Sunday, 21 January 2018

I've compromised, so is that the end of God's plans for me? (Esther 2)

‘Regrets, I have a few’ (now there is an understatement).  Why do I have those regrets?  I have those regrets because ‘I did it my way’ (not God’s way).
So, you’ve messed up.  You’ve got a past.  You live in the shadow of shame.  You wonder what people would think of you if they saw behind the smiling face.  You’re frustrated because there is a habitual sin that always seems to get the better of you.  You feel guilty and weak.  You have made some very bad decisions.
Why would God bother with someone like you?  What could God ever achieve through your compromised life?  Surely you have forfeited the opportunity to be of any value to him!  Maybe your foolish decisions have ruined God’s plan for your life! 
This morning I want to encourage you as we look at Esther 2.  This chapter tells us that God can and does use compromising and failed people to achieve his wonderful purposes.

1.      We compromise by having a foot in both camps

Last week we saw the ridiculous King Xerxes of Persia get his ego wounded by a wife who would not humiliate herself for him.  So she was banned from his presence.  But he has grown to regret not having a beautiful queen around the place.  So his personal advisors come up with a plan.  ‘Let a search be made of the empire to find beautiful young virgins for the king.  The one who pleases him most will be made the new queen.’  It’s hardly a hard sell!  It’s not surprising that Xerxes is pleased with the idea.
We are now introduced to the two main characters of this book—Mordecai and Esther.  The first thing that we are told about Mordecai is that he is a Jew.  His family were taken into exile from Judah to Babylon over seventy years earlier.  However, when the Persians had taken over from the Babylonians as the area’s super-power the then king of Persia had written a decree saying that the Jews could go back to Jerusalem.  So why is Mordecai in Susa?  It may be that Mordecai just happened to think that life in pagan Susa might be easier than joining God’s people in Jerusalem.
Mordecai had a beautiful young cousin.  She had been orphaned and he had become a father to her.  She was called Hadassah, but she was also called Esther.  Why both a Jewish name and a pagan name?  Could it be—that like most of us—she had a foot in each camp?  Maybe she wanted to be one of God’s people, but she also wanted to fit in with the Persians.  That is certainly true of most of us—we want to please God but we find ourselves addicted to the approval of everyone.

2.    We compromise by keeping our Christian identity secret

So we may have reasons to believe that Mordecai and Esther are compromising followers of God.  That impression continues when Esther is selected for the king’s wife-hunting beauty contest.
Beautiful Esther is brought to the Xerxes harem, where she is placed under the care of one of his attendants with whom she finds favour.  Yet she does not reveal that she is a Jew, because Mordecai told her not to.  Yes, she is obedient to her father-like cousin, but was Mordecai’s command right and was she right to follow it? 
It all seems very different from Daniel, who, years earlier, was very open about his faith in God and who prayed with his windows open when there was a decree to pray to nobody but the Babylonian king.  Aren’t we all guilty of following Mordecai’s advice at times?  We keep our mouths shut and our heads down.  We keep our faith to ourselves.  We don’t want to stir up trouble for ourselves.  We are scared to reveal that we follow the one true and living God.
Now, I have painted a pretty poor picture of Mordecai so far, but I do find verse eleven very touching.  ‘Every day Mordecai would walk near the courtyard of the harem to find out about Esther and what was happening to her’.  There are no excuses for his compromises, but his wrong advice to Esther is certainly borne out of his great concern for her.  Sometimes we are more concerned that our children fit in than that they grow in godliness.
The picture of Mordecai reminds me of a story from John Newton, the slave-trader turned Church of England clergyman.  Though Newton and his wife were unable to have children of their own, they took two nieces from different families, both who had been orphaned, into their home as their own daughters.  One died, breaking Newton’s heart.  The other went through a time of terrible mental illness.  She was admitted to Bethlehem Hospital in London (known as Bedlam).  The now elderly Newton was not allowed to visit her.  But every day, at a set time, he would walk the grounds of the hospital with a servant.  She would then go to a window and wave her handkerchief to him and he would wave his back to her.  Family love is a beautiful thing, and family love is what we are to experience in church.     

