God Is In The Problem You Face

July 8, 2018 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor

Esther 3-6

Last week, we saw God is active in the details. It was easy to see God moving…even if he is never mentioned by name in Esther. Five years later, a different scheme seems afoot. Haman, an Agagite, the arch enemy of the Jews, is named Prime Minister by King Xerxes. For reasons unknown, Mordecai withholds respect for Haman’s position, and it immediately ignites the ancient conflict of these two peoples. Haman plots to avenge Mordecai’s disrespect by annihilating all Jews, and by deceptive, dishonest means receives the king’s blessing to do so.   

Up until now, Esther has kept her Jewish identity hidden. In fear, she doesn’t see any other way.  Yet, Mordecai, her elder guardian, gives her a reality check what this edict means, and suggests she was given a place of influence for just this moment. Esther agrees to seek counsel with the king for help, even if it means her life, but not before fasting/praying for 3 days.  Esther makes her plans, and Haman continues his – to hang Mordecai on gallows built outside his house. 

God seems even more hidden than before! How does Esther’s story mirror the problems we face in our own lives?

I. Sometimes it feels like God is nowhere to be found.

Not only does Mordecai experience the injustice of being overlooked for saving the life of the King, but Haman, the very enemy of God’s people is being rewarded by promotion in power. He blatantly stomps on the Holy Day of Passover (by publishing the edict depicting the Jews fate) with no apparent consequences. Likewise, in our moments of injustice, tragedy, or abuse, we might cry out, “Where is God? Will He not come to rescue the oppressed, to give justice?” Sometimes He does….sometimes He does not – at least not in a way that we can fully understand.

II. The players are involved in both the problem and the solution.

Mordecai’s pride caused him to refuse the appropriate respect to the position Haman held, and it spiraled an assault not only on him but his nation. When we are involved in situations where God seems nowhere to be found, we should consider any part we played in it. If so, be quick to go before God (and others) to own it. If not, such as in times of tragedy, we leave it to him alone to work as only He can. Esther took time in fasting to plan, ultimately understanding God had to work, and so must we go before God to know what part He may want us to play in the solution. 

III. When God doesn’t send a rescue, he often sends a wink.

The last scene closed seemingly with evil winning over good, Yet, the next scene opens with Haman eating crow as the King has ordered him to honor Mordecai for his former good deed to the king. Haman parades Mordecai through town adorned in kingly robes and riding on a kingly horse. (Ironically, Haman’s own idea of true honor.) It’s a wink. A God wink is a reassurance of God’s presence, a glimpse of insight or greater understanding of his sovereign plan. It may not solve the problem, but often brings hope and light that God is involved.

In summary, everybody goes through difficult times: Whether injustice, tragedy, broken dreams, or something else. This is not unusual. We must own our part, both in the problem and in the solution. We also must remember that God is faithful even when we are faithless, so look for God to “wink” reminding us we are not alone. Just as we see God emerging from the pages of Esther’s story, in faith, affirm God’s name is written on every page of your story. God is in the problem you face.

Discussion Questions

  1. Have you ever gone through a time when it seemed like God was nowhere to be found? What was that like? Did you have a part in causing that? Was it easy to see that?
  2. Of the three examples mentioned (injustice, tragedy, broken dreams) is there one where it is harder to see God? Is there one where it is easier?
  3. What was Haman’s greatest sin? Did Mordecai sin?
  4. Do you think Mordecai was both confused and encouraged when Haman honored him?
  5. Have you ever experienced a “God wink” during a difficult time? Can you remember an example? What did that do for you?
  6. How can we best be attentive to God’s winks in the midst of our problems?

