Monday, July 27, 2015

The times, they’re not a’changing

What if you were the vice-regent of an empire and the command of the king was that everyone should bow to you? And what if one man in the capital city, a Jew, refused to bow? What would you do? That was exactly the scenario in Susa, circa 478 B.C., when Mordecai would not bow to Haman. Haman was filled with fury at one man’s actions, so he plotted to destroy every Jew in the empire. What?

That would be like having your foot smashed by an overfilled grocery cart pushed by a little old lady at Aldi’s, and because she doesn’t even turn around or say she’s sorry, you make it your goal to eliminate every little old lady in the state. A counselor might call that an “inappropriate response.”

What was Haman’s problem? Let’s cut to the chase, here. He was a racist. He had been raised a racist. He came from a long line of people who were racists. He was taught as a child to hate Jews, perhaps hearing his father say often, “Jews are different, Jews are not the same as the rest of us, Jews are not good people.” In fact, maybe he was taught that Jews were not really people at all. Listen, racial prejudice is as old as mankind, an ugly sin with incredible power to destroy.

What seared the conscience of a 21-year-old man to the point that he could sit for an hour and have prayer with the nine people he was about to murder in cold blood, simply because they were black? How could Dylann Roof get to the point, even while so young, to write this in his journal: “I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is the most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

How could Dylann do this? The same way Haman could. They gave themselves over to the power of darkness. You want to know the scariest thing of all? It could happen to anyone not walking in the power of God’s grace. The Bible says about each of us who are now believers, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of the world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”

Haman was a son of disobedience, seeking to do the bidding of his father, Satan, and to destroy the seed of the coming Messiah. He was not satisfied in just a personal vendetta. He wanted to institutionalize his racism. He sought to use the political machine at his disposal in Persia to make genocide a matter of public policy. He even said to the king, “it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them (the Jews).”

Chilling words. I wonder which groups in our world have become “unprofitable?” Which religions, or races, or ethnic groups, or even age groups, from the womb to the walker, are in the crosshairs of those who seek to institutionalize their removal?

Sorry, Bob Dylan. The times, they’re not a’changing.

Monday, July 20, 2015

God doesn't make junk

It was a 5th century beauty pageant, plain and simple. As far as we know, there was no talent involved in the competition. There was also no interview portion, sadly, because that would have given the young women an opportunity to talk about world peace or maybe world domination, since that was the order of the day for King Xerxes. No. The officials of the king were sent into every province to find women who met just three requirements. They had to be young, beautiful and virgins. They were then brought to the capital city where they were turned over to the king’s eunuch, Hegai, who had authority over the harem. Apparently Hegai was the world’s most renowned beauty consultant and would spend a year helping the women get ready to be on the cover of Persian Vogue. They would be given six months with oil treatments and then six months with spices, and I have no idea what that means. The modern explanation (I’m guessing here) might be that these women who were already beautiful would have a total makeover. They would go from good to great or from great to heart-stopping. At the end, however, only one would be chosen by the king to become queen of the vast empire. I agree with you, dear reader: it was a sordid affair, but one into which God placed Esther for a much higher purpose than just to be a queen. She would be the instrument God used to save the Jews from annihilation.

The only way the plan would work would be for Esther to be beautiful. God took care of that and made her exactly the way he chose to, just as he did you and me. Don’t rush past that thought without letting it sink in. Because until we come to terms with how God made us, we will struggle mightily. God made you and me exactly the way he chose to. He chose how tall we would be, and what color our skin and eyes and hair would be. He chose what gender we would be. And he looked on his creation, every one of us, and said, “It is very good.” Until we embrace that, we will struggle with comparisons and discontentment. We will wish we were taller or fairer or darker. We will wish we had curly hair or straight hair or any hair. We will buy into the lie that says our worth is determined by our looks, which leads to bitterness, even bitterness against God. I mean, whom can we blame for our height and hair color and complexion and gender? Just God. We must come to terms with the fact that God made each one of us exactly the way he wanted to, and that God doesn’t make junk. Have you been envious of another person’s position, or appearance, or personality? We all have at one time or another. But if that is something you struggle with on a regular basis, I urge you to tell God about it and ask him to forgive you for your discontentment with the way he made you. Thank him for it, and get on with the more important question of why he made you.

Esther was a woman of great beauty, which opened the door for her to be in the Miss Persia pageant. But it was her inner beauty that God used to open every door after that. To borrow from a familiar quote, “Physical design is God’s gift to you. Character is your gift to God.”

Make it count.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Beware this dangerous combination

Picture this. The king invites all the men of the capital city into his palace for a feast. He opens his wine cellar and serves them the very best. The men are told they can drink as much as they want. For seven days.

