Stand with Conviction

In part two of our new teaching series, Stand Up: How to Fight Injustice, we looked together at the next part of the story of Esther.  Mordecai stands up to do the right thing…and everything goes wrong.  Through this hard turn of events we are reminded that if we are going to stand against injustice, we are going to have to make a commitment to do the right thing regardless of the outcome.  Keep reading to see how this unfolds.

Stand with Conviction

We live in a day when businesses are finding themselves needing to take social and moral stands in order to attract new customers.  Have you noticed that?  Used to be, companies and businesses focused on business.  If they wanted to convince people to spend their money with them instead of with a competitor, they worked really hard to plant the idea in our minds that they were the very best at what they did.  Their product was better than anybody else’s.  They were going to take care of their customers better than anybody else would.  They were the best…at their business.  Today, though, as being socially conscious has gotten more and more popular, many businesses are worrying less about talking about how great their products are, and are instead spending more time telling us how socially conscious, or progressive, they are.  Commercials often double as political statements.  Some don’t talk about their products at all, they just take a stand on some social issue and assume that customers will be drawn to use their products on the basis of that social stance alone.

Companies do this to varying degrees of success, but some ads seem to score points a bit more effectively than others.  One of these came out a few years ago from the insurance company Liberty Mutual.  Some companies have ads that tend to all run on a certain theme.  For Liberty Mutual, they work really hard to present themselves as supremely loyal and responsible to their customers.  They want us to know that they are more committed to doing the right thing than the average insurance company is.  To this end, they ran a series of commercials featuring people doing the right thing.  Each commercial forms a complete circle in which the first example of selflessness is inspired by the last.  The logic isn’t sound at all, but the ads are really effective.  Check this one out:

That’s powerful stuff, isn’t it?  It almost makes you want to get your insurance from them (which, of course, was the point).  And I’ll say: while we don’t use Liberty Mutual ourselves, we did get rear-ended a couple of years ago by a driver who had Liberty Mutual and they were exceedingly easy to work with.  From my experience, then, I’d say that they bill themselves fairly.  More to the point, though, seeing someone do something selfless and responsible is inspiring.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean it motivates us to action, but it does stir something in our heart that resonates a deep chord which perhaps we haven’t strummed in a while.  It does this because we are created in the image of a God who is just and when we see justice lived out in front of us we’re reminded of that.

Well, this morning, we are in the second part of our new teaching series called, Stand Up: How to Fight Injustice.  From now until the end of May, we are talking about how we as followers of Jesus can join in His stand against the injustice of this world.  And indeed, if you would count yourself a follower of Jesus, you are committed to growing in the image of a God who is fundamentally just—it’s an essential part of His nature.  Not only is He committed to justice, but He expects us to be as well.

And yet, as we talked about a bit last time, talking about doing that is one thing.  Actually doing it is something entirely different.  Most of us are so focused on just getting through our own days and navigating the messes we otherwise spend most of our time wading through that we can’t even imagine having time to pursue justice in some kind of a meaningful way.  Yet this is where we make a critical error.  We celebrate great feats of justice so often as a culture (and rightly so) that most of us begin to develop the thought that if we are going to battle injustice it is going to have to be on that kind of a scale.  This, however, is the furthest thing from the truth.  And as we look at the next part of Esther’s story this morning (which, incidentally, features Esther as only a minor character), we are going to be reminded of this in a very powerful way.

Sometimes when you read a story in the Scriptures, you come across details that seem unexpected or otherwise out of place.  Last week we paused Esther’s story at the point where she had won the king’s heart.  You would think the next thing that happens in the story would relate to her further adventures in the king’s court.  You would be wrong.

For what comes next, the scene shifts back to Mordecai.  Now, if you were Mordecai and your adopted daughter had just been forcibly taken into the king’s harem how would you handle it?  I mean, on the one hand, you are entirely powerless.  There’s not a thing he could have done to intercede on her behalf or somehow prevent what was going to happen to her.  But, look at what comes next.  Look at the text with me in 2:19: “Now when the virgins were gathered together the second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate.”

