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The God of the Gallows

Sermon passage: (Esther 9:18-32) Spoken on: May 2, 2010
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Wilson Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Esther

Tags: Esther, 以斯帖记

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About Pastor Wilson Tan: Pastor Tan served as a youth executive at the Presbyterian Synod, and as a pastor in Jubilee Church. He continues to serve in church as a cell leader in zone ministry.

Sermon on Esther 9:18-32

Two weeks ago, Pastor Daniel quoted from Robert Gordis, a leading Conservative rabbi, to explain the significance of the story of Esther.

Anti-Semites have always hated the book, and the Nazis forbade its reading in crematoria and the concentration camps. In the dark days before their deaths, Jewish inmates of Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, and Bergen-Belsen wrote the book of Esther from memory and read it in secret on Purim. Both they and their brutal foes understood its message. This unforgettable book teaches that Jewish resistance to annihilation, then as now, represents the service of God and devotion to His cause. In every age, martyrs and heroes, as well as ordinary men and women, have seen in it not merely a record of past deliverance but a prophecy of future salvation.[1]

The message of Esther was clear to both the Jews and her enemies. It was a message of Jewish resistance to annihilation…but what does Robert Gordis mean by this? Plainly put, the Jews believe that they will never be wiped out. Why? Because God will “always” deliver them from total destruction? Did they believe that no harm will come their way, or that God will protect them at all cost?

It seems like I’m flogging a dead horse to state again that the moral behind the story of Esther is God’s providential care. We have heard enough sermons on Esther in the past four months to know that. For a change, I want to discuss what exactly is God’s providence? What do we mean by his providential care? First, we need to understand what the significance of Purim is.

What is the Significance of Purim? As a human response to God’s Providence
To commemorate God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from the hands of evil Haman, both Mordecai and Esther wrote letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, to have them celebrate Purim on Adar 14 and 15, which falls roughly in the month of March. Today, Jews around the world celebrate Purim on one day, Adar 14, except those living in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Jericho, where Purim is celebrated on Adar 15 instead.

The author tells us specifically in v. 27, that, “the Jews took it upon themselves to establish the custom that they and their descendants and all who join them should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed.” Unlike other festivals in the Bible, Purim is the only festival that is not commanded by God but as a human response to God’s deliverance. This is pretty interesting especially for us modern day Christians. It becomes a theological response to God’s providence. The celebration of Purim is intrinsic to the faith and tradition of the Jewish people, just as how they would celebrate the other Jewish festivals and also the Passover, which is also another testimony of God’s deliverance.

When the odds are stacked against the Jews, they are reminded by the story of Esther as an encouragement of hope that God will once again deliver them. Pastor Daniel calls this the inviolability of the Jews. In other words, the Jews believe that no evil plans against them will prevail because God is on their side. This is why they celebrate Purim, even until today.

Understanding God’s Will as pur or goral
Purim comes from the Persian word, pur, which mean the “lot” which Haman cast in divination to determine the day of death for the Jewish race. This word pur occurs in the OT only in the book of Esther and came into the Hebrew language with the plural suffix –im added, forming the word Purim. The Hebrew equivalent of pur is goral which occurs frequently throughout the OT. Note for example, Prov. 16:33, “The lot [goral] is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” When Haman cast the lot, he was seeking guidance from the gods. Ancient Israel also used the same method to determine Yahweh’s will.[2]

Why was God anonymous in the story of Esther? A world view where God is mostly silent, in a seemingly God-less world
Since God is not explicitly mentioned in the entire book, theologians and scholars, together with the LXX have made a hermeneutical jump to identify God as the cause of the turning points in the story. Pastor Daniel argued reasonably well that God can still be present when He seems absent. Rightly so. For the Hiddenness of God is a common theme in theology. This is, of course, viable and believable, and theologically sound. But we must also recognize that the author of Hebrew Esther had intentionally left the mention of God out from his story. And not only was “God” left out, the author clearly identifies the establishment of Purim as a solely human effort. Let’s read v. 27 again, “the Jews took it upon themselves to establish the custom....” It seems the author makes a conscientious effort to keep the story all too human. Why?

