Stand Up and Speak

In this second-to-last installment of our series, Stand Up: How to Fight Injustice, we reach the climax of the story.  Esther finally acts to confront the king about the genocidal decree he signed on behalf of his evil advisor, Haman.  And yet, unlike most stories we tell today, the fate of the Jewish people was not resting on Esther’s shoulders alone.  The same goes for our own battles against injustice.  We need to confront it, but then we need to step back and let the One with the power to make things happen take the reins.  Keep reading to see how this goes.

Stand Up and Speak

Do you remember Harry Potter?  Although I didn’t read the series until I was in college during the summer with not nearly enough else to do, The Sorcerer’s Stone was first published the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school over 20 years ago.  The final book, The Deathly Hallows, was released 10 years later.  It’s difficult to overestimate just how big the cultural impact worldwide of those seven books have been.  The adventures of “the boy who lived” have captivated the imaginations of a whole generation; multiple generations in fact.  With a dedicated theme park at Universal Studios, plays, and a new trilogy of movies that precedes the original series, the legacy will continue as long as there is money to be made.

Thinking about the original seven books, the theme of friendship pervades the storytelling.  The bond among Harry, Ron, and Hermione is rock solid.  Their love for one another is fierce and it is clear that the only way they will succeed in their quest to stop Lord Voldemort once and for all is if they stick together.  That being said, there is no question that Harry is the hero of the story.  They are his adventures.  He’s the child of promise and prophecy, and in the end, everything depends on him.  He’s the only one who has the power to overcome Voldemort’s evil.

And that’s how most stories go, isn’t it?  There is one main hero or heroine and the outcome of the action depends solely on that one person.  You can pick your favorite adventure, but that’s ultimately the shape the narrative is almost assuredly going to take.  And if you think about it, that’s a lot of pressure.  I mean, if the hero fails, in some cases it literally means the end of the world.  But, while all of this makes for gripping and sometimes great storytelling, it doesn’t transfer over to real life very well.  For every game-winning, season-saving shot that gets made, there are 1,000 other players who could have made that.  For every culture-stirring speech that gets delivered, there are 10,000 other orators who could have done the same.  History has often turned on the actions of individuals, but more often than not, there was nothing about that one individual that made them singular capable of doing what they did.

The challenge is: Because we are so steeped in a storytelling tradition of singularly unique heroes overcoming impossible odds, we take that mindset with us into our own lives and make ourselves the heroes of our own stories.  I saw a preview this past week for the next installment in Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible franchise (which actually premiered the same year that Harry Potter was published).  Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is the hero of those stories and it’s clear that nobody else can do what he does.  The world rests on his shoulders.  Well, while our daily adventures perhaps aren’t quite so dramatic as his are, we nevertheless operate as if things rest similarly on our shoulders.

And yet…if we’re it as far as the world or even just whatever happens to be facing us goes…things aren’t looking good.  If we’re it when it comes to facing down injustices in the world around us, whether big or small, they’re looking even worse.  The fact is, battling injustice—or advancing God’s kingdom along any other lines—requires big, bold action on occasion.  But it is equally a fact that whether big or small, we don’t have it within ourselves to conquer any injustice.  It’s not simply that we need more people than just us, we need more power than any number of people can produce on our own.  And as we draw near the end of our journey through the book of Esther, that’s exactly what we’re going to see this morning.

This morning finds us in the second-to-last installment of our series, Stand Up: How to Fight Injustice.  I don’t know about you, but this has been a really fun journey for me.  I love the stories of the Bible.  I love digging into the details of the stories so that we can better understand that these were real people wrestling with real issues—usually as badly as we do and sometimes even worse—and yet who were nevertheless used by God to accomplish incredible things.  We make all these folks out to be heroes just because they got included in the book, but while there are a few good examples to follow, they were all just people, bent and broken like we are.  They simply yielded themselves to God—often poorly and incompletely—and He took care of the rest.

Over the course of this journey, this is exactly what we’ve seen.  The big idea serving as our guide throughout this conversation has been that as followers of the God who is just by nature, we should have hearts that beat with the pulse of justice too.  Seeing injustice in the world around us should make us sick to the point of movement.  Indeed, where there have been great movements for justice throughout human history, the people of God have always been at the forefront because ours is the only worldview that has the necessary foundation for such things to happen in the first place.

