Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Esther Week 6 - Longing for Justice

The follow are study notes from week 6 of our Esther series.  Find out more at the Rosalie Baptist Church Website.  Read Esther 7-8 to get the context.

Human cry for justice
Just about every year there is a big name film that seeks to capture the common human cry for justice. .We flock to see films like: To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, The Shawshank Redemption, Braveheart and 12 Years A Slave because there is within the collective heart of humanity a cry for justice. We have a finely tuned radar that is quick to spot injustice and a longing to see what is obviously wrong made right.

Over the last few weeks the tension in the story of Esther has been building to this point.  Esther has steeled herself to present her request to the king and when the moment finally arrives she presents the plight of her people in the form of a story of injustice.  Verse 3, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.” They are being sold… but not sold as slaves… sold into death.  Esther has made the injustice of her people personal to the king, they are not some distant people, far away and irrelevant to him, this injustice is being perpetrated against his most beloved queen and therefore against him as well.

The tension in the story is at boiling point right now.  The charge has been laid… The injustice uncovered… The king’s anger has been aroused… And the identity of the enemy is literally hanging in the air and we are just dying to hear it declared!  Verse 6 gives us our satisfaction, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.”  And so the servants present cover Haman’s head to remove the offence of his presence from the king’s view. Then one of the servants tells the king of the gallows that Haman had made to display the body of Mordecai, the one who had saved the king’s life, and the king, without a second thought, sentences Haman to hang.

The oppressor gets justice
In this moment it is like every aching justice bone in our body explodes with joy.  Haman, the enemy of the people of God, the one who had sold the people into complete destruction, the one who had sought the life of the innocent Mordecai, was now completely and utterly defeated. And to add to our joy the justice he receives is poetic:
  • He had built the gallows for Mordecai and now his own instrument of fear and malice was turned against him
  • All his life he had strived to be in the highest office in the land, clothed in honour… but now he hung from the highest gallows in the land, clothed in shame
  • Haman had wanted everyone to bow down and look up to him in worship… but now they would point up at him in mockery
Part of us wants to let out a cheer of resounding joy when we hear of Haman’s demise because we long for this kind of justice in our world today.  We secretly hope that the next time we see that maniac driver who cut us off in traffic is a kilometre down the road pulled over by the police getting a ticket.  So many people call this karma, “what goes around comes around”, but if we are honest karma lets us down far too often.  People who hurt us go on living normal, happy, comfortable lives without a care in the world despite what they have done to us; karma promises to satisfy our longing for justice but rarely ever delivers.

The Justice of God Never Fails
But the thrust of the story of Esther tells us that the poetic justice dished out to Haman was not a matter of the universe simply giving back what he deserved. But if the story of Esther tells us anything it tells us that God does not leave us without hope of justice; the justice of God is not a matter of sheer chance or luck.  God actively works behind the scenes to bring Haman to justice. He orchestrated everything.

See karma will let you down time and time again and leave you longing for justice without the hope of ever being satisfied, just waiting in vain for the universe to turn things in your favour; but the justice of God will never let you down. God is at work in this world, to bring justice to those who have oppressed, enslaved and abused others. And even if they don’t see it in this life, God has ordained a day of justice:
  • A day when evil deeds that were hidden on earth will be exposed for all to see
  • A day when those who were wrongfully accused will be vindicated
  • A day when those who lived in fear will see their tormentors tremble
  • A day when every wrong will be made right
One of the joys of the Christian faith is the promise of this Day of Judgment, and the most stunning application of the coming Day of Judgment is that there will be a resounding vindication for all who suffered in silence here on earth. Karma will let you down because it is just random chance, but the justice of God will never let you down because it will reveal the truth that sufferers long to hear.

Esther identifies with her people
So God is at work in this world to bring justice to the hurting and broken people who desperately need it, but in almost every case God chooses to use a human vessel to be the bearer of His justice.  Right throughout this story we have seen Esther being prepared, positioned and privileged to become to vessel of God’s justice for His people. The people of God were scattered across the Empire, they were living in confusion, fear and turmoil.  And there was nothing they could do about it because they had been held captive by Haman, the man who held the highest office in the land, the man who bore the King’s signet ring and gave orders that had to be obeyed.

And yet for this voiceless, oppressed and hopeless people God provided salvation!  Salvation in the form of a young Jewish girl from a family broken by death and sorrow, conscripted into the king’s harem without a choice and thrust into the role of Queen.  In God’s providence Esther found herself as the only Jew in Persia who had any hope of bringing salvation to her people.  And we have seen this girl, who could have lounged in the luxury of the palace, risked everything including her life to step into the very centre of God’s purposes for His people.
  • She became a voice for the voiceless
  • She became freedom for the oppressed 
  • She became hope for the hopeless 
And in this section of the story we see how she did it.  It is easy to miss the fact that up until this moment the king had no idea that Esther was a Jew. Esther was living in the palace and had been far removed from the confusion, chaos and turmoil of the king’s edict until Mordecai told her of their pain. Esther had a choice... She could continue to live in secret in luxury and hope she escaped the destruction or she could identify herself as being part of the oppressed people of God.  The following verses show us what she did: Esther 7:4“For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.” and Esther 8:6 – “For how can I bear to see the calamity that is coming to my people? Or how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred?” (Emphasis added)

Esther identified with the scattered and hurting people of God.  Effectively she stepped outside the comfort of her secrecy and was prepared to put her head on the chopping block alongside her people. Where so many would have ducked for cover and remained out of the firing line, Esther stuck her neck out and stepped into the crosshairs.

