“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
“Therefore I tell you, not to worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life. And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for these things and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Matthew 6: 24-34
I really wrestled with this during the week, mainly because I had to get to the point where I could hear this graciously. Where I started out hearing it was in a condemning way, bringing up all the shortcomings in the places where I was trusting God, and I found myself placing a heavier and heavier burden on my shoulder. I began to feel like Martin Luther before the reformation when he was struggling with an image of God who placed heavy burdens on people’s shoulders that they couldn’t lift and then condemned them for it. I also had to reach my breakthrough moment when I could realize that God’s grace was there all along, but I didn’t start out there.
When I listened to this the first time I found myself struggling against it, my muscles got tighter as I read it, I found myself becoming a little anxious, and I honestly found myself angry at these words. I know Martin Luther said we are to “fear, love and trust God above all things.” And on one level I know I desperately have tried to live my live where I do trust God above all things, but I have to be honest—this passage is both terrifying and comforting at the same time because I find myself caught between two worlds. I live with one foot in this world and one foot in the kingdom of God. In this harsh way of hearing this I acknowledge that I live in a world where roughly 20% of my income goes to taxes, 25% goes to housing, 15% goes to other debts, 10 % goes to the church, another 10% goes to things like phone, cable, insurance and so on a good month I have 20% to spend on gas, groceries, the pants for my son who seems to continually be outgrowing everything I buy him and if there is anything left, maybe something I wanted to buy, and while there may be (and have already been) things that I’ve cut the reality is that as much as I don’t like it I am dependent on receiving a paycheck twice a month. I may not like it but if that paycheck didn’t come in, it would change a lot of things in my life very quickly. I also have to be honest that I have always been on the more meticulous side of how I dressed, and even though I don’t spend very much money on clothes each year for I try to make myself look as good as I can because I legitimately like to look and dress well. Maybe it is the time I spent in the Army and the family I grew up in, but I am still one of these people who tries to make sure my shirts are pressed and my shoes are polished, and that as much as I can, that I look good. And for whatever reason I was coming up against this text and I was hearing, “Don’t worry about how you dress” and “Don’t worry about where your next meal is going to come from” and I wanted to say back to God, “God how much more do you want?” I mean God when you called me to give up a really good paycheck as an officer in the army, doing something I enjoyed to go to for four years in seminary where I wasn’t going to have much of an income, or when I accepted first call well below the guideline for compensation for a pastor and then when I was going through the difficulties with my last call and divorce, giving up that position (even though it was killing me) and trusting that somehow it would work. I began thinking “What more do you want me to give up?” and yet that wasn’t what Jesus was trying to say to me, I was loading that upon my own shoulders. Yet, I think it is very natural for us to slip back into this image of a God who is a harsh taskmaster, who continues to demand more and more out of us, and I think this text can very easily be heard in this way and sometimes English doesn’t help because something as simple as the translation saying “you of little faith” which is hard to hear any way other than condescending, or as in some translations, like the NLT “why do you have so little faith”, but what is there is my little faith ones. It is a different tone, even though the words are the same. It may be nitpicking, but how you hear and read something matters, if you hear Jesus coming off harsh and condemning it affects the way you receive this, so much of communication is more than just words, even on paper we assign emotion to words. Yet the entire section is set within the words of “don’t worry” and when I hear this it is Jesus coming to us and saying in a comforting was, “God takes care of the sparrows and you’re more important than they are, and the wildflowers which only last a season, God cares more about you than them.”
