Monday, July 11, 2016

The Story 20. The Queen of Beauty and Courage

Readings: Esther 7:1-6 + 9-10 + 9:20-22, John 15:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 10,2016

In our journey through the Old Testament we have reached the biblical Book of Esther. Esther is not a book that often gets preached on. Indeed there have been those in the history of the formation of the Canon of Scripture who suggested that it really had no place in the Bible. Why?

The book of Esther never once mentions God. The characters in the story are never pictured as praying. Neither do they observe any kind of religious worship. Some have even questioned the morality of a story that suggests that a nation is saved by a beautiful harem trained girl who is willing to sleep with a King. Thankfully the objectors were objected to and the story remains a great testament to how the faithful and courageous actions of an individual can profoundly shape history.

The story of Esther is set in the ancient land of Persia, at a time when the Persians were a major world power. It's the era and culture, which has given to us stories of Aladdin, the Arabian Knights and the Princes of Baghdad. The Jews are in some far away corner of the empire, in exile.

The King of Persia is the man of ultimate power. His palace is as though somebody had taken the Whitehouse, the Pentagon and the Playboy mansion and mixed them all together. It's the center for politics, war and worldly pleasure.When he throws a party it could last for months. If he had to give up either wine, women and song, you get the impression he'd give up singing!

And in the midst of this strange exotic land we find a pretty Jewish girl called Esther and her cousin, the older Mordecai, who is raising her as though she were his daughter. They have been exiled there after the deportation of the Jews from Jerusalem.

The story unfolds and we find that, during a drunken party, King Xerexes has summoned his Queen Vashti, to come and be shown off to the guests. “Look how beautiful she is!”

This was out of order, but, well, he was the King. He made the rules and could change the rules if it suited. Vashti refuses to come. The King becomes really mad, deposes her from office and sends a letter to everybody in the kingdom reminding all the women of the realm to honor their husbands... because they could be replaced!

He decides to replace Vashti by holding a competition. Every pretty young lady in the land is taken into the harem. They have a year to prepare themselves. Then, if when summoned they can please the King for a night, they have the chance to become Queen.  Amongst the ladies taken to the harem is Esther. Her guardian, Mordeccai, keeps a watchful eye on her progress by befriending some of the officials in charge.

After her time of preparation eventually Esther is summoned to the King. Things go well. The King is delighted by her and decides to make her Queen in place of the deposed Queen Vashti. Meanwhile, cousin Mordeccai spends a lot of time sitting at the palace gates, trying to keep up with all that was going on. He becomes aware of a plot to assassinate the King, he gets word to Esther, and Esther warns the King, who takes action to thwart the plot before it amounts to anything. The King intends to reward Mordeccai for alerting him of the dangerous siuation. So far, so good.

But… there's a bad guy in the court. Horrible Haman. Way back in “The Story” when we were looking at the life of King Saul, you may recall that one of King Saul's failures was in a battle against the Amalekites. The Amalakites were persistently wicked. They were the first people to try and stop Israel from entering into the land of Canaan.

The word of the Lord to Saul was that he was to go into the land and destroy them all. Saul thinks he has a better plan and allows 400 of them to survive. Horrible Haman is a descendant of one of those 400, and the story of his peoples defeat has not died over the passage of time. He has a real grudge against the Jews.

King Xerexes is not aware of this. He thinks the sun shines out of  Haman. There is real bromance going on. “What a great guy Haman is!” There is real bromance going on. He even issues an edict telling everybody to bow to Haman as he passes them by.

Mordeccai, the Jew and protector of Esther, completely refuses to do this. His action arouses Haman's prejudicial anger. Haman tries to have him killed, and when that plot fails, he sets about destroying the whole Jewish population.

We read in Esther 3:8-9  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. 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.'"

King Xerexes takes horrible Haman's advice and issues the decree. Mordeccai is fearful, not just for his own future, but the future of his people. He gets word to Esther, in the hope she will be able to have a word with the King.  But there's a huge problem. 'Having a word with the King' was not something anybody, particularly one of his wives, could be expected to do.. The rule was simple. You don't call the King. The King calls you. Break that rule and you die!

We read in Chapter 4:11 "All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that for any man or woman who comes to the king to the inner court who is not summoned, he has but one law, that they be put to death.” There was, however, one get-out clause. If the King, when he saw a person approaching, held out his golden scepter, then they were allowed to live another day!

Esther makes a monumental decision. It was either lay down her life that her people may be saved or live with the knowledge that she could have done something to help. She puts on her best robes and makes her way to the inner court. By the Grace of God, the King is in a good mood and is pleased to see her. She arranges a party at which horrible Haman's dastardly plot is exposed and the King sees him for the nasty piece of work he truly was. Their bromance is over. Horrible Haman ends his days being hanged on a gallows that he was hoping to hang Esther’s guardian Mordeccai upon. Mordeccdai gets Haman's job in the Palace.

Haman's prejudicial poison has already begun to spread. But God is with God's people. After a time of struggle the Jewish people gain a restored position in the land. This restoration paves the way for their eventual reestablishment as a nation. Today, the Jews still celebrate their deliverance from destruction, a deliverance that came through the actions of Esther, in a festival known as the Feast of Purim.