3.    Our compromises don’t result in God giving up on us
While there have been hints of compromise in the story so far, what happens next seems to be clearly wrong.  Esther is in the harem in a beauty context to find a queen for the godless Xerxes.  It would seem that she will either end up as one of the king’s concubines (a sexual servant of the king) if she loses or queen if she wins.  But what about simply refusing to go along with whole thing?  What about saying, ‘I follow a God who says I must only marry people who love my God’?  What about saying, ‘my God says that I should not have sex with someone I am not married to’?  ‘But’, you protest, ‘that would surely lead to imprisonment or death.’  Yeah, and aren’t we praying about many people in that part of the world, now Iran, who are in prison at this moment because they would not compromise their faith?

We read that after a lengthy beauty process Esther is taken to the king’s private rooms, not to emerge until the next morning.  They didn’t spend the night talking about their favourite hobbies, and, yes, Esther sought to please the king.  She pleased him so much that Xerxes made her queen.
But how can God use all of this?  One preacher entitles his sermon on this chapter ‘For such a slime as this’.  However, God is behind the scenes ensuring that Esther becomes queen.  Mordecai and Esther may be compromised but God is actually using their actions to orchestrate the rescue of his people.  He is going to use these two compromised people in heroic ways. 
How can God use sinful things to achieve his perfect purposes?  This is one of the wonders of our faith.  Their sin is their sin, but it serves God’s plan without compromising his holiness.  It is the principle that we see behind the cross.  Ignorant and evil people are responsible for putting the Son of God to death, and through their evil actions they achieve the salvation of God’s people.  Indeed, even though almost his entire inner circle of friends compromised their faith and deserted him, he still had plans to use them in the building of his church.      
A pastor went to visit a famous gangster in an English prison.  After they had spoken for some time, the gangster asked, ‘what does God make of me, a murderer?’  So the pastor took him to the Bible and showed him people like Abraham, who twice lied to people about his wife to save his skin; Moses, who murdered a man; and David who both committed adultery and had the woman’s husband killed.  God loves, forgives and uses flawed people.  The gangster responded, ‘no-one ever told me that God was like that.’
Mordecai and Esther seem to be compromised people, yet they belong to God and he loves them.  In fact, God has great plans for both of them.  But I need to make a few things clear before we finish!       
Please don’t think that I am saying that sin does not matter.  The Bible teaches us that we can grieve the God we love.  Sin may bring with it some very painful consequences.  It also says that our sin can bring dishonour to his reputation.  If your compromises don’t make you feel uncomfortable then it might be that you don’t love Jesus.
Please don’t get stuck in regret over your sin.  Bring it to God.  Acknowledge what you have done is wrong.  Grieve over it.  But then you must stop grieving and start praising.  Your sorrow must turn to joy, as you honour God by delighting in the promise that has forgiven you.
lease do not think that God has given up on you.  I don’t fully understand how it works, but God uses all things—including our compromises—for his purposes which include our ultimate good (which is to make us more like Jesus).  And he never gives up on those who are his—so while you might not end up in a historical role like Esther, he has prepared works for each of his children to do.  

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Prayer from Louisa

Louisa sent me this prayer this morning (we were working out a babysitting arrangement, and Caroline and I are going to see the one about Winston Churchhill).

George Herbert (1593- 1633)

Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart ...

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Prayer from Sunday (June Kearns)

  1. June Kearns led us in the following prayer on Sunday morning.  I asked her to let me post it.
'And may you have the power to understand, as, God's people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.  May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.  Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God'  (Ephesians 3:16-20, New Living Translation).
Father we gather this morning to worship you as your Children, who have been adopted by the sacrifice of your only son. Unimaginable sacrifice and unimaginable love , so great a love that we will often struggle to understand and so many times feel unworthy.
But we  are drawn to the joy that you called each and everyone here this morning, not just to be a believer or a follower but to be YOUR child,  YOUR Son , YOUR daughter. So whatever our struggles, whatever our pains, whatever our joys, whatever we  have to be grateful for, may we always know that You are the centre.
Before we were formed you had a plan for each and every one of us here and in that we can be secure.
So we worship you Lord we worship your mighty power, we come now before your Throne to praise what you have done in each life here.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A man dying a criminal's death on the cross reveals more of God's splendour than the Grand Canyon (Esther 1)

