The power of the truth

 Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy any more at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.” Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees.  But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ ” Amos 7:12-15

“Clear off, Amos. We don’t want your sort around here. Go back where you came from. All right?”

Those weren’t quite the words the priest Amaziah addressed to God’s prophet Amos, but the message was pretty much the same: “Amos, you’re not welcome here.”

What’s going on?

About 150 years earlier, God’s people Israel had split into two kingdoms – “Israel” in the north, with Samaria as its capital, and “Judah” in the south, based in the historic capital, Jerusalem. (You can read about the split in 1Kings 12.) Under its king, Jeroboam, Israel adopted out-and-out idolatry, complete with golden calves.

And now Amos is called to prophesy, to be a “seer” – but to do so in Israel, not his homeland of Judah. And this doesn’t go down well with Amaziah, who serves as priest in the rival sanctuary at Bethel. Hence the confrontation between the two men.

Amaziah objects to Amos encroaching on “his” territory with his anti-Israel message. Amos replies that when you are called by God, sorry, but you have no choice: I never asked to become a prophet, Amaziah – no, I’m just a shepherd with a sideline in sycamore-fig trees… “But the Lord took me… and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’.”

On one level, you can see the story as a straight battle between two different forms of religion – the official religion of the state-sponsored priest Amaziah, and the God-ordained, Spirit-led religion represented by Amos.

It reminds us that, even today, we need to be wary of forms of religion which owe little or nothing to God, but are purely “man-made”. Jesus tells the woman he met at the well (John 4) that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth”. Religion that is merely formal is likely to be devoid of truth and spiritually dead.

But we need to be careful too. God alone knows, and is able to judge, the hearts of men and women. We mustn’t make the mistake of assuming that someone who worships according to set patterns and in formal ways – who worships “liturgically”, as we might put it – is therefore not a true worshipper. Nor that anyone who gets excited by spontaneous worship, and who simply speaks off the cuff, is therefore bound to be a true worshipper.

No. The devil, I’m afraid, is far too clever for it to be as simple as that. The Amos-type may be just full of him or herself; the Amaziah-type may be truly Spirit-filled.

I think it was David Watson (an ordained clergyman of the Church of England) who some fifty years ago said, “All Word and no Spirit, and you dry up: all Spirit and no Word and you blow up”. Words which neatly capture the vital need to blend both submission to God’s word and openness to God’s Spirit, whether you are an officially recognised spiritual leader or a complete “layperson”.

So… don’t be taken in by the splendour of ceremony, titles, robes and what-not; they may be just clothes on a spiritual corpse. But, at the same time, don’t be dazzled by the so-called “charismatic” personality, which may be nothing but froth and bubble.

The spat between Amos and Amaziah illustrates another timeless truth: the sheer power of God’s word when it is clearly spoken, no matter who by.

As we read the Old Testament right through we learn that Amos’s pessimistic prediction – that God would ultimately bring disaster on arrogant, idolatrous Israel – came true. Israel did indeed “go into exile, away from their native land” (Amos 7:17).

Yes, Amos may have been, to all appearances, a bit of a nonentity – a jumped-up shepherd with a talent for trouble-making – but the fact is that, well… he was right and Amaziah wrong. End of.

To use a modern expression, Amos “spoke truth to power”. That is something most of us have no opportunity to do; we move in far humbler circles. But we can – and should – speak truth whenever we have the opportunity, even if only to our neighbours or the people we work with.

Such people probably don’t deserve the kid of severity Amos meted out to Amaziah; we must speak the truth in a humble, gracious and sensitive way.

But let’s make no mistake: a simple word of God’s truth, spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit, is never spoken in vain. It has a wonderful way of sinking like a seed into people’s minds and germinating there perhaps many years later. It may be a word of warning, or of encouragement, or of rebuke, or simply of love, but one day, we can be confident, it will bear fruit.

You may not be an Amos. The person you speak to may not be an Amaziah. But never mind – that word you speak today may change someone’s life for ever!

Heavenly Father, thank you for the courage and boldness of Amos the truth-teller, and for the countless men and women both before and since, who have likewise “spoken truth to power”. Help me too to speak your truth at every opportunity, with patience, passion and love – and so to make known Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. Amen.

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Where is Jesus in the Old Testament?

Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke 24:25-27

Jesus, just that day risen from the dead, joins a couple of his disciples as they walk from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. They don’t realise who he is. They are sunk in gloom, and he asks them what’s wrong. Don’t you know! they exclaim. Haven’t you heard about the crucifixion of Jesus? You must be the only person around who hasn’t!