The voiceless, hopeless and oppressed
And do you know that there are literally millions of people who are voiceless, hopeless and oppressed living in our world today who desperately need to be set free.  Millions in poverty, millions forced from their homelands by war, famine and terrorism and millions sold into sexual slavery.  Men, women and children scattered all across our world who are in desperate need and yet there are very few people with the courage of Esther to become their voice, become their hope and fight for their freedom.

And it is not even just the big, global problems… because these can seem too monumental for us to have any impact… but we have people all around us in Australia who need us to stand with them as well:
  • There are at least 90 thousand babies who are without a voice aborted every year in Australia
  • There are thousands of single mums who are left without hope when their ex-partners abandon them and give them nothing with which to support their kids
  • There are untold numbers of people with severe disabilities who are trapped without freedom and often times forgotten about in institutional care
We hear of this turmoil around the world and our hearts ache for justice... for about 5mins after the YouTube video finishes and then it is back to my profile page.  So often our response the the cry of humanity is deafening silence! Why? Because we are also oppressed…
  • We are rendered voiceless by our all-consuming thirst for material gain
  • We are made hopeless by our addictions to lust, image and escapism
  • And we are trapped by our desire to be popular
We lack the motivation to step out in Esther-like courage because we are pre-occupied with our own profit, pursuits and pleasures.  We read stories like Esther and we like to think that we identify with the heroine… that we are like Esther, but in reality we are more like the helpless people of Israel, scattered across the empire oppressed and in need of someone to set us free.

Jesus identified with us
The end of chapter 8 sees Mordecai, having been given the king’s signet ring, reversing Haman’s decree and the king’s riders heading out with the joyous proclamation of freedom. Now the voiceless can sing, the hopeless can dream and the oppressed can dance.  And the only way we will ever have the courage to act on behalf of the broken-hearted people of this world is if we hear the joyous proclamation that we have been given a voice, that we have been given hope, that we have been set free!

See instead of staying hidden in the luxury of heaven Jesus Christ identified with the broken and lost people of the earth, and not just with empathy and compassion, but He actually embraced our situation; He embraced our flesh! Jesus spoke out for the voiceless, He gave hope to the hopeless and He set captives free.  And like Esther He did it by identifying with His people; even to the point of dying our death!

See unlike Esther and Mordecai, Jesus was not spared injustice, in fact He suffered the greatest injustice of all time. Though completely innocent He was beaten, mocked, tortured and killed. He was hung up high for the world to see His shame; but God did not leave Him without a voice!  When God raised Jesus from the dead He vindicated Him and the joyous proclamation of freedom for the people of God rang out across the land.

When we see this Jesus who shed the luxury of Heaven and identified with broken and hurting humans like us, and who suffered the greatest of human injustices in order to secure our freedom, that we can shed the shackles of our pre-occupation with self and tackle the injustices those around us are suffering.

  1. How do stories of injustice make you feel?  What emotions do they evoke?  Think of some examples.
  2. How did you feel when Haman was finally revealed as the enemy and received the punishment and shame he deserved?
  3. Esther identified herself with the Jewish people, stepping outside of the privilege of her title.  In what ways can you identify with broken and hurting people around you?  What privileges might you have to step outside of?
  4. Be honest. What things are you consumed by that dampen your passion for justice?
  5. How does seeing Jesus identifying with us and suffering our injustices help you to shed those things and embrace the task of bringing justice to this hurting world?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Esther Week 5 - Living Gospel Irony

The following is a summary of week 5 of our Esther series.  Full sermon downloads and more information about Rosalie Baptist can be found at the website.

Two different approaches
In chapter 5 the storyteller shows us both Esther and Haman going to see the king to plead with him for assistance... in doing so the two character are placed side by side and we are drawn to compare them:
  • Esther - having steeled herself to confront the king despite the peril it would put her life in, Esther clothes herself with honour and dignity presents herself to the king.  She does not approach in boldness, anger or panic even though the situation was urgent and the stakes high. Though she was not invited she does not come on her own terms, she bows to the expectations of the court and the King and comes dripping with nothing but reverence.  And even when the king receives her and offers her the assurance of a generous reply, she continues to shower him with honour by inviting him to a feast she had prepared in his honour. Twice she delays presenting her petition in order to lavish the king with this honour.  Esther displays stunning patience in the face of turmoil because it was what the situation demanded... 
  • Haman - meanwhile the driving force of Haman's petition to the king was a deep love for himself.  Haman's heart once happy with the honour of being invited to queen Esther’s feast is immediately overrun with hatred, rage and evil intent when he sees Mordecai at the king’s gate. Haman’s only source of solace was gathering people around him to bask in his glory and worship at his splendour… But not even unpacking the trophy cabinet of his triumphs was enough to cool Haman’s rage this time. As in verse 13 he announces the cause of his sorrow, “Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate.” Mordecai is the thorn in Haman’s side, the bane of his existence, the hindrance to his happiness and so Zeresh his wife comes up with what is really the simplest of solutions… kill him! Basically she says, “Why wait for the appointed day? Why torture yourself any longer? Why not exact your revenge on this Jewish scum right now?” And so he rushes as fast as he can to gain the king's approval for Mordecai's death.
Where Esther was able to be patient in the face of great personal peril, Haman could not even wait a few months… he had to be rid of Mordecai now! So the gap between good and bad in our story widens.  Esther’s patience, honour and respectfulness magnify her winsome ways where Haman’s rage, impatience and pride magnify his despicable nature.

