June 9, 2010 David Balzer

Esther 1-3: A Persecuted People

India. Jan 23, 1999: Graham Staines, an Australian missionary was working among leprosy sufferers in Orissa, one of India’s poorest states.

When he visited outlying regions, he’d often sleep overnight in his car. But on this night, his car was surrounded by a mob of 100 Hindu fanatics. They torched his car, and he was killed – burned alive, together with his two infant sons.

All for being a Christian.

Sept 9, 2005, Lahore, Pakistan: Younis Masih, a Christian, visited his Muslim neighbour, and asked him to turn down his Islamic music. It turned out the neighbour was holding an Islamic service or Qawali, which involved mystical singing.

The following day, some of the guests found Masih, and beat him unconscious with sticks. When his wife, Meena, tried to stop them, she was beaten as well.

Things just got worse. Before long, announcements were made at local mosques, and about 400 Muslims attacked and looted Christian homes, and a church.

The angry crowd demanded police charge Masih with blasphemy. Masih, who was already at the police station registering a complaint against the group, was arrested. The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance/ reports that he was d.

Younis Masih is still being held in jail awaiting trial for blasphemy. All for being a Christian.

Southern Sri Lanka, Good Friday, 1999. The Assemblies of God church building of Pastor Lalani Jayasinghe is destroyed by two powerful , set by militant Buddhist priests. 11 years earlier, her husband Lionel, who’d planted the church had been brutally ed – stabbed and shot in front of Lalani.

All because they were Christians.

In fact, here’s a map showing the countries around the world where Christians are experiencing persecution RIGHT NOW. It’s sobering to realize HOW MUCH of the world is opposed to the of the good news about Jesus.

How can weak and insignificant Christians survive against opposition LIKE THAT? Before the might of rioting violent mobs? Of militant other-religions? Of unjust persecution? Of corrupt governments?

Where is God in all of that? Where do we see his power and love and wisdom and victory?

And what about us? In Australia? We may not experience opposition as blatant as THAT. But in many ways things aren’t looking good for Christianity here either.

With a government that looks more HUMANISTIC and AMORAL as every year goes by. As Biblical morals lose more and more ground to post-modern, politically-correct legislation. As society becomes more and more tolerant of absolutely every form of deviant behaviour, but less and less tolerant of Christians standing up for the truth.

Where is God in all of THAT? What does it mean to live as a Christian in THAT SORT of society?

It’s questions like THIS the Book of Esther answers…

Although it’s not the most OBVIOUS place you’d turn to with these sorts of questions. Because Esther’s perhaps BEST known for being the only book in the Bible NOT to mention God at all. Which seems really STRANGE on the surface. But I think even THAT’S deliberate, And teaches us something about who God is. And how he works.

Apart from anything though, Esther is A GREAT STORY. Finely-crafted literature. There’s humour and irony, there’s tension, and suspense, and drama.

I hope there’ll be points at which you’ll LAUGH OUT LOUD. And REJOICE AND CELEBRATE the goodness and power and wisdom of God.

And I hope, along the way, we might learn what it means to live as God’s woman or man. In the midst of people who want nothing to do with him, and who want to harm us.

And we might learn about the God who, despite not being seen or heard. Is still in control of history.

1. The Party to End all Parties (Ch 1)

So with all of that said, let’s turn to the book of Esther. (p354)

And it begins the way it ends. With a PARTY. In fact, parties pop up over and over in this story. So keep an eye out for them.

But this FIRST party. Is a party to end all parties.

The host is King Xerxes. He’s the ruler of the Medes and the Persians. The great super-power of the time. So that makes him THE MOST POWERFUL MAN IN THE WORLD.

It’s about 460 BC. Persia’s conquered Babylon, and now Xerxes is enjoying the limelight. He throws a party for all the VIP’s. The movers and shakers of the kingdom. But it’s the party to end all parties. It goes on for 6 months! Showing off his vast wealth.

And then, to top THAT off, he has ANOTHER party. This one only goes for SEVEN days. But this time, he invites THE WHOLE CITY!

And even HIS palace can’t fit that many people, so he moves it to the backyard. And the wine flows, and the party goes on and on. No expense spared. Food and drink in abundance.

The picture that’s painted is one of over-the-top power and wealth and opulence and extravagance. This guy has EVERYTHING!

And we pick up the story in v10. Because after 7 days, the author tells us, with remarkable understatement, the King was IN HIGH SPIRITS with wine! Drunk as a skunk in other words.