And then these painfully sad words: “…we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

We had hoped… Ah – they are downcast because of shattered dreams (you know the feeling?). They had pinned their hopes on this man Jesus – indeed, they had become convinced that he was the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish nation. And now… he was dead.

What does Jesus do? You might have expected him at least to be sympathetic. But no – in fact he gives them a bit of a telling off: How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”

That seems hard, doesn’t it? True, he doesn’t leave it there. No, as he walks with them he goes right back to “Moses and all the prophets” and explains to them “what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself.” And as he does this, something very wonderful happens…

But wait a minute… don’t those disciple still have a right to feel that his scolding was a little unfair? Where in the books of Moses are Jesus’ sufferings and glory foretold? Where precisely “in all the prophets”? Where “in all the scriptures”?

Oh yes, once he had explained it to them it was crystal clear. But doesn’t it seem a little unreasonable to expect them to understand it all before it had been explained?

Yet Jesus is perfectly serious. Sorry, but they should have foreseen what was going to happen, even if not in all its horrible details. These were Jewish people, and they were well schooled in the Jewish scriptures – what today we call the Old Testament.

It’s true that the Old Testament never gives an explicit prediction of the cross and resurrection. No prophet ever writes anything remotely like, “A day is coming when God will send the Messiah in the person of his own son. His name will be Jesus, and he will be put to death and raised again.” No.

But what the Old Testament does give is a long, often sad, account of how Israel, God’s chosen people, experienced suffering and vindication as a pattern over many centuries.

And what it also gives is a hint, or suggestion – amounting in effect to a promise – of a particular individual who will one day take upon himself the identity of “you, Israel, my servant” (Isaiah 41:8-9, 42:1, and throughout chapters 41-45) – as if the whole nation is summed up in him.

In a truly remarkable high point to the book of Isaiah, the “servant Israel” is narrowed down to that one individual. It will be his role to bear the suffering of the whole nation. The key passage is Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (and what a passage it is!). True, Jesus isn’t mentioned by name – but to whom else can these radiant words refer?

I think that we can be pretty sure that on that road to Emmaus, while Jesus may have begun with Moses, he will have come to a climax with these verses!

The reason Jesus is disappointed with his disciples, then, is just this. If they had only been in tune with the ways in which their God worked throughout history, and, of course, if they had only absorbed what Jesus had taught them throughout his time with them, then the terrible events of that weekend wouldn’t have puzzled or surprised them. This is the way of Almighty God! – to bring his people to glory through humiliation and suffering. And it is perfectly embodied in Jesus.

The little word “all” – “all the prophets… all the scriptures” – is key. It doesn’t mean that every single verse of the Old Testament can be related to Jesus (don’t, please, go looking for him in Ezra 10:29 or Ecclesiastes 9:5!); what it does mean is that scripture as a whole builds up a picture of a holy, powerful, loving – and suffering – God who, at the climax of history, bursts upon this world in human form.

This is the message that caused the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus to “burn within them” Luke 24:32). And this is the message in the light of which you and I can live.

Let’s do it, then!

Lord Jesus, please help me to see you “in all the scriptures”. As I puzzle over many of the words of the prophets, enable me to detect that pattern of suffering-to-glory, and to understand how it is wonderfully perfected in you. And so may my heart also burn within me. Amen.

Bad things in God’s word

Everyone who heard about it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done… Just imagine! We must do something!” Judges 19:30

My friend Chris has been reading the Old Testament book of Judges. When he got to chapter 19 he declared himself “pretty dismayed” and “quite shocked”. And I can’t say I blame him. In fact, I would be quite shocked if he wasn’t.

The events described invite all sorts of extreme adjectives – appalling, horrible, atrocious, vile, disgusting, to name just a few. But pile up as many as you like and they still don’t do justice to the utter wickedness of what happens. I’m not going to describe it – if you’re interested you can read it yourself. Suffice to say that in these days of “Me too” atrocities against women, if puts even them in the shade.

If there’s any crumb of comfort to be had, it might be that even the people living in those degenerate times were also shocked when it became known – see the words I quoted at the top.

What are we, as followers of Jesus, to make of passages like this, bearing in mind that this one is by no means alone in the Bible? If we believe that the whole Bible is God’s inspired word, then presumably we are meant to get some benefit out of it. But what might that be?

Two things come to my mind…

First, and most obviously, this passage sounds a serious warning.