We can read in Esther 9:28 of the institution of that festival. "So these days are to be remembered and celebrated throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and these days of Purim are not to fail from among the Jews, or their memory fade from their descendants."

As the Jews are bid remember their deliverance during the festival of Purim, so every time we gather for worship we remember our deliverance, the salvation offered by Jesus Christ through His death upon the cross and His resurrection to life.

The book of Esther is set in a different world and a different time. Yet the heart of Esther, is the heart of one who was prepared to lay down her life rather than see her people perish. That message of self-sacrifice is one that speaks to all nations and peoples. John 15:12 tells us "Greater love has no person than that they lay down their lives for their friends."

This is so central to our message that we hang a Cross in the church as the focus of our deepest thoughts.We love because He, Jesus Christ, first loved us. We serve because He first served us. We forgive because He forgave us. We offer healing, because He heals us. We care, because He cares for us.

The book of Esther reinforces the idea that no life that is lived in the palm of Gods hand is ever without power or significance. As an orphan she had no family. As a Jew she was a refugee. As a woman in Persia she had no status or power. As a girl in the harem she was less than a slave... she was a disposable commodity. If you imagine the power structure of a Kingdom like Persia as being a huge pyramid with the King at the top, she was way, way, way, down at the bottom.

Yet consider how were the purposes of God were revealed! Through her powerlessness, completely against the odds, Esther became a savior of her people. She takes her place amongst the great women of the Bible, who used whatever power was within their means for overthrowing seemingly invincible enemies.

As we have travelled through the Old Testament portion of “The Story,” we have read of Rahab, the prostitute who sheltered Israelite spies and saved her families life in the process. We met Ruth the Moabite, who became the ancestor of the great King David. We learned about Bathsheba, the betrayed wife of Uriah, who used the little power she has to assure the succession of her son Solomon to the throne of ancient Israel.

In the New Testament we read of those like a Samaritan woman in John's gospel, who argues with Jesus and gains a blessing. We read in Luke’s gospel of a woman who anointed Jesus' feet with costly perfume. She had no power in her society.  She was, we're told, an immoral woman. But she used what she had, the power within her grasp, to anoint Jesus, the ultimate embodiment of God's love for humanity.

We read of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, who, in Luke 1:46-48, states, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant"

In the midst of a world full ofconflicts and power struggles and arrogance that often turns it's back on God... we are called to follow One, who in an act of powerless surrender,  revealed the true power God's love. Whoever we are, woman or man, adult or child, rich or poor, those whom life has dealt a poor hand to or those who have been blessed beyond measure, we are summoned to remember that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised that we may walk in the freedom of His love.

Like Esther, may we be empowered by the Holy Spirit, to become people who make a difference. Esther, a young orphaned girl who had nothing going for her but a pretty face and a loyal heart, who lived in an alien land where many of the rules we take for granted in our culture simply didn't apply, brought down the powerful and saved her people from destruction, an act that the Jewish people celebrate at their annual festival of Purim.

Let us pray that God will place holy hands upon the rough clay of our lives and squeeze us and mould us into something beautiful for His Kingdom, some thing unique and true, a special creation that only we can be. Let us recognize, that the possibilities that God's love opens up to us, are truly awesome!

Rev Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Story 19. The Return Home

                                 Readings:Psalm 37, Ezra 1:1-7, Haggai 1:1-9, Luke 15:11-23
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 3rd, 2016

Since the beginning of the year, on many a Sunday, we have been following “The Story” of how God's chosen people were led out of Egypt and into a promised land where, despite God's injunctions that they do otherwise, they live such unfaithful lives that they end up exiled in Babylon. Periods of faithfulness occasionally blossom forth, but a lot of the time, they do not appear to be shining examples of God's love.

What does shine through though is God's unwillingness to give up on them. Despite peoples ability to completely mess things up, God's grace just keeps on rescuing them and God's plans just keep rolling on. Often times this happens in the most unexpected ways.

God has promised the people that they will return to their homelands. But how does this happen? Through a great Jewish leader? Through a rebellious movement of the people? No. The unexpected opportunity to return home comes at the hands of a gentile King called Cyrus.

As they return home, do things go smoothly? Of course not. New Beginnings can be traumatic. Particularly if there are those who don't agree with the way things are developing. An unwelcome feature of their returning is unwanted opposition.

You would expect those who returned and who were given a second chance would be faithful, right? Wrong. They quickly become very comfortable in their new situation and are fearful of rocking the boat particularly when there is talk of opposition. Such results in underutilized opportunites.

Sounds like three phrases to hang a sermon on right there...  'Unexpected Opportunity',  'Unwanted Opposition' and 'Underutilized Opportunity'. Let's think about each of those.

Unexpected Opportunity

We know from Scriptures, such as Psalm 31, that the people were not happy being in exile. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. (verse 1) There were individuals who prospered, like Daniel, but even he looked forward to a time when they could return home. But nobody figured out how that could happen.

