Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sermon for October 19th: 'Bible People You May Not Remember' #8: Mary and Martha

Temperamental differences are sometimes really funny, aren’t they? I once heard a sermon in which Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, explained about the different temperaments in his immediate family, and how they impact holiday planning. His wife is an introvert who likes nothing better than having the family all to herself; she wants to find a deserted island somewhere, where they can enjoy peace and quiet and spend quality time together. But as soon as she suggests this, their daughter lets out a cry of anguish, because this is her worst nightmare: she wants to go somewhere where there are malls, where she’s surrounded by thousands of people. Bill himself is a free spirit; he likes nothing better than to pack the family vehicle with everything they might need, pick a direction, and just head off, not knowing what lies ahead. His son, on the other hand, is an organisation freak; he not only wants to know which hotels they’re going to stay in on the way, he wants to know the room numbers!

Whether you buy into all the temperament analysis theories of Myers-Briggs or the enneagram, temperamental differences are a fact, and unless we understand them, we’re doomed to a lifetime of being unable to understand each other. Because, you see, my way of looking at the world makes sense to me; it’s hard for me to conceive of how anyone could see it differently, and if you don’t see things the way I do, you’re obviously being intentionally perverse!

Or maybe not. Maybe we’re just wired differently. Maybe God in his wisdom has given us different temperaments, different strengths and weaknesses, so that we can learn to work together and compliment each other. Maybe if you explain to me how you see the world, I can learn to see a bit more of it too - because your viewpoint is slightly different from mine, so that there are things that you can see that I can’t see, and there are things I can see that you can’t see.

The stories of Mary and Martha are a classic example of these temperamental differences. We have Martha, the practical woman, the one you can count on to organise things and get stuff done. And we have Mary, the visionary, the relational person who sees the big picture and wants more than anything else just to spend time with people she loves. Let’s recount their stories for a minute.

The first time they’re mentioned is in Luke 10, and I get the sense that this may also be the first time that Jesus meets the two sisters. We read that Jesus and his disciples entered a certain village, ‘where a woman named Martha welcomed them into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”. But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her”’ (Luke 10:38-42).

I get the sense as I read between the lines that Jesus isn’t the first rabbi Martha has hosted at her house! And she knows how to do it well. She knows that the important thing is to create a space where the rabbi can meet with his disciples and others and discuss the scriptures. In this setting, the job of the women is to stay in the kitchen and help get the meal ready, while the men debate theology in the living room!

But Martha’s sister Mary isn’t prepared to just acquiesce in her traditional role as a woman. She goes right on into the living room and sits down at Jesus’ feet with the other disciples - almost certainly the only woman in the room. Not only is she leaving all the work to her sister; she’s also bringing disgrace on the house by stepping outside the accepted role for a woman. And when Martha points that out to Jesus, Jesus refuses to condemn Mary, but says that ‘she has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her’.

The second story is in John chapter eleven. Here we discover two things we didn’t know about these sisters: first, they live in the village of Bethany, only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, and second, they have a brother, Lazarus. But Lazarus is ill, dangerously ill in fact, and so the two sisters send a message telling Jesus about the situation. But Jesus stays where he is for a couple more days, and in the interim, Lazarus dies.

Jesus and his disciples then set out to go to Bethany, and by the time he gets there, Lazarus has already been buried for four days. Martha meets him on the road, and we can hear a note of rebuke in the words she says to him: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him’ (vv.21-22). Let those who say Martha was all practicality and no faith take heed of these words: even though she had in all likelihood organised her brother’s funeral, as she organised everything else in the life of the family, still she clung to the hope that even now, Jesus could change the situation. And Jesus assures her that this is in fact the case: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live’ (v.26).

Where’s Mary at this time? She’s in the house, with a group of people who have come to console her. The text is very clear about this; it says ‘consoling her’, not ‘consoling them’. In other words, Mary is the one who is overcome by her grief, while Martha is the one who is holding it all together and organising things for everyone else. When she gets up to go and meet Jesus, the people around her assume that she’s gone to the tomb to weep, suggesting that she’s been in the habit of doing this.

So once again these two sisters are acting in character: Martha the practical organiser is holding everything together, while Mary the relational intuitive is overcome by her grief. When they get to the tomb and Jesus asks for the stone to be removed, it’s Martha who points out that that might not be such a great idea: he’s been dead four days, and there’ll be a bad smell! But of course, by the time Jesus is finished, the smell is the last thing everyone is thinking about: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and everyone’s ideas about life and death and Jesus get blown out of the water.

