APPROACHING THE KING (Esther – Part 3)

I will exalt you, my God and King, and praise your name forever and ever. I will praise you every day; yes, I will praise you forever. … The Lord is righteous in everything he does; he is filled with kindness. The Lord is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him in truth. He grants the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cries for help and rescues them.  [Psalm 145:1-2,17-19 (NLT)]

maccawAfter Esther fasted and prayed about approaching the king, she had both courage and a strategy. From the way Xerxes was so easily manipulated by his Persian noble friends and Haman, it’s clear that he was a temperamental, weak, and foolish king; Esther used that knowledge to her advantage. When she dressed in her finest robes and approached the king, I imagine she made sure he was in good spirits and that she looked irresistible. Welcoming Esther and offering her half his kingdom, Xerxes invited his queen to ask for anything, but she knew better than to take the royal offer literally. Graciously, she only asked for his and Haman’s presence at a banquet that evening. Esther’s delay didn’t mean she’d lost her courage. Persian etiquette for making a request typically began with a small unrelated favor, which is what Esther did. After a pleasant evening, she beguiled Xerxes by simply inviting him to dinner again. Gaining one small concession at a time, she eventually worked her way up to the real issue at hand. By waiting to make her appeal, Esther aroused the king’s curiosity.

A banquet was the perfect setting for Esther’s request. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Persians typically decided important matters when they were drunk; once they’d sobered up, their decisions would be confirmed. That certainly was the case when the drunken Xerxes banished Queen Vashti. On the other hand, any decisions made while sober were suspect and were to be reevaluated when the parties were intoxicated (which may explain why Xerxes and Haman sat down to drink after their apparently sober decision to eliminate the Jews)! Esther understood the importance of alcohol in the king’s decision making and, after two nights of banquets, she finally made her request while they were drinking wine. When Esther asked the king to save her life and the lives of her people, she prudently put the blame for the wicked plot entirely on Haman rather than her easily manipulated husband.

By necessity, Esther made her plea to the king in a calculated and roundabout way. Fortunately, we don’t have to strategize or scheme when we approach our Heavenly King! Because we are His beloved children and know that He loves us, we don’t have to worry that God’s interest in us has waned. There’s no need to dress in our finest attire to entice Him nor must we wait until He extends his golden scepter before approaching His throne. God is far more interested in our hearts than our appearance and our imperfect selves can approach Him any time. We don’t have to pique God’s curiosity or manipulate Him into asking us what we want because God knows what we need even before we do! We don’t have to carefully phrase our words out of fear that He will banish us from His presence if we displease Him. We certainly don’t have to ply God with vintage wine, start with little favors before working up to our big request, or wait until He’s in a good mood before offering our prayers. God is the same today as He was yesterday and will be tomorrow. If we have no words, the Holy Spirit will speak for us.

Let us never approach God with subterfuge and apprehension as Esther did Xerxes. We should come to Him as candidly as did David and the other psalmists. With our Heavenly King, we can honestly sob in sorrow, shout in anger, plead in distress, stammer in confusion, whisper in fear, weep in regret, confess in repentance, shout in praise, sing in thanksgiving, and even dance in joy—all without fear of banishment from His presence!

O Lord, hear me as I pray; pay attention to my groaning. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for I pray to no one but you. Listen to my voice in the morning, Lord. Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly. [Psalm 5:1-3 (NLT)]

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COMFORT ZONES (Esther – Part 2)

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes. [Daniel 9:3 (NLT)]

So we fasted and earnestly prayed that our God would take care of us, and he heard our prayer. [Ezra 8:23 (NLT)]

orchidWhen writing about Esther yesterday, I thought how terrified she must have been when Mordecai asked her to step out of her comfort zone to save the Jews. Even though she was queen, her access to Xerxes was severely limited.  Living secluded in a private chamber in the women’s quarters, she didn’t regularly dine with the king. Powerless, she was the one to be summoned rather than the one who did the summoning and she hadn’t been summoned by Xerxes for a month. She was just one of many beautiful women in the king’s harem and perhaps someone else had caught his eye. The previous queen was banished when she defied the king and Esther could expect nothing less if her presence wasn’t welcomed. The young queen had a simple choice: comfort or courage. She chose courage and saved a nation!

