“God works in mysterious ways”… and other half-truths to avoid in the story of Queen Esther.

Our journey through the Old Testament and the history of God’s chosen people brings us today to the story of Queen Esther. 

As we’ve read the Old Testament, we’ve seen a number of repeating themes.  We’ve seen that the consequence for disobedience is to be sent away from God’s presence; but at the same time we’ve seen, over and over, that the only thing required to return is the bold admission that “I’ve missed the mark, I’m too weak to do this on my own; God, I need your help”.  And, we’ve seen over and over, whenever a person admits their own weakness in a situation, God is ready and willing to reach out and lift them up with his mighty hand.  After all, we know that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.[1]

In the story of Esther we see again that if we’re faithful, God will make a way where there seems to be no way.

Or, let’s put it this way: Human Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” that present incredible Opportunities.  Circumstances. Divine Coincidences. Opportunities.

Esther’s Situation

In case you’ve forgotten the story of Queen Esther – or didn’t get a chance to read it yet this weekend – let’s catch ourselves up.

God had led his people into the Promised Land, but over a period of 800 years, they decided they would rather go it alone than fulfil their mission to live out the revelation of Almighty God in the world.  So God sent them out of the land, sending a foreign king to lead them into exile. That generation responded by taking their faith and mission seriously: they heeded the words of the prophets, they taught their children the Word of God, and then the king allowed them to return and rebuild Jerusalem.  Not everyone could leave – some had taken on too much debt and found themselves enslaved; some had been given government jobs, and the king wanted them in the capital rather than on the outskirts of the empire; and some were bound up in the sadness and messiness of life: like Esther, a teenage girl whose parents died, leaving her as an orphan with no legal standing or protection in those days.

Esther’s cousin, a Jewish man named Mordecai, from the family of King Saul, was a civil servant – perhaps some sort of scribe who writes up and reviews contracts, who stands outside the palace gates to work with people as they come to conduct their business.  He took her in and provided for the girl.

Now King Xerxes of the Persian Empire was known for his parties.  We know from history that his empire stretched from Egypt to India, from Saudi Arabia all the way up to Uzbekistan.  And he invited all the governors to his capital in modern day Iran to have a six-month-long party.  One day he called his beautiful wife to come out and put on a show for the governors, but she refused, so he threw her out of the palace (that’s another topic for another day).  So his officials suggested they hold a mandatory beauty pageant to pick another wife.  That’s where Esther comes into the story – she’s pretty, so she’s forced to take part.

Now, one of the King’s officials, a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemy King Agag of the Amalekites, comes up with a plan.  He suggests that the whole empire would be better if the worshippers of the Almighty God of Israel were killed off, because those people refuse to bow down to other gods – though, secretly, he’s just upset that Mordecai, a descendant of the Jewish royal family, won’t bow down to him in the street. 

The King says “ok”, rolls some dice, does some math, and says, “alright, nine months from now, anyone who wants to kill a Jewish man and take his goods is free to do so”.  It’s a day of legalized murder and looting. 

And, to make a long story short, Esther happens to be in the right place at the right time to intervene.  She boldly decides to risk everything to confront the king, and as a result, the Jews throughout the empire are able to defend themselves; and in a major twist, the official who cooked up this whole plot is impaled on the pole he had made to hang the Israelites on, and Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, is promoted to be governor over the capital.

Human Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” which present Incredible Opportunities.

Now there are lots who would look at this story and say, “wow, it’s all part of God’s plan”.  Or… “yes, the Lord works in mysterious ways”.  Or, worst of all, my pet peeve: “see, everything happens for a reason”.

That all sounds nice.  Some might even think it sounds religious, but resist temptation!  The worst temptations of all are those that are almost true. 

We have to react strongly against that kind of ridiculous half-truth that we can only fall into if we don’t know the Word of God.

Yes God has a plan, but come on, no, we do not believe being born into exile and orphaned as a child and forced to dance for an old man in a perverse teen beauty pageant is God’s way of doing things. 

