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God is in Control

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Just over two months ago I started reading the book of Esther in my own quiet times. It was a fantastic time. I loved the book, and I had a wonderful commentary to help me which I’ll tell you about later. As I progressed through this brief Old Testament book, I was challenged, uplifted, taught, and left in wonder at the majesty and providence of God. “This is something I’ve got to preach on sometime,” I told myself.

But there’s a problem with the Book of Esther. It’s a problem that has plagued wiser and better men than me. John Calvin wrote commentaries on 48 of the books of the Bible - but he didn’t write one on Esther. Even more remarkable is that he preached several thousand sermons during his lifetime, but we have no record of him ever preaching on the book of Esther. Martin Luther’s opinion of the book was even worse, “I wish it had not come to us at all”, he declared”, “for it has too many heathen unnaturalities!”

I’m not sure I know what a ‘heathen unnaturality’ is, but I think I do know what Luther means. You see Esther doesn’t really seem to fit very well in the Bible. In fact in some ways it appears not to belong at all. I mean, can you think of another Old Testament book where there are no priests, and no prophets? Where no-one has a dream or a vision, and no-one even prays? Can you think of another portion of Old Testament Scripture where there’s no mention of Jerusalem, the temple, or even of the Law? Where no animals are sacrificed, no sins forgiven. And believe it or not, in the Book of Esther, not even God seems to get a look-in. He’s not mentioned, not even once.

Last Sunday morning I asked Matt Rees to lead the evening services today. I mentioned I was speaking on Esther, and later that day he came back to me somewhat puzzled. “I’ve read the first couple of chapters”, he said. “What on earth are you going to say?”

I had to confess that I didn’t know then. You’ll be glad to know that I’ve got a better idea this morning! But whilst neither of us knew what I would say, we both knew that Esther is just as much part of God’s word as Genesis, Mark’s Gospel, Acts, or whatever it may be. We cannot avoid parts of the Bible because they seem strange to us.

On the other hand, if I was to preach a sermon that didn’t talk about God, and just gave you a history lesson about the Ancient Near East, you’d think you’d walked into the wrong church this morning, and you’d leave feeling you’d missed out on your spiritual food.

Wherever this sermon takes us, I think that if we bite the bullet, you will find (as I did) that the book of Esther is thrilling and inspiring and searching and, more than anything else, causes you to praise God for the wonderful ways in which he works. So, God-willing, over the next several Sundays when it’s my turn to preach, we’re going to pick our way through this wonderful book.

So let’s look at this first chapter then. I’ve got x points for you this morning, as we look at the various themes within the chapter. We’ll consider four points, and to help you remember them, they begin with the first four letters of the alphabet. Firstly, Asserting Control. Secondy, Battle of the Sexes. Thirdly, Crucial Beginnings, and fourthly Directing Operations.

So let’s look first then at:

Asserting control

Why have I chosen that as a heading? Simply because I think chapter one looks like a power-play between the major characters introduced at this point. I think the writer is subtly demanding an answer to an unwritten question. The question is this: Who is in control?

At first glance, the answer must be Xerxes. Look at verses 1-8. Here is a king with vast wealth. A king who rules 127 provinces. This is a party-loving king. Now maybe you like parties, but I bet you’ve never thrown a party that lasts for six months! But that’s what Xerxes does in verse 4. With that kind of a ability, this is a man who can clearly win friends and influence people. And look at his wealth as we read about all the furnishings in verses 5 and 6. That’s not to mention the guest list at his ‘small party’. This small party only lasts a week, but the entire population was invited! Clearly, here is a king who yields great influence, and great control.

The next character to be introduced is his wife, Queen Vashti. As the Queen of Persia, she clearly yields more than a little power herself. So much so, that when Xerxes orders her to parade herself in front of his drunken friends, verse 11, she stubbornly refuses. Here, in the pages of the Bible, is an icon for feminists everywhere. Here is a woman who stands up for herself. A strong woman. A powerful woman. A woman of destiny.