The final verse of Judges says: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 20:25). In other words, anarchy ruled. Israel had, in effect, rejected their heavenly king, God himself, but had not yet got to the point of submitting to an earthly king – Saul, David, Solomon and the rest were still to come.

So the story of the Levite and his concubine virtually screams at us: “This is the kind of thing that happens when a society or nation cuts itself adrift from its spiritual and moral moorings.”

There are countries today where precisely this appears to have happened. Law and order have broken down and petty warlords rule the roost – though they are at war with one another. The result is death to any hopes of security and prosperity for ordinary people trying to live their lives.

Nor should we be complacent. Are we in Britain, and in the western world generally, heading in the same direction? Horrific crimes are reported daily in our news media; we read of violence, stabbings and gun crimes in schools and town centres; the police, probation and social services are close to overwhelmed; vile things like “revenge porn” and other abuses of social media are commonplace, even among children.

Is it “alarmist” to talk like this? True, we mustn’t exaggerate, or overlook the good features of our society. But still, there seems to be plenty to be troubled about. The stark fact is that there are no depths to which human nature can’t sink.

We often grumble and complain about those who govern us. But perhaps it would be better to be thankful for such stability and order as we do have – and, of course, to pray for our nation, asking God to give us leaders of honesty, integrity and principle.

The second value of this shocking passage is simply described: it shows us that the Bible is an honest book.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was for a time the most powerful man in England. When the time came for his portrait to be painted, he told the artist to give a true representation of him, “warts and all”. All credit to him for his humility – no photo-shopping, thanks.

The Old Testament is, among other things, a portrait of God’s earthly people. And God has certainly painted it for us “warts and all”!

In a strange way this can even be an encouragement to us who seek to be God’s people today, for it reminds us that God has used some pretty shoddy human material in unfolding his purposes. Moses was a murderer, David a murderer and an adulterer, Solomon a serious compromiser in various respects, even the great Elijah could be a coward.

No plaster saints there! Nor, come to that, in the New Testament. While we don’t read of atrocities remotely on the scale of Judges 19, we do read of the disciples’ cowardice and lack of faith, of Peter’s denial of Jesus, of Paul and Barnabas having a major bust-up. No plaster saints there either.

This shouldn’t make us complacent, as if moral and spiritual failings don’t matter. They certainly do, for God is a holy God and calls his people to be pure and holy.

But it reminds us that God is a gracious and forgiving God, who will not allow his will to be ultimately thwarted even in spite of the failings of his people.

We may, like my friend Chris, turn away with some repugnance from passages like Judges 19. All right. But let’s not fail to grasp the lessons – and make sure that we then turn to the only one who ultimately matters: Jesus himself.

Jesus, take me as I am,/ I can come no other way./ Take me deeper into you,/ Make my flesh life melt away./ Make me like a precious stone,/ Crystal clear and finely honed,/ Life of Jesus shining through,/ Giving glory back to you. Amen! Dave Bryant

To plan or not to plan?

Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow! … Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ James 4:13-15

I heard it said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”.

I think, in fact, I would prefer the word “smile” to “laugh” because a smile can be affectionate, even loving, whereas laughter may well be derisory, and I don’t think God mocks his children.

But whatever, the point itself is a good one – if we form our plans without seeking God’s guidance first and foremost, then we are likely to come unstuck, as they say.

When I was a young Christian, fifty or more years ago, I can remember people who routinely qualified their hopes or expectations of the future with the words “God willing”. (Sometimes they even used the Latin words, “deo volente”, or “dv” – “The Sunday-School outing will take place on Saturday 21July, dv”.) That seems slightly comical now, certainly very old-fashioned. But the instinct was right: what supremely matters is not what I think is right, but what God knows is right.

It may be that James picked up the warning he gives (James 4:13-15) from his older brother Jesus. In Luke 12:13-21 Jesus tells the very similar story of the rich farmer who made elaborate plans to expand his business and looked forward to many years of luxuriating in idleness – but who never lived to see another morning. “You fool” says God to him: “this very night your life will be demanded from you.”

So much for human planning! As the old saying puts it: “Man proposes; God disposes.”

Does this mean it’s always wrong for Christians to plan in advance? Not at all. Life is a complicated business, and to fail to plan, with a breezy “Oh, I’m happy just to let God guide me each day”, while it may sound very spiritual, is in fact simply irresponsible.

Some of those older Christians I mentioned earlier had, I suspect, been rather misled by the old “Authorised Version” of the Bible – what nowadays we more accurately call the “King James Version”. They didn’t understand that that word “authorised” referred to King James I (not to God), and that Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25, “take no thought for your life…” are better translated “do not worry about your life”, a different thing altogether.

