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Joy

Sunday December 15th  2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Third Sunday of Advent

Joy

It’s not hard to see why the word “Joy” is associated with Christmas. Christmas is a joyous season for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that we get to open presents! Many of us have fond memories of running downstairs on Christmas morning to see the delightfully wrapped packages awaiting us under the tree. And no doubt many of us here this morning are looking forward to Christmas this year with hope and expectation, perhaps to see what presents you will receive, or perhaps because there’s a gift that you are very excited to give to someone else.

For the youngsters here in the room this morning, one of the ways that you can tell you’re getting older (in addition to the fact that you start saying things like “youngster”), is that you find that you are more excited about seeing your younger relatives open their gifts than you are about opening up your own presents.

Whether your family is one of those families where everyone tears into their presents as soon as they wake up on Christmas morning, or whether your family is like my family, where we light some candles and turn on Christmas music and take turns opening up our presents one by one so that we can extend the gift-opening process as long as possible, giving and receiving gifts is indeed a joyous experience.

Isaiah’s Prophecy

But the gifts that the prophet Isaiah predicted the Messiah would bring were not presents that could be very easily wrapped up and placed under a tree.

According to Isaiah, at the coming of the Messiah, 

The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;  then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;  the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…(Is. 35:5-7a)

Imagine finding that under your tree on Christmas morning! But what a beautiful and joy-filled picture. The person who previously could not even walk, not begins leaping like a deer! The one who could not even speak, now sings for joy! And where there had previously been a drought, now there is a stream. And not just a stream, but a pool, and a spring of water gushing forth from the ground.  

This is a picture of a joy that cannot be contained. Joy that is from somewhere deep down inside. Joy that is overflowing, bubbling over. 

In Isaiah’s prophecy, all of this would take place when God came to save, when the glory of the Lord was revealed, and when all would see and recognize the wonder and majesty of God (see Is. 35:2). And the end result would be that “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Is. 35:10b).

In Isaiah’s mind, in order for this to happen, the coming of the Lord’s salvation would also come with God’s “vengeance, and with terrible recompense” (Is. 35:4) — in other words, God’s judgment and wrath — no doubt on the enemies of Israel. For a people who had been downtrodden and oppressed for so long by so many different people groups, this was a much longed-for occurrence, and would be received as a welcome gift.

Was Jesus Really the One?

And yet the actual coming of the Messiah, the birth of the baby Jesus which we celebrate this time of the year, included none of the fire and brimstone, none of the judgment coming down out of the sky, none of the plagues or hailstorms that we might have expected to be associated with God’s rescue and redemption.

Instead, Jesus was born peacefully, quietly, rather unobtrusively. Born in a stable and laid in a manger, the son of a carpenter and a poor young mother, in a humble village, a few miles outside the capital city of Jerusalem. Not much is known about Jesus as a young child, but when he is fully grown and begins his public ministry of teaching and healing, even his cousin John the Baptist begins to wonder if Jesus is really the Promised One after all.  

John the Baptist, the prophet who had prepared the way for Jesus’s ministry by preaching in the desert and calling the people to repent — to turn around — and to get ready for the soon-coming kingdom, had landed himself in prison. He’d gone too far, gotten too personal, called out the sin and hypocrisy of the religious and political elite, and now he was awaiting sentencing. But perhaps even more so, he was awaiting the Messiah to come and free him, and not just him but all of the Jewish people. He was waiting for Jesus to overturn the powers that be, the corrupt and wicked forces that kept the people in bondage. John and all of the people were waiting to be rescued and set free.

And so he wonders if Jesus is really the One after all? Is he really the One that the prophets foretold? And if so, where’s the vengeance? Why hasn’t he come with God’s judgment and wrath to overthrow the Roman government and free John and all the people from their yoke of oppression? Why hasn’t Jesus acted more decisively? Where’s the army? Why isn’t he playing the part of the conquering military hero that so many expected? If Jesus was the Messiah, what was he waiting for?

Below the Surface

Jesus sends word back to John, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt. 11:4-5).

Through Jesus, the prophetic vision of Isaiah was being fulfilled. Through Christ, Isaiah’s vision was coming to pass. Those who could not walk were being healed. Those who couldn’t speak could now sing. The blind were being given their sight, and lepers were being cleansed, even the dead were being raised! And, Jesus says, the “poor have good news brought to them.”

But what John couldn’t see was that something deep and profound was occurring beneath the surface — something that would eventually spring forth into new life and rivers of living water. Jesus was freeing people not only from their physical blindness, but even more-so from their spiritual blindness. Jesus was raising people not just to physical life, but to eternal life. Jesus was freeing people, not from their bondage to the Roman government, but from their bondage to Sin, and the strongholds of violence and greed and deceit that pervade every society in every time and in every place.

You see, Jesus had not come just to free the Israelites from the yoke of oppression they were currently living under — if that were the case then it would have made sense for him to come with an army.

