Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Esther Week 8 - Speaking Peace

The following is the summary notes from the final week of our Esther series.  You can check out the whole series online at our website.

The Changed King
Tax carries a negative connotation in today's society; there is no such thing as a good tax.  And yet here in the final chapter of this epic story we come to the section which is supposed to be the happy ending, and yet we find the opening words of chapter 10 declare, “King Ahasuerus imposed tax on the land and on the coastlands of the sea.” And we are like, wait a minute, why on earth would the narrative finish like this? Surely the imposition of a new tax cannot be a good thing.

But in reality this short statement that rounds out the life and times of King Ahasuerus in our story contains a stunning reason for the people of God to rejoice. Yes you heard me right… the people of God would have rejoiced at this new tax:
  1. The tax here represents a significant change in King Ahasuerus’ economic policy. His last great idea for bringing in much needed funds to the empire’s treasury came from Haman and was basically, "kill the Jews and steal their stuff".  Furthermore other economic policy of ruthless dictators of the time included things like enforced slavery.  So yes the Jews rejoiced in Ahasuerus’ new tax because he was embracing a conventional and just system for raising funds instead of strong arming out of them, enslaving vulnerable people or worse still following through with Haman’s plan.
  2. Secondly, the extent of Ahasuerus’ kingdom is defined as the lands and coastlands of the seas. While we are told very specifically in chapter 1 that he ruled from Ethiopia to India, now in chapter 10 there is just this general description of his empire, “the land and the coastlands of the seas”. Scholars believe that this was a simple phrase that basically meant “all the known world”.  Therefore at the end of our story Ahasuerus' empire was at its strongest and most secure. 
So not only had Ahasuerus been convinced to embrace a fair and equitable taxation system, his nation was the stronger for it. When the text tells us that “all the acts of his power and might... are written in the Book of the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?” it is not lying, this stage of his reign was the most prosperous of his life. But it was not always this way…

If you remember right back to chapter 1 we met the mighty King Ahasuerus and he was throwing a spectacular party for himself.  At the time I told you that this was the actions of a pathetically proud man who needed to feel affirmed and honoured. What I didn’t tell you was what happened next.

See according to historical research the third year of Ahasuerus’ reign marked the beginning of a long military campaign in Greece. Perhaps riding on the high of having the empire worship him, Ahasuerus set sail for Greece in an attempt to extend the borders of his kingdom even further. While they had initial success on both land and sea, eventually Ahasuerus’ pride got the better of him. The Greek ships had retreated to a stronghold and even though he was advised against it, Ahasuerus pursued them in battle and suffered significant losses. He was forced to return with his army to avoid a revolt amongst his troops leaving behind a skeleton army which was thoroughly defeated.

See we have to understand that in many ways the spectacular 180 day feast was a smokescreen to hide the less than spectacular standing of the king. Sure he had wealth, power and territory but he had inherited it all from the dynasty that went before him.  And after the defeats in Greece that dynasty loomed large over him and he was slipping into the shadows of giants. Compared to the great kings like Cyrus and Darius, Ahasuerus was failing badly.

What we have to realise is that while on the outside the King was full of pomp and splendour, on the inside he was wrestling with feelings of insignificance, insecurity and depression. He gave the impression that his empire was vast and strong, but in reality it was starting to crumble on the fringes.  And this explains so much of the story we have journeyed through:
  • It explains the feast in his own honour to puff himself up in the eyes of others
  • It explains why when he came back from Greece, depressed and unsettled, he sought a new Queen for himself
  • It explains why members of his own court would seek to assassinate him as they viewed him as a weak target
  • It explains why he was so insecure that Haman’s deception worked and he moved quickly to eradicate the supposed threat of the Jews
  • It explains why he was up late at night and needed the record of his great deeds read to him to ease his troubled mind
So much of Ahasuerus’ behaviour in this story has been dictated by this hidden insecurity. But time and time again we have seen that God was working behind the scenes to bring this king’s story into line with the story He was writing until they became intertwined. God was working out His purposes through the rise and fall of this proud Persian king.

