Friday, 24 October 2014

The tradition of Purim is established

"And they did it."

What? Celebrated - in style. Huge parties of relief and exultation at having escaped certain death.

 What started then became a tradition, continuing the practice of what Mordecai had written to them.

Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the archenemy of all Jews, had schemed to destroy all Jews. He had cast the pur (the lot) to throw them into a panic and destroy them. But when Queen Esther intervened with the king, he gave written orders that the evil scheme that Haman had worked out should boomerang back on his own head. He and his sons were hanged on the gallows. That’s why these days are called “Purim,” from the word pur or “lot.”

Therefore, because of everything written in this letter and because of all that they had been through, the Jews agreed to continue. It became a tradition for them, their children, and all future converts to remember these two days every year on the specified dates set down in the letter. These days are to be remembered and kept by every single generation, every last family, every province and city. These days of Purim must never be neglected among the Jews; the memory of them must never die out among their descendants.

Queen Esther, the daughter of Abihail, backed Mordecai the Jew, using her full queenly authority in this second Purim letter to endorse and ratify what he wrote. Calming and reassuring letters went out to all the Jews throughout the 127 provinces of Xerxes’ kingdom to fix these days of Purim their assigned place on the calendar, dates set by Mordecai the Jew—what they had agreed to for themselves and their descendants regarding their fasting and mourning. Esther’s word confirmed the tradition of Purim and was written in the book.


And so the Jews, thousands of years later, still celebrate with joyous abandon: dressing up (disguising themselves, as Esther disguised her identity), feasting, even intentionally getting drunk! They remember, with tremendous gladness, how they were saved.

We Christians remember how WE were saved from eternal death every Sunday. But do we - do I - do it with tremendous gladness? To my shame, I often take Sundays for granted. I do not live in the immediacy of my imagination to feel that huge sense of relief and excitement.

In so doing, I diminish my life in my own eyes. My actions cannot diminish the sacrifice Jesus made, but they do not adequately praise and glorify Him for what He did.

Purim can be my example.

Psalm 71:17-24 (NIV) shows me how:

Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvellous deeds.
Even when I am old and gray,  do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Your righteousness, God, reaches to the heavens, you who have done great things.
Who is like you, God?
Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.
You will increase my honour and comfort me once more.

I will praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, my God;
I will sing praise to you with the lyre, Holy One of Israel.
My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you - I whom you have delivered.
My tongue will tell of your righteous acts all day long,
for those who wanted to harm me have been put to shame and confusion.
"

King Xerxes imposed taxes from one end of his empire to the other. For the rest of it, King Xerxes’ extensive accomplishments, along with a detailed account of the brilliance of Mordecai, whom the king had promoted, that’s all written in The Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia.

Mordecai the Jew ranked second in command to King Xerxes. He was popular among the Jews and greatly respected by them. He worked hard for the good of his people; he cared for the peace and prosperity of his race.
"
Esther 9:123 - 10:3

And so the story ends with happily ever after. The beautiful queen is safe; her uncle, under threat for his life, is spared and rises to a high position.

Once again, as with Joseph and his family, God has redeemed His people. The story of Esther is a glimpse of God's Ultimate Plan to save his people. The Jews' desperate situation is turned around by Esther's willingness to sacrifice her life. Our desperate situation of a life of sin is turned around by the sacrifice of Jesus.

Love has triumphed.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Celebration. ?

The numbers of the massacre are chilling:

"But they took no plunder. That day, when it was all over, the number of those killed in the palace complex was given to the king. The king told Queen Esther, “In the palace complex alone here in Susa the Jews have killed five hundred men, plus Haman’s ten sons. Think of the killing that must have been done in the rest of the provinces! What else do you want? Name it and it’s yours. Your wish is my command.”

The king is STILL asking Esther what she wants. Isn't that enough? Is he himself insatiable or does he realise that she is still not entirely happy/satisfied?

She asks for still more.
“If it please the king,” Queen Esther responded, “give the Jews of Susa permission to extend the terms of the order another day. And have the bodies of Haman’s ten sons hanged in public display on the gallows.”

So the carnage had almost certainly stopped in the provinces - there would have been no way of extending it one more day with no easy means of communication - but this would ensure that all sympathy for Haman in the capital would be squashed.
The king commanded it: The order was extended; the bodies of Haman’s ten sons were publicly hanged. The Jews in Susa went at it again. On the fourteenth day of Adar they killed another three hundred men in Susa. But again they took no plunder.