Got the picture? Hundreds, maybe thousands of men. Unlimited wine. Nobody’s working; everyone’s on paid holiday. No wives: they’re all with the queen in another part of the city. And, look! There’s the king, right in the center of the drunken bash, bragging about his riches and his possessions and his building projects and his army and his palace. He keeps bragging and drinking, and the wine slowly takes over the weak will of the egotistical monarch.

I couldn’t help but think of Brad Paisley when I read this story in the first chapter of Esther. I know that some of you have never thought of Brad Paisley, but here are a few lines from his song titled Alcohol: “I can make anybody pretty, I can make you believe any lie; I can make you pick a fight with somebody twice your size. I been known to cause a few breakups, I been known to cause a few births; I can make you new friends or get you fired from work. …I’ve influenced kings and world leaders, I helped Hemingway write like he did; And I’ll bet you a drink or two that I can make you put that lampshade on your head.”

The king does much worse than a lampshade, as the consequences of his drunkenness lead to a broken marriage and a deposed queen. Fueled by alcohol and his own foolish pride, he decides to show something to the men that they have never seen before. At least, not up close. The king may have thought in his inebriated state, “I’ve shown off my power, my pomp, my provision. Why not show them my prize?” They’d seen his golden wine goblets and gold and silver couches and the palace in its splendor. But they had never seen his queen, not like they were about to see her, if the king had his way.

There has been much speculation as to what is meant in chapter one when the king instructs his servants to go and fetch the queen “with her royal crown, in order to show the people and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at.” If it meant that she was to come unveiled, that in itself would have been undignified, a violation of the Persian custom that a woman’s beauty was for the admiration and the enjoyment of her husband alone. Others have suggested that the king meant for his wife to come to his feast wearing only her crown. Either way, Vashti refused to come and be ogled by hundreds of drunken men. Who can blame her?

It is clear to me that the king may have been a provider for his wife, but he was certainly not a protector. A husband that is a protector will put himself in harm’s way before he will allow his wife to suffer humiliation or shame. He would never make her an object for other men’s lusts. He would never ask his wife to do something that would violate her conscience or cause her to sin. In short, he would put her needs above his own.

The sad truth is that this story is repeated in too many households every day. A huge ego, a weak will, and a belly full of alcohol will always be a dangerous combination.

Monday, July 6, 2015

This story has it all

Courage. Faith. Politics. Betrayal. Genocidal plots. A beauty pageant. Gallows. Irony. Even humor. The story of Esther has it all. It’s more important than Jurassic World because it’s true. It’s relevant to us today because not much has changed. The world is still a dangerous place for Jews, and becoming increasingly so for followers of Christ.

The story takes place in Susa, when the Persians had their 200-year shot at ruling the world. Archaeological findings confirm what the book of Esther teaches.

There are four main characters in the story, and many who played smaller roles. There is King Ahasuerus. He is the central figure in the kingdom, but is not the central figure in the story. In fact, though he reigns over the known world, he is the weakest of the four main characters. I can’t help but cast Nicholas Cage in the part of the king. We are introduced to Mordecai in chapter 2: “Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel named Mordecai.” I love this guy, as he plays the part of the voice of truth and the man of God in the story. I’m going to pick Dustin Hoffman for this pivotal role. Mordecai has been forced from his home in Jerusalem and is living in this foreign land, and has raised his much younger cousin there. That’s Esther. She is the heroine of the story, and some who heard me preach an introduction to this story last week suggested I cast Jennifer Lawrence in the role, though I like Keisha Castle-Hughes better. There’s no evidence that Esther was any good with the bow and arrow, but she was definitely clever, courageous and humble. I think of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, when Malvolio said, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” The irony in this story is the one who most aspired to greatness, Haman, is the one from whom greatness is snatched away. The least likely woman in the whole empire to have greatness thrust upon her was Esther, a Jewess living in exile. That brings us to the last character, the evil Haman. Some suggest Tom Hardy for this role, although I like David Strathairn as the presumptuous antagonist. Haman is promoted above all the other officials and essentially becomes the King’s right hand man. He hates Mordecai because Mordecai will not bow and scrape before Haman like the rest of Susa does. Haman finds out that Mordecai is a Jew and hatches his plot to have Mordecai and every Jew in the kingdom slaughtered on a given day. The King signs the genocidal decree into law, and the law of the Persians cannot be revoked. What Haman doesn’t know, and what the king doesn’t know, is that Esther is a Jew, so the king has signed his wife’s death warrant. What will happen? Will Mordecai be able to escape the gallows Haman has built for him? Will Esther keep silent about her heritage and faith, even while her cousin and all the rest of the Jews perish? Or will she come up with a plan to not only save herself but save her people as well? Read the story in the Bible and see for yourself.

By the way, this book almost did not make it into the 66 books of the canon because there is no mention of God anywhere in it. His fingerprints are all over it, however, and we learn that even when we think God is absent, He is not.

