Sermon preached by Dr. Neil Smith at Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church,
Kingstowne, Virginia, on Sunday, January 20, 2013
LIVING DANGEROUSLY (PART 3):
FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS
For the third Sunday in a row, I want to talk with you about living dangerously as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, as men and women, girls and boys, young and old, who have pledged our allegiance and love to the one true and living God, who is “our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend” (Robert Gram, “O Worship the King”).
I will grant you this, with respect to living dangerously: If you drive, even occasionally, on Interstate 95, 295, 395, 495, or any other highway ending in 95, you know about living dangerously. You’ve done it. Some of you do it every day. Twice a day. That is one sometimes maddening, sometimes frightening form of living dangerously.
But it is not really the kind of living dangerously I want to focus on today. If you were here last Sunday, I hope you recall that we looked at Isaiah 61, the passage of Scripture that Jesus applied to Himself at the inauguration of His ministry (Luke 4:16-21) to define His mission – a mission, of course, that would end with Jesus being betrayed, unjustly condemned, and put to death on a wooden cross, on a hill outside Jerusalem. From our vantage point, of course, we know that the death of Jesus was not the end. On the third day, on Easter morning, Jesus rose from the dead, showed Himself alive to His followers for a period of 40 days, and then was taken up into heaven, where He is now honored, exalted, and worshiped as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He will come again to bring to final fullness the kingdom of God, to gather to Himself all who belong to Him by faith, and to carry out God’s righteous judgment on those who reject Him and refuse to live under His kingly rule. This we know and believe as the redeemed people of God, saved by the grace of God in the death of Jesus on the cross for us.
Maybe you already knew everything I just said. Even if you did, or do, it doesn’t hurt from time to time to be reminded of what we already know. Especially things as foundational, as essential, as these.
Esther found herself in that kind of spot. To do what Mordecai counseled and pleaded with her to do would place her life in jeopardy, since, as the law in Persia clearly stated, to approach the king without being invited was a capital offense, unless the king were to extend his gold scepter as a sign of his mercy and favor (Esther 4:11). Esther faced a decision of monumental importance: To live dangerously and risk her life by going to the king uninvited to plead for the deliverance of the Jewish people from destruction; or to keep quiet, to play it safe, to sit idly by while the plot to destroy the Jews was carried out.
Isaiah 61 describes what Jesus came to do. But it doesn’t apply to Jesus alone. I hope you caught this point last Sunday. It applies to us, too. It describes our mission in the world, too. As followers of the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit has come upon us. God Himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, has come to take up residence in us and to give us power for ministry. And the Lord has appointed us to continue this mission to the poor, the brokenhearted, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, the mourners, the least, the last, and the lost, in the name and with the love of Jesus. While it will not be true in the same way for every one of us, to carry out this mission may well require each of us to live dangerously – by which I mean, to live sacrificially, to live for something greater than ourselves, greater than our own comfort or personal fulfillment, to be willing to go where the Lord calls you to go and to do what the Lord calls you to do. Even, as I have said before, if it sounds crazy to you at first. Even if your family and friends think it is crazy. Even if it may put you in actual danger.
THE STORY OF ESTHER
Thank God that Esther chose to live dangerously. She chose to live courageously. Urged on by Mordecai’s passionate plea for his people, and persuaded by Mordecai’s suggestion that God had made her queen of Persia “for just such a time as this” (4:14), she agreed to go to the king, even though it was against the law. “And if I perish,” she said, “I perish” (4:16). She chose to live dangerously.
At this point, in case you’re not familiar with the Book of Esther, or haven’t read it in a while, let me give you a brief synopsis and a rundown of the main characters in the story. Simply put, it is the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia and saves the Jewish people from a plot to completely destroy them. It also explains the origin of the Jewish festival of Purim, which was established to commemorate and celebrate the deliverance of the Jews from this plot to wipe them out.
These are five main characters in the story:
King Ahasuerus, also known by the Greek name Xerxes, who ruled the kingdom of Persia, a realm that stretched from Eastern Europe to India and to Egypt, from 486-465 B. C.
Vashti, the wife of Xerxes and queen of Persia, who was permanently banished from the king’s presence as punishment for an act of insubordination against the king.
Mordecai, a Jew living in exile in Susa, the Persian capital.
Hadassah, also known as Esther, a beautiful young woman who was raised by Mordecai, her older cousin, after both of her parents died.
Haman, the prime minister of Persia, King Xerxes’ closest advisor, who, as the villain in this dramatic story plotted to annihilate all the Jews living anywhere and everywhere in the 127 provinces of the Persian empire. Before there was Hitler, there was Haman.