The Story: Haman’s Plot of Destruction

When we last left our story in the book of Esther, things were going great for our friends. Xerxes was still alive and on the throne. Esther had not only been chosen to be in the beauty contest, but she had become the queen of the most powerful empire in the world, an empire that stretched from India all the way to Africa. And her adopted father, Mordecai? Mordecai just happened to overhear a plot to assassinate Xerxes, and he told Esther, thus saving the King’s life. Esther was sure to give Mordecai full credit for the good deed and the generosity of Persian Kings in rewarding the loyalty of their subjects was legendary. History tells us that when one Persian citizen saved the life of Xerxes brother, Xerxes made him governor of Cilicia, and Mordecai had saved Xerxes himself! So when we get to the end of Esther 2, everything seems great! It’s easy to see God moving, even if he is never mentioned by name in Esther. God has moved Esther, the Jew, to a position of power. Mordecai, the Jew, thanks to God’s placement, is ready for a fat promotion. Things look pretty good for God’s chosen people and for the heroes of our story.

Oh, what a difference a week makes! Actually, historically it was about five years, but for us it’s been one week! And it’s shocking! Because the next thing we read after the rescue of the King is not that Mordecai is given a powerful title or that Mordecai is given a chest of gold and jewels or even that Mordecai is given recognition, no the very next thing we read is not Mordecai’s name at all. Chapter 3 starts out: “After these things, King Xerxes promoted Haman, the Agagite.” The king overlooked Mordecai and promoted an Agagite! Now, that may not mean much to you. The only thing you probably think about “Agagite” is that you’re glad you’re not an Agagite. That just sounds weird! But if you were a Jew, that term would be very significant, because the Agagites,  otherwise known as the Amalekites, were the most ancient and bitter enemies of the Jewish nation.

The Amalekites were a tribe of nomadic raiders that lived in the desert. They made their living by robbing and plundering those around them. They were the very first people to attack the newly formed Nation of Israel as they traveled from Egypt toward the promised land. Their attack was deliberately cruel. Deuteronomy tells us that they started their attack at the very rear of the Israelite column, because they knew that’s where weak, the elderly, and the children would be. God enabled Israel to repel them. But because of what the Amalekites had done, God swore that there would be war between them and Israel throughout the generations and that eventually the Amalekites would be wiped out.

Haman is called an Agagite, rather than an Amalekite, because Agag was one of their powerful Amalekite Kings who went to war against King Saul of Israel. If you were to read Esther 2 carefully, you would notice that Mordecai was a direct descendent of King Saul and Haman is a descendent of Agag. So this is an ancient conflict, and the promotion of an Agagite is a big deal. Haman has been promoted to the role of Prime Minister, second only to Xerxes in power in the Kingdom of Persia.

Now there was something about Haman that rubbed Mordecai the wrong way. So although the King had commanded it and although everyone else did it, Mordecai refused to bow when Haman passed him by. We don’t know exactly why that was. Maybe Mordecai knew that Haman was an Agagite. Maybe Mordecai felt like Haman got the promotion he deserved. Maybe it was just that Haman was an arrogant jerk! We’re not sure what it was. We do know it wasn’t that Mordecai had a religious conviction against bowing to royalty. The Jews did it all the time. It was like curtseying to the Queen of England. It was standard politeness. We don’t know what caused it. But whatever it was that caused it, Mordecai refused to bow down. His fellow workers thought Mordecai had lost his mind.

It wasn’t long before word of Mordecai’s disrespect reached Haman. And then Haman the Agagite devised a wicked plan. He decided it was too small a thing to take vengeance on Mordecai alone. He would respond to Mordecai’s disrespect by annihilating his entire nation. Haman was very careful with his plan. He cast purim, which were like little clay dice, to determine the most fortuitous day for his attack. He went to the king and made the false accusation that there was in the Kingdom a particular people group (which he didn’t name) that was universally rebellious and needed to be dealt with. He promised the King that if he was allowed to attack them, the plunder would bring 375 tons of silver into the royal treasury. That’s a lot of money!

So Haman received permission to do this evil thing. Xerxes figured Haman knew what he was doing. Xerxes desperately needed the money to repay what he had lost in the war with Greece, so he gave Haman the royal ring and told him “Dispose of the people and the money as you see fit.”

