Middle-Eastenders

Do you know about the book of Esther in the Bible? It’s peculiar because God is not mentioned by name, but like a toddler who has got hold of a tub of chocolate spread his fingerprints are everywhere. And the book is controversial because it is a narrative about slavery, racism and power in which what has been portrayed as a beauty contest is held to find a tyrant King a new wife and Esther, a young Jewish woman who was in Persia against her will, was selected. Was it a beauty contest when Esther didn’t have any choice, or was it something far more sinister?

Themain plot in the narrative is that the Prime Minister, Haman, decides to carry out what a genocide against the Jews who were in exile in Persia and Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, hears of the plot and persuades Esther to intervene with the King. It’s a bit like a soap opera as there is intrigue, suspense and feuding.

Image result for Xerxes I

Last week I was asked to preach on Esther 5, which is one of the key chapters in the narrative where Esther makes the first approach to the King. I called it ‘Middle-Eastenders’ as there are certainly some ‘duff-duff-duff’ drum moments! I’d encourage you to read the whole book so you get the context (it’s not very long). Here are some of my reflections:

Esther was gentle: she was not seeking status but was looking to see how she could be used where she was. We can even say that she was close to God because she fasted for 3 days before going to see the king.  

She was wise – recognising that if she jumped right in with a complaint against the Prime Minister when she was in a vulnerable position (not even sure if the King would want to see her) then she may not succeed in saving her people. She offered to serve the king (inviting him and Haman to a banquet) rather than demanding her rights.

And she was patient. It would have been very tempting to her when the king offered to be generous to her to jump right in with her main request, but she knew that the time was not right and just asked for him to attend another banquet.

I wonder who the people are who hold power over you? Of course, there are politicians who can make decisions that will affect our life, but there are also officials whose decisions affect us, perhaps when we are seeking benefits. We are subject to the authority of the police and law-enforcement agencies. And what about those who are above us at work? Or even those to whom we have given authority in our homes like a landlord?

And there is also power in a church. In Baptist churches, because we say that everyone is a minister, sometimes people seem to have made a virtue out of disrespecting and tearing down those whom God has appointed to lead us.

Esther’s example is not a blueprint, but I think we can learn that deference and respect, patience and wisdom are important and can bear fruit.

On the other hand, Haman saw power as something to be used to benefit himself: we can see from this passage that he was self-centred, focused on his own wealth and importance. He was indignant towards Mordecai when he was not given the honour that he felt he deserved. He didn’t realise that honour is not something to be demanded – that is bullying and fear – it is something you earn.

He was willing to misuse his power for his own ends. His decision to impale Mordecai on a big spike (some versions say it was gallows, but that’s not quite right) was his way of trying to make himself feel better. He did not value others, he just wanted people to look up to him. I wonder about his petulant response to Mordecai, it’s almost the actions of a playground bully. Mordecai’s non-reaction to him made him feel small so he decided to act big to make up for it.

How important is it how other people regard us? How far are we willing to go to obtain the respect? Are there lines we won’t cross, or does anything go in our desire for power? Do we ever look for a leadership role to elevate our status rather than lead by serving?

And at the risk of getting all political, consider when you look at the current candidates for PM role are they more like Esther or Haman?

the appeal of Jesus

It was Friday. Mid-morning.

The court had given its verdict, albeit following a trial that ‘stretched’ the rules. They had found the defendant guilty on all counts.

And the Court of Appeal, one judge sitting on his own, had conceded that the verdict, albeit rather unsafe, was expedient. He too found the defendant guilty on all counts and had sentenced him to death.

But now the defendant had appealed to the International Court of Human Rights. He had enough of the snide comments about his beliefs, muttered behind his back as he worked. He was fed up with being the victim of persecution and oppression, accused of immoral behaviour and consorting with known criminals. He did not like the unjust way his case had been handled.

So Jesus appealed against the verdict and sentence. No longer was he going to be their whipping boy. He was ready to stand up for his rights and see to it that none of his followers ever had to go through what he had experienced. He did not want his friends to have to give up everything to follow him. He no longer wanted to be identified with the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, the oppressed, the abused, the unloved, the victims of life.

And he definitely did not want to wear a cross to work.

