Tuesday, July 06, 2010

For Such a Time as This

This was my July 4 message this last Sunday.

For Such a Time as This
Esther 4:12-16

I want to start today’s message by reading from the Book of Esther 4:12-14:
12 When Esther's words were reported to Mordecai, 13 he sent back this answer: "Do not think that because you are in the king's house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?"

The book of Esther is full of riddles. In ancient times, some pious Jews objected to it being in the Bible because of the simple fact that God is not mentioned once in its pages. You will not find one direct reference to God in this book. As a matter of fact, if you think of the situation and the people involved, and you realize that this is the most “godless” book of the Bible!

You see, Esther is the story of the Jews who did not return from exile. While Ezra and Nehemiah tells of the Jews who came back to the land of Israel after 70 years’ exile, this book is about those who did not, could not, or could not be bothered to return to the land. Many of these Jews had become lax in their faith. There were not especially religious. Sure, they thought of themselves as Jews, but they did not think of themselves as especially devout.

One of the great surprises a modern visitor to Israel is that fact that many Israelis are not particularly religious. As a matter of fact, Israel has one the highest rates of atheism in the world. Many Jews in America and in Europe are also highly secular. So also was it in Esther’s time.

Think of her name. In Esther 2:7, we’re told that she had a Hebrew name, Hadassah, which mean “myrtle” (like the tree). Esther was her Persian name, which means “star.” Esther 2:10 tells us that she kept her Jewish identity secret. She hid her religion and her Jewish ancestry as she pursued the role of the new queen of Persia.

Maybe you know the story: King Xerxes dumped his wife Vashti when she wouldn’t “perform” for his gathered generals and governors. So a contest—Persian Idol!—was begun to find a replacement for her. Esther won the contest by her beauty and her, well, how can I put it? Her bedroom skills? Is that clear enough?

Her uncle was a minor official in the Persian government, a man named Mordecai. A higher official was Haman. He was also the descendant of exiles, the Amalekites, ancient enemies of the Jews. When Mordecai refused to bow to him, and when he discovered that Mordecai was a Jew, he cleverly induced Xerxes to sign a decree to wipe out the Jews, effective 11 months from the signing.

The Jewish community across the Persian Empire was shocked. Mordecai went into mourning as well, wearing sackcloth and ashes. Esther’s attendants saw him in this state, and told Esther.

A word about the palace: in ancient Persia, royal palaces had a kind Disney, “happiest place on earth” philosophy. You know, you can’t buy a newspaper at Disneyland. Do you know why? Disney doesn’t want anything to make people unhappy at their parks. Well, a Persian palace was the same way. Servants weren’t even allowed to look sad in the palace. People in mourning were kept away from the gates. Esther lived in royal isolation from all forms of suffering or sadness. She had no clue about the decree to wipe out the Jews. She had no idea why Mordecai was in mourning.

So when she first heard about how he looked, she sent a change of clothes for him, which he refused. Then she sent Hathach, a guard, down to speak to him (there was no way on earth a queen of Persia would go out of the palace herself). Mordecai told Hathach the whole story—with the implication that Esther needed to do something about it.

Her first response is not promising. Look at Esther 4:9-11:

9 Hathach went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, 11 "All the king's officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold scepter to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king."

At this point, her bottom line was “I wish I could help, but…”

Hold on a second. Is this ever our response when God puts something in our laps? We recognize that there is a problem, even a crisis, but we beg off our involvement because of our particular personal situation. “I wish I could help, but…”

Starving people? Someone else will have to help. People living and dying without knowing Jesus? Someone else will have to reach them. Our nation in crisis? Someone else will have to fix it.

Now, it’s true that not all of us are in such a strategic place as Esther was for her people, but all of us are in a strategic place for somebody and for some situation.

There’s no one as well-placed as you are to reach the people in your home and your workplace and your school as you are. You are strategically placed by God in these places.

And in our free country, where we can all vote and where we can all write and email and talk to our representatives, we are all strategically placed.

That’s what Mordecai had to press upon Esther in the following verses, 4:12-14:

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

First, a warning: don’t assume that you’ll be spared. The fact that you’re Jewish will come out. If the Jews perish, you will too.

Second, an observation: if you remain silent, deliverance for the Jews will arise from somewhere else, but you will still perish. Mordecai does not mention God, but it seems he has enough faith to believe that God will send that deliverance from somewhere—maybe even an invading enemy or a coup—in which case Esther would also die.

Third, a speculation: “And who know but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

Remember how I mentioned that the name of God never appears in Esther? I think that is part of the genius and the theme of the book—that even when we don’t see God, He is right there, behind the scenes, moving and working in ways that we often have trouble seeing.

In the Message Translation, Proverbs 16:33 says,

Make your motions and cast your votes, but GOD has the final say.

Behind all the human efforts and ambitions, God still stands. He has the final say. Mordecai warned Esther—God will get it done, one way or the other. But perhaps the reason that you are where you are is for this very purpose—to appeal to the King to deliver your people from death.

God will get done what He wants to get done, but He wants to use you and me to get those things done. Esther was perfectly positioned to be used by God to make a huge difference.

