Stand with Humility

In this fourth part of our series in Esther, Stand Up: How to Fight Injustice, we finally get to the action Esther takes to battle the gross injustice facing the Jewish people in Persia.  But, the exact nature of her action really isn’t all that important.  Rather, it’s how she goes about it that matters most.  Keep reading to see just what it is she does that makes her plan so effective.

 

Stand with Humility

I was born in what some would call the Golden Age of cartoons.  While they weren’t making new episodes, I had all the classic Looney Toons shows available to me.  But I came of cartoon age with the truly classic versions of Batman, Superman, Justice League, the X-Men, and Spider-Man.  I grew up loving superheroes—a love that is now being richly rewarded on the big screen.  The rewards are coming mostly from Marvel Studios which by next May when the fourth Avengers movie releases will have given us 25 movies over the span of 11 years, all telling one, big, overarching story.  It’s a little like the comic book world’s film version of the Bible.  And indeed, the latest Avengers movie has crossed the billion dollars in ticket sales mark faster than any other movie.  I’ve seen it: It was amazing.  It is not a standalone film, however, so I am eager as can be to catch part two next May.

One of the things that has made all the Marvel films so good, is that they’ve done a pretty good job of making sure the characters make choices that matter.  While the famous post-credits scene of the first Avengers film shows all the heroes sitting around enjoying Shawarma (Indian cuisine that enjoyed a brief surge of popularity because of that scene) together after saving the world, choices made in one film have consequences in the next.  No film bears this out more starkly—and painfully—than the third Captain America movie, Captain America: Civil War.

In the film, the heroes are all dealing with the aftermath of the events told in Avengers: Age of Ultron which preceded Civil War chronologically.  In particular, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man is struggling with the fact that it was decisions he made that created Ultron, the main villain in the film, who killed hundreds of innocent people in his efforts to destroy all life on earth.  In one especially difficult scene near the beginning, a grieving mother whose son was killed because of Ultron’s evil, hands his picture to Stark and tells him that she blames him personally for his death.

The question Stark and all the other characters wrestle with for the rest of the highly emotional film is what if the choices we make in our attempt to battle injustice result in more harm than good.  Stark created Ultron by accident while he was trying to develop a more comprehensive way to defend the planet against threats like Thanos poses in the most recent film.  If innocent lives are lost trying to save many more, is that a tradeoff worth making?

Now, I know this all just comic book lore, but that doesn’t make these questions any less important for us to be asking.  That’s part of what makes all these movies so good.  Many of them are big stories, fancy costumes, and incredible computer animations wrapped around ethical questions the likes of which we as followers of Jesus should actually care about asking.  As a matter of fact, how to effectively battle injustice is the whole thrust of the conversation we have been having now for the past month.

This morning we are in the fourth part of our teaching series in the book of Esther, Stand Up: How to Fight Injustice.  If this is the first part of the series you have caught, you’re kind of coming in during the second half of a movie.  You’re certainly not going to miss out on anything that will keep you from knowing what’s happening, but you would benefit from getting the whole story.  If you go to my blog, which is printed for you on the front of the bulletin, you can catch up on the parts you’ve missed there.

In any event, the big idea for this conversation is that as followers of the God who is just, we should care about justice.  In fact, we should more than just care about it.  We should care about it enough to want to do something meaningful about it.  Where we see injustice in the world around us, something in our heart should beat with the pulse of seeing it eliminated.  That being said, leaning so hard into that passion that we run off on a quest without waiting for wisdom to lead the way will set us up for more trouble—and possibly more injustice—than we’d care to know.  Then there’s the fear-factor involved.  What if I set out to battle injustice and fail?  What if things blow up in my face even though I was being deliberate and wise in my approach?

With all of this in mind, we started this conversation with two really important things to know before we even enter the ring.  The first is that God is always at work behind the scenes.  When it comes to battling injustice, we’re never the first ones to the fight.  Without fail, God has been there before us, preparing the ground for our eventual arrival onto the scene.  We don’t even initiate anything.  Rather, we join Him in the work He’s already doing.  This should be a note of great encouragement to us because God doesn’t fail at anything He does.  If He’s already there working before our boots even hit the ground, then our efforts can’t help but to succeed.  In large part because of this, the other thing we talked about is the fact that when it comes to doing the right thing, there’s never a wrong time to get started.  It’s always right to do the right thing.

If we are going to do the right thing, though—and this is where we’re going this morning—we’ve got to do it the right way.  Indeed, doing the right thing in the wrong way was the very question that framed the whole Captain America: Civil War debate.  If we are going to do the right thing in the right way, we’ve got to start in the right place.  That’s what we talked about last week.  When Esther and Mordecai set out to battle the gross injustice of the king’s genocidal declaration, they didn’t rush off half-cocked because something had to be done.  No, they started on their knees in surrender to the God who cared even more about it than they did.  As counterintuitive as it might seem, surrendering to God leads to greater things.