And it’s here he makes the first of his FOOLISH decisions. The first of MANY. Because that’s what this king is. Nothing more than a FOOL. He might be the richest and most powerful man in the world. But he’s nothing more than a PROUD, generous, hedonistic FOOL.

He summons his queen. The beautiful Vashti. Not to talk to her. But to SHOW HER OFF. Just like he’s been doing with the rest of his POSSESSIONS for the last six months.

But, even though, she’s risking , the queen REFUSES. And the king’s FURIOUS.

It’s ironic that the most powerful man in the world/ can’t even control his own wife!

But because he’s such a fool. He’s not sure what he should do. So he asks his wise men. And they tell him what to do. The fate of families all over the kingdom is at stake. If he doesn’t act decisively/ wives everywhere will get ideas. And start disobeying their husbands. And who knows where THAT would lead.

And so they suggest the king issues A ROYAL DECREE. That Vashti will never enter the King’s presence again. Banished. In the dog-house PERMANENTLY. And they’ll find a NEW QUEEN to take her place. THAT’LL show wives everywhere!

It’s a law that can’t be changed, or cancelled. Once it’s sealed, it’s set in stone. Immovable.

Or so everyone thinks.

It’s the first of a few of these so-called “unchangeable” laws. And each time, God manages to WORK AROUND and THROUGH them to bring about his purposes. Just like he always does.

Man’s decisions might seem so solid and certain and unchangeable. But they’re just DUST – WIND – compared to the purposes of God.

And so the decree goes out. And the chapter ends as the party ends. With the king sleeping off the hangover to end all hangovers.

2. Miss Persia Pageant. (Ch 2)

And Ch 2 begins with THE MORNING AFTER. The hangover’s worn off, and Xerxes has calmed down a bit. He remembers what he’d done. It’s all a bit blurry, but he eventually puts the pieces together.

And he realizes he’s without a queen. And so his servants come up with a plan. (It doesn’t seem like Xerxes does MUCH on his own!) The plan is for a MISS PERSIA PAGAENT. Persian idol. The search for the new queen.

And it’s here that we meet our e – Esther – or Hadassah, which is her Hebrew name. V7 tells us she’s LOVELY IN FORM AND FEATURES. That’s bible-speak for “A good sort”! And immediately we know who’s going to win the pageant.

She lives with her uncle Mordecai. Morty for short. And he’ll play his OWN important part in the story.

Not surprisingly, Esther’s discovered, and she’s taken off to beauty school. Where she instantly becomes the favourite. v 9 of Ch 2

And as we read through this section we’re reminded of Joseph. Or perhaps Daniel. Two Jews who ALSO had a dream-run in a foreign court. Who ALSO showed wisdom and godliness in the face of difficult circumstances.

And Esther’s doing the same. She finds favour with everyone. She LISTENS to everyone. Keeps her head down, and does as she’s told. Living WISELY in a foreign land.

And we see another part of her wisdom in v10. because Uncle Morty has told her not to let on that she was Jewish. To keep that card up her sleeve. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s another crucial part of the story.

And so, after 12 months of beauty routines, Esther’s summoned to the King. And of course, he falls head over heels for her. V17 says.

17 Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.

And there’s ANOTHER banquet. This time for Esther. The LAST one was when Vashti LOST the crown. THIS one celebrates Esther GAINING hers.

3. Two Plots, two men (2:19-3:15)

It’s all good news so far. But now the story takes its first twist. The first of MANY. We’re introduced to TWO PLOTS, and TWO MEN.

The FIRST man is Uncle Morty. Some time later, he’s sitting outside the palace gate, where he always sat. Waiting for any news from Esther.

When he hears some news of a DIFFERENT kind. Plot number 1. Two court officers scheming to kill Xerxes. And Mordecai knows what to do. He’s wise and upright and righteous and loyal. (He could have kept quiet. Figured it was none of his business. After all, he’s not Persian – what’s it got to do with him.)

But he doesn’t. He does what’s RIGHT. He reports the plot to Esther, and the two men are hanged. And the events were recorded in the official records. Which is ANOTHER significant minor detail.

And so we come to Ch 3, and our SECOND man. And the second PLOT. His name’s Haman. And he’s our BADDY. He’s everything Mordecai ISN’T. He’s the one everyone loves to BOO. Which is pretty obvious if we know our Jewish history. Because he’s a descendant of AGAG the Amalekite. The Amalekites were long-time enemies of the Jews. And Haman’s no exception, as we’re soon to find out.