Are you aware of the concept of the bucket list?  It comes from a film involving Morgan Freedman and Jack Nicholson, who are playing the parts of two terminally-ill men who visit all the places and do all the things they want to do before they die.  They want to do these things before they kick the bucket.
So, what would be on your bucket list?  Would you like a trip to Yellowstone Park?  Someone might like to visit Sorrento or go skiing in the Alps.  Your bucket lists might involve slices of nature that reveal something of the splendour of God, buildings that reflect the splendour of the God who has given humankind such creativity, or pleasures that reflect the splendour of the God who gives joy to the heart.
However, I am going to claim that there is no splendour that you can see or experience that is greater than that which flows from a certain naked man dying a criminal’s death on a cross!
We all want to be splendid (1-8)
This morning we are beginning a seven-part series on the book of Esther.  The super-power was Persia (now Iran).  The king was Xerxes.  The kingdom included one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, stretching from India to Cush (which is the area of Ethiopia and Sudan).  It is a bit under five hundred years before Jesus is born in Bethlehem (483 B.C.).   
Xerxes ruled from a citadel called Susa.  In the third year of his reign he held a splendid banquet for all the political a-list.  This party lasted a whopping six months.  It was designed to show off his splendour.  The six-month party was followed by a week-long one for all of Susa from the greatest to the least.
What was wrong with Xerxes showing off his splendour?  His concept of splendour is all about him and nothing to do with God..  Here is a man whose world centres on himself, and how great he is, rather than God.  Here is the man who wants to take credit for all he has without any acknowledgement of power or hand of God.  Here who thinks he is in control of his own destiny.  Aren’t we all like Xerxes at times?    We all try to present a certain image of ourselves.  We want to take credit for our achievements, rather than thanking God that we are what we are by the grace of God.  And people like me love to be the centre of attention.
One reason we are like this is that we care more about what people think about us than what God thinks about us.  But while people can be impossible to please (maybe you grew up with a parent who was never content with your efforts to please them), God is gracious, kind and merciful.  He delights over his people.  And although I have never done anything with a perfectly pure motive, in grace he takes our imperfect efforts to please him, purifies them, and is a Father who is pleased. 
God’s splendour can be reflected in us (9-22)
There was a third banquet.  It was given for the women by the Queen, Vashti.   Xerxes commands that Esther to leave that banquet and come to his male-dominated party.  Why?  He wants to show her off, ‘for she was lovely to look at!’
Here is a man with no respect for women.  His wife is simply one of his conquests.  She is a trophy-piece.  He sees her job as simply to make him look good.  That’s not love!
But she bursts his self-splendour-bubble!  She says, ‘no!’  Here is a king who rules one hundred and twenty-seven provinces and yet he can’t get away with telling his wife what to do.  We all know how fragile the male ego is!  Xerxes is humiliated!
So he gathers his wise men together.  ‘What if word gets out that the queen disobeyed Xerxes?  There will be no end to the discord and disrespect shown in homes across that empire.’  So Vashti was banned from the king’s presence, a better queen must be chosen, and when people hear about that surely women will respect their husbands.  In fact an edict sent around the kingdom said that each man should be in control of his household. 
There is talk here of love and respect in marriage.  Well, marriage can display the splendour of God, because the love of a man for his wife reflects the love of Christ for his people.  Similarly the church as the bride of Christ can reveal his splendour.  Not because he chose us for our beauty, but he takes sinful people, cleanses us and makes our hearts more like Christ.
There is a good splendour to should be seen in God’s people.  It is not a splendour that focuses on ourselves but points to God as its source.  It is not a splendour that is vain, but one that models the life of our humble king Jesus.  It is not a splendour that we can take credit for, but the Holy Spirit wants to make us more like Jesus.  This splendour may be slow in growth, it may face many setbacks, but the Holy Spirit is doing something splendid in you as he forms Christ-like fruit in you.
What’s on your bucket list?  What does it matter?  We are going to spend an eternity in a New Heaven and a New Earth where the splendour will be infinitely greater than anything this old order can offer.  You won’t spend eternity regretting that you never visited Alaska—its splendour is but a dim reflection of what is to come!
And while vain-self-splendour leaves us feeling empty, God-focused splendour leaves us saying wow!  John Piper illustrates this by picturing a visit to the Grand Canyon.  You go to one of the viewing points and you see the magnificence.  It’s a great feeling.  But it’s not about you.  You don’t go, ‘look at that view, aren’t I great.’  No, your breath is taken away, and if you love Jesus you say, ‘wow, isn’t my creator wonderful!’
But even before we encounter the New Heaven and New Earth there is a splendour that puts the Cliffs of Moher in the shade.   The prophet Isaiah speaks of the coming Christ and says, ‘this is the one in whom I will display my splendour’ (Isaiah 49:3).  Visit the Empire State building, swim in the Great Barrier Reef and you will not see anything more splendid than the Son of God dying a criminal’s death to pay the price of the guilt of his people.  And he has been exalted to the highest place, where one day every knee will bow and acknowledge his splendour.  He did it for the glory of his Father.
In one sense, if you have seen Jesus, then  your bucket list is complete because there is nothing left in this life that will show you a greater glory!
Let’s pray:
For all eternity we will look at each other and ourselves and say, ‘wow! Wasn’t God so good forgive them and me?’  When he comes he will make us perfect—we will display the perfect splendour of godliness.  Indeed, we will be for ever saying ‘wow! Thank you!  I never realised how good you were!  I was so blind to how much you loved me!  You are amazing!’

