In this third part of our teaching series, Stand Up: How to Fight Injustice, we finally start talking about action. We’ve spent the previous two weeks establishing a baseline from which to begin our fight. This week the fight begins…but not where we might expect it. Our battles against injustice begin best not on our feet, but on our knees. Keep reading to see how this plays out through the story of Esther.
One of our good friends in Virginia is a handyman who enjoys woodworking. Prior to living there and getting to know Rod, the only time I had ever done any woodworking was my junior high shop classes—classes which I thoroughly enjoyed and was pretty good at. I still have most of the things I made. Rod and his wife, Pat, had the gift of loving us and they did it well and in a number of ways. One of the ways Rod did this with me in particular was to let me come down and play in his shop and create. I only got a few projects finished before our growing family reduced the time available for woodworking to nil, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Some of my favorite projects are a spice rack/cookbook shelf that’s hanging in the dining room and a toy bulldozer that was intended to be for the boys to play with until I realized how quickly they were going to break it relative to the number of hours that went into making it at which point it became a display piece. Well, Rod liked to collect t-shirts with inspirational or funny messages on them. One of my favorites was one that was perfect for the novice woodworker. It read: Measure twice, cut once, curse, go by more wood, repeat.
Have you ever taken that kind of an approach to problem-solving? You set out on the course of action you think will be the one to get you to the point of success only to find out along the way that in your hurry, you accidentally ran yourself into the weeds. We recently bought several basic bookshelves from the Variety Store at Frog Pond so we could get all our books out of boxes. They’re just the easy-to-build kind from Walmart. I’ve built somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 of these over the years. Still, I followed the instructions carefully for the first one. There was no reason to mess them up by assuming on familiarity I didn’t have. When I got to the second one…I got confident…and I put the top shelf on upside-down…which I didn’t notice until after I had nailed on the backboard and couldn’t fix it without doing more harm than good. Sometimes we think the best way forward is to act quickly and decisively; and sometimes that’s the case. But there are also times—and if we’re honest, these times are more frequent than for which we give credit—when quick, decisive action will get us into more trouble than we care to face.
When it comes to the issue of tackling injustice in the world around us no matter the size of its scale, the latter situation is a whole lot more frequent than the former. The fact is, battling injustice is God’s thing first, and when we set out to solve a problem that only God’s power is sufficient to tackle without submitting ourselves to and waiting for that power to lead the way, we set ourselves up for trouble. As much as we know that to be spiritual wisdom, though, it’s not our first instinct.
This morning finds us in the third week of our series, Stand Up: How to Battle Injustice. For the past two weeks we have been having a conversation about how we can tackle injustice in the world around us with the story of Esther as our guide. While we might do our best to close our eyes to it sometimes and live within the illusion of our nice, neat, safe, injustice-free bubbles, that’s becoming harder and harder to do. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle means that short unplugging entirely, we have injustices both real and merely perceived thrust in our faces at a pace that can be dizzying without some kind of an anchor to hold. We hear about people dying in unjust wars. We see pictures of children who may have already starved to death by the time the photos are published. We learn of families who cannot pay their bills and find themselves living in a car or a shelter. We are faced with ignorance and bigotry and intolerance (and not always in the places we are told they exist) with depressing frequency. In short: We see injustice everywhere. We know it’s there, and when we see it through the eyes of our heavenly Father, we will be motivated and passionate about addressing it. But, if we let this passion lead the way without wisdom as its companion, we run the risk of failing to do anything meaningful at the least and creating even more chaos and adding to the injustice at the worst.
If we are going to tackle injustice as followers of Jesus, then, we’ve got to have a plan in place to join with Him in doing it wisely and well. To this end, in the first two parts of our conversation we didn’t talk much about how to actually battle injustice at all. Instead, we saw two weeks ago that God is always at work behind the scenes. This is hugely important for us to keep in mind. This can give us more confidence that our Spirit-directed efforts will have at least some chance of success because we are joining in the work He has already been doing for some time and His schemes never fail. Then last week, we were reminded that it’s always right to do the right thing. Even if our initial efforts seem like they take things from bad to worse or are met with more injustice and fierce resistance, we must stick with it. Doing what’s right is always right and eventually right will always win out. We know that because we already have the end of the story in our hands. Fighting injustice is a campaign that’s going to succeed because God is just and in the end He’s going to get His righteous way. That’s why whether or not to fight injustice in the first place doesn’t even factor into our decision-making process. What matters is how. And that’s what I want to start talking about with you this morning.
