and do something like this unless what he was communicating was true?

3:10 So the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. 11 “Keep the money,” the king said to Haman, “and do with the people as you please.”

When you are in leadership and have people working under you, you want to believe they are serving well with the interests of the broader community or organization in mind. Haman was surely popular with the masses who bowed down to him, and the King had set him up in this way to be his #1 advisor. It may seem rather ignorant of the King to so simply go along with this, but, Xerxes appeared to be a people pleaser. And so he gives the authority. These Jews were few in number and insignificant to the cause. Xerxes probably had so experience with them (to his knowledge at that time), so he deemed them to be expendable. The kingdom would be better off without them, most likely.

4:12 Then on the thirteenth day of the first month the royal secretaries were summoned. They wrote out in the script of each province and in the language of each people all Haman’s orders to the king’s satraps, the governors of the various provinces and the nobles of the various peoples. These were written in the name of King Xerxes himself and sealed with his own ring. 13 Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. 14 A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so they would be ready for that day.

So the plot is hatched and communicated. It would be 11 months until set into motion, but the king sealed the deal with his own ring, thus making it entirely irrevocable. Why would the other peoples of the empire go along with something like this? What was in it for them? Well, it says that they would be free to plunder the goods of the Jews.

3:15 The couriers went out, spurred on by the king’s command, and the edict was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was bewildered.

Even in times of antiquity, the majority of people were not sitting around hoping for a legal opportunity to annihilate and plunder their weird neighbors. So the city of Susa was “bewildered.”  This was a strange edict and surely the leading story of the 6:00 news on WSUS, the southern desert voice of Persian TV.

The last sentence gives a little more background as well about Xerxes and his kingdom. This is about the third time that it is indicated he had a high level of interest in imbibing. As I always ask … what good ever comes of this?

The Jews who heard about this must have wondered where God was in this story. How could this be? How could something like this be allowed? Where is God; this makes no sense.

Have you ever felt that way? Ever wondered where God is when things seem to go even opposite of the way they are clearly supposed to? For the Jews who went back to Palestine, this is not what they expected to happen. What was all of this God taking them back there, only to have them get wiped out there by other people — under the kings’ orders?!!?

But the big message of Esther is that God is ALWAYS the quietly active hand behind everything that goes on. He is not asleep or on vacation or disinterested. Sometimes you just can’t see his presence.

It is like my oldest granddaughter said when she was three years old and learned that God can hear everything that goes on… “Grandy — do you know that God hears EVERYTHING?!?  But sometimes when He talks back, it’s not very loud.”

Indeed.

When to Bow and When to Stand (Esther 3:1-6)

There is a picture from the Nazi era that I have seem multiple times on the internet. It shows a crowd of people where every one of them has their arm outstretched in the Nazi salute … except for one man with his arms crossed. His story involves more than this one incident, including his marriage to a Jewish woman.

When everyone bows down, but one person remains upright, that is a rather obvious way of drawing attention. This is what Mordecai did. We’ll take a few shots at why, but first let’s recall the story …

3:1 – After these events, King Xerxes honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. 2 All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

3 Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” 4 Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.

5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. 6 Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

The story recalls the similar nature of an event in the life of Daniel not bowing down. Was it for the same high-minded and godly reason? Maybe, though Haman was not seen as deity, it was merely honoring his position as second only to the king; so this would not technically violate worshipping a false god.

Though we cannot say for sure that the following background gives the reason, it certainly is interesting, if not plausible and fitting well with the entire story.

Haman is named in the first sentence as an “Agagite.”  What in the world is that? Do you remember a King Agag? Maybe only slightly? He was an Amalekite king. We think of the Philistines as the #1 enemy of Israel, and they did plenty to be thought of in such a way. But it is difficult to imagine a people group that more horribly — in every way imaginable — treated the Jewish nation worse that did the wicked Amalekites.

Here is some more of the story from 1 Samuel 15, and this will help it come into focus a bit more for you. King Saul was told to completely destroy Agag and the Amalekites and everything belonging to them, but he did not fully follow through; and Samuel the Prophet made a visit to confront him about this. Saul greeted Samuel with the statement that he had obeyed God …

1 Samuel 15:14 – But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

15 Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”

So Samuel basically says, “So what you’re telling me is that you did not fully obey God!”

20 “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king.21 The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

22 But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

The story continues with Agag being brought before Samuel, and it says that the Amalekite king thought that this was going to turn out well for him after all. But Samuel did what Saul was supposed to do: Kill Agag. This was the turning point for Saul. From this time forward his life was in total decline as God had decreed that the kingdom would be removed from him.

