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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MORE THAN HOT AIR

But I will come—and soon—if the Lord lets me, and then I’ll find out whether these arrogant people just give pretentious speeches or whether they really have God’s power. For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:19-20 (NLT)]

hot air balloonBecause we heard the fan running, we didn’t realize the AC wasn’t working until we returned home after being gone most of the day. By then, the inside temperature of 86 told us we were in trouble. A check outside told us the AC compressor wasn’t operating and the blackened grass near it told us why: a lightning strike during the previous night’s storm! Although the fan could still operate, without the power of the compressor, all it did was blow hot air!

Sure there was a lesson somewhere in all of that useless hot air, I thought of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians expressing his concern about eloquence without evidence. Even though some of their teachers were saying the right things, they weren’t living them out. Without God’s power, they were just windbags and, like our fan, full of hot air! Accustomed as they were to great orators, the Greeks were impressed by eloquent speeches but talk is cheap. Paul explained that the Kingdom of God isn’t speaking the right words; it is living them! He promised that, when he came to Corinth, they’d see the real power of God!

When Paul referred to the Kingdom of God, he wasn’t referring to Christ’s future reign but to Christ’s present reign in the hearts of His followers. The Kingdom of God is wherever the King is and His kingdom isn’t powered by words; it’s powered by the Holy Spirit and leads to changed lives.

John Calvin described a Christian’s task this way: “We must make the invisible kingdom visible in our midst.” That’s not done with flowery phrases, grandiose sermons, impressive words, or empty promises; it’s done by the way we live. As Paul said to the Corinthians: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” [13:1] The Kingdom is made visible by the evidence that our King rules us in every aspect of our lives: whether at work, school, church, or home; with family, friends, co-workers or strangers; when writing a check, browsing the internet, or posting on social media.

The power enabling our air conditioner to function is in its compressor; the power enabling us to function as citizens of the Kingdom of God is found in the Holy Spirit. If we find ourselves just blowing hot air; it’s time to check the connection!

We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love. We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us. We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense. [2 Corinthians 6:6-7 (NLT)]

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NOT SEEING THE CAMELS FOR THE GNATS

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! [Matthew 23:23-24 (NLT)]

camelJesus criticized the Pharisees for their meticulous tithing of herbs and spices while missing the more important aspects of the law. While both gnats and camels were forbidden food, in a wonderfully graphic hyperbole, He compared the way they poured their wine through a strainer to avoid accidentally swallowing a gnat (the smallest of prohibited “unclean” animals) while actually swallowing a camel (the largest)! Feeling self-righteous over their adherence to minor details, the Pharisees entirely missed the foundational principles of the Law: loving God and loving others.

Although the law demanded the tithing of produce, the Pharisees in Jesus day debated whether that applied to all the herbs and spices. One group determined it didn’t apply to black cumin but, in later years, the tithing of cumin was again required when the tithing of mint wasn’t. While this seems much ado about nothing, I’m not sure we’re that much different from the Pharisees. We’re probably not splitting hairs about herbs or accidentally ingesting a gnat, but it’s easy to become fixated on the details (tithing, attire, drinking, church attendance, rituals, sex, smoking) while missing the bigger issues like materialism, impatience, anger, pride, selfishness, callousness, lust, duplicity, and prejudice as well as justice, mercy, and faith. If we haven’t neglected church attendance, committed adultery, murdered anyone, robbed a bank, pummeled someone with our fists, or watched porn, we feel complacent and self-righteous. Like the Pharisees, we might not be doing the wrong things, but are we putting into practice the right ones?

It is in Christ’s character that we find the Christian virtues: things like humility, wisdom, self-control, courage, perseverance, patience, peace, joy, self-denial, gentleness, compassion, moderation, kindness, mercy, goodness, integrity, faithfulness, and love. Noting that “things will go swimmingly” for the first week, C.S. Lewis suggested making a serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues for at least six weeks. By then, he noted, we’ll have taken “the first step toward true humility” and discovered some rather unpleasant truths about ourselves. “No one knows how bad he is,” said Lewis, “until he has tried very hard to be good.”

It didn’t cost the Pharisees much to strain out a gnat or tithe their herbs and it doesn’t cost us much to obey the letter of the law. Justice, mercy, and faith, however, came at a cost to the Pharisees as the Christian virtues do to us. What good was it for the Pharisee to tithe his dill to the priests but refuse a crumb to the destitute leper begging at the temple steps? What good is it for us to donate ten percent of our money when we won’t give ten minutes of our time to someone in need? Putting into practice Christian virtues is a great deal more difficult than putting ourselves into a pew in a Christian church.