It made me wonder how I, as a Christ-follower, deal with those who have fallen out of favour with the authorities.  If it is someone who has hurt or offended me, perhaps I could identify with Esther and the Jews; but if I am more of a bystander - perhaps a colleague has been reprimanded for a work offence - do I make sure I am 'in' with management, or do I offer sympathy and support. Or is it possible to do both?

Jesus preached love and forgiveness. Perhaps I am missing the point. Perhaps this is simply a story of how God loves his people so much that he WILL protect and save them, and that those who are enemies should be warned. Or perhaps I can still grieve for an 'enemy's' misfortune while still maintaining an attitude of justice.

And perhaps, like the Jews, I should be ready to celebrate extravagantly when justice is done:

"I will talk to others all day long about your justice and your goodness. For all who tried to hurt me have been disgraced and dishonoured." Psalm 71:24

"Meanwhile in the rest of the king’s provinces, the Jews had organized and defended themselves, freeing themselves from oppression. On the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, they killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them but did not take any plunder. The next day, the fourteenth, they took it easy and celebrated with much food and laughter. But in Susa, since the Jews had banded together on both the thirteenth and fourteenth days, they made the fifteenth their holiday for laughing and feasting. (This accounts for why Jews living out in the country in the rural villages remember the fourteenth day of Adar for celebration, their day for parties and the exchange of gifts.)

Mordecai wrote all this down and sent copies to all the Jews in all King Xerxes’ provinces, regardless of distance, calling for an annual celebration on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar as the occasion when Jews got relief from their enemies, the month in which their sorrow turned to joy, mourning somersaulted into a holiday for parties and fun and laughter, the sending and receiving of presents and of giving gifts to the poor."


Esther 9:10 - 22

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Revenge

"On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, the king’s order came into effect. This was the very day that the enemies of the Jews had planned to overpower them, but the tables were now turned: the Jews overpowered those who hated them! The Jews had gathered in the cities throughout King Xerxes’ provinces to lay hands on those who were seeking their ruin. Not one man was able to stand up against them—fear made cowards of them all. What’s more, all the government officials, satraps, governors—everyone who worked for the king—actually helped the Jews because of Mordecai; they were afraid of him. Mordecai by now was a power in the palace. As Mordecai became more and more powerful, his reputation had grown in all the provinces.

So the Jews finished off all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering them right and left, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In the palace complex of Susa the Jews massacred five hundred men. They also killed the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the archenemy of the Jews...
But they took no plunder."

And so the prayer in Psalm 71:13 is answered: "May my accusers perish in shame; may those who want to harm me be covered with scorn and disgrace."

How amazing to see how evil plans were thwarted. On the very day on which the Jews were to be massacred, they were able to take their revenge.

Revenge. And yet, this week I have been thinking of this. The human inclination is to seek revenge yet the Bible says: "'Vengeance is mine,' says the Lord." I reflected on what Mandy Patinkin says about revenge. (He is the actor who plays Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, a character whose sole purpose in life is to find and kill the six-fingered man who killed his father. After he does so, he does not know what to do with his life. "I  have been in the revenge business so long, now that it is over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.") Mandy says: "The purpose of revenge...is completely worthless and pointless. The purpose of existence is to embrace our fellow human beings and not be revengeful. And turn our darkness into light.

'The popular expression "revenge is a dish best served cold" suggests that revenge is more satisfying if enacted when unexpected or long feared, inverting traditional civilized revulsion toward 'cold-blooded' violence.'  Chilling, this idea of long held hatred and grudges which are just waiting for the right opportunity, lulling the enemy into a false sense of security so that they have no idea of what is in store.

Yet this part of Esther's story is not about revenge, though the specific killing of Haman's sons could be seen as that. (That, perhaps, is to forestall any acts of reprisal there might have been for their father's death.) The story is about the saving of the Jews in Persia and how they were protected, not just by the physical act of killing those who had been eager to get rid of them - perhaps lifelong enemies, business rivals - but also by reputation, as Mordecai had become increasingly feared and respected because of his closeness to the king.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The tables are turned...

This was not what I was expecting: "The king’s order authorized the Jews in every city to arm and defend themselves to the death, killing anyone who threatened them or their women and children, and confiscating for themselves anything owned by their enemies. The day set for this in all King Xerxes’ provinces was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar. The order was posted in public places in each province so everyone could read it, authorizing the Jews to be prepared on that day to avenge themselves on their enemies."

I was expecting the edict just to be cancelled. Yet the laws of Persia held that a king's decree could not be cancelled, in spite of the personal wishes of the king. With such constraints in place, it seems astonishing that the king seems so quick to offer his endorsement to the act of bloodshed which Haman put in place.