Jesus is speaking primarily to people who are not very wealthy. Most of the people hearing this will go back to their fields, or fishnets, or households. They will plant their crops, drop their nets, bake the bread for their families, and Jesus is not telling them, at least not most of them, to abandon their fields and farms, to give up their boats and fishnets, to turn away from their families. There may be other points where people like Peter and James and John walk away from their boats, and Matthew away from his job as a tax collector, but most people will hear him, and they like his disciples will be little faith ones in the midst of the world. I think the point in the midst of this “who are you?” Ultimately we are God’s little faith ones, we are people marked with the sign of the cross and sealed with the Holy Spirit in our baptism, we are precious to God, more precious than sparrows or flowers, we are people who God has placed value on, and God will watch over us. Yet in the midst of our lives things change. I’m forty, and so I can still do many of the things I did when I was twenty, I just pay for them more. And I know there are things that if I make it to eighty, that I will not be able to do that I do now. Or maybe you lose a job, or a house burns down, or a thief breaks in and steals something precious, or you go through a divorce, or you lose a parent or a child, or something else happens in your life and it feels like it changes everything. And we invest a lot of our lives in our jobs and our relationships, but if the job goes away are you anything else? When things around us change, can we realize that who we are is ultimately children of God, people who are precious to God, more valuable than sparrows and flowers and that God will take care of us? In the times of feast and the times of famine God walks with me. I’ve been through both the experience of losing a job and losing a divorce, and in that time you don’t have to say, “this is where I’ll be six months from now.” No where you are is in that moment. We live in a society where anxiety and depression are rampant, and there is no magic wand that makes it all better, but sometimes we find ourselves living so much in the fears of the futures that may come that we lose the joy of the moment that we are living in. Or you get plugged into the 24 hour new cycle and you let it depress you, because even though the news will not tell you this, there is a lot that is right in the world. We can and will go through a lot of changes throughout our life, but in God’s eyes who we are hasn’t changed. God may not be calling us to seek these things out, but when they happen we can realize that who we are in God’s eyes has not changed. God never promises to make it easy, just possible, and we will have what we need to eat, or drink, or wear…not always what we want, but what we need.
I know when I was going through seminary, and I am a proud person, and I had to use WIC or the food pantry I didn’t like it, I didn’t like that I needed help even when it was available-I didn’t want to feel like I was somehow a drain on the system. And when I look back on that time, it was a time in my life when I had the least, but I was the happiest because I was surrounded by a community of people who were my friends who were sharing the same experience and we were all learning to trust God together.
And Jesus throughout the scriptures cautions people about money, and we hear today that you cannot serve God and money, and one of the things money can do to us is that it affects our relationships. There have been numerous stories, for example, about lottery winners whose lives were ruined because their relationships became defined by their new found wealth. Everybody wanted them to buy something for them, or lend them $5,000 or $10,000. And I know a lot of people yearn for this type of fame, but I couldn’t imagine being someone like Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift where everything you do is watched, and you can’t go to the grocery store without someone taking pictures or wanting an autograph. I couldn’t imagine being the president where you need a large security detail everywhere you go to separate you from everyone else. Yet in the midst of all the distractions it can be so easy to forget who we are, that we are precious, that God has claimed us and named us in the waters of baptism and that we are precious in his sight. Even when everything else around us changes, that does not.
Throughout this time of lent we have been talking about things that have to do with trust. Giving relies on trusting that there will be enough, prayer allows us to grow into the relationship with the loving God who wants us to come to him as loving and trusting children and it is in that communication with God that we build trust. Forgiving involves trusting, because it opens you up to the possibility that you may be hurt again in the relationship, but there is no way to continue a relationship without forgiveness, and as we forgive others we begin to understand God’s forgiveness. I talked about fasting last week, and that involves a deep level of trust, for I struggle against my most basic urge, to eat, so that I may learn that I am more than just a consumer. And we walk along this journey and God continues to shape and mold us to be people who can live in trust. I wrestle with this just like everyone else, I also have to hear for myself that I am precious and loved, I have to get beyond my own tendency to judge myself as unworthy and hear once again that I don’t need to worry, for God has called me God’s own.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret and your Fahter who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6: 16-18