The third story comes a few days later. Jesus comes as a guest to the home in Bethany, and once again everyone is acting in character: ‘There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those who sat at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’ (verses 2-3). You might like to know that when John says that this was ‘costly’ perfume, he wasn’t exaggerating: scholars tell us that a jar like that might have cost as much as a year’s wages – and also that these jars were sometimes passed down as family heirlooms.

So here’s Mary again, demonstrating the depth of her love for Jesus in a way that was natural for her impulsive, artsy sort of temperament. But this time it wasn’t Martha who criticized her: it was Judas Iscariot, the treasurer of the disciple group. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii” (that is, three hundred days’ wages for a farm labourer), “and the money given to the poor” ?(v.5) All very reasonable; Jesus had spoken often about the importance of caring for the poor, and you would have expected him to agree with Judas. But he doesn’t: “Leave her alone”, he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (v.8).

So what’s going on here? Artsy contemplative types are good, and organizers who look after the practical details are bad? I think not. After all, the first story about Martha and Mary comes at the end of the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, right after the story of the Good Samaritan. In that story, the hero is a practical man who sees someone in need – a poor guy who’s been beaten up by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road – and stops to help him. Furthermore, there’s plenty of evidence that Jesus enjoyed and appreciated good hospitality, and noticed when hosts didn’t observe the common courtesies customarily extended to their guests. And we can assume that he knew that Martha loved him, and was expressing that love in the language she knew best: hospitality.

So what’s going on here?

Throughout the gospels Jesus acts on the assumption that he is at least the representative of God; “Whoever rejects me”, he says, “rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16). So in Jesus, God has come to visit at the home of Mary and Martha. And when God comes to visit, how do you welcome him? Martha assumed that she knew how. Her culture told her how. When a rabbi comes to visit, your job as a woman is to make sure the house is clean, put food on the table and then stay out of the way so that the men can discuss theology.

Mary, on the other hand, understood that she didn’t know how to love God - that maybe her culture and preconceived ideas might be wrong. She had recognised that what Jesus was bringing into the world was something completely new, and that to try to express it in the old ways was like putting new wine in old wineskins or patching up an old garment with a piece of unshrunk cloth. That being so, she realised that the most important thing was to sit at Jesus’ feet, listen carefully and try your best to understand what he was saying. In other words, before you work at loving God, it’s a good idea to listen to God first to find out how he would like to be loved.

I get the sense in reading these stories that there were times when Martha thought she knew Jesus’ business better than he did himself. ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Why are you encouraging her daydreaming? Tell her to get out here and give me a hand!’ ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died’. She reminds me of a story I once heard about an old Scottish lady who went up to her preacher after the Sunday service and expressed strong disagreement with something he’d said in his sermon. When the preacher replied that he was simply quoting the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, the old lady said, “Yes, but he was a very young man when he preached that sermon!’

It’s a dangerous thing to assume that you know Jesus’ business better than he does. It’s dangerous, because the kingdom of God is at hand, and that kingdom challenges all the common-sense assumptions that people have made up ‘til now. It might not necessarily be a good thing to be wealthy. Getting your own back when someone hurts you might not be justifiable after all. God doesn’t always help those who help themselves: often, he helps those who can’t help themselves. The world isn’t necessarily divided neatly into bad people who go to hell and good people who go to heaven: even the most religious people can be totally self-centred, and so still fall short of God’s dream for them.

And so the list goes on. As Paul says, ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). So it’s not a good idea to assume that rules and customs taken from the old creation still apply. It might just be that under the new creation Martha and the women don’t have to keep to the kitchen after all. It might just be that, given the urgency of the situation, it would be better for Martha just to be satisfied with providing a pot of coffee and a tray of cookies – something that can be thrown together quickly – and then joining Jesus and the others in the living room to learn more about this new way of living he’s talking about.

Once we’ve got the picture of what that kingdom is all about, we’ll still need the Marthas and the Marys, each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. We’ll need the Marthas to set up the soup kitchens and organise the duty rosters and make sure that the people who care for the poor and needy are in the right place at the right time and are doing it in the best and most effective way possible. And we’ll need the Marys to sit and take time to chat with the poor, to make sure they know someone cares for them, to weep with them when they’re weeping and laugh with them when they laugh. The Marys will need to remind the Marthas that sometimes you just need to stop and pray, and that sometimes the kingdom thing to do won’t necessarily be the thing that makes budget sense. And the Marys will need the Marthas to remind them that faith without works is dead; that fancy liturgy and deep feelings of love for Jesus aren’t enough, if we’re not willing to actually do the things that Jesus told us to do, in a practical and down to earth way.