This morning we are finally going to start getting more specific about how we can tackle injustice in the world around us. But, even in doing this, we’re not going to start where most folks would naturally expect. Check out the next part of Esther’s story with me.
When we left things last week, the world had basically fallen apart for the Jews in the Persian Empire. King Ahasuerus, placing far more trust and confidence in his newly minted second-in-command, Haman, than he deserved, signed off without a single qualm on his expansive plans to eliminate a troublesome people from the empire—plans that promised to deliver about a million pounds of silver into the kingdom’s coffers for the privilege of being carried out with the king’s blessing. And as for the notion of fighting back or fleeing, neither were particularly good options. The Jews had plenty of ethnic enemies back home in the western part of the empire who were no doubt licking their chops at the chance to wipe out a rival. They were badly outnumbered everywhere else. And the empire stretched from basically Egypt to India so there wasn’t really anywhere to go to escape.
And, in case you’ve forgotten, they were in this predicament because of Mordecai’s decision to literally stand with his convictions that he should bow to no one but God (convictions which, admittedly, were perhaps strengthen by an ethnic hatred stretching back centuries), and refuse to obey the king’s command that everyone in the king’s gate should bow before Haman every time he passed by. So, Mordecai, how’d standing against the injustice of this unjust promotion work out for you? It may always be right to do the right thing, but this certainly didn’t leave him or anybody else feeling like it.
When the news of Haman’s plot and the king’s command broke, Mordecai did the only thing he could: He mourned. Check this out starting in Esther 4: “When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry.” Can you picture that? This noble and proud man standing in the middle of the city in tattered, rough clothes, mottled gray from ashes that had been dumped over his head, wailing at the top of his lungs. As the news of the king’s edict spread, he was joined by others and still others of his brethren all the while puzzled locals looked on, wondering why the king had demanded the elimination of these people who were their neighbors and friends. What threat could these people with whom they shopped and shared their bread pose that warranted such a claim? It’s no wonder the text reports at the end of chapter 2 that “the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.”
Having expressed his grief as publicly as possible, Mordecai headed back to the king’s gate. But, there was an image to be maintained there. The king didn’t want anything unseemly going on in his house. If you were mourning, you weren’t welcome. Verse 2: “He went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth.” He may not be able to mourn in the king’s gate, but he was going to get as close as he could. He was going to get as close as he could and mourn this gross injustice in solidarity with his brothers and sisters throughout the empire. Look at v. 3 now: “And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.” In other words, this affected everybody, and everybody knew it.
Well, in a moment of some irony, one of the last people in the kingdom to hear about this unjust decree lived in the very place it originated: the palace. Esther finally learns of this tragic turn of events from her servants who, perhaps accustomed to ferrying messages between the queen and Mordecai, had apparently discovered him not in the king’s gate as he normally was, found him just outside in a terrible state, and reported back to Esther. Verse 4: “When Esther’s young women and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed. She sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he would not accept them.”
Perhaps by now, Esther had imbibed a bit of the palace culture, or perhaps she simply understood that she couldn’t communicate quite as effectively with Mordecai about what was going on if he was stuck outside as he was, but Esther’s first response was to try and get him to clean himself up so he could come inside. He was not going to be moved from his position, though. She was going to have to move in his direction if they were going to be able to talk about it. So, she found a servant whom she could send all the way out to where he was so she could get to the bottom of why exactly her cousin was so upset.
What follows is this really interesting exchange in which the two go back and forth via this poor messenger who must have been worn to the bone by the time they were finished. The conversation between the cousins, though, offers us an incredible picture of two individuals in positions to do something about it deciding how they are going to battle a particularly grievous injustice.
Look at how this happens and then we’ll talk about it for a few minutes. Come back to the text with me at v. 5: “Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what this was and why it was. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and command her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people. And Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.”