Fasting is one of those practices that during my lifetime has not been very heavily practiced by most Christians I know, but it is beginning to make a comeback, especially among young spiritual seekers who are seeking real and gritty spiritual practices of how they might draw closer to God. You see, we do a lot in this church in most churches to make it very easy for people to come in, to be a part of what is going on. We try to make the music appealing and the experience enjoyable and the seats comfortable and the temperature correct for the bulk of people, but sometimes to go deeper we need to be taken out of our comfort zone. We may wonder if there is something more to this relationship with God, and the answer is yes indeed there is and so I’m going to talk about fasting tonight and I don’t believe you can talk about fasting without actually using fasting as a spiritual discipline and so yes I do fasted, and have over this Lenten period, and I share this not to say, “Hey, look at me and the great and holy things I am doing.” Because it is something that I struggle with, because I know the way I should be living, but often I fall into the very temptations that Jesus turned away from. Yet I don’t like being hungry, of being forced to slow down. I know I too often buy into the societies message that we shouldn’t do without anything and that depriving myself of something is not only unhealthy, it is un-American. “If you are a child of God you shouldn’t be hungry, make bread and eat.” Fasting for me is an act of confession that sometimes I have so much that I no longer value what I have, that the food begins to lose its taste or appeal, that no matter what I have that it is never enough. Now I’m a good cook, a very good cook even and if you have eaten at my table or tasted something I’ve made most people would agree with that, yet even after I’ve made a good meal for my son and I, and even right after I have eaten I can see an ad for Red Lobster, or Buffalo Wild Wings, or Olive Garden, or Applebee’s, or any number of other restaurants and I can be hungry not for what I just ate but what is being paraded before my screen that I should want. Fasting is a confession that the food I eat sometimes looses its taste because I’m already full and I’m eating because the food is in front of me and so I eat. It is a confession that even though my spirit know s it is not true that I have bought into the illusion with my heart that having more is the way to happiness and by accepting less I am placing my practices and times and treasures where I hope my heart will someday follow. I confess that often I begin to believe that I am entitled to all the good things that are out there and that I no longer appreciate the things that are there. I fast as part of a confession that while I may know that I cannot serve God and money more often than not I am damn willing to give it a try. I know that I may not be worth mentioning in the same breath as Jesus and Paul, David and Moses, Elijah and Elisha, Daniel and Esther but they all fasted in the midst of their relationship with God and maybe just maybe they knew something. I know that in the Bible fasting is assumed, and it is not a coincidence that Jesus says “when you fast” rather than “if”. That there is something about the act of fasting as a spiritual practice that places us in a place where we might be able to draw close to God.
I’m going to invite you to consider something foolish with me, something I attempt to practice, which is in its own way an act of rebellion against the way things are. And so perhaps the place to begin is a confession: I have fasted, not every day, but typically one day out of the week throughout lent-this is not the first, nor will it be the last time I have fasted, and rather than taking away from life it frees me for life. Now we live in a world with two competing realities: one is to fit in to the perfect image, and particularly for young women but increasingly for men as well, to try to fit into the image of the models in magazines and actresses on the big screen-I am not advocating fasting as a method to achieve a thinner body to achieve some ideal that most of us were never meant to obtain. But the draw of that image is powerful and real, and even I struggle against it. But there is another reality that I think tries to consume each of us, and that is the reality that calls us to consume. We are consumers and the only thing that makes us happy is consuming, or so we are told.
I refuse to be a consumer, for that to be the primary measure of who I am. I refuse to be a slave to my belly. I empty myself trusting that God might fill me, for as Mother Teresa said, “God cannot fill that which is already full.” In trying to follow Jesus, I humbly try to take some of the same paths he did, being willing to be guided by God into the wilderness to struggle against my own bodies desire to eat, not because eating or feasting is bad, but because there are times to feast and times to fast, and knowing the difference makes the feasting sweeter. I do it to enjoy life, not to deny life. I do it because it forces me to slow down for a day, to rest more and push less hard, it forces me into greater times of pause as I wait on God and listen. It reminds me of the injustices that are out there in the world and those who go to bed this night hungry, not because they choose to but because they have nothing while others have far too much. In my hunger I am reminded that blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled (Matthew 5.6) or even more haunting in Luke’s gospel in the 6th chapter blessed are those who are hungry now for they will be filled…but woe to those who are full now for they will be hungry.
Now this is a discipline that I take and use, it is not for everyone. I don’t fast if I’m sick or if I feel like I am struggling with my emotions. But like recovering after being sick and you realize how well you feel, eating after fasting allows you to savor that which is there. I long to draw closer to God, not to be taken away from the world-but so that I too might learn like God to love the world in its struggles and illusions. One of the things I have realized is that God may call us away from the practices of the world so that we may be transformed to go back and point to the things that are good. To allow our eyes and ears to be opened to the places where the kingdom of God has indeed broken it.
It is only fair to acknowledge Bishop Michael Rinehart’s post on Why Fast? which made writing this sermon both easier and more challenging. Easier because he said many things I would want to say and said them very well, but more challenging because it was harder to find my own approach to this after he said it so well.