No, it is wise and prudent, indeed essential, to make plans for the future, especially on big issues like family life and matters to do with work and finances. What matters is that we never assume that we have got it right, especially when we have very strong ideas of what we would like to do. God knows best, and he may have other ideas!

The apostle Paul was constantly moving around in order to exercise his ministry. He is a good example of prayerful planning. At the end of a visit to Ephesus he assured them that he would come and see them again “if it is God’s will” (Acts 18:21). Or, writing to the church in Philippi, he “hopes to send Timothy to them”, but that is only “in the Lord Jesus” (Philippians 2:19); indeed, he is “confident” that he himself will revisit them – but again only “in the Lord” (2:24).

That little phrase “in the Lord” is key; it means, in effect, “subject to the Lord’s will”.

Once we have got hold of this, two important things need to be added.

First, we should never allow questions of God’s guidance to, in effect, paralyse us.

I have known Christians who were so anxious that they might get it wrong that they ended up doing virtually nothing at all. This can’t be right! – take that caution to extremes and you would never so much as cross the road.

No: sometimes, after prayer, talking to trusted friends, and carefully weighing up all the pros and cons, we are left to take a deep breath and take the plunge. As long as our hearts are humble and sincere, why should God our Father not lead us, even if at first it seems a little hair-raising? (I wonder how Abraham felt when God first called him to go out into the unknown?)

Second, we should never let past mistakes ruin our peace of mind or wreck our lives.

Somebody reading this might be thinking “Yes, this is all very good and true – but it’s too late for me. I made a mistake some years ago – a big, life-changing mistake – and there’s no way now I can turn the clock back.”

This may be true, and it’s right to look at it head-on. But remember, God is your Father, and he loves you and is delighted to forgive you. He is both very able and also perfectly willing to give you a fresh new start.

The only place to move on from is… well, just where you are. (Where else can you move on from!) So – stop looking to the past and start to look ahead.

Your heavenly Father has a bright new future for you!

Loving Father, thank you that at the most critical moment of his life Jesus prayed that simple prayer “Yet not my will, but yours, be done”. Help me, I pray, to make what he prayed in his crisis time the motto of my everyday life, in matters great and small. Amen.

Talking back to God

The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. In the citadel of Susa, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. Esther 9:6

The Jewish festival of Purim (Esther 9:26) celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people in Persia, some 500 years before Christ, from the evil plans of Haman. I’ve never experienced it myself, but I read that in synagogues even today “every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the Purim liturgy congregations respond with loud banging, shouting and stamping of feet, and ‘Haman’s hats’ (triangular cakes) are eaten…”.

Great fun, I’m sure. And nothing wrong with that.

But the reality at the time was pretty grim. Esther 9:6 tells us of the deaths of five hundred men in Susa. And a few verses further on (9:16) we read that, outside Susa, some seventy-five thousand people were killed. Mmm… this was a big-scale massacre, and it’s hard to read about it without something of the gloss coming off the story.

Two questions come to my mind…

First, how is this kind of whole-scale vengeance compatible with the spirit of Jesus?

The simple answer is: it isn’t. Jesus, the “prince of peace”, told his followers to “love your enemies”, and prayed “Father, forgive them” for the people who crucified him. So from a Christian perspective, the aftermath of the Haman plot leaves a slightly nasty taste in one’s mouth.

It’s true, of course, that if this hadn’t happened, the bulk of God’s Old Testament people would have been wiped out: it was a dog-eat-dog world, and even God’s chosen people couldn’t help but be a part of it. The coming of Jesus was still a long way off. But still…

It’s not for us to judge or condemn the Jews of Esther’s day – we must bow to the justice of God, trusting that he knows what he is doing throughout history, and be thankful that we live in the days since the earthly life of Jesus.

Thanks be to God, though, for the clear-cut command, “Do not take revenge… but leave room for God’s wrath…” (Romans 12:19).

(Is that text a direct word to someone reading this?)

How radically and wonderfully Jesus changes everything!

The second question puts a rather different slant on the Esther story: if God could raise up an Esther to influence King Xerxes, why not another “Esther” to influence Hitler and his people?

That question rattles around in my mind because I have recently been reading various books about the Nazi horror – and there’s no doubt that the more you learn the worse it gets.