Where did Esther get the courage to defy the law and approach the king? She got it from God! That may seem a strange answer since God isn’t mentioned anywhere in her story. After asking Mordecai to gather together all the Jews in Susa and fast for three days, however, Esther promised that she and her maids would do the same. The beautiful queen wasn’t fasting so she’d fit into her sexiest gown! She was fasting in prayer.

For a Jew, fasting and prayer went hand in hand and, while prayer is not specifically mentioned, it certainly is implied. Fasting combined with prayer was a customary practice in times of grief, distress or repentance. It was a way to seek God’s favor and demonstrate the sincerity of one’s prayers. Although fasting was only demanded on the Day of Atonement, Scripture tells us that the Israelites and people like Ezra, David, Nehemiah, Jehoshaphat, and Daniel all combined fasting with prayer. When Esther and the people of Susa fasted, I have no doubt their fast was accompanied by their heartfelt prayers. Only then did Esther have both a plan and the courage to step out of her comfort zone.

Unlike Esther, we may not be asked to save a nation. Nevertheless, God has a mission for each of us. Because He is far more interested in our growth and obedience than our comfort, God’s mission for us, like Esther’s, usually begins at the end of our comfort zone. How do we move from comfort to courage and from fear to faith?

Like Esther, we could choose to fast. The purpose of fasting is never to change God; its purpose is to change us. A fast helps us take our eyes off the world and focus them on God. While Esther probably fasted from food, a fast also can be from things like gaming, social media, alcohol, television or anything else that takes our mind off God. Although Scripture tells us that Jesus and the early church fasted, it does not demand that Christians fast.

The spiritual practice of fasting is a personal choice for a Christian but prayer is not. Prayer is an act of obedience to God; it is the way we demonstrate our faith. When faced with the choice of comfort or courage, whether or not we choose to fast, we must choose to pray. Prayer is what will enable us to step out of our comfort zone and courageously do God’s work.

Courage is faith that has said its prayers. [AA slogan]

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles. [Psalm 34:4-6 (NLT)]

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INDIFFERENCE (Esther – Part 1)

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8 (NLT)]

snowy egretIn 1986, holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” That thought, however, has a longer history. In 1897, in George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, these words were spoken: The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” The evil of indifference can be found as far back as 474 BC in the story of Esther and as recently as today in our newspapers.

It’s in the Persian capital of Susa that we find King Xerxes’ “prime minister” Haman (a descendant of Agag from the race of Amalekites) facing off with the Jewish Mordecai (a descendant of King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin). The two families had a long history of hatred between them and Mordecai continually refused to bow down to the powerful Haman. Although Jews were permitted to bow down to people out of respect, Mordecai did not respect Haman and no self-respecting descendant of Saul would ever bow before an ancient enemy like an Amalekite. The incensed Haman took their personal animosity to another level by convincing the king that a “certain race” in the empire posed a threat and should be killed. The king was so indifferent to these unidentified people that he never even asked who they were. Xerxes gave Mordecai free rein to do with them and their wealth as he wanted. Written in the king’s name and sealed with his ring, Mordecai sent out an order for the Jews’ extermination to take place March 7.

Although the Jews had their unique dietary laws and customs, they had integrated into the Persian culture. They lived throughout the kingdom and interacted with the Persians daily. Mordecai, for example, had been born in Persia, had a Persian name, was a court official himself, and had even saved the king’s life. The Jews reacted to their extermination date with mourning, but what of the Persians? Scripture tells us that the city of Susa was perplexed but nothing more. There was nearly a year between the edict and execution date but we never read of people approaching the king on behalf of their Jewish friends and neighbors. The nation appeared indifferent to the slaughter of an entire people!

Enlisting Esther’s help, Mordecai asked her to beg the king for mercy. While not exactly indifferent to the Jews’ plight, Esther was more concerned with her safety than theirs. She balked at his request until Mordecai pointed out that the Jewish queen was not exempt from the king’s edict. To quickly summarize: Esther took action, Haman was executed, Mordecai became prime minister, and the Jews were saved.