Years ago, when I was going through Airborne School at Ft. Benning, GA, I remember one of the black hats there that would continually shout at us, “This ain’t Burger King, Airborne, you can’t have it your way.” When Jesus came down to dwell among us, the world changed- the Word became flesh and lived among us. The very force that gives creation its shape and form took on our form and was born of Mary and Joseph, two ordinary people with a big problem in the lower story became the parents of God’s Son, the bearers of the Word. And God come down and the very people who should have been able to see and recognize him, did not and there was no room for the Son of God.
Now we see Jesus beginning his ministry, God has come down, dwells with us. The hopes expressed by Isaiah have come to light:
Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down! How the mountains would quake in your presence! 2 As fire causes wood to burn and water to boil, your coming would make the nations tremble. Then your enemies would learn the reason for your fame! 3 When you came down long ago, you did awesome deeds beyond our highest expectations. And oh, how the mountains quaked! 4 For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!(Isaiah 64: 1-4)
The people have longed for the barriers that separated God from them to be taken down, for God to be present and active. It is so easy to look out at the world and see all that is wrong, and to want God to come and fix it and the good news, the gospel is that God does…but not on our terms. God was not going to act like in the stories of the Exodus with the same type of mighty works. The mountains were not going to tremble, forests were not going to spontaneously combust and the nations around them were not trembling in their boots. Many seemed to hope that God coming down would mean that the nations around Israel would become their captives and they would come and bring their wealth and serve them, but the God we encounter in Jesus is much different.
Mark’s gospel echoes the language of Isaiah’s bursting from the heavens when Mark discusses the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:
9 One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” (Mark 1: 9-11)
The heavens, that place where God dwells which seems so distant now are split apart, ripped open and God is on the loose in the world. No longer content to stay in a temple or up in heaven, God has come down and everything has changed. We see in Jesus the goal of our own lives, where we are also dearly loved ones who bring God great joy, people in whom God’s Spirit wants to descend upon, people’s whose very identities are made and claimed in the waters of baptism, for it is there that our lives are joined to Christ’s life and we are his brothers and sisters, and yet, this ain’t Burger King, Airborne, you don’t get to have it your way, your isn’t your own. And God will not be God in the way that we think God should be God.
You see we tend to think that being set apart should make us special, and on the one hand it does, but we follow a God who came to serve and not to be served. We are set apart for the sake of others and not for our own sake. We were never set aside to place ourselves higher than others, but that we might serve. Paul talks about sharing the mind of Christ in this way:
5 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, 8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 5-8)
Jesus’ ministry begins, but it is about service not being served. It will involve hardship and suffering. Jesus’ identity and our identity do not preserve us from suffering or guarantee us an easy life. Jesus’ is not Superman, he is not going to fight the battle on those terms-unable to feel pain, unable to suffer and able to shoot laser beams out of his eyes and pulverize his enemies with fists of steel, instead he will enter into the weakness of the world in the confidence of who he is.
All the gospels go directly from the baptism to the temptation, they went together in Jesus life and the go together in ours as well. Mark continues:
12 The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, 13 where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him. (Mark 1: 12-13)
Martin Luther talks about in his Large Catechism that baptism is not to be taken lightly lest we hang a life-long enemy around the neck of a child, for in declaring a child for God it is also declaring the child against the devil and the ways of the world. Just because we are baptized does not save us from temptation, instead it might lead us directly into it.
Luke expands Mark’s brief temptation narrative like this:
Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Jesus ate nothing all that time and became very hungry.
3 Then the devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4 But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone.'”
5 Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. 7 I will give it all to you if you will worship me.”
8 Jesus replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the LORD your God and serve only him.'”
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! 10 For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect and guard you. 11 And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.'”
12 Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the LORD your God.'”
13 When the devil had finished tempting Jesus, he left him until the next opportunity came. (Luke 4: 1-13)
The temptations come from the temptation to be the son of God in the world’s terms, to be the Messiah everyone else thinks he should be. The son of God shouldn’t be hungry, the son of God should wield power and rule over the nations as a king, the son of God should be invincible and strong and be impervious to danger, shielded by the angels from any harm. If you are really God’s son feed yourself and everyone else along with it , if you really are about God’s kingdom then rule in God’s place, put Caesar and the kings of this earth under your feet, show people how powerful you are and they will follow you. And yet Jesus will not be the Son of God on Satan or our terms, and if we follow him we too may find ourselves walking into some of the same temptations that he faced and be confronted in our own weakness. Yet in our weakness we are not alone, nor are we abandoned, we are beloved by God. Beloved so much that God came down, ripped open the heavens to be on the loose in our world to be among us, to claim us and name us and in the waters of baptism to join us to Christ.