So, Esther knows now what is happening. The question is: What is she going to do about it? Mordecai’s command is for her to go straight to the king, and beg him to put a stop to this madness. Keep in mind: Nobody yet knows that she is a Jew. This has no doubt been to her advantage—especially considering the order that is now in place. How might this king with a reputation of being capricious and cruel react to the revelation that his own queen is a member of this people whom he has just slated for destruction? Would he take pity on her? Would he fly into a rage that she would hide this about herself from him and order her put to death with the rest of them? Before we can worry about that, though, there’s an even bigger problem, which Esther reveals to Mordecai in her response in v. 10. “Then Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to go to Mordecai and say, ‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.”
Got all that? Mordecai can demand she march up to the king’s throne and protest all he wants, but there’s one huge, glaring problem: Anybody who goes to the king without being summoned has just signed her own death warrant. Maybe you’d be killed quickly on the spot, but maybe he decides to make a very painful, public example of you. The singular exception was if he extended to you the golden scepter. Unless he did that, there would be pleading on behalf of the Jews by their highest-positioned champion. And, she hasn’t seen him for month. For all Esther knew, the king had grown tired of her and was ready to move on to someone else. The sheer number of unknowns here were mounting and they didn’t look good for Esther, Mordecai, or any of the rest of the Jews.
And yet, the alternative isn’t any better. In fact, it’s a great deal worse. If Esther doesn’t put her life on the line for the sake of her people, they’re all going to die anyway short some other miraculous intervention. About this intervention, Mordecai seems confident. In fact, he seems confident of two things: The fact that the people were going to be saved somehow, and that Esther is very likely in her position because she’s the one to do it. She’s the one to do it, and if she plays the coward’s card at this time, her family’s name will be forever consigned to infamy—a threat that carried a fair bit more weight in that day than it does now.
Listen to his familiar challenge: “And they told Mordecai what Esther had said. Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’”
In other words, “Esther, this is your moment. This is the thing you have been uniquely created and positioned to contribute to the world. If you don’t take this opportunity and make the very most of it you possibly can you will regret it for the rest of your life as you live out your days as the last Jew in the Persian Empire. As a matter of fact, eventually you’re going to die with us because you won’t be able to hide your real identity forever.”
And so, do you know what Esther does? She gets moving! She gathers all of her servants to create the biggest, flashiest, most impressive-looking consort she can manage; she dresses in her most regal robes; and she marches straight into the king’s inner chamber, right up to the throne, knocks the golden scepter out of his hand, and announces that she’s got something to say. Do you want to guess how the king responded? I have no idea because she didn’t actually do that at all. Given the temperament of her husband, that would have probably been a royally stupid thing to do.
What she actually does is something that for most folks seems totally counterintuitive when action appears to be the thing that’s needed. It is something, however, that reveals another important aspect of her character which we will see played out more fully in the next few weeks. From v. 15: “Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.’ Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.”
So, what does she actually do in this moment of intense crisis and need? She does the best, wisest thing she possibly could: She prays. As a matter of fact, she goes even one step beyond that. She enlists a huge group of people to pray with and for her. They all commit to praying fervently without anything else—even food—to distract them for three full days. This would have been an intense 72 hours. A normal fast then might go only from sunup to sundown and would be limited to food only. The sheer physical requirements to go for three entire days without not only food, but water also, would have been incredible. But, such was the scope of their need, and so they prayed. Hard. Do you want to know what happened? You’ll have to come back next week. For right now, though, let’s take a look at what we’ve seen happen this morning to see if perhaps there isn’t some wisdom to guide us in our own stands against injustice.
When we are facing injustice in our lives—especially a gross and personal injustice the likes of which was facing the Jews in Persia—our first instinct is to get to action. We need to do something about this! We need to fight! We need to protest! We need to flood our state and national representatives’ offices with so much mail and email that they can’t possibly ignore us! Whatever it might be, we’ve got to do something. And yet, when we get caught up in a fit of passion like this, we have a great tendency to stop listening to the God who is even more passionately concerned about it than we are, and start listening to those voices (whether in our own hearts or in the world around us) which feed into our natural desire to move immediately to set things right as we see them. Soon, the plans being laid are not God’s plans any longer, they are our plans and they are not surrendered to God. Folks, when our plans are the only ones we have in our hands, things are not looking good. Our plans will almost assuredly fail and fail badly. The right way forward—and indeed what Esther and Mordecai do here—is to surrender first, and then move when prompted.