Xerxes’ indifference to the fate of an entire race, the Persians’ indifference to the massacre of their neighbors, Esther’s initial indifference to her people’s plight, the indifference of Elie Wiesel’s countrymen as Jews were hauled off to Auschwitz, the world’s indifference as it looked the other way while millions were exterminated, and our indifference as we witness injustice, genocide, inequality, human trafficking, discrimination, slave labor, and repression in the world today—indifference to wrongs that don’t personally affect us—is, indeed, “the essence of inhumanity.” Let us remember that, like the beautiful queen Esther, we are not exempt from being touched by the world’s evil. Perhaps, like her, we are here “for just such a time as this!” [Esther 4:14]

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. [Martin Niemöller]

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:17 (NLT)]

Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need. [Proverbs 21:13 (NLT)]

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STILL IN EGYPT

But that isn’t what you learned about Christ. Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:20-24 (NTE)]

Abiquiu NMBack in 1963, Bob Luman sang “You can take the boy from the country, But you can’t take the country from the boy.” Along the same line, Brookes & Dunn sang that while you could take the girl out of the honkey-tonk, you couldn’t take the honkey-tonk out of the girl. I wonder if Moses thought about singing, “You can take the people out of Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people!”

When the Israelites departed Egypt, they brought more than their flocks, tents, matzo, possessions, and the Egyptians’ gold and jewelry. Egypt’s influence was still in their hearts and minds. After the ten plagues visited on Egypt clearly demonstrated Yahweh’s supreme power and the impotence of Egypt’s assorted gods, it’s difficult to understand how they still doubted Him. Nevertheless, even though God was guiding them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night, they panicked at the first sign of trouble. Seeing Pharaoh’s army approaching, they complained that slavery in Egypt was preferable to dying in the wilderness.

After they’d safely crossed the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army drowned, they were free physically but not mentally! Within a month after departing Egypt, rather than trusting their powerful God for provision, they again longed for the meat and bread of Egypt. By the time they arrived in the Sinai wilderness the next month, along with the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, God had provided Israel with water, quail, manna, and victory over the Amalekites. Nevertheless, they still carried their 400 years of Egyptian bondage in their hearts and minds.

During the forty days Moses was receiving the Law from God, the people began to fear that he was lost. Remembering the gods of Egypt, they wanted a god with a face: one they could see and touch, one who could lead them on their way. Within forty days of their acceptance of God’s covenant that specifically prohibited idolatry, the Israelites were fashioning an idol of their own. While the choice of a golden calf seems odd to us, it wouldn’t have been to them. There were several bovine deities in Egypt. The Egyptian goddess Hathor, for example, was depicted as a heifer and her powerful son, Apis, as a bull. A golden calf was the obvious choice for people who’d brought their Egyptian bondage with them!

The purpose of all those laws God gave Israel was to take Egypt out of His people—to teach them a new and better way of living. Yet, more than a year later, we again find Israel complaining and craving the “good things” of Egypt. When the scouts returned from exploring Canaan, we see how little they progressed. These were God’s chosen people who had not suffered one defeat during their travels through the wilderness. Yet, with the mind set of slaves still in bondage, they were so afraid to cross the Jordan that they wanted to pick another leader to take them back to Egypt! It took forty years and an entirely new generation before the Israelites finally rid themselves of Egypt and entered the Promised Land.

What about us? When we became Christians, did we leave the old life behind and allow God to transform us into something new or, like the Israelites, are we still in bondage: bondage not to Egypt but to the past’s sins, habits, attitudes, and mistakes? Jesus brought us through the wilderness and set us free from our slavery to sin. Rather than looking in the rear view mirror at what has been and the way we were, let us look ahead to Christ’s promises of what will be!

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. [John 8:34-36 (NLT)]

We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. [Romans 6:6 (NLT)]

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LUKEWARM

Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. [Revelation 3:20 (NLT)]

I’ve learned something about my housekeeping habits during this pandemic. Like many, when it first began, I took my pent up energy and enthusiastically cleaned, arranged, sorted and scrubbed. Cupboards and baseboards were wiped, windows were washed, furniture moved, fan blades dusted, files sorted, and every closet, cupboard, and drawer organized. That, however, was many months ago. I now realize that hospitality was my real reason for cleaning house. Pre-pandemic, we frequently entertained, neighbors regularly stopped over, and houseguests often occupied one of the bedrooms. Being ready for visitors at a moment’s notice was my incentive for keeping the house spic-and-span. Guests, however, are a thing of the past and only repairmen get beyond the front door! While our house is still presentable, it’s not the way it used to be. With just the two of us, I’ve lost my motivation and become far more tolerant of things like dust, disorder, and dirty windows!