The characters in the story are as human as we can imagine them to be. They are with great flaws. They are far from perfect, but yet their decisions and plans have led to the salvation of their entire nation. This is no small feat. What merely seem like human effort, but with the Greek additions, we begin to understand the story with God in mind. Just like the Exodus event, Israel was also delivered by God through the human agent, Moses. And also during the period of the Judges, when everyone did what was evil in their eyes, God’s faithfulness prevailed. In the story of Esther and Mordecai, it was no different. God always work in partnership with humans.

What strikes me as most peculiar about the Esther story is that God is never mentioned in the entire Hebrew text. Yes, we have explored this quite a few times already. Pastor Daniel argued convincingly that the many coincidences in the story are evidence of God turning the tables around. If indeed a “coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous”, the question we must answer is why must God remain anonymous in the story? Why was God left out intentionally by the author? I believe there is a reason worth exploring.

I believe that from the Hebrew text alone, the author paints a world view where God is mostly silent, and provides an answer to a seemingly God-less world. We also live in a seemingly God-less world. The post-modern existential philosophers declare that “God is dead”. Humans live as if there is no god in their lives. Recently, atheism is making a strong come-back with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as fore-bearers. They say, “There is no God.”

The question of the Holocaust: Where is God?
Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, which is about 1/3 of their entire population at that time. Where is God? According to Stephen Ambrose, an American historian, “The Holocaust was the most evil crime ever committed. And to Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian-Jewish architectural engineer and Holocaust survivor, “God must have been on leave during the Holocaust.” In A History of God, Karen Armstrong explains their unavoidable logic: “If this God is omnipotent, he could have prevented the Holocaust. If he was unable to stop it, he is impotent and useless; if he could have stopped it and chose not to, he is a monster.” Armstrong wrote: “There is a story that one day in Auschwitz, a group of Jews put god on trial. They charged him with cruelty and betrayal. Like Job, they found no consolation in the usual answers to the problem of evil and suffering in the midst of this current obscenity.

How do we continue to speak about God’s providence during the Holocaust? The Jews living during the period of Esther experienced God’s providence, but did the Holocaust Jews experienced the same divine providence? After the Holocaust, how many Jews still proudly proclaim the inviolability of the Jewish people? God was put on trial. Many Jews turned away from their faith. They call themselves atheist Jews, meaning culturally and ethnically they remain a Jew, but they no longer believe their God exist anymore. Many famous atheistic Jews include French philosopher Jacques Derrida, famous physicist Richard Feynman, and American-Jewish director Woody Allen, who said in a comedic manner, “How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?” Many can no longer reconcile a powerful and loving God who had seem absent during the worst of times. How do we answer the question of the Holocaust? Did God deliver the Jews?

It is true that even under the Third Reich; the genocide of the Jews was never completed. Jews continue to live in different parts of the world today. But yet, they continue to celebrate Purim with the experience of the Holocaust in their minds. Why? How can they still celebrate about the divine providence and God’s deliverance after what had happened to their people? Where is God? This was the burning question which I struggled with throughout the entire sermon series. The question of the Holocaust.

Divine Providence as fulfilled by Jesus Christ in His Life, Death, and Resurrection
Then as I was reading and researching on this further, I learn that what the Jews went through during the Holocaust was similar to what Jesus Christ went through in his death on the cross 2000 years ago. Remembering also last month’s Maundy Thursday sermon, I begin to understand God’s providence and deliverance in the light of Christ. The Bible does not provide an adequate answer to the problem of evil and suffering in this world. It was never meant to do so. Even when Job confronted God with the questions, “Where then is my hope? (Job 17:15a) "Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days? (Job 24:1). Simply put, Job is asking, “Where is God?” Job’s friends gave him no comfort. Elihu rebukes Job and his friends by providing his explanation in God’s defence. Elihu says, God is just! (see Job 34:12) It is you who are wicked! (See Job 35:8) God is great! (See Job 36:5, 37:23) It is you who need to repent, therefore fear him (See Job 37:24).

Instead of answering Job, God questions him instead. How ironical! "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand (Job 38:4). God never provided Job with the answer he was looking for. But Job found God’s answer in God’s questions. The Bible tells us that God rebukes Job’s three friends. God vindicated Job. God never explains his silence, or in the case of the Holocaust, his absence.