Instead, Jesus was ushering in the Kingdom of God — a Kingdom that would eventually be made up of people from every nation, language, and ethnicity. This Kingdom vision was much larger and all-encompassing that one group of people being saved or rescued from their enemies. Instead, the Good News of the Kingdom is available to all people — in all times and places — who turn to him for the forgiveness of their sins — oppressed and oppressor alike. This is indeed Good news. This should indeed result in everlasting joy. 

And yet, the joy that we have in Jesus is not yet complete. We are still waiting for the ultimate fulfillment of these promises, still waiting for the time when Jesus will return, when we will go to be with Jesus forever, where “everlasting joy shall be upon [our] heads…and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Is. 35:10).

In the meantime, we still have sorrows, and we still have struggles. We still experience pain, and loss and suffering. We still experience hardship. And like John the Baptist, often we wonder why Jesus doesn’t just come and take it all away? And this leads many to wonder if Jesus is indeed the One, or should we wait for another?

Jesus — Bringer of True and Everlasting Joy

And yet, if you’ve ever experienced Jesus’s work in your life, if you’ve ever experienced his grace and salvation wash over you like a flood, if you’ve ever been healed or forgiven, if you’ve ever had your spiritual sight restored, then you know that Jesus is the one this world is waiting for. You know that true joy, and hope, and peace can be found in none other than him. 

Although we await the ultimate fulfillment, although we await the time when sickness and death and poverty will finally be brought to an end, even here and now we can experience the true and lasting joy that only Jesus can bring. 

The joy that Jesus brings is a joy that is not based on our outward circumstances. It is not based on how much money we have, or how many presents are waiting for us under the tree on Christmas morning. It is a deep and inner joy. A joy that lasts even in the midst of sorrow and mourning. A joy and a peace “which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).

And so this Advent and Christmas season, let us pause to reflect on the Gift that we have already been given. Sometime between now and Christmas morning, I encourage you to take a few minutes to think about where you’ve come from, how far Jesus has brought you. How has Jesus rescued you, or what has he kept you from? How has he given you new eyes to see? How is your life different because of the work that God has done in your life?

If you’ve never written out your testimony (story), maybe you could take some time to do that this Advent season? Or if you’ve never told your family members, children or grandchildren, maybe take some time before or after the presents are unwrapped to remind them of why the birth of Jesus is something to be celebrated. 

Many families have a tradition of reading the Christmas story together on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. But perhaps this Christmas you could also share a sentence or two about what the birth of Christ means to you? In the midst of the sorrows and sufferings of this life, in the midst of all the reasons to doubt, we need the encouragement of one another to have faith and believe. (If even John the Baptist had doubts, then we are in good company if we have them too!)

And so this morning, let us come before the Lord with all of our doubts, with all of our sorrows and sighing. Let’s remember what Jesus has done for us, and let’s kneel before him and worship him, because he is worthy to be praised.

Let us focus our attention first and foremost on Jesus. Let our primary focus not be on presents, or on the lights or trees, or on the buying or receiving gifts. Those things are great reminders of the true Gift that we have received in Christ! But let’s ultimately find our true joy and delight in the One who gave himself for us. The One who saved us and redeemed us. The One who is constantly present with us — no matter what we might be going through. Let us look to Jesus for our peace, our hope, and our joy. Jesus truly is the best gift we could ever receive. Let us worship him, and give him the adoration and the praise that he is due!

O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Hope

Sunday December 8th  2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 11:10; Matthew 3:1-12

Second Sunday of Advent

Hope

Today we continue our journey of Advent as we look forward to the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the future return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today we focus on the word “Hope.”

Merriam Webster’s dictionary informs us that the word “hope” means “to cherish a desire with anticipation: to want something to happen or be true.” Hope conjures up images in our minds of longing, wanting, and waiting. 

At various points in our lives, all of us have probably hoped for something that did not come to fruition.

Perhaps as a child there was a specific toy or gift you hoped you would get for Christmas, but alas it did not come. Perhaps you hoped to one day marry the person of your dreams, or to win the lottery or become inherently wealthy, to live in a mansion, or to travel the world, but perhaps those hopes have not been fulfilled.

Hope and Wait on the Lord

In the Bible, the word “hope” has the connotation of waiting and looking forward to something that we know will happen, we just may not know when it’s going to happen.

Psalm 33:18-21 tells us that “The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine. We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.”

In Isaiah 40:31 we read the words: “those who hope in the Lord [or wait on the Lord] will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

To hope in something that you know is going to happen is to wait. And so we can hope, or wait on the Lord.

In the Bible, the strength of our hope is not in how much we wish for something to be true, or how much we want it to happen. Instead, the strength of our hope is in what we are placing our hope in, or more correctly in whom we are placing our hope.