This story has it all.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Christians, practice what you preach

I want to follow what I wrote last week about marriage for the Opinion page with this encouragement and admonishment to the church. Because if we who call for the sanctity of marriage to be defended are assaulting it with our own sin, why should anyone listen? Matt Walsh sat down to write a scathing rant about how marriage is under attack in our culture, “But then I remembered a sign I saw on the side of the road that said, “Divorce for sale! Only 129 dollars!” Then, I remembered an article I read about the new phenomenon of divorce parties. “Divorce is the new single,” the divorce party planner tells us. Then, I remembered that there is one divorce every 13 seconds, or over 46,000 divorces a week in this country. And then I remembered no-fault divorce. I remembered that marriage is the only legal contract a person can break without the other party’s consent and without facing any legal repercussions.

Sobering words. Words that should cause the church to look at itself in the mirror. Wait, that’s one step removed. These words should cause you and me to look in the mirror. Marriage, like politics, is local. Your marriage and mine affects the culture by strengthening or weakening the fabric of the institution that God created. We defend marriage best when we defend it first in our own homes. That’s why the Bible says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.”

If marriage is to be held in honor by all, then I would also admonish the church in three more ways. First to the young men in our churches: marry somebody. Don’t rush it, but don’t substitute trivial pursuits like “Call of Duty” for it, either. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” I will be so bold as to say that if you are in a position to provide for a wife, spiritually, financially and emotionally, then you should be pursuing one.

Second, to the young married couples in the church: have children. Space does not permit the full measure of arguments why godly marriages should be producing and raising godly children. But I can show you at least seven reasons why and invite you to come and meet them sometime. The biggest and best reason is that “children are a heritage from the Lord.” Why would followers of Christ say “No, thank you” to one of His greatest gifts?

Third, to all in the church: We need to repent of our thoughts, words or actions that have made the Gospel a stench to others. This is my last admonishment, but it may the first in importance. Let’s be very careful not to adopt an “Us versus Them” mindset with those in the culture who have different ideas about marriage. Let’s also be very careful how we speak about this subject. Crude joking or harsh words do not represent Christ, do not qualify us as ambassadors of reconciliation, and do not tear down walls or create bridges.

We must stand for the truth. We must not compromise our convictions. We must not cave to the culture. But we also must not vilify those with whom we disagree, even when we have biblical grounds upon which we base our disagreement.

Jesus was not a friend of the Pharisees, the religious blowhards who held themselves up as examples to follow when they were nothing but hypocrites. Instead, Jesus was a friend of sinners, those who needed Him and knew they did.

We must follow His example.

Monday, June 22, 2015

And God created marriage

God created marriage.

When Jesus was questioned by the religious rulers of His day about divorce, which is the dissolution of something He created, He took them back to the beginning, because He was there. “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” As we wait for the Supreme Court to tell us the definition of marriage, I would suggest we see what Jesus says on the subject. You can find it in Matthew 19.

Marriage is between a man and a woman. A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife.

Marriage is oriented toward procreation. “So they are no longer two but one flesh.” That does not speak to emotional oneness only but to physical oneness primarily, which we know is the only biological process that can produce children. We know that some couples cannot have children, and that doesn’t make them any less married. But the normative truth of Scripture is that God designed marriage to produce future generations.

Marriage is before God and for a lifetime. Whenever I officiate a wedding I like to remind the couple that though there are many human witnesses seated behind them, the most important witness is the one in the room who did not receive an invitation and who needs no seat. He attends every wedding He ordains. God is the one who brings us together in holy matrimony and God is the one who will keep us together. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Marriage is a creation of God for all people, not just for Christians. Governments did not create this first and most basic institution. Marriage was created by God and defined by God. That means that no matter what the Supreme Court rules in the next few weeks, the Supreme Creator and judge has already spoken. He has defined marriage. He sustained marriage after the fall and with sinful human beings throughout all of human history. It became much harder after sin entered the equation, but it did not become any less God’s design and purpose for men and women for whom He has chosen marriage. Let me add that this does not minimize the importance of singles and children and widows and others who are not married. They too are image bearers and called by God to represent Him and His Word to all people.

Finally, marriage is a picture of the Gospel. We know this from what Paul wrote in Ephesians 5, when he repeated what Jesus said in Matthew 19 and what God said in Genesis 2, that a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Then Paul adds, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” In the sacrificial love of a husband for his wife and a wife for her husband, God puts the Gospel on display. The reverse is true as well, of course. A marriage that is falling apart is a poor picture of what Christ has done for His bride. A husband engaged in an extra-marital affair (either with a real woman or with an image on his computer) is a hypocrite and brings shame to the institution of marriage.

Nonetheless, imperfect and broken marriages between a man and a woman do not make an argument for changing the very definition of marriage. God has not left that open to us.