The perils of self-idolatry
And the reason for Haman's deterioration is apparent in verse 13.  It did not matter how many goals Haman kicked in life, if there was but one man like Mordecai who refused to worship him he would never be satisfied. Haman had chosen to worship the idol of self and found out that this idol had an unquenchable appetite and no matter how much he tried to feed it… he would never be satisfied. And so when he sees Mordecai this one last time he finally snaps.

And so it is with anyone who chooses to worship the idol of self.  Idols demand more and more of us with an increasing thirst for our attention, effort, money and time… but will never ever satisfy us in return!  And there is no more relentless idol than the idol of self.  Haman had met all of the demands of his idol but was actually more bitter, more impatient and more frustrated than ever before. The circumstances of Haman’s life may have improved dramatically but the quality of his life was dying every day that Mordecai lived.

And it is so easy for us to find ourselves on the never ending treadmill of futility as we feed and feed our idols but never feel as though we are getting anywhere:
  • A girl can strive really hard to gain acceptance in the most popular group at school but still be left feeling empty because the shine rubs off when she realises their lives seem even more lost than hers 
  • A young man can strive and strive to win a promotion only to find that the grass wasn’t greener on the other side and that the demands on him are greater and the stakes are higher if he fails 
  • A young mother can bust her guts trying to juggle all the components of her culturally perfect life (career, looks, children, marriage and friends) but never feel as though she is truly fulfilled 
If we are honest many of us run that treadmill… striving and striving for whatever it is we think will fill the hole in our heart… but the more we run… the bigger the hole gets!

God Opposes the Proud and gives Grace to the Humble
But not only do our idols fail to satisfy, they also move us closer and closer to destruction… as Haman is about to find out.  Chapter 6 begins with the king unable to sleep and so seeking solace he turns to the one source that he knows will sooth his troubled mind, the story of all the great and memorable deeds of his reign as king.  And it is into this sleepless night that God chooses to insert Himself with stunning and unmistakable timing.  Because in God’s providence the section of the annals that the servants choose to read him included Mordecai's rescue of the king from the scheme of two would-be assassins.  And so the king seeks someone to give him counsel on how to best honour Mordecai's bravery.  And Haman comes into the court to seek Mordecai's death right at the very moment the king was seeking to honour him.

Now remember it was Haman’s pride that drove him to come to the king, so it is his pride that is awoken when the king asks him how to honour someone because in Haman’s egotistical mind the king could only possibly want to honour him. And so his answer reveals the true nature of his heart’s desire: He wants royal robes (the king has worn), a royal horse to ride (the king has ridden), a royal crown and the king’s noble official to proclaim his greatness in the heart of the city… Basically Haman wants to experience the splendour and glory of being the king!

And as he unveiled this glorious celebration you get the impression that he can just taste it, that he can sense his greatest honour is there within his grasp.  But as he stands there, heart wide open to the glories that await him the king says, “Hurry; take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king's gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.” It would have felt like a knife had been plunged up under his ribs stealing his breath and ripping out his heart. Haman couldn't even bear the thought of Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate, let alone on the king’s horse, and to have the sheer indignity of serving this Mordecai and proclaiming his honour in the heart of the city; Haman’s pride died a thousand deaths in that instant!

But if Haman had known anything about the God of the Jews he would have known that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble and that God often ensures our haughty words come before a fall.  Even his wife Zeresh and his advisors recognised the hand of the Lord in this for when he arrives home and tells of his crushing shame they say, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him.”  Zeresh and his advisers understand something of the history of Yahweh’s work in this world… they know how the God of the Jews had brought down greater rulers and powers than Haman, they had heard how anyone who defied Yahweh could come to grief even when they seemed to have the victory in hand. Basically Haman’s wife tells him that his fate it sealed.  It may have just been one blow inflicted on him today, but it was indicative of his total defeat.

Gospel Irony
This story seems almost too ironic to be true:
  • Haman had made the gallows ludicrously high so that the city would see Mordecai’s demise… but instead of lifting him up onto the gallows Haman had to lift him up onto the king’s horse so the city would see his glory
  • Haman thought the only way to soothe his pride was to kill the one who wouldn't honour him… but instead he was forced to honour the one who wouldn't honour him
  • Basically Haman did everything he could to enact his greatest victory but it turned out to be his greatest defeat
But this is the way in which our God chooses to work in His world.  And it is how God chooses to reveal His most glorious victory. See the cross of Jesus Christ looked for all intents and purposes to be the greatest victory of Satan.  Like Haman, Satan thought he had Jesus right where he wanted Him; he had manipulated the situation to perfection: Judas had been turned to betray Jesus, the Pharisees had developed a murderous hatred for Jesus, the crowd was incited against Jesus, the Romans took pleasure in crucifying Jesus; Jesus seemed to be clothed in nothing but defeat, death and shame.

