1 Cor. 16:13: Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. (NLT)
Ps. 31:24: Be strong and let your heart take courage, All you who hope in the LORD.
Here is a negative way of saying the same thing: Isaiah 7:9b, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” (NIV) In the Message Translation it reads, “If you don’t take your stand in faith, you won’t have a leg to stand on.”
1 Thes. 3:8: for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.
“Be on Guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong.”
Today’s bulletin is one of the most profound bulletins you will ever read. When you hold it in your hand understand it is a holy document, for within the announcements is a notice of death followed by an announcement of birth. Sorrow and gladness, mourning and joy… the ebb and flow of life. “Be on Guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong.” After a life crisis, one person told me of her friend that she was going to go and take her to dinner, talk to her about fun times from the past, to give her some relief from her grief. I suggested that she not try to do that because it won’t work. Yes take her friend to dinner, talk about fun times from the past, not for relief, but to remind her, to not forget everything that had happened. The book of Esther tells us to NOT forget the sorrows of our past and then to see that as people of faith, when it is all over, we still have a leg to stand on. Stand firm in the faith. That’s what’s amazing: when the Lord takes us through tough times, and we are still standing. We are still grounded in the faith. And what’s the response: celebrate.
One of the recurring events of the book of Esther are the feasts, I think I read there are at least 8 of them in the book, an average of a major party of almost one a chapter. Now that we are at the end of the book I think I know why. The feasts are a prelude to the great feast commanded at the end of the book for the Jews to have a party to celebrate the salvation of the people of God from apparent death to a great rescue, a great reversal, and the people are instead victorious. Way back in chapter one the king hosts a six month feast for his vast empire, and if we try to be a reader that is not familiar with the story, we are amazed by this huge show of power and celebration, what could possibly top such a celebration? And then in the end, death gives way to life, and the command is to celebrate with a party of a mere six months, but all time. You thought that chapter 1 feast was something, wait till you get to chapter 9.
And even greater, the feasts of Esther, culminating in the celebration of Salvation of what is called Purim in the book of Esther in which the Jews were rescued very quietly by the hand of God, points the way to the great banquet that is coming when the salvation of God is made complete and the people of God are bestowed with eternal life: Rev. 2:10: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Isn’t that a great verse!
When you become a Christian your life changes, your outlook changes, your future changes, and far from that old puritan stereotype of a somber solemn demeaner, of all people, Christians should know how to have a party! That’s what I get from Esther, celebrate the victory we have in God, celebrate every time we make it through a tough time and we still have a leg to stand on. I went to a youth rally in the Tacoma dome with 10,000+ youth, I can till hear one of the great songs thundering through the cavernous room: UNSHAKABLE.
From today’s scripture Esther 9:22 (NLT): 22 He told them to celebrate these days with feasting and gladness and by giving gifts of food to each other and presents to the poor. This would commemorate a time when the Jews gained relief from their enemies, when their sorrow was turned into gladness and their mourning into joy.
Have you heard the story of Masada? Twenty some years ago when several of us were in Israel, one of the amazing places to visit. Masada is still the number two tourist attraction only the city of Jerusalem topping it. Masada, Hebrew for "Fortress", are ancient ruins on a mountaintop in the Judean Desert. Built by Herod the Great in the decades before the birth of Christ, it was a mountain. Masada is located about 30 miles southeast of Jerusalem and rising above the shores of the Dead Sea. An amazing place. For centuries the place was lost, only a story written down by the early historian Josephus. Then the fortress was discovered in the 1800’s, an ancient earthquake had crumbled the walls and buildings so that the fortress was masked. The 2000 year old story took on new significance, inspiring the Jews of today.
Back in the 60’s after the birth of Christ, the Romans attacked Israel. In 70 A.D. Jerusalem fell to the invaders and the temple was destroyed. 1,000 Jewish resistors and their families fled Jerusalem and took over Masada. For two years they withstood the constant attack of Romans. The Romans constructed a ramp of thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth against the western approaches of the fortress, the ramp still stands as a testament to the Romans determination. It is said the Romans used Jewish slaves in the construction of the ramp to prevent the Jews from killing the workers. And, in the spring of the year 74 A.D., the ramp was complete and a battering ram was moved into place to take down the walls.
When the end was near, the leader of the Jews gathered his people and together they chose death with honor by their own hands rather than being captured alive and becoming slaves to the Romans. The Romans broke through the wall to a silent camp. Two women and a couple of children were the only survivors, and they hid in one of the cisterns, later telling the story to Josephus.
Today, Masada is a symbol for freedom and independence. Recruits to the Israel Army swear the oath of allegiance in an annual ceremony on its summit. Their defiant cry...Masada will never fall again!