The Soon Coming King

When we read the beautiful poetic imagery in the book of Isaiah of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the baby goat, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child leading all of them, we know that although this imagery is symbolic, this is not just some pie-in-the-sky fantasy that will never come to pass, but it is instead a picture of what will take place. It is a prophecy of the world that is to come — the world of peace, love, and joy that will ultimately become a reality when Christ returns to judge the world with fairness and equity (Isaiah 11:3-4), when all wrongs are made right, and when the whole world acknowledges Jesus as King (see Romans 14:11, Isaiah 45:23b). 

The prophet Isaiah, writing 700 years before the birth of Christ, predicted that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1).

Like a tree that had been prematurely cut down, the dynasty of the son of Jesse — King David — would come to an untimely end around 586 BC when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, captured the king, and carried away the best and brightest of the Jewish people into captivity in Babylon. And all of this despite the fact that the Lord had told King David that his “house and …kingdom and throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16).

And yet, just as a shoot can grow out of the stump that has been chopped down, regrowing once again to become a flourishing and fruitful tree, Isaiah foretells that this “shoot” that grows out of Jesse and King David’s lineage will be filled with the spirit of God, and with all wisdom and with all understanding. This King that is to come will have the spirit of counsel and might, and will be filled with the knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 

This King who is to come will delight in the Lord, and will judge not by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but will instead judge the earth with righteousness, justice, and equality. He will speak God’s truth, he will wear righteousness and faithfulness as a belt around his waist.

When this King comes, even the wild animals will get along! Isaiah foretells that “they will not hurt or destroy on all [God’s] holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). And Isaiah goes on to say that “on that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10).

What a beautiful and hopeful picture this is.

It Shall Come to Pass

And if we wonder whether or not this is actually going to happen, whether the events that this prophecy predicts will ever come to pass, Isaiah assures us that “a shoot shall come…A branch shall grow…the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…His delight shall be in the Lord…he shall judge…righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.

“Shall” — “it should” and “it will.” This is not just what is supposed to happen, not just what would be nice if it happened, not just something that would be a beautiful fantasy if it were to take place. It is what shall come to pass! It shall happen! We can rest assured that it can, it should, and indeed it will take place.

Get Ready!

And so we must get ready! 

John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness desert shortly before Jesus began his earthly ministry, called people to repent — to prepare themselves for the Kingdom of Heaven by turning around and facing the right way.

John told even the most seemingly religious of leaders that they were not yet ready for the Kingdom, that they needed to be baptized and to confess their sins, and that they needed to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

John said that while he baptized with water, the Messiah, who is even more powerful than he — was coming and he would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

In other words, all of the good things that they had been doing were not good enough. They needed to be cleansed from the inside out. They needed to be made over anew. They needed to be reborn. They needed a whole new perspective, a mindset shift, a worldview change. Only then could they be ready, only then could they recognize the King when he arrived.

John called the people of his day– and his words ring throughout the ages to all of us — to turn around. To look to the Lord for our hope and our strength. To wait on the Lord. To prepare room in our hearts for God to come in and do a mighty work. To make us completely over anew. We need a complete change of heart, we need our minds turned right-side up and our hearts turned inside out, so that we can indeed recognize the Kingdom of Heaven when it is here in its fullness. We do not want to miss it, we don’t want to let it pass us by. We want to be ready when Christ returns

So let’s get ready! Let us put our hope and our trust in the Lord. Let’s allow him to cleanse us from the inside-out. Let us turn away from anything that might distract us from serving the Lord. Let’s bear fruit that is worthy of repentance. And let us make room in our hearts and in our lives for the King who is to come. 

O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,

There is room in my heart for Thee!

Peace

Sunday December 1st  2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matt. 25:42

First Sunday of Advent

Advent

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent, that season of waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the coming return of Jesus Christ our King. 

For many of us, waiting is difficult. We’re impatient, we wish we could just get wherever we’re going right now. It’s hard for us to live in the moment, to enjoy the present. We want to arrive at our destination yesterday. We’re like little kids sitting in the back of the car, constantly asking the question, “Are we there yet?”

As a society we do not do very well at waiting. Not only can you get Next Day Shipping, but now you can even get 2-hour delivery from Amazon.com. Stores started decorating for Christmas well before Thanksgiving, and I guarantee that even before Christmas arrives they’ll start selling Valentine’s Day candy. And don’t try to buy a winter coat at the stores in the wintertime, because that’s when they’re starting to sell swimsuits and their other summer selections.

And yet we find ourselves here in Advent, in this season of waiting. Waiting not just for Christmas, but for the ultimate fulfillment of what Christmas is supposed to bring: peace, hope, joy, and love. This is what the prophets foretold would happen when the Messiah came. This is what our world is longing for, waiting for. And yet we know that Christmas will come and go, and there will probably still be violence in our city, there will probably still be wars and conflict in our world, and there will probably still be bickering and fighting in our own households. 