I’m sure that, by temperament, some of you are like Martha and some like Mary. I’m also sure that at times the people of the opposite temperament annoy you immensely! But remember – Jesus loved both Mary and Martha. Faith and works, vision and detail, thinking and acting, task-orientation and relationship-orientation, are all important. So let’s rejoice in the temperament God has given us, but let’s also be aware of its weaknesses, and be ready to learn from those who are wired differently than we are.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chelsea Nora Laffin

Hey everyone, check out the newest member of our congregation, Chelsea Nora Laffin, born last week to proud parents Rich and Tricia Laffin! Mother and baby are both well, and we look forward to welcoming Chelsea into the family of God through baptism in the new year - probably at Easter time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sermon for October 12th (Thanksgiving): Deuteronomy 8:7-18

Prosperity – Blessing or Curse?

When I read what Jesus has to say in the Gospels about money and possessions, it sometimes sounds to me as if he’s talking about radioactive materials; they can do a great deal of good if they’re used properly, but you have to be extremely careful how you handle them if you want to avoid being poisoned! And the authors of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy have the same viewpoint. To them the prosperity of the nation of Israel is a good thing for which they give thanks, but it also has potential dangers. How do you handle prosperity without being poisoned by it? That’s the theme of our Old Testament reading for today.

First, let’s get the context. The Hebrew slaves have been set free from their bondage in Egypt, they’ve received God’s commandments at Mount Sinai, and they’ve then spent forty years wandering in the Sinai desert. They are now standing on the borders of Canaan, their promised land. Moses is an old man and is about to die, and he has gathered the people together to give them what you might call his ‘Last Will and Testament’. Deuteronomy is presented to us as a sermon preached by Moses, in which he restates God’s laws to the people and encourages them to remain faithful to their God. Listen to what he says in verses 7-9:
“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper”.

No doubt this sounds pretty mouth-watering to the Israelites as they stand on the borders of Canaan. But there’s a potential danger, which Moses outlines for them in the following verses. They might go into the Promised Land, settle into their new homes, enjoy the prosperity of the land and then get so used to it that they forget it’s a gift of God to them. They might start to think ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’ (v.17).

I would suggest to you that today as we celebrate Thanksgiving we need to guard against a similar danger. Despite our recent economic woes, we still live in one of the most prosperous societies that has ever existed on the face of the earth. I’m not very old, but even in my lifetime our expectations around standard of living have increased exponentially.

I remember when I first heard that a machine had been produced that would take movies and play them on your television. I knew for a fact that I’d never be able to afford something so extravagant! But now we just assume that every home will have at least one of them! When I was a little boy one bathroom per house was the rule, and in hotels you assumed you’d have to share a bathroom with others. Not so nowadays! And so it goes on – microwave ovens, personal computers, all of these very new things have become part of the standard expectations of most people.

I enjoy these things, I give thanks for them, and I don’t relish the thought of living without them. Nonetheless, I have to say that all is not well with this picture. First of all, in this prosperous society the danger of what Moses calls ‘Forgetting the Lord your God’ is very real; we can get so self-satisfied with our prosperous lifestyle that we lose all sense of need for God at all. And second, of course, not everyone shares in the prosperity. Twenty years ago the average American CEO of a large corporation earned about 44 times as much as their lowest paid workers. Today the average CEO earns more than three hundred times what their lowest paid workers earn. That’s a dramatic example of the way the gap between rich and poor in society is increasing.

In our Old Testament reading for today Moses points out this danger to us and gives us three strategies for dealing with it.

Strategy number one is to ‘Remember’. When I first came to St. Margaret’s we did a number of ‘Meet the Rector’ evenings at which we used an exercise called the ‘Four Quaker Questions’. Two of the questions were “Where did you grow up and what were the winters like?” and ‘Describe the house you lived in? How was it heated?” So we spent time sharing stories about our roots with one another. A couple of things were very interesting to me. Firstly, many of us grew up in circumstances much more humble than those we now enjoy. Second, many of us have very fond memories of those simpler times!

