Friday, 16 March 2018

The God of justice will do what is right (Esther 9-10)

I can’t tell you how difficult I have found the doctrine of hell to accept.  I doubt I am the only Christian who feels this way.  A friend of mine packed in his faith after someone he knew died without trusting Jesus.  It can be very difficult to understand how the Jesus of love will come back one day and condemn all those who have refused his offer of grace and mercy.  It is particularly difficult to accept when so many of our friends see absolutely no need for Jesus in their lives.
I should say that if you struggle with the doctrine of God’s judgement you are in good company.  You do not struggle with this doctrine on your own.  You struggle with Jesus, who wept over Jerusalem when he considered the judgement that was coming to it, and who reminded them that while God longed to gather them under his wing, they were not willing (Matthew 23:37-39).  You also struggle with the apostle Paul, who saw the unbelief of his people, the Jews, and said that he felt great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart (Romans 9:2).   There are times when it is appropriate for the doctrine of God’s judgement to make us miserable!
God’s judgement comes on those who refuse his grace and mercy
Maybe we should begin by remembering that God’s judgement comes upon those who refuse his grace and mercy.  In our last reading we saw that many people turned to God when they realised that he was coming in judgement (8:17).  There was a way to escape the judgement, but many people refused to take it.
The Bible tells us that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather they repent and live (Ezekiel 33:11).  But people continue to try to justify themselves and refuse to come to Jesus in repentance and faith.  In the gospels, Jesus doesn’t seem to be shocked by the existence of hell, but he is dismayed over people’s stubborn turn to him for rescue.  To people who don’t want to accept God’s mercy and live for Christ as their king, God says, ‘have your way!’  The New Testament places the responsibility for being judged firmly in our court.  Paul explains that people perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved’ (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
God’s judgement will be seen to be just
As we move on to this morning’s reading, we see God’s people killing over seventy-five thousand people in one day.  That is enough to upset the sensitive reader.  But they were not acting out of spite or malice.  They knew that they were being used as an instrument of God’s justice.  You may have heard the repeated emphasis on the fact that the Jews did not lay a hand on the plunder (10, 15 and 16).  When God sent the Israelites into the Promised Land, God was very clear that this was a judgement on the wicked nations that lived there, and so they were not to take the plunder.  There is an echo of that here!
The fact that what is happening is a judgement of God is further emphasised by another repeated emphasis.  Again and again we read that the people they killed were their enemies, who planned to gain mastery over them and who hated them (1, 2, 5 and 16).  This judgement was being carried out on the very people who had planned to annihilate them.  These verses may be severe, but they are unquestionably fair.
God no longer sends his people out as his agents of judgement.  Indeed, Jesus forbids the use of the sword as a means of extending his kingdom (Matthew 26:52).  But there is a day of judgement coming when Jesus will punish sin.  Those is heaven will look at the existence of hell and agree that the judge of this world has done what is right (Genesis 18:24).  Indeed, even those in hell will not be able to deny that their punishment is just.
Those who have been rescued will celebrate
While the Israelites may have been the instruments of God’s justice, the battle truly belonged to the Lord.  No-one could stand against them because fear of the Jews overtook them (2).  The officials of the provinces helped the Jews because fear of Mordecai had come upon them (3).  This victory did not depend on the military power of a people that had been scattered across the nations.  The Lord was rescuing his people from annihilation.  So what should a rescued or saved people do?  They should celebrate!  That is why they instituted the feast of Purim. 
In the second half of chapter 9 we have the arrangements for Purim.  The feast is called Purim because the wicked Haman had cast the lot (or ‘pur’) to determine the day that he would kill all the Jews.  Yet God had turned the tables and that day become the time of their deliverance.
Purim was celebrated on the last day of February and the first day of March this year.  If you had been in one of the suburbs in north London where there are large Jewish populations you might have witnessed the party.  Children would have been running around in fancy hats, dressed up and waving swords.  There is plenty of food, including funny little triangular cakes called Haman’s ears.  Mock beauty contests are held.  The story is acted out—with heroes like Esther and Mordecai being cheered, and Haman being booed and hissed.
We too are a rescued people.  The doctrine of judgement leaves us with nothing to boast about.  It was for our sin that Jesus bled and died.  We are not good people whose lives have made us worthy of heaven.  We are forgiven people whose Saviour endured the punishment we deserve.  We will spend all eternity celebrating a greater Purim—Jesus came and rescued his people!  
The kind rule who cares for his people (10)
This wonderful book finishes with a picture of Mordecai.  Mordecai is given the position that Haman had once held.  He is made second in power in the empire.  But notice how different a ruler he is!  He was great among the Jews and popular with his people, for he sought the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of the Jews (3).
Given the role that Mordecai had in delivering the people and his subsequent rule, I think it is fair to see here a picture Jesus here.  Jesus is indeed great amongst his people and he does indeed work to ensure our temporal and eternal welfare.  Jesus is wonderful to save you from the coming judgement.  He is also wonderful to care about our every need as he watches over us as our loving ruler.
I want to finish by looking to a verse that I came across recently.  In Isaiah, God says to the enemies of his people, ‘I am not angry … let them come to me for refuge, let them make peace with me, yes let them make peace with me’ (Isaiah 27:4-5).  Our God delights to make peace with his enemies (Romans 5:10).  He gives those who have set themselves against him opportunities to repent (Revelation 2:21). 
Thomas Chambers, a Scottish pastor of the 1800s, speaks on these verses in Isaiah and explains that "the tone of God's invitation is not a tone of anger - it is a tone of tenderness.  The look that accompanies the invitation is not a look of wrath - it is a look of affection ... it may well be said of God to all who are now seeking His face and favour, that there is no fury in him.”
Yes, there is a day of judgement when Jesus will come back and condemn those who have spurned his mercy.  But the Jesus who will return as judge looks at the world in love and invites all people to come to him.  Now is the time for the wicked to ‘forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts.  Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, for he will freely pardon’ (Isaiah 55:7).  Tell people that you were his enemy but are now a beloved child.  Show them the way of rescue and of peace.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