But the cross was not the ultimate victory of Satan... in fact it was the most glorious victory of God! And as Jesus was lifted up for all to see His shame we actually get to see His glory; the glory of the one who would give His life in our place, to defeat the powers of sin and death… to triumph over Satan himself.  And so when God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day Satan’s fate was sealed!

And do you know the only way we can be set free from the treadmill of futility, from the never ending quest of feeding our idols without ever finding satisfaction, is to realise that gospel victory will never be seen in our awesomeness, in our strength or in our victories...  The glory of the church is not in steeples and stained glass or strobe lights and rock bands or in programs or people... but the glory of the church is the seemingly inglorious cross of Jesus Christ.  And it is only when we see the one whose greatest glory was being bathed in shame, that we can lay down our quest for the earthly glory our idols promise and embrace the gospel irony of losing our life to truly find it; because true satisfaction can only be found here.

  1. Do you approach difficult situations or people with honour and dignity or with impatience, anger and frustration?
  2. What is the "treadmill of futility" in your life?  What is the thing you strive and strive to gain, investing all of your time, money and energy?  
  3. How satisfied are you by whatever it is you are chasing? 
  4. Haman's fall came after his pride built up his own perception of himself.  Have you ever experienced pride coming before a fall? 
  5. How do you feel about the reality that we must lose our life in order to find it?  Do you find it difficult letting go of the question to build up your own image?
  6. How can seeing the irony of the cross help you to abandon your quest for personal glory?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Esther Week 4 - More Valuable than Life

The following is the summary notes of week 4 of our Esther series.  Read chapter 4 and use the notes and questions below to continue in your contemplation.  You can download the audio of the sermon here. Previous week's notes are also available on this site.

Worship with Sorrow
There is a cultural awkwardness surrounding public displays of grief in our culture.  We have virtually no cultural processes, practices or postures of grief; I mean wearing black at a funeral isn't even the done thing anymore because we force one another to celebrate a life rather than mourn a death. And what this means
is that when we go through times of grief ourselves we can feel as though there is no real outlet for our sorrow. We don’t think anyone will understand, we don’t know of any ways that we can express our emotions without appearing weird, so we bottle up our hurt or we save our weeping for sleepless nights when no one else is around.

In church world it is so easy to let the cultural awkwardness surrounding grief to colour our worship.  Subtly we expect Christians going through hard times to be super-spiritual giants who can testify to how they are soldiering on in the Lord.  Basically we define 'godly grieving' by our capacity not to put other people out.

But with Mordecai we see a man who has one of the deepest trusts in God that we see in all of Scripture and yet when the news of the king's decree reaches his ears he publicly and passionately grieves.  And the whole Jewish community followed. Fasting and weeping and lamenting in sackcloth and ashes. And it is not just because it is culturally appropriate for them… it is because godly sorrow is actually worshipful. Worship is a response of the whole human being to the reality of God in any given situation. So when Mordecai looks at the dire situation that the people of God have been placed in the only honest worshipful response to God he can make is to cry out in anguish.

When a child is lost in the shopping centre she doesn't cry because she doubts her mother or because she doesn't trust her mother, she cries because she desperately wants her mother… needs her mother… because her mother is the only one who can heal her heart… Likewise Mordecai’s weeping is not because he doubts God, but because he needs God and in so many ways this is the most genuine of all worship moments. Mordecai’s tears are tears of his humble recognition that he needs something more than himself – he needs God!

And sometimes we need to be humble enough to admit that we need God… sometimes like the child lost in the shops we need to realise that our situation is so dire that God is the only one who can heal our hearts… and we need to genuinely and honestly cry out for Him in the midst of our anguish… and if we are a community of worship we need to create space for this to happen!  You might think you are displaying great godliness by suffering in silence, but you might actually be holding back genuine and honest worship from God. There may be no other place in our culture where you can be weak, where you can be broken, where you can weep bitter tears; but let me tell you now at Rosalie Church you can.

The Cost of Doing Right
The palace had sheltered Esther from the confusion and chaos of the king's decree and so when she hears of Mordecai's grief she tries to placate him with fine garments.  But they turn out to be clothes of cold comfort as Mordecai explains to her the terror that hangs over the people of God.  And so he sends a copy of the edict to Esther so that she might read it for herself and be moved to act on their behalf; to appeal to the king for their salvation.

But when Esther reads the edict and hears Mordecai’s appeal her heart must have sunk, because she knew what he was asking her to do was costly indeed.  She sends back a disappointed refusal in verse 11 telling Mordecai of the cost of his request. In fact so costly is this request that for the first time in the story she questions Mordecai’s wisdom. She doesn’t want to disobey Mordecai but she does argue that compliance is virtually impossible. The reality is that Esther stared down the barrel of public disgrace and banishment at best or at worst the death penalty if she dared to confront the king concerning the edict.

