Wednesday, 8 July 2015

To be continued...

If you thought Jurassic World was going to top this summer’s blockbuster movies, you’d better think again. Still to come during July and August we can look forward to Minions, Mr. Holmes, Ant-man, Fantastic Four and even a new Mission: Impossible.
Literally one of the best movie cliffhangers ever...
What’s the one constant that we can pretty much rely on through all of these films (hint - it's not Tom Cruise)?

A sequel.

With stand-alone films limiting studio profits and merchandising rights, we can almost guarantee that most of the top films this summer will end on a cliffhanger - something that whets our appetite for what's to come in the next installment.

The cliffhangers have been coming thick and fast through Esther too, with a particularly good example at the end of chapter 4. Here, the ball is in Esther's court; Mordecai requests that she reveal her identity and plead with the king to reverse his edict to destroy the Jews.  Will she or won’t she?

For Esther, it’s not a decision she takes lightly and she’s well aware of the consequences. Faced with the prospect of her own execution if the plan goes awry, for the first time we get to see Esther depending on the sovereignty of God. In asking Mordecai to call the Jews to prayer and fasting Esther is acknowledging the outcome of this situation is entirely dependent on the will and sovereignty of God.

But notice that doesn’t mean she sits back and does nothing, nor that she adopts a blasé and fatalistic attitude. She prepares by dressing to impress and giving Xerxes the beauty and finery that she knows grabs his attention, and observes the palace protocol by waiting for the king to summon her. Having earned her opportunity to speak to her King, isn’t her request a bit odd? “Come to lunch” she asks, in one of the shrewdest and most streetwise manoeuvres we’ve seen so far in this book. She’s got a huge confession to make and a big favour to ask, and she knew that she had to play this just right.

As we read the Bible there’s a danger of thinking that our actions don’t matter, and that as we’re not saved by works we can pretty much live as we please. Esther teaches us that’s not the case. Yes, God is sovereign, but God works sovereignly through the actions of people – through you, and through me. James picks up on this in the New Testament too. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are complementary, not contradictory.

Esther trusts herself to God’s sovereignty but takes responsibility for her own actions. We pray and fast to seek God’s will, but there comes a time when we need to act. That’s not to say we steam in like bulls in china shops - prayer is preparation before action.

There are times when as Christians it seems like we're at the mercy of the proud and powerful, just like the Jews seemed to be at the mercy of Haman. Ask those who face it all the time – you won’t have to search far to find out how that’s being played out around the world, and here in the UK.

It was the same for Jesus. It appeared that he was at the mercy of the powerful and influential, but Acts 2:22-23 shows us that he was handed over with God's planning and foreknowledge. Through the evil actions of proud men God's sovereignty was at work to fulfil his plan to deal with the curse of sin. When Jesus died it looked like a hopeless and devastating defeat at the hands of his enemies, when in fact it was part of God’s plan to deal with our rebellion once and for all.

At the end of chapter 5 we’re left with another cliffhanger. The stage is set, and Haman’s pride looks set to exact revenge on Mordecai and the Jews.

To be continued…

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Where's your line in the sand?

In Esther 3 we see some real trouble starting to brew for the Jews, and it all came about because of Mordecai's decision not to bow to Haman.

Why did he make this decision?  It wasn't anything to do with God's explicit command not to bow down to false Gods - what was being asked for was a public show of respect to Haman, not worship.

Mordecai wasn't just being a stubborn rebel against the state either - he's already shown his actions as a good citizen (in line with God's instructions to his exiled people) in chapter 2 when he intervenes to stop a royal assassination.

What seems to be behind Mordecai's refusal to bow is the fact that Haman is an Amalekite.  The Amalekite's had a longstanding opposition to God and his people the Israelites.  Haman was drawing a line in the sand and saying: 'I will be a good citizen as far as possible, but as God's man there are things that I will not do'.

We find ourselves living with the same tension.  We are to be good citizens and pray for our leaders (have you prayed for our new government yet?).  But at the same time as God's people we are going to encounter issues over which we have to take a stand. Take a look in any decent paper and you'll find examples of Christians facing difficulties and persecution - in the UK as well as oversees - for taking tough decisions in line with their faith.

We're not to be overly confrontational, or set out to be offensive or abrasive, but we are going to have to sometimes say: 'I, as a Christian, cannot and will not do this.  This is my line in the sand'.

The consequences for Mordecai were nearly catastrophic.  In a world that doesn't recognise God the consequences of our stands may cause us real problems.  Will we act in faith and trust to God for the future?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The morning after the night before

Last year 175,000 people visited the Glastonbury festival to enjoy an excellent line-up of acts from across the world spread across 100 stages, along with circus performers, comedians and other entertainers. It was a heck of a party. Now I wasn’t there, choosing instead to dip in to the TV coverage, and I accept that means I get a sanitised version of events. I didn’t get to see the state the farm was left in afterwards, which required a clean-up operation of nearly six weeks costing almost £1 million. That’s a lot of mess for just three days of partying.