You see – that’s the incredible danger of those ridiculously over-simplified statements.  We risk making God the author or cause of human sin. 

Yes, God has a plan: “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” (Jeremiah 29:11), but God’s plan is not that a girl’s parents have to die so she can dance around in a harem for a lustful old man.  That’s ridiculous.  And, worse still, if we say that this is part of God’s plan, it’s blasphemy, because now we’re saying that God is the cause of that horrible human sin.

Or, how often do we say “the Lord works in mysterious ways”?  But where is that in scripture?  Nowhere!  You can search the Bible in your pew from cover to cover, but it’s not in there.  Why?  Because it’s a lie! 

The work of God is to reveal Himself, not to shroud himself in mystery.  God says “my ways are not your ways, my thoughts are higher than your thoughts”[2], yes, but God says “call to me and I will answer you, and I will show you the great and mighty things which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).  God said right back in Deuteronomy 29, “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever”[3].  God does things that are mind-blowing: as he says through the prophet, “look among the nations; wonder and be astounded.  For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told”, and none of us can pretend to understand the height and breadth and depth of the mind of God,[4] but let’s be clear: God is in the business of revealing himself.  If something is mysterious, scripture says, it’s because we haven’t sought the will of God.  Think about that: when we spin that familiar lie “the Lord works in mysterious ways”, what we’re really saying is “I haven’t read the Word of God or said my prayers, so I don’t understand what God has been doing”.  But we should be clear on that: God is doing in Esther what he’s always been doing: turning human evil into good and drawing us back to himself.

Worst of all, there are those who would look at the story of Esther and say “everything happens for a reason”.  Gross.  Yuck.  What terrible heresy.  Because no, God’s perfect and eternal will does certainly not include young orphans being forced to join harems.  Let’s be perfectly clear on that.

Combat the easy lies with the Truth

We need to resist those tempting, religious-sounding lies that swirl around us, but we can only do so when we know God’s truth.

Human circumstances lead to divine coincidences that produce incredible opportunities.

God didn’t want Israel to disobey and go into exile.  God didn’t want the world to be full of murder and greed and jealousy and lust and exploitation and abuse.  The world wants to blame God for those things, but only because we’re trying to avoid admitting that humanity puts itself in this mess, as every little decision not to love your neighbour as yourself produces ripples that echo out over generations, like rocks thrown into a pond on a still day.

We can’t blame God for the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we have to open our eyes to see that “coincidences” in the present are divine. 

See how easily we’re tempted to mix that up? 

We want to blame God for the past but not see him at work in the present.  But really, we need to see human brokenness in the past, but accept that God is working in the present.  God didn’t want Israel to sin and go into exile, but now that they’re here, Mordecai has an opportunity.  God didn’t want Esther to be forced into a harem, but now that she’s here, God creates an opportunity.

God doesn’t want our community to be chock full with people with insecure housing situations who are kicked out of their houses when they test positive and are forced to find a couch to bunk so there are a dozen positive people sharing a two-bedroom house, without groceries, and without money, and with a government that turns a blind eye when low-income people get Covid.  God doesn’t want that, but he’s at work in the “coincidences”.  He’s at work in the fact that we’ve been faithful, that when the phone rings at the church because the social workers say there’s nothing they can do, the Church of God is ready to deliver a food hamper as our Lord commanded, whether it’s 6 in the morning on Thursday or 8 o’clock on Friday night.

Why this matters

My Friends, let’s not fall into the trap of accidentally saying – or worse, believing – that God wanted the awful situations that humans find themselves in.

Let’s be clear: humanity is to blame for the mess we’re in, but God is at work in the present, in each moment, ready and willing to work each mess together for good, as soon as we admit that we’re in over our heads, that we can’t do it on our own, that we need the help that only he can give.

Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” that lead to Incredible Opportunities.

We all have messy circumstances in our lives.  I challenge you to see every coincidence as a “God-incidence”, a God-given opportunity for a fork in the road, a God-given opportunity to say, with Esther, “here I am: I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I need your help, and I will put my trust in you”.

