This morning the eyes of the world are focused on the Middle East. People are watching and wondering when Saddam Hussein will cross the line. It seems as if war is inevitable. When will the first shots be fired?
It has always been that way. The eyes of the world from the beginning of time have focused on the Middle East. For it is a fact of the Bible that the center of history is not in North America or in Europe or in Asia, but it is in that little patch of land where Asia, Europe and Africa all come together. We call that portion of geography the Fertile Crescent. That is where history began and that is where history will end. In between, the real story of what God has been doing in history is in the Middle East. It is so today. It has always been so.
A Man Called Xerxes
The year was 465 B.C. Xerxes was King on the throne of Persia. He was the undisputed greatest man in all the world. He ruled an empire even bigger than the empire of Nebuchadnezzar. His empire spread from India in the east to Greece in the West to Africa in the south and to Turkey in the north.
Our story this morning takes place in one of his capital cities. The Persian Empire has four capital cities. One you’ve heard of–Babylon. Another one called Ecbatana. Another one called Persepolis. And yet a fourth one called Susa. It is in Susa that our story unfolds.
It is fitting that we should consider a story that took place in Susa for it is not far from the center of action in the Middle East today. In fact the archaeologists dug up Susa about 100 years ago and found the ruins of the palace spoken of in the book of Esther. If you wanted to get to Susa, you could fly into Baghdad and get a bus out of the city and come south toward the mouth of the Persian Gulf. When you got to the mouth of the Persian Gulf you would turn left across the coastlands. You would cross the disputed border with Iran and then you would make your way for another 100 miles. You would begin to come north again up into the Plain of Khuzistan and there, by the shores of the Karkheh River, you would see what would appear to be a large mound, flat on top, with some ruins above it. That is all that is left today of the ancient city of Susa.
The King’s Winter Palace
But in 465 B.C. Susa was one of the greatest cities in all the world. Darius the Mede built his winter palace there. He was the father of King Xerxes. Archaeologists have discovered in the ruins a tablet where he describes how he built the city of Susa. He imported cedar from Lebanon, hard wood from Gandara, gold from Sardis, lapis lazuli from Sogdiana, ebony and silver from Egypt, ivory from Ethiopia and turquoise from Chorsmia. After he died, his son Xerxes continued the work his father had begun. The real capital was in Babylon. Susa served as the winter palace. It was a place to get away from the pressures of Babylon.
The king of Persia kept his harem in Susa. The harem was a large group of beautiful women who were there at his beck and call to serve him in any way he wished. They were gathered from among the most beautiful women in the empire – both Persian women and women from foreign countries. They had been given a special diet and taught a special way of life and their only calling was to please the king. One after another he would call the women in and they would serve him and do his bidding.
How A Jewish Princess Became A Queen
In the course of time the king, who had become enraged at Queen Vashti for some indiscretions, began to search out his harem to find the most beautiful, most attractive, most desirable woman that he might make her the new queen. As he searched through the harem in Susa, one after another, he looked at one woman after another. But he could not find what he wanted until at last he came upon a woman whose beauty and character and form and comeliness was such that he was completely taken with her. He said, “I want her to be my queen.” Her name in Hebrew was Hadassah, and in Persian, Esther. She was a Jew. She was of God’s chosen people and without any forewarning, she suddenly becomes the Queen of Persia. She is now the most important woman in the entire realm–A Jewish woman, queen to a Persian king.
Life was good for Esther because she was the king’s chosen one. She was the one on whom his favor rested. For many days, months and years Esther basked in the glory of being the chief woman of the realm and the one to whom everyone else bowed and paid homage.
It came to pass that a certain man named Haman came in to see the king. Esther knew nothing about it because in those days the king kept his business and his women far apart. So, while Esther was with the other women, the king saw Haman. Haman came in with a story the king could hardly believe. He said, “Oh, king, there’s a certain people in your realm who are treasonous and seditious against you. They do not follow your law. They do not pay homage to you. They do not respect what you have done. O king, we must do something about these people.” Haman neglected to tell the king who he was talking about. But, he was talking about the Jews. As a matter of fact, the things he was saying were not true. The Jews were not seditious. They were not treasonous. But Haman, because he was a descendant of the Amalekites, the ancient enemies of the people of God, wanted to stir up trouble against the Jews.
