Sunday, 11 February 2018

'To live upon the invisible God' (Esther 4-5)

The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most widely published books in history, being translated into over two hundred languages.  It’s a picture of the Christian life, and its author was John Bunyan.
Bunyan received minimal education and leading the trade of working with metal from his father.  That meant he was known as a tinker.  As a young man he excelled in cursing and blasphemies, and when he became a Christian he spent some years fearful that God had not actually forgiven him.  He wrote a book entitled ‘Grace abounding to the chief of sinners’, which chronicles how he came to an assurance of salvation.
He became a powerful preacher and gracious preacher.  On one occasion one of the most learned puritans, John Owen, was why he used to love to go and hear Bunyan preach. He replied, ‘I would willingly exchange my learning for the tinker’s power of touching men’s hearts.’
But Bunyan lived in a time when religious freedom could not be guaranteed.  A law was passed that only allowed ordained Church of England ministers preach the Bible.  So, along with many others, Bunyan was put in jail. One of the things that caused him to suffer there was being separated from one of his daughters who was blind, and so needed extra help.  There he remained for twelve years until the law was rescinded.  Yet Bunyan could have had his freedom any time he wanted, on just the one condition that he would promise not to preach.  He would not agree to this.
Bunyan is something of a heroic figure.  In his spiritual autobiography, entitled, ‘Grace abounding to the Chief of Sinners’, he talked about learning ‘to live upon God that is invisible.’  That might be a good description of the book of Esther.  This morning we see Mordecai and Esther, like John Bunyan, exercise amazing faith in the invisible God as Haman opposes anything to do with him.   
God wakes up his sleeping people (4:1-3)
A speaker was leading on the verses that lead up to this passage, and one of his congregation complained, ‘that was all a little bit doom and gloom, don’t you think?’  How else could you preach about the issuing of an edict that was aimed at the wiping out of God’s people?  Look at how that edict made the people feel.  When Mordechai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes and put on sack cloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried out with a loud and bitter cry (1).  In fact in every province there was great mourning among the Jews.
But there is something exciting here.  While some Jews had returned with Ezra to Israel many had felt too settled in the Persian world—they were assimilated into pagan cultures.  They had lost all interest in being a distinct and holy people.  They were followers of God in name only.  So God used a desperate situation to wake them up.  He does the same thing today.  When all is well, we can become complacent.  When society tolerates us the church becomes worldly.  But God loves his people too much for that.  He loves you too much for that.  As Nancy Leigh DeMoss explains, ‘In His desire to turn our hearts back to Himself, God uses crises to wake us up to make us desperate for a restored relationship with Him.  He stirs up His people to seek Him in prayer and fasting, realizing that He is the only hope—both for His people and our nation and our world.’
Mordecai trusts the rescuing God (4:4-15)
Esther seems to have been living in a bit of a bubble in the palace.  She hasn’t been told about the edict against her own people.  She doesn’t know why Mordecai is mourning in sackcloth.  So she sends him some clothing.  When he would not accept them she sends one of the king’s eunuchs to go and find out what is wrong with him.  Mordecai gives the eunuch a copy of the edict for Esther to see and tells her that she must go to the king and plead on behalf of her people.
Esther sends Mordecai a ‘no can do’.  To approach the king uninvited could mean being put to death, and besides, she seems a little out of the king’s favour for she has not been called to come in to the king in thirty days.  Now you might expect that Mordecai would respond by saying, ‘Esther, if you don’t do this we are all doomed!’  Instead, he reveals a far greater faith in God.  ‘Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from some other place, but you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’
Listen to Jesus’ words.  ‘All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and I will in no way cast them out.’ (John 6:37).  Does God need us to gather his people?  No!  Jesus says, ‘I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16:18).  Does God need us to build his church in Ireland?  No!  ‘If we keep silent relief and deliverance will rise from some other place.’  He gives us the great commission, but if we keep silent, he will still fulfil his purposes.  But who knows, perhaps he has placed us amongst our families, in our workplaces, surrounded by our friends, for such a time as this.  He offers you the privilege of being part of his eternal purposes. So open your mouth, living openly as one of his people and take a risk. 
Esther trusts God with everything (4:16-5:8)
Up to this point I have suggested that Esther was a compromiser.  But now she utters heroic and faith-filled words.  She joins the ranks of the many female heroes in the Old Testament.  She asks God’s people to fast and pray for her, and so acknowledges her life is in the hands of the Lord.  She prepares to risk her life and approach the king, and she says, ‘if I perish, I perish.’  Esther provides us of a picture of our Saviour, who not only was prepared to lay down his life to rescue his people, but suffered an excruciating death for us.  But not only does she provide us with a picture of Jesus, she gives a challenge to follow her example and be prepared to risk everything in following him. 
The people have fasted and prayed.  She puts on her royal robes.  She enters the throne room.  God grants her favour in the king’s eyes.  He offers her up to half the kingdom (a traditional grand gesture rather than an offer to be taken seriously).  She says that she will reveal her request at a party for three—just herself, the king and Haman.
Haman reminds us that we can expect hostility (4:9-14)
Haman is thrilled with himself.  But there is one fly in the ointment.  When he sees Mordecai he is filled with hatred.  He goes home and boasts to his wife. ‘Even Queen Esther let no one but me come to the feast she prepared.  And tomorrow also I am invited by her together with the king.  Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.’  So his wife and friends advise him to build a gallows, seventy-five foot tall, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hung on it.
These chapters are about faith and courage.  Mordecai knows that God will deliver his people.  What heroic words from the lips of Esther, ‘if I perish I perish.’  There is real danger because there is real opposition.  Hebrews chapter eleven tells us of how some, like Daniel, experienced the mouths of the lion being shut.  But then goes on to tell us of those who were stoned and sawn in two.  Those who were left destitute persecuted and ill-treated.  When we tell people that Jesus and his cross are the only way to be made right with God, there will be kickback.  Jesus promised us that we would face opposition in the world.  He also promised that he would be with us until the end of the age.
I don’t know if you are like me, but I am not a naturally courageous person.  I hate the thought of people rejecting me for my faith.  I love to be popular and accepted.  I hate to be different and stick out like a sore thumb.  It was in college that I first started putting up my hand for Jesus, and it left me feeling lonely inside (even though no-one actually gave me a hard time).  But I hope that we can take comfort in the fact that God promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us.  And if you feel inadequate for the task, ask God to give you the words to say (in fact I think he can use our inadequate and faltering words in ways that go beyond our understanding).
Finally, don’t forget grace.  I don’t know about you, but I have kept my mouth shut many times when I should have opened it.  I have been a coward.  I have denied Christ with my silence.  I have let him down.  But our God is gracious.  He does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to his loving kindness.  Don’t go on dwelling about your compromises and failures, instead dwell on his sure forgiveness.  And pray for opportunities to stand up, and speak and witness so that we might know the joy of being a part of what God is doing in his world. 

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