A victory worth celebrating (Esther 8)

What causes you to celebrate?  I celebrate in Thomond Park when the Munster Rugby team win a big European Cup match.  After the final whistle the crowd erupts into our anthem of ‘Stand Up and Fight’.  The team comes out and applauds the crowd, and we applaud them.  I am tempted to hug people I have never met before.  Then I go home and look up the match reports and players ratings.  I then can’t wait to dissect the victory with some of my fellow rugby fans in the next day or two.
However, I suspect it does my faith more good when the Munster team lose a big game.  You see then I am reminded that it is only sport.  Despite all the talk of legendary players and historic matches, it will be all soon forgotten.  It is after all about thirty men running around an overly manicured pitch chasing an imitation leather ball.  I have been known to get into my car and pray, ‘thank you for reminding me that this doesn’t really matter, it’s not life and death, and it is of zero eternal significance.  Thank you that I have something so much more significant to live for.’  What makes us most happy says a lot about us. 
This morning we are going to look at an ancient story in the book of all books.  We are going to see God’s people celebrate a magnificent victory.  We are also going to see that the victory recorded in this chapter points ahead to the greatest victory that has ever being seen.

1.     Celebrate the fact that your life is not in the hand of blind faith 

In the Old Testament period, God had a special relationship with the Jews.  Many of these Jews were in exile in a city called Susa, which was in Persia (now modern Iran).  The king of Persia was Xerxes and he had a wicked official called Haman.  Haman hated the Jews and deceived the king into issuing an edict to have them annihilated.  In a delicious irony, Haman ended up being put to death on the very gallows he had prepared for the godly Mordecai.
The book of Esther is characterised by a number of reversals of fortune.  We see one at the beginning of our reading.  King Xerxes gives the property of Haman to Queen Esther (the property of criminals was forfeited to the crown).  Then Esther tells King Xerxes that she is related to Mordecai, and King Xerxes of Persia takes off his signet ring, which he had reclaimed from Haman, and gives it to Mordecai, signifying delegated authority.  Esther appoints Mordecai to be in charge of Haman’s property.
Do you know that God is never mentioned in this book?  But can there be any doubt that he stands behind these surprising events.  The book of Proverbs tells us, that in ‘the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is like a stream of water that he channels towards all that please him’ and that ‘we can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.’  So don’t give up hope!  Your heavenly Father may seem absent, but your life is not in the hand of blind fate. 