We know that one holiday season cannot solve all of the world’s problems. But Christmas reminds us of the way the world is supposed to be, of what we have to look forward to when Christ ultimately returns to make everything right, when the whole world acknowledges Jesus to be the King. The Christmas season points forward to that day when violence is finally brought to an end, when sin and death are ultimately defeated, and when Jesus returns to judge and rule the world in righteousness, peace and love.

Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Nations 

The Prophet Isaiah painted a vivid picture of this for us. According to Isaiah,

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and…all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob… (Isaiah 2:2-3a)

Can you imagine that? People of every nation and ethnicity rushing to get into God’s house. But notice here in Isaiah’s prophecy why they’re coming in droves to God’s house:

…that [God] may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples (Isaiah 2:3b-4a).

In Isaiah’s imaginative foretelling, people are streaming to the “mountain of the Lord’s house” so that they can learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths, and so that God can “arbitrate” between the nations. In this picture, God is the judge that Kings go to in order to settle their disputes. Not just individual people, but nations, governments, and rulers are pouring into God’s house to learn God’s ways so that they can walk in God’s paths. 

Imagine if the leaders of every nation in the world were to acknowledge God as the true King — as the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and the ruler of all the earth! It would bring an end to all wars, conflict and violence in our world. In this beautiful image that Isaiah paints, Isaiah tells us that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).

Picture this scene with me. Gang members look at each other and then look down at their knives and guns and saying, “well, we don’t need these anymore!” and so they melt them down and turn them into trowels and gardening tools! Police officers are forced to find other means of employment because people aren’t committing crimes anymore! Government leaders mutually agree to get rid of weapons of mass destruction because they know that they will never be needed again, and the engineers and scientists of our world can turn their attention elsewhere because they no longer need to invent ways to help their countries defend against attacks from other countries.

Between the Now, and Not Yet

How, when, and where will this happen? As Christians, we believe we are living in the Now, and yet Not Yet. Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, has already come, and a smattering of people from every nation and people group have acknowledged Jesus as King. Many of us here this morning have asked Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. We have pledged our lives to God’s Kingdom. And so in some ways it’s already here!

And yet not everyone in the world acknowledges Jesus as King. Nations still go to war against other nations, there is still quarreling and bickering, there are still fights and disputes and violence. Many people have shut God out of their lives completely, and still others seem ambivalent or apathetic to God. Church attendance is in decline across the nation. It does not seem that people are streaming into God’s house to learn God’s ways.

And so we live in the Now, but also the Not Yet. We look to Jesus as the source and the guide for our lives, but we also look forward and long for the day when Christ will return to make everything right, when Christ will come back to rule and to reign for all eternity and when the whole world will acknowledge God as King. We long for the day when not just all of the peoples of the earth, but also all of the rulers and authorities and governments bow to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Now I know that at this point many people roll their eyes and say, “when is that ever going to happen? Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago, and every generation since then thought that Jesus would return in their lifetime. How do we know that Jesus is going to come back soon?”

The truth is, we don’t know! We have no idea when Jesus will return — and don’t trust anyone who says they’ve figured out the exact date and time when Jesus will return! But, as the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Rom. 13:11b)! We may not know when Jesus will return, but we do know that Jesus’s coming is nearer to us now than ever, and the day is drawing closer 

As Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 24, “Keep awake….for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:42). It could be within our lifetime, it could be a thousand years from now. And so we live every day as if it could be our last, as if Jesus might return today. We live every day longing and hoping, and actively working to proclaim the message of the Gospel through word and deed. We acknowledge Jesus as the King of our lives, and we work to bring about Christ’s Kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love here and now.

Where Do We Go to Find Peace?

Now there’s a reason, I think, why people are not streaming into our church (or any church for that matter) asking us to teach them about God, or to teach them how to be at peace with themselves or one another. And that is that as church-going people, we’re often known more for our quarreling and contention than for anything having to do with peace. 

Think of all the divisions that we see in the Church. Think of the arguments, the politics and bickering, the posturing for positions of leadership, the complaints and the gossip. (I’m not speaking about our church, of course! I’m talking about all of those other churches our there☺). A lot of people refuse to go to church because that has been their experience of church. 

Ask the average person on the street where they would go if they want to find peace, and very few of them will say “church.” If they wanted to be at peace with themselves they would probably go to a therapist. If they have a conflict with their neighbor they’re more likely to go to a secular mediator than to a religious leader. And if they wanted to find peace with God they are more likely to seek out a quasi-religious guru on a far-away mountain-top retreat than to set foot into the doors of a church. 

“Put On the Lord Jesus Christ”

And so Paul tells the Christians in Rome to “live honorably…not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:13). Now here at Hampden United Methodist Church, I would say I am not aware of a whole lot of reveling and drunkenness, debauchery or licentiousness going on in our midst. We do pretty well with that (as far as I know)! But we do have our quarrels and jealousies from time to time. 

