Thursday, March 5, 2015

Celebrate Purim - "For Such a Time as This"

Good morning!

Last night at sundown, the Jewish feast of Purim began world-wide.  Being a Protestant, without Jewish background, I decided to investigate this a bit further.

The biblical story on which the feast is based is the Old Testament book of Esther, most likely written by either Mordecai, one of its central characters, or by the prophet Nehemiah, who would have been a young man when these events transpired.  The date of the book is somewhere between 464-415 B.C.

There was an event in the story in which the villain "that vile Haman" cast a lot (Esther 9:24-26) to determine his course of action.  What does it mean to "cast a lot"?  This was a method used by the ancient peoples for thousands of years to determine what "the gods" wanted them to do.  In more modern times, we might envision "rolling the dice" or "spinning the wheel".  This method left decision "to chance", or to "the will of God" in the case of a follower of Jehovah God.  You may recall that the soldiers surrounding the cross of Jesus cast lots to see who would get his clothes...(Matthew 27:35)

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Esther, go read that short Old Testament book.  It is fascinating to read about how God physically delivered His people from extermination by an anti-Semitic prime minister of the Persian Empire.

This feast of Purim (which means 'lots' as in "casting lots") is a time of physical celebration.  The day before Purim, which is itself a one-day feast, is spent fasting from before daylight until dusk.  This year, that fast day would have been yesterday, March 4th.  Then, from sundown on March 4th to sundown on March 5th this year, Jews (including Messianic Jews) participate in a variety of activities:

  • synagogue services in which the story of Esther is read
  • special prayers (such as Exodus 17:8-16) to celebrate God's deliverance in Jewish history
  • special feasts/recipes
  • giving to the needy
  • giving food gifts to friends (delivering it to their homes)
  • much alcoholic beverage
  • dancing
  • masquerade (to symbolize Esther hiding her Jewish identity and Haman keeping his motives for the Jews hidden)
Here is are a couple of key passages from the book of Esther which are most relevant to our Christian walk today.  The first is Esther 3:13b-14.  

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

The second is Esther 9:24-26.

And Esther spake yet again before the king, and fell down at his feet, and besought him with tears to put away the mischief of Haman the Agagite, and his device that he had devised against the Jews.
Then the king held out the golden sceptre toward Esther. So Esther arose, and stood before the king,
And said, If it please the king, and if I have favour in his sight, and the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the letters devised by Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews which are in all the king's provinces:
For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?

Between Esther 4:17 and Esther 5:1, she made her decision.  She threw her "lot" in with God Almighty.  Perhaps she said something similar to what Mary said in Luke 2:38 - - - 

And Mary said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." 

One of the central themes of the book is "surrender".  Esther, like all women of her day, had no power that accrued to her, simply because of her personhood.  Theirs was an extremely patriarchal society.  The best that a woman could hope for was to marry a powerful man.  In God's sovereignty, He appointed Esther to the position of Artaxerxes' (Ahasuerus') queen.  This made her the most powerful woman in that empire.  Yes, empire.  Even so, her predecessor had been killed due to her (Vashti's) disobedience to the king.  It was a sobering lesson, a "cautionary tale".  Esther had good reason to fear standing up for the lives of her people.  She had every expectation that she, too, would be killed for daring to petition the king.  In the passage above, while she is pondering the implications of her task, her uncle reminds her that nothing happens by accident, with God - - - that she had been uniquely placed into her position of influence so that she could be used by God to accomplish His purposes.

We are faced with this same challenge.  Each Christian is uniquely created and gifted to serve the Savior.  Each of us must decide every day whether or not we will allow our will to be submitted to His, whether we will allow our bodies, minds, souls and spirits to be used by Him to advance His kingdom.  I thank God I've never had to lay my life on the line for His sake.  But, that day may come. In the interim, in the little surrenders to His will, am I proving myself faithful?  That is the question each of us must answer every, single day.

As Mordecai pointed out to Esther, if she had said, "No!", God would have raised up someone else to deliver His chosen people.  Both Mordecai and Esther were devout Jews, who were well aware of the covenants which had been made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David.  They knew He would keep His word, which declared He would not allow His chosen ones to be utterly destroyed.  The question was, "Would they fulfill the purpose to which God had called them, in this cosmic battle?"  Would they embrace the task, risking their very lives for Him?  Or, would they decline, and miss the blessing God had for them, even if that blessing was in the form of death?

Here is something that Christian martyrs understand.  If they are living in the center of God's will, fulfilling His purpose for them, then death is not a punishment.  They understand that following hard after Jesus Christ, their Savior, is better than physical life and that, in the end, physical death is ... irrelevant.

At Purim, followers of Jesus can celebrate this: that He has delivered us from the penalty of sin and eternal death, through His perfect sacrifice for our sins.  Our Savior is our Deliverer.  Hallelujah!  Although orthodox Jews still look for a Messiah, we have this treasure, this gospel of Jesus Christ - - - that He, the Son of God, has come that we might have (eternal) life, and that we might have life here on earth more abundantly. (John 10:10)  Now, THAT is a great reason to celebrate!

Good morning, Lord.  Thank you for delivering me from the penalty of sin and death.  I celebrate You today - - - your love exhibited toward me through the amazing gift of Your Son for my sake.  It is not by good works - - works of holiness - - that I have done that have delivered me.  Rather, I have been delivered because of Your mercy, Your amazing grace.  "Give me one pure and holy passion, one magnificent obsession, one glorious ambition for my life:  to know and follow hard after You." (Mark Altrogge)  In Jesus' matchless Name, amen.

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