Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

Happy Father’s Day! I hope that whether you are a father or you have a father, you enjoy this day set aside to celebrate the ones in our lives who love, help, protect, and provide for us. We honor all who have been loving fatherly examples for us and acknowledge the richness and importance of family life—whatever the unique, varied, and bonded configurations of our families may be. Father energy is important. We all need someone who has a wide vision of our possibilities, who looks out for us, cherishes us, and helps us feel grounded and secure. So if you’ve been that person for someone, thank you. And if you’ve been the recipient of that special kind of care, know that you’ve been blessed.

As I thought about the message I would bring this week, all sorts of ideas bubbled up. There are so many fathers in the bible we could choose. Many of them are colorful and quirky. There’s of course Adam, the first human dad, father to Cain and Abel—a story that didn’t turn out well! And there’s Noah, who raised good sons who not only helped him on the ark but preserved his dignity when he’d had too much wine.

There was Abraham—who had a questionable and uncomfortable fathering moment when he came close to sacrificing Isaac because he thought God wanted him to. He so wanted so much to be faithful. Then Isaac grew up to be the father of Jacob and Esau and got tricked in his old age into giving his blessing to the wrong son—Jacob. And they say when Jacob was 147 years old, he became father to his eleventh and favorite son, Joseph, who inspired the red-hot jealousy of his older brothers and wound up first at the bottom of a pit and then—thanks to God’s help—the viceroy of all of Egypt, second in power only to the king himself.

Job is one of my favorite fathers—he prayed daily for each of his children and their spouses, believing in their goodness and worth, and treating them kindly and with care. He mourned them desperately when he lost them, and rejoiced greatly when they were returned to him. And of course, in the New Testament, there’s the father in the story of the prodigal son—everybody loves him—and I also think of the quiet, accepting support of the father who was left sitting in the boat when James and John hurried off to follow Jesus. Can’t you just see him sitting there, the waves rocking the boat near the shore, as he watches his sons run off down the beach? Maybe he saw their souls light up when Jesus called out to them. Maybe he understood it was their destiny—they simply had to go. It’s where life was taking them next.

I also think of Mordecai, Esther’s adopted father who was really her much older cousin. He took her in when her mother and father died and pledged to raise her as his own. And he did a good job of that. At the start of the story, Esther is timid, a quiet beauty who relies heavily on the instruction of her father. And things unfold, we see Esther continuing to turn to Mordecai until—in a moment of divine clarity–he names something in her that awakens her own call to destiny. As a result of that, she blossoms right before our eyes.

The book of Esther is unique in that it is the only story in the Bible about the Jewish people who had chosen to stay in Persia instead of returning home to Judea after the exile. This is what Richard Foster’s commentary, written in 2005, says to set the stage:

“We have a jealous king, a campaign to scapegoat innocent immigrants, and a government run by self-promoters who are out of touch with their own population. All of this confronts a young woman who finds herself caught in an impossible situation she had no part in creating. It is a world much like our own, in which the politics of “us against them” are driven by sexism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism.

Indeed, the world of Esther is a world of chance and insecurity in which nothing seems certain. And in this world, as in our own, the question that keeps pressing in is, “Where is God in all this?”

It’s a question we may be asking too.

Throughout the book of Esther, we see what a good dad Mordecai is. We get little glimpses of his protective and continual care. He urged Esther not to reveal her people, for her own safety. He waited by the king’s gate every day to hear how she was doing. In time the king chose Esther as his queen, and one day at the gate, Mordecai overhears two disgruntled guards plotting to assassinate the king; he tells Esther who tells the king, and when it’s investigated it is found to be true. The king is grateful.

But the plot of Esther’s story soon thickens. The king promotes a wicked, power-hungry, and ambitious young man to be his most trusted advisor, setting him above all other officials. This man has a hatred for the Jews and when Mordecai refuses to bow down to him at the gate, a personal vendetta against Mordecai. The advisor hatches a plot in which he will secretly pay to have all Jews in the region killed. When an edict is signed that will support this murderous plan, Mordecai tears his clothes and puts on sackcloth and ashes, going throughout the city, wailing and lamenting. Hearing this, Esther is alarmed and sends Mordecai new clothes, but he will not accept them. Esther asks her personal attendant to find out why Mordecai is so distraught, and she learns of the plot for the destruction of the Jews.