So what does she do—and what does that have to do with me and you? And what does that have to do with our people—the people of the United States of America? I want to look at what happens next and see if we can see a pattern of how God works that we can transfer to our time so we can see what we’re supposed to do “for such a time as this.”

So look at Esther 4:15-16:

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

Here’s what I see here in these verses, and how they speak to us in our own time:

1. When facing a crisis, first come together
2. Come together to seek God in prayer and fasting
3. Then and only then, take bold, God-directed action

When facing a crisis, first come together

Crisis tends to either drive people together—or or pull them apart. Remember after 911, that amid all the pain of the attack, that we came together as a nation? Maybe it only lasted a few months, but that was the great thing about 911—that sense of unity.

Somebody described the church as being like Noah’s Ark—that if it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the smell inside! But what I observe is so many Christians who are unconvinced that there is a storm anywhere.

But there is a storm. A few examples. In 2008, the Barna group asked a series of questions of American citizens to determine what their worldview is. Only 19% of Americans have a clear Biblical worldview. Sure, nearly half of Americans say that they Bible can be fully trusted, and almost three-quarters are professing Christians, but less than a fifth really believe it when it comes to the way they lives their lives.

And so church attendance and adherence still is in decline in America. Church attendance nationwide has dropped from about 44% to 39% since 2000. At that rate, Christianity in America is history by about 2070.

And of our nation—what kind of time is this? Is it a “such as time” as it was in Esther’s time? We seem beset by problems internal and external. Within, we are struggling with high unemployment, stagnant wages, a weakening tax base and political class unwilling or unable to face the problems. Americans are crying out for leaders who will just tell them the truth. But we are polarized left and right and blue and red.

The last few years, I have heard over and over again something I have never heard before—people saying, serious people saying, that they are afraid of our own government.

And beyond our borders, things get worse. To the south, drug cartels kill the innocent. In the Far East and in Iran, half-crazy dictators pursue the means of mass destruction with the full intent of using them on us and our friends around the world.

This is—“such a time as this.” When Haman launched a plan for genocide, God had a woman in place at just the right spot. And He put the plan in her heart and the words in her mouth.

First, come together. Gather all the Jews in Susa together.

When God wants to do a new thing, He gathers His people together. He draws us together. As they came together, old grudges were forgiven, old hostilities forgotten. Something more important than the here and now is pressing in; something that will matter centuries from now, and for eternity is happening; it’s time to set aside little things.

Consider another gathering—the disciples awaiting the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The same thing—people gathered together, knowing the moment was crucial, and that God wanted to do a marvelous thing, but that they had to be in the right place—the right place spiritually for God send His power. Hearts had to be melted, reconciliation had to happen and forgiveness had to be extended. This is all part of coming together.

Come together to seek God in prayer and fasting

Then Esther gives the reason, the goal of coming together:

Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. (vs. 16b)

Fasting is never an end to itself, not in the Bible. You fast to intensify your praying. It is one practical way to live the experience of hungering and thirsting after God.

Fasting here is the clue that unlocks the Book of Esther. You only fast to pray, and you only pray if you are calling out to the Lord. God stands in the shadows in this book, but at this moment you can see Him, his shoe showing under the curtain.
If we also are in a “time such as this” today, can I ask you, do you pray for America? Do you pray that this great land will turn back to God?

A few years ago, a movement of prayer turned back the unholy practice of same-sex marriage in California. That battle wasn’t won at the ballot box. It was first won on bended knees and then that victory was ratified by voters. But prayer came first.

In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Paul writes,

1I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness…

“First of all…” That means that prayer for leaders and nations are a priority for Jesus-followers.

Praying for our nation and its leaders isn’t a right-wing or a left-wing thing: it’s a Bible thing. So pray for your city council and your state rep and your governor. Pray for upcoming elections, this fall and in coming years. Pray—for such a time as this.

Then and only then, take bold, God-directed action

Then Esther says in her message to Mordecai,

When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish. (4:16c)

After a three day’s fast, then, says Esther, I will go to the king. Not before.
Recall that this was a bold action. In the same chapter, vs. 12, Esther reminds Mordecai that no one—not even the queen—could approach the king without permission. (This is not exactly a model marriage!) On top of that, it had been a month since Xerxes had called for her.

This detail, by the way, is confirmed by the Greek historian Herodotus. Persian rulers were notoriously moody and unpredictable. She had no clue as to why she hadn’t seen the king in thirty days. Had she fallen out of favor, as Vashti had? She knew nothing.

But with the wind of the prayers of her people behind her, Esther gambled her life for their cause. The king could have her killed on the spot if he was so inclined. That’s why she says, “And if I perish, I perish.”

Bold, God-directed action. It is not God’s will that problems lull us into numb inaction. First pray, but then go. Pull the trigger. Buy the ticket. Cross the river. Engage, warp factor seven!

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy enjoined us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Let me ask you, in light of God’s word, the same thing. Stop asking government for things; pray for the government instead. Stop expecting America to bring heaven on earth; it’s up to us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Stop complaining about the country and start praying. Stop complaining and instead, get informed and vote.

Celebrate this great nation’s heritage. Remember those who went before. And remember the faith of those who went before. Do not surrender their legacy. Come together, and ask God to bless America again. And then, go forth boldly in faith.
That’s what’s needed—for such a time as this.

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