So he said to the king, “We must do something about these people who are polluting your kingdom.” The king asked, “What do you propose, Haman?” And Haman answered, “If you will allow me I will write a decree and have you sign it with your signet ring and we will send a decree out over all the kingdom. The decree will be that on a certain day all the Jews will be put to death” This is called a pogrom. It is an ancient version of what the Nazis did in World War II. Haman said, “I will write the decree. You can sign it and we’ll send it around and on that day every man, every woman, all the children, all of them on one day, from one end of the empire to another will all be put to death.”
Don’t miss this one fact. Haman neglected to tell the king that he was talking about the Jews so the king didn’t know. Not that it would have made that much difference to a Persian king anyway. And so the decree was signed and sealed with the signet ring and it began to go out over all the land.
Sackcloth And Ashes
Enter the story a man by the name of Mordecai, uncle to Queen Esther. He was a man who served in the court of King Xerxes. He was also a Jew. He was a cabinet officer, a man involved in the business affairs of the king, a man of good character, a man whom the king greatly respected. When Mordecai heard what wicked Haman had done, which would mean that he and all his relatives would be put to death, he went to the middle of the city and clothed himself with sackcloth and ashes and began mourning and wailing. Word of what Mordecai had done reached the ears of Queen Esther. She had not heard about Haman’s wicked plot and when she heard that Mordecai was in mourning she sent her messenger to find out what had happened. Her messenger got the story about what Haman had done and Mordecai gave to the messenger a copy of the decree and he said, “Go back to the queen and tell her that she is the only one who can save us now. If she does not act we will all die.”
Don’t Call Me, I’ll Call You
We pick up the story in Esther 4:9-11.
Hathach (He’s the messenger from Esther) went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the King in the inner court without being sum-moned by the King has but one law: that he be put to death.”
By the way, there is archaeological evidence which backs up this story. This is true not only of the Persian kings, but of all the monarches of the ancient Near East. They were absolute despots. You did not come near them without an invitation. If a man rushed in to see the king and the king was startled and didn’t want to see him, without a word the man would be taken out and put to death. So you had to think and think again before you went in to see the king. “The only exception is for the king to extend the gold scepter to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the King.” (4:11) It’s hard for us to understand that today but you must remember this is an ancient Near East nation where even though she was the Queen, she was still part of the harem. During the thirty days the king had not seen Esther.
Counting The Cost
Mordecai is saying, “Esther you’ve got to save us.” Esther is saying, “Mordecai you don’t understand what you’re asking me to do. She’s not refusing, you understand. She’s not saying, “No, I won’t do it.” She’s just saying, “Before you ask me to do that, you’ve got to understand what the risk is. If I go in there and the king doesn’t want to see me, I will be put to death even though I am the queen. Mordecai, think about what you are asking me to do.” She wasn’t saying no. She was doing what any reasonable individual would do. She was counting the personal cost.
That’s always true any time we’re called to get involved. Anytime the phone rings, anytime there’s an appeal, anytime there’s a great cause put before us, anytime the challenge is great. Before you take the first step you had better sit down and count the personal cost. That’s a biblical thing to do. Jesus said nobody goes to war without counting the soldiers to make sure he’s got enough. Nobody sits down to build a building without making sure he has enough money to finish the job. If you want to be my disciple, Jesus said, you must take up your cross and follow me. It’s going to cost you something.
So Esther is saying, “Mordecai, I want to help you but you’ve got to understand something. I am taking my life in my hands if I’m going to get involved with you.”
She was the queen. She had a good life. She had anything she wanted. She would raise her hand and fifty servants would come to her. She was queen over the province of Persia, the king’s favorite woman. Just say the word and it was given to her. Everything she wanted. All those other women would have given anything to be in her position. She had it all, material wealth, fame, popularity, adulation, the approval of her friends. Now Mordecai is saying “Esther, it’s time for you to put it on the line.”