Then there are the seven special advisors. If you think we’re having problems with special advisors interfering with the civil service, just be glad you didn’t live in Susa. These boys ruled the roost. These seven people were the only ones in the whole land who could go and see the King uninvited. They held such power over him, it seems every suggestion they made, he would follow. Frankly, to some people, it looked as though they ran the country, not the king!

So who is in control? Surely not Xerxes, who could not control his own wife, and who was manipulated by his advisors. And definitely not Vashti, who quickly loses the power she had and is banished from the royal palace. And not even the advisors feel in control, because despite their authority in the citadel, needed an royal decree to ensure that their wives submitted to them!

So who is in control? We’ll come back to that question, later.

Next, let’s look at

Battle of the Sexes

You need to remember that chapter one of the book of Esther sets the scene for everything else to follow. And chapter one, like much of the rest of the book depicts a battle of the sexes.

Feminism is nothing new, nor is male pride. Here in this chapter we see Vashti taking a stand against the most powerful men in the land. Of course, that’s not an easy thing to do in a patriarchal society, and it’s no real surprise to us that she doesn’t last five minutes.

We then find that Persia is not simply a country where women are expected to submit to their husbands, but a country where the law demands they submit to them.

But the chapters that are to come over the next weeks will reveal the story of another woman, Esther. It will show her taking her stand against the men who surround her. How on earth will she succeed where Vashti has failed? Susa was clearly not a place for rebellious women.

But thirdly, chapter one asks us not simply to assess control, nor just to view the Battle of the Sexes. The key though here in this chapter could be summed up by my third point:

Crucial beginnings

When Matt asked me last week, “What on earth can we say about this chapter?”, it was because the chapter serves as an introduction to the rest of the book, and in itself is simply a faintly amusing tale about a foreign king who was snubbed by his wife in front of all his subjects. There are thousands of funnier episodes in history. There are thousands of other kings. There are thousands more exciting stories in other books. Frankly, this little story lacks what it takes to be a real-blockbuster.

In 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow started in a popular film called ‘Sliding Doors’. It’s opening sequence was not of a banquet in Susa, but of a grab grey Underground station. It pictured her arriving a few seconds late for her train, which departed without her. Thankfully there was no heart-broken sobbing on the platform, nor did she attempt to leap onto the back of the moving train, and clamber along it’s roof before dropping through a skylight without so much creasing her suit.

Instead she did exactly what you or I would have done, she expressed mild frustration, and started to think how she would get home.

Like the book of Esther, it didn’t look much of a dramatic start. But what the film, ‘Sliding Doors’ demonstrated was how much that tiny little incident changed Gwyneth Paltrow’s life. I won’t bore you with the details, but missing the train meant she got mugged, and spent the rest of her life working 18 hours a day and living with a worthless boyfriend. Had she got on the train, she would have discovered the said boyfriend cheating on her, dumped him, married a handsome prince, and ridden happily off into the sunset, or something like that, I think.

Missing a train and having to wait a few minutes doesn’t make the opening sequence of many films, but here it had enormous significance.

And even the comings and goings of Queens in the Ancient east don’t normally make headline news in the pages of the Bible, but this bout of rebellion by Vashti carried enormous significance in the history of God’s people. Jews all around the world still celebrate these events today, more than 2,500 years after they occurred.

What made ‘Sliding doors’ capture the public’s attention was the trivial nature of it’s opening scenes. And that’s exactly what the writer of Esther is trying to do here. What should grab our attention is the trivial nature of the entire chapter.

As the book unfolds, we’ll see that the waves rippling out from these tiny little events will soon overwhelm all those involved. But unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for that, because for now the story is only just beginning.

But we’ll finish with one last point, which is the most important point of all. We’ve already wondered who’s Asserting Control. We’ve viewed from the sidelines the Battle of the Sexes. We’ve seen these Crucial Beginnings. Now, we’re going to look at

Directing Operations

The events in Esther chapter one (very roughly) happen about 480BC. At that time, the world’s eyes are looking to China, where Confucius was at his zenith. Nearer home, attention is taken by Greece, where Socrates was starting to form his philosophies. The Olympic games had already been in existence there for nearly 300 years. Pythagoras is just about working out that a2 +b2 always = c2 in right-angled triangles.