When we toured Israel all those years ago, our tour guide dutifully showed us the sites of Israel, telling the story of David and Goliath, the places where Jesus walked, a wonderful guide. But when we stood atop Masada, Ruthie, our guide, told us the story of Masada, I could sense something was different, for it was not just a story to her, but she was filled with pride and defiance: Masada will never fall again.
I tell the story of Masada not for its own sake, but rather, because that is what I sense Esther is trying to convey to the people of God. The Jews of Esther’s day are threatened, facing a slaughter, but in the end they still stand, rescued in a great reversal, and they are told to never forget. Purim is still celebrated by the Jews to this day, one of the seven feasts/seven holy days of the people of Israel. Like Masada, a sense of pride, defiance, gratefulness, because of what happened creating a sense of courage and strength. I am told by a Jewish friend that Purim is a very happy occasion. Every year there are Purim plays commemorating the story of Esther. When I was a pastor in San Francisco, a Jews for Jesus congregation used our building, and I remember dropping in on the annual Purim party, and somebody was dressed as Haman, Mordecai, the King, Vashti, Esther, and as the story was read, whenever Haman’s name was mentioned, the congregation hissed, and when Queen Esther was read the people cheered. Presents and gifts are exchanged. The people today literally have a party. The people make noisemakers, the room is decorated, and the salvation of God is celebrated.
There are hundreds of scripts available, many written in rhyme, all meant to invite a celebration of God’s salvation. Here is one particularly silly example I found on the internet, the beginning of a play for children by starting with a song that tells the story written to the tune of “The Brady Bunch.”…
It’s the story of a Feast called Purim
Comes in Adar, each and every year,
And the plans by Haman to kill the Jews,
They lived in so much fear.
It’s the story of a Jew named Esther,
Who decided to go before the King,
Even though she knew it could mean her life,
She had to do this thing.
Well the King heard what Esther was saying,
On the day that she invited him to lunch,
And this story is written in the Bible,
And that’s the way they all became the Purim Bunch.
The Purim Bunch,
The Purim Bunch,
God delivered them all at Esther’s lunch.
And that particular play has more words in the script and 6-7 more songs each set to different familiar tunes like the Adams family, Gilligans Island and if nothing else it makes you smile and laugh and that’s the point.
I could study purim for a month straight and still only touch the surface, but I am doing my best to give a flavor of the celebration that still goes on to this day. I understand, in my reading, that a challenging time for Purim was post WWII and the holocost. There are some Jews that could not forgive God and did not understand how a loving God could allow such horror, but for traditional Jews, Orthodox Jews, the celebration continues, and Esther has taken on even deeper signifance, for in the face of a living hell of a modern day attempt to exterminate the Jews, the people still stand. Esther is no silly children’s story set to silly music, but at it’s heart it is a celebration of God’s faithfulness to revive and rescue his people. The lesson of Esther is to celebrate God’s faithfulness, especially when we go through trajedy, heartaches, tough times. Aren’t you amazed when you still have a leg to stand on.
One of the reasons I feel so privileged to serve as the pastor of this church, one of the reasons I am amazed by our gathering, is that we enjoy ourselves so much. I hear story after story of small groups in the church of joy and celebration. I just love the depth of allowing people to grieve, to come into our community of faith with their hurts and struggles, yet we enjoy ourselves. A death announcement and birth announcement in the same bulletin is symbolic of the fullness of life, the richness of living under the banner of Jesus Christ. I am not going to advocate we celebrate once a year the feast of Purim, that is not our faith tradition and we cannot manufacture a celebration and make it heart-felt, but in spirit, we already are a community that celebrates purim, the joy of the Lord, laughter, standing firm in the faith, facing trajedy and yet over-joyed when we come out the other side still with a leg to stand on. Celebrating the eternal life that is promised to us in Jesus Christ.
At first when I read the law of Mordecai announcing Purim it is a little bit strange to be commanded to have a party, but that is not how it is best to read it. Purim is NOT a command, it is an invitation. You are invited to celebrate the faithfulness of God, celebrate the victory that is in Christ Jesus. You can choose a life of joy. Tough times will be a part of your life, sickness will be real, heartache is part of the ebb and flow, yet to recognize the faithfulness of God and celebrate the victory that is ours in Christ Jesus is a gift. If SACC, our community of faith, can do anything for the people we are privileged to encounter, let’s give people permission to celebrate. That’s what Mordecai and Esther do for the people of their day: they give permission to have a party. Enjoy our gatherings. That’s the way we become the Purim Bunch.
Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. The Lord is good. Celebrate. Be a people of joy.