And so in the spirit of living in the Now but Not Yet, in the spirit of becoming people who proclaim God’s peace to the nations, I wonder what it would be like for us to follow Paul’s advice, to put aside quarreling and jealousy and to instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ? What if, instead of passing along the juiciest gossip that we hear, what if we lifted that person up in prayer instead? Rather than being easily offended, what if we assumed the best about each other’s intentions? And what if, rather than complaining and bickering, we chose to yield our personal preferences, likes and dislikes for the sake of unity within our congregation?

If we could truly become people who live at peace with one another, then perhaps people would stream into our doors, to ask us to instruct them in the way of God’s peace! 

People of Peace

Now some of you might say “well it would be a lot easier to get along with everyone if they just thought/believed/acted like me!” And that is probably true. But we don’t come to church because we all have the same perspectives, preferences, likes or dislikes. We come to church because we all know that apart from Christ we are lost, that we ourselves are in need of God’s grace, and mercy, and love. We are in constant need of God’s forgiveness. That’s why we come together, that’s why we’re here. 

I know that there’s no way we’re ever going to become the perfect church, this side of eternity. We’re going to mess up and slip up, we’re going to make mistakes, and we’ll need to ask for forgiveness from God and from one another. That’s why in a few minutes, before we partake in Communion, we’ll pray a prayer of confession, and we’ll offer the sign of peace and reconciliation to one another. 

This morning let those words be not just something that we do and say out of habit. But let them be a genuine symbol of our love for and devotion to God and to the Body of Christ. Let us seek to be a people who pray for and practice peace — not just in far-off distant lands, but here at home. In our congregation, in our own households. If we’ve wronged let’s ask forgiveness. If someone else has wronged us, let’s extend mercy and compassion. Let’s keep a short record of accounts. Let’s assume the best of one another. And let’s let God’s grace flow freely among us.

Perhaps then the world will believe us when we say that we know the Prince of Peace! Perhaps then the world will take us seriously when we invite them here to find peace with God. Perhaps then we can become people who teach the nations how to beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Perhaps then the world will acknowledge Jesus as King.

Queen Esther, and King Jesus

Sunday November 24th 2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Esther 4:10-17; Romans 8:31-39

Esther — a Melodrama

Today we wrap up our series on “The Greatest Hits of the Old Testament” by looking at the book of Esther. The book of Esther is quite unique, in that it is the only book of the Bible that does not mention God. Esther is a rather secular book in that sense. And in fact, for most of the book, we have to look closely to see how God is at work at all, even behind the scenes. 

Now I believe that the book of Esther is written in the style of a classic melodrama — a sensational dramatic piece of literature with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions — sort of like a soap opera.

Every good melodrama has a damsel in distress, a villain and the villain’s bumbling sidekick who provides comedic relief, and of course a hero or heroine.

Esther is a sort of “damsel in distress” in the beginning of the story, who ends up becoming the hero of the story. At the beginning of the story, Esther is an orphan who is adopted by her older cousin Mordecai. Esther and Mordecai are Jews living in the foreign land of Persia. Esther is taken against her will and put into the king’s harem and becomes the Queen. Not long after, Mordecai and Esther and all of Jewish people’s lives are put in danger, because of an evil plot hatched by the archvillain of the story: Haman (at this point, everyone listening to the story would let out a loud “boo!”).

Haman was technically the second in command to the king — but in many ways he seems to be the one calling the shots. Haman is a hotheaded, egocentric megalomaniac who is upset because Mordecai will not bow down to him, and he devises a scheme to get the king to allow him to destroy not only Mordecai, but all of the Jews.

The King in the story is a malleable pushover who loves to drink and party and who seems to do whatever his advisors — particularly Haman — tells him to do. When Haman bribes the king and asks him to issue a decree that destroys a whole subset of people who live in his kingdom, the king allows Haman to write out the decree himself, no questioned asked, and he doesn’t even accept the vast amount of money Haman offers him (Esther 3:11). 

Plot Twists

Now, the book of Esther, like every good melodrama, is full of ups and downs and amazing hairpin turns and plot twists. Esther, a young Jewish woman, is chosen to be the Queen of the whole kingdom of Persia, but it turns out that it is a position of very little power all. She can’t even go into the king’s presence unless she is summoned. At first, she has no idea that she and her people are even in danger at all. And so her cousin Mordecai sits outside the palace wearing sackloth and ashes in order to get her attention. 

Esther finally works up the nerve to go into the king’s presence, risking her very life if the king refuses to hold out his golden scepter. When the king finally does welcome Esther into his presence, she merely invites the king and Haman to a banquet the following evening. And at that banquet she invites him to another banquet, where she finally reveals her identity and pleads for her people.

But in between those 2 banquets, the craziest sequence of events happen. Haman leaves the first banquet and passes his sworn enemy Mordecai, who once again refuses to bow to him. Seething with rage, Haman goes home and complains to his wife, who encourages him to set up a 75-foot tall gallows for the purpose of hanging Mordecai the following day. Haman loves this plan and sets the gallows up, intending to ask the king’s permission the following day to have Mordecai hanged.

