This week we begin a brand new series called Stand Up: How to Fight Injustice. For the next six weeks and with the story of Esther as our guide, we are going to look at how as followers of Jesus we can stand effectively against injustice in the world around us. Sometimes we’ll be called to do that in big, bold ways, but more often than not, our best chances will be small and seemingly insignificant. But, if we don’t make them, injustice is given that much more space to flourish, so make them we must. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for how to do it.
Be Ready to Stand
Have you ever heard the word “serendipity” before? I’m sure you have. Better question: Do you know what it means? You might know it was the title of a romantic comedy starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. That doesn’t really answer the question, though. Serendipity is a word used to describe a random, but fortunate turn of circumstances. In other words, serendipity is when something good happens to you totally unexpectedly. The idea is that the universe has contrived to bless you in some kind of a way without your realizing it. Now, this is not a concept that connects with the Christian worldview at all. As followers of Jesus, we believe that God is the giver of all good gifts, not some impersonal entity such as “the universe.” But, many people don’t have a category for something like this happening because they don’t have the proper worldview framework and so they simply call it serendipity.
How about this one: Do you know what injustice is? Of course you know that one. You could point out examples of injustice all day if I wanted you to do so. Injustice is when something happens that is not right on a much broader scale than personal inconvenience. There are cases of injustice all around us. What’s going on right now in Syria is an injustice of the first order. The same goes with increasing Chinese persecution of churches. Pastor Andrew Brunson—a North Carolina native—has been held as essentially a political hostage by the government of Turkey on the basis of charges with are entirely bogus. That’s unjust. In our own nation, black people—particularly young, black men—are incarcerated at a rate 17 times higher than that of white people. That’s unjust. In the midst of a culture of such financial excess that we create 254 million tons of garbage each year (16.8 tons per person in this state), there are children in our county who will go to bed hungry tonight. That’s unjust. We are familiar, sometimes intimately so, with injustice.
Here’s a tougher question: What on earth do these two ideas have to do with each other? Well, on their face, not very much. Acknowledging theological distinctions and using the word anyway for the moment, both of these concepts are regularly present realities in our lives. We hear about and experience injustices on a reasonably regular basis, but we also experience the blessing of serendipity fairly often as well. Sometimes within fairly close proximity to one another. So, why talk about these two faintly connected concepts which nonetheless are regular features in our lives? Because in the journey we are beginning this morning, both of them have a role to play.
This morning we are beginning a brand-new teaching series called Stand Up: How to Fight Injustice. If that title sounds familiar at all, it’s because it is the title of the Bible Studies for Life Sunday school series that many of our groups started this morning and which is the inspiration for this series. For the next six weeks with the Biblical narrative of Esther as our guide we are going to take a look at what as followers of Jesus we can do about the injustice rife in our world. You see, if you are serving the God revealed in the pages of Scripture, you are serving a God who is just. Justice is absolutely fundamental to who He is. He is passionately concerned about what’s right, and that right triumphs over wrong. More than just being passionately concerned, He has both the means to make sure this happens as well as the wisdom to make sure it happens justly. Think about that: He doesn’t just pursue justice. He pursues justice justly. More than even this, He expects that we His followers will join Him in this pursuit. As followers of Jesus, we are called to stand for justice in a world that is unjust in nearly every way because of sin. And indeed, it has been the people of God who have been the most concerned with the pursuit of justice throughout the centuries of the church. But still, for you and me, sometimes those folks seem like they’re up there while the rest of us are down here trying to figure out just how to make it through the day without killing our kids, fighting with our spouse, or going back to the hospital with the loved one we are nursing back to health. Pursuing justice isn’t simply not on the radar, even if it were something we were more inclined to do, we wouldn’t know where to start the fighting.