2.    Celebrate the fact that God is greater than your enemy.

However, there is a still a major problem.  What are we to do about the edict which orchestrated to annihilate the Jews? 
For the second time in this book, Esther takes her life in her hands and approaches King Xerxes.  You see to approach the king without a summons could be punishable by death.  Xerxes informs Esther that under the Persian legal system a royal edict could not be revoked.  Yet, Xerxes comes up with a plan.  Send a message to the Jews in the king’s name, telling them whatever you want, and seal it with the king’s signet ring.  So Mordecai dictates a decree granting the Jews in every city throughout the Persian Empire giving them the right to destroy and kill and armed force of any nationality or province that might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies.  The day appointed by Haman’s edict and Mordecai’s defence was the thirteenth day of the month of Adar (or March 7th according to the New Living Translation).
Have you ever wondered how the Jews were going supposed to be able to defend themselves against the might of those who opposed them.  They were after all a small and insignificant people.  Look at the last verse of this chapter.  The people feared what the Jews might do to them.  This is one of the themes of the whole of the Old Testament.  The battle belongs to the Lord.  The Jews weren’t a great military power, but when they trusted their God he defeated their enemies.  Our God is the one who has dealt with our guilt and defeated our accuser.  We simply act in light of his victory. 
I love the words in the book of Revelation where God’s people are immune to the accusations of our enemy, Satan, ‘for they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and their testimony’ (Revelation 12:11).  Or what about the many Christians who are killed even today for their faith.  Has God let them down?  Listen to Jesus warning his disciples, ‘they will kill some of you.  And everyone will hate you because you are my followers.  But not a hair of you head will perish’ (Luke 21:17-19).  How can you square martyrdom with an untouched head?  We can do so by remembering that Jesus told us not to fear those who can kill the body but not touch our soul (Matthew 10:28).     

3.     Celebrate that there is a gospel wroth proclaiming.

I find the closing verses of our chapter fascinating.  When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen.  Our Saviour has been clothed in honour and sits at the Father’s side, and like the messengers Mordecai sent throughout the empire, we have been good news that should cause God’s chosen people to rejoice.  ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news! (Romans 10:15 and Isaiah 52:7).
And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration.  In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebration.  And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews seized them.
The people of that city clearly didn’t share Haman’s hatred of the Jews.  The city had been bewildered when the edict to annihilate the Jews (3:15).  Perhaps the people of Susa had also suffered under the tyranny of Haman.  What a blessing to have him replaced by the godly Mordecai.  While we can’t deny that many awful things have been done by people claiming to represent Jesus, the world does not realise how much it is blessed by those who love the Lord.  How many hospitals and schools have been set up because people love Jesus?  When the evangelical missionaries arrived in Tahiti in the 1800s the murder rate was in the thirties, but after a few years of their influence the murder rate was down to single figures.  Let’s pray that our influence changes our homes, families, schools and workplaces for good!
So what causes you to celebrate?  God has been good to all people!  The apostle Paul told the people of Lystra and Derbe, that God sends you rain and good crops and gives you food and joy in your hearts’ (Acts 14:17).  We may celebrate momentous events like the birth of a child.  We may be gladdened by a good exam result or getting a job.  We might get approved for a mortgage.  What about getting an all-clear on a cancer scare?  Of course you gladness might be petty, like when Manchester United get beaten, or unrealistic as you hope for the Limerick hurlers to win the All-Ireland.
ut what caused the rejoicing in this chapter in the book of books?  They rejoiced because the invisible God had come to our rescue.  That’s why Christians sing, and atheists don’t have any hymns.  That’s why Christians are prepared to suffer for their faith, and do so with hope.  That’s why we can know comfort even when our world is falling apart (although I know that many faithful Christians can find that hope almost impossible to feel).  You see there is a victory that will be celebrated for eternity.  

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The justice of God and the comfort of the cross (6:12-7:10)

II was living in Northern Ireland at the time of the Omagh bombing, in 1998.  Twenty-nine people were killed, including a woman pregnant with twins, by the so-called ‘Real IRA’.  I remember being struck by how angry the relatives felt as no-one was brought to justice for this crime.  At the time I didn’t actually know what to think about their protests.  I thought that maybe they should have simply forgiven and moved on.  But I have come to the conclusion that they were right.  They wanted justice to be done, and they wanted it to be seen to be done.  