But, not all actions are equal in their wisdom and impact.  And so what we need is not simply a willingness to move, but an understanding of how to move wisely; how to fight effectively.  That’s where this remarkable little story comes into play.  So far on this journey we have been reminded that God is always at work behind the scenes in His world.  We do not serve the god of the deists who created the world and has since left it to its own devices.  He is passionately concerned and intimately involved in all of its workings.  When we begin to battle injustice in the world around us, we are unfailingly joining Him in the work He has already begun.  Because of this, as we were reminded in the story of Mordecai’s costly decision to refuse to bow to Haman, it’s always right to do the right thing no matter what the initial outcome may seem to be.

Two weeks ago, we started talking about how we can actually do battle with injustice.  The first step, as we saw Mordecai and Esther take, is to surrender ourselves and the situation fully over to God.  Through our grief over its existence, a careful defining of what the problem actually is, and a whole lot of prayer, we first place the situation firmly into His trustworthy hands so that the action we ultimately take proceeds under His clear guidance.  Surrendering to God leads to greater things.  Absent that we will be charging at windmills, believing them all the while to be giants.

Finally, last week we saw that how we go about our battles with injustice matters at least as much as the battles themselves.  Esther was certainly courageous in her plans to confront her husband, the king, but her courage proceeded under a covering of humility.  It is only when we reach the place of being honest about who God is, who we are, and what that means for our lives that we will find the success in this that we are seeking.  Humility ultimately wins the day.

For all the excitement and intrigue of our story, though, do you know what we have seen precious little of so far?  Action.  I’ve kept stringing you along with promises of action, and each week as we’ve set piece after piece of this beautiful puzzle into place, there really hasn’t been a lot happening.  That finally changes this morning.  This morning things finally all come to a head.  And yet…while there has been a great deal of setup for the past few weeks, if you compare this climatic sequence with, say, a standard, big-budget action movie’s final fight scene, the action we find here isn’t what we might expect.  Esther is bold, but even in a book that never once mentions God by name, there’s a pressing awareness that there’s someone else behind the scenes without whose impact things would not be going as planned.

Check this out with me starting in Esther 7.  “So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther.”  Stop there for a minute.  When a story bit to start with “so” like this, our natural assumption is that something must have come before it.  Something else has happened and so they are doing the next thing.  Well, when we left the story last week, Haman had decided the scheme his wife and friends devised to rid himself of Mordecai once and for all was a good one.  He had a 75-foot, spiked pole put up in front of his house and he was going to go the next morning to tell the king to have Mordecai impaled on it.  But it doesn’t seem like that’s the action that would precede the king and Haman going to Esther’s second banquet.  Indeed, it’s not.  What actually precedes their going to the banquet is the beginning of the end for Haman.

You see, the very night before Haman was going to enact his murderous plans for Mordecai, the king couldn’t sleep.  How ironic, yes?  And when the king couldn’t sleep, his method of choice for zonking out was to have a servant come and read him from the royal recording book.  It was simply a litany of the important things that had happened in the kingdom.  Basically, the king asked for a bedtime story.  The story the servants happened to read on this particular night, though, was about when Mordecai delivered word to the king through Esther about a plot on his life.  Well, naturally, the king remembered this episode rather vividly.  Instead of putting him to sleep, though, it got him thinking.  He asked: Did we ever do anything for this Mordecai to thank him for saving my life?  They hadn’t.

By this time it was morning.  The king asked if any of his advisors had arrived at the palace yet and as it so happened, Haman was just walking in the front door to carry out his plans.  Again: How ironic.  As Haman entered the throne room, the king said, “Haman, what do you think we ought to do for someone the king wants to honor?”  Well, given his ego, Haman rather naturally assumed the king meant him because who else could he mean?  And so, Haman gave the king a laundry list of things that would feed his ego even more.  And the king said, “Haman, that sounds perfect.  Go and do that…for Mordecai.”  So, instead of going back home to get ready for the banquet with Mordecai in tow to be impaled for the whole city to see, he gets to lead a parade in Mordecai’s honor around the city shouting for the whole city to hear, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.”

He only has time to slip back home for a second to tell his wife what happened before servants arrive to whisk him off to the feast.  Zeresh speaks with a voice of prophecy and tells her husband that if this Mordecai is a Jew, then he doesn’t stand a chance.  And as they were still talking, “the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried to bring Haman to the feast that Esther had prepared.  So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther.”

Perhaps you can imagine, then, that Haman wasn’t exactly in a great state-of-mind when he arrived at the feast.  His plans for the day so far hadn’t just been derailed, they’d been inverted.  You’ve been there before.  You made plans for some day and things went so thoroughly backwards from what you imagined that it took you most of the rest of the day to get your head back in order to be able to do much of anything.  And then things got worse.

