Yesterday’s message …
- Had some fun with the biblical name “Bigthana” by envisioning a younger brother named “LittleThana”;
- Pointed out again how often the children of Israel have been subjected to genocidal rage;
- Explored how frustrating it is when a reward YOU EARN goes to someone else;
- Landed at this bottom line / question: Can you trust that God is in charge when it looks like he’s lost control?
One thing I know we all hate around here is when a reward or a prize or an honor the YOU WON ends up going to someone else. You did the work, you had the accomplishment, it was the sweat off your brow … and then THEY get the swag. It happens all time. Sometimes that means it happens for people living far away who you will likely never meet.
Like when the player from YOUR TEAM deserves the MVP and it goes to someone else. A guy on that team you hat. Or when YOUR MOVIE deserved the Oscar and yet it goes to that slightly more popular but not nearly so artistic film down the street. Or YOUR BAND earned the Grammy but instead it goes to Milli Vanilli who was lip synching the whole time anyway. It is enough to make you wonder about the fundamental unfairness of life; is there really anyone up there who’se got it under control, who knows what he is doing, who is ensuring fair play.
Closer to home, you know you had the sales numbers, you deserve that incentive trip to the Caribbean and yet the slacker two cubicles down gets it. Your kid earned that prize, deserves that scholarship, should be the captain and yet all those honors go to the kid with the loudmouth parents. And you know more than half the reason was just to shut them up. Yea, when you earn or deserve the reward and it goes to someone else, you want to shake a fist at the universe, call out “but you promised!” or even asked why he doesn’t have things under better control. It can cause a deep doubt about the fundamental fairness of life; that God brings order & structure.
All this is EXACTLY what happens to Mordecai, a good Jew living in the strange land of Persia as the book of Esther opens up. By way of reminder / refreshing, the year is 483 BC and the setting is Persia (modern day Iran). In Persia, there is still a smattering of scattered Jews. A large chunk of them had returned to Israel when King Darius let them return home (imagine the irony: Iran does Israel a NATIONAL FAVOR!). This is really an IN BETWEEN time in Jewish history … after a series of defeats, following a terrible exile, and discovering what it means to be Jewish in a land that does not recognize your God. In a land where, in spite of Darius’ favor, there are still a great many enemies to that ragtag group of people who dare to claim that a) there is only ONE GOD and b) that ONE GOD has chosen this ONE PEOPLE GROUP as his. It’s a pagan, secular, vicious culture, which may well explain why the anonymous author of Esther keeps God’s name on the DL here.
But back to Mordecai. At the end of Esther 2, he performs this heroic deed:
21 During the time Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthana[a] and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. 22 But Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. 23 And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two officials were impaled on poles. All this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.
He exposes an assassination attempt on the king so Xerxes lives & assassins die. Now you need to know: ancient kings were flighty and authoritarian BUT they were also known to be over-the-top generous to those who were loyal to them. So the reader expects, the listener assumes, that Esther 3 will open up with Mordecai getting a ticker tape parade! Or at least reclining with beautiful Persian ladies feeding him grapes. All from the hand of a grateful king! Not so fast. Look at 3:1:
After these events, King Xerxes honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles.
Kick in the gut. Where we should read “Mordecai” we instead read “Haman.” And doubly, triply, BIGLY bad look how it describes this Haman: “the Agagite.” Now: the significance of that is lost on us but not on the Jews who first read & heard the story. Agagite doesn’t mean “cousin of a Stalagtite”; it does mean a descendant of the Amalekites, a tribe of people with long standing animosity towards anything and everyone Jewish. If Esther had a soundtrack, it just went duh Duh DUHHHH. Not only does the recognition that Mordecai deserves (remember the foiled assassination?) go to another, it goes to his bitterest enemy.
Which becomes quickly apparent in 3:2-5:
2 All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
3 Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” 4 Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.
5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged.
I love this. In case you forget, the more you DEMAND respect, the more you reveal you don’t deserve it in the first place. It’s what Xerxes had done with all the women in the kingdom in chapter 1 – “respect your husbands or else!” But here in Esther 3, we don’t know why Mordecai refuses to bow – it’s likely NOT idolatry as Jews in general were typically quite compliant in showing respect to foreign leader. It is probably more personal here. He knows Haman’s heritage and who knows? He might be sensing Haman’s hate? But you, too, may be have been asked – or manipulated – to honor one who just didn’t deserve it. Like congratulating that other guy on the sales team as he darts off with the plaque that YOU WON. Or having to honor the parent who has behaved so dishonorably.
Well, Mordecai’s actions – his non bowing – get back to Haman and look at 3:6-7:
6 Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.
7 In the twelfth year of King Xerxes, in the first month, the month of Nisan, the pur (that is, the lot) was cast in the presence of Haman to select a day and month. And the lot fell on[b] the twelfth month, the month of Adar.
Now THAT escalated quickly! From grudge to genocide! What an unmistakable pattern in Esther – a personal problem becomes a national catastrophe! When Vashti disprected Xerxes – full on national crisis! Now the same thing here: one Jew “disrespects” Haman so ALL Jews must die. And that escalation happens in the blink of an eye. It’s nothing but the prolog to Hitler’s Final Solution, isn’t it? What is it then? The first Final Solution? And isn’t it uncanny how often God’s people – ancient Israel, Jews through the centuries, the modern church – are the targets of genocidal rage & mass execution. It’s irrational and yet it has been both scaleable and repeatable through the centuries!