The messenger goes back and tells Mordecai what Esther had said. Mordecai’s answer is the heart of the book of Esther:
When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliver-ance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (4:12-14)
He makes three appeals to her. The first one is the lowest level appeal. He says, “Esther, you’re the queen but underneath all that queenly regalia beats a Jewish heart. You’re one of God’s people. Don’t think by remaining silent you can avoid persecution, because you can’t. Once the killing starts it’s going to be mighty hard to stop. Once the crowds start killing the Jews one by one, they’ll start with the common people but, Esther, they’ll wind up on your doorstep and they won’t stop killing until they’ve killed all the Jews including you and your family. Don’t think that your position or privilege exempts you from what is going to happen. Just because you’re the queen, you are not out of trouble. You may be the last to go, but you’re going to go.”
The Unnamed God
Then he said, “If you don’t help us” – if you do remain silent – “relief and deliverance will arise from another place.” This is one of the most amazing statements in all of the Old Testament. It is certainly the most amazing statement in the book of Esther. By the way, let me share a piece of Bible trivia with you. Did you know that the Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible in which the name of God is not mentioned? You will never find the words “God” or “Lord” in the Book of Esther. That’s one of the reasons some people have looked at the Book of Esther and have concluded that it’s not important or is not inspired, or doesn’t belong in the Bible, or isn’t worthy of our close study. But I’ll tell you why the name of God is not in there. It’s because the book of Esther is the story of God’s people in a foreign land. It’s the story of God’s people under Gentile domination. It is a real story that serves as a kind of parable to teach us a lesson about how God works through seemingly unconnected circumstances to deliver his people even when they are under Gentile domination. That is why the name God never appears. Esther believed in God. So did Mordecai. So did all the Jews. That’s what made them Jews—they believed in God. But his name is never mentioned because it’s a lesson about the providence and liberating power of God.
So Mordecai is saying, “If you don’t help us, God is able to help us from some other source but you yourself will be destroyed.” Then he says, “Who knows but that you are come to royal position for such a time as this?” What did he mean? He meant, “Esther, don’t forget where you came from. There was a time when you were lined up with all those other women in the harem. You ate at the same table with them. You dressed the same way they dress. You acted just like them. Nobody knew you were a Jew. Esther, what made the king pick you out? Did you think it was just your good looks? They were all good looking. Do you think it was just your smile? They could all smile. Do you think it was just the way you flirted? They could all flirt.”
Mordecai’s message is crystal-clear: “Esther, you’re sitting here and you’re the queen. You’ve got it all. You’re on top. You’ve got privilege beyond anyone else in the whole kingdom. Do you think that happened by chance? Do you think that’s coincidence? Do you think you got that just because of your good looks? Esther, the reason you’re on top is because God put you there. Do you know why God put you there? He put you there so that at the crucial moment of history you could say the word and you could deliver your people.”
If I Perish, I Perish
All of that training and all you went through, it happened so that you would be the instrument God would use to deliver his people. What a view of history. What a way of looking at the circumstances of life. What a way of understanding the work of God. “Esther, who knows but that you were come to royal position for such a time as this?” For this critical moment. For this one moment in history. “Who knows, Esther, but that you are come here for this one thing? All that’s happened to you is preparation for this moment.”
We read Esther’s response in verses 15-16:
Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days. I and my maids will fast just as you do. When this is done, I will go to the King, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
Do you get the principle here? Mordecai’s great appeal to Esther was based on a great principle. The greater the privilege the greater the responsibility. The more you have, the more you have to answer for. The more God has given you, the greater your responsibility to use it for his Kingdom.
I’ve been meditating on this of late. Today happens to be my first anniversary as your pastor. Exactly one year ago tomorrow I preached my first sermon to you. This is my first anniversary message. What a year it’s been. What amazing things have happened. How fast it has gone by. What miracles we’ve seen. What wonderful things God has done. I stand here and look into the glorious past of the church and I am amazed at what God has done at certain key points in the past. I look into the future and I see the opportunities that stretch before us. As I ponder the matter, I feel like we are in the place of Queen Esther. Who knows but that we are come to this position for such a time as this?
Look at this marvelous building. The Presbyterians certainly knew what they were doing when they built this beautiful building. The church we had at Madison and Wisconsin burned downed in 1977. Back then, Calvary was a much smaller church. We had been here for about 60 years and were not well known in the community. Then the church burned down. We met one Sunday in the funeral home and then we met over at the high school for a few weeks and then we moved in here. Then in 1979 we took a deep breath, signed on the dotted line, and bought this facility from the Presbyterians. The church grew and grew and grew. Ladies and gentlemen, do you understand what God has done here?