There are those who would say that we shouldn’t even ask the question. You may be one of them – and, indeed, there’s a large part of me that feels the same way. Paul’s challenge haunts me: “Who are you, a human being, to talk back to God…?” (Romans 9:20). Who indeed?

And yet there is an honourable Bible record of people who did “talk back to God”. The “Why?” question crops up repeatedly in the psalms – for example, 10:1, 22:1 and 88:14. The remarkable book of Job is full of it. So is the little book of Habakkuk: “Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?” (1:3); “Why do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13).

Supremely, of course, we have Jesus himself, who cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

It seems that God respects and honours those who, out of genuine anguish of heart, cry out to him in this way – always assuming, of course, that our hearts are humble and that our questioning reflects honest perplexity rather than rebellion.

We need to accept, too, that we’re not likely to receive an answer in any theoretical, intellectual sense. No, God does not offer to satisfy our curiosity, however genuine.

But the great thing is this: the honest questioner may very well get something far, far better than that – a whole new experience of the glory of God. Just contrast the endings of Job and Habakkuk with their beginnings! – in both cases a journey is made from confusion, frustration – even anger? – to radiant faith. Above all, contrast the glory of resurrection morning with the darkness of the crucifixion!

No, I don’t know why God acts in one way at one time, and in another way at another. I don’t know why he seems, from our perspective, to stand by while terrible things happen. But I do know this: that his ultimate purpose is to banish all evil from this beautiful world that he has made.

And when that day comes I suspect we will all want to say with Job: “I am unworthy. How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth” (40:4).

Not a bad place for it, I think.

Lord God, your ways are shrouded in mystery, and the question “Why?” is often on our lips. Help me to be humble even if indignant, and submissive even if angry. And so bring me to that day when all my questionings will fade on my lips. Amen.

The woman who refused to come

But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come… Esther 1:12

I wrote last time about the book of Esther, and how God intervened in the crisis confronting the people of Israel when the Persians threatened them with extermination. Especially, how he used Esther, an ordinary young woman, to bring about their rescue.

The story featured three main characters, apart from Esther – Xerxes the king, who stupidly allowed the plot to be hatched; Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and guardian, who advised her and used his influence with the king; and Haman, the cruel official behind the whole thing.

It’s a powerful and stirring story.

But wait a minute… Isn’t there someone else? Someone else it’s easy to overlook? Isn’t there another woman as well as Esther?

Yes, there is. Queen Vashti disappears from the story after the first chapter. But if it hadn’t been for her the whole thing would never have happened.

The story is simple… King Xerxes, drunk on his own power and magnificence, puts on a massive, garish display for around six months, and then throws a fantastic party that goes on for seven days. As a climax to the festivities – when he is “in high spirits from wine” (note that!) – he decides it would be a good idea to put his beautiful wife, Queen Vashti, on display for everyone to gawp at. He sends a group of servants to fetch her.

But… “Queen Vashti refused to come.” If ever there were five explosive words, there they are.

I wonder what Xerxes’ face looked like when they told him? “Sorry, my lord, but her majesty says she won’t come…” “She won’t come! What are you talking about? Of course she’ll come. Bring her here immediately!”  He is “furious and burns with anger”.

But no… Queen Vashti refused to come.

As a result she is banished from the palace – and the way is opened up for a replacement. Enter Esther… and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s hard to exaggerate the courage of Vashti in this episode. Throughout the ancient world women were expected to be subservient to men, especially wives to husbands. And when your husband is the king…! and such a king as Xerxes…!

In recent times especially, Christians have argued over exactly how the New Testament verse “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22) should be applied today. I don’t think the Vashti story should be pressed into service in that debate – the historical and religious context is completely different.

But even so, I’m glad that the Bible itself gives us this striking example of a woman who, well, simply refused to submit to her husband. And I find it hard to imagine anyone reading the story at any point in history without responding with a heart-felt “Good for you, Vashti!”

How far Xerxes and Vashti are from the innocence and purity of Eden before the fall, when Adam and Eve worked together as equal partners in God’s clean, beautiful, new creation. How far too from those other New Testament words of Paul: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25). For Xerxes, it seems that Vashti was just a piece of property, not a partner to be cherished and valued. A trophy wife if ever there was one.

What a stain on human history is the disgusting brutishness with which untold numbers of men have treated women – and still do, of course. And what a burden – and privilege – rests upon the church to demonstrate to our fallen world something of what God intends for relationships between husbands and wives in particular, and between men and women in general.

If Vashti hadn’t “refused to come”, we can only guess what might have happened. Presumably Haman would have gone ahead with his plan and his genocidal intentions would have been carried out.