The image of Jesus knocking at the door to an unbeliever’s heart has been used by evangelists for decades but the unbeliever’s heart is not the best understanding of Revelation 3:20. Jesus wasn’t speaking to a non-believer; He was speaking to the believers in the church of Laodicea. Like the tepid water supply of their city, they were neither hot like the healing waters of the nearby hot springs nor cold like the refreshing springs in Colossae. They were a church that had become lukewarm and indifferent to Jesus. Their self-satisfaction and apathy had led to idleness and lethargy. Jesus had some harsh words for them as He stood knocking at the door of a church that didn’t even know He’d left the house!

The church at Laodicea had grown as lax in their faith as I have in my housekeeping. Their initial fervor for Jesus waned just as my early enthusiasm about cleaning did. They’d become satisfied with superficial religion rather than growing deeper in faith and I’ve become satisfied with surface cleaning rather than getting deep into the corners. The church at Laodicea, having grown content with their wealth and easy life, were cutting corners. Having grown content with sheltering in place, I’m taking short cuts, as well. While making these comparisons, I realize that the Lord’s words of censure are not limited to Laodicea. Just as I slipped into indifference about housework, like the Laodiceans, we easily can slide into a half-hearted perfunctory faith.

Indifference leads to idleness but I’m sure my zeal for housekeeping will return when I again welcome people into our home. Sheltering in place, however, doesn’t keep Jesus from knocking at our doors. Have we become too complacent, self-satisfied, or apathetic to hear Him knocking? Open the door, invite Him in, and share a meal as friends! He’s far more interested in our hearts than the cleanliness of our homes! Let us never become indifferent to Him or spiritually lukewarm!

I do not think the devil cares how many churches you build, if only you have lukewarm preachers and people in them. [Charles Spurgeon]

I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!… I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference. … Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. [Revelation 3:15-16,19,22 (NLT)]

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EXPRESS YOUR GRATITUDE

One of them, when he saw that he was healed, came back to Jesus, shouting, “Praise God!” He fell to the ground at Jesus’ feet, thanking him for what he had done. This man was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? [Luke 17:15-17 (NLT)]

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it. [William Arthur Ward]

roseWhen writing yesterday’s message (“Jehovah Rapha”) about my ski accident, I thought about the ten lepers healed by Jesus. Only one returned to thank Him. Did the others assume they would see Jesus some other day and could express their gratitude then? Jesus, however, was on His way to Jerusalem. The lepers had a week’s worth of purification ceremonies, cleansing, isolation, and offerings ahead of them and that “other day” would not come. By not returning immediately, they missed a precious opportunity to thank Jesus.

We were seasonal residents of our Colorado mountain town so, after my accident, we didn’t return to the Rockies until winter. At our first church service back, I found myself behind the woman with the healing hands. During greetings, she turned back, looked at me intently, held my hands in hers, and asked, “How are you!” Hers wasn’t just a cursory church greeting and her question peered deep into my soul. I looked at her with a smile, squeezed her hands and, thinking we’d talk later, simply said, “I am well.” Although the previous months had been challenging in many ways, I finally was physically, emotionally and spiritually well. The music resumed and she turned back to face the pastor and worship leader. When the service ended, she immediately was surrounded by others. Not wanting to interrupt and anxious to get home, I decided to wait until the following week to thank her. I didn’t see her the next week and, one week later, our pastor told the congregation that she’d been killed instantly in a car accident in Denver.

I’d missed the opportunity to speak with this woman, share my testimony, and thank her. Making the mistake of thinking there always was time, like those nine lepers, I’d let life get in the way of my gratitude. Instead of personally telling this beautiful woman how much her compassion, touch, and prayers had meant, not just to my body, but to my soul, I ended up telling her husband in a letter of sympathy. I hope my words gave him some comfort in the depth of his sorrow. His wife was loved by all who knew her and her departure left a huge gap in our church family.

Heavenly Father, forgive us for our unspoken words of thanks, both to you and to those acting on your behalf. Thank you for your servants: the life lines, rescuers, spiritual first responders, and healers that you send into our lives. As your emissaries, they offer their prayers, hands, compassion, and encouraging words. They inspire, comfort, lead, teach, and lift us. Let us never delay expressing our gratitude for the blessings bestowed upon us.

It’s one thing to be grateful. It’s another to give thanks. Gratitude is what you feel. Thanksgiving is what you do. [Tim Keller]

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. Sing to him; yes, sing his praises. Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds. [1 Chronicles 16:8-9 (NLT)]

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