Does the Lord ever fail those who put their whole trust in him?  No.
Does the mercy of the Lord ever fail?  No.
Does the Lord work all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose?  Yes.

My friends, that’s the gospel.  That’s the good news you’ve been given to proclaim. 
May God give us the grace to fulfil our mission.  Amen.

[1] 2 Corinthians 12:9

[2] Isaiah 55:8-9

[3] Deuteronomy 29:29

[4] Habakkuk 1:5; Romans 8:28

What if it tastes like Toothpaste and Orange Juice?

The Prophet Jeremiah said: Your words were found and I ate them, and they became to me a joy and the delight of my heart… Jeremiah 15:16

Throughout scripture, cover to cover, we learn that God’s word is to be on our lips and in our hearts.  We are people who are to speak the Good News and guard our tongues against speaking words of deceit or slander – after all, ‘the tongue is a double-edged sword’[1] and – as we heard last week – it’s what goes out of the mouth, not what comes in, that defiles us.[2] 

No, that the Word of God should be on our lips is certainly no surprise.  As one of the most famous prayers from the prayerbook puts it, our task is to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”[3] the truth of God as revealed in the pages of scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit at work in the Church.

But – it might shock you to find out – that on at least three occasions in scripture, the prophets, the messengers of God, took this literally.  Yes, three times in scripture, someone eats the Bible.[4]

The prophet Ezekiel chows down on the word of God;[5] John the Divine is told in a vision to eat a scroll, and it turns his stomach;[6] and then in today’s Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah munches on and swallows up the Word of God written out on a sheet of goatskin.

Now before we get any ideas, this was not one of those “go and do likewise” sort of moments.  No, this is a symbolic action[7] meant to help us visualize and enter into the lessons God has for his people, much as the light spreading outward from a single candle in a dark church on Christmas Eve speaks the truth of our hope in the darkness of this world more deeply than any sermon, or praying alone in a darkened and silent church on the night before Good Friday allows us to really recognize the sacrifice of the cross.

The point is this: all the instruction about having the truth on our lips, about speaking the truth, about loosing our lips to praise, about opening our mouth to sing a new song of the Lord’s faithfulness, about our lips never failing to recite what the Lord has done, are not just happy thoughts or motivational words on a pretty plaque hung on your wall.  No – God’s Word is not just something to think about; no, it’s meant to sustain us.  God’s Word – the Truth we proclaim – is something to live by, something to guard us, guide us, keep us, and feed us through the ups and downs of life.

You Are What You Eat

I’ve always said that one of the central points of Christianity is, simply, “you are what you eat”.  It was through eating that which wasn’t ours that humanity first tasted the fruit of disobedience.  It’s through looking back through our journey through the lone and dreary wilderness that we taste and see that the Lord is good, and happy are those who put their trust in Him.  Christ invites us to join him as sons and daughters of God adopted in the waters of baptism and cleansed in his one perfect offering on the cross, but to do that – to share in his risen life, to remain part of his body, to become like him – we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in the sacrament he gave us.  And, we are a people who feed on the truth of the Gospel. 

And this is where those symbolic actions of the prophets are important.  The Word of God was never intended to be knowledge safely stored in a book, learned once in Sunday School or Confirmation Class, or studied in the hallowed halls of seminaries, and then put back on the shelf.  The Word of God was never meant to be displayed – covers closed – on a coffee table or next to your bed.  No, these aren’t just words to live by, they’re words to live on; as the prophets show us, they’re meant to be consumed – one translation even says “devoured” – to give us the energy, the direction, the substance we need to move forward; like the manna in the wilderness, like the gifts from the Lord’s Table, the Word of God is our daily bread. 

Like an athlete fueling up for a race, we’ve been given a banquet of truth and hope and good news to fuel up as we face the road ahead each day.  As we read today in Romans, we’re to rejoice in hope, and be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.  Add that to turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies, and caring for those in need, and that’s quite a tall order, especially if we find ourselves scavenging and scrounging just to find enough hope to get out of bed in the morning, as we have some days lately in our house.