But God answered the question of evil and suffering in the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, His Son. God did not answer, “Why there is evil in this world” But God dealt with the problem of evil. God never explain why 6 million Jews were left to die under the hands of Adolf Hitler. But God preserved the nation in the midst of evil. When we say that God provides it does not mean that no evil will ever come our way. It does not mean that every of our prayers will be answered accordingly to our petition. In Jesus Christ, all our prayers are fulfilled because by his death on the cross, we are saved. God provided salvation to the world by first becoming us and dying for our sake. This is divine providence!

Nietzsche wrote of this famous parable of the madman, who ran into the market place one morning, crying: “I seek God! I seek God!” When the bystanders asked where he imagined God had gone – had He run away? Emigrated, perhaps? The madman said: “I mean to tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are all his murderers.”

For the Jews, the God of History died with His many believers in Auschwitz. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said: “Never shall I forget these moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust,” as he watched black smoke coiling to the sky from the crematorium that the bodies of his mother and sister were thrown into.

Wiesel had seen more than enough. He wrote about the day when the Gestapo hanged a child in front of thousands of spectators. The child, who, Wiesel recalled, had the face of a “sad-eyed angel,” was “silent, lividly pale and almost calm as he ascended the gallows.” Behind him, one of the prisoners asked: “Where is God? Where is He?”

The child died half an hour later, while the prisoners were forced to look at him right at the face. When the same prisoner asked again, “Where is God?” Wiesel heard his heart say, “Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.”

Indeed, we worship the God of the gallows. We live because he died on the gallows for our sins. God is there when it hurts. God is there even when he seems absent. Jews continue to celebrate Purim today because they were not wiped out and every new generation continues to bear testimony of God’s providence. The question we ought to ask ourselves is, “Do we, then, live for a God who remains dead or a God who is alive? The choice is yours.

Let us pray.

[1] This quote was extracted from an article by Edwin M. Yamauchi, in the April-June 1980 issue of Bibliotheca Sacra, a Jewish scholarly journal.
[2] Using dices or casting lots may sound strange to many Christians. Some Christians believe that there is no such thing as luck. Everything is pre-destined by God. With god, there are no coincidences. There is only God’s perfect plan. [pause] Is this also how we see God’s will? Is it really our place to judge the ways and culture of the ancient Israelites? God speaks to us in different ways; in different cultures at different times. I like how Scot McKnight puts it in his book, The Blue Parakeet. He said “God spoke in:
Abraham’s days in Abraham’s ways (walking between severed animals)
Moses’ days in Moses’ ways (laws and ceremony)
David’s days in David’s ways (royal policies)
Isaiah’s days in Isaiah’s ways (walking around nude for a few years)
Ezra’s days in Ezra’s ways (divorcing Gentile spouses)
Jesus’ days in Jesus’ ways (intentional poverty)
Peter’s days in Peter’s ways (strategies for living under an emperor)
John’s days in John’s ways (dualistic language – light and darkness)
We will speak to our world only when we unleash the gospel so that it can speak in our day in our ways…by reading the Bible and knowing the Bible and living out its story in our world today.”

But what we can know about this practice is that people of every generation are concerned with determining God’s will. This is the same for the ancient Israel and for the Jews and also for us Christians. For us, we are fond of asking God to give us a sign so that we know it is His will. We go around looking for miracles and expecting God to answer our prayers accordingly. When God answers our prayers exactly, we thank God for His providence. But when our prayers are not answered, we either blame God for being absent or blame ourselves for the lack of faith. This has been the prevalent theology in many Christian circles.

Before you cast your first stone at me, allow me to state my beliefs. I believe that we should seek God’s will but not in the way many of us have been seeking. I believe that there is both a general will and a specific will. God’s general will is clearly revealed in the Bible. Specific wills must be seen in the context of the general will. God does not give us specific will for personal endeavors. God does not give us specific wills as to which school we should go, which course we should apply for, or which job we should accept. God’s will is about God’s mission. Whichever school, course, or job does not matter as long as we share the same mission as God in bringing the gospel to His people. It must be clear to us all by now that the will of God is to bring salvation to Mankind. We are co-partners with Jesus in reconciling Man to God. The specific will only sought to direct our ministry and vocation for one single purpose of establishing God’s kingdom on earth.