There were times when a pastor needs to preach a sermon without a title, without an outline, without a manuscript or sermon notes, and without the luxury of the usual ten hours of so or preparation. It happened this Sunday morning in our church.
I was supposed to preach on Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “preach the word” based on 2 Timothy 4:1-5. That was my plan, but God has other plans. He led me to preach on the whole book of Esther, and lead the church in reflecting on the God who is at work, even in times of calamities.
I have enough reasons for doing that.
Yesterday, Manila and its neighbor cities were surprised by tropical storm “Ondoy.” The six-hour rainfall from 8 am to 2 pm was the largest in more than 40 years. Flash floods were all over many cities. As of this time, 73 were killed and almost 340,000 people were affected. Many were stranded on their way home. Many houses were either destroyed or submerged in floods. It was shocking. This weekend in Manila was unusual, very unusual.
The situation was out of the ordinary. Less than half of our regular worship attendees came this morning. These people came with images of the floods in their minds. They came expecting God to say something about what happened. Truly, God is speaking. He is primarily and authoritatively speaking through the Bible. But he is also speaking through circumstances in our lives. In this case, God is shouting that only the spiritually deaf cannot hear. C. S. Lewis was right that God whispers through our pleasures but shouts with a megaphone in our pain. But whatever God is showing about himself and about us through the circumstances of our lives must be viewed through the lens of the Holy Scriptures.
So, here are some of my reflections from the Book of Esther (hope you will read all of it in one sitting) and the current events happening (but not in this order and not as organized).
In tragic (what’s the right word?) times like this…
God is sovereignly and graciously at work.
God is never silent. God is never absent. Many are just ignoring him. Many are just not listening enough. If I am not mistaken, the Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible where the name “God” or “Lord” is not mentioned. But if you are aware of Israel’s history, you can’t ignore the fact that the sovereign and gracious hand of God is present in every page of the book. Is it an accident that the Jewish Esther became queen of the vast empire of Persia to replace Queen Vashti? Is it an accident that Esther was so beautiful that the king chose him in a grand “beauty pageant”? Is it an accident that her cousin and guardian Mordecai overheard the plot to assassinate the king? Is it an accident that the king cannot sleep one night? Is it an accident that these little events caused the ironic twist in the story – the reversal of Haman’s plot to obliterate the Jewish people? Is it an accident that a people chosen by God received God’s protection against death in a foreign land?
What is happening around us right now is not an accident. It is designed by God for his own good purposes. Some of it – especially the painful ones – we may never understand now or in our lifetime. But we can trust that there are no accidents in God’s world. God is at work. He does all that he pleases (Psa. 115:3). And if we are one of his children (John 1:12), we can be assured that “God causes all things (even floods) to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28 NASB). God is not passive. He is active and sovereignly at work. God is not a bad or uncaring God. He is our gracious Father.
There are great reasons to thank and worship a great God.
Even in good times, in our sinfulness we choose to ignore God. This the essence of sin, “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). If it was true in good times, how much more are we inclined to dishonor God or be ungrateful to him in times of calamities?
Haman, a ranking official in the empire next to the king, plotted to kill all Jews and convinced the king to make it a decree. Faced with imminent danger, the Jews led by Mordecai and Esther fasted and prayed for three days. There is no record of the Jews blaming God or cursing God for what is about to happen. As they prayed and fasted, I believe that they remembered their history as God’s people – how in times past he worked for the redemption and safety and security of his people.
The Book of Esther was written to remind the succeeding generations of Jews about the reason for their Feast of Purim. This feast was a celebration for what God has done to protect his people in a foreign land against their foreign enemies. As they celebrate and worship, they know and are reminded of the reasons for the celebration. God is the reason.
Is it different now? Should we abandon worship and forget to thank God for every good thing he has done in our lives? Here are some of my reasons for worshipping God today with my brothers and sisters in our church:
- God protected my youngest brother as he walked more than 7 km on his way to our house in Quezon City. Praise God he had a home to stay for the night. He cannot go back to our house in Bulacan (40 km away) because the roads were impassable.
- God protected my other brother who was stranded in his officemate’s car somewhere in Manila for more than 16 hours.
- More than 40 people came to our church to worship this morning. Oh, what joy for a pastor to see God’s people worshipping him in such a time as this!
- We celebrated our church’s 23rd anniversary last Sunday. It was supposed to be this Sunday but we rescheduled it because of the conflict in our guest speaker’s schedule.
- I arrived just on time for preaching in our worship service. It was still hard to travel that morning, but we got there when they were already singing.
There are more. I think you also have more reasons to sing praises to God. Make your list now and bow down and worship him!
The feast of Purim for the Jews is a time of remembering what God has done. In my remembering of God’s goodness and listing the reasons I have for worshipping him, I am not just limiting it to the list I have above. That would be very myopic if I will not go back to what happened 2,000 years ago on Calvary. Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty that our sins deserved and that we may be free to worship God and glorify him as the the most satisfying Treasure in the whole universe. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18 ESV).
We thought we have a claim on God’s goodness and protection from calamity. We don’t. We thought we deserve his love. We don’t. All the good things that we enjoy right now are gifts purchased for us on cross by our Lord Jesus Christ. We must remember that. We must remember the eternal judgment that we deserve. We must remember how that judgment was reversed when we put our faith in Christ. The guilty is declared not guilty. What a great reversal! “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).
There is only One we can and must trust as our security.
The uncertainties surrounding us cause us to rethink the bases of our security. The sudden losses of lives, houses, cars, and other properties cause us to examine where we put our security. Certainly, our security is not in our bank accounts or insurances or our position. These events reveal the folly of trusting in material and temporal things. The Jews cannot put their trust in anything they have at that time – not even in Queen Esther. Only in God! Mordecai sent messengers to say 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?” (4:13-14). Esther cannot trust in her position as queen for safety. Mordecai trusts that the Lord will send “relief and deliverance” in any way he wants to.
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psa. 20:7 ESV).
God is calling us to action wherever he has placed us.
Mordecai’s words to Esther are striking, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” He was calling Esther to examine why God has put her in that position. God placed her there to do something for God’s people, even if it means risking her own life. Coming to the king to request something was punishable by death unless the person finds favor with the king. It was a risk on Esther’s part. What she said shows the kind of faith God expects of us in response to what is happening around us, “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” (4:16).
Many people are suffering now. We cannot just thank God for the safety most of us enjoy and do nothing else. God wants us to do something about it. Bow down on your knees and ask God to send “relief and deliverance” to the people suffering now. Don’t just stay home tomorrow or the next day. Go out and help those who needed help. Talk to the person who needs encouragement and comfort and hope. God has placed you wherever you are to offer a helping hand to someone. God may use you to bring the light and heat of his sun to people drowning in floods of despair and hopelessness.
So, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16 ESV).
Bearing all these truths in mind, I can say that the God of the Book of Esther is the God of Manila. There is no other. He is the same God then. He is the same God today. Situations change, but God never does.