Pastor Erik has mentioned several times in the time I have been here that we need to remember that there is a God and it isn’t us. We don’t get to have it our way, we don’t get to cast God in our own image, when God acts in a way that is different than the way we would choose we don’t get to go out and choose a new god that better suits our liking. And yet the same tempter whispers in our ears: ‘if you are a child of God, you shouldn’t have to struggle’ ‘if you were really the child of God, you would be powerful, or rich, or famous’’or if you are really a child of God you would be a superhero’
Christ’s journey led him from his identity in baptism, into temptation and then to proclamation-pointing to the ways in which God was already on the loose in the world. That God’s kingdom was at hand and calling people to turn their ways back to God. As we continue in our journey may we also come to the point where we can see and say:
14 Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. 15 “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1: 14-15)
I listen to a lot of different types of music, and each type of music has its own set of emotions that they play to. For example, one of the emotions that rock and metal wrestle with is despair and depression, , rap tends to play towards defiance, popular music towards desire, and country, one of its many emotions is regret. It isn’t hard to come up with song after song in country that deals with regret, in fact there is a long standing joke about what happens when you play a country song backwards, that you get your wife back, your family back, your home back, etc…and often the regret is due to putting efforts into the wrong things, for a brief sampling this is one of George Strait’s older songs King of the Mountain:
I gave her that diamond she dreamed of
And I bought her a home with a view
I took her to the end of the rainbow
But all I left her was blue
Seems I never had time to love her
And now it seems time just stands still
I thought I was king of the mountain
But I was only a fool on a hill
Now I start out this way because one of the reasons we struggle with prayer is we tend to treat God like the fool in the song, if our prayers are mainly asking for things we are setting ourselves up for a relationship of regret. Sometimes I think we treat God in our prayers like Santa Claus, and Santa Claus is great for a lot of things: Dear Santa for Christmas I would like: a new computer, a PS4, Gift Cards to my favorite restaurants and shops so I can get something for me, these books, these CDs, these movies, an even bigger flatscreen TV…OK you get the picture, but let me let you in on a little secret, we don’t love Santa. Oh he’s cool, but we don’t love him and we’re never satisfied with what he brings, there’s no real relationship there-he grants my wishes and as soon as I am done opening gifts I may find myself thinking “what’s next?” George Schwanenburg was the pastor of the church I grew up in, and he used to call the prayers that many people would say, “Gimme” prayers, and by extension the people who prayed them were “Gimme pigs.” God gimme this, God gimme that-and while there is nothing wrong with asking God for what we want and need, prayer is much more than that. Other times the only prayers people send up are the “Help” prayers. God, OK I’ve really made a mess of this and if you bail me out now, well….”
So what is this prayer thing all about, and how does it really help be draw closer to God? How does it help me love God? You see God doesn’t seek a relationship with us that is just based on giving and receiving, but on being present and spending time listening. In the midst of a noisy and busy world, prayer is the time we set aside to listen. There is a story told of Mother Teresa, who would spend hours in prayer each day, when she was interviewed once by a reporter, who asked her, “What do you say to God in all the time you spend in prayer?” and she replied, “Mostly I just listen.” Perplexed the journalist went on to ask her, “So what does God say in all that time” to which she replied, “Mostly God just listens too.”
I love the image from Psalm 141, which I would sing several times a week in seminary:
let my prayers rise up as incense before you, the lifting up of my hands as an offering to you.
It is my offering from my busyness back to God some of my time to be there and listen. It’s not about me, certainly I benefit from the time probably far more than God does, but it is one of the gifts I try to give to the relationship. It’s not that we have to worry too much as Lutherans of people being impressed or dazzled by our prayers, but ultimately it is not about us. And yet I do have to admit I am often skeptical of overtly public forms of prayer that call more attention to the individual than God, particularly with athletes it is pretty easy to wonder are they doing this to call attention to themselves or God. Prayer doesn’t have to be poetic or artistic or beautiful, and yet I sometimes thing we place that expectations on ourselves. For example when I ask in a group for someone to pray, often the response I get is everyone looking down at their toes, thinking, “if I just don’t make eye contact he won’t pick me.”Or the often unspoken feeling that somehow Erik and I are somehow closer to God and God pays more attention to our prayers than the prayers of anyone else.