This series is for you. For the next six weeks we are going to talk about some really practical ways that you and I can begin working for justice right where we are. Sometimes we’ll be given the opportunity to make large, bold stands against injustice, but more often it is about doing the right thing on behalf of someone else at a point in time when not a soul will even be paying attention. To quote a bit of godly wisdom from an unexpected source (ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of Shield tv show): Your steps don’t have to be big, they just have to be in the right direction. That’s what Esther found herself needing to do. If you’ve ever been in a situation like Esther’s, you can do what she did, but there’s something you need to know first. As for what Esther’s situation was, let me tell you her story.
Esther was born a foreigner. She was the daughter of the descendants of captives who both died when she was still young. Her cousin, Mordecai, took her in and raised her as his own daughter. In order to really understand her story, though, we’ve got to go back a few more years. In 586 B.C., the nation of Babylon toppled the walls of Jerusalem after a lengthy and painful siege, destroyed the temple, not leaving even one stone standing on top of another. They wrecked its very foundation. They killed thousands of Israelites and carried off the rest to what they expected to be generations of captivity.
Now, we don’t know what that’s like. Frankly, we can’t even imagine it. For the Israelites, this would have completely destroyed their worldview. In a day when all warfare was essentially religious warfare and victory meant that the winning army’s gods were bigger and better than those of the losing army, Israel’s understanding of Yahweh as the God of all gods was shattered. They had been told for generations that the gods of the nations were nothing. And here Marduk and his people, the Babylonians, seem to have proven this notion almost entirely false. They were questioning everything they had ever believed to be true. They were a broken people who really didn’t know up from down anymore.
Yes, the prophets had been proclaiming for years that this was on the horizon, but there’s a very good chance such words didn’t make it into the ears of the common folks. The leaders knew it and ignored it while everybody else was taken along for the hard ride. This was actually the last group of exiles taken to Babylon. The first, back in 604 B.C., had included a young man named Daniel and three of his close friends. By the time Jerusalem’s destruction was total, Daniel was already establishing himself as a valuable member of the Babylonian court. So, even though they were in the midst of a foreign land, the people were not without hope. What’s more, prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah continued to offer words of God to the exiles. One of their messages was that the people were to settle down and make homes in their new land. The peace and prosperity of their captors would be their own peace and prosperity. They were to “seek the peace of the city and pursue it.”
And then they got word that their captivity would only last for 70 years. Their hope shined even more brightly than before. Indeed, in the 70th year of their exile, the Persian king—yes, you heard that right; the Babylonians, God’s instrument of judgment on Israel were themselves found wanting and delivered over to judgment at the hands of the expansion-minded Persians—Cyrus the Great decreed that any Israelite who desired could return to Jerusalem under his protection and begin rebuilding their lives. Many did. They went in waves. And life for them there was difficult. There were starts and stops. They struggled with some of the same sins that had beset them before the exile. They forgot about the Lord for a time until He sent even more prophets to call them back to faithfulness. But eventually, they settled into a new pattern of life. It wasn’t like it had been before—they were a vassal state now and not free—but they were able to pursue a relationship with their God relatively free from external harassment, all the while waiting for the appearance of the promised Messiah—a hope that would shine brighter and brighter over the next 400 years until His arrival, which most of them missed anyway.
In spite of this new grant of freedom, though, not everyone went back to Jerusalem. There was a whole generation of Israelites who had never known any home except Babylon. While life was not easy for them—the locals looked down on them as inferior and always-suspicious foreigners who were probably only staying to cause trouble—it was familiar. And sometimes, familiar trumps freedom. Esther’s family was one of those who stayed behind. She grew up about 100 years after the fall of Jerusalem in the days of the cruel, capricious, and sensual King Ahasuerus, more commonly known as Xerxes I.
It was important in those days for a king to demonstrate his prowess to his people. The nobles in particular—those families who might have a genetic claim to the thrown and sufficient resources to challenge his rule should they be so disposed—needed to be constantly given the impression that the king was both strong enough and wealthy enough to more than meet the challenges of state (including the ones they themselves might set before him). Ahasuerus did this one year early in his reign by throwing an elaborate party…for six months. Every day for six months the people woke up and just partied. They ate from gold platters. They drank from golden goblets and there was no limit on the amount someone could drink. They had every form of entertainment they could imagine. On and on and on it went. Finally, at the end of the festival, the king threw a particularly huge party. During this event, when he was thoroughly intoxicated, he sent some servants to bring his queen, Vashti, out from her quarters to dance for him and his guests. His wife was widely known for her great beauty and he wanted to show all of it off to his drinking buddies.