Once they had eaten and were again drinking wine, the king finally asked Esther what it was that she wanted.  He had already agreed to grant her request, by the way.  She had invited him to this banquet on the condition that he would honor his word and do basically whatever she wanted him to do.  In other words: She had him right where she wanted him.  With a hard swallow, then, Esther finally tips her hand.  In doing so, she sticks herself right smackdab in the middle of a couple of paradoxes.  On the one hand, she’s about to disobey Mordecai and reveal her real heritage to the king.  On the other hand, by revealing her true heritage, she’s putting herself squarely in the crosshairs of Haman’s genocidal decree…with him sitting there.  Her boldness here is truly stunning.

Listen to how this goes: “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request.”  Now, I’ll bet the king expected her to say a lot of different things in this moment, but I suspect her saying, “My dear husband, don’t let me die,” wasn’t on the list.  I think she probably had his attention now.  Haman’s too.

With both of these powerful men caught completely off-guard—jaws slack, eye agog—Esther elaborates in v. 4: “For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.  If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have been silent, for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”  Now, what Esther says here is really important.  But how she says it is pretty important too.  She references the fact that Haman promised to pay the king 10,000 talents, or about a million pounds, of silver for his permission to kill the Jews.  Haman’s edict, signed into law by the king, announced that the Jews were to be destroyed, killed, and annihilated.  Both men, hearing those words, are probably coming out of the fog of their shock a bit.  I suspect Haman is doing so faster than the king since this was his pet project from the start.  In what she says next, though, Esther takes things a big step further.  She implies that the person guilty of this awful crime—and that’s exactly what she had the king thinking at this point—is trying to defraud the king a great deal more wealth than what might have been paid for the chance to destroy Esther and her people.  She is implicitly accusing the guilty party of treason.  And at least in the first part, she was right.  The economic production of the Jews throughout the kingdom no doubt amounted to a great deal more than the 10,000 talents of silver Haman had given the king.

Well, the king, rather predictably, explodes in rage at this unnamed villain.  Who is it?  Who would plan such an awful thing?!?  Esther points one finger across the table: It’s Haman.  And hearing his name, all the color drained from Haman’s face and he laid there terrified.  Haman had likely seen the king reach this level of anger before and knew things were about to go very badly for him.  For his part, King Ahasuerus storms out of the room and takes a walk in the garden.  Haman, on the other hand, fell prostrate at the feet of Esther, begging for his life.  The irony here is rich as this was the very thing he wanted Mordecai to do to him.  His being refused this act is what has put him in this very position where he is now at the feet of Mordecai’s own cousin, herself a Jew.  This was no doubt an act driven by his terror, but it wasn’t very smart.  Persian royal culture held that only the king and his eunuchs could come within seven paces of the queen or any other member of the royal harem.  And just as he has thrown himself at Esther’s feet, the king returns and sees him in his very much compromising position.  Now, we don’t know what the king had been thinking about on his garden walk, but it was likely what he was going to do about Haman.  Seeing him here laying hands on the queen herself seals his fate.  When a eunuch offers the knowledge that there is a giant stake in Haman’s front yard that had been erected for Mordecai, the king immediately orders it used for Haman.  And with that, the villain is vanquished.  We’ll have to wait until next week to learn the fate of the Jews.

For now, though, think with me about the boldness Esther exhibited here.  She planned carefully and wisely.  She took some huge risks to put herself in the right position.  She spoke fearlessly to the king as well as to the very man who unknowingly had issued her death warrant.  But if you think about it, the final outcome of the events here did not rest on her shoulders.  She played her role to perfection, but at the same time ultimately left things in hands other than her own.  Contrary to much human storytelling over the centuries, this is how the biggest battles are won.  Our shoulders aren’t broad enough to bear the load of eliminating injustice from our lives, much less the world as a whole.  If we try and tackle it on our own, we are going to fail and fail badly.  We need to be bold like Esther, yes, but we must also remember that the results belong to God.  If we are going to battle injustice in the world around us, no matter the scale of the conflict, we’re going to have to be bold, but we’ve got to leave the results to the One who has the power to make things happen.  Be bold, but leave the results to God.