But that exact same night, the king can’t sleep, and so he calls in one of his servants to read to him. The servant reads to him from his own book of records, in which it was recorded that Mordecai had at one point in time saved the king’s life. The king realizes that he never rewarded Mordecai, and so the next day he asks Haman what he should do for someone that he wishes to honor? Thinking that he’s talking about him, Haman says, 

“let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor” (Esther 6:8-9).

The king commands Haman to do that for Mordecai, and one can only imagine the sudden sinking feeling that Haman must have felt inside when the king commanded him to do that. 

“For Such a Time As This”

But of course one of the most dramatic and suspense-filled dialogues that takes place in the book of Esther is the exchange that occurs between Mordecai and Esther, when Mordecai asks Esther to go into the king’s presence to plead on behalf of the lives of their people.

Queen Esther, who has been living a life of comfort and ease and luxury in the King’s palace, who has successfully been able to hide her identity as a Jew, has to consider whether she is willing to risk it all, to enter the king’s presence without being summoned, to “out” herself as a Jew, and to risk the anger and wrath of the king and the hatred of Haman who had it out for her people. 

How will the king respond, if she even makes it into the throne room at all? Will she be deposed, as the king had done to the previous queen? Even worse, will she be put to death for her breach of protocol, or slaughtered along with all of the other Jews once her true identity is revealed?

Mordecai’s words to Esther are rather stunning. Because, although God is never mentioned outright, Mordecai seems to have faith that no matter what, their people will be saved from destruction. Mordecai says to Esther, “if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter” (Esther 4:14a). Who exactly Mordecai thought would save them if Esther kept silent can only be left up to speculation. But either way, Mordecai seems to have a strong faith that they will be saved, and that faith must have ultimately been placed in God.

Mordecai’s belief that there is a higher power at work behind the scenes is also demonstrated in the next line, where Mordecai tells Esther, “‘Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this’” (Esther 4:14b). Perhaps Esther has come to royal dignity for just such a time as this. Mordecai doesn’t want to over-promise, but he has a firm and quiet belief that God is indeed working in the background, and that perhaps Esther is part of God’s plan.

Our Life as a Melodrama

I don’t know about you, but I feel like so often our lives can feel like a poorly written melodrama. One moment it seems like everything is going well, and the next moment there’s a car accident, or our boss lets us go. We become estranged from a friend or family member, or someone close to us passes away suddenly.

So often it’s difficult to know how God is at work behind the scenes, or if God is even at work at all. We wonder, is God even there? Does God even know what’s happening? And if so, does God even care?

A life of faith often entails looking closely for those places where God must at work behind the scenes. Sometimes we may not even be sure if it’s God — and so we might say along with Mordecai, “Perhaps.” “Perhaps God placed us in this situation for just such a purpose. Perhaps there’s a reason. Perhaps God has been orchestrating things. Perhaps God has been intervening after all. Perhaps this was part of God’s plan.” We can rarely be certain, but there are those times when there’s no other explanation than that it must be God, it has to be God.

And then there are those times when we feel led to act. Something stirs inside of us, prompting us to take action. We see something, and we know we have to say something. We know that even if we don’t speak up God could always bring deliverance from another quarter. But we don’t know what it would do to us if we don’t do something. If we don’t speak up, it will eat us up from the inside. If we squash the prompting of the Holy Spirit when we feel prompted to act or to speak, who knows what it will do to us? 

And so like Esther we step out in faith. We act. We throw ourselves upon the mercy of God, and we do what we feel called to do, hoping and trusting that it is indeed God prompting us to act, and that in fact God will hear, and God will protect, and God will provide as we step out in faith.

Step Out, and Speak Up

I don’t know in what areas of your life you might be feeling called to step out, or to speak up. Perhaps it’s an issue at your workplace, but you’re afraid if you speak up you might miss out on a promotion, or worse, lose your job. Perhaps there an issue of injustice that  you care deeply about, but you’re afraid of being seen as too “political.” Perhaps you’re feeling called to speak to your friend or neighbor or family member about God, or invite someone to church, but you’re afraid that if they say “no” you might lose them.

But on the other hand, we can also say, along with Mordecai, that perhaps you’ve been placed where you are for such a time as this! Perhaps God gave you the insight, or the skills, or the relationship necessary to make an impact. Perhaps God placed you where you are for a reason. 

Sure, God could bring deliverance through some other sort of means. God could act in spite of you. But what tremendous opportunities we miss out on when we fail to do what God has positioned us to do!

King Jesus

The amazing thing is that Esther did step out, and she did speak up. She entered the king’s presence without being summoned, and the king welcomed her with open arms. When she finally told him of Haman’s evil plot, the king protected not only her, but all of her people as well. Her relationship with her husband the king seemed to grow ten times stronger. And Esther and her people were not only saved, but given places of power and prestige within the kingdom. 