Now, we’re not totally sure what some of that means, especially in the first part of the verse.  There really isn’t a reference to an initial gathering of the virgins.  This could be a lot of things, but it doesn’t really matter to the story so we’re not going to speculate.  What is important is the second part of the verse.  Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate whenever this mysterious “gathering of the virgins” took place.  So, what does this mean?  Well, the king’s gate would have been the place where all the important business of the kingdom took place.  To have even been granted access to such a place meant that Mordecai was a pretty high-ranking government official.  That means he had a position which would have given him access to information, specifically information about how Esther was doing.  He would have been able to interact with court officials who could carry messages directly into the harem such that he could have kept good tabs on how she was faring and if she needed anything.  That’s about to be really important.

The next verse gives us a bit more of an inside picture on Esther’s situation in the palace.  Look at v. 20 with me: “Esther had not made known her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had commanded her, for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him.”  These few words give us a better sense of Esther’s character.  She had been raised as an obedient daughter and she was living out of that training even in her new situation.  This is probably what saved her life on more than one occasion.  This reveals further that even though she was a vassal of the king now and was living as a Persian by all external accounts, she had not forsaken her heritage or identity.  She knew who she was, and her ultimate loyalty still lay with the God of Israel.  Being a woman in the culture of Persia, she was not going to have the option of standing out as a conspicuous Jew like Daniel did.  She was going to have to toe the Persian line or lose her life needlessly.  But, she never gave up her identity.  She remained true where it mattered most.

In any event, in the course of Mordecai’s conducting business at the king’s gate and checking up on Esther, he overheard a plot against the king’s life.  Verse 21: “In those days, as Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus.”  So, two of the king’s most trusted guards finally decide they’ve had enough of the king and are going to do something about it.  And given their position guarding the entrance to the palace, they would likely have had an opportunity to do this.  Somehow, though, Mordecai learns of this plot: “And this came to the knowledge of Mordecai…”  We’re not told how and, again, speculation won’t help us.  However he learns of it, Mordecai gains knowledge about this plot.

Now, if you were Mordecai, what would you do?  You have basically three options: Do nothing, join in on the plot, or try to stop it.  Keep in mind, these guys are wanting to kill the guy who has basically kidnapped your daughter.  What would you do?  Joining in the plot probably isn’t the best option.  If it failed for some reason, the consequences would be pretty painful.  Even if it succeeded, though, once you grabbed this particular bull by the horns, letting go without getting gored would be pretty difficult.  Besides, killing Ahasuerus would have only opened the door for someone who may have been even worse.  A new king might have just assumed the harem of the last, but he also might have all of them killed just to make sure someone loyal to the last guy doesn’t try to off him for revenge.  As for doing nothing, if the plot fails you aren’t going to bear any responsibility for it, but the consequences of success are just as uncertain.

Mordecai may have been really angry with the king—we don’t know this by the way, but if you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you be?—but he decided to put those feelings to the side and act to thwart the plot.  Now, why would he do this?  Perhaps it was to curry favor that could be used to his or Esther’s advantage later on down the road.  Perhaps he saw that their success would be more of a threat to his daughter’s safety than their failure.  Perhaps these guards had given him a hard time in the past and he wanted revenge for it.  It could have been a lot of things, but let me suggest one more: It was the right thing to do.  Taking a man’s life by way of assassination is almost never the right thing to do.  Perhaps Mordecai understood that even though he didn’t like King Ahasuerus, even though he was a cruel and capricious king, even though he had kidnapped his daughter, even though he was surely slated for judgment by God for the injustices he had perpetuated throughout his kingdom, still saving his life was right.  It was an act of justice, undeserved as it may have been, and so Mordecai did it.  “And this came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai.  When the affair was investigated and found to be so, the men were both hanged on the gallows [which would have consisted of impaling them alive on a tall pole].  And it was recorded in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king.”

And if we lived in a just world, we would expect the next part of the story to tell us about how Mordecai’s saving of the king’s life was rewarded with much fanfare.  Instead, look at what happened next in 3:1: “After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, and advanced him and set his throne above all the officials who were with him.  And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, for the king had so commanded concerning him.”  So, not only does Mordecai not get any recognition for his bold stand against injustice, the king promotes some guy named Haman the Agagite to the second highest position in the kingdom.  Worse still, he commands that all the people at the king’s gate—including Mordecai—are to bow down to him whenever they see him.