Moses’ first strategy for the Israelites to protect themselves against the potential dangers of wealth is to remember where you’ve come from. Before our reading starts, in verse 2, he says “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”, and in verse 14 he goes on “…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know”.

Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt in conditions of backbreaking labour and unimaginable suffering. He reminds them of the long forty-year trek through the desert. But he also reminds them of the good things: how God set them free from their Egyptian taskmasters, how God provided them with food every day on their desert journey. “Remember how you depended on God day by day”, he’s saying, “and how God came through for you”.

The interesting thing is that the people for whom the Book of Deuteronomy was written had no personal memory of the slavery in Egypt or the desert years of Israel. In writing these stories down and passing them on, the authors of Deuteronomy were encouraging the cultivation of a kind of ancestral memory. The same thing happened when Israel celebrated the Passover every year; they re-enacted the night before they left Egypt, so that the younger generations could, in a sense, enter into the experience for themselves.

Those of you who have visited Fort Edmonton Park will probably have seen the house Premier Alexander Rutherford lived in during the early part of this century. The interesting thing to me was that many of us in this congregation now live in larger houses than the Premier of Alberta lived in only ninety years ago! Moses would encourage us as a society to remember where we have come from. Our present standard of living is not something we enjoy as a human right; most people on the face of the earth do not, in fact, enjoy it. It is a privilege that ought to lead us to thankfulness to God.

And that brings us to Moses’ second strategy for dealing with prosperity. The first strategy was to remember where we have come from as a society. The second strategy is expressed in verse 10: ‘Bless the LORD your God’. In other words, we are to continually thank God for all the blessings we have received.

Thankfulness, I believe, is a habit that needs to be cultivated. Some people never learn to cultivate it; I believe we live in a culture that has largely forgotten how to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. We’ve developed complaint into an art form, and we usually aim our complaints at different levels of government. Our modern governments of course provide us with incredible services and benefits that most of the people of the world can only dream about, but so often our response is complaint: we’re not being given enough, or we’re being charged too much for it.

Thankfulness is an antidote to this. The way Moses tells it here, thankfulness is not a feeling but a habit. He doesn’t say, “Feel thankful”; no, in verse 10 he says “You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you”. Thankfulness, in other words, isn’t a matter of waiting until we feel gratitude; it’s a matter of saying thank you, and saying it every time we eat. Our words, you see, have the power to transform us. The more we repeat something, the more it sinks into us and becomes true for us.

This isn’t just about saying grace at our daily meals – although that’s important. It also includes making a habit of including a good dose of thanksgiving in our daily prayers, and pausing often during the day to say “Thank you” to God. It includes experiencing the truth behind the words of the old chorus: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done”. I challenge you to do that: count your blessings, name them one by one. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Do it until it becomes a habit. It’s a habit with the power to change our hearts.

So Moses has given us two strategies to guard against the dangers of prosperity: we’re to remember where we’ve come from, and we’re to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. The third strategy is to keep God’s commandments. Look in verse 11: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today”. Obedience, you see, is not a way of buying blessing from God; no, it’s a way of saying thank you to God for the blessing we’ve already received.

But I have a question: which commandments are we talking about here? When we hear the phrase ‘God’s commandments’, we tend to think in terms of the Ten Commandments and other laws about personal morality, and rightly so. However, the Law Moses was commanding the Israelites to obey was much bigger than the Ten Commandments. It is embodied in the first five books of the Bible, and it includes not just laws about personal morality but also laws about building a just society.

For example, when you were harvesting your field you had to leave some grain standing at the edges so that the poor could glean a living from it. You had to let the land lie fallow every seventh year and rely on God sending you a bumper harvest in the sixth year. When you sold land, you had to offer it first within your own family so that equality of wealth between families was preserved. And every fifty years the Year of Jubilee was celebrated. In this year all land was to revert to its original owners, all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves set free. The ideal was equality; that society as a whole should prosper, and not just individuals in it.

My point in bringing this to your attention is not to suggest that we should revive the entire Jewish civil law. Rather, it is to remind you that God’s law has never been solely about personal morality; it also requires that we work toward the creation of a just society where the rights of the poor and vulnerable are protected.