And what we have to realise is that there is always a cost for us to do the right thing.
  • A child speaking up against a bully at school will just about always find themselves in the crosshairs of that bully 
  • Sharing the truth of the gospel with a friend may jeopardise your friendship 
  • Nurses and doctors who head to Ebola infested regions of Africa put themselves right in the path of the deadly virus 
  • Missionaries who head into closed countries controlled by anti-Christian regimes to preach the gospel face the very real threat of prison, persecution and death 
Doing what we know to be right often carries a deep personal cost… and if we seek to live the kind of life that speaks up for truth, cries out for justice and gives hope to the broken we will often find ourselves in Esther’s unenviable position.;in the wrestle between knowing what is right and knowing the cost of doing it.  So most of us, if we are honest, take the easy option. We all too often bury our heads in the sand… not wanting to know about what is happening around us in case we are convicted of what needs to be done and end up facing Esther’s dilemma.   Too many of us want to live in safety and ignorance of the palace and let the brokenness of the world float by without us ever knowing.

Esther’s Courage
While I am sure Mordecai was sympathetic to Esther’s dilemma his reply delivers 3 stunning realities that, as we soon see, steel Esther’s resolve and give her the courage that both she and the people of God desperately needed:
  1. In verse 13 he reminds Esther of the her inclusion in the trials they faced.  Basically he says “Death is coming to us all Esther, so you can either face it now trying to intervene for your people or you can wait in the the palace until the appointed day when you will be swept away with us all.” The comfort and luxury of the palace may have been sheltered her from the confusion of the decree, but it wouldn't shelter her from the consequences of the decree. 
  2. In verse 14 Mordecai reminds Esther of her relative insignificance in the scope of God’s sovereign plan for His people. It’s like he is saying, “This is not about you. God is big enough to save His people whenever and through whomever He pleases. He doesn’t need you.” Mordecai knows his history and he knows the salvation of the people of God is ultimately assured by the promise of God not the courage of the people. 
  3. As verse 14 continues Mordecai asks Esther to consider the providence of God, basically saying, “You cannot ignore the way God has been at work in your life, you cannot ignore the reality that a Jewish girl is Queen of all Persia at the very time that the Persian Empire is about to crush the Jews, God might not need you Esther - but He wants you!” 
If you bring these three arguments together you see the weight of what he is saying:  See what Esther needed to know in order to gift her the courage she needed was that she was not throwing herself at the mercy of the King of Persia… she was actually casting herself into the merciful arms of the King of the universe.  Esther needed to know that while the cost of doing the right thing was high, the peace of being in God’s will, the joy of stepping into His sovereign arms and the reward of walking in His providence was infinitely greater!

Esther was now prepared to give up the comfort of the palace, to face the public shame of being stripped of her crown and cut off, to confront the very real possibility of her own death.  She was now willing to absorb the cost of doing the right thing because Mordecai had shown her something in God that was of infinitely greater value.  And so she courageously says, "I will go to the king, though it is against the law,and if I perish, I perish."

More Valuable than Life
And this morning if we hope to be a people who are able to absorb the cost of doing the right thing for the benefit of those around us.  If we want to walk in the providence of knowing that God has put us here in Rosalie for such a time as this.  Then we need to know that Jesus Christ is of far greater worth and value than any cost we might be called to bear.

And this morning Esther has shown us why.  See like Esther, but in a far greater way, Jesus showed us a joy, peace and hope more valuable than the cost of doing the right thing, no matter how steep that cost:
  • He gave up the comfort of His throne to turn away the wrath of the king
  • He didn't just risk the shame of the removal of His crown but He was actually mocked and shamed with a crown of thorns
  • He didn't just put His life on the line but He actually gave His life on the cross
For the joy set before Him, Jesus absorbed the full cost of doing what was needed so that we might be spared the wrath of the king… Jesus perished so that we don’t have to! And it is only when we have this infinitely valuable treasure Jesus that we can absorb the cost of doing what is needed in this world.

  1. Think back to the times you have gone through trial or sorrow.  Do you think you handled it well?  Did you share your burden with the church or did you think the godly response was to bear it alone?
  2. What practical things can we do as a church to foster a community that worships through sorrow?
  3. Have you ever wrestled with the cost of doing the right thing?  Did knowing the cost put you off following through with what you knew was right? 
  4. Think about your life and the situation you find yourself in right now.  What do you think God's providence has prepared you for?  Who does He want you to reach out to?  
  5. How do you feel knowing that God doesn't need you to fulfill His plans... but He does want you? 
  6. How does seeing Jesus' bearing of the cost of doing right empower you to see Him as more valuable than any cost He might ask you to absorb?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Esther week 3 - Know the enemy

This is the summary of week 3 of our Esther series, looking at chapter 3
You can listen to the sermon here
And check out week 1 and week 2 notes to catch up on the story

The enemy appears
Esther has been queen for 5 years when the story teller chooses to pick up the action again to highlight the appearance of the final major character in the narrative, a man named Haman.  From the outset we see that Haman has been showered with the king's favour and promoted to the highest office in the land besides the king.  Along with his high office comes an edict from the king himself that all other officials were to bow down and pay homage in Haman's presence.  But one man refuses, Mordecai the Jew.  So as Haman burns with anger against Mordecai's refusal to honour him he devises a plan to wipe out the entire Jewish race... making him become the enemy of the people of God.