Haman’s an official on the fast-track to success. He’s given a position higher than all the other nobles. And Haman LOVES it. Because everyone bows and scrapes whenever he passes by. Because the king’s commanded it. Everyone that is except Mordecai.

Which makes Haman FURIOUS. But once he learns that Mordecai’s a JEW, he comes up with a plan to destroy not just MORDECAI, but Jews EVERYWHERE.

And for the first part of his plan, he has to CAST LOTS. To find out his lucky date. The best time for his plan.

How ironic that Haman looks to the DICE to give him guidance. But WE know that God’s even in control of the DICE. He’s the one who decides how they fall, who sets the date for Haman’s plan.

The word for the lot is PUR, or PURIM as a plural. And it becomes the name for Jewish festival that celebrates this event. It’s celebrated even to this day. Dice Day. And Jews will smile as they remember Purim, because they think about the lot that’s cast. How man thinks it’s all about CHANCE. Yet God is behind it all!

That’s seeing life with the eyes of faith. Choosing to see God’s hand in the things that happen. Events that other people just dismiss as good luck.

Where can you see God’s hand in YOUR life?

But back to Haman. With his date set. Eleven months time. He heads off to King Xerxes. It’s not much of a story. But it doesn’t TAKE much to fool THIS king. Look at his pitch. Ch 3 v8.

There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. 9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will put ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury for the men who carry out this business.”

There’s a whole nation I don’t like. Take my word for it – it would be best for you if we just wiped them out. I’ll even pay for the .

And Xerxes agrees. And he makes ANOTHER of those irreversible royal decrees. Sent to every corner of the kingdom. V13.

to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews-young and old, women and little children-on a single day, the thir th day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.

And the chapter finishes. Xerxes and Haman sit down to celebrate with a drink. But the city of Susa is bewildered. There’s CONFUSION. They can’t work out WHAT’S going on. Which is no wonder – when you’ve got a FOOL for a king!

It’s the classic cliff-hanger ending. What will happen to God’s people? What will happen to Esther and Mordecai? How will God’s salvation be seen?

Stay tuned ‘til next week.

Application

But before we find out what DOES happen, it’s worth thinking about what this part of the story says to US.

Because, most of the time, WE’RE forced to make decisions standing on the edge of cliffs JUST LIKE THIS. Where we CAN’T see what’s around the corner. Where we CAN’T see God’s hand.  Where every step takes FAITH and TRUST in an invisible God. Who’s PROMISED to work all things for good. But who doesn’t seem to be showing too MUCH of it at the moment.

And just like Esther, I think the lesson for us is that it’s all about LIVING WISELY IN A FOREIGN LAND.

That’s just what God had to say to his people in Jeremiah 29 (p558). They’d been carried off to Babylon. It felt like their world was caving in around them. That God had abandoned them. But here’s what God says. Here’s how they were to live. Jeremiah 29 starting at v4.

4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; …Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

Then down to v10.

10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 FOR I KNOW THE PLANS I HAVE FOR YOU,” DECLARES THE LORD, “PLANS TO PROSPER YOU AND NOT TO HARM YOU, PLANS TO GIVE YOU HOPE AND A FUTURE.

In other words, live each day with CONFIDENCE that God’s plans and timing are perfect. Honour him in your decisions. Be content in your attitudes. Work for the good of those around you.

That’s living wisely in a foreign land.

You may not think you’re living in a foreign land. Australia’s your HOME. OR IS IT!? Because, if we turn to the New Testament, Peter says that if you’re a Christian, WHEREVER you live, you’re just PASSING THROUGH. You’re on a tourist visa. Your TRUE home is somewhere else. Flip over to 1 Peter 2:11-12 (p858)

11 Dear friends, I urge you, AS ALIENS AND STRANGERS IN THE WORLD, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Our true home is in heaven. Our inheritance is being kept there. This world is only temporary – the tent, the caravan. Treat it that way. Live and act as citizens of heaven, as children of you heavenly father. Live wisely in this foreign land.

That’s easier to do for some than others. It must be an incredibly difficult thing for Christians to do in places like Indonesia and Vietnam and Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

And for some of YOU, I KNOW that you’re struggling to live with that kind of TRUST that God knows what he’s doing, or is in control.

But I think this is true. The greater the difficulties, (the harder it is to keep living like that), the GREATER the glory that Jesus receives when you MANAGE it. And the greater your reward when you MAKE it to the end.

Let me finish with these words. Also from 1 Peter. Ch 1 v4.

You have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade-kept in heaven for you, …6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

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