 

Inspired(?) by this news story.

provocative powerlessness

Several different strands have come together in the thinking space in my brain this morning. There’s the Kony 2012 campaign, Baptist Union Council and Paul Daniels’ show last night in Colchester.

I am sure you have already seen the link, but in case you haven’t perhaps I had better be more specific. The link between all three is ‘powerlessness’. I will work in reverse order.Phone charger

In Paul Daniels’ show last night he did a range of tricks that made me chortle, chuckle, laugh out loud and, on a couple of notable occasions, sit there completely bemused at how he had managed to do what he did. Towards the end of the show he did the trick which put a rather reluctant volunteer in ‘peril’. I won’t elaborate as I don’t want to spoil it for you if you’re going to see it. I think the reason that the volunteer was so reluctant, other than the obvious ‘peril’, was that he was going to be completely powerless as Paul Daniels worked his magic. Once he had allowed himself to be buckled into the contraption he had no way out and was completely at the mercy of the magician.

For the rest of us that powerlessness was part of the illusion. The volunteer’s obvious discomfort raised the level of tension and made the trick even funnier. But for the volunteer the peril was real and there was nothing he could do about it.

The Baptist Union Council is meeting as I post. The major item on their agenda has been to consider what God wants for us for the future as a denomination. The discussion and deliberation is timely but it has come to us in a way that is beyond our control. Whilst the process is not entirely motivated by money, it was precipitated by an awareness that we cannot sustain our current way of being a denomination and resourcing ourselves in circumstances where we are running a significant deficit budget. Much has been said and written about what we should do, but I wonder if part of the problem is that we feel powerless. The current economic downturn was not of our making but has forced us to ask some difficult questions.

And, if I’m honest, there is a sense of powerlessness in me as well. Other people will be making the decisions and while I have been able to participate in the online discussions and in a discussion at a recent ministers’ conference ultimately I will not be part of the team that makes final recommendations after having sifted through all of the feedback. Don’t get me wrong. I trust and have absolute confidence in those who have been asked to fulfil such a difficult role. But the shape of the denomination to which I belong may change significantly and I can feel quite powerless about.

And then there’s Kony 2012. This is a ‘viral’ campaign that’s spreading rapidly through the Internet. The purpose is to raise awareness of the issue of child abductions and child soldiers in northern Uganda and its neighbours, perpetrated by the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army. That is led by Joseph Kony. The campaigners believe that insufficient action has been taken by the world’s more powerful nations to stop this atrocity from happening. They believe that by mobilising millions to campaign and raise awareness it will force governments to take action.

I wholeheartedly agree that this horror must be stopped. I am not against the Kony 2012 campaign as it is seeking to use the power of multiple voices where as individuals we might feel powerless to do anything. I am a little concerned that whilst it is headline- and attention-grabbing the campaign may be a little naive. Even if Joseph Kony is captured and brought to trial I suspect that his second-in-command would simply step into the breach. By all means let’s raise awareness of the issue on behalf of the powerless children. But can’t we make it a wider campaign against the LRA and seek to bring to justice all who have been involved in such hideous acts.

In all of this powerlessness is there something we can do? Hopefully some of you by now screaming at your screens, “Pray!” Yes. Absolutely. Definitely. Wholeheartedly. But it should not be an act of desperation or last resort. Surely it is the first place we turn. The traditional English pose for praying is to close your eyes and put your hands together. I understand why but would like to encourage us instead to open our eyes and pray with our hands ready to pick up whatever implements God calls us to use as he asks us to respond and be part of the answer to our prayers.

Our fingers might need to go to our keyboards or mice in order to join an internet campaign or lobby governments. We might need to pick up our pens and write letters. Perhaps we need to pick up our phones and make some calls. How about we go down to our local cash machine and withdraw some money?

I think one of the reasons that prayer is a spectacularly good response to powerlessness is that not only are we bringing our concerns and to the presence of Almighty God, but he often asked us to do something in response that enables us to act and in doing so relinquish that powerlessness.

Be blessed, be a blessing. Be a pray-er, be an answer to prayer

Kony 2012

A survivor’s perspective from BMS World Mission

A different perspective from Jonty Langley

BUGB Futures Group updates

The 40 Baptist Voices response to the BUGB challenges