Today at St. Margaret’s we gather to give thanks for all the blessings we have received from God. Moses encourages us to cultivate this habit. We ought to verbalise this as often as possible – both to God and to others. So let me encourage you to be intentional about growing the habit of thankfulness. My observation, over thirty years in pastoral ministry, is that people who make thankfulness a habit are happier people who enjoy their lives more. That sounds like a good thing to me!

But the other side of thankfulness is to show our gratitude by making sure others also enjoy the fruits of prosperity. Today at St. Margaret’s we’re doing this by our offering of non-perishable food items for the Food Bank. We’re also doing it by our special offering today for the work of WIN House and the mobile medical clinics run by World Vision.

But of course it can’t end there. We’re encouraged in the Scriptures to move through our lives with our eyes wide open, ready to see the needs of others and look for ways to help them – not just in our community, but in the world at large as well. This is another way we show our thankfulness to God for all the blessings we have received.

Prosperity can be a blessing, but we have to handle it carefully. We have to remember where we have come from; we have to cultivate the habit of thankfulness; we have to live in obedience to God’s commandments, especially the ones that require us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In other words, we have to learn to see our prosperity as a trust from God, to be used to advance God’s purposes in the world. If we can do that, we might just be able to handle it without being poisoned by it! May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us to use what has been entrusted to us according to the will of God.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sermon for October 5th: 'Bible People You May Not Remember' #7: Esther: In the Right Place at the Right Time

The Old Testament book of Esther has been very popular throughout Jewish history, and it isn’t hard to understand why. From earliest times, the little nation of Israel has been kicked around by mighty neighbours, from the Philistines in the time of Saul and David, to the Assyrians, to the Persians, Babylonians and Romans. After the Romans destroyed Israel as a nation in the first century A.D. the people were scattered all over the world, and as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and Christians became more and more powerful, the Jews were portrayed as the people who killed Christ and rejected God’s purpose for them. Thus were unleashed hundreds of years of prejudice and pogroms and untold suffering for Jewish people around the world, culminating, of course, in the Nazi Holocaust during World War Two.

So it’s not surprising that a book in which an enemy of the Jews tries to wipe out the entire people, but is foiled at the last minute and hoist with his own petard by a Jewish orphan girl and her wise uncle, has become a pretty popular book amongst Jewish people! Nevertheless, the story of Esther is a strange one to us as Christians today. God is never once mentioned by name in the book. The place of women in the story is problematic to us – the one woman who asserts herself against the role society demands of her gets trodden down pretty quickly, while the heroine, Esther, becomes queen through a royal beauty contest which obviously involves being tried out as a potential sex partner by the king. And the rampant vengefulness of the closing chapters doesn’t sit well with us, as followers of a master who told us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

Let’s look a little more closely at the story.

The tale is set is the Persian capital of Susa, where live many Jewish people who are descended from those who were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The King is called ‘Ahasuerus’, which is one of the titles the historical Persian king Xerxes used for himself: it means ‘mighty man’. We’re told that King Ahasuerus held a one hundred and eighty day feast in Susa to display the vast wealth of his kingdom and his power. At the end of the feast, the king ordered his queen, Vashti, to appear before him and his guests, wearing her crown, to show off her beauty, but when the king’s attendants delivered this message, Vashti refused to come. And we might be inclined to cheer for her! Persian banquets were famous for heavy drinking, and after months of all this, the king was no doubt drunk out of his tree! The Jewish rabbis speculated that Ahasuerus wanted Vashti to appear wearing nothing but her crown; whether that’s true or not, it’s obvious that to the king, she’s just another of his possessions, to be shown off for admiration to his guests.

But she would not come, and the king was furious. He asked his wise men and princes what he should do to her according to law, and they advised the king to act quickly, or wives all over the Persian empire would start refusing to obey their husbands, which of course would be scandalous! So Vashti was deposed from her position as queen and we never hear of her in the story again.

Some time later, on the advice of his courtiers, the king began searching for a new queen, and he did it in a particularly grand – and to us, revolting – way. Beautiful young virgin women were gathered to the palace from every province. For twelve months the women went through beauty treatments in the harem, after which each of them got to spend one night with the king; she would go to him in the evening, and return to the harem as a concubine in the morning. In this way the king could pick the one that pleased him most to be his queen.