Well, as we wrapped up last week, I told you that you would have to come back this week in order to find out what actions their three-days of surrendering praying sparked.  Come back to the story with me and let’s take a look together.  Esther asked Mordecai to gather the Jews and pray for three days.  When the three days were up, she honored her word and went before the king.  Check out Esther 5:1: “On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, in front of the king’s quarters, while the king was sitting on his royal throne inside the throne room opposite the entrance to the palace.”  Pause for just a minute and look at the detail there.  The author goes out of his way to make sure we can get as clear a visual as possible of what’s happening here.  Esther dresses in her regal best, and goes before the king.  At the author’s urging, imagine this scene.  I get a picture in mind of a large room with high ceilings that is decorated richly.  There are wide columns to hold up the roof and several large, high basins with fires burning in them to provide light.   At the far end of the room is a huge throne.  Surrounding the throne are various advisors and servants, all dressed in the elaborate costumes of royalty.  On the throne sits the king.  Guards are stationed around the room to deal with any distractions from business that might arise.  Opposite the throne is a huge set of doors.  The only reason those doors open is because the king himself has given leave for it in order to see the people whom he has summoned to be in his presence.  On this particular morning, though, the doors open unexpectedly, and in walks a surprise guest: the queen.

For a moment, everything in the room freezes.  All the conversation comes to a halt.  The guards get tense.  Everyone there knows she has not been summoned.  At first all eyes rest on Esther whose regal beauty leaves them captivated.  Eventually, though, the heads all swivel back around to the king to see what he’s going to do with this interruption.  No one so much as breathes.  What is going to happen?  Verse 2: “And when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won favor in his sight, and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand.  Then Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.”  With a rush, everyone lets out the breath they had been holding.  Esther’s beauty, her charm, her virtue, had won the king’s heart before, and they held it still.  Her boldness is rewarded with favor.  She receives favor and the king’s attention.  The only question now is what she plans on doing with it.

Verse 3 now: “And the king said to her, ‘What is it, Queen Esther?  What is your request?  It shall be given you, even to half of my kingdom.’”  Now, in strictly literal terms the king was probably not going to be willing to give her half of his kingdom.  Rather, this was a way of expressing his favor.  It’s like the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart asks Donna Reed if she wants him to lasso the moon.  This is a king given to largesse to show how great he is—consider the six-month party whose tumultuous end led to Esther being in the position she’s in now.

And at this point, we might expect Esther to jump right in on her mission.  Here the king has given her the floor to ask for just about anything she could want.  What’s more, he’s done it in front of his court meaning honor and imagine will hold him to his promise.  It’s like when Herod made a similar offer to his niece after she danced before him at a party and she came back asking for the head of John the Baptist on a plate.  Herod had no desire to put John to death, but he had to do it in order to save face.

Yet the timing wasn’t quite right.  Like a good gambler knows you can’t play all your high cards right away, Esther holds back on making her full request of the king and instead simply invites him and Haman to dine with her that afternoon.  Indeed, putting him on the spot on a difficult issue in front of his whole court would probably not have gone well for her.  There was no need to embarrass him.  Honey attracts more flies than vinegar.  Verse 4: “And Esther said, ‘If it please the king, let the king and Haman come today to a feast that I have prepared for the king.’”  No doubt pleased that she only asked for dinner and intrigued at what else she might have up her sleeve, the king immediately agrees.  Verse 5: “Then the king said, ‘Bring Haman quickly, so that we may do as Esther has asked.’  So the king and Haman came to the feast that Esther had prepared.”  (By the way, imagine how hard it was to prepare a huge feast when you hadn’t eaten yourself for two or three days!)

As the afternoon began winding to a close, the king asks Esther once again what it is she wants.  Surely she wouldn’t risk her life by entering into his presence without being summoned for something as simple as lunch.  Look at v. 6 now: “And as they were drinking wine after the feast, the king said to Esther, ‘What is your wish?  It shall be granted you.  And what is your request?  Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’”  And at this point we’re thinking, “Esther, this is your chance!  You missed your first big opportunity in the throne room, but don’t blow this one.  This is a smaller group so he won’t have to save so much face when you lay it on him.  Go for it!”