If you compare Ahasuerus’ story before and after it became entwined with God’s story you see something quite stunning. And ultimately this is what I think the author of this story wants us to see. Yes the salvation of God’s people has been a central theme, but if you look at the bookends of this story you see a dramatic change:
  • Chapter 1 saw Ahasuerus as this despicable, self-indulgent and proud king who magnified himself at the expense of others. A man who trumpeted his own glory to hide the insignificance and insecurity in his own heart. A man who would crush anyone who stood in the way of his pride even if it was his own wife. 
  • But chapter 10 sees Ahasuerus more powerful, just and prosperous than ever before, more truly worthy of honour than ever before, but there is no fanfare or pomp and splendour like in chapter 1. Instead there is the stunning reality that this once proud king shares his glory with Mordecai the Jew. Mordecai’s name, integrity and honour is recorded alongside the king’s own name in the Chronicles of the Kings of Persia. The king shares his lasting legacy with a common Jewish man and elevates him to the highest office in the land. 
In the beginning of the story Ahasuerus magnifies himself even though his character is hardly worthy of praise. By the end of the story his character is actually now worthy of honour and yet he shares this honour with another.  So I guess the burning question is: what happened to cause this change? You can’t seriously read the story of Esther without being drawn to see this radical change in the king and ask this very question.  And the end of chapter 10 slaps us in the face with this answer, “For Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was great among the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brothers, for he sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people.”

The Change Agent
The change in the king was brought about by the fact that he came into contact with the people of God, more specifically he came into contact with Mordecai and his cousin Esther.  Right throughout the story these two people appear not just as the saviours of their own people but as the saviours of the king as well.
  • Esther won over the king and his court 
  • Esther gave her best to please the king 
  • Mordecai acted with integrity and courage to save the king’s life 
  • When Haman had manipulated him into making a huge mistake, Esther and Mordecai exposed this treachery and spared the king from potential disaster 
Basically Mordecai and Esther stood in the gap between the people of God and their enemy and “sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people.” And there is no doubt that coming in contact with the ones that God raised up to be the saviours of his people changed the king’s life dramatically. Esther was the best thing that ever happened to the king’s life.  Mordecai was the best thing that ever happened to the king’s reign as ruler of Persia.

Seeking welfare and speaking peace
The people of God living in Persia were exiled, trapped and longing to be home. They were in the minority and their voice was unable to be heard to the point where a simple decree form the king threatened to wipe them out completely.  And it is easy for us, living here in Brisbane and Rosalie to feel like this as well.

We probably don’t have kings threatening to end our lives but we do have:
  • Scores of people living all around us who honestly believe that the church and Christianity are bad for society 
  • People who don’t think we have anything to contribute to modern society; that our views are unhelpful, narrow-minded and draconian 
  • People who will actively fight to make sure that we have no voice in the public arena 
  • People who have embraced life outside of the boundaries of God’s good design and present their lifestyle as the best for society 
And to generalise the church has reacted to this in one of two ways:
  1. To retreat into a private faith. A faith where we feel comfortable to live out our convictions within the safety of church and home, but not pull back from society and let them taste the consequences their godlessness 
  2. To develop a negative and aggressive outlook on society and jump up and down about every step away from God’s design that they take. To climb on a moral high horse so to speak and seek to point the finger at the world 
But this is not what God called the people of God living in exile to do. Mordecai and Esther are presented here in this story as the ones who lived out God’s desire for His exiled people. And God desire for His people was that they might be the best thing that ever happened to the proud, pagan king. The palace was different because they were there, the empire was different because they were there and the trajectory of the king’s life was different because they were there.

People of God living in Rosalie, Brisbane, the question that you must be confronted with from the book of Esther is this: How is your city, your workplace, your street, your school, your sporting team, your family different because you are there? God does not want His people to retreat to safety and live a private faith.  Nor does He want us to climb on high horses and live a finger pointing faith.  He wants us to be present in the world and live out a peace speaking faith; a welfare seeking faith.

And I want to make this insanely practical for you as we finish.  The question I want you to wrestle with is this: How could the trajectory of people’s lives around you be changed simply because you are present in their life?
  • What if instead of subconsciously expecting our children to be popular at school we encouraged them to befriend the outcast kids who are caught at the bottom of the social pecking order 
  • What if you were the person in your street who looked out for others and invested in their lives, their marriages, their families
  • What if you were the person in your workplace who didn't join in the criticism and negativity but instead breathed life, joy and job satisfaction into the work environment
  • What if you were the political activist who didn't just write letter after letter of complaint, anger and venom, but took the time to write letters of honour, respect and blessing
Basically what I am asking you to consider is how you might speak peace and seek the welfare of the people in your life regardless of how hostile to you or your faith they are.  I am asking us as a church to consider how the trajectory of our community here in Rosalie might be changed if we speak peace and seek welfare.  How might the school be changed, how might the kindy be changed and how might the shops and restaurants be changed?  Will Rosalie be better off for having a church? And if so how?

