Wednesday, September 30, 2015

You Don't Know if You Don't Ask: ESTHER 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, JAMES 5:13-20

Esther is a fascinating book. It’s one of the very few books of the Bible in which the main character is a woman. The name of God is never uttered in this book. But even without explicitly naming God in this book, God is clearly all throughout it. The faith that Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai had in God’s plans are what got them through their terrible circumstances.
            Esther did not become queen under happy conditions. Her people – the people of Israel – were in exile in Persia. For the most part, they had assimilated into Persian culture, but they were still a displaced people. The former queen had acted defiantly toward King Xerxes and Xerxes didn’t take it well. So Queen Vashti was divorced and de-throned and the king sought a newer, more submissive model to serve as his queen. Young women from all over the land were brought in and spent a year in training and primping and styling to compete for the throne. Esther rose to the top and became queen, but under her uncle Mordecai’s advise, she didn’t tell anyone she was Jewish.
            Haman was a sneaky, self-centered, power hungry politician who wanted the Jewish people out of his way. If this were an old fashioned melodrama, every time Haman came on stage, we’d boo. When Mordecai got wind of Haman’s plan to kill off all the Jewish people, he managed to give a message to his niece the queen. He essentially told her, “This is why you because queen. You have to stand up for justice and protect your people!”
            I cannot imagine how terrifying those words were in Esther’s ears. All that Vashti had done to earn her a spot of disgrace and shame was to refuse to come to one night of one party the king had given. And here is Esther. Nobody knows she’s Jewish. Nobody knows she’s related to this Mordecai who Haman hates. She can either remain quiet and in the corner while her people are oppressed and murdered or she can risk her life speaking up to protect the lives of her marginalized people.
            Several times in the story, it looks like Esther is going to ask, but she waits. That’s where we come in this morning with our Old Testament reading. Finally, the second day into this feast with the king and Haman – who is feeling pretty smug that the queen invited him to such a special dinner – she cries out to the king. “Someone is trying to kill me and murder all my people!” The king, who has clearly grown quite fond of Esther and whose life was once saved by Mordecai’s uncovering of an assassination plot, is horrified to learn that someone is trying to kill off his queen and all her people.
            What happens next is one of my favorite moments in the Bible. The king – furious over the danger to the queen – demands to know who the mastermind of this plot is. Picture this. . . Esther’s face turns from the king’s to look at Haman. The color drains from Haman’s face. He’s gone from smug to terrified in a matter of seconds. Not only does the king put an end to the danger that Esther and her people are in, he has Haman killed for his treason. Killed on the very stake that Haman had intended for Mordecai.
            One of the reasons this story is so widely loved is because of the universal appeal of watching the bad guy get what’s coming to him. We the readers know even more about Haman’s terrible deeds than the other characters in the story do, so by the time we get to the feast, we’re really rooting for this guy to get it. It’s hard not to cheer when it’s suggested he be impaled on the very stake he built for Mordecai.
            We’ve all known Hamans. Sometimes the Haman in our life is another person who just seems rotten. Sometimes the Haman is an illness or an injury. Sometimes it’s a circumstance in our life that we can’t seem to change. We all have people or things in our lives that seem to threaten our very livelihood and happiness. We want nothing more than to see that Haman get what’s coming. We want to see that bully at work get fired for being a bully. We want to see medical science finally figure out how to kick cancer’s butt. We want to walk without pain. We want to be free from addiction and depression and financial stresses. And we should want to see injustice done away with, illness destroyed, poverty kicked to the curb. Those things aren’t given to us by God and they gnaw at our very souls.
            When we’re faced with injustice, illness, poverty, and other Hamans in the world, our first reaction is often to speak out in anger against them. But we are called in James to turn not to our own anger, but to turn to God. Are you in trouble? Pray! Are you sick? Have the elders come lay hands on you and anoint you with oil! This doesn’t mean that God is like the Genie in Aladdin – some friendly wish-granter who will always answer prayer in the way we expect. Sometimes. . . God heals us miraculously. Often. . . God heals us through the hands of capable doctors and nurses who have been gifted by God to heal in very practical, scientific ways. Sometimes . . . We don’t really see the answer to our prayers.  Other times, we miss it altogether.
            I can’t remember where I first heard this story, but it’s a great illustration of how God doesn’t always swoop in and change things for us in the way we expect. There once was a man on his roof. He was on his roof because there was a great flood and the waters had covered most of his house. He sat on the roof and he prayed and prayed and prayed that God would save him. After some time in prayer, a boat came along and pulled up to the house. “Get in!” The man in the boat shouted to the man on the roof. And the man on the roof said, “No! I’ve prayed that God will save me from the flood and I have faith that God will save me from the flood!” The man in the boat shrugged and moved along.
            A little while later, after the waters had risen even more and the man on the roof had prayed diligently again, another boat pulled up to the house. “Hurry!” shouted the man in the boat, “The waters are still rising. I’ll take you to safety!” But the man on the roof said, “NO! God will save me! I’ve been praying!” He refused to get in the boat and the man in the boat had no choice but to move on and save other people.