The only way out was to issue a seemingly contradictory command. Even more bloodshed, as the Jews were entitled to fight back and seize their enemies' possessions.

The couriers, fired up by the king’s order, raced off on their royal horses. At the same time, the order was posted in the palace complex of Susa.


So it happened: and Mordecai is elevated to a position even greater than Haman. And suddenly, everyone wants to be Jewish.

Mordecai walked out of the king’s presence wearing a royal robe of violet and white, a huge gold crown, and a purple cape of fine linen. The city of Susa exploded with joy. For Jews it was all sunshine and laughter: they celebrated, they were honored. It was that way all over the country, in every province, every city when the king’s bulletin was uposted: the Jews took to the streets in celebration, cheering, and feasting. Not only that, but many non-Jews became Jews—now it was dangerous not to be a Jew!



Esther 8:11 - 17

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Esther saves the people!

It wasn't over yet. Haman had been killed for his plot to kill all the Jews and Esther had been given his estates, with Mordecai in charge of them. Not only that, but the king had reclaimed his signet ring from Haman and given it to Mordecai.

But the Jews were still not safe, because a royal edict had already been written, sealed and distributed. The order to massacre still stood.

Esther still had work to do: she threw herself at the king's feet and begged him for the lives of her people.

So:" So the king’s secretaries were brought in on the twenty-third day of the third month, the month of Sivan, and the order regarding the Jews was written word for word as Mordecai dictated and was addressed to the satraps, governors, and officials of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces in all, to each province in its own script and each people in their own language, including the Jews in their script and language."
Esther 8:1 - 10

Friday, 17 October 2014

You reap what you sow...

"Then Harbona, one of the king’s aides, said, “Sir, Haman has just ordered a 75-foot gallows constructed, to hang Mordecai, the man who saved the king from assassination! It stands in Haman’s courtyard.”
“Hang Haman on it,” the king ordered.
So they did, and the king’s wrath was pacified
." Esther 7:9 - 10

The 'You Version' notes comments on this nicely:
"Revenge is a plot that plays out in movies or TV shows, but not reality. The same with making strategies to harm people. While we may not plan physical harm to others, often we do it with our words. We harm reputations. We spread gossip. We plant seeds of doubt in people's minds. But over time, we become known as someone who cannot be trusted, whose advice is not worth listening to. Our own reputations are damaged, and we become trapped by our own devices."

Proverbs 26:27 in The Message says: "Malice backfires; spite boomerangs" and in the Living Bible it is: "The man who sets a trap for others will get caught in it himself. Roll a boulder down on someone, and it will roll back and crush you."

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The tables turned...

Here we see the truth of "The Lord works out everything to its proper end—
even the wicked for a day of disaster,
" (Proverbs 16:4)

Haman is about to get his comeuppance..

"The king, raging, left his wine and stalked out into the palace garden.

Haman stood there pleading with Queen Esther for his life—he could see that the king was finished with him and that he was doomed. As the king came back from the palace garden into the banquet hall, Haman was groveling at the couch on which Esther reclined. The king roared out, “Will he even molest the queen while I’m just around the corner?”

When that word left the king’s mouth, all the blood drained from Haman’s face."


If Haman had feared for his life before, now, with his apparently compromising behaviour, he had sealed his fate.

Actually, the king would already have decided. We see Haman's actions as arising out of morbid hate and pathological jealousy of a man which extended to a whole nation: and (or so he thought) Haman had the power to annihilate them. Yet the king now has a face - his beautiful queen - to this people whose death he had acquiesced to. Perhaps he now realises the enormity of what Haman is about to do. Perhaps he sees the extent of Haman's ambition: indeed, what guarantee does Xerxes have that Haman is not about to overthrow him on his throne?

Haman recognises that HE, not Mordecai and the Hebrews, now faces death.

How afraid Esther must have been before this happened: she had faced death by approaching the king in the first place and now the king is angry: who knew where his anger would focus on.

The plot revealed...

So the king has again asked Esther what he should give her. I wonder, was he used to people not saying straight away what they wanted? Unlikely.

Yet Esther has kept him waiting two days. This is the third time he has asked her what she wants.

Now she tells him.

"Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favour in your eyes, O King, and if it please the king, give me my life, and give my people their lives.

“We’ve been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed—sold to be massacred, eliminated. If we had just been sold off into slavery, I wouldn’t even have brought it up; our troubles wouldn’t have been worth bothering the king over.”

King Xerxes exploded, “Who? Where is he? This is monstrous!”

“An enemy. An adversary. This evil Haman,” said Esther.