The Ultimate Peace Speaker
Because ultimately this what Jesus did for us!  See the trajectory of our world was headed towards disaster.  The trajectory of my life was headed towards ruin. The trajectory of humanity was headed towards hell.  And yet Jesus came and sacrificed His life to speak peace to us and seek our welfare.  Jesus came to change the trajectory of our world and our individual lives and He wants us to do the same for the people and communities around us... He wants us to help them find the trajectory transformation that only He can provide.  And it is only when you are captivated, empowered and filled by this Jesus that you will ever have the power to do it.

As we round out our series in Esther you have to let the story question your heart: has God placed you in the neighbourhood, school, workplace, family, community that you are in for a time such as this?  So that you might be His hands and feet to see the trajectory of people's lives changed forever?


  1. Can you see the change in King Ahasuerus' life?  Consider the lives of the most hostile people around you. Do you believe that God can change their life trajectories?
  2. Which response do you think you have tended towards the most?  Private and silent faith or finger pointing high horse faith?  What is wrong with these responses?
  3. Think about the communities God has placed you and your family in.  Where does peace need to be spoken?  Where does welfare need to be sought?  What are the great areas of need in your community?
  4. In what tangible ways can you be God's hands and feet to speak peace and seek welfare?  How could your church or bible study group do this together?
  5. How does seeing the sacrifice of Jesus fuel your trajectory changing desire?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Esther Week 7 - The Appointed Day

The following is a summary of week 7 of our Esther series "A time such as this".  You can check out the note from other weeks in previous articles on this blog or go to the Rosalie Baptist Church website

The Accusation
"You Christians think your God is without flaw or moral imperfection but your bible is littered with accounts of atrocities committed against nations, men, women and even children, atrocities that your God commanded be carried out."  This is the charge that often gets thrust in our face as we seek to share the message of God in our day to day lives.  And while the question can rock us and force us to wrestle with our own understanding of God, we need to commit to that wrestle.

Because surely we want a study of the bible that actually deals with the harsh realities of life rather than the kind of collection of cheesy, feel good inspirational quotes that you find on a Hallmark calendar?  If we are going to live in a real world, with real issues, real questions and real accusations being thrown at the church, we will not get anywhere by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the less-than-palatable stuff in the bible. We must tackle the numerous passages of violence in the Old Testament head on.

Violent Judgment
And here we have a prime example of such violence. Chapter 9 takes a turn in a direction that perhaps we did not see coming.  Right through this story the Jewish people have been a threatened minority but now that they had seen relief we kind of expect this to be the end of the story... But chapter 9 makes us a little uncomfortable.

The 13th day of Adar, the appointed day that the Jews were to be slaughtered by their enemies, arrived.  But because Esther had secured their salvation we are told in verses 1-2 that, “the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them. The Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could stand against them, for the fear of them had fallen on all peoples.”
And the Jews took no prisoners, verse 5 declares: “The Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the citadel itself the Jews killed and destroyed 500 men…” The text goes on to explain how they also killed the 10 sons of Haman and hung their bodies from gallows to make an example of them. And finally we are told in verse 16 that across the Empire 75000 people were slaughtered in total.

Now this is not the kind of bible story you were hoping to hear when you came into church today. Let’s face it, nobody likes to be confronted with the possibility that the people of God, the ones we are supposed to think are the heroes of this story, the ones who worship and follow God, would exact revenge with such violence.  But as we continue to wrestle there are some things we need to see that help us grapple with this uncomfortable passage.

God is a God of Just Judgment
As we read through Esther and get caught in the story and we are powerfully confronted with the death of 75000 people it is easy for us to assume they are innocent lives that are taken. But the first thing we have to realise is that the people who were massacred were far from innocent. The text tells us that they were enemies of the Jews, but what this really meant in this situation was:
  • They desired to ethnically cleanse all the Jews from Persia
  • They were prepared for violence against the Jews
  • They hated Yahweh and would do anything to free the land of His worship
Basically they were racists, religious bigots and bullies who were waiting in the wings for an opportunity to strike. And they saw the decree of Haman as a way they could finally gain some advantage over the Jews and inflict great suffering upon them simply because of their hatred for the Jewish ethnicity and faith. These are people whose hatred would not stop on account of the decree being revoked. They were not led by Haman and would not give up now that he was dead. They were led by their own hatred and their hatred would never give up.

So what we learn about God here is not that He is cold, ruthless and vengeful like the atheists charge, but rather we learn that He is a God of justice… and if He is a God of justice… He must also be a God of judgment.  Not rash and uncontrolled judgement like a vicious dictator who seeks to assert dominance through fear and terror. But a judge who lets the punishment fit the crime.