Do you remember what tribe Saul was from and what was his father’s name? He was from the tribe of Benjamin, and his father’s name was Kish. Have you heard that name recently in our writings and Scripture readings?  Yes, you have … since Mordecai was a Benjaminite whose great-grandfather was named Kish — the ancestor that Nebuchadnezzar had brought to Babylon over 100 years previously.

In accord with Jewish tradition and understanding of this story, Mordecai and Haman were continuing a national feud that dated back some 400 years. And if true, this would explain why Haman scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

So when does one make a stand? Briefly, I think the answer is that one must certainly do this when it is a matter of obedience to God’s command; that is clear. Beyond that, one might choose to stand in a difficult and hostile situation when it is a matter of personal calling. There may be times in life where God through his sovereign work chooses to use us to be the one to make a stand in a given situation, even though it is not something that every other Christian is obliged to do.

Absolute Power Corrupting Absolutely (Esther 3:1-6)

If not consciously checked and managed, there is something very bad that happens inside most people when they are elevated through high-level efforts or combined circumstances to a place of prominence among others. In common language we may say that “it goes to their head.”  But it is a very strange place indeed when you find yourself at the very top of the pyramid — everyone comes to you for advice, authority, or simple conversation to be seen close to you.

I can’t say that I have experienced this on any grand scale, though even pastoring a church the size of TSF brings a bit of this into play. Our structure is very much of a shared and team leadership modality, but I do know that there are often more people who would like to talk with me than I have time to chat with at length. I feel badly when I have to move on to catch up with several people who must be seen that morning.

But I have seen truly large church pastors become a top-of-their-world guy. They display such personable and likeable skills in public ministry, and when you engage them personally, it is the same for a moment or two. They warmly greet you like you’re the most important person in the world and it is actually THEIR HONOR to speak to you, not the other way around. That is … as I said … for a moment or two. And then you can see them fading away and their eyes begin to dart around the room. Your time is up, and they have to move on to all the others who want a piece of them.

Too many of these sorts of pastors (I’ll pick on my own profession here for a moment) fall prey to private thinking and evaluation that they have really arrived — they are clearly pretty big stuff. Everyone comes to them, but they don’t have anyone else to go to. And they like the position that they are in and the pedestal they occupy.

Political people are particularly prone to this … no surprise there! Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before, but it was from an event that is at least 10-15 years ago. I was at a Rotary Club luncheon and the speaker was a very bold and brash figure who was a legend in Baltimore and Maryland Politics. I must have arrived late, because I found myself seated that the very front circular table — actually closest person physically to the speaker who was talking at a podium on the line of people sitting at the elevated platform front table. Early in his talk he cracked a political joke that I thought was rather obscure to interpret, but everyone in the room cracked up laughing uproariously … except me … I was just sitting there trying to figure out what I missed that was so terribly funny. And he looked right at me and called me out and said, “You, what’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you think that was funny?”  It was very weird and awkward. Clearly he did not like anyone who did not think he was as 100% awesome as he believed himself to be.

Mordecai ran into a situation a bit like this, and he was the lone man who was out of step with everyone else …

3:1 – After these events, King Xerxes honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. 2 All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

3 Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” 4 Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.

5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. 6 Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

For reasons we don’t actually know, Xerxes elevated Haman to a position essentially as the #2 guy in the kingdom. We learn later that he was rich; maybe that had something to do with it. And Haman certainly did not lack for personal confidence and determination. So he is like the Chief of Staff, or perhaps the Prime Minister. And Xerxes bolsters Haman’s position with a decree that all should bow down and honor him.

Everyone did it, except for Mordecai. Why? What was his reason for not doing so? Was it spiritually motivated by faith?  Come back tomorrow and I’ll give you a reason that is based upon Jewish tradition and possible bitterness between the two men. It is a fascinating background.

But today, talking about the delusional power of success; unless a person who gains it actively engages in a humble sort of introspection about how they got where they are, they will have a difficult time of modelling the servant leadership character that is to mark the follower of Christ. It is two entirely different models of introspection when a person says to self, “I am here because my work and talents have brought me to this level of greatness,” versus, “I have found myself in this place because God in grace has put me here to serve him.”  The former is common and natural; the latter is uncommon and learned through an appropriate understanding of the gospel.

Whenever we are up high, we are the proverbial turtle on the fence post … we got put there by circumstances bigger and beyond ourselves. Haman did not understand this, Mordecai and Esther did. There is a sovereign God behind the circumstances.

The Nasty Nature of Political Posturing (Esther 2:19-23)

Though I never made a big deal of it and in fact never even once referenced it in church, I was heavily involved for a period of years in the inner workings of local and state politics. I’m not embarrassed to have done it and am not ashamed or anything of the sort. It is a worthy calling, and for me it was just that—something that found me far more than I found it.