The story that unfolds in the Book of Esther is basically this. Queen Vashti embarrasses and angers the king by refusing to obey his order to come and show off her considerable beauty before all the king’s male guests, most of whom, we may reasonably conclude, were inebriated. In order to demonstrate who is boss, not only in the palace but in every household throughout the empire, Vashti is banished from the king’s presence for her act of defiance. A contest is held to choose a new queen to take Vashti’s place, and the woman who wins the king’s favor is Esther, whose identity as a Jew is kept a secret. Meanwhile, Mordecai uncovers a plot to assassinate the king. The plot is foiled and the conspirators are executed. When Mordecai refuses to comply with the king’s command that everyone kneel down before Haman, Haman is enraged and plots to avenge Mordecai’s disrespect by killing not only Mordecai but all of Mordecai’s people, the Jews, everywhere in the empire. To choose the month and day for this slaughter of the Jews, Haman casts the pur (the Persian word for “lot”). Casting lot or purim is like rolling the dice. Then Haman convinces the king to sign off on an edict essentially sentencing the Jews to death. The fact that Haman could so easily persuade the king to agree to this does not reflect well on the king, does it? The king’s judgment in this case leaves more than a little to be desired.
Word of the king’s edict is dispatched throughout the empire, beginning in the capital city of Susa. Mordecai, mourning in sackcloth and ashes over the news, sends word to Esther of the Jews’ impending doom, and pleads with her to go to the king to try to save her people. As we read in chapter 4, Esther reminds Mordecai that to go to the king without being summoned would put her own life in jeopardy. Mordecai then challenges Esther to live dangerously for the sake of her people, observing that she may in fact be where she is in her position as queen of Persia by divine design, by the providence of the unseen God, “for such a time as this” (4:14).
Esther then agrees to go to the king, even if it costs her life. The king is pleased to see Esther, extending the scepter of his grace to her. Esther does not immediately present her request to the king. Instead, she invites both the king and Haman to attend a banquet in their honor. She then invites the two men to dinner the following day, at which time, she says, she will present her petition to the king. That night, when the king isn’t able to sleep, one of his aides reads to him from the annals of his reign. By divine coincidence (which is to say it was no coincidence at all) the aide recounts to the king the record of Mordecai’s heroism in exposing the conspiracy against the king. Learning that Mordecai has not been properly honored for his noble act, he asks his trusted adviser Haman what should be done for a man the king desires to honor. Now, in Haman’s view, there is no one in the world more worthy of honor than himself. So he assumes he must be the one the king wants to honor. Haman proceeds to describe a plan for an elaborate parade – think of it as a 5th century B. C. ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue in New York, or Constitution Avenue here in Washington. The king approves the plan and tells Haman to do exactly what he has proposed – for Mordecai, Haman’s mortal enemy. Haman is stunned and utterly humiliated. But he has no choice but to carry out the king’s instructions.
The king directs Mordecai to issue a new decree in the king’s name, authorizing the Jews throughout the empire to assemble to defend themselves against attack, and to kill anyone who threatens them, or their women and children. The new decree is dispatched to the far reaches of the empire. When the day comes – the day chosen by Haman through the casting of the purim, the Jews overpower all their enemies who want to destroy them. To celebrate their deliverance from the evil designs of Haman, the feast of Purim is observed by the Jews throughout the Persian empire. Purim continues to be celebrated by Jews to this day, and even by Christians like us, in recognition of the faithfulness and sovereignty of God, who, even when we cannot trace His hand, is at work to accomplish His gracious, loving, redemptive purposes for His people.
At dinner the following day, Esther exposes Haman’s hideous plot to destroy her people. Astonished at this (though he should not have been, had he been paying attention to the affairs of his kingdom), the king’s fury is unleashed against Haman, who is hanged on the 75-foot high gallows Haman had built in order to put Mordecai to death.
I take the time to retrace the events in the Book of Esther to enable us better to see and understand what was at stake for Esther, Mordecai, and the Jewish people as a whole. In “such a time as this,” living dangerously was the only option for Esther that made any sense. In choosing to live dangerously, Esther acted courageously. She acted unselfishly. She did not act impulsively. She did not act without thinking. She used both her head and her heart, both her passion and her intelligence. And, though prayer is not mentioned in the Book of Esther, I believe she devoted herself to both prayer and fasting, seeking the guidance and blessing of God, before going to the king. She chose to live dangerously. And God used her to save His people.