God had a plan to raise up Cyrus, a persian King to fulfill God's purpose. How much Cyrus felt that was his destiny is not clear. What we do know about Cyrus is that he felt that the peace of his vast empire could be maintained by allowing fredom of expression to the different religious communities who were part of it. He is remembered for that.

As recently as 1994 a statue depicting Cyrus the Great was erected in a park in Sydney, Australia. The monument is intended as a symbol for multiculturalism; to express the coexistence and peaceful cohabitation of people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Some 150 years before he even came to the throne the prophet Isaiah had written, in Isaiah 45:13 “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free.” Josephus, (Antiquities of the Jews 11.1.2) the Jewish historian, stated that the Jews in Babylonian captivity showed Cyrus the prophecies of the Old Testament  which contained his name.That it was this circumstance that motivated the ruler “to fulfill what was written” and issue his edict permitting Israel’s return home.

Whatever you make of it, it was an unexpected opportunity the day it was declared throughout the Persian empire “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: "'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for Him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of His people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel... and may their God be with them.” (Ezra 1:2-3)

What I find fascinating is that not everybody took advantage of this unexpected opportunity. A door opened wide. But some said; “Nah. We'll stay here.” It may well be they stayed for a purpose. Or it may well be they were simply indifferent.

God does sometimes bring unexpected opportunities our way that we can choose to reject or to go with. Maybe the greatest open door of them all is the gospel message of the love of Jesus Christ that we will celebrate during our communion service. Laid before us is an opprtunity to redicate our lives to the service of One who gave His life for us that we may live free, forgiven, useful lives. There is no compulsion. Every communion service is an unexpected opportunity. But let us move on to consider...

Unwanted Opposition

Change creates fear. The arrival of the Jews back in their homeland, who suddenly set about building a grand temple to honor their God, did not fill their new neighbors with joy. They try various strategies to make things difficult. They say, “Hey, let us help you!” yet there intention is to mess everything up so the job can't be completed. We read in Exra 4:5 “They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.

In a manner that reminded me of the way some opposing politicians kept hounding the president to produce his birth certificate, they question the Jews credentials in being allowed to return and rebuild. Ezra chapters 4 and 5 tell how emissaries are sent to King Daruis questioning the legality of the situation.

Darius issues an order to search the archives. The planned discrediting backfires as they discover the original decree of Cyrus to go home and build the temple. For their trouble, the opposers are odered to financially support the rebuilding work that is taking place. Opposition is turned to advantage.

None of us enjoy it when our grand ideas and schemes are called into question. It is not a pleasant experience when you receive push back against a vision or activity that you feel God is calling you to explore. If there is a message here about faithfulness it is that we should keep on trusting God, because God is able to turn unwanted opposition into unwarranted opportunity. Which brings us to a a final thought. Not unwarranted opportunity but...

Underutilized Opportunity

The people start building. And it's great! We're home. The temple is a happening. Yet as the days go by, somehow, the fire just goes out of them. They start focussing on building their own homes and livelihoods, not restoring the temple. Maybe the discouragement of their enemies got to them in deeper ways than they had anticipated.

A prophet called Haggai seeks to rouse them from their complacency. We find these words in Haggai 1:4-7 "Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?" Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it." This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways.

There is such a contemporary ring to those words. Materialism blinds us to spiritual priorities. Our consumer society is obsessed with obtaining the next thing, but nobody is content, everybody wants more, more, more.  You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” There is an urgency in Haggai's words "Give careful thought to your ways.

Underutilized Opportunity. Never has a generation, in the history of the world, been as blessed as ours with the resources to understand God's Word, with such a variety of ways to worship and serve, with such a field of communications laid before us to proclaim God's Word to all peoples and all nations.

Yet we struggle. We are busy building personal kingdoms and easily distracted from the goals of God's Kingdom. So much underutilized opportunity. I do not say that in a spirit of condemnation but as one who is as guilty as any other of not making the most of their opportunities to serve and grow in the life and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That's why I feel blessed to be around this table laid with bread and wine this morning. Throughout “The Story” we have learned about a God, not just of second chances, but who time after time after time presents to us unexpected opportunities to know the forgiveness and renewal and hope and joy that God's Holy Spirit can place within our hearts.

I know it's not easy. We are broken people, yet in God's eyes creatures of beauty that Jesus died upon a Cross to redeem. Unwanted opposition can discourage us and dishearten us and send us in the wrong direction. Yet no person ever suffered more unwarranted opposition than our Lord sand Savior. It took three days from the Cross to the Resurrection.  His living presence changed everything.

For sure in our lives we will encounter many Underutilized opportunities. But this day, this time, around this table does not have to be one of them. Let us then ponder the words of the prophet Haggai "Give careful thought to your ways.

This place can be a spiritual home. This place can be a place of refuge. So come home. Like a prodigal son or daughter, trust in the Father's grace. Like the repentant thief crucified next to Jesus, recognize the love of God as being the genuine article. Like the returning exiles from Babylon “Give thanks to the LORD, for the Lord is good; God's love endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1)

And to God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.