            Finally, the waters swirled too high. They came up over the roof of the man’s house and he was swept away and drowned. He found himself face to face with God. God said, “Welcome home.” The man was angry, though. “GOD!” he said, “ I prayed and I prayed and I prayed that you would save me from the flood!” And God said, “You ninny. I sent two boats and you refused to get in!”
            The man prayed, expecting God to rescue him one way, but God didn’t work the way he expected. We often pray, expecting God to release us from our Hamans in a certain way. Our passage from James talks about healing and wellness and forgiveness. But it doesn’t say that those always look the way we expect them to. If we pray with all our might expecting a supernatural miracle, we might miss the boat. Sometimes we’re praying for a boat so hard we miss the helicopter. Sometimes, we – like Esther – have to recognize that we have the power and influence to BE the boat for other people! James says to pray. James says God offers healing and forgiveness. But what James doesn’t say is that it’s always in the form we expect or that we will never have to do the hard work of being an answer to prayer for someone else.
            Look back on Esther’s prayers and even her request to King Xerxes. She didn’t request specifics. She simply laid her heart out to the king and wept for her people. “If it pleases you. . . spare us.” If she hadn’t asked, her people would have died at the hands of a genocidal madman. She had to ask. Not knowing what the outcome or response would be. . . she asked. More than once, I’ve prayed with people in the hospital who passed away just hours later. Does that mean God didn’t heal them? Of course not! They are home with God now! They are resting in the arms of our Lord now! You don’t get any more healed than perfect wholeness! We certainly grieve their loss here on earth, but they are healed for good now! We all have struggles – many of them lifelong. Our Hamans don’t always get caught by the king in a flurry of drama and vengeance. But that doesn’t mean God hears our prayers any less. That doesn’t mean that God is punishing us by not offering the healing or answer that we expect.
            We were sitting in the backyard around the firepit a few weeks ago with friends when Gloria popped her head out of the back door. “Hey. . . uh. . . Mom? Levi and I were wondering something. . . could we use the umbrellas?” I looked up at the clear sky and back at her and asked, “Why?” “Well, we were going to have a swordfight.” Of course I said no to the request. But it showed trust and confidence that Gloria was open enough to even ask such a thing. And I didn’t say no to the request because I was mad at her or because I wanted her to trust me more or as a punishment. I said no because someday, it’s going to rain. And when it rains, we’re going to be grateful to have umbrellas that aren’t bent and full of holes from a swordfight.  I was looking toward the future when all the kids could see was a bucket full of really great swords by the door.
We don’t always have the full picture of how God is working in the world. We don’t always have the full picture of what’s going on in our own situations. This is a messy broken world and a messy broken world it will be until Jesus comes again and the whole of creation is redeemed. Even us. . . Christian people. . . are messy and broken. Sometimes we miss boats because we’re waiting for some sort of miraculous teleport to dry ground or an angel to swoop down and scoop us up. Sometimes we don’t bother asking because we’re sure God will say no. Sometimes we lose faith in prayer because God hasn’t answered in the ways we expect when we’ve asked before. But if we look at examples of great prayer in the Bible, we can see that it’s not God. . . it’s us.
James says that if we’re in trouble we should pray. . . but he doesn’t say that we go into it giving God a prescription for how to respond to that trouble. James says that when we’re not in trouble. . . when things are good. . . we should make sure to tell God that things are good! The whole end part of our reading in Esther talks about the great celebration that was started annually to remember the salvation of the people! Prayer isn’t just for when things are bad! And when we’re sick or injured, we don’t have to pray alone. We’re supposed to rely on the prayers of our community and our church leaders remembering that healing and wholeness come in a variety of different shapes and sizes from a variety of different means. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit moves specifically through the prayers of a person like through Elijah’s prayers for rain to stop and start, but this is just one example among the many that James gives.
So when we are in trouble, when we are sick, when we are frustrated, scared, beat down, tired, worried, angry, or hurting, we turn to our King, like Esther did. We turn to God in faith and trust knowing that our prayers are heard, but remembering that God is not a genie granting wishes. Esther didn’t know how King Xerxes would respond to her request. He could have had her head. He could have simply said no. But she had to ask. She would never know his response until she asked. Likewise, while we don’t know how God will respond to our prayers for healing, deliverance, help, we don’t know until we ask.

We’re going to do something a little bit different during the prayers of the people today. The first thing I’d like to ask is that a couple of elders come up front during the hymn and stand up here with me. As usual, if you have something you want to have in the list for next week, please fill out a card and put it in the offering. During the prayer, instead of asking for updates and new joys and concerns, I’m just going to start praying. I’m going to pray for everyone on the list that we have in the bulletin, just like I do every week. And after lifting up those who are on our list, I will say, “Lord in your mercy. . .” And all will say, “Hear our prayer.” At that time, I’ll open up the floor for you to offer up your joys and concerns of your own. You can either offer up the request from your seat or if you’d like to have the elders and I lay hands and pray for you like we see in James, please make your way up front during the prayer so we can pray with you. After each prayer is raised up, I’ll say “Lord, in your mercy.” And all will say, “hear our prayer.” Once it seems like everyone has said what’s on their hearts, I’ll conclude the prayer.

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