I have often said that in those years of meeting many very interesting political personalities, I met some of the best and some of the worst people I have ever known. But it is true that there is a lot of posturing that goes on in those circles. Every state convention involved some people running for some sort of office within the party. And I began to see that too many of those involved were enamored with the process of politicking more than in truly serving in government in ways that truly served people. The whole thing was a continuous game for them.

I don’t know that there is anything worse than political consultants. These were the real troublemakers. They were being paid to help a candidate win, and it too often seemed that the rules were more like broad suggestions to them than firm parameters. It was an ugly business; it always has been and always will be, as it is the search for power and acclaim.

But political intrigue and posturing was especially bad in ancient societies like Persia. And we see that a plot to kill the king that was discovered by Mordecai …

2:19 When the virgins were assembled a second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. 20 But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up.

21 During the time Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. 22 But Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. 23 And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two officials were impaled on poles. All this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.

As Chris aptly described the palace of Xerxes, it was a lot like the Hugh Hefner Playboy Mansion—a very salacious place. Mordecai had a job at the king’s gate—probably something to do with legal judgments, as this was the place where business was transacted. And thus it was a place where the high-rollers of society gathered and mingled.

The two officials who became angry for some reason (perhaps the demotion of Vashti?) could be thought of as sort of secret service agents assigned to the palace and royal family. Through some unstated means, Mordecai is aware of the plot, tells Esther who tells Xerxes, leading to an investigation. The rumors are true, the two bad boys are turned into human popsicles, and credit is given to Mordecai and recorded in the official record (which becomes a part of the story later).

So Mordecai saves the king from assassination. As further illustration of the prevalence of such plotting in ancient societies, Xerxes would in fact BE ASSASSINATED in a very similar set of circumstances after about 20 years as the king. A commander of the royal bodyguard named Artabanus did it, along with killing the son of the king. But another son of Xerxes named Artaxerxes stepped up to kill Artabanus and his seven sons, all with the help of a prominent general who switched sides back and forth.

It was a mess. And you think our political process is a mess? Well, it sort of is. Would you take a job that has a 9% chance of you getting murdered while doing it?  We’ve have four presidential assassinations in 44 presidents, and there have been more than 20 plots and attempts! Yet it seems like dozens of people are vying to get this job—so many that they can’t even fit onto a single debate stage!

It seems like becoming the #1 political person in the country is the ultimate achievement, and so it is honored among men. Yet there is a higher calling than even this. God has called us to put first His kingdom and to be His servants. What is better: President of the United States and 4.4% of the earth’s population, or an ambassador of the King of Kings and Creator and Ruler of the entire universe?

We are such ambassadors, as it says in 2 Corinthians 5 … God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

Queen Auditions (Esther 2:1-18)

It did not take long for King Xerxes to miss his trophy wife. He became sad about it, and so the “wise guys” around him encouraged the king to get a new trophy by having a kingdom-wide contest to find the ultimate babe to become the next queen.

When we think of this audition, we might almost have some sort of picture in mind of a beauty pageant like Miss America or Miss Universe.  No.  This was very different. I’ll spare the details, but it involved a series of beautiful young women being forced into a harem, and then they were prepared over a long period of time to go one by one for a night with the king — let your mind go wild.

2:1 – Later when King Xerxes’ fury had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her. 2 Then the king’s personal attendants proposed, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. 3 Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful young women into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them. 4 Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it.

5 Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, 6 who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah.

The person in this family generational list that was deported from Jerusalem to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar was Mordecai’s great grandfather named Kish (another man of this name, also from the tribe of Benjamin, was the father of King Saul). This would have happened in 597 B.C., so well over 100 years before these events. 

7 Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.

8 When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. 9 She pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem.

10 Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. 11 Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.

12 Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. 13 And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14 In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.

15 When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her. 16 She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.

You will recall that the earlier events of chapter one were in the 3rd year of Xerxes’ reign, and this is now the 7th year.  Xerxes’ planned war with Greece did not go well, as he was defeated twice by them and was now back home, feeling lonely and sad.

I share this to say that this time of waiting for Esther was an extended time, and certainly it was an introspective period for both Mordecai and Esther — wondering what God was doing, and where was He in these affairs — was He interested at all… had he given up on them?

17 Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 18 And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.

And so we see the circumstances by which God set up Esther as the queen, in order to have her in a place to do His sovereign work on a grand scale.  It says in Daniel 2:21 that God changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others.  Not just kings, but queens as well, as this queen is going to have influence like a king.

