Thursday, 1 February 2018

‘God doesn’t seem to be there when I need him the most’ (Esther 2:18-3:15)

There are times when we have no idea what God is up to.  He seems absent and remote.  Sometimes it can feel like he forsakes us when we need him the most.  We are anxious, stressed, worried, lonely or depressed.  It is as if our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling and our faith gives us no comfort at all.  We fear that there is no-one up there or that the person up there doesn’t care about us.

This morning’s reading ends with God’s people feeling utter hopelessness.  Does life ever seem unfair?  Are you ever disliked for being different?  Have you ever felt forsaken by God?  Then this talk is especially for you!

When life seems unfair (2:19-3:1) 
Last time we looked at this book I suggested that Mordecai was a bit of a compromiser.  He is keeping his head down, hiding the fact that he is one of God’s people.  In fact his very name may suggest this to be the case.  Mordecai seems to be a Babylonian name, in honour of the Babylonian god, Marduk.  But even though the Babylonians have been replaced by the Persians he does not take the opportunity to change his name to a Jewish one, for he does not want to drag attention to his faith in the true and living God.  As one preacher says, ‘‘I think he was a chicken, and I like that.”  We all can identify with Mordecai!
Here he was sitting at the king’s gate.  The king’s gate was like the law courts.  If you went there to make an appeal, you stood.  The fact that Mordecai is sitting means that he works there.  He was probably some sort of civil servant.
At the king’s gate, Mordecai ‘just happens’ to overhear a conversation about a plot to assassinate the king.  So he does the right thing, and sends word through Esther to the king.  The plot is foiled.  But does Mordecai get rewarded?  No!  In fact in the very next verse, the wicked Haman is given a higher seat of honour than all the other nobles.  It seems unfair.  Not only does God’s man go unnoticed but the enemy of his people is exalted!

When you are disliked for being different (3:2—11)
Haman is the villain of this book.  Even today, when this story is acted out during the feast of Purim, Jewish children hiss and boo whenever Haman appears.
Haman was an Agagite.  This meant that he was from the nation of the Amalekites.  The Amalekites hated the Jews for centuries (going right back to when they had been rescued from Egypt).  King Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, had been told to destroy the Amalekites but he had spared their wicked king Agag.  Now Mordecai, also from Benjamin, refuses to give honour to the Jew-hating Agagite, Haman.     
Haman doesn’t actually notice that Mordecai in the crowd.  It is other servants of the king who report Mordecai to Haman.  But notice that Mordecai has now come clean about the fact that he was a Jew.  The chicken has developed a backbone.  It is never too late to ask God for the strength to open your mouth and make a stand!
Haman scorns the idea of simply having Mordecai executed.  He wants to annihilate all the Jews.  The devil’s fingerprints are behind this plan.  What will happen to God’s promise to bless the world through the seed of Abraham if all Abraham’s descendants are wiped off the face of the earth?  If Haman’s plan succeeded there would be no more descendants of Abraham for the Christ to come from!     
Haman casts the lot (or ‘pur’) to find an auspicious date for the termination of the Jews.  The lot falls for eleven months’ time.  God is still in control.  The book of Proverbs says, ‘the lot is cast into the lap, but every decision is from the Lord’ (Proverbs 16:33).  Haman then goes to Xerxes, and deceives him about the Jews.  ‘They keep themselves separate’—sadly they never kept themselves separate enough.  ‘They have different customs.  They do not obey the king’s laws.  It is not in your interest to tolerate them.’ 
All this is very ironic given that Mordecai the Jew had proved such a faithful citizen whose actions had saved the king’s life!  But remember what a fool king Xerxes is!  He doesn’t take the time to investigate the facts.  He doesn’t enquire who these troublesome people are.  He simply gives Haman his signet ring and says, ‘do as you please’.
One of the reasons we Christians are tempted to keep our heads down is because many people simply can’t tolerate those who are different.  Haman said, ‘they have different customs.  They don’t fit in.  They are not like us.’  The fact that we know what it is like to be disliked for being different should make us sympathetic to all who are bullied.  When the effeminate boy is called a ‘queer’ or the ‘new resident’ from abroad is told to ‘go back to where you come from’, our heart should go out to them.  We should be filled with sympathy and understanding as to how they feel.
When you feel utterly forsaken by God (3:12-15)
Think how the Jews felt when they heard that edict being read out.  The people were ‘to destroy, kill, and annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, and plunder their goods’ in eleven months’ time.’  Maybe some said, ‘God has rescued his people in the past, he can be trusted to do so again.’  Maybe that is what they should have thought.  But we read that they simply wept!  Who can blame them?  They are afraid because all the evidence seems to suggest that God has forsaken them!
I want to speak to the over one third of you who do or will suffer depression or anxiety.  As you know I have struggled with anxiety on and off for years and before Christmas it all got too much for me.  I wrote the following thoughts soon after an episode of fear.  I don’t know if they will be any help to you:
‘Fear is an awful thing.  It is not easily removed.  Sometimes it is illogical.  It seems as if your brain gravitates to the worst “what if” possible.  Sometimes prayer is really helpful—the psalms point to that.  Sometimes prayer seems to make no difference at all—one psalm ends with the dejected words “darkness is my closest friend.”  Sometimes you want the comfort of friends.  Other times you simply want to curl up in the foetal position.  Sometimes it really helps to talk.  Other times you are too consumed with anxiety to answer questions.  If you have been through a time of depression before, try to remember how God brought you through that and will bring you through this.  Try to access the truth that God does really care for you, even though he seems distant and remote.’
It might not seem fair that you suffer with depression, when everyone else seems so happy.  Of course sometimes those smiles hide a pained heart.  You may fear that you are open about your depression you will be despised for being different.  What does it matter what people think?  If you have never had the feeling of being forsaken by God I would encourage you with some words from Jude, ‘be merciful with those who doubt.’ 
The poet William Cowper suffered from the most awful hopelessness and fear.  In a hymn entitled, ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ (which could serve as a title for the book of Esther, he writes, ‘ye fearful saints fresh courage take … Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace.’  When the Christian fears that God is not there for them, their fearful senses are lying to them.  I can’t promise that it will lift you, but look to the cross!
Jesus knew that life could be unfair—he was the only sinless person to ever live and yet he died as a criminal on a Roman cross, for you!  He knew what it was like to be hated for being different—he heard the crowd cry ‘crucify him.’  Think of the one who was forsaken so that you never would be.  He cried, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me?’  He died for our guilt so that could our sins could be forgiven.  He adopts us into his Father’s family, and now we can hear the words, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’  He promises to always be with you.  He is sympathetic to your pain because he has suffered and knows you because he lives in you.  Indeed, one day his Father, who is your Father, will wipe away every tear from your eyes!
I pray that God will lift your sorrows quickly, that he will give you hope and assure you that nothing can separate you from his love!    

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