Think back to what we saw play out in this incredible drama this morning. What was the first thing Mordecai did when news of Haman’s plot broke? He grieved. Before he did anything else, he simply grieved the injustice. Has an injustice ever really burdened your heart to the point of grief before? Many of us grieved on September 11, 2001. Perhaps you grieved six years later when a shooter opened fire on the campus of Virginia Tech and took the lives of 33 students and faculty members. Maybe you grieved in 2012 when another shooter barged into a first-grade classroom in Newtown, CN and murdered 20 children along with 6 other adults. For you it could have been the Las Vegas shooting that finally did the trick, or even the most recent “major” (how sad that we even need a distinction like that) school shooting in Florida. At some point, though, for many, grief was replaced by anger at the brokenness of our culture and they have continued turning to anger at each subsequent turn. They have then let this anger fuel their drive for action—some action…any action…that might possibly solve the problems. But in forgetting to grieve, no matter the size of the injustice, we set aside something of our humanity; of our creation in the image of a God who is perfect in holiness and yet still grieves the imperfections of His creation stemming from sin before He moves to action against them. The point here is this: When you’ve been hurt by some injustice (and, by the way, if you aren’t ever hurt by injustices that happen to other people, you need to check your heart), before you spring into action, let yourself feel that hurt for a bit. Let the hurt remind you of the brokenness of this world and put you in solidarity with the God who loves it still. Let it spurn you forward, not first to action, but to compassion for the wounded. When we thus surrender ourselves to God, we open the door to greater things than a mere jumping to action could hope to accomplish.
Okay, so we need to leave space to grieve. Great. But then we act? Not quite. The next thing Mordecai and Esther did was to clarify exactly what the problem was. Have you ever been struck by news that was so tragic you didn’t even really know where to start dealing with it? 9/11 represented this for many of us. It took our nation a while to figure out exactly what the problem was in the first place. Any response of action prior to that would have been unfocused and unhelpful almost by definition. When we are faced with an injustice of some kind, once we have grieved, we need to clarify exactly what the problem is that we are facing. Until we know the exact nature of the enemy we are opposing, we cannot battle it properly. And, as with the last piece of this puzzle, this is an act of surrender. It is a second surrendering to God our falsely claimed “rights” to even the score in the name of justice. It is a surrendering that allows time for Him to minister to our hearts and encourage us with the fact that He’s hurting from this too. It is a surrendering that allows space for us to see more clearly the thing we oppose. These are precious and critical moments. Prior to taking this space—as demonstrated in many recent cultural clashes—we are quickly and easily tempted to believe our foes are other people rather than the ideas inspiring their unjust actions which are our real foes. Indeed, when we understand not simply the nature of our opponent, but who it actually is, greater things are on the horizon. Surrendering to God leads to greater things.
So now we act, right? Yes. Finally! But not quite like you think. The most important and powerful action we need to take before we do anything else to stand against the injustice in the world around us is itself another act of surrender. We pray. We enter into a season of seeking God’s face and will so that we can be confident our actions are proceeding forward under His loving and just direction, and with His strength and power. Too often, when we set out to battle injustice, we approach the fight as if our strength is the thing that is going to get things accomplished. This is foolish in the extreme. We do not possess the wherewithal to effectively combat the injustice in the world around us. If you want an example, just consider the sound and fury and law passing that has happened in the face of all the mass shootings our nation has faced. Their impact? I think we can agree it’s been negligible at best. It is God who provides the power to make things happen. Unless we set ourselves firmly on His path and wait for His lead and action—things that only come through much fervent prayer—we will be running out ahead of the horse and will likely get run over on the way to our goal. And so we pray. But, like Esther and Mordecai, we don’t pray alone. God hears His people when we pray. Let’s make sure our spiritual voices are as loud as we can make them by a great multiplication of their number. Let us all together surrender ourselves to our heavenly Father so that He can lead us to stand against injustice in our world in the ways that will see it overcome. Surrendering to God leads to greater things. If we are going to act against injustice, starting anywhere else will make our road much longer and harder than it needs to be. Surrendering to God leads to greater things. As for what some of those greater things are…come back next week and we’ll start talking about them.