Now while Haman is clearly the enemy of the people of God in this story, he also stands as a pointer to the one who has been the enemy of the people of God forever... Satan.  In fact the parallels between Haman and Satan are quite stunning:
  • Haman is set high above all others by the King… Satan was given great importance and authority among the angels
  • But for Haman this prestige was not enough unless everyone bowed down to him… likewise Satan was not satisfied with his high station either and desired to have ultimate worship as well
  • Haman sought to gain this worship by destroying the people of God… and Satan sought to gain worship by attacking God’s precious newly created people
Haman is in this story not just because he is part of the historical happenings… but he is here to remind us of our real enemy.  And so as we get to know him this morning we will also get to know our enemy.

The enemy craves your worship
The trigger for Haman's journey into evil was his pride causing him to crave the worship of people.  Mordecai's refusal to pay homage to him enraged him to the point of scheming the genocide of the Jewish people.  So it should not surprise us that Satan also craves our worship... and like Haman he won't be satisfied until he gets it. While you think it might be easy to starve Satan of worship simply by avoiding Ouija boards, witchcraft or demonic incantations, the reality is that the enemy of God has a plethora of ways he can extract worship from you.  So whether it is overtly or subtly he works to receive our worship whether we know it or not: when we seek security in our possessions, when we seek identity in our status, when we seek significance in romantic relationships or when we seek to justify ourselves through our own moral goodness we are chasing after something other than Jesus the one true God; and so our worship defaults to the enemy of the one true God.

The enemy will bait you with pride
Unlike kid's movies where the bad guys are often portrayed as bumbling fools who formulate half baked plans and have terrible aim when trying to shoot the good guys, Haman is no bumbling fool.  In fact he is crafty and careful... he is an evil mastermind.  His plan to destroy God's people is well thought out and patient.  He waits for the right day, even casting lots to ensure the gods would be on his side and he seeks kingly approval for his plan to ensure its empire-wide success.  And when he goes in to entreat the king to carry out his scheme he does not mention specifics; discrediting the Jews before king even knows who they are.  Haman is well planned and methodical, but most importantly he knows the perfect bait with which to lure the king.

He paints this unnamed people as breakers of the king’s laws and enemies of his pride, he assures the king that his plan will remove this blight and elevate the king’s standing, and he promises the king financial gain out of the endeavour.  He basically says, "Follow my plan and your pride will be preserved, promoted and prospered… but if you fail to act your pride will suffer great injury."  And he knows how the king will respond because he remembers how he responded when Vashti injured his pride. He knows that if the king cut Vashti off he would also give Haman consent to cut the Jews off.  And so the king buys into his scheme… infatuated with his own pride he calls his scribes and issues an edict for the destruction of the Jews.  Haman’s hook baited with pride had enticed the king and he had been caught in the scheme against the people of God.

And when we remember that Haman is representative of the arch enemy of God you realise that pride is the bait of Satan as well.  It was pride that Satan tempted Adam & Eve with in the garden, “you will be like God…” It was pride that Satan tempted Jesus with in the wilderness, “I will give you [all the kingdoms of the world], if you will fall down and worship me.” And it is with pride that Satan will tempt you and me.
  • When he tempts us into envy is it not because he is presenting us with an image of how great we would be if we just had those possessions, these talents, this look or that relationship 
  • When he tempts us into lust is it not because he is offering us the pride boosting pleasure of sexual gratification 
  • When he tempts us into self-righteousness is it not because he is leading us to believe that we can attain holiness by our own strength and that we will be known as the holy man or the woman of God 
Self-promotion is at the root of every one of Satan’s temptations, he is crafty and he knows our weakness and our weakness is always pride. Pride is the crack in the door through which Satan can jam his foot and gain access to our entire life. And like the proud king it is so easy for us to be drawn into the enemy’s schemes through his tempting of our pride.

Know the real enemy
And so in this epic story that we are following the real enemy has shown his face; but it is not who we first thought it would be... it is not King Ahasuerus. When you read chapter 1 and see the pride, arrogance and cruelty of the king it is easy to assume that he will be the bad guy, but in actual fact he turns out not to be the orchestrator of evil.  It would have been easy for the people of God to read the edict carrying the king’s name and see the king as the enemy.  They could have risen up against him and they formulated their own assassination plot, but regardless of how successful they were they would not have stopped the evil that stood against them… they would merely have killed the fall guy.

And there is a need for us the people of God today to understand who our real enemy is. Because in certain sections of the church there seems to be a kind of militant aggression that is altogether misdirected. We need to realise that our enemy is not flesh and blood, it is not visible and it is certainly not going to be defeated by our protests. Our enemy is not: atheists, promiscuous popstars, abortion doctors, Muslims or pornstars.  These are not our enemies… like Ahasuerus they are merely hostages of the real enemy, lured in by his temptations of pride and conscripted into his plans to thwart the purposes of God and destroy the people of God. And it is so easy for us to fight the battle on the wrong front, to fix our aim on the hostages instead of the kidnapper.  But our prayers need to be for the people trapped in his plans not against them, our heart needs to be bent towards them in love not harden against them in hatred and we need to save our prayers, energy and righteous anger for the true enemy of God.