Because they were more concerned about appearing pious than actually being men of virtue and integrity, Jesus continued his denunciation of the Pharisees by comparing them to a cup that is clean on the outside but filthy inside! Like the Pharisees, it’s much easier to avoid scandalous sins – to appear righteous to our neighbors – than to actually be godly people – to be clean both on the outside and inside! Just a week of consciously practicing Christian virtues can be humbling; that’s all it took for me to realize how dirty my cup actually is!

Now is the hour we should humbly prostrate ourselves before God, willing to be convicted afresh of our sins by the Holy Spirit. [Watchman Nee]

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!  You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. [Matthew 23:25-26 (NLT)]

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THE LAW – JUST TWO (Part 2)

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. [Deuteronomy 6:5 (NLT)]

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. [Leviticus 19:18 (NLT)]

New England asterYesterday I told about a friend who was reading her Bible in a coffee shop when a young Jewish man belittled her belief in God. Admitting that he once believed, he explained he no longer did because the Torah had too many laws. My friend was pleased when the Holy Spirit provided her with this simple response: “Try the New Testament; there are only two laws in it!”

As Christians, we adhere to some laws found in the Old Testament but not all. For example, while abiding by the commandments regarding adultery and idolatry, we ignore the ones requiring ritual baths or prohibiting pork and shellfish. Because of this, non-believers sometimes accuse us of being inconsistent or hypocritical. The law God gave in the Old Testament was given specifically to the nation of Israel. Setting them apart from the pagan nations surrounding them, the covenant He made was with them and not anyone else.

God gave the new nation of Israel a set of civil laws dealing with such things as their relationship with one another, conducting business, and settling disputes. He gave them ceremonial laws dealing with things like worship, temple practices, sacrifice, ritual cleanliness, and priestly duties and attire. God also gave Israel moral laws: laws telling them what was right and wrong, like those found in the Ten Commandments. Because Israel’s nationality and religion were one in the same, their civil, ceremonial, and moral laws often were interconnected.

The civil laws governing the nation of Israel don’t apply to us any more than Colorado’s laws regarding ski resorts apply to Florida’s beaches or New Jersey’s speed limit of 65 applies to a driver going 80 down a rural freeway in Texas. Like the civil laws, Israel’s ritual laws also were specific for them. Jesus finished the work of their priests and no more sacrifices or days of atonement are necessary.

What then of the moral laws? Based on the character of God, they transcend Mosaic Law and the principles behind them remain valid. With the exception of keeping holy the Sabbath day, the Ten Commandments are repeated throughout the New Testament. Sometimes, they are repeated in much stronger terms, as when Jesus equated anger with murder and lust with adultery! [Mathew 5:21-23,28]

Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites were given a choice: obey and reap God’s blessings or disobey and reap His curses. Having to justify themselves, Israel struggled and failed time and time again. The New Covenant, however, is based on grace rather than obedience—Jesus did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. With the New Covenant, God’s grace wasn’t limited to one nation but was made available to all people and for all time.

So what laws are we Christians to obey? Jesus made it simple with just two laws: wholly love God and love others as ourselves. Those two simple laws cover every conceivable situation far better than splitting hairs over who qualifies as a neighbor or how many times we are to forgive. We don’t need specific laws telling us to pay wages in a timely manner, use honest weights and measures, be charitable, honor our promises, do no wrong in buying or selling, and not to afflict widows and orphans. Found in both the Old and New Testaments, we have two all-purpose laws that cover all of those situations and much more. If we can fulfill these two, we’ve fulfilled them all!

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-40 (NLT)]

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HANDS

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord. [Psalm 134:2 (NIV)]

handsWhile social distancing has put an end to breaking bread with friends and holding hands while sharing a table blessing, I recall a dinner several years ago when I held the hand of our pastor’s wife during grace. For a small woman, her hands were larger and stronger than I expected. After grace, I looked at them and, comparing her youthful hands with mine, admit to feeling a twinge of envy. Like her, I played the piano but, unlike her, I could barely span an octave. Her sturdy hands had incredible reach and, unhampered by arthritis, there was power in her touch on the keyboard. I was overwhelmed by the strength of her hands and the beautiful way she uses them to praise the Lord as the worship leader at our mountain church.