And so Esther enters the story. She is a Jewish orphan girl who has been brought up by her older cousin Mordecai as his daughter; Mordecai seems to have been a descendant of the family of Saul, the first king of Israel before David. When the royal beauty scouts went out to find possible brides for the king, Esther caught their eye, and they took her into the harem. We can be sure that Esther herself had absolutely no say in the matter; she was swept up into a process that involved exploitation, forced sex, and possible consignment to life as a concubine, and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. And so she submitted to the process, and at the end of twelve months her turn came to go in and spend the night with the king. We’re told that the king was more pleased with her than any of the other girls, and so when the search period ended, he set the crown on her head and made her his queen. On the advice of Mordecai, she had not revealed to the king or anyone else the fact that she was a Jew; we can assume that this was because of some sort of anti-Semitism at the Persian court.

Shortly after this, Esther’s guardian Mordecai overheard a plot to assassinate the king. He promptly told Esther of the plot, and she warned her husband of the threat. An investigation was made, and the conspirators were swiftly arrested and executed. Strangely, Mordecai was not immediately rewarded for his service to the king; this will become important later on in the story.

About five years went by. Enter a new character, Haman the Agagite, who became the king’s new favourite and one of the most powerful princes in the realm. His name is ominous to Jewish people and especially to the family of Saul; hundreds of years ago, Agag had been King of the Amalekites, and King Saul’s refusal to immediately execute him had led eventually to Saul’s downfall as King of Israel. The story assumes that there was bad blood between the families of Saul and Agag, and this explains some of the antipathy between Haman and Mordecai.

The king liked Haman, and granted him supreme authority over the kingdom; all the people were to bow down to him when he rode his horse through the streets. Everyone went along with this except for Mordecai – presumably because of the family history we’ve already mentioned. Haman was furious about this, and he couldn’t be satisfied with just wiping out Mordecai; instead, he and his wife and his associates hatched a plot to exterminate the entire Jewish race, Mordecai’s people. It’s important to remember that Esther had not revealed to anyone that she was Jewish or that she was related to Mordecai.

So Haman went to the king and told him that in his empire there was a people who were different from anyone else and refused to follow his laws, and that he’d be better off exterminating them. The king agreed; Haman cast lots and set on a day to do it. Esther, secluded in the harem, heard nothing of this, but Mordecai heard about it; he tore his robes and put ashes on his head in mourning. He sent a message to Esther to ask her to help by speaking to the king, but in reply she reminded him that, according to law, if anyone approached the king without being summoned, the penalty was death, unless the king extended his sceptre toward the petitioner when he saw them. But Mordecai reminded Esther that Haman’s decree against the Jews would include her, too; if she did nothing, she would die with the rest of her people. ‘Who knows?’ he added; ‘Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this’ (4:15). So Esther asked her uncle and all the Jewish people to fast and pray for her for three days, after which she would go in to the king, ‘and if I perish, I perish’ (4:16).

Esther and her maid-servants fasted and prayed earnestly for three days, before she built up the courage to enter the king's presence. He held out his sceptre to her, showing that he accepted her visit, and asked her what her request was. She asked that the king and Haman come to a banquet she had prepared for them, and the king immediately agreed. During the banquet, she asked that they come to another banquet on the following day, when she would reveal her request.

After the first banquet Haman went home and boasted about all his honours and the fact that he was the favourite of the king. ‘But I get no satisfaction from it’, he added, ‘as long as that Mordecai refuses to bow down to me!’ His wife and family suggested that he build a gallows and have Mordecai hanged on it, and he set about constructing a gallows in his back yard, seventy-five feet high.

Meanwhile, the King was having trouble sleeping, and had some histories read to him – presumably to help put him to sleep! However, during the reading he was reminded that about five years ago Mordecai had saved him from an assassination attempt, and had received no reward in return. So the king called Haman in and asked him, “What should be done for the man the king wants to honour?” Haman thought the king meant him, so he suggested that the man should be given a royal robe to wear and be led on one of the king’s horses through the city streets, with someone going ahead proclaiming, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour!” “Great idea!” the king replied; “Go and do all that right now for Mordecai the Jew!” So Haman had no choice; he had to do it, and then he rushed home in grief to tell his family. But not for long; soon he was summoned to the second day’s banquet with Esther and the king.

That day, over the banquet, Esther told the king her request: that her life, and that of her people, could be rescued from the enemy who was trying to exterminate them. “Who would dare to do this?” the king asked. “A foe and an enemy – this wicked Haman!” she replied. Thus for the first time she acknowledged to the king her Jewish heritage. The king was furious at Haman and ordered that he be hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. He then appointed Mordecai as his prime minister.