But whilst historians, and athletes, philosophers and mathematicians all had their eyes on Ancient Greece and China, theologians look in another direction.  Their attention is turned to Jerusalem, where His people had recently returned from the exile in Babylon, had  rebuilt the temple, and were once more worshipping Him in that place.

In Judah, Haggai and Zechariah are reminding the people of God’s covenant-faithfulness, and Ezra is teaching them the law.

But the events in chapter one do not happen in China, nor in Ancient Greece, nor even in Jerusalem or Judah. They happen hundreds of miles away, in Susa, the capital of Persia.

You see, we sometimes mistakenly see Israel and Jerusalem as the only place where God was at work in the Old Testament. We know that Israel are God’s chosen people, we know that he has chosen them out of all the peoples on the earth.

But sometimes we forget that God chose the Father of the Jewish people from Ur of the Chaldees. We forget that Joseph spent much of his time working out God’s promises in the land of Egypt. We forget that Ruth, one of Jesus’ ancestors, was actually from Moab. We forget that Jonah was sent to the land of Ninevah, that David was kept safe from Saul by the Philistines, that Ezekiel did much of his preaching in Babylon. That judgement came on Israel from Assyria.

You see, if there’s anything the book of Esther teaches us, it’s that God is not simply God in Israel. This theme will develop more strongly as we go through the book together, but for now I want to simply re-state the obvious, and then go on to make some practical applications.

The obvious statement is this. If God is going to care for his people, he needs to be in control not just in Israel, but Ur, and Egypt, and Moab and Nineah and Palestine and Babylon, and Assyria. And, of course, Susa.

As the book unfolds, we’ll find out that in about ten years time, these events would become crucial for God’s people thousands of miles away.

None of the people in our story cared about God. None of them believed in him, and it’s safe to assume that they never did.

But that didn’t stop God working out his purposes in their lives.

At the time of our story, Xerxes is probably the most powerful man in the universe. He could have anything he wanted, and he usually did. He was a pagan, and he worshipped idols. Comparisons to 20th century leaders would be to Hitler, or Stalin or Deng Xiaoping.

But God used his petty row with his wife to start a ball rolling that would still be remembered 2,500 years later. Ten years before anyone else was aware of the dangers, God was manouvering his pieces into position, so that at just the right time, everything was ready to do exactly what was best for his people.

So what has this story got for us today? Simply this. Maybe this morning you’re in a situation where the outcome isn’t clear. Maybe you’re glad to be in church this morning, away from the problems and the troubles that have been plaguing you all week.

Any maybe you don’t know where the answer is coming from. Maybe you don’t know where to turn. Maybe you wish God would act.

If there’s anything that we can learn from the book of Esther is that God is at work in our world. His power and influence are not constrained within the four walls of this building. It’s not that God can’t direct the operations of your school, your home, your place of work. God is not thwarted by pagans who care nothing for him.

For Christmas Shâron and I were given a fridge magnet version of Connect 4. I have to say it gave me great pleasure to see her walking straight into the trap I had planned about four moves earlier, to put her in a position where she couldn’t win.

If you’re waiting for God to intervene in a particular difficulty in your life, I want you to be confident that God has already done so. He may not yet have delcared ‘check-mate’, but his pieces are already moving into position, and many of them are already waiting simply for the right time to act.

The problem is that we can’t often see God’s hand at the chessboard of life, and sometimes we doubt his presence. The Jews in Israel had no idea of the shenanigens of court life in Susa. Even those in Susa had no idea of the significance for them of these events. If you’ve never read the book of Esther, you’re in exactly the same position as them!

But those of us who know the story see clearly God’s invisible hand at the table. At least, we see his opening moves, even if sometimes we don’t understand his strategy. And that gives us confidence that in our life, God will do the same for us.

Sometimes, in life, it will seem that just like in the Book of Esther, God is not there. He is, but sometimes he demands just that little extra faith to see Him.

Let’s not forget that He is in the detail. That there is nothing that happens in this world that is not under his control.

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