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Esther - relevance and resonance

Heard a couple of sermons from Esther recently. God's doing his stuff all over the shop - moving players and set pieces: it's abundantly clear that although Ahasuerus has the throne, Haman has access to the King's ear, Esther has access to the King's heart and Mordecai has access to Esther, God is calling the shots.

But is there more than sex, scheming and sovereignty? Is Esther a book about Jesus? Or is it just about how God provided for his people in order that one Jesus might be able to come, as the seed of Abraham, and save?

According to the preacher, Esther is primarily about understanding the purposes of God in human history and seeing the interplay of divine sovereignty and human responsibility working without any seeming conflict.

Which is true. (And it seems that divine sovereignty and human responsibility actually work better together in the courtroom that many people think they will from the classroom).

But it's not the whole truth: because the gospel echoes throughout Esther.

Who is it that wins the favour of the King, but then shares the benefit of their relationship with their people? Esther - but she points the way to Jesus who says that the Father will love us because we love Jesus (John 14:21).

Who is it that triumphs against all odds and sees the enemy slain with his own gallows? Esther - but she points the way to the one who "through death" destroyed "the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil." (Heb 2:14)

Who lays down their life on behalf of their people in order to spare them from the judgment of the King? Esther - but she points the way to the one who doesn't merely risk his life, but lays it down for his people (John 15:13-14).

Esther does provide a fantastic, gutsy example to follow - but, were we part of the story, we'd be numbered amongst the helpless hordes who sit under threat of execution with no hope of saving themselves. And, if rather than just trying to highlight its relevance, we listen for it's gospel resonance, the book of Esther won't just point us to a great example: it'll point us to a great Saviour.

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? So that we would trust scripture

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
1 Cor 15:3-4

The idea that a messiah would come, die and rise from death is so improbable that any rational person would dismiss the idea as preposterous. Or at least they would have done before 33 AD. Yet this most outrageous claim is exactly the claim that was being made by the bible - as Peter points out in Acts 2:25-26, when he quotes and expounds Psalm 16. A mere 50 days earlier, Peter had no expectation of Jesus' resurrection. On Good Friday, it seemed irrational, and on easter morning, the empty tomb was inexplicable. Yet as he re-reads scripture in light of the resurrection, he sees it as inevitable - he declares that any other outcome was impossible.

It is this same point that Paul emphasises as he writes to the christians in Corinth: Jesus rose from death exactly as scripture prophesied he would. And Jesus rose from death demonstrating that scripture is a more reliable guide to reality than human expectation or reason.

Jesus rose from death so that we would trust scripture more than we trust ourselves.

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? So our grief would only be temporary

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
1 Thess 4:13-14

Our hope of seeing loved ones who have died is predicated on the knowledge of Jesus' resurrection: our hope of resurrection is based on our belief that Jesus died and rose again. Or, in other words, when a fellow christian dies we view it as a temporary separation because that's what happened with Jesus....

It is clear, however, in the wording "even so, through Jesus" that it is only through identification with Jesus that this will happen. There is no hope of resurrection apart from Jesus - he is not merely the proof (or example) that resurrection is possible - he is the author (ie. the basis) of the resurrection.

(The temporary nature of grief and suffering is underlined in Rev 21:4, which declares that the day will come when "death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore")

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? To change everything

4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures
20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
1 Corinthians 15:4,20

If Jesus is alive, the assumptions we have made about the permanence of death are wrong. Our assumptions about the mystery of death are wrong. Our expectations about the inevitability of death are wrong.

The prediction, and subsequent realisation, of the resurrection changes everything - it means that death can be temporary, it can be contemplated with confidence and it is no longer inevitable. If the bible could predict, if Jesus could know for certain, then we must allow our view of life & death to be radically realigned to accommodate for the resurrection not merely as a historically affirmed event, but as the dawning of a new age in which there is a power greater than death: An age in which formerly terrifying "certainties" and fears appear as mere shadows. An age in which Jesus is not the end, but the firstfruits of those whom death can no longer hold.

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? To give us a hope

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
1 Peter 1:3

Jesus rose from death, so that we could have hope. Not a dead hope, a dead Christ, a dead vision of the future - but a living hope in a risen Christ of a glorious future. A hope that won't disappoint or let us down.

We only have this hope because Jesus is alive!

(In context, the point Peter makes is actually more subtle. He's saying that God, in his mercy, has caused us to be born again - given a new spiritual nature/identity - and our hope is a part of the fruit of that new birth.)

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? For our justification

... Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Romans 4:24b-25

Jesus resurrection shows that, in the words of the old hymn, "Jesus paid it all." In dying on the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin; in rising from death he demonstrated that every charge laid against us had been answered and paid in full.

Had Jesus not risen, we would have no way of knowing for sure that we had been justified. Jesus, in rising from death, demonstrated that our justification is complete. Accomplished. We are righteous in God's eyes - and this is self-evidently by grace alone. There is no sense in which we contributed to or enabled the resurrection: yet Jesus rose in order that we might be made righteous; in order that God might be the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:26).

All of which should leave us singing: "Soli Deo Gloria" - To God alone be glory!

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? To conquer death

I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. -- Revelation 1:17b-18

On the cross, Jesus suffered for our sin and removed the claim that death had over us - for "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). But in his bodily resurrection, he destroyed the power of death. He took away the keys: Jesus owned death.

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? To ascend to His Father

According to the Venerable Bede, Easter comes from the name Eostre - an Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess. Yet this once worshipped "deity" has been entirely obliterated by the worship of Jesus & the celebration of his resurrection - it has been thoroughly redeemed. But what is it that we celebrate? And why?

Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' -- John 20:27

Here Jesus gives one reason for His resurrection: to ascend to God the Father. Jesus was raised from the dead in order to restore his fellowship with the Father.

On the cross, Jesus emitted a heart-searing cry that Matthew & Mark record in the original Aramaic - "Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani" (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) - a cry expressing the anguish of separation from the father as he suffered for our sin. And when Jesus was raised from the dead, having suffered once for all for our sins (Heb 9:26), he was raised in order to restore the relationship that was set aside when he was forsaken as he suffered in our place.

Why does this matter? Because this relationship is the fundamental model for all others. The Father loves the Son (John 3:35) and unless the Jesus was "unforsaken" there is no hope for us - because John 15:9 tells us that Jesus loves us in the same way in which the Father loves Jesus. An unrestored relationship between Jesus and the Father would mean no hope for our relationship with Jesus.

Jesus was raised from the dead in order to ascend to the Father in order that we might look forward to an eternal, unbroken relationship with Jesus.

The Consequence of the Cross

17For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:17-18 (ESV)

The idea that our creator loves us and demonstrates that love sounds amazing – but what does it mean now?

It means we get to choose. What will you do with Jesus? Will you look at the demonstration of his love and goodness towards you and choose him? Or will you reject it; reject him?

Because choosing him means accepting your inability to fix yourself. The message of the cross is that you are more depraved and sinful than you ever feared, but - in Jesus – you are more loved and accepted than you ever dreamed possible. And having accepted that, you must allow the cross the redefine your relationship to the world.

Choosing Christ means accepting that everything you ever thought you knew is wrong. Not the minor facts, but your most fundamental view of the universe. You thought your life was about you, but now it is about God. You thought freedom was being able to do exactly what you wanted to do – but now you find freedom is being able to serve the one you love. You thought the world was ruled by karma or by chance – but now you find the defining principle is grace; God’s unmerited favour towards you.

The Centrality of the Cross

17For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:17-18 (ESV)

So what’s the big deal about the cross? Why does Paul talk about the word or the message of the cross?
The cross is how we treated God. We must appreciate that. God turned up in our world and we murdered him. Which is a depressing thing to think about – and hardly “good news.”

But more importantly, the cross is something done for us, by God. Jesus entered our world, became like us, identified with us – living with us, eating, sleeping, crying with us. The only substantive difference about Jesus was that he didn’t sin. Not even once. Not even slightly. Yet on the cross, Jesus is not merely the victim of our sin – he took the guilt of it on himself. He suffered the punishment, the penalty we deserved, as our substitute. He bore our sins in his body on the cross. God poured out his anger against sin on Jesus, who willingly took our place. At the same time, Jesus took on death and hell and evil and won; he triumphed over them. He died and rose again to set us from from our addiction to sin. He died and rose again to restore our relationship with the God who made us. He died and rose again in order that we might share in his new life. He died and rose again in order that God would not have to punish us, but could bless us. He died and rose again in order to make us holy, fit for the presence of God. He died and rose again in order that salvation would be his gift to his loved ones, not something that we earn. He was rejected in order that we might be accepted. He was forsaken, separated from God as he suffered our punishment on the cross, in order that we might never be.

He did it in order to display the depth and the wonder of his love towards us.

The Context of the Cross

17For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:17-18 (ESV)

The “gospel” of verse 17 is the “word of the cross” of verse 18. The gospel is, simply put, the message of the cross. But it’s a message in context. Until we understand who Jesus is, the cross will make no sense.

Jesus is the Son of God. Not by creation, nor by adoption - rather he is co-eternal, equal with God. He was, as John 1:1 puts it, “in the beginning with God” and “was God.” He is the creator of the universe. He is God.

And yet the universe he created has rebelled against his rule. He made each of us in his image and yet we have marred that image with sin. We have rejected his authority and asserted our own right to create our own morality, rather than accept his. We have spurned his love and tried to make him surplus to requirements by trying to make ourselves like God.

As we sin, we elevate good things that God made and put them in his place. We treat them as God. We make them idols, which we then proceed to worship them, breaking God’s law, offending God’s nature, damaging God’s creation.

God could not be both good and indifferent to the evil that we visit on him, each other and his creation - so he cursed us. He pronounced judgement on sin and declared the penalty for sin would be death. Death is the judgement for sin for two reasons (1) because God himself is the source of life and in rejecting him we reject life and also (2) because God has decreed it.

But God is a good God. He is a merciful, kind, patient, loving God. And he is a saviour God.

Rather than sit at a distance as we condemned ourselves, he came near in order to save us. And he put into action a plan to save us – a plan in which he became human. He was born into this world as man. We call it the incarnation. God with flesh. Jesus.

God picked a teenage girl in northern Israel, in the middle east. A girl named Mary who was engaged to be married, but was still a virgin. He was then brought up by her and her working class husband, a guy named Joseph, in a small town named Nazareth. He grew up in obscurity, with a weight of prejudice against him: his home town was a place with a reputation like Scunthorpe.

At the age of 30, he started travelling round Israel, preaching the gospel to people, healing, caring – and urging them to repent. To turn away from their sin and turn to God.

After about 3 years, in which he became exceedingly controversial, he was betrayed by one of his closest friends. Arrested, tried on jumped up charges, beaten and then crucified – which meant he was nailed to a wooden cross – on the instructions of a mob. He died.

Three days later, he came back to life. Appeared to his disciples to prove it and then returned to heaven. His followers then went out into world and, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, they started telling everyone about Jesus. And the fact that he has promised to return.