We have in recent days made the points of application to say that, first, there is nothing about the kingdoms and systems of power in this world that naturally orient them toward goodness and justice. And then secondly, we note that we have to live within such fallen systems, essentially being caught between two worlds. And now, let us make two other points before closing for this week…

Being caught between two kingdoms, it is our challenge to navigate through this present one with the values system of the true and greater kingdom to come.

Frankly, Mordecai and Esther had not actually distinguished themselves as obedient to God. A number of Scriptures in the prophets had told the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem as a place of God’s blessing upon them in alignment with His covenant promises. Like a majority of the Jews, they had apparently become comfortable where they were (Mordecai actually apparently having some position of rank in government), rather than take on the more difficult challenge of totally relocating out of the familiar culture they had learned to comfortable live within.

Much is written to evaluate Esther’s disposition in the texts we have seen today. Did she willing go along with this beauty pageant thing? There are parts of the story where she seems to be just doing what she has to do. But should she have resisted along the lines of Daniel and his friends who refused to subject themselves to the pagan Babylonian system they were within?  The text is not clear in distinguishing this, but it is certain that she had no choice whatsoever but to conform to what was happening to her, at least not without grave consequences. Perhaps she saw this as the sad outcome of having not fully obeyed the Lord by returning to Jerusalem.

Therefore, in any event, that God positions Mordecai and Esther to profoundly serve Him is an encouragement to us to know that it is not too late for us, even as we may have to admit we have leaned too heavily upon the one foot that is in the kingdom of this world. It is not too late for us to more greatly value the things of the Eternal Kingdom in terms of our time, talents and treasures — the measurements of our hearts and values system.

We need to have an eye toward the world that is yet to come. God commends this attitude … In Hebrews 11, it says of the champions of faith… 13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.

We find success in our efforts to live wisely as we acknowledge and depend upon the sovereignty of God in the affairs of the whole world generally, and our lives specifically.

The most significant truth for us to remember is God’s faithfulness, even in times where He seems very absent.  The purpose of the book of Esther — for the Jewish people — was to remind and encourage them of God’s faithfulness in spite of the oft appearance of the greater strength of the nations around them.

And God’s faithfulness is as real to us today, as we are His people — the members of the Church of Christ. And we must recall that He is our God, that He is for us and has not abandoned us … that even in a crazy and upside-down world, He remains in control of the big picture of it all, and the little picture of us and our lives within it. This is living as a citizen of the greater Kingdom!

Women’s Lib 483 B.C. (Esther 1:10-22)

Our passage today is another of many in the Scriptures where you may find yourself laughing out loud as you read it! At the same time, considering life in the culture of that day, there is much about Persia in 483 B.C. that makes you cringe. There is the sexism of antiquity where women were so often merely the objects of sexual excesses by immoral and powerful monarchs. But it doesn’t actually stop with just women and harems, but also includes large numbers of eunuchs who were subjugated to what must have been about the most bizarre lives imaginable.

Back to the story — you’ve gotta love Queen Vashti, the original women’s libber who would make Hillary Clinton look like a pansy by comparison …

10 On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas— 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.

Such insolence could not be allowed to stand, and so the king does what all politicians do when they don’t have any backbone or know what to do, he calls in a bunch of “experts.”  The advice is to crack down hard (as they were probably all scared themselves that their wives may be emboldened to do the same thing)!

13 Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times 14 and were closest to the king—Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.

15 “According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.”

16 Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ 18 This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.

19 “Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. 20 Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.”

21 The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memukan proposed. 22 He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household, using his native tongue.

We know that the next part of the story involves Esther being a part of this queen audition that will go on for several years. And it will put her into an odd position of being caught between God’s timeless moral law and the culture and enforcement of law that would involve her personally.

So let me make a second point to follow the first stated yesterday … yesterday’s point being that there is nothing about the kingdoms and systems of power in this world that naturally orient them toward goodness and justice. Secondly, for today, since the kingdoms of this world are terribly flawed, and since we live within such systems until the return of Christ or our calling to heaven, we live in a situation of being caught between two worlds.

Many of the great minds of Christianity have written upon this very idea, beginning with the Apostle Paul and through St. Augustine to modern times. We need to recognize this truth and have it be a part of our daily mindset.

We cannot become undone or overly-saddened by our lives in this world. The news of international crises is terribly concerning these days; where is that headed?  We recognize our economy is frightfully fragile, some writers predicting that even this very week will be one of economic collapse.  And we wonder what is the future of people of faith within an increasingly hostile broader culture.

We need to understand that this is not unique or unexpected. It is par for the course. Jesus said we would have tribulation and persecution in this world … that they did it to Him, and will do it to us … but He has overcome the world.

And Peter, who knew something about being on the receiving end of persecution, said, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in as much as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”