Confusion and peace
At the end of the chapter we find an almost surreal scene in verse 15, “...the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” Inside the palace Haman and the king sit down to drink, while outside the city and the whole empire are thrown into confusion. It seems that Haman, the enemy of the people of God, was only able to rest at peace when the city was in chaos. He was only able to rejoice and celebrate with wine when the city was gripped by fear.

And this is the reality, Satan our enemy desires chaos. He is only happy when our lives are cast into fear and confusion. This is what brings him joy, this what satisfies his heart.  Like the end of chapter 1 the end of chapter 3 leaves us feeling fairly hollow: the people of God have their heads on the chopping block, the city has been cast into chaos and confusion and the enemy of the people of God is resting easy and celebrating his scheme.  Everything seems to be mounting up against the people of God; the situation seems hopeless.

But if we know anything about our God it is when everything seems to be at its worst that He does His best. See while the enemy of God craved joy and peace for himself by inflicting confusion and chaos on the city, Jesus appears as one who absorbed chaos and confusion into Himself in order that the city might have true joy and peace. The pain of betrayal, the shame of mockery and scorn and the sting of death mounted up the most horrid chaos against Jesus and yet He absorbed it all so that you and I might live free from confusion in ultimate peace and joy. Seeing the nature of our enemy can be daunting… but it is only when you see this Jesus who absorbs our confusion and chaos so that we can live in peace that we realise that our God is more than able to conquer even the worst the enemy can do.

  1. What do you think about the idea that there is an enemy of God?  How does it make you feel?
  2. Have you ever thought about the reality that worshiping anything other than God is by default the worship of Satan?  Do you agree?  
  3. Haman clearly baited the king with pride.  Be honest and think through the temptations you struggle most with.  How does Satan lure you towards them through your pride?
  4. Who have you previously thought of as enemies of God or enemies of the church?  Have you hardened your heart to these people?  How does viewing them as hostages of our real enemy change the way you respond to them?
  5. How does seeing Jesus as the one who absorbs the chaos of the enemy in order to shower us with peace and joy encourage us?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Esther Week 2 - Our best for the pagans

Here is a summary of the second sermon in our Esther series. You can download the sermon online and/or use this summary to help with your own study of Esther. Read Esther Chapter 2 yourself and there are some reflection questions at the bottom. You can find the week 1 summary here.

Confusion in a post-Christian world
With church attendance down, the moral standards of society changing, legislators debating laws that push a godless agenda and our tolerance obsessed society is becoming more and more intolerant of our faith... it is easy for Christians living in the west to feel as though society is slipping away from us all too quickly.  And so I sense there is great confusion, doubt and fear that surrounds us when we think about engaging the post-Christian world we now live in. 

But being in the minority is something that God’s people have often had to confront… We have our Richard Dawkins brand of atheism, godless education system and materialistic consumer society… but the people of God living in Susa had Ahasuerus!

If you remember from last week King Ahasuerus was infatuated with himself to the point of cutting off and shaming his most favoured queen because she cramped his pride.  The city of Susa and the whole nation to some degree was flavoured by the pride of their king.  So when we left the people of God last week they were living under the yoke of this proud king longing for the day of their rescue... longing for a better king!

Proud to choose another queen
Well about 3 years later we pick up the action in chapter 2 when King Ahasuerus discovers what all people obsessed with their pride eventually discover... Pride is a terrible idol.  Pride caused him to cut off his nose to spite his face.  His pride had forced him to cut of Vashti but now his pride wouldn't let him be happy without her.  He longed for someone to fill the void left by Vashti.  So his advisers propose that a whole bunch of hot women are rounded up and taken to a palace where they will be pampered and vie for the affection of an overly rich king who will choose one of them to make his wife... no this is not "The Bachelor Susa"... it is a contest that no one would really want to be in.

Think about it.  How would you feel if you were a young virgin and you were told that you were to spend a night with the king and then in all likelihood spend the rest of your days living in the harem as property of the king... as spent goods... never fulfilling your dream of getting married, starting a family in the normal way?  That was the fate of the women in this contest... unless they won.  And if they won they were faced with the prospect of having to please the king or, like Vashti, they would be thrown on the rubbish heap, shamed publicly... or worse.

Esther appears
It is into this contest that our heroine first appears... and straight away we are drawn by the storyteller to make a stark comparison between the king and Esther and her cousin Mordecai.  Where the king had everything go his way in life and even if it didn't he cast others away to get it... Esther and Mordecai have known nothing but trial.  Living far from their homeland, oppressed and bearing the pain of lost loved ones... 

But when Esther is thrust into the centre of this contest we see that instead of kicking up a stink and whinging for their own way Mordecai allows her to go... allows her to go into the palace of the proud king where her whole life might be swallowed up and rendered useless by the fickle king... and Esther goes in obedience and trust.

Where we wrestle and complain against the pagan world as it encroaches more and more on our lives... or we pull back in and hide from it to protect our own... Mordecai and Esther embrace their situation with courage and trust in the timing and providence of God... and so Esther is cast out into the centre of our story... and as providence would have it, the centre of God's purposes.  And so as we meet Mordecai and Esther we will see how we can live as a minority in and among our world... because God's purposes are rarely found in retreat.