And Haman, the Agagite, did just that. Just like his forefather, Agag, he made war on Saul’s family. Just like his forefathers, he planned to raid and plunder them. Just like his forefathers, he deliberately targeted the weak. He wrote an edict specifically stating that “All Jews, including the young and old, including the women and children, should be destroyed, killed, and annihilated on the date set by the purim.” Apparently, just killing them was not enough for Haman. They needed to be destroyed, killed, and annihilated! Oh and one more thing: Just to add insult to injury, Haman published the edict commanding Israel’s destruction on the 13th of Nissan, the Eve of Passover, the day that Israel celebrated God’s protection from their enemies.

Oh, what a difference a week makes. Things now look awful for God’s people! Although the date of destruction was 11 months away, Mordecai responded immediately. He tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes and stood as close to the palace as they would allow him to in that crazy state and wept bitterly. The other Jews did likewise, and the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.

Meanwhile Esther had no clue what was going on. She was in the palace far from all the trouble. She had hidden her Jewish identity, and they didn’t know Mordecai was related to her, so no one thought to tell her about Haman’s edict. She thought everything was wonderful. When she finally heard about Mordecai’s behavior, she did what any rich queen living in a comfortable palace would do. She sent him some new clothes. This was the moment Mordecai had been waiting for.  He told the servant who brought the clothes that it wasn’t new clothes he needed. He needed help from Esther! He sent word to Esther about the conflict with Haman, sent word about the edict,  sent word about the plunder, and told her she needed to go to King Xerxes and beg him to help her people.

There was only one problem. This was a terrifying thing to ask. This was Xerxes, who had thrown his last wife away for practically nothing. This was Xerxes who had two giant harems full of “replacement wives.” This was Xerxes who hadn’t even asked to see his wife, Esther, for a month. This was Persia, where they literally had a guy beside the throne with an axe waiting to deal with you, if you paid a surprise visit to the King, and he wasn’t excited to see you. This was a big, terrifying ask of young Esther!

When she explained her hesitation to Mordecai, he explained three things to her:

  1. If she didn’t help, help for the Jews would come from somewhere else.
  2. If the Jews were destroyed, she would probably be destroyed with them.
  3. He asked her a question: “Could she not see the possibility that the reason that Vashti had been deposed, the reason she had entered the Harem, the reason she had been chosen as Queen of the Kingdom was for this very moment?” Mordecai didn’t mention God, because he never mentions God in Esther, but the implication is clearly that God might have put Esther into her position as Queen, because God was going to ask this very thing of her.

Mordecai reminded Esther of these things, and then young Esther did a very courageous thing. She agreed to help. She asked Mordecai to have the Jews fast (and we would assume pray) for three days. She planned to go to the King, uninvited and, she said “If I perish, I perish.”

Esther’s Banquet

Kids, can you imagine how much courage it took for Esther to take that walk from her living quarters to the throne room of Xerxes, emperor of Persia? When I was in school, I had to take a few trips to the principal’s office. That was a long walk! But that was nothing compared the walk Esther was taking. It was hard! But in the end, just like with so many of the brave things God asks us to do for him, it wasn’t that bad! The King held out his scepter to Esther, inviting her into his presence. He asked her what she wanted, and said he would give her anything. He agreed right then to fetch Haman, so that both of them could go to a banquet Esther had prepared for the two of them. So they went to the banquet. And when the King was happy from all the food he ate and from the wine he drank and from remembering how wonderful Esther was he asked again: “OK,  Esther now tell me what you really want. What can I give you to make you happy. Just name it and I’ll give it to you.” As readers we know Esther’s moment has come. This is what this has all been leading up to. This is her chance. It’s like she has fought her way through the department store line,  and she is now in front of Santa and he’s asking Esther what she wants for Christmas. This is her chance to ask for the lives of her people. So she takes a big breath and says “If it please the King, if it’s good in your eyes, what I really want is can you and Haman come to another banquet tomorrow night.” Ugh!!! The King agrees to come again, but we’re left hanging. The problem isn’t resolved, and then one more thing happens, to make things worse:

Haman’s Gallows

On his way home from the feast, Haman is super-happy. Then he sees Mordecai. So he goes home, gathers his wife and friends and tells them how awesome he is. He tells them how rich he is, how powerful he is, how many sons he has (I would think his wife would know that) and then he literally says “And that’s not all! Queen Esther is having a banquet tomorrow night and the only people that got invited are me and the King!” Little does Haman know. It reminds me of the Far-Side cartoon where one dog is riding in the car yelling at another “Ha ha ha Biff! Guess what? After we go to the post office and drugstore, I’m going to the vet to get tutored!” Anyway, Haman says “Everything is awesome, but none of it means anything, as long as I have to pass Mordecai at the King’s gate every day!”

So his wife and friends give Haman a piece of advice. They say “Listen, you’re awesome. You’re powerful. You clearly have the ear of both the King and Queen, so quit feeling sorry for yourself. Have our landscaping service erect a 75 foot pole on the front lawn tonight. In the morning, ask the King to impale Mordecai on it. Then enjoy the feast. So Haman makes plans to do just that, and he sleeps like a baby.

Oh, what a difference a week makes! When we last left Esther, our heroes were doing great. It was easy to see God’s movement. Things were coming up roses. But in just a few verses, the script has completely flipped. Now, we’re no longer just wondering whether or not Esther is going to become queen. We’re wondering if Esther or Mordecai or any of the Jews are even going to make it out of this alive. Things have changed completely. God is harder to see, and Esther and Mordecai are facing serious problems.

Now, just like we did last week we want to ask ourselves again what this part of the story of Esther has to say to us. What are we supposed to learn here? I think the over-arching message, the main thing we are supposed to learn, is found in the title of the sermon: “God is in the problem you face.” Last week that we said that God is involved in the place you find yourself. It’s not random. God is there. Well, here we learn that that doesn’t change when we face problems. God is also at work in the problems we face.

That’s the over-arching message, but let me try to break this down for you. Because there are some nuggets that I see in this story, there are some things that are reflected in this story that I have seen to be true again and again as I’ve faced problems and counseled other that face problems. I think understanding these things will ultimately make it easier for us to see that God is in the problems we face. So the first way this passage mirrors the difficulty we face is just this:

Sometimes It Feels Like God Is Nowhere to be Found

Sometimes, God allows us to face situations that we wouldn’t think God would want his people to face, situations that don’t seem to fit what we believe about his character, situations like injustice or tragedy or broken dreams. And we wonder where God is.

And in this part of the story, that seems to be the situation. God seems nowhere to be found. I mean Mordecai does a good deed. He saves the life of the King. And not only does he experience the injustice of not being rewarded, but Haman the enemy of God’s people is rewarded instead. Repeatedly! Haman becomes so powerful that his personal conflict with Mordecai mushrooms into potential genocide for all God’s people. He becomes so powerful that he can construct his own personal gallows on which to impale Mordecai. And in addition to all this, Haman desecrates the Holy Day of Passover with no apparent consequence. And Esther goes in to deal with the situation, and it seems like she loses her nerve. In this part of the story, God’s enemies are doing what they’ve always done, attacking the powerless, plundering God’s people, seeking their destruction. And it seems like God has nothing to say about it. He’s not stopping them.

And we wonder  as we read this: where is God? Why doesn’t he stand up for his people? Is he missing? Are they right not to mention his name? Or worse, is he working against them? At this point, Esther and Mordecai had to feel like God was nowhere to be found.

We face moments, don’t we, where God seems nowhere to be found? Moments of mistreatment, where we face injustice or slander or abuse, moments of tragedy where we run smack-dab into the brokenness of this world. Life-threatening illnesses and accidents and the loss of loved ones. I remember in the first year of my youth ministry, the Father of one of our youth was driving home from work and he randomly got caught in the cross-fire of a gang-fight in Wichita, Kansas and he died. I wondered where God was in all that. Or maybe it’s a longer moment of having your dreams continually shattered, a failing business, a child that doesn’t grow up the way we thought we raised them to. Maybe it’s something else.