To the queen’s great credit, but also her doom, she refused to be objectified before this inebriated posse and wouldn’t come. Now things were serious. Ahasuerus had spent six months demonstrating his wealth and power to his entire court and here at the climax of the event his own wife defied him. If he couldn’t make his own wife submit to his will, how could they really trust that he could make the Greeks do so on the field of battle? Vashti’s bold gesture created a crisis of court that the king moved immediately to solve. The drinking party was immediately transformed into a war council of sorts. He called in all of his advisors who were quick to commiserate and recognize the gravity of the situation. Why, if word got out that the king’s own wife could defy his command, wives all across the kingdom would begin to think they could as well. From Esther 1:16: “Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, ‘Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt, since they will say, “King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.” This very day the noble women of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will say the same to all the king’s officials, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty.’” As you can see, the very fabric of their society was in peril!
This group of “wise” and thoroughly intoxicated men came up with a solution that only a group of “wise” and thoroughly intoxicated men could: They would pass a law that could never be repealed declaring that Vashti would no longer be queen or enter the king’s presence ever again. This would not only teach her a lesson, but it would teach women in every corner of the kingdom to properly submit to their husbands.
So then, why take so much time to give you all this background? Because this was the culture in which Esther was about to find herself completely immersed. It was pagan. It was sensual. It treated women as little more than objects of pleasure. It was violent. The slightest misstep could see you punished well beyond the scope of your crime. It was unjust in every way imaginable. And now, this young, Jewish woman had to try and navigate this with no experience and only the slightest amount of training.
So, how’d she get there? Well, a few days after his drunken war council, when the effects of the partying had finally worn off, Ahasuerus realized what he had done. He taken the most beautiful woman in the kingdom and had written her permanently out of his life. This man who had a harem filled with women whose entire purpose was to bring him pleasure was lonely. Well, life with a capricious, cruel, and sensual king is rough on the good days. Worse when he’s bored, lonely, and licking his self-inflicted wounds. His advisors quickly proposed a solution that only served to underscore just how broken and unjust their culture was. They were in this mess because the king had objectified his now-former wife and queen, so naturally the way to solve the problem is to gather up all the beautiful young women in the kingdom to restock the king’s harem, the most beautiful of which would take Vashti’s place.
Esther was one of these young women. The text describes her in 2:7 as having “a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at,” which is the Bible’s way of saying that on a scale of 1 to 10, she was a 12. She stood out immediately. “And [Esther] pleased [Hegai, the head of the harem] and won his favor. And he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her portion of food, and with seven chosen young women from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem.”
Now, let’s take a minute to put this in perspective. On the one hand, this doesn’t sound like such a bad gig. For the next 12 months Esther and all the other girls chosen in the kingdom beauty search were going to basically have spa days all day every day. This was essentially a Persian finishing school in which the girls were going to be taught how to navigate life as members of the king’s court and go through an extensive battery of procedures designed to take their natural beauty and enhance it as far as their new masters knew how. Ladies, can you imagine spending every day at the spa…for a year? Yet let us not fool ourselves into thinking Esther’s new life was easy. She may have been in the palace, but life was no picnic. The intrigues of the halls of power can be a great deal more dangerous than normal life even if the accommodations tend to be better. For Esther, one wrong step could be the difference between life and death. She was going to spend the rest of her life at the beck and call of the king, expected to fulfill his every whim and desire when called upon. And when she was not called upon she could expect to simply sit and wait…perhaps for a lifetime. She was no longer a person, but property, and could expect to be used as such. No, while her portion may seem desirable, it was not nearly so ideal as it might sound at first.