Maybe from the Lord’s prayer we can learn something of what prayer is all about, and we begin with the relationship, Our Father…to which Luther states, God wants us to come to him boldly and in complete confidence as loving children come to a loving father. Prayer and all communication takes place in the context of a relationship and God desires to have that close relationship with us. The prayer begins and ends with the desire that God may be praised and honored, and the prayer is offered in a sense of gratitude. One of my practices I have begun is the practice of writing thank you notes, now there are many reasons for me not to write a thank you note: I have horrible penmanship, there will always be things trying to fill my time and well they may even be important things, but I’ve learned that learning to say thank you is important to both my own well being (it puts me in a far better emotional state) and to the valuation of the relationship.
We pray for God’s kingdom to come, and as Luther says, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” It is taking the time to ask God, what are your hopes and dreams for the world, what do you desire of me, what do you love? It goes back to learning more and more about the beloved and we ask that God’s will may be done on earth, which is a dangerous prayer for we may find ourselves being drawn into doing God’s will as we are drawn closer to God. Yes, we do ask for what we need, we do ask for forgiveness and we desire to become more like God an become forgiving people
There is no one right way to pray, nor is there one right way to be in love-but it takes time to get to know the beloved and no amount of presents can make up for absence. Without setting aside the time to talk and listen with God we may look back on regret on the relationship we longed for being reduced to wish lists and panic moments when it can be so much more.
This is the written text, I kept hoping I would have time to bring in some of the spoken dialogue last week, and when I get the chance I will upload an audio version and attach it. Unfortunately the written text is not near as entertaining as what was spoken.
Martin Luther didn’t like the book of Esther, he wished it hadn’t been included in the Bible, which I find perplexing because even though the book of Esther never mentions God, or any specifically religious practice (even fasting when it is mentioned is a common practice across cultures of the ancient world) and yet for Luther it is the times where God seems most absent that God can indeed be most present. Now last week we heard about the remnant who returned home to Jerusalem, and even though they were a small people in a tiny province of the Persian empire, God desired to work through them and their gifts. God desired for them to build a temple and through the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people to get on with that work and the people and leader listened and responded and through their work God was glorified. But if you remember last week only a small portion of the faithful people returned, and the rest remained behind, scattered throughout the nations. And yet even scattered among the nations, they found that God was active and working through them. This is one of the stories of how God worked through unexpected people to sway the events of the nations to ensure that God’s story and the story of God’s people would continue.
We all know life isn’t fair, we all know that sometimes we get put into situations we never asked for or we have to pick up the responsibility while others seem to be still going out and living it up, but hopefully the fate of an entire people never rests on our shoulders, especially when we are young-but that is what happens to Esther. Her story starts out simply enough, she is a young woman, an orphan and a foreigner living in a foreign land-thankfully she has her uncle to care for her like his own child, but she starts out life with three strikes against her of being someone who God can use to change the world. She has but one thing going in her favor, she’s easy on the eyes, but just because she’s hit the jackpot in the genetic lottery for looks doesn’t mean she has any chance to really change things and yet the world around her spins out of control and puts her into a position she never dreamed she would be in. You see the queen refused to come and appear before the king one day during a party while the king was drunk and all his friends were drunk too, so the king and his officials throw the ancient world’s equivalent of the Bachelor, except none of these women have a choice to participate, they are brought together, trained and then they get their one night to make the king happy, and then from this he’s going to choose a new queen. Esther excels, pleasing first those preparing and training her and then the king, and so she goes from little orphan Esther to Queen Esther.
Now her uncle happened to overhear a plot to assassinate the king, and passes it on to Esther who passes it on to the king, and once it is investigated the plot is foiled and nothing more is thought of it, but it will be important to the story later.