Sometimes we pray, and God gives us a quick rescue: the medicine works, the threat is removed, business picks up. Sometimes he does that. But sometimes God just doesn’t show up the way we want him to. Sometimes the threat just stays there. Sometimes there is no medicine. And sometimes just like in Esther, it seems almost like God is making things worse, like he’s turning up the heat. Sometimes the conflict blows up. Sometimes the crisis gets bigger and collateral damage kicks in.

I’ve had times where I faced crises and God removed the problem or removed me from the problem. You know some of these stories. And I’ve had times where I faced crises difficulty and pain and injustice. And God didn’t remove me. He told me to stay right there., and then he added more. Sometimes God does that. We face moments where God seems nowhere to be found.

That’s the first way this passage mirrors the problems we face. The second is this:

The Players Are Involved in Both the Problem and the Solution

When we are involved in these situations where God seems nowhere to be found, often times- not always but often times – we are part of both the problem and the solution. We are. We’re usually part of the problem. We occasionally face a situation that directly wounds us that we had no part in creating, especially if it involves tragedy. But most of the time we either helped bring it about or we helped it become as bad as it is.

Think about this problem with Mordecai and Haman and the Jews. Why did that happen? Well, the short answer is it happened because Haman is evil. Normal people don’t solve personal problems through genocide. He’s a bad guy!!! OK, but let’s be honest: Mordecai helped bring this about with his pride. He didn’t have to refuse to bow. This wasn’t a theological thing. It was a pride thing, and Mordecai’s pride gave the enemy a target. It gave him the occasion he was looking for. To put it in terms of what we what we recently learned in Ephesians, Mordecai took off his “breastplate of righteousness.” He chose to do something he shouldn’t do. He disrespected Haman, and it exposed him, and ultimately, everyone around him to danger.

When we face these situations, we need to stop and be honest about our part in them. Maybe, like Mordecai, we helped start it by not doing the right thing. Maybe we didn’t start it, but we made the situation worse with our reaction. Whatever it is we need to be quick to go before God  and before other people if we need to and own our part of it. We’re often part of the cause.

And we are often part of the solution. In this story, the solution to the problem is mostly God. We’re gong to see that next week when we see all the pieces beautifully fall into place. It’s mostly God. Mordecai and Esther, even though they don’t say the word “God,” clearly know that. They know that God has to work. That’s why Mordecai says “If you don’t help, help will come from another place.” That’s why Esther asks everyone to fast before she goes to Xerxes. They know God has to work.

But notice that Esther also has a part to play. Mordecai is reminding her of that. She’s not been put in the palace just so she can have her weekly “oil of myrrh” treatments. She’s been put there to do her part and take action. It’s not always clear, exactly what we are supposed to do. I’m sure it took Esther a while to come up with a plan. But that’s why she fasted. She wanted to go before God and ask him to intervene and to show her what she needed to do to play her part. So when we go through those difficult times those times, when it’s hard to see God, we need to own our part of both the problem and the solution.

So (1) we all face moments where God seems nowhere to be found, and when we do that (2) Se need to own our part in both the problem and the solution. But before we stop today there one more thing I want us to see. Because God does something in the midst of this story that I believe he does a lot in the difficult moments we face. I’m going to ask Kelley to read it for us and then we’ll talk about what it is that God does. Now remember where we are in our story. On the advice of his wife and friends, Haman has decided to kill Mordecai. He has constructed a gallows a pole 75 feet high. The next morning, he is going to go to Xerxes to get permission to execute Mordecai. Then he’s going to enjoy the feast. It’s all set and it all seems to be going Haman’s way when this happens

Mordecai Honored

 That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Xerxes.

 “What honor and recognition has Mordecai received for this?” the king asked.

 “Nothing has been done for him,” his attendants answered.

 The king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about impaling Mordecai on the pole he had set up for him.

 His attendants answered, “Haman is standing in the court.”

“Bring him in,” the king ordered.