But God saw the end from the beginning, and just as he had Esther lined up to play a key role in the deliverance of her people, so also he had Queen Vashti lined up to set the ball rolling. If Esther was courageous in the way she acted (“and if I die, I die”), you could say that Vashti was even more so.

I wonder if Queen Vashti can stand as an example to some of us today, men as well as women, as we find ourselves confronted by cruelty, stupidity, injustice and prejudice.

Whatever, how about a round of applause for perhaps the bravest woman in the Bible: the woman who refused to come.

Lord God, hear our prayers for all people, men and women, individuals and groups, who are victims of bullying, prejudice and injustice. Give them the courage of Vashti and Esther, and give us the concern to stand for them in any ways we can. Amen.

Let God pick up the pieces

Mordecai said, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” … And Esther said, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I die, I die”. Esther 4:14-16

I was given a book not long ago which had me gripped pretty well throughout. It’s about the Nazi horror both before and during the Second World War. Especially, it focuses on two of the lawyers who played a major part in establishing what crimes the German leaders could be accused of at the Nuremberg war trials. What makes it particularly fascinating is that both of them were themselves victims of the Holocaust – and both of them came from the same city, Lvi v, situated today in Ukraine. If you’re interested, look out for East West Street, by Philippe Sands.

I was in the middle of this book when, in my daily Bible reading, I found myself in the Old Testament book of Esther. What struck me is how uncannily history repeats itself: the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews – and that, according to Esther, is exactly what happened under King Xerxes of Persia nearly 500 years before Jesus.

I won’t go over the story- you can read it again at your leisure. But in essence it’s about how God raised up a Jewish girl called Hadassah, or Esther, to become part of the king’s harem and to succeed in wrecking the wicked Haman’s plot against the Jews.

As you read books like these, you find yourself shaking your head at one of the mysteries of history: why have the Jews been so viciously hated down through the centuries? May God forgive us for any hint of racial prejudice that lurks in our hearts! – and especially, perhaps, for any hint of antisemitism.

I’m not competent to answer the question. I just want to highlight a pivotal point in the story of Esther, a point which remains relevant for us all these centuries later. It takes the form of a conversation between Esther and Mordecai, her uncle and guardian…

First, there is the moment when Mordecai gets her to see that it is no mere accident or coincidence that – completely out of the blue – she has risen to a position of power with King Xerxes.

True, a terrible emergency has arisen; true, all the Jews in Persia are threatened with mass murder. But… Esther is one of the king’s concubines! So she may be able to exert influence on him. Mordecai speaks these memorable words: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14).

Though God is never actually mentioned in the book, its message for us is about his providence – how, in ways we cannot imagine, he works through the circumstances of our lives in order to bring his purposes to reality.

Do we believe this? Of course, most of us have a far more humdrum role in life than Esther. But God uses his people in all sorts of ways, so that even when things seem to be going wrong, his hand is, so to speak, on the tiller.

As we go about our ordinary business day by day, let’s remind ourselves: “It’s not just random or coincidental that I am where I am. God has a purpose for my life today – through the situations I find myself in, through the people I meet, even through the pains and difficulties I may have to face up to.”

And so let’s breathe a simple prayer: “Lord, don’t let me miss what you want of me today!”

How does Esther respond? The task Mordecai suggests is extremely uncertain, and fraught with danger. She may succeed, or she may fail, for strictly it is forbidden for her to approach Xerxes – on pain of death.

So what does she do? First, she asks Mordecai to get the people of Israel to fast and pray for three days and nights. And then this: “When all this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I die, I die.” (4:16).

There is a wonderful, if rather brutal, simplicity about those words: If I die, I die.

In essence what Esther is saying is: “My business is simply to do what is right – and leave the consequences to God.” She isn’t shrugging her shoulders in resignation; she is affirming her faith in God.

In my time as a minister I developed a little mantra for when we found ourselves in a particularly difficult situation. (I wish I could say I obeyed it at all times!) I remain convinced that it’s wise: Do what’s right and let God pick up the pieces.

Life sometimes throws up difficult and delicate situations which require hard answers. It can be easy to “take the line of least resistance” and go with the flow. It can be hard – and involve real pain and sacrifice – to stand firm for what is right.

To say with Esther, in effect, If I die, I die. So be it, Lord.

Do we have that kind of faith and courage?

Father, you tell us in your word to “put on the whole armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Give me, I pray, the faith, the courage and the wisdom to do that in every situation. Amen.