I just want you to know I believe there is something deep within almost every human being that hates the things of God, the inherently rebels against the limits God puts on us simply because he is God and we aren’t, and so people lash out at whatever visible reminder there is that God exists and God reigns. Which is usually God’s people. And it’s not slowing down, folks. It’s why in India there is a design for an entire Hindu nation … something easier accomplished if you eliminate Xns and Xnty. It’s why in China when authorities raid a church they will have the Xns BEAT EACH OTHER upon pain of death. It’s why at the mall attack in Nairobi a few years ago the terrorists asked captives, “what is the name of Mohammed’s mother?” If you did not know the answer – as Xns & Jews wouldn’t – you were executed. It’s why in the early centuries of the church this letter surfaced: READ Illus #22 “yet those who hate them cannot give any reason for their hostility.” Yep, the patterns of history are firm and they are entrenched. Haman not the first and he sure wasn’t the last. It’s enough to make you wonder if God allows all this stuff, does he really have it all together? Does he really have the whole world in his hands?
Well, from this escalation, Haman turns to execute his plan of mass execution. In 3:8-11, he convinces Xerxes of his plan:
8 Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they 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 give ten thousand talents[c] of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.”
10 So the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. 11 “Keep the money,” the king said to Haman, “and do with the people as you please.”
READ. Great sales job! Full of flattery, bribery, and half truths. Xerxes is like, “that’s a plan!” and in giving over his signet ring, he is authorizing Haman to act in his name & with his authority. And look look look at the date Haman establishes for the OVERKILL (destroy, kill, annihilate) in 3:13:
13 Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.
You know what that means? (Of course you DON’T; that’s why I’m going to tell you.) The date was 11 months away! Eleven months of torture, agony, waiting for your own execution to be carried out. But there’s more! That date is the Day Of Passover for the Jews! They are going to be DESTROYED on the same day that they were DELIVERED from Egypt. Much, much worse than for us having a bad Xmas! Man oh man. Just a pile on of bad news, bleak outlook, taking whatever good God had done for the people and snuffing it out. It seems that in addition to being absent from the text, God is missing from life. He has lost control of the situation.
And then I just love this last sentence, one of the great contrasts in all Scripture:
5 The couriers went out, spurred on by the king’s command, and the edict was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was bewildered.
Let’s have a beer! Meanwhile the whole city: Wha-what?! We have to kill our neighbors? Yeah, they’re odd, they have only one God, but why do we have to kill destroy & annihilate? The two guys: pass the margarita mix!
So by this time in Esther we are like those bewildered people in Susa? Where is the order, structure, fairness, KARMA? Why do good people suffer and wicked people prosper? Rewards go to the wrong ones, obedience leads to genocide, and on top of all that the hammer’s gonna fall on Passover of all days! Deliverance has become destruction. At every turn Mordecai is undercut, undermined & he could be excused for thinking God has underdelivered.
You’ve felt that. Man, when I arrived at Mt. Carmel Church in the summer of 1990, I realize now that church was suffering from collective PTSD. A 14 year old boy had been diagnosed with brain cancer some time before and they had vigils, fund raisers, prayers, tears, more prayers. And he still died. What’s the point? Children die, jobs get lost, wombs remain closed. Mordecai imperiled, Haman exalted and just what is God doing about it all. It all leads me to ask a heavy question today: Can you trust that God is in charge when it looks like he’s lost control? Can you? When evidence seems to contradict your faith, can you still exercise that faith? When blessings are elusive & promises appear unkept, can you? Can you trust that God is in charge when it looks like he’s lost control?
I ask that because some people never do … they just fade away. They leave the faith. Others never ask that hard question and while they may remain connected to faith, it’s just a going through the motions thing. And then others who don’t ask it keep the faith but do so with more bitterness than blessings. Is that you? Does bitterness at the unfairness of life lead to second guessing of the performance of God? Can you trust that God is in charge when it looks like he’s lost control?
Here’s why asking that question really matters. Because if you decide NO, have you considered the alternatives? The alternative is to trust YOU, making you God. And in my own life I have learned the hard way that I am a terrible God! It leaves me hollow and vacant and nobody wins. I have asked that question – REFRAIN – and have decided to trust the one who seems to be more ARRANGER than INVADER these days, the one I can’t always understand & who sometimes frustrates … because the alternatives are so much worse.
Also, please know this: every instance of people hating God and God’s people is a reprise of Satan’s original rebellion against God. The ultimate wash, rinse, repeat. So when you see the church persecuted, Jews targeted, please remember: there Satan goes again, doomed, a loser, still fighting a losing battle. Can you trust that God is in charge when it looks like he’s lost control?
You know how I’m able to move the answer to this heavy question towards the yes? When I don’t allow the TODAY’S DELAY TO OBSCURE YESTERDAY’S DELIVERY. Meaning: I have such a record of God’s faithfulness in my own life. So many instances of blessing and favor for which there is not answer BUT GOD. And when I get agitated, frustrated, and fidgety at his current delays, it does me a world of good to go back and remember all his answers. It’s why these (AV of my prayer journals) are an invaluable record of God’s faithfulness & my impatience! Can you trust that God is in charge when it looks like he’s lost control?
Because in the middle of Haman & Mordecai and even our own wrestling with whether or not God is really in control of a world where the Kardashians are a household name, there’s one other thing to remember: we are reading a book where we know what’s in the last chapter and we win. Actually, he wins and we watch. For whatever reason he allows chaos and turmoil now; he will contain and conquer it then. Our faith will be our eyes. So much like that old TV show called Early Edition (AV) where the premise was that the lead guy got the Chicago Sun Times a day in advance. He was able to prevent calamities and offer advice no one else could. Why? He had information about the future no one else had.
Guess what? So do we. That’s why I’m leaning towards answer the with a yes. Can you trust that God is in charge when it looks like he’s lost control? First a whisper, then a shout.