I’ve only been here a year. Maybe I see it differently. Maybe if you’ve been here a long time you don’t see it like someone who comes in as an outsider sees it. I see it this way: This church is in an incredible position to make an impact for Jesus Christ. We have an opportunity to make an impact greater that almost any church within miles of here. Do you understand that this morning you are attending the largest Protestant church in Oak Park and River Forest? There are more people in the two services this morning than in any other Protestant church in Oak Park and River Forest. I can say that because I’ve only been here a year. It’s not because of me. I see the tremendous amount of promise and power and financial ability and gifted men and women that God has gathered in this place. And we either sit here and watch the world go by or we can decide to get involved for such a time as this. That’s really the challenge before us in the weeks and months and years ahead. Who knows but that we are come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
Pastor Ray Predicts
You say, “Pastor, what do you mean when you say such a time as this?” Just pick up the newspaper and you’ll know the answer. We’re living in apocalyptic times. If Saddam Hussein gives the command, the missiles sail through the air and in twenty minutes we’re in full-scale war in the Middle East. Remember, the Middle East is where the final battle will be fought. Not in Europe, not in North America, but in the Middle East. We are today on the edge of apocalypse. It could have happened since the beginning of this service. We’re right on the edge and here at Calvary God has put us in this magnificent facility, and in Oak Park and River Forest – without a doubt the leading area of the near west suburbs of the City of Chicago. Right here next to Chicago. Just nine miles over is the loop and Lake Michigan. We are a church right near the heart of the city in the heart of the country on the edge of eternity.
Let me tell you what I think is in front of us in the years ahead. I think we’re going to see two things. This is not Bible exposition, this is Pastor Ray predicts. I see two things happening side by side. First, I see on the one hand unparalleled opportunity for this church to move forward and reach people for Jesus Christ. Second, I see at the same time that we are going to be living in a time of increasing spiritual anarchy. Unparalleled opportunity in the midst of spiritual anarchy. Does that sound odd to you? If there’s anarchy how can there by spiritual opportunities?
The Best Of Times – The Worst Of Times
Just read the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13. A man went out and sowed some wheat and the enemy came in and sowed some tares. You couldn’t pull the tares up because you couldn’t tell the wheat from the tares. At harvest time you could see the difference, but then the angels were to come in to separate the wheat from the tares. Do you know what that story is really teaching us? That story is telling us something about the condition of the world in the days before the return of Jesus Christ. That parable is telling us that during the church age we will see a corresponding and parallel ripening of good and evil, side by side in the world. And as we come right to the end of the age, to the last moments before the return of Christ, there will be an explosive flowering of evil and an explosive flowering of righteousness. That is to say, as we approach the end of this age, we ought to expect two things – We ought to expect the worst outbreak of evil the world has ever seen and at the same time we ought to expect the greatest revivals the church has ever known. Think about that. If it is true that we are living on the brink of Armageddon, then we ought not to be surprised at the moral decline of the world around us and at the same time we ought to get ready for the vast harvest of righteousness that God has poured out.
That’s where I see us. In many ways we’re in Esther’s position this morning. We’ve got it pretty good. Beautiful church. The nicest people you’d ever want to meet in the world. We’ve got some money. We run a first-class operation. We’re pretty well set. Everything looks okay. Then Mordecai says to Esther, “ Don’t think you can sit there with all that privilege and escape your responsibilities because you can’t.” Who knows but that God has raised you up for such a time as this?