The problem was that the king had issued a decree about the extermination of the Jews, and it seems that those decrees could not be changed. So the king issued a second decree giving the Jews the right to defend themselves; thus, by siding publicly with the Jews, the king probably discouraged any pogroms. This set in motion a series of reprisals by the Jews against their enemies, beginning on the thirteenth day of the month Adar, the date the Jews were originally slated to be exterminated by Haman’s order. The Book of Esther claims that the Jews killed three hundred people in Susa alone, and seventy-five thousand in the rest of the empire. The Jewish people established an annual feast, the feast of Purim, to commemorate their deliverance from Haman’s aggression.

The most famous phrase in the book of Esther is probably Mordecai’s phrase: ‘at such a time as this’. When he sends the message to tell her about Haman’s plot to murder the Jewish people, he says, ‘Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?’ (4:14).

This is one of those places in the book where, even though the name of God is not mentioned, we can detect a subtle reference to the hand of God at work in the affairs of the world. We can imagine how Mordecai and Esther must have felt, as faithful Jews living in an alien country, when Esther was suddenly swept up in the process of choosing a new queen for King Ahasuerus – a process that required her to go against some of the laws in which she had been raised. As part of the preparation process for her night with the king she would have been required to eat non-kosher food, and of course the whole idea of being tried out as a sexual partner went against Jewish laws about sex and marriage. And we can also assume that, as part of the process of keeping her Jewish identity secret, she was going along with the worship of Persian gods that would have been part of the routine at the court. This was what Mordecai told her to do, but she must have wondered why the God of Israel had put her in that situation.

But now, with the approaching crisis, Mordecai began to see that perhaps there might be a plan after all. Perhaps God was bringing good out of the evil; perhaps, in his sovereignty, God had allowed Esther to be brought into this position for this very crisis, so that she would be able to save her people. I’m reminded of another Old Testament story, the story of Joseph, who was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, but many years later, as the Egyptian minister of agriculture in a time of famine, was able to save his family from starvation. ‘You meant it for evil’, he told his brothers, ‘but God meant it for good’.

However, there is a shortcoming in the standard Old Testament approach to this idea. Old Testament authors seem to assume that this applies mainly to people like Joseph and Esther, who find themselves in positions of high office and can thus have an enormous influence on public policy. But the New Testament has a different approach. The New Testament talks about a grain of mustard seed being planted in the ground and growing into a mighty tree. Paul tells us that of the Christians in the city of Corinth, ‘not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth’ (1 Corinthians 1:26). Nonetheless, the early Christians are accused in the Book of Acts of ‘turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6).

You may ask yourself why God has put you in the place and in the circumstances you now find yourself in. You may even find yourself asking God to get you out of there as fast as possible, because you just can’t see yourself being able to serve him there in any way, shape, or form. But at some point, you may be surprised to find yourself having an opportunity to speak a word to someone, or to form a relationship, or to set in motion a train of events that makes a difference in the lives of people, a difference for good. You may not even know about it yourself; it might be something that only the other person notices, the person you’ve been a blessing to. But some time in the future, you may look back and say, ‘Now I know why I was there at that time and in that place’.

Of course, taking that action and making a difference is often a risky business. Esther had to take a risk when she went in to ask the King to save her people – the risk that he would not welcome her by extending his sceptre to her, and would condemn her to death as the law said. Mordecai, in his message to Esther, acknowledged her temptation to keep her head down and to be quiet in the hope of saving herself. I’m reminded of Corrie Ten Boom and her family, quiet elderly Dutch people who got involved in the underground groups helping Jews to escape from Nazi persecution during the German occupation of the Netherlands. It would have been so much easier for them to keep quiet and keep their heads down – to ‘keep silence at such a time as this’, as Mordecai would have said. But they chose to take the risk and do their bit, and most of the family eventually paid for that choice with their lives. However, that choice saved the lives of dozens of Jewish people. In the context of the cataclysmic events of World War Two it seemed a small thing, but to those whose lives were saved – and their descendants today – it wasn’t small at all.

So let’s pray for discernment from the Holy Spirit, so that we will know what it is that God has brought us to this place and time to do. And then let’s pray for courage to do it in the name of Jesus, so that God’s kingdom may go forward as people’s lives are touched by the love of Christ through our actions. Who knows? Perhaps we may have been brought to our current situation ‘for just such a time as this’.