Yet, we’ve got to define carefully what we mean by “boldness” here.  Sometimes today we equate boldness with being rash.  Bold actions are ones done without thinking about them.  They are actions pursued without thought to the damage that might be done to others.  Collateral damage is meaningless.  That is not, however, what we see here.  Esther is unquestionably bold, but she’s also gentle.  Now, if that sounds funny or surprising of me to say, it may be because you don’t really know what gentleness is.  We often think of being gentle as being soft and easy and weak.  But that’s not at all what it is.  And if you think about a time when everyone is as gentle as can be you’ll understand it better.  When you hold a baby, gentleness is the name of the game, right?  Are you being soft and easy with the baby?  Yes…but more importantly, you’re measuring your strength appropriately to the situation.  A gentle action can also be a very strong and powerful one…if the situation calls for it.  Acting with gentle boldness takes great wisdom because we have to understand the situation and what it demands from us.  God’s actions are always both bold and gentle.

It might be helpful to affix an extra modifier on the word “bold” just to clarify the kind of boldness we are talking about here.  We’re not just talking about some generic, culturally-conditioned boldness.  We are talking about Gospel boldness.  Gospel boldness is taking wise, well-considered steps to advance the Gospel that sometimes go well outside the box, but which leave the final outcome of events entirely in God’s hands.  Gospel boldness is trusting God fully enough to do something that the casual observer may classify as certifiably crazy, but doing so because He’s clearly leading us in that direction, and trusting that even if things go badly in the short run, He’ll have things well in hand in the long run.

Perhaps the best example of this after Esther is found in Acts 4.  In these early days of the church, the Jewish leaders were finally getting tired enough of the apostles’ preaching that they rounded up Peter and John, beat them, and threatened more if they didn’t can it.  When the pair got back to one of the house churches in Jerusalem, the whole group of disciples pray this incredible prayer in which they ask God not for protection from future threats, but the courage to be bold in the face of these threats so that the Gospel might go forward unhindered.

You see, the kind of boldness Esther demonstrated and we need in our own lives if we are going to effectively combat the injustice in the world around us is this very Gospel boldness that moves big, but leaves the results up to God.  When the results are in God’s hands and not ours, all of a sudden, the pressure of success is lifted entirely off of our shoulders.  No longer are we the last, best hope in whatever our situation may be.  And while that storytelling bug might leave us thinking about big situations akin to Esther’s in which we can gloriously exercise this kind of boldness, most of us don’t live there.

We live with spouses whom we sometimes don’t treat as well as we should and who occasionally return the favor.  We live with bosses who are at times wildly unreasonable.  We live with coworkers who are as crass and crude as they could be.  We live with parents who are at times harsh and even cruel.  We live with kids who can be disrespectful and ungrateful.  We see strangers treating other strangers badly.  We know families that are fighting amongst themselves.  We are aware of children whose parents just don’t do right sometimes.  We have teachers who grade unfairly.  We have students who don’t even come close to appreciating how much time and energy we put into our lessons.  We have neighbors who behave in very much un-neighborly ways.  Do I need to go on?  Come on, you know this.  The kinds of injustices we face most are the small ones that we either ignore or else swallow and just stew about, unwilling to go so far as to do something meaningful about them and not really sure what we’d do even if we were willing.  At the same time, these are the places where this Gospel boldness could have a powerful, subversive, transformative impact on our community.  If we will face these and rather than walking away, be bold, and leave the results to God, the potential for a complete reshaping of world in the image of the kingdom is beyond what we could really imagine sitting here this morning.

Imagine if instead of ignoring or internalizing when we don’t treat our spouses as well as we ought, we stood up and apologized for it.  Imagine if we granted forgiveness without any strings or reminders attached.  Imagine if we made certain that at every point we were the best employees we could be.  Imagine if we were unfailingly kind to our kids.  Imagine if we extended intentional grace and forgiveness to family members with whom we normally don’t get along.  Imagine if our neighbors were all becoming followers of Jesus because of our example of love next door.  Imagine if we were intentional about forgiving anyone who has hurt us, no matter the extent of the wound.  These and more would all be incredible bold acts in a culture that doesn’t live like this.  They would gain us attention and possibly notoriety.  And if we took these steps all by ourselves, we’d probably get ourselves into more trouble than we’d care to face.  But when we pursue Gospel boldness and leave the results to God, these are all the kinds of things that, over time, will bring kingdom change to the places it is needed most.  The potential is there.  We only need to tap it.  And the way to do that is to follow Esther’s pattern of Gospel boldness that acts big and leaves the results to God.  Be bold, and leave the results to God.  Then, our great God will be the victor.  That’s exactly how it should be.

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