In the second chapter of Esther King Xerxes wakes from a much bigger party with an even bigger headache. During a lavish and extended banquet to win the favour of his military leaders, he has managed to turn a drunken squabble with his wife into a national crisis by effectively banishing the queen; this PR crisis is a public embarrassment and amounts to a royal mess of epic proportions. Now  in chapter two he's sobered up and realised that in the aftermath of that terrible decision he’s got a clean-up operation of his own to carry out, and the same trusted advisors who encouraged him to alienate his wife come up with the perfect solution…a nationwide search for a new wife.
It’s into this aftermath that we’re introduced to Mordecai and Esther, who play their part in the bigger picture of this book: God leading his people into rest. If we left it there, you might be tempted to think that they did this by some superhuman feat, or perhaps, as this is an account we find in the Bible there might be a miracle or two involved. However, Esther is a story of how God works through ordinary people like you and me.

We have Mordecai, a Jew living in exile and caring for his orphaned cousin. He’s trying to be a good Jew living in a non-Jewish society. Even Esther herself, who appears to be the total package (brains and beauty) is part of a subjugated people living in a strange land. This takes us back to our studies in Ephesians, doesn’t it? God’s people are called to be set apart and live differently even now, while still engaging in the culture they live in.

Mordecai and Esther are ordinary people, doing what they need to survive, and in chapter two we see some strange decisions we perhaps don’t agree with. Mordecai doesn’t put up a fight to stop Esther being part of what was a pretty grubby state of affairs as a member of Xerxes’ harem; in fact he tells her to hide her identity. As for Esther, she doesn’t shy away from the process and plays to win. Yet when Mordecai overhears a plot to oust the king, he’s in the right place at the right time – and Esther’s speedy rise to royalty no longer seems like a simple ‘rags to riches’ tale of a very lucky girl with a pretty face. Esther is in the perfect position to protect her king and save her people.  

This book isn’t a parenting manual, or a guide for teenage girls on how to live for God. However, what it does show is how God works behind the scenes, not always with great drama, but in small ways, through ordinary people and their messy lives – our messy lives - for his glory and our good.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The epitome of control?

Hollywood taught me that King Xerxes, the Persian ruler who features so strongly in the story of Esther, was an eight-foot tall megalomaniac with an enormous all-conquering army who wore far too much jewellery to be practicable. It turns out that was only half true…

Accepting then, that my preconceptions of Xerxes were wrong, what do we know about him from the opening chapter of Esther?

He’s wealthy, famous, successful, and has a beautiful wife. He’d assembled the greatest army in the history of Persia, and plotted to secure their backing to commit to his war by wining and dining their leaders for six months, blinding them with bravado and the trappings of wealth and royalty, and blinding them with the beauty of his wife.  

This is one shrewd operator, and he’s in control. Or is he?

Ultimately, Xerxes controlled everyone around him, but he couldn’t control himself. After too much wine he gets flummoxed by his wife, who wasn’t happy to be ogled by his assembled guests, can’t make a decision for himself and accepts some strange advice that ultimately banishes her from the kingdom. Would he have acted so rashly if sober? Would he have been more in control?

Xerxes was proud and boastful, and here he's held up as a comparison to the real King. We’re deliberately shown the wow-factor of a flawed leader – Xerxes - in order to show the power of the almighty God and King.

Paul tells us that we have the Old Testament for our encouragement, endurance and hope, and ultimately to point us to Jesus – God’s anointed King, who is so majestic, and whose wow-factor is so great, that John can barely find words to describe him. Yes, Xerxes had awesome wealth which paid for a banquet lasting 180 days, but Paul tells us that pales into insignificance compared to Jesus’ riches in mercy and grace, wisdom and glory.
So for all of Xerxes’ displays of power he was a weak human just like us.  He thought he was in control, but he made mistakes and lived with the consequences in the same way we do.

Ultimately our efforts to take control of ourselves and our lives fail because of the self-destruct button we call ‘sin’. But God's blueprint is for us to live under his control and blessing. He knows that we get things wrong and reject him, but through Jesus he offers us true rest from our enemies of sin and Satan; he offers us forgiveness, and gives us the Holy Spirit to help us live a more controlled life.

So that’s our first impression of King Xerxes, but if we’re making comparisons, what’s your first impression of Jesus? He didn’t have the traditional trappings of a king but he had complete control over his life and death.

Remember the purpose of the author; this book is about how a covenant-keeping King brings rest to his people. Jesus is the king who will never lose control and he’s offering you rest today.


Monday, 27 April 2015

*That*, Detective, is the right question...

