Our three readings today are on the same theme – the theme of truth. Esther spoke the truth to the king, even though it would mean exposing an influential enemy. The king himself was so powerful that Esther and Mordecai waited till they knew for certain that he meant what he said when he proposed to give her what she asked for. But even the king didn’t know what the evil Haman was plotting behind his back.
These days with the second world war in our recent history, we tend to forget that anti-Semitism went back a long way. A very long way. That may have had something to do with the fact they kept conquering other peoples maybe?
But here in King Xerxes’ court, in the land of Persia, the Jews were a minority who were resented. Esther had an opportunity to help her people, but it must have been with fear and trembling that she exposed Haman for plotting against her people. From our reading today it looks as if the king acted without any time to give Haman a chance to give his point of view, but a few verses were left out. What happened next, after Esther’s accusation, was that the king was so angry he got up and paced around. Haman, terrified for his life, threw himself at the feet of Queen Esther to plead for his life. The King returned and found him there, and accused him of trying to molest Esther! So Haman’s face was covered – meaning he was sentenced to death.
This is when the servant Harbona pipes up with the detail of the tower that Haman has built for the express purpose of hanging Mordecai, Esther’s cousin and leader of the Jewish people. This came as an extra accusation of Haman.
I’m left here wondering why the King didn’t know about the building project. After all, it was 23 meters tall. But maybe no-one dared speak against Haman because of his powerful position in the court.
This goes to show that even the King, the highest status person in the land, didn’t know everything. I hope my kids don’t hear me say this…
These events are still celebrated by orthodox Jews in the feast of Purim, and they make a special biscuit, called Haman’s hats – a three-cornered pastry filled with apricots, poppy-seeds or prunes, and they are very nice too!
But what message is there for us in this vivid story of life a long time ago? I think it’s about speaking out the truth, even as a potential risk to your own safety. Truth is a powerful thing, but so is untruth.
When we look at our reading from James, the message is very clear, to the point of almost naive bluntness. If you have trouble, pray. If you have sinned, tell each other what you have done.
It’s refreshing in its simplicity, and also challenging. Often-times we are so caught up in maintaining our image the way we want to be perceived, that telling our friends when we have done something that we consider a sin, is the last thing we would want to do. We don’t want our darkest secrets out on public view. Let bygones be bygones, it was just youthful high-jinks, the pig consented, and all manner of other excuses.
But have you ever had something in your past that gets up and niggles at you from time to time? Something you wish you could confess, to take away its power over you? But did you feel that if you did confess it that someone would have a lower opinion of you? I know I have, but I’m not willing to go into details. And this is the problem isn’t it? If we can’t bring our humanness, our brokenness, to our friends in Christ, we are not living with the freedom that James knows is possible. The truth will set you free! Free from guilt, from worry, from trying to make sure the story is straight, and everything looks respectable.
But, actually, being a Christian is not really about being respectable in the eyes of the community. Was Jesus respectable? He lived rough, bludged off -maybe that’s a bit strong- various unattached women, a motley crowd of disciples following him, turned over tables in temples, spoke it as he saw it…
Another good learning from James. If you have sinned tell one another what you have done, then pray for one another and be healed. Not gossip it all over the suburb or facebook. I’m sure none of you gossip. But it can be very tempting to pass on interesting bits of information, like Harmona and Haman’s new-built gallows! Note too that the prayer James urges is mutual, not just praying for the confessor, but for each other. In these ways are truthful relationships forged.
Let’s look again at the peaceful and simple picture James paints – pray for healing, and expect it! Give thanks for the good stuff! If you are sick, ask the church leaders to come and pray for you. In St Mary’s many of us exercise a healing ministry, and while that doesn’t mean we are all church leaders – relax, you don’t all have to go to Synod next year – we are growing in leading the Kingdom of God in our community. As we pray for each other in church, corporately and personally, we are being trained to pray for those we encounter on our Monday to Saturday journeys. We hear stories in Encouraging the Kingdom of when people step out boldly and simply and pray for others. Be encouraged everyone – it’s not hard, but like Esther you have to take your heart in your mouth sometimes.
Notice one thing James doesn’t say in his advice – if you do this life will be easy and go well and everyone will love you!
No no no, we all know that Christianity is not as easy as that. If it was, we would value it less, because it would come at a small cost.
Thins which are costly are valued – that’s why giving away pets in never as good as selling them – if a person values the new pet enough to sacrifice for it, they will care for it better.
In Mark’s Gospel, again we have the theme of truth. The disciples are complaining that someone else is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, someone who isn’t one of the approved, certificated, health and safety stamped members of the disciples. But Jesus knows that the message is what matters. The truth is that in Jesus’ name demons will flee.
That means that anyone who commands them to go in Jesus’ name speaks the truth and the demons will indeed flee. This is a message for all of us – as I mentioned last time I preached here, the enemy is real, but in Jesus’ name we all can command it to go. The truth rests in Jesus, human and divine son of God, and as His followers, slaves of Christ, which is what Christian originally meant, we are endeavouring to live the truth the Jesus way.
Does that mean then that if we discover in our conscience one of those sins mentioned in James, we should cut off the offending limb that committed the sin? Some people who take the Bible literally may think this. But the Bible was not meant to be taken literally in this way. The New Zealand sense of humour is about understatement – though I have not yet heard the Christchurch earthquakes referred to as ‘a spot of bother, ‘ you know what I mean. In the same way Jewish humour is about exaggeration. Jesus talked elsewhere about forgiving a debt of many talents of money, 0r several billion dollars in today’s terms. Cutting off your hand, foot, eye, is the same thing here. But the principle is clear.
Maybe it’s about things in your life. ‘Fred is my right-hand man at work, I couldn’t do without him.’ But if Fred encourages you to sin, maybe it’s time to sever the relationship.
If you need a glass of wine to get through the dinner hour when the kids are feral, maybe this is something to cut off before it leads you to sin.
Behaviours, habits, relationships that are bad for us, are all things we can cut off. Will it hurt? Yes. Maybe, like some amputations, there will be ongoing ghost pain too. But it’s for the better.
But there are times when we drift into a way of living that is not good. We don’t notice the first step, or brush aside the niggles, justifying ourselves until we no longer hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit that there is a better way. This is when our friends have a role in our life. James tells us that if any followers have strayed from the truth, try to lead them back. He doesn’t say, pray for them and everything will be fine, like in the earlier verse. He is acknowledging that it may be a difficult and painful journey for all parties involved. But this is love isn’t it? Speaking into the lives of our fellow Christians, with love, and with prayer, not just wringing our hands and worrying. In our culture people are reluctant to say anything, but, just like the servant Harbona, we have certainly become aware of the giant scaffold our friends are building, and as followers of the Truth personified in the person of Jesus Christ, we are emboldened to speak out.
This applies to structures in our communities too. If we see injustice, lack of truth, as Christians it is our duty to do something about it. Yes we may be ridiculed, so what? We only live here on this earth for a short while, but forever in heaven.