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Singing God

(My apologies.  I have lost the post I prepared for today.  This illustration focuses of a prayer that was used in an earlier devotional).

Susan was on the verge of emotional collapse.  So she went to her pastor for help.  She revealed that her father was an emotional tyrant.  He said, ‘if you look pretty, I will love you.’  ‘If you make good grades, I’ll love you.’  If you are successful and helpful, and don’t embarrass me in front of others, I’ll love you.’  Her father’s love was very conditional, and she always experienced his distain and criticism.  As a result she found it hard to believe that there is a God who is kind and gracious, who would give his precious Son so that we could be his dearly loved children.  Although she had responded to God’s love, it seemed too good to be true.

For an hour that pastor laboured to convince Susan of the love of her heavenly Father.  Then he read from Zephaniah.  ‘The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing' (Zeph. 3:17).  ‘That’s how God looks at you Susan!  He looks at you, he thinks of you … and he sings for joy.’
He read it again.  ‘The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing' (Zeph. 3:17).  She responded.  ‘If only I could believe it were true.  I think I could face almost anything.  If only it were true.’
If you have responded to the truth of the gospel, yet find the truth of your singing God too good to believe, I have a prayer for you. ‘I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the strength to grasp with all God’s people what is the length and breadth and height and depth is the love of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Eph. 3:14-19).

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

To my animal loving congregations (and those not so keen on pets)

To my dear animal-loving congregation (and those who aren’t so made about pets),

As you know I am mad about my dog, Charlie.  So I was really drawn to an illustration in a book of sermons on the Prodigal Son by the nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon:
When I walked down my garden some time ago I found a dog amusing himself among the flowers.  I knew that he was not a good gardener, and no dog of mine, so I threw a stick at him and bade him begone.  After I had done so, he conquered me, and made me ashamed of having spoken roughly to him, for he picked up my stick, and, wagging his tail right pleasantly, he brought the stick to me, and dropped it at my feet.  Do you think I could stick him or drive him away after that?  No, I patted him and called him good names.  The dog had conquered the man.  And if you, poor sinner, dog as you are, can have confidence enough in God to come to him just as you are, it is not in his heart to spurn you.  There is an omnipotence in simple faith which will conquer even the divine Being himself.  Only do but trust him as he reveals himself in Jesus, and you shall find salvation.
What a lovely story, but also what an amazing statement Spurgeon says, ‘there is an omnipotence [an infinite power] in simple faith which will conquer even the divine Being.’  It is not in God’s nature ever to turn away those who are genuinely repentant, and even though our repentance always lacks fully purity, it is by nature a gift from God.