But God never intended for us to scavenge and scrounge within ourselves to drum up some hope or peace.  He’s laid out a banquet; he’s given us our daily bread; he’s invited us to pull up a chair and feast on his Word… but, just like the prophets, God doesn’t force feed us; it’s on us to open up, take it in, enjoy the sweetness, chew on the tough parts, and let that God-given diet of even a few verses of His Word transform us from the inside out, like our daily vitamins and glucosamine pills that transform us, that loosen up our stiff joints as we prepare to run the race ahead.

I ate it… and it turned my stomach sour.

You are what you eat, and we are to inwardly digest and live on the truth of God’s Word.  But there’s one other warning we see in the example of the prophets who took this image all the way and munched on their Bibles.

John chewed on the scriptures, but found very quickly that it turned his stomach sour.

Now, let’s be clear, that’s not a defect in the word of God.  No, no matter how good and nourishing the meal, the are just some things that cannot go together.

It’s happened to all of us – you brush your teeth, so you can present yourself to the world all fresh and minty clean, and then you pour up a refreshing glass of orange juice.  Now it could be the finest, freshly squeezed orange juice in the world, but if you drink it after brushing your teeth… ugh, I cringe just thinking about it.

The same goes for scripture – it’s often hard to swallow when we’ve been trying to freshen ourselves up in the eyes of the world.  But, like lots of good medicine, there’s no benefit if it sits in a bottle on the shelf; sometimes we have to get over the taste and let it work from the inside out.

Someone asked me this week, “how have you managed to keep going in the pandemic?  It seems like you have so much energy, and I just feel like sitting on the couch in my pyjamas.”

“Well,” I said, “don’t be fooled.  “I’ve spent plenty of time on the couch… and have the pandemic gut and chin to show for it”.

But – and I say this with all seriousness, and not just because I’m the priest – when I drag my butt off the couch and come to the church to say morning prayer – yes, a couple times even with pyjamas under my cassock – I find my daily bread.  Every day, without fail, there’ll be a lesson, or a phrase, or maybe just a word I hadn’t noticed before, that gives me energy, that gives me hope to rejoice in, that gives me strength to persevere, that gives me the trust I need to be patient, and to allow God to guard me, guide me, keep me, and feed me.

…and then I come home, and I don’t want to do anything.  Some days I’ll get stuck scrolling Facebook; some days I’ll make the mistake of turning on the news and wind up depressed; some days I’ll stare out the window and wonder why the clock has stopped moving and time is going so slow.  But, sooner or later, the story, the phrase, that word will bubble up from within and encourage me, and suddenly I’m given the hope that I lack, the energy to run the race, and the patience I need to keep myself out of trouble.

Feed your enemy, and offer them something to drink.

God’s Word is our daily bread.  And I want to draw your attention to one more thing we heard this morning.  From Romans (12:20-21): “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

Do you think this is just about a slice of bread or a plate of cookies?

If someone drives us nuts – if someone goes out of their way to embarrass us, or put us down, or make us feel worthless, or is just stubbornly in our way, we’re to have the word of God on our lips, we’re to rejoice in hope and speak the truth in love, even when it’s hard to swallow.  That’s because, even for our worst enemies, our task by the grace of God, is to lead them to the living water that is Jesus Christ, who pardons us, provides for us, and guides us on, all the days of this (crazy) journey set out before us.

My friends – let’s be people who feed on the word of God… just not literally; after all, self-serve food is prohibited.

[1] See James 3:9-10

[2] Matthew 15:1-20

[3] The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent written by Abp. Thomas Cranmer in 1549 and contained in every Book of Common Prayer since.

[4] Ok… not an actual modern-day Bible, but a scroll containing biblical text…

[5] Ezekiel 3

[6] Revelation 10:8-11

[7] In Biblical Studies we would call this a “prophetic sign-act”, a non-verbal dramatic action to visualize the message they brought to the people.