But Esther has a plan at this point and it’s a good one.  So she demurs one more time, but this time with the promise that she’ll let him know what all of this is about tomorrow.  Now, plan or not, Esther knows she has her husband right where she wants him.  Guys, come on, if your wife started buttering you up like this and inflating your ego, you’d be willing to give her just about anything she wants when she finally asks.  Esther pulls him along one more time: “Then Esther answered, ‘My wish and my request is: If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my wish and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come to the feast that I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said.’”  And so how does this finally unfold?  You’ll have to come back next week to find out.  But, there is just a little bit more of the story I would like to share with you this morning.

Remember: There were three characters at this feast.  Esther, King Ahasuerus, and Haman.  The feast presumably takes place at the palace where Esther and the king stay.  But Haman doesn’t live there and has to go home afterwards.  The narrator takes us along after him.  Check this out starting in v. 9: “And Haman went out that day joyful and glad of heart.”  And wouldn’t you be?  You just enjoyed an exclusive feast with the king and the queen.  Not only that, but you got an invitation to come back for another feast tomorrow.  Nobody else in the kingdom was invited and your invitation was delivered personally by the queen herself.  For a man with an ego the size of Haman’s, this was about as good as it got.  He was on cloud nine…until he ran into the reason we’re in this situation in the first place: Mordecai.

Keep reading in v. 9: “But when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, that he neither rose nor trembled before him, he was filled with wrath against Mordecai.  Nevertheless, Haman restrained himself and went home, and he sent and brought his friends and his wife Zeresh.  And Haman recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, all the promotions with which the king had honored him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and the servants of the king.  Then Haman said, ‘Even Queen Esther let no one but me come with the king to the feast she prepared.  And tomorrow also I am invited by her together with the king.’”  In other words, “I.  Am.  The Man.  Short the king, there is no one greater than me in the whole of the kingdom.”  You would think that would be enough to sate his hungry ego.  But no.  He’s focused on the one thing he doesn’t have.  Verse 13: “Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.”

Have you ever been here?  Unable to be happy because of something you don’t like staring you in the face and powerless to do anything about it.  It’s a miserable, pathetic place to be.  It doesn’t speak well of the person who is in such a place.  Yet it is exactly where Haman is sitting.  And, since his wife and friends are all like-minded, they propose a solution that will indubitably solve the problem.  Look at this: “Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, ‘Let a gallows fifty cubits high be made, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged upon it.  Then go joyfully with the king to the feast.’  This idea pleased Haman, and he had the gallows made.”  Yikes, right!  Forget having numbered days, Mordecai has numbered hours.  Why didn’t Haman think of this before?!?  All he had had to do was to have him put to death and he could have avoided all this head- and heartache.

Even if you know this story well, I hope you can feel the tension here.  At the end of chapter five, it is not at all clear how this is going to play out in the end.  The emotional roller coaster of this chapter alone has been pretty intense.  At first it looks like Esther has the king right where she needs him to prevent Haman’s genocidal plans from ever happening, but now at the end it looks like Mordecai might be dead before Esther gets a chance to say a word to the king.  So what happens?  You know what I’m going to say at this point: You’ve got to come back next week.

For now, though, think with me for a minute about what Esther did that was so effective here.  I mean, King Ahasuerus could have responded to her in a whole lot of different ways and most of them weren’t good.  I’d have to say it was an answer to three days of intense praying that resulted in her getting the golden scepter extended to her in the first place.  But praying, while the biggest part, was still only part of the equation here.  Esther moved this week.  She did something.  She took action.  This is the thing we’ve been waiting a month to see happen.  She finally set about fighting this terrible injustice.  And by all accounts, so far she’s succeeding wildly.  What did she do that worked so well?  What was her secret sauce?

Do you remember what we talked about at the beginning?  It’s one thing to set out to battle injustice.  It’s a totally different thing to do it well.  Esther didn’t just do battle with this injustice, she did it well.  And the thing that made her so successful isn’t hard to understand.  It’s not rocket science.  It’s humility.  Esther was able to be so successful in her initial steps to combat this gross injustice because she approached it with humility.  The inclusion of Haman’s conversation with his wife and friends back home creates a marked contrast that helps to make this point even more emphatically.  Think about the difference between the two scenes.  Esther is gentle and kind and humble at every point.  Meanwhile, Haman is an egotistical maniac willing to have an innocent man put to death for what amounted to a personal offense.  Their differences in style could not be starker.  And come on, the book is called “Esther” not “Haman,” so even though I’m not going to tell you what happened next, you can probably guess who succeeded.  For Esther, humility ultimately won the day.  And, if we’re going to battle injustice, it will for us too.  Humility ultimately wins the day.  When we approach injustice from a place of honesty about who God is, who we are as people, and the implications of those two truths, our likelihood of success is going to go way up.  Humility ultimately wins the day.