Invest rather than impose
While God does want us living in and among the pagan society we find ourselves in, He does not want us going out blind.  And Mordecai certainly did not let Esther go into the palace unaware.  You get the impression throughout the chapter that Mordecai has fathered Esther with great affection and wisdom.  Twice we are told that Esther obeyed Mordecai’s instructions without question and we know this comes from love not fear because twice we see that Mordecai cared so much for Esther that he made his way to the palace every day to find out how she was travelling.  

Sometimes we get so busy trying to protect our children or fellow church members from the big bad pagan world that we invest more time in fighting off the world than we do in them. And we end up just enforced on them the rules and restrictions of traditional Christianity obscuring the joy, hope and peace of the gospel.  We impose regulations on people rather than investing Jesus into people! If we learn anything from Mordecai’s raising of Esther it is that it came in the context of a personal relationship based on love and trust. He invested rather than imposing ...
  • Parents… we need to impart a faith to our children that is more concerned with the person of Jesus than the rigours of religion 
  • Church… we need to disciple one another in a way that invests love rather than imposes rules 
  • Brothers and sisters… we need to care so deeply for one another that we will seek them out in the world in which they walk and pray for, encourage and guide them
Living out our faith in a pagan world requires us to model true living faith in Jesus to one another rather than cold moralism… we need to model faith in God not fear of the world and assurance that comes from trust in Jesus not trust in the external code of the law.

Esther gives her best
The first we hear of Esther we see that Mordecai's investment in her was worth it.  We see her walk into a situation that would have been a daunting and even terrifying prospect.  She was forced to win the affections of a pagan king who was obsessed with himself.  In fact she may have found the situation repulsive.  And yet she doesn't cower in the corner... she doesn't protest... she doesn't ever just give a half-baked effort; she gives her best!

In fact this chapter paints Esther as a young woman growing in many qualities that endear her to the people of the palace; Esther grows in winsomeness… the more we get to know here the more people she wins over:
  • In verse 9 she wins over Hegai the guardian the king placed over the women
  • In verse 15 she wins over everyone she meets in palace
  • And in verse 17 she wins over the king himself causing him end the contest by declaring Esther the winner and placing the crown on her head 
  • But it was not just his eye or affection that she won... her winsomeness changed him ever so slightly.  Because for the first time in his reign Ahasuerus does something to honour someone else.  He throws a feast for Esther... it is called "Esther's Feast"
Despite being in a situation that most would find repulsive… despite being at the whim of a proud pagan king… Esther, a young Jewish girl, chooses to express her faith in Yahweh not through protest or debate… not through aggressively standing up for her rights… but Esther proved her faith in God by giving her winsome best for God as a gift to the pagan world.

And she surely learned this from Mordecai who also gives his best for the king.  From verses 19-23 we learn that Mordecai overhears an assassination plot against the king.  Now Ahasuerus was the pagan king who reigned over the Jews, a proud, ruthless and horrid king and this assassination plot was really the king's own doing (when you elevate yourself at the expense of others you make a lot of enemies) so Mordecai, as a Jew, would have been tempted to simply forget that he overheard the plot and leave the king to face an unknown threat to his life… But Mordecai acts swiftly to spare the king death because he believed that God wanted him to give his best… even if it was to a pagan king.

God wants us to give our best to the world
Traditionally Christians have seemed to desire to give their best on Sunday while they are at church.  The feeling was that you should give your best on Sunday because we should save our best for God. But God is not confined to church services and God’s call on our lives extends beyond Sunday!
In fact I would rather you are unable to give your best at church on Sunday because you have been giving your best all week out there in the pagan world. Because God wants us to be the best we can be in the contexts that He has placed us in... the best nurse, accountant, speech therapist, chef, photographer, teacher you can be... He wants us to look out for the people around us and give our best so they can prosper and thrive in life… Why? Because He wants us to be winsome people…
  • God wants you to give your best to the pagan world in order to win the pagan world… 
  • God knows the world will not be won through condemnation and judgmentalism 
  • God knows the world will not be won through His people pulling back 
  • God knows the world will not be won through half-measures and false care 
God gave His best
And we know God knows all this because it is how He chose to win the world…
When the pagan world was ignorant of Him… and even when His people the Jews had deserted Him… When the whole world stood opposed to Him… God gave His best!  God gave Jesus… His most precious Son… the One with whom He shared perfect glory, joy and love… God gave His best to a rebellious world in order to win a rebellious world.  And Jesus gave His best to those He walked among… His best teaching, His best miracles, His best love and compassion… Jesus held nothing back from the world even when they hated Him. Ultimately Jesus gave His best on the cross as He absorbed all of our hate and rebellion and still said, “Father forgive them…”

It is only when you see this Jesus… when you see God’s best, given to a pagan world, that you can give your best to a pagan world.

  1. Spend some time thinking through the workplace, university, school or neighbourhood that you dwell in.  What are the aspects of life in these places that are most challenging or confronting?
  2. Be honest, have you tended to shy away from these places and go into protection mode while you are there? 
  3. Are you more likely to want to protect and pull back your children or other loved ones when it comes to their engagement with the world?
  4. How can you invest Jesus into people around you rather than imposing regulations?
  5. In what ways have you found yourself giving less than your best to the world?  How can knowing Jesus encourage and empower you to give your best to this broken world? Name a couple of situations where you can help others to prosper.and thrive.