When Haman entered, the king asked him, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?”

 Now Haman thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?” So he answered the king, “For the man the king delights to honor, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honor, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!’”

  “Go at once,” the king commanded Haman. “Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended.”

 So Haman got the robe and the horse. He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”

 Afterward Mordecai returned to the king’s gate. But Haman rushed home, with his head covered in grief, and told Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had happened to him.

 His advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, “Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!”  While they were still talking with him, the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried Haman away to the banquet Esther had prepared.

– Esther 6

Quite a moment in this story, isn’t it? I have to admit, this is one of my favorite humorous moments in the Bible! I can just see Alan Rickman as Haman! But like I said in this part of Esther, God is doing something that I believe he frequently does when we find ourselves in long-term problems. I think the best way to put it is maybe this:

Sometimes When God Doesn’t Send a Rescue He Sends a Wink

Let me explain what I mean. When we are in big problems, when we face injustice, or tragedy, or when our dreams are shattered, what we really want is a rescue. We want God to step in and fix everything. Or at the very least, we want God to give us some answers. We want to know why this happened or when it’s going to be over or how we are supposed to respond to it. We want big picture answers when we face problems.

That’s certainly what I want when I go through big problems! We pray and pray and ask God for answers or for rescue. But much of the time in my experience, God doesn’t do that. For reasons known only to himself, he doesn’t rescue us. He doesn’t tell us when it’s going to be over. He usually doesn’t even tell us why. But I have to say this: What God does do in times like that is send us a wink.

What I mean by wink is this: He sends us reassurance. He sends us reminders. Think about how a wink works. Say you’re playing board games with a bunch of people around a table when suddenly your partner makes what seems to be a really bad move. At first, you want to wring her neck but then you notice that while the other teams are high-fiving each other and laughing at your team’s stupidity your partner quickly winks at you. What is she telling you? She’s telling you that there is more to the situation than the other people at that table recognize. That little wink tells you that she has a plan and she’s working it.

That’s exactly what God does here in this story. Mordecai’s horsey-ride through the streets  doesn’t actually solve the problem. It doesn’t undo the edict. It doesn’t rescue the Jews from their danger. But it does let Mordecai know that God is at work. He’s at work through the King’s sleepless night. He’s at work through the seemingly random choice to read the specific records from five years earlier. He’s even at work through Haman’s silly, greedy, power-hungry advice to the King about how to treat the man he wants to honor. God is winking at Mordecai. He’s letting him know he’s not alone in this.

As someone who has been through quite a few long-term situations where we waited for things to come right, let me say that God does this. He often doesn’t give us an answer, but He does again and again give us little winks, little reminders that let us know he is a good God who loves justice  and loves his people and that let us know he’s at work and let us know we’re not alone.

For me when I’m going through long-term problems, it’s often something small. Someone texts me a prayer, when they couldn’t possibly know I need it, someone sends a word of encouragement,  maybe a random conversation occurs that reminds me that what I’m doing matters. Sometimes it’s bigger. Sometimes God sends physical provision just when we need it. Sometimes he sends help unlooked for. He’s had people come to my house and pray for me when they could not have known I was in my darkest hour. That’s a God-wink. Sometimes, it’s a really big wink. I don’t have time to go into the stories right now, but there have been times when God has done big things in my life in a way that makes it clear that he is present and active in my story.

But God does this again and again and again as we go through difficulties. He gives us a reminder that we’re not alone. And that gives us the grace to continue, maybe for another month maybe for another week maybe for another day. But he sends us these winks.

What I want to say to you today is this. If you’re facing a big problem, long term difficulty today, whether it’s injustice, or tragedy, or broken dreams or something else, know that it’s not unusual. Everybody goes through times where it feels like God is nowhere to be found. Own your part in it. Own your part in both the problem and the solution. Look for God to wink. Look for the little ways that he is reminding you that you are not alone. If you start looking, you’ll learn to see. If you learn to see God wink, you will begin to see God’s name written on every page of your story.