Yet Esther was not just beautiful, she was also wise—no doubt a credit to her cousin Mordecai’s raising her well. When the time finally came for her to spend her night with the king, she listened well to Hegai’s helpful advice and absolutely wowed him. The king wasn’t merely impressed, he fell in love with her. Listen to how this played out: “When the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised. Now Esther was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her. And when Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” Now, if this story was a Hallmark movie, it would end here. But there is much more drama and adventure to go. There is drama and adventure that we will talk about over the next few weeks. This is a good place to pause Esther’s story for this morning.
So then, have you figured it out yet? Have you figured out the thing you need to know before you get into a battle against injustice? Perhaps it’s not so clear just yet. Let me change up the question a little bit to see if that helps you any. What’s missing from the story I’ve been telling you for the past few minutes? That’s kind of a big question. There are lots of things missing. There aren’t any unicorns in the story. Or tanks. Or skyscrapers. Let me get even more specific: What is missing from the story that you would expect to have heard given where we are and what we’re doing? Even more specifically than that: Who is missing from the story?
It’s God. Esther is the only book in the whole Bible that doesn’t make even a passing reference to God. Not even once. Think about that. How could they even allow such a book to be put into the Bible in the first place. Well, a lot of folks over the centuries have made rather forceful arguments against it. No less than Martin Luther, the great reformer, argued that its lack of mention of God should have resulted in it being excluded from the canon of Scripture. But…just because God isn’t mentioned directly doesn’t mean He’s not there at all. In fact, it doesn’t even mean He isn’t still all over the place.
Think about it like this: Have you ever had one of those experiences where you went through something hard and honestly, didn’t really feel God with you at all during it, but once you were on the other side were able to look back and see that He was really with you every step of the way, you just couldn’t see it? What was going on then? God didn’t ever stop working, He was simply working behind the scenes. He was quietly putting pieces in place to make sure that His plans were going to roll forward in spite of the various twists and turns, and especially the apparently negative or even evil twists and turns of history. The fact is, God is always at work behind the scenes.
Consider the story of Joseph. He gets sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison, and forgotten about for years. When things finally play out to his advantage he is able to say without a shred of bitterness that God was working behind the scenes the whole time into to make sure things played out just the way He wanted them. God is always at work behind the scenes.
As we continue in the story of Esther over the next few weeks, while there is not going to be any mention of God, we are going to be able to see through the twists and turns of the plot that God’s fingerprints are all over the place. Yes, from a secular perspective someone could argue that the whole thing (assuming it’s true for the sake of argument) is just a mess of coincidence and irony, but how much irony and coincidence are you going to allow before you start wondering whether or not someone is actively messing around with the levers of chance rather than it all just being attributable to serendipity? I mean, one good turn? Chance. Two good turns? Good luck. Three? A rash for fortune? But four, five, six, seven, or eight? Now we’ve got a pattern going and we need to start asking some different questions. Why are things unfolding the way they are? Is there more going on here than I can see from my current vantage point? What might God be up to and how can I make sure I’m moving with Him rather than against Him? Indeed, if God is always at work behind the scenes, these are questions we must not merely ask, we need to hang around to get an answer.
Just look at all the ways God was working here. Esther just happened to be stunningly beautiful—beautiful enough to catch the eye of the king. She was raised by a cousin who happened to have sufficient status to be able to access the king’s palace, and enough familiarity with life at court that he could school her properly in how she needed to behave when she got there. Esther happened to not only catch the eye, but the heart of the king and was made queen such that a servant of God was in position to be able to have a very large impact should the need arise. And, as the story unfolds, we are going to see that a rather dire need was going to arise sooner rather than later. God is always at work behind the scenes.
So then, what does this have to do with our pursuit of justice? The connection is here: We can stand against injustice, because we know our God is always at work behind the scenes. When you see something at work in the world around you that isn’t right, you can rest assured that God is already on the scene and in fact has been there for some time laying the groundwork for things to be made right. He very well may be laying the groundwork for them to be made right by you. God is always at work behind the scenes. If we are going to stand for justice, we can stand with confidence because our God is already there waiting for us to join Him. He was for Esther and He will be for us.