Blogging the Bible – Esther, God, & Syrian Refugees

Quick quiz: what two Old Testament books don’t mention God? Give it some thought; I’ll wait.

Okay; got your answers? One is Song of Solomon, and the other is Esther. The Song, we get. It’s about love. Oh, is it about love.

But Esther? That’s kind of surprising, especially when you know the story. The Jews, in exile, are in deep trouble. Haman, their nemesis, has gotten the Persian king to agree to their annihilation. But the Jewish people have one trump card (who happens to be a lot better looking than Trump 2015, and a lot wiser). Her name is Esther, and she’s the queen. The only catch is: she has to go in to the king and ask for her people to be saved; but she has to go in, uninvited. In that culture, that’s either a ticket to getting the ear of the king, or death. Apparently, no in-between.

So Esther, wisely, questions her Uncle Mordecai when he tells her she needs to go see the king. She balks. And Mordecai responds: Well, yeah, it might be messy for you. You might even lose your life. Even so, “who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4.14). So Esther goes in to the king, and, long-story-short, the Jews are saved (but Haman, is not).

This story, and especially this verse (Esther 4.14), have been used repeatedly by preachers and teachers to say: Use what position you have for the glory of God. Take whatever role you’ve got in life, and situation, and let God work through you in the midst of it. And I agree with that challenge. Sometimes we choose our place in life, and God uses us in it. But sometimes, life seems to choose us for our place in it, and we have to decide: Am I going to let God use me? Here? Now? Even though it may be messy? Difficult? Even, possibly, deadly?

But, as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog: God is nowhere mentioned in the story of Esther. This doesn’t mean He isn’t seen on the edges of the story, but this notable lack of God’s mention reminds us of another key point: Sometimes we aren’t clear how this whole thing will play out. Sometimes, you see, God’s glory and guidance aren’t as clear as we would like. And maybe, just maybe, we act — not being sure how it will all turn out.

In other words, like Esther, we have to trust God when we do God-things in God’s world — trusting that God will be present. Even if it’s less like a blinding presence, and more like a flickering candle.

Which leads me to an issue in the news the past two weeks: Syrian refugees. Politicians are pontificating, and commentators are commentating on what we should be doing. In other words, they are doing what they always do.

So where is the Church? Shouldn’t we be doing what WE always do? Which is to say: trusting that, even when we have unanswered questions, God just might have put us where we are for such a time as this?

Years ago, I was at a missions conference where I met a missionary, Randy, who works in Germany. I haven’t seen him for over 20 years. But today, as I was going through my email, I came across a message this missionary had sent regarding the Syrian refugees that are streaming into his country. Here is some of what he had to say:

“The biggest event in our lives right now is that we have gone through an organization and have taken on 4 young Syrian men as sponsors to help them adjust to Germany. Three are from the same city in Syria. We met them first last Sunday. Yesterday we helped them with some papers they received and with where things are in the city. They are in the limbo asylum-seekers status. That means their cases are being considered by the government office for immigration.

After Paris and the cancellation of the soccer game in Hanover last night because of a bomb scare, many people are concerned when they hear that we are meeting with Syrians. Many Americans are very concerned/fearful about terrorism coming with refugees. We have seen some very strong comments in the social media from Christians. Fear is the natural reaction – think about Ananias in Acts 9 as he was to go to that Christian Killer – Saul/Paul. But love conquers fear and Ananias goes to Saul and ends up baptizing him. Who would have thought?

A couple of weeks ago I preached on Esther and a couple of thoughts from her story come to mind. Mordecai to Esther: ‘And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?’ Esther to Mordecai: ‘Fast for me. I will go to the king. And if I perish, I perish’ (Esther 4:12-16). We Christians can hide from them and hope they do not overtake our land or we can reach out to them. ‘As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15).”

I believe Randy is right. For 2000 years, the Church has not looked at opportunity with fear — but faith. Trusting that even when things aren’t clear, and may even get a little messy, God is at work. Bringing people in need to us. And our call is clear: reach out, with the love of Jesus. Because, after all, who knows that you aren’t where you are — right now — for such a time as this?

Blogging the Bible – Jeremiah and Judgment

Prophets aren’t usually popular — it goes with the job description — but I think my favorite prophet is Jeremiah. He might be glad to know that, since in his day, he was not the kind of person most people were glad to see coming their way. For Jeremiah was clearly a prophet of gloom and doom. And who likes gloom and doom?

Well, pretty much nobody. Which is why, in Jeremiah 37, the prophet is put in prison. And if the king hadn’t listened to his plea, he might have died there. But no sooner is he released from prison, his enemies throw him into a cistern. And so, he goes from bad to worse. As Jeremiah 38.6 says, “Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud” (NRSV). In fact, could he have gotten any lower (figuratively and literally)? Such a pitiful and humiliating sight, where one of the most noteworthy prophets in the history of God’s people finds himself alone, desperate, at the bottom of a well, covered in mud.

Could this be why Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 20.18 (in another episode where he was being persecuted for his preaching), “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” Clearly, it was not an easy job God had called Jeremiah to fill: to preach judgment to a people who weren’t really excited to hear that judgment was coming.

But are we ever? Do we ever like hearing bad news — especially when that bad news calls us to change, to repent, to turn from the wrong we are doing? The people in Judah in Jeremiah’s day sure didn’t. So, they tried to shut Jeremiah up, while seeking out other prophets who would say: God isn’t going to punish you. Babylon isn’t going to overthrow Jerusalem. You’re okay.