As I pondered hands, I thought of a friend who used her hands to sign for the hearing impaired, the men whose hands set up chairs for Bible study, people who use their hands to pack meals for the food bank, and the ones serving soup at the homeless shelter. Some people’s hands warmly greet people as they enter church, bake cookies for Bible study (and lonely neighbors), fold programs or pass out communion. I thought of the preschoolers’ hands acting out “Zacchaeus” or “This Little Light of Mine” and the adult hands making a joyful noise in the bell choir and band. I thought of the calloused hands that mow the lawn and shovel the snow at our northern church, the patient hands that help the church’s children create sheep from cotton balls and tongue depressors, and the little hands that make those crafts. I thought of the hands that comfort the sick and hospitalized, baptize new believers, are raised in praise during worship, or enthusiastically clap during a spirited song. I considered the hands that prepare meals for families in need, hold babies in the church nursery so their mothers can have a few quiet minutes during worship, and fold in intercessory prayer for their church family. I thought of the hands that knit or crochet for the prayer shawl ministry and those that went from sewing colorful pillowcases for hospitalized children to making masks during the pandemic. What of the hands that so freely drop money into the offering baskets and those that carefully count the money and keep the books? They may not be leading worship while playing a keyboard or strumming a guitar but those hands are doing God’s work in their own unique way.

Today I looked at my wrinkled hands with their short fingers and knobby knuckles—hands that ache at night, are stiff in the morning, struggle to open jars and no longer fly over the piano’s keys. Nevertheless, they are hands that still can serve God. Mother Teresa often defined herself as “a little pencil” in the hand of the Lord. Indeed, we all are pencils in God’s hands and leave his mark on those we touch.

Thank you, God, for our hands; show us what you want us to do with them so they bring glory to your name. While this pandemic means we can’t hold hands with one another, show us how we can use our hands and hearts to reach out to your children. Bless our hands, O Lord, to do your holy work.

I don’t claim anything of the work. I am like a little pencil in His hand. That is all. He does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it. The pencil has only to be allowed to be used. [Mother Teresa] 

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands. [Psalm 90:17 (NIV)]

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WOULD ANYONE NOTICE?

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.)… For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. [Romans 8:9,16 (NLT)]

canna - bandanna of the evergladesIt was obvious we had ceiling fans in all three bathrooms but, because all their bulbs were burned out when we moved here, we didn’t know they also had lights. Never having seen how bright the bathrooms could be with working fan lights, we didn’t notice their absence. It was only when we had some electrical work done that we discovered the dead bulbs. Now that we’ve put in new LEDs, we’ll be sure to notice if any stop working in the future!

I bring up the fan lights because this question was asked: “If the Holy Spirit withdrew from your church, would anybody be able to tell?” That question forces us to ask whether our church is more of a social club than a spirit-powered community. Is it centered on Sunday’s service or serving others? Is it about entertainment or enlightenment, conversation or conviction? Does it believe more in the power of networking than the power of prayer? Is it about growing bigger or becoming better, pleasing people or glorifying God, filling pews or fulfilling God’s purpose?

As thought provoking as that first question is for pastors and church councils, it raises another and far more personal question. If the Holy Spirit were to withdraw from you, would anybody notice?

When we accept Jesus, we’re not given a membership card, pin, or secret handshake. Underwriters Laboratories doesn’t certify us and there’s no symbol like the OU from the Orthodox Union to indicate we’re kosher. The only thing attesting to our salvation is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He regenerates and guides us, convicts us of our sins, teaches us to live in Christ’s righteousness, equips and empowers us to do all that God asks us to do, and helps us discern between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that changes us so that we can grow and more and more like Christ and the only evidence of His presence is found in our changed lives.

We didn’t notice the missing lights in the bathroom because we’d never seen them on. In the same way, no one would notice that we’re no longer connected to the light of the Holy Spirit if we’ve never previously reflected “the glory of the Lord” in our lives. Life with the Spirit should look vastly different than life without!

While the Holy Spirit guides us, He doesn’t control us; we can ignore Him. Sin, like a burned out light bulb, can cause us to be unresponsive to the power of His presence. Although the Spirit will never abandon a true believer, the hypothetical question is one worth asking. Would anyone notice if the Spirit took a sudden leave of absence from our lives?  The answer to that will be found in another question: When we look into our hearts, do we see ourselves or the Holy Spirit?

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams. [Augustine]

Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you. [Corrie Ten Boom]

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. [[2 Corinthians 3:18 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.