Just as Esther entered into the king’s presence to advocate on behalf of her people, the book of Romans tells us that “Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God…indeed intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34). Jesus didn’t just risk his life to save us — Jesus gave his life for us. Jesus paid the ultimate price to bring about our freedom. Jesus our King, is daily interceding for us. He’s rooting for us, cheering us on, advocating and pleading on our behalf. 

That’s why Paul can say that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). And “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38-39).

We don’t have to be afraid to go to God with our requests, or even our complaints — because Jesus is daily interceding for us. We don’t have to be afraid that God will not love us, or accept us into God’s presence, or forgive us for whatever it is that we’ve done — because we’ve been forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. And we don’t even have to be afraid of death, because Jesus has conquered sin and death and the grave (see 1 Cor. 15:57).

With Christ our King interceding for us, we do not have to be afraid. So we can step out, speak up. We can trust that God is at work behind the scenes, even when we’re not sure how. We can believe that God is indeed working for good, even in the midst of the crazy plot twists and turns of this melodrama we call life.

Sunday November 10th 2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Daniel 6:16-23

Daniel and the Lion’s Den

The story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den is one of the favorite and most-loved children’s Bible stories of all time. 

Daniel was a Jewish man who became one of the top leaders in Babylon and was favored by the king. He was a man of such honesty and integrity that the only fault his rivals could find with him was that he was so religious.

His rivals, who wanted to see his downfall, went to the king and recommended that the king make it illegal for anyone to pray to anyone other than the king for thirty days. But Daniel was a man of such great faith and courage that he knelt in front of his open window three times a day to pray before the God of heaven – despite the fact that the punishment for doing so was to be thrown into a den of lions.

Sure enough, his rivals came and caught him in the act of praying, and although the king did not want to follow through on the punishment because of his love for Daniel, he had to do so because the law could not be changed. And so Daniel was thrown into a den of hungry lions. 

The king paced back and forth all night.  He couldn’t eat or sleep, and in the morning, he rushed to the opening of the lion’s den and peered inside and called out to Daniel. Sure enough, Daniel was alive, unhurt, unscathed, and uneaten by the lions. An angel of the Lord had shut the mouths of the lions and they did not even touch him.

Daniel was brought out, and the king threw Daniel’s enemies into the lion’s den instead, and before their bodies even hit the ground they were torn to shreds by the ravenously hungry lions.

Then the king sent out a royal proclamation to the whole kingdom, saying that everyone should  “tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: For he is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth; for he has saved Daniel from the power of the lions” (Dan. 6:26-27).

This is an amazing story of God’s faithfulness and of God’s ability to protect us even in the midst of the most dangerous circumstances we might face in life. We should stand in awe of God’s power and might, as the king proclaimed.

What’s also rather amazing is the boldness, courage, and faith of Daniel, that he would resist the law of the king, and continue steadfastly practicing his faith even when it became illegal to do so. 

Overview of Daniel’s Life

Although we often think of Daniel as a young man when he was thrown into the lion’s den, the reality is that Daniel had been faithfully serving in the king’s court for many many years before he was thrown into the den of lions. In fact, it’s estimated that Daniel would have been over 80 years old at the time of this story! Daniel’s faith was not the faith of a brash young man. Rather, his was a deeply profound and mature faith that had slowly deepened and developed over many years of faithfully living for the Lord.

Also interesting to note is that Daniel was not a religious leader. He was not a prophet or a priest, although he did have prophetic gifts. Daniel was a bureaucrat, a politician in a secular government. And he not only served through multiple administrations, but he served even through various regime changes and government takeovers. He served under King Nebuchadnezzar and King Belshazzar of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Darius the Mede, and King Cyrus of Persia. Throughout every revolt and change in government, Daniel continued to rise to the top and gain favor with each new king, something that is rather remarkable in and of itself.

But throughout all of this, Daniel never compromised or neglected his faith in God, despite the fact that he often faced pressures to abandon his faith or conform to the secular culture around him.

How did Daniel gain such confidence, boldness, and courage, that he would remain steadfast in his faith, despite such extreme external pressures? And what might we learn from Daniel’s story?

The First Test — Food

Well for Daniel, it all started way back when he was a young man and was first brought to Babylon.  

When Daniel was probably still a teenager, Daniel and several close friends of his were taken captive against their will from the city of Jerusalem, along with all the best and brightest of the land of Israel. According to Daniel chapter 1, he and all of the other young men who were taken captive into Babylon were handsome and smart and of royal lineage.

Although it was not their choice to go to Babylon, when they arrived in Babylon they were given royal treatment. They were housed in the palace, and given food to eat from the king’s table. They were enrolled in a three-year intensive leadership training program where they were educated in the language and literature of the Chaldeans, with the intention that at the end of the program they would be given positions in the king’s court.