The 75000 had rejected God and threatened harm against His people, they had sharpened their swords ready for action, and so God turned the tables on them and they suffered the same fate that they wished to inflict on others. And to prove that this was purely about justice and righteous judgment the Jews do not take the plunder of their enemies. They were not seeking to gain finances or property out of this venture; it was about justice and justice alone.

God is a God of Patient Judgment
Something that we don’t pick up initially in the text is the reality that there would have been several months between the events surrounding Haman’s execution and this Day of Judgment. Long enough it seems for verse 4 to tell us that by the time of the judgment, “Mordecai was great in the king's house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces, for the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful.” It seems that in the time between Salvation and Judgment two examples had gone out to the empire:
  1. The example of Haman and the shameful end that will come to all who betray the king and seek to bring destruction on the Jews
  2. The example of Mordecai and the glorious blessing that will come to those who worship Yahweh and honour the king
This means that the 75000 weren’t without witness. They had seen BOTH the perils of rejecting God and the glories of honouring Him and yet the text tells us that the hearts of the 75000 responded in fear and indifference toward Mordecai, the Jews and God.

So we also learn that while God is a God of just judgment, He is also a God of patient judgment. The fame of Mordecai, an example of faithfulness and trust in God, spread across the whole Empire and yet still the 75000 chose to harbour hatred against God and His people rather than seeing in Him a path to ultimate blessing. There are loads of accounts in the history of the Old Testament of people who were once enemies of God who turned and put their faith in Him: Rahab, Ruth, King Nebuchadnezzar and the people of Nineveh, and God responded in gracious welcome and blessing every time. He gave the 75000 more patient witness than they needed and yet they would not relent.

God is a God who preserves His People & Purposes
Ultimately, the reason that there is violence in the Old Testament is because from the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah in Genesis through to the events we have read about today people have always thumbed their noses at God and sought to destroy His people. There have always been people opposed to the purposes of God. 

It is easy to see God's protection of Israel as a insular and exclusive preservation of just one people group.  But we have to remember that the Jews had been blessed so that through them God could bless the world.  So if the Jews were to be destroyed, then God's avenue for blessing to the world would dry up.  And so one enemy like Haman and these 75000 Persians could rob the whole world of the blessing of His purposes.

And so to preserve His blessing to the nations through Israel, God enabled His people to have victory over their enemies in order to prevent their complete destruction; and often times these victories were violent. But God knew that in this era violence was the only way that the aggressive forces that stood opposed to His people could be stopped.

Jesus: Love your Enemies
That was until God decided enough was enough. Remember I said that God is patient. Well when the time was just right, when God’s patience had stretched and stretched way further than we deserved, God sent His Son Jesus into the world. And Jesus was the fullest and most clear revelation of the very nature and character of God Himself. And when He came He spoke directly to this issue saying radical things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”

The enemies of the people of God were no longer to be defeated with relentless force but to be loved with relentless passion.  Now you might ask: What’s happened here? Has God changed? What happened to the God of the Old Testament and His justice through just judgment against the enemies of the people of God? Well let me tell you for sure, God didn't change! But something did... and it changed radically!

See in Jesus God visited us, and like Mordecai His fame spread. Jesus' fame spread and He was seen by all as the perfect image of what trust in God was all about.  He was the ultimate Jew, the One communicated the blessing of God most perfectly to the nations.  And what humanity did with this beautiful witness to God’s love, peace and faithfulness? They hated Him and they stored up anger and evil in their hearts against Him. They appointed a day when they would conspire to see Him eradicated.

But instead of exacting justice against these enemies, instead of reaching down with His hand of just punishment against those who sought to destroy His Son, God provided Jesus as one who would bear the full weight of our anger against Him.  One who would suffer the destruction that Mordecai and Esther never saw.  But more than that God also provided Jesus as one who would bear in His body the just judgment against our rebellion. On the cross Jesus stood in our place and took the punishment that we deserved.

And so now that this punishment is gone, taken by God Himself, we are free to love our enemies.  Free to hold back any punishment because their punishment has already been taken:
  • When that atheist in your workplace keep ridiculing you and your faith day after day, to the point where you just want to fire back with a venomous outburst that you know He deserves… you are free to fire up prayers on his behalf instead
  • When the local kids come around to your house, dressed as demons, witches and ghosts and everything in you just wants to slam the door in their face and stare disapprovingly at their parents… you are free to love them by showering them with treats and gospel hospitality
See the God of the Old Testament is not a different god from the God of the New Testament; they are one and the same! But there is a massive difference in where this one God chose to place the just punishment for human rebellion. In the Old Testament, like in the passage we have read this morning, that punishment rightfully fell on the 75000 people who deserved it; those who had rebelled against God and harboured evil intent towards His people. But in the coming of Jesus God chose to place that punishment on His own Son who did not deserve it.  And those who follow Him are free from having to be vessels of God’s punishment but can embrace the call to be vessels of His love their enemies and vessels of prayer for those who persecute them.