It is not likely that any of us will ever find ourselves on a stage as large as the one on which Esther acted. It is possible, though. Whether large stage or small, the decisions we make and the actions we take may still echo in eternity. In the spring of 1955, when a brilliant 26-year-old student received his Ph. D. from Boston University, he accepted a call to become the pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. His intention was to gain some pastoral experience before pursuing his dream of teaching at a college or university. God, however, had other plans for him. After an African-American woman named Rosa Parks chose to live dangerously by refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a city bus, this young pastor was thrust into a position of leadership in the quest for civil rights, first in Montgomery and then nationally. As a nation we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his courageous and eloquent leadership in the civil rights movement in America, and for his principled commitment to non-violent civil disobedience. America is a better place because of Dr. King and many, many others like him who chose to live dangerously for the cause of justice, and did so as an expression of their commitment to the truth of God’s Word. King once said that faith is “taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” King himself could not have seen the whole staircase when he took the first step, and then another, and then another, in arousing the conscience of America to the ugly stain of race discrimination and injustice. But he, like many others, stepped out in faith, trusting God for the wisdom and courage to live dangerously.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
ABOLITIONISTS THEN AND NOW
God may be calling you to a different kind of living dangerously. Nearly 60 years ago, He called Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Pete and Olive Fleming, Ed and Matilou McCully, Nate and Marj Saint, and Roger and Barbara Youderian, to take the gospel to an unreached people, the Auca or Quichua Indians in the jungles of Ecuador. Their story is told in Elisabeth Elliot’s classic account, Through Gates of Splendor. Knowing their mission was dangerous, but willing to take the risks for the sake of the gospel, the men carefully crafted a strategy to establish friendly relationships with the Aucas. Based on a false accusation against the missionaries, the Aucas ambushed them and killed all five of them.
What is true of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other champions of the civil rights movement is also true of the abolitionists, the anti-slavery champions of the 19th century. Men and women like William Wilberforce in England, and William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, Theodore Weld, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frederick Douglass here in America, many of them inspired by their Christian faith, endured widespread opposition and threats on their lives, choosing to live dangerously in the fight to end slavery.
Slavery, unfortunately, has made a comeback in our world today. Not legalized slavery, but slavery nonetheless. Millions of impoverished men and women, girls and boys, around the world are trapped in the chains of human trafficking – many of them, young girls especially, in sex-slave trafficking. America is not exempt. It happens here, as well as in other places around the globe. God is raising up a new generation of abolitionists who are, as they say, “in it to end it.” We should all support efforts to abolish all forms of slavery in the world. But perhaps God is calling some of us to get personally involved in this movement. Perhaps God wants you to learn more about the different forms of slavery in the world today. Perhaps God wants you to live dangerously by committing yourself to this cause. The International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org), based here in the Washington area, is a Christian ministry devoted to rescuing slaves and ending slavery. If you are looking for more information about slavery, or want to get involved in the cause of setting people free, IJM is a good place to start.
THROUGH GATES OF SPLENDOR
One of the things that has always struck me is that the missionaries had guns for protection, but refused to use them against the Aucas. The missionaries knew that, trusting in Christ and having experienced His saving grace, they were prepared to meet God, but the Aucas were not. So, when attacked, they willingly gave up their lives.
Just like last Sunday, I wish I had time to tell you more. I wish I had time to tell you the truly amazing story of an orphaned Down’s Syndrome child in China, whose adoption was clearly orchestrated by God. I wonder if God may be calling some of us to adopt a child, or more than one (like Mike and Auline Platt, whom many of you know), or to become foster parents for kids “in the system,” as an expression of our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
What has also struck me as amazing almost beyond belief is that even after the deaths of these five missionaries, Jim Elliot’s widow Elisabeth and Nate Saint’s sister Rachel remained in Ecuador to continue the mission. And today, by the grace of God and through the sacrificial labors of all these missionaries, both men and women, a flourishing Christian community exists among the Aucas. They chose to live dangerously, and what they did will echo throughout eternity for the glory of God.
Maybe God is calling some of us – maybe God is calling you – to live dangerously by taking the gospel to a people-group where the gospel is not yet known. Our denomination, the EPC, through an initiative called Engage 2025, is seeking to raise up and send church-planting teams to “unengaged” communities and people-groups – places where the gospel has not been embraced, or remains unheard – especially in the Muslim world. Is God calling you to be part of this?
Or, is God perhaps calling you to serve Him elsewhere in the world as a short-term or long-term missionary, whether in a foreign land or in an inner-city ministry somewhere like Detroit or New York City or right here in D. C.?
I WISH I HAD TIME
Or maybe the kind of dangerous living to which God is calling you right now is the hard, sometimes painful work of seeking to be reconciled to someone from whom you are estranged – regardless of who is responsible, or who is more responsible for the estrangement. It can be dangerous. It is risky, especially because you don’t know how the other person will respond or what the outcome may be.
Remember Esther, who took the risk and chose to live dangerously, not knowing how it would turn out. As a result of her courageous action, the Jewish people were saved.
As with Esther, the Lord has placed each of us where we are “for such a time as this.” As the Lord leads, may we choose to live dangerously for Him, and so bring glory to His name. Lord, let it be so. Amen.