But the thought of God’s justice may also scare you.  ‘What about the evil that I see in my life?’  ‘What about all the wrong things that I have done?’  ‘If God is a God of exact justice then what hope is there for me?’  These questions are why we must finish this sermon by looking at the cross.  We are going to look at ‘the justice of God and the comfort of the cross.’
We must not ignore the warning to repent (6:12-13)
Having paraded Mordecai through the streets crying ‘this is what the king does to the one in whom is his delight’ Haman hurried home, mourning and with his head covered.  He tells his wife and advisors what had happened.  Then they warn him, ‘If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but surely fall before him.’
In the Old Testament, God had a special relationship with the Jews.  From them came the Messiah, Jesus.  Now anyone who trusts in Jesus is one of his people, and only those who trust in Jesus are his people. If you resist the God revealed through Jesus Christ, you will surely fall before him. 
Having being warned, Haman should have stopped in his tracks, repented and sought God’s mercy.  But his heart was set as flint against all that was holy.
God will bring down the proud (7:1-7)
The book of Esther illustrates a principle that Mary sings about in the song we call the Magnificat: ‘God has brought down the mighty from their throne and exalted those who are humble in heart’ (Luke 1:52). 
Tragically there is nothing more proud that to say, ‘but God will accept me because I am a good person.’  It is a proud and arrogant thing to deny your need of God’s mercy, and it will inevitably lead to your ruin! 
As Haman’s friends warn him about the foolishness of setting himself against those who belong to God, the king’s eunuchs arrive to escort him to the banquet that Esther has prepared.   
Again, King Xerxes enquires about the queen’s request.  Xerxes must have been shocked when she responded.  Esther exclaims, ‘Grant my life and spare my people.’  Xerxes likes his queen.  How could her life be in danger?  How could her people be in danger?  Remember that Esther hadn’t told him that she was a Jew, Haman had not told the king who the people he wanted annihilated were, and King Xerxes had been so irresponsible that he had not made any enquires as to Haman’s edict but had simply handed over his signet ring and said, ‘do as you please’.
‘Who dared to do such a thing?’ asks King Xerxes.
‘The advisory and enemy is the vile Haman,’ Esther responds.
King Xerxes leaves for the palace garden in a rage.  Interestingly, for the first time in the story Xerxes is said to be without his wine!
Haman knows that the king has already decided his fate.  His only hope is to get Queen Esther to change his mind.  So the man that had plotted to kill the all Jews, because one Jew would not bow down before him, is now bowing down before a Jew pleading for his life.  The great reversal has taken place.  God has brought the mighty down and is going to exalt the humble.
God will see that justice is done (7:8-10)
Persian court etiquette demanded that you keep a discrete distance between any man and the queen’s wife.  However, Haman has gone over to the couch on which Esther is reclining.  It seems that he falls onto her just as Xerxes re-enters the room.  It looks like he is molesting or assaulting her.  So they covered Haman’s face.  One of the servants, who mustn’t have liked him too much, pointed out there is a large seventy-five foot gallows just after being built.  Haman ends up being hung on the very construction that he had prepared for Mordecai.  It is strict justice, but no-one could deny that it was fair. 
When we look around us and see so much injustice; when there are so much that does not seem to be set right; when evil seems to triumph for a time; when you pray for Christian brothers and sisters that are languishing in prisons of intolerant regimes; when the guilty walk free; when those who commit atrocities are not brought to justice; when the world’s leaders seem corrupt, don’t forget that there is coming a day of judgement and vindication!
Haman’s wife was right.  Set yourself up against the one true and living God and you will fall.  The prophet Obadiah proclaims, ‘for the day of the Lord is near upon all nations.  As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head’ (Obadiah 15).  We can say with Abraham, ‘I know that the judge of the world will do what is right’ (Genesis 18:25).  There will be no calls for an appeal court on the Day of Judgement.
But, what about my deeds?  What about your deeds?  Shall they return on our own heads?  I want a God of justice, but I am scared of a God of justice!  Thank God this God of justice offers us mercy.
God says, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather that they repent and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11).  In love he sent his Son to take the punishment that our sin deserves.  At the cross wrath and mercy meet!  The apostle Paul writes, ‘None is righteous not one … all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus … this was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3).
It might be hard for you to admit that you deserve God’s judgement.  We have spent most of our lives trying to prove that we are worthy and good.  ‘Most people will admit they make mistakes and are not perfect but far fewer will go from there to admit that their “mistakes” make them unworthy of eternal life and worthy of utter condemnation’ (Greear).  But you have nothing to fear if you turn to Jesus in repentance.  You can be honest about your sin and secure in the fact that Jesus promises that he will never drive away anyone who comes to him.  You can have the joy of knowing your past failures have been washed away and that Jesus’ blood will forgive you of future failings.  And that Jesus is not returning to be your judge but to embrace you as the most loving of brothers.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Approach, my soul, the mercy seat (John Newton)

Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat,
Where Jesus answers prayer;
There humbly fall before his feet,
For none can perish there.
Thy promise is my only plea,
With this I venture nigh;
Thou callest burdened souls to thee,
And such, O Lord, am I.
Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
By Satan sorely pressed,
By wars without, and fears within,
I come to thee for rest.
Be thou my shield and hiding place!
That, sheltered near thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
And tell him, "thou hast died."
O wondrous love! to bleed and die,
To bear the cross and shame;
That guilty sinners such as I,
Might plead thy gracious name.
"Poor tempest-tossed soul be still,
My promised grace receive;"
'Tis Jesus speaks, I must, I will,
I can, I do believe.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Trusting God in the storm

Last Sunday I quoted some words from the hymn-writer, John Newton.  Newton said, 'everything is needful that he [God] sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.'

On one hand those are the most comforting words that I can imagine.  Your life is not the subject of blind chance or chaos.  You don't have the unbearable responsibility of being the master of your fate and the captain of your soul.

On the other hand these are amazingly challenging words.  How do we trust the God who is in control when our life seems to be stranded on the rocks?

Hazel Oakley was a wonderful woman who attended our church until her death, a year and a half ago.  She experienced Multiple Sclerosis for most of her life.  I met a man in Bandon who knew Hazel as a young woman.  He said that when she was diagnosed Hazel declared with great faith that ‘if God intends Hazel Oakley to have Multiple Sclerosis then Multiple Sclerosis must be the best thing for Hazel Oakley.’  She then held God's hand through the storm.

She lived the truth that, 'everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.'

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Father-heart of God (Lent)

 'As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him' (Psalm 103:13).

During times of darkness and depression one of the things that keeps people functioning is their love for their family.  They may want to give up, but they know that those who love them want them and need them.  God has given the human heart the wonderful blessing of family love.  There is probably no more damaging thing to a person's development as when such love is absent.  But perfect fatherly love is offered to us in God.  Don't let the imperfections of any earthly father rob you of the infinite love that the heavenly Father wants to pour over you.

Keller writes:

'An adult can see right into the heart of a child who does not have the skills to hide selfishness, impatience, and a lack of wisdom ... Yet a good father loves his children anyway.  Indeed, the more weak and needy a child is, the more the father's heart goes out to him or her.  So God loves us to the bottom yet nevertheless loves us to the skies - literally.  God does not just pardon our sin, He adopts us into his family, giving us his love, access in prayer, a share in the inheritance of glory, and even family resemblance.'

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The God who satisfies his own justice (Lent)

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love ... he does not treat us as our sins deserve  (Psalm 103:8 and 10).

'God's anger is different from ours.  We are quick to anger, we make people pay who have wronged us, and then, nonetheless, we nurse our grievances.  God is slow to anger, provides for our forgiveness, and then remembers our sins no more (Keller).  

Keller points out that the above verse (Psalm 103:8), is a quote from Exodus (34:6).  In the Exodus text Moses says that God 'does not leave the guilty unpunished.'  How can Moses say the guilty will not go unpunished and yet David write that 'he does not treat us as our sins deserve'?  The answer, of course, is the cross.  The cross shows us how much it cost God to punish sin without punishing us.  That's why this Psalm can speak of an infinite love as high as the heavens are above the earth, and a perfect forgiveness that removes our rebellions as far as the east is from the west.