There Will Be A 13th
As I study the history of this church I am amazed at a number of things. I’m the twelfth pastor of Calvary Memorial Church. I know that because I counted it up. As I ponder the fact that I’m the twelfth in a long line of godly men who served this church, there are two things that stick in my mind. Number one is this: I will never, no matter how long I serve as your pastor, be able to do some of the exploits that some of the founders of this church have done. Like Louis Talbot, first pastor who eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he became the pastor of the Church of the Open Door, and got a seminary named after himself – Talbot Theological Seminary. I don’t think there’s going to be a Pritchard Seminary. J. C. O’Hair became a famous Bible teacher and wrote books that are used around the world to this day. I haven’t written books yet. Pastor Emmans who went from here to a distinguished ministry on the West Coast. Pastor Gray served longer as pastor of this church than anybody has – 16 years. He is a great, godly man. And then Pastor Don Gerig came with his great leadership ability. He was the man God used to take the church through the fire and the transition from a small church on Madison Street to what God has given us today. There’s no way I can ever match what those men have done. I don’t even want to. I don’t feel called to. Their record stands for all eternity. I feel deeply honored to stand in that train and to be counted in their number.
There’s a second thing that comes to my mind. I am the twelfth pastor of this church. No matter how long I stay there will be a thirteenth. No matter how long I’m here, if the Lord tarries, we’ll have a 150th anniversary. By then, the time line in the Dining Room will go around 2 walls. And no matter how long I stay my name will be a small section on that chart. There will be another name after me and another after that. I’ll just be one chapter in the history of this church.
Mr. Bruce’s Funeral
And that fact is the most encouraging thing I know. Because God has not called us to do what people in the past have done and he has not called us to do what people in the future are going to do. He’s only said, “I brought you into the kingdom for such a time as this.” For now. For the present. For this moment. Perhaps the most moving thing that has happened to me since I’ve been here was the privilege I had of preaching the funeral for Bob Bruce, Sr. a few months ago. Many of you didn’t know Mr. Bruce. I only met him once myself. He was in his eighties when he died but Bob and Ruth Bruce started coming to Calvary back in the 1930s when Pastor Fardon was here. For many years they taught and served in the church and then for 25 years Mr. Bruce served as the Receiving Treasurer of this church. Then he retired and for the last few years of his life couldn’t come to church much because he was sick.
There weren’t too many people under the age of 50 at his funeral. It was mostly the older folks who remembered what Mr. Bruce had done and what he had meant to the church. When I was preaching his funeral I used a text that has come to mean a lot to me. It comes from Paul’s sermon to the city of Antioch in Acts 13. These are the Apostle Paul’s words about King David, “David, when he had served the purposes of God in his own generation, fell asleep and slept with his fathers.” (Acts 13:36) Is there anything better? That’s the highest compliment you can pay. David served God’s purposes in his own generation and then he died and another king came but while he was here in his own generation, he served God’s purposes.
During my message I commented that it doesn’t matter whether there are thousands of people here to remember Mr. Bruce or not because he is a genuine hero. He’s one of the pillars of this church. It doesn’t matter that a lot of people today don’t know him because it wasn’t this generation he was serving. It was his own generation he served. That’s all that any man can do. That’s all that any woman can do. The only generation you can serve is your own generation.
I’m not worried about who will be pastor after me. There will be somebody. That’s for the Pulpit Committee to worry about. That’s not my problem so I don’t spend any time thinking about that. You know what I do think about? I think about the present and about the opportunities all around us. Are we going to pass the buck or are we going to get involved? Are we going to pass or are we going to play? Are we going to sit on the sidelines or are we going to get involved?
It’s pretty easy for an established church to sit on the sidelines while the world burns around us. But the words of Mordecai apply just as much to us as they did to Esther. If we don’t put everything we have into serving our generation according to the will of God, God will raise up somebody else but we will be passed by.
We’re here now. We’re not going to be together forever. People come and people go. But while we’re here let’s get in the battle. While we’re here let’s throw everything in. While we’re here let’s make a hundred percent commitment. While we’re here let’s not hold anything back. If it’s time, let’s put the time in. If it’s money, let’s put the money in. If it’s prayer, lets put the prayer in. Whatever it takes. While we have the opportunity, let us do the work of God. Let us not hold back. Let us not make any excuses about the past. Let us not worry about the future, for no one knows what the future holds.
As I speak these words, the world prepares to go to war. All eyes are on the Middle East, waiting, watching, wondering. Will some madman plunge us into Armageddon?
None of these things should surprise us, and none of these things should move us. Let us do the work of God while we have the opportunity and while so many resources have been placed in our hands. For who knows but that we are come into the kingdom for such a time as this?