Haman was terror-stricken before the king and queen."


Esther 7:3 - 6

Clever. She wasn't going to bother the king just about proposed slavery - was he then so heartless, that he wouldn't care? Or was this just a ploy to get him to realise how disastrous this would be for him, to lose so many of his subjects aka potential tax players.

Whatever, King Xerxes - the account now uses the Persian version of his name, rather than the Hebrew one - explodes in anger. He must have been really fond of Esther...and she was really brave. Her life hung on a knife edge. Haman was, after all the king's favourite and most trusted adviser - and here she is, attacking him. How she must have hung on to these words from Joshua...

"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
       

Yes, be bold and strong! Banish fear and doubt! For remember, the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

 


Sunday, 12 October 2014

The king, drinking wine at Esther's second banquet, again asks what he can do for her.
A second chance. Why didn't she ask the first time? Too nervous? To keep him guessing, tantalising him as, no doubt, she had been taught to do sexually in the harem?

It has all happened quickly. Very quickly, for a Bible story where, often, events take place over months and years. This is merely DAYS. Mordecai has learned of the edict; goes to see Esther immediately; they fast for three days; Esther goes to see the king and invites him for drinks that same evening; later that night, the king can't sleep; the next morning, Mordecai is honoured; and now they are all back for a second evening banquet.

This is GOOD rush. Mordecai is desperate to save the Jews and the edict needs to go overturned as soon as possible.

So, when we look at what has happened, we can see how Esther, waiting on God, sensed the need to be patient with HER timing, which gave space for Mordecai to be established in the king's opinion as a good and faithful servant.
Philippians 4:6 - 7 shows this truth:
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

Good advice for me at the moment, facing a huge life choice....life is also rushing along at breakneck speed. I suspect I need to make sure that I keep up with God...
Esther 7:1 - 2

Second chances

I've been thinking of second chances recently. Jonah: given a second chance to obey God.  Jacob: reconciled with Esau, after tricking Esau out of his inheritance (Genesis 32 - 34). Jacob sent Esau gifts before their meetings, afraid Esau would destroy his family, but was given a second chance at a relationship. Moses: a murderer and an exile whose countrymen turned against him, given a chance as leader. Samson - got revenge on the Philistines, given another chance to defeat the enemies of Israel. Naomi - given another chance, through Ruth, to be a grandmother. Peter - given another chance to be restored in his relationship with Jesus.

Given another chance. Over and over again.

Notice what happened in these lives before God gave them their second chance:

Jonah “I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble,
and he answered me.
I called to you from the land of the dead,
and Lord, you heard me!
You threw me into the ocean depths,
and I sank down to the heart of the sea.
The mighty waters engulfed me;
I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves.
Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence.
Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.


“I sank beneath the waves,
and the waters closed over me.
Seaweed wrapped itself around my head.
I sank down to the very roots of the mountains.
I was imprisoned in the earth,
whose gates lock shut forever.
But you, O Lord my God,
snatched me from the jaws of death!
As my life was slipping away,
I remembered the Lord.
And my earnest prayer went out to you

in your holy Temple.
Those who worship false gods
turn their backs on all God’s mercies.
But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise,
and I will fulfill all my vows.
For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.”

Then God saved Jonah from PHYSICAL death when he 'ordered the fish to spit Jonah up onto dry land.'

Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.”  (Jonah 3:1 - 2)

And Jonah did. God gave him a second chance.

Moses, too. In more than one way. A murderer, he had fled from Egypt, fearing for his life, but God took him back there again. The fugitive had become a leader who would confront the very man who had power over life and death.  Not only that, even when carrying the stone tablets, "the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets", he lost his temper so badly that he threw the work of God on the ground. The tablets broke. Nevertheless, after the Israelites suffered various punishments and consequences, God gave Moses and the people a second chance. God gave the rules all over again.  "...he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin." Then Moses, at God's direction, wrote down God's commandments. (Genesis 34:1, 28)

God gave Moses - and the people - a second chance. He gives us second chances, too.

These people experienced: all hope gone - desolation; desperation; restoration.

So what do we do, when we regret something we have done, or something we should have done, but didn't?

It's never too late. We have a God who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, loving, forgiving...

We can, like Jonah:
Remember that we have a loving and gracious God and cry out to him, as needily and humbly as small children.
Ask God, like Jacob did, to save us from the consequences of our actions, doing our best to put things right.
Be obedient, as Moses was, listening to God and doing what God tells us to, not knowing where this will take us.

With God, it's never too late. God says in the book of Joel: "I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten— the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm —
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has worked wonders for you;
"