Well, the Jews didn’t bow to anybody but God as a rule, a rule they held to pretty strictly.  But, there’s some history that makes this particular promotion dangerous for the Jewish people in general and Mordecai in particular.  You see, Mordecai’s being described as a “son of Kish” probably means he’s a distant relative of Saul, the first king of Israel.  When you read the story of Saul, it’s full of tragedy first of all.  He couldn’t ever get past his own character flaws to become the king God wanted to lead the people.  The final straw for God was when Saul was commanded to wipe out the Amalekites as an act of judgment for their sins as a nation.  He was commanded to destroy them entirely.  He didn’t.  And it wasn’t because he felt bad about doing it and left a few alive out of guilt.  Instead, he carried out the task nearly to completion save one man.  Want to guess who it was?  The king of the Amalekites; a man named Agag…whose descendants would have been called the Agagites.

So not only has King Ahasuerus promoted Haman to the high position Mordecai justifiably deserved in his stead for saving the king’s life, Haman is the descendant of a man whose people were wiped out entirely by Mordecai’s descendant.  I suspect that hatred had burned right down through the centuries and here Haman was now in a position to do something with all that pent-up hatred.  All he needed was an excuse; an excuse Mordecai quickly provided.  Remember the command from King Ahasuerus himself that all the servants at the king’s gate were to bow to Haman?  Verse 2: “But Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage.  Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, ‘Why do you transgress the king’s command?’  And when they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew.”

Now for starters, I don’t know about you, but this comes off sounding like grade school tattling to me.  The other guys found out he wasn’t doing it, bothered him about it over and over and over again, and finally went and told on him.  And the text suggests that the reason they finally told on him was because they found out he wasn’t one of them.  He wasn’t a Persian.  He was a Jew.  Their very reaction no doubt justified in his mind his decision to instruct Esther to keep her identity a secret.  But once Haman found out that this Jew had defied him, he had all the reason he needed to finally get the vengeance his family had perhaps been secretly hoping they would see for generations.  Indeed, look at v. 5: “And when Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage to him, Haman was filled with fury.  But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone.  So, as they had made known to him the people of Mordecai, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.”  His plan was simple.  He went to the king, told him there were these troublesome people spread throughout the empire, and promised to pay him a huge sum of money if the king would allow him the honor of destroying them.  The king, for his part, basically said, “You go for it, Haman,” and the two sat down to have a drink while the kingdom boiled in chaos.

Alright, let’s pause here in the story to take stock of where we are.  Mordecai takes a small, but important stand against injustice (namely, he saves a man’s life), and the next thing we know, him and his entire people are slated for destruction in a few months’ time.  It was only by fortune of the casting of lots that the date for their doom wasn’t set much sooner than it was.  It’s a good thing, as Solomon had written a few hundred years before in what is now Proverbs 16:33, that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”  What gives, though?  How are we supposed to respond to an outcome like this?  Doesn’t one good turn deserve another?  Where’s the justice or even simply the fairness here?  Mordecai should have just let the king be killed!

That’s how we’re tempted to think, isn’t it?  When we do something good, we expect something good to come of it.  We expect somebody to care.  We expect somebody to at least notice.  I mean, wasn’t that the whole premise of the Liberty Mutual commercial?  One person noticed the good deed in each frame and responded by paying it forward until the circle was complete.  Yes, but the person doing the deed didn’t know anybody noticed.  As far as each individual Good Samaritan knew they were doing whatever it was simply because it was the right thing to do.  And that’s the catch here.  If we are going to stand against injustice, we are going to have to make the decision to do the right thing regardless of the outcome whether good, bad, or otherwise.

You see, when we decide that we are going to stand up to battle injustice in the world around us, there is a very dangerous temptation to think that we have to do something large and noticeable.  We have to reach to the heights of Mother Theresa or William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King, Jr.  We have to be like Pope John Paul II who played an integral role in the fall of the Soviet Union.  We have to be like John and Ashley Marsh.  You’ve never heard their names before, but they have been working for the last several years to transform their formerly dying, crime- and drug-ridden town of Opelika, AL into a place that is growing and thriving with life once again.  You know, even if we can’t battle back the injustice of the world at large, at least we can see our own communities transformed.  And then real life hits us in the face.