Through her advisor, Esther sends Mordecai a second note. She explains her dilemma: going to the king without being summoned is an act punishable by death. But if she doesn’t speak and at least try to intervene, her people will die. She asks Mordecai, “What should I do?” All her life she has been a girl turning to her father for counsel, and now—when the stakes are so frighteningly high—she needs him more than ever.

You can imagine the fear that must have gripped hold of Esther’s thinking. Of course she needed her father’s input. Our Old Testament reading today talks about fear, about fearing God and how God’s steadfast love continues to pour out toward those who fear him.

I’ve never been comfortable with that phrase, the “fear of the Lord.” What father who loves his child wants her to fear him? But a pastor friend explained it once in a way that made sense to me, saying that the real fear is the fear of doing something without God. Like when you’re little and you reach for your dad’s hand when you’re crossing a busy street. Or you call to ask his advice before you make a huge purchase. Or you think of his example—or hear his voice in your head–when you’re facing a difficult choice.

When we’re in a tight spot and feel the tension that risk brings, we can feel small and vulnerable, afraid to go it alone. We need to know there are bigger arms around us, supporting us, upholding us, giving us the encouragement and counsel we need as we try to do our best. As we see in Esther and Mordecai’s story, often those arms contain something much larger and more lasting than good advice or wise instruction—they bring a close to the heart of God, where we can know the truth within us and see God working in the circumstances of our lives.

So it makes sense that Esther—who has depended on Mordecai’s faithful love and support all her life—is afraid to make such a huge decision without seeking his counsel. He tells her that she is a Jew first, and that even though she is in the king’s palace, she is not safe if this edict comes to pass. He says, “if you keep silence, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter—” but, he cautions, “you and your father’s family will perish.” This could be taken a couple of ways. At first it sounds as though he is concerned for her safety and wants her to stay quiet, something he’d told her when she was just a girl. But then he puts it in a much bigger context, lifting it up to God’s realm, so that it becomes a question of doing the right thing, being open to the call of truth, choosing the good of all over self-protection. Perhaps this is Mordecai’s way of telling her to listen to her heart and to do what’s right. He adds, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

And this little, seemingly offhand comment—Mordecai’s naming of Esther’s royal dignity—does something remarkable. It is a moment of transformation that changes everything, a kind of divine invitation that wakes up that of God in Esther, helping her see clearly the choice her soul would have her make. Instantly and with queenly resolve, she instructs Mordecai to tell all the Jews to fast for three days and she tells him she and her attendants will do the same. After that, she said she will go to speak to the king, even though it is against the law. She adds, “if I perish, I perish.”

We usually don’t know the impact our words, images, suggestions, and encouragements have on others or the seeds we leave behind that take root at the right time. All Esther’s life, Mordecai had been encouraging and protecting her, believing in her value and her capacity for goodness. But on this one day, in the midst of the most dire of circumstances, Mordecai speaks a truth to Esther that was addressed directly to her soul, to who she was in God. And her soul woke up.

That is how I would answer Richard Foster’s question, “Where is God in all this?” God is in the interactions at the king’s gate, in Mordecai’s sorrow, in the communications of the attendant, and in Esther’s seeking heart. God’s light is the biggest player in the awakening of them all–the goodness and nobility that appears in Esther’s sudden resolve; her turn toward fasting and prayer; the light that brings her answer. This Godly contact gives her the courage and wisdom to do the right thing—for the many, for her people, not only for herself. And as a result, the people were saved.

In our New Testament reading, Jesus tells the disciples that soon he will be speaking this kind of blazing truth directly to their hearts, no longer using metaphors and parables. He tells them on that day he won’t need to ask the Father on their behalf, because the Father himself loves them—and loves us—and because of Jesus we are reconciled, one to one with our divine source, Father to child. What kind of blazing light is this? It was a promise Jesus made then, in that day, but it continues across all time into our very own lives here this morning.

What will suddenly be crystal clear to us when the light of Christ shines so directly into our hearts that it illumines the dignity and nobility of our souls? Who knows? Maybe we have come to this point in our lives for just such a time as this.

 

RESOURCES:

  • OT Psalm 103: 11-13
  • NT John 16: 25-28

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