So, why not take some time to confess your sins to God and hold him to the following promises?

John 6:37, ‘All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out’

1 John 1:9, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’

John 3:36, ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.’

Psalm 32:5, ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover mu iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and he forgave the iniquity of my sin.’

Love from your animal-loving under-shepherd,

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Devotional: Adopted in love

To my adopted brothers and sisters,

Russ Moore writes of the occasion when he and his wife adopted two boys from an orphanage in Russia.

“When Maria and I first walked into the orphanage, where we were led to the boys the Russian courts had picked out for us to adopt, we almost vomited in reaction to the stench and squalor of the place.  The boys were in cribs in the dark lying in their own waste.  Leaving them at the end of the day was painful, but leaving them the final day before going home to wait for the paperwork to go through was the hardest thing either of us had ever done.  Walking out of the room, to prepare for the plane ride home, Maria and I could hear Maxim calling out for us and falling down and convulsing in tears.
“When Maria and I, at long last, received the call that the legal process was over, and we returned to Russia to pick up our new sons, we found that their transition from orphanage to family was more difficult than we had supposed.  We dressed the boys in outfits our parents had brought for them.  My mother-in-law gathered some wild flowers growing between cracks in the pavement outside the orphanage.  We nodded our thanks to the orphanage personnel, and walked out into the sunlight, to the terror of the two boys.  They had never seen the sun.  They had never felt the wind.  They had never heard the sound of a car door shutting, or the sensation of being carried along at one hundred miles-an-hour down a Russian road.
“I noticed that they were shaking, and reaching back to the orphanage in the distance.  I whispered to Sergei, ‘… that place is a pit.  If only you knew what is waiting for you:  home with mummy and a daddy who love you, grandparents and great-grandparents and cousins and playmates, and McDonalds’ Happy Meals.  But all they knew was the orphanage they had come from, and it was squalid.  They had no other reference point.
“We knew the boys had acclimatised to our home—that they trusted us—when they stopped hiding food in their high chairs.  They knew there would be another meal coming.  They wouldn’t have to fight over scraps.  This was the new norm …
"But I still remember those little hands reaching for the orphanage, and I see myself there.”
Adoption is a beautiful thing.  At its best it originates in the in the heart of people who simply want to pour out love.  It transforms the lives of the broken and vulnerable.  And it is a reality that is offered to each of us.  For God is an adopting God.  This idea of adoption gives us the deepest insight into the nature of his love.
The apostle Paul wrote, 'But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law so that we might receive adoption as dearly loved children (Galatians 4:5-6).  He didn’t only free us from guilt and condemnation; he has taken us to his heart.  He didn’t just let you out of prison; he gave you a place in his family.  He gave his Son to make you his son.  You are his treasured possession.  He delights over you with singing.
James Packer writes, ‘In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs.  Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship.  To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater’.  He also adds that the concept of adoption is the guarantee that God will not let you go, even when you let him down and fall into sin, ‘for only bad fathers throw their children out of the family, even under provocation; and God is not a bad father, but a good one’ (Packer).
Cast your mind back to the love that Russ and Maria Moore had for those two Russian boys—Max and Sergei.  Do you realise that that is just a taster of the infinitely greater love that God wants us experience in him?  Remember that it took time for the boys to realise that they were safe and accepted—to stop hiding food in their high-chairs.  God wants us to realise our position as adopted children, and so he gives us the person of the Holy Spirit, so that we might cry out Abba, Father.
Jack Miller writes, ‘Unless you’re assured that God loves you, it’s pretty hard to do anything in the Christian life’.  So why not pray a prayer that the apostle Paul gave to the Ephesians (and when you have prayed it for yourself, pray it for three other people you know:
'And may you have the power to understand, as a, God's people should, how wised, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.  May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.  Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God' (Ephesians 3:16-20, New Living Translation).

Your brother, Paul.