It is only in the light of the cross that Jesus’ teachings on loving our enemies make sense. And it is only when people are empowered by the cross that we can forgo the need for vengeance and shower our enemies with love.

Celebrating Freedom, Justice and Victory
Back in the story however, Mordecai spread word of the victories that had been won via a letter sent to each province of the Empire. And included in this letter was the initiation of a feast. See just as the Jews could not help but mourn bitterly and clothe themselves in sackcloth and ashes when Haman’s edict was read in their province, neither could they hold back their joyous celebration when Mordecai’s letter of victory was read out.

The days of the 14th and 15th of Adar would never be the same again. This was the moment of their relief, the moment their sorrow turned to gladness, the moment their mourning turned to celebration! So Mordecai’s feast is established and it is marked with joy to God and generosity to the poor as they lavished one another with gifts of food.  They called the feast and the days Purim, and the text tells us that it is a named derived from the lots by which Haman had chosen the appointed day for the destruction of the Jews.  The lots, like little dice were called Pur, and so when God arranged for the appointed day to be turned on its head and for Haman and the enemies of the Jews to meet the same doom they intended to inflict, well the irony was so striking that they named the feast after the method by which justice was ultimately decided.

And did you know the Jews still celebrate Purim to this very day.  The 14-15 of Adar is during the month of March and so each year the Jews celebrate and rejoice in the victory that was won for them on that day. And they still give gifts of food and show generosity to the poor.  And the feast and celebration still captures the essence of the history behind it:
  • They eat little triangle shaped cookie parcels that they call Haman’s ears…
  • In the synagogue, which is normally marked by silence and reverence, during Purim the people boo and jeer and shake rattles every time Haman’s name is mentioned as the story is read out
  • And they reflect on the current political and social climate and name their modern day Haman and ask God to give them deliverance
And it is good and right for the people of God to celebrate. Just as I said that we should be prepared to worship God in the midst of our greatest sadness, we should also feel free to celebrate in worship today. But so often I think we get in the habit of thinking that exuberant expressions of joy have no place in the church.  But let me tell you just as I gave permission to weep, I give you permission to smile, to beam with joy, to raise your hands and to clap your hands as you sing. Don’t feel restricted here at Rosalie Church.  Our joy needs to be expressed in pure celebration.

Because the Jews host huge feasts, with parades, costumes, food and dancing and their joy exceeds ours by far... but they are celebrating the lesser victory! They are celebrating Mordecai’s victory over Haman, they are celebrating a political and military win and so they are still caught in hatred for their enemies and are longing for their god to repeat this victory in every generation.

Celebrating the victory of Christ
But we are celebrating the greatest victory of all time!
  • We are celebrating the victory that not only frees us from our great enemy, sin and death, but we are celebrating a victory that sets us free from being trapped in hatred and revenge…
  • We are celebrating the cross of Jesus Christ, where He took all our rebellion and dealt with it once for all…
  • We don’t have to keep looking for new victories in each generation because Jesus’ victory was once for all…
  • We have the single greatest victory to sing about in the history of humanity… and it is the same victory we will sing about for all eternity…
So please Rosalie Church.  Let us not be out-shone in celebration by those who celebrate the lesser victory. Can we be the congregation who blows people’s minds with how genuinely joyous we are? Can we be the church who is known in this area for hosting the best celebrations? Can our singing ring out in this community with pure and genuine joy? And can we be so satisfied by Jesus’ victory that we can joyfully shower our enemies with love in such a way that they not only see our love for them but they see how much joy loving them brings to our lives?

  1. Be honest.  Have you thought much about the violence in the Old Testament or have you tended to shy away from it?
  2. How would you answer the charge that God cannot be good and loving because of these acts of violence that He initiated?  What insight have you gained from today's study?
  3. How does seeing Jesus as the one who took the punishment we deserve change the way we view our enemies?
  4. Can you name people or groups that are actively trying to bring down your gospel efforts in this world?  How can you practically love them?
  5. Be Honest.  What do you think when you see someone visibly joyful in their worship? Are you sceptical of their joy? 
  6. How can the church visibly shine the joy of the victory of Christ?  In worship?  In life?  In relationships?