You’ve experienced this.  We get inspired by something and so we do something right and good.  And nothing happens.  Or worse yet, it blows up in our faces.  Our situations go the way of Mordecai’s.  We do something good and it starts a chain reaction that causes our worlds to implode.  Do you know this tension?  We think we have to do something big and bold, and then reality settles.  We’re not grand or special or bold or anything like that.  We’re just…us.  And so we give up and go home almost before we ever really get in the game.  Folks, I am convinced that this is all of the devil.  He not only plants the visions of grandeur we have of what our efforts could accomplish, he also uses the seeds of doubt they sprout to keep us from being effective in our advancement of the kingdom’s rule of justice.

The fact is, though, and come on, you know this as well as I do, that none of those people planned to reach the heights they did.  Mother Theresa just wanted to serve the poor of Calcutta with as little recognition as she could manage.  William Wilberforce started his career in the British Parliament just wanting to serve the people.  His vision to end the slave trade throughout the British Empire developed gradually.  Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t set out to advance the cause of civil rights in our nation, he just wanted to preach.  John and Ashley Marsh’s story started when he was on drugs, they were together facing a half a million dollars in debt, and he went up into his attic to hang himself.  What each of these and 1,000 more individuals just like them did was to begin a habit at some point in their lives.  They began a habit of doing the right thing.  They did the right thing not necessarily where everybody or even anybody could see.  They did it wherever they happened to be.  They did it in the small and out of the way and seemingly totally insignificant.  And occasionally they paid for it.  But eventually, the small things began to add up.  They began to add up to the bigger.  Then the bigger began to add up to the big.  The big began to add up to the enormous.  And the enormous began to transform the world, one piece at a time.  But, without the small, the changes they saw or are seeing never would have happened.

Here’s the thing: We may not be able to change the world by ourselves.  But we can decide to do the right thing wherever we are in whatever we’re doing regardless of the outcome.  And eventually, the right thing, done by enough people, can change the world.  Think about it: Mordecai just told somebody what he knew.  At first, it seemed like things blew up in his face.  But then, a whole people was rescued from destruction—a people from whom would later come a man named Jesus of Nazareth who Himself would save a whole world from destruction.

The truth is: You don’t know what your decision to do the right thing regardless of the outcome will be.  You can’t even imagine it.  You could not possibly guess what God might have planned to accomplish through what seems to you to be a totally insignificant decision.  All you need to know is this: It’s always right to do the right thing.  It’s always right to do the right thing.

Think about this with me for a minute.  What if we did that?  What if just this group of people gathered in this room decided together that we were going to do the right thing.  No matter where we were, no matter what we were doing, no matter what the outcome might be, we were going to do the right thing.  What could we accomplish by that?  What if we developed the reputation just in Oakboro of being that group of people who are always out doing good for others?  I’ll tell you what: That reputation probably wouldn’t just stay in Oakboro.  But even if it did, who knows what God might accomplish through such a commitment.  It’s always right to do the right thing.

Or perhaps this: Imagine if all the followers of Jesus in our culture for just 24 hours decided that they were going to do the right thing every time without exception.  Imagine what an impact that could have on the whole country.  Imagine the kind of responsibility circle that could create.  Imagine the injustice that could be stopped in just one day.  Imagine the injustice we could counter if we just did that here.  We may not be able to impact everybody, but we can start here, doing the right thing right where we are.  It’s always right to do the right thing.

If you are going to stand against injustice, you might get an opportunity to do it on some kind of a huge platform that sets you out there for all the world to see.  If we’re going to be honest, though, you’re probably not.  The odds of that just aren’t good.  But that doesn’t mean you’re out of the game.  Far from it.  Instead, it means you have an incredible opportunity to stand against injustice in a place and for a group of people that the rest of the world is almost certainly overlooking.  Think about that: Just like Mordecai, God has you located in a specific place to have a specific impact on a specific set of people who perhaps not a single other person in the world has in mind.  And before you try and make the excuse that you don’t know where to start a project like that, let me tell you: You start by doing the right thing right where you are no matter what the outcome is going to be and go from there.  It’s always right to do the right thing.  So then…shall we get started?

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