In the 2004 film I, Robot, Will Smith’s character Del Spooner becomes increasingly frustrated at the inability of robot Sonny to answer his questions. As he seeks to uncover the truth behind the apparent murder of a scientist, Sonny can simply reply “I’m sorry, my responses are limited. You must ask the right questions”.

We find ourselves in a similar predicament as we start to study the book of Esther. At first glance, it doesn’t appear to answer some of our most burning questions. We might like to know why God isn’t mentioned either by name, or as a noun. Alternatively we might seek greater insight into the motivations of the main characters. We might wonder why no-one prays, why there are no miracles, or why there’s nothing intrinsically Jewish about this book.
As we study, we need to ask the right questions.
Here are a few points to remember that should help to keep us on track as we work through the book together (both in our Sunday morning meetings and here on this blog):

·       The main purpose of the writer is to explain the origins of, and continue the celebration of the festival of Purim among the Jews (ch 9:28), which marked the start of a period of peace and is still celebrated today. Everything we find recorded here is to serve that purpose.

·       This book is a narrative recording real historical people in the context of a real culture and time period. At this point in history the Jews had been removed from Israel and taken into captivity in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. Although many had now taken advantage of the opportunity to return to their own land offered by the Persian King Cyrus after he conquered Babylon, some still remained.

·       We’re looking at a very active period in history – Pericles, Sophocles, Confucius, Socrates and Pythagoras were among the more prominent thinkers of the age.

·         It’s not a biography of Esther or Mordecai. Nor is it a detailed history of Persian culture. We only find out enough about the people and the place to demonstrate how they helped to shape the origins of the festival.

·       Our ‘why?’ questions were not the concern of the author. That can be really annoying. Remember that this  is a Hebrew narrative, where character is often revealed by what people do and say - we can try and work out their motives from that, but they are not explicitly stated here.
Paul instructed the Church in Rome that what was written and recorded  was to teach us, build our endurance, encourage us and give us hope in Christ, so we’re looking forward to learning how to ask the right questions and grow together as we study Esther.
Don’t forget you can find a short summary of Esther here

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

You should have seen the one that got away...

It was 2am on Saturday morning, and I sat huddled under a giant umbrella on Dungeness beach. I’d been awake for 20 hours, the flask of coffee was empty, and I was freezing. Still, I watched the tip of my fishing rod in anticipation of that tell-tale sign that I’d caught something. It didn’t come.
It was a pretty awful trip, and that might be how some of Jesus’ disciples felt early on in the account we read of their fishing in John 21:1-14.

They’d travelled to Galilee in the hope of once again seeing Jesus, who’d conquered sin and death, and had risen from the grave. It wasn’t a whim – Jesus told they would see him again in Galilee, but they didn’t know exactly when or where. It was probably a tough four-day journey for them and they had no idea what to do when they got there, but they travelled full of hope and expectation. Well, most of them did…
Seven disciples had made the trip, but four didn’t. We don’t know why, but at some point they’d chosen to do something else instead. What happened to their excitement to meet again with Jesus? What was more important?  Would I have been with the seven who after a disappointing night had breakfast prepared for them by their Lord, or the four that missed out? 

The Bible tells us that we're waiting to meet the risen Jesus too, just like the disciples were. Is the excitement in our hearts like it was theirs? When Jesus returns will he find me waiting expectantly, or so wrapped up in other things that I’ve forgotten he’s coming back?
That’s not meant to be critical of the disciples’ decision to go fishing – they had to eat and make a living. However, on that night, they caught nothing. Perhaps they started to reminisce. After all, it wasn’t the first time they’d been on unsuccessful fishing trips.

On that last occasion, Jesus joined them and they caught more than their nets could cope with. They must have been overwhelmed with joy when it happened again here. In fact, we can see what it meant to Simon Peter, who, when the penny finally dropped that it was Jesus instructing them to fish on the other side of the boat, leapt into the lake and swam to shore to meet him.
As the others arrive the scene is set for breakfast and they ate together.  Jesus cooks them breakfast. He provided for their eternal futures through his life, death and resurrection, and now provides their morning meal.
Jesus was exalted to the highest place, but didn’t become distant and unapproachable. He came to meet his disciples, dispel their doubts, and was with them through the day-to-day ordinariness of breakfast so that they could be sure that he was with them. He does that for us too.

So it wasn’t such a blow-out of a fishing trip after all (for the disciples that is, mine was still rubbish). They met Jesus, and it was worth every bit of the effort it took to get there. That’s an opportunity that’s extended to us too – make sure you don’t miss out.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

New study Series - Esther

In April 2015 we'll be starting a new Sunday morning Bible study series of the book of Esther.

Each week we'll be blogging a summary of what we've been learning here, but to give you a head start, check out this short video.

Don't forget to follow us on Facebook or Twitter for the latest updates!