Daniel and his friends were already highly educated and had showed much leadership potential, but the opportunity afforded them in Babylon was a world-class education by top-notch scholars and professionals. And they seemed to enter in wholeheartedly.

There was one aspect of the program, however, in which they refused to participate, and that is that they refused to eat the meat and drink the wine that was offered to them from the king’s table. Instead they asked to be served a vegetarian diet instead.

Now this may seem like an odd thing to do. They had been taken far away from their homeland, taken captive against their will, forced to relocate and be reeducated, to learn a new language, even given new names. Why would they refuse to eat the rich and wonderful food that was provided for them?

While we don’t know exactly why Daniel and his friends refused to eat the meat that was offered to them, there are several possibilities. Perhaps it wasn’t “kosher” meat. The meat offered to them might have been pork or shellfish, or some other kind of meat that was prohibited for the Jewish people to eat according to the book of Leviticus (Lev. 11).

Perhaps it was meat that had first been offered to idols, something we see come up as an issue in the New Testament (see 1 Cor. 10:28). 

But whatever the reason, Daniel and his three friends decided that this was one area in which they were not willing to compromise. Daniel went to the palace master to ask that an exception be made for him and his friends, but the palace master declined out of fear of the king. 

Daniel’s Persistence

But Daniel didn’t give up. He went to the palace guard, who was under the authority of the palace master, and he asked the guard to test him and his friends for ten days by giving them a diet of vegetables and water, and then comparing them to the other young men in the program. The palace guard complied, and sure enough, after ten days Daniel and his three friends were healthier than all of the other young men who had consumed the meat and wine given to them by the king.

Now although this may have seemed like an insignificant matter, and even though no one back home would have ever known if Daniel and his friends had eaten the forbidden foods, I want to propose that taking this stand, and refusing to eat the food that was offered to them by the king was a critical juncture in the faith lives of Daniel and his friends. If they had given in and partaken of the food and wine that was offered to them, then it would have been easy for them to continue to compromise and give in, little by little to assimilate and to lower their standards, until eventually not only their unique culture and way of life, but their whole religious identity would have been wiped away altogether. If they had given in and compromised on the issue of food, then it would have been harder to take a stand later on when they were asked to bow to a golden image, or pray to the king. 

Taking a stand on the relatively insignificant issue of food, helped Daniel and his friends grow in their faith and courage, their conviction, and their trust in God. It helped set them up well for the battles that they would face later on in life when the stakes were much higher and when the press to compromise and assimilate was even stronger.

The Testing of Their Faith

And sure enough, in the book of Daniel, we see Daniel and his friends face multiple battles. Daniel is forced to interpret the king’s dream, upon pain of death, in chapter 2. (The interpretation included telling the king rather bad news about his kingdom. And no one wants to be the bearer of bad news to a king who is already angry!) 

In Daniel chapter 3, Daniel’s 3 friends refuse to bow to the king’s golden statue, and they are thrown into a fiery furnace, but God protects them and brings them out safe and sound. Daniel is asked to interpret writing that miraculously appeared on a wall, which turns out to be a prophecy of destruction in chapter 5. And then of course in Daniel 6, Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den because he refused to discontinue praying to the God of Heaven. 

In each of these occurrences, Daniel and his friends refused to bow to pressure or take the easy way out. They stood for what was right, they spoke the truth, even though it could have cost them their lives. In each situation, they maintained their integrity, and they grew wiser, more full of faith, and more secure in God’s ability to protect and provide for them.

Dare to Be a Daniel

So often we look at the heroes of our faith, men and women who acted with courage and bravery, and we rightly aspire to be like them. But we wonder if would be able to act so heroically, if we were called upon to do so? Would we be willing to stare death in the face, and would we be able to rise to the occasion and do something so magnificent? 

But what we often don’t realize is that faith so often grows incrementally. Often faith starts small, but the more we exercise our faith, even in seemingly insignificant ways, or when no one else is watching, the more our faith is stretched, the stronger it gets.

On the other hand, just as muscles atrophy when they are not used, so our faith withers when we constantly push aside our convictions in favor of what’s easier, or more comfortable, or less likely to make us stand out. The more we give in and compromise, the more our faith becomes shallow or even nonexistent. 

And so if we aspire to be like Daniel and his three friends, then we don’t need to wait until we are faced with a fiery furnace or a den of ravishingly hungry lions to act heroically. We can take a stand here and now, in large and in small ways, by speaking the truth, even when it feels costly. By refusing to give in to negative peer pressure. By  faithfully and humbly praying and living out our faith, even when no one else seems to be watching.

Let us take a stand for God, in large and in small ways. With God’s help, let us seek to be people of honesty and integrity even in the small things, so that we can have the strength and courage to do great things if and when we are called upon to do so. Let us exercise our faith on a daily basis, so that our faith muscles do not grow weak. And let us look to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2).