Now the king’s new number two man was a guy named Haman, and Haman is a bad dude who thought everyone should bow down before him, and apparently everyone did-everyone except Mordecai-why? We don’t really know, and I can’t go back and ask him, but Mordecai decides to take out his rage not just on Mordecai, not just on his family, but on the whole Jewish people and so Haman goes to the king and offers him a huge sum of money to wipe out this people who don’t abide by the same laws and are a danger to the kingdom, and the king gives him his signet ring and the plan and date are set in motion so that on one day at the end of February or the beginning of March of the coming year anyone who wants to can kill any Jewish person and take over any wealth and property that it theirs. Mordecai and the Jews throughout the empire and the city of Susa itself are thrown into turmoil by the proclamation, but Esther, apparently shielded in the palace is unaware. Mordecai mourns publicly, he rips his clothes, puts on ashes and sackcloth and sits outside the king’s gate. Esther sends a messenger with new clothes but he won’t put them on and sends her a copy of the decree and charges her to do something to save their people. The fate of the people rests on the small shoulders of this young woman who was thrust into being the queen, to go and risk her life and intercede before the king.
Esther 4: 9-16
9 So Hathach returned to Esther with Mordecai’s message.
10 Then Esther told Hathach to go back and relay this message to Mordecai:
11 “All the king’s officials and even the people in the provinces know that anyone who appears before the king in his inner court without being invited is doomed to die unless the king holds out his gold scepter. And the king has not called for me to come to him for thirty days.”
12 So Hathach gave Esther’s message to Mordecai.
13 Mordecai sent this reply to Esther: “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed.
14 If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”
15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai:
16 “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I must die.”
After three days of fasting, and of the people fasting she risk the possibility of death by breaking the law and going to the king when she hasn’t been summoned, but the king is happy to see her, extends his scepter and asks her, “what is it Esther, name your appeal even up to half of the empire and it’s yours” and so she invites the king and Haman to dinner. Once again at dinner the king asks her for her appeal and once again she say, “if you will hear my request come once again to dinner tomorrow, you and Haman, and you will know my request.”
Haman starts home on top of the world, he was invited to not one but two dinners with the king and queen, and yet when he passes Mordecai and Mordecai doesn’t bow down he is furious, and after some advice from his wife and friend he builds a 75 foot tall gallows. But when he goes in to try to get the king’s approval to hang Mordecai, the king had a sleepless night so he went to the records and found out that Mordecai was never repaid for uncovering the assassination plot, and so instead of getting Mordecai’s head, instead he finds himself covering Mordecai in a royal robe and escorting him through the town square on the king’s horse while he has to shout, “thus will it be done to the one who the king is pleased with” then to make matters worse he can’t go home and mope because he is shortly summoned to the banquet with the queen.
At the banquet Esther pleads to the king for her life and the life of her people, the king, oblivious to what he allowed Haman to talk him into is now furious and storms out. Haman realizes his ship is sinking fast so he throws himself at Esther and when the king walks back in he has Haman hanged on the gallows he built, gives his position and property to Mordecai, and they all lived happily ever after (well except for Haman and his family, but they didn’t live beyond this point). With the king’s assistance what was to be a day of disaster for God’s people became a day of triumph. God had worked through a young woman, an orphan, an alien who thought she had nothing to offer and God can work through us. We may not be able to save an entire people, but maybe God has been preparing us for a moment such as this.
Over the last several weeks we’ve heard stories of people who had the courage to be faithful in the midst of challenges, whether is was Daniel, Shadrach,Mesach, and Abendigo or whether it was the remnant returning home and building the temple, or Esther going to the king to save her people…God was able to work through them to be a part of God’s story coming down to be a part of our story. We may not know what to say or do, we may feel like we have nothing to give, but can we learn to trust God in the midst of the things that may terrify us? When Jesus is talking to his disciples he tells them:
Matthew 10: 16-20
16 “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.
17 But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues.
18 You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me.
19 When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time.
20 For it is not you who will be speaking– it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
As we learn to trust God and let God work through us we can have the courage to be in the places God places us. We don’t get to run away from the rest of the world, and one of the gifts of the story of Esther is that she is a young person trying to make her way completely surrounded not by a Jewish but the Persian culture. She had to figure out how she could be faithful in the midst of a world that was probably much different than the household she grew up in, and yet remain who she was in the midst of it. And even though God is not mentioned throughout the book, God is at work behind the scenes and works not just in temples or churches, but even in the harem of the king’s palace or the throne room of the king. And God is there in both the big moments, but also the smaller ones as well.