But if God loves us — if God really loves us — then won’t He tell us the truth about ourselves and our conditions? And won’t God point us in the direction of honest and true repentance, so that we may be restored?

By the time Jeremiah received his call to preach, and was sent by God, the die had largely been cast. Judgment was coming. And so, Jeremiah’s job was one of the most difficult of any preacher or prophet, any time in history. No wonder he didn’t relish his job, and struggled with it throughout his ministry.

Even so, he was faithful. He kept preaching. And trusting. And pointing people to the hope they have if they would simply humble themselves and turn to God. And so, this Prophet of Gloom also gives us some of the most hopeful words in all of the Bible, when in Jeremiah 31, the Lord says, “The days are coming when I will make a new covenant…. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of the them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

This is the promise that even in Israel’s worst was still true. Even when judgment comes and will not be halted, God still points us forward — to a day when all God’s people will know God, and live with God, and for God — free from iniquity and sin, forever.

This is why prophets like Jeremiah are still essential today. They tell us the truth about ourselves. But even more, they tell us the truth about God: what God has done, and will do — will forever do.

Blogging the Bible – Thinking about Israel

Of all the places I have been — and I’ve been to a few — some of my favorite are located in the Middle East. The Sea of Galilee is a lot smaller than you might expect, but it’s amazing to stand on its shores. Megiddo, while it’s not as well-known, is a wonderful site that includes an ancient Israelite water tunnel you can actually walk through. But nothing compares to a visit to Jerusalem. It has history and poltiics, faith and tradition, all (like Galilee) in a remarkably small area.

Standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee
Standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee

All of which is to say: I love visiting Israel. I have been there twice, and both times were a delight. All throughout the Bible, the land and the location of Israel play an important role. And Jerusalem, from the days David conquered it, to the final pages of the Bible, plays a central role.

So, what are we to make of the land today? As Bible-based Christians, how are we to understand the land of Israel, and what happens there?

In short, let me say it this way: my hope is not in a place. Or a country. Or even an amazing city like Jerusalem. Our hope, instead, is for a New Jerusalem. God’s work is rooted in Israel; but it has also spread throughout the world. (For a good article that expands this theme, read this piece by Shane Scott in Public Discourse.)

Ultimately, God is at work, not in a land, but in people — in all who respond to his call to become a new creation. As Paul writes in Galatians 6.15-16: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything;what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.” What counts is not being circumcised, or not; or having the right end times theology, or not; being a Zionist, or not; supporting Israeli politics, or not. No, what counts is becoming a new creation, through Jesus. For this, Paul says, rather remarkably, is what it means to be the New Israel.

Blogging the Bible – 4 Lessons from Judges

Is there a book anywhere else in the Bible that has as many interesting characters as we find in the book of Judges? There’s Eglon, a man so corpulent (to put it nicely) that he tended to lose things (inside himself). There’s Jael, who must have been an expert camper (read the story; you’ll understand). There’s “a sword for the Lord, and Gideon” – and the golden earrings that ended up being a snare to Gideon, his family, and all Israel.

There’s Abimelech, whose worst nightmare is dying at the hands of a woman (though he is taken out by one with great aim). There’s Jephthah, who makes a horrible vow – and still keeps it. There’s Ibzan, who had 30 sons – AND 30 daughters. He led Israel for 7 years, but I’m wondering: when did he have time? Then there is Samson; everyone knows Samson. Strong as an ox, but sometimes, you have to wonder if he’s also dumb as one, too.

And then there’s the odd and awful story of a Levite and his concubine – perhaps an indication of how low and detestable things had gotten during the time of the judges. As the book says as it ends, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”

So, what can we learn from the book of Judges – and all its interesting characters, and the interesting choices we see in its pages?

One: God uses a variety of people. He uses Gideon, despite his flaws. And Samson, despite his weaknesses. And in an age when there weren’t many women leaders, Deborah leads the people of Israel. She even gets her own song! So, if God used a variety of folks, don’t you think God can use you?

Two: Faithfulness doesn’t happen by accident. No one slouches into sanctification; we don’t just fall into faithful living. We see that so clearly in Judges. Like a yo-yo, the people of Israel seem to trust God when they need Him, and fall away when they don’t.

Faithfulness is a commitment to receive the love of God, and then intentionally live it out, day-by-day. Both are vital; and both must work together. As Paul says, “Work out your own salvation … for it is God who is at work in you….”

Three: We will always live in the midst of people who don’t live as we live; whose faith is not our faith. We shouldn’t be surprised, or annoyed, or offended that many in our culture don’t choose to live life as we do. Israel had this as a regular reality. Judges makes it clear that there were plenty of non-Hebrew people left in Canaan when Israel finally settled in. The people of God have always been surrounded by people who don’t follow God. Don’t let that be a reason to wring your hands or get upset; instead, let it be a call to be faithful, and to love those who don’t agree with you.

Four: Leadership matters. When Israel had good leadership, the tide turned, and they were able to see God more clearly, and trust God more fully. When leadership diminished, so did their faith.

Do you think the same is true today? Is leadership still as vital now as it was then? Good, humble, servant-hearted leadership always helps people become what they can’t — or won’t — be on their own. Good leadership does the hard work of pointing people to What matters, and to Who matters. So, Judges leads us to ask: who are you following? And who’s following you?