Still, that’s a pretty abstract concept.  What does this actually look like when we put it into practice?  What does it look like to battle injustice with humility?  Well, for starters, it means we respect our opponents.  We can see the difference between respecting and hating our opponents right here in the text.  When Esther appeared before the king, he and Haman were her opponents.  Notice how she approached.  She dressed to honor them and then entered the room unobtrusively.  She simply stood in the back and waited to be noticed.  She put herself in the right position, but didn’t force her hand.  Her tone is humble too.  She doesn’t say, “I want you at dinner.”  She says, “If it please the king, let the king and Haman come today to a feast I have prepared for the king.”  Meanwhile, Haman continually reduces Mordecai’s humanity in his eyes until he is little more than trash to put out with the garbage.  His hatred consumes him.  If we are going to oppose an injustice in the world around us, learning to see our opponent as human will help keep us focused on battling the injustice itself first and not the person perpetrating it.  It helps us keep the battle focused on the real enemy: sin.

Speaking of respecting the person, we must make sure we make the outcome of our efforts about procuring justice, not gaining vengeance.  If we are simply looking to settle a personal score, justice will never be served.  Seeking vengeance runs on the assumption that we are the chiefly offended party.  This, however, is never actually the case.  God is the chiefly offended party.  It’s His world and word that have been broken by this injustice.  The offense we bear is never more than secondary at best.  Esther understood this.  She never once makes any of what she says about her.  She is laser focused on the real issue.  Haman, on the other hand, makes Mordecai’s offense entirely about himself.  It consumes him…and ultimately destroys him.

Along similar lines, if we are going to battle injustice, we’ve got to make it personal.  As long as it remains a secondary interest to us, we won’t give it the attention and effort it truly deserves.  Whether it’s a personal stake or a personal connection or a personal interest, if we don’t have this, we’re not going to have the internal fortitude necessary for the sustained battle that very well may be ahead of us.  At the same time, though, we can’t make our fight about ourselves.  Fighting injustice with humility means making it personal, but not about ourselves.  When our work becomes mostly about us, we’re not really battling injustice any longer at all, we’re advancing ourselves…which usually results in the creation of injustice.

The way to keep from making ourselves into the heroes of our own stories is to regularly sacrifice our vision of justice to God’s vision.  Remember what humility is?  It’s fundamentally about being honest about who God is and who we are.  When we reach such a place, holding God’s vision of justice as the most important will be easy.  In our vision of justice, we are going to make sure that all of our interests are satisfied.  Because of sin, though, our interests are regularly tainted with selfishness.  God’s aren’t.  Battling with humility means making sure God’s vision is the goal of our efforts.  When we do this, we will ultimately win, because humility ultimately wins the day.

The last thing here is perhaps the hardest.  Battling with humility means that we stay focused on the most pressing issues.  When we set out to pursue the great, we can count on being beset by a string of things that are good and which will gladly occupy some of our time if we are foolish enough to give it.  If we do this, though, we will soon find ourselves thick in the weeds and unable to give our primary aim the focus it needs to be accomplished.  When Esther confronted the king, there were no doubt many issues she could have brought up before him as needing to be addressed.  By the time of the banquet we’ll talk about next week, she was going to have his undivided attention combined with his promise to do just about anything she was going to ask of him.  Staying focused was paramount, though, if the Jews were going to be saved.  If we’re going to battle injustice, staying focused on the injustice we’re battling rather than any of the myriad of side issues that will arise along the way—some of which will be intended by our enemy to throw us off track—is every bit as important.

Now, do any of these things or even how Esther approaches the injustice facing the Jewish people give us a step-by-step path to follow in tackling the injustice in the world around us?  No, they do not.  But then, every single situation is unique.  This idea may blow your mind a bit, but even the exact details of Jesus’ battles against the injustices of sin don’t offer us a step-by-step pathway to follow.  We follow the heart of His actions, but there’s a very good chance that being an itinerant minister who dies on a cross after three years of ministry is not going to be the best approach to battling the particular injustice you have been designed and equipped by God to tackle.  When we follow Jesus, we do the kinds of things He did (love others well, proclaim the Gospel with boldness, disciple other believers with intentionality, stand in the character of God with conviction, and so on), with the same Spirit in which He did them (courage, faithfulness, graciousness, love, and, yes, humility).  The same thing goes with Esther here.  Inviting our opponent to two different banquets before finally asking them with polite boldness to stop whatever it is they are doing wrong is probably not the approach that’s going to work for us.  But standing against injustice with humility as our guide?  That will get the job done.  Humility ultimately wins the day.  No matter what the challenge before us is, humility ultimately wins the day.  If you are going to stand up against injustice in your life—whether big or small—stand with humility.  Know well who God is, who you are, and how those truths come to bear in your situation.  Humility ultimately wins the day.  I pray you will know this victory.

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