Thursday, November 29, 2012

the sovereign scepter

And when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won favor in his sight, and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.
Esther 5:2

The most difficult part of Esther's plan to reveal her Jewish ethnicity to the king was this breach of court protocol. Esther showed up to the King's court unsummoned and the king granted good will to her immediately. She entered his presence welcomed. From here on, in the good graces of the king, she had the best possible setting to make her requests.

From this point on in the story, God moves sovereignly with each step that Esther takes. God uses Haman's pride to devise the instrument of his own demise. In fact, the Persian king's power, the pride of hate-filled Haman, the history of faithful service to the king that Mordecai gave, and the simple obedience of Esther are all elements of God's careful workings of His sovereign plan. Each human being in the story had their own independent plans and actions. And God marvelously superintended them all to His glorious salvific ends.

I find the book of Esther to be a historical tale with a strong theological point. In that sense it is a lot like another Old Testament book with a female lead character: Ruth. God brought hearts together to save lives and further the story of human redemption. That is the beauty of sovereignty that no stale academic debate can capture. It is the drama of human interaction from God's point of view. It is compelling to read, to believe, and to see in action still today in human events.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Two kinds of faith

For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
Esther 4:14

This is Mordecai's conviction being used to forge similar courage in his niece. She was the last in her father's house. Mordecai took care of her because Esther was an orphan. He became a father and her advisor. And now he is pointing her to observe the way in which a sovereign God has positioned her to prevent a catastrophe from befalling the Jews.

Mordecai exhibits two kinds of faith. The first is the deepest: he has faith that God will somehow keep His covenant and deliver the Jews. Even if Esther did not succeed, God would still deliver the Jews. There were prophecies detailing the end of the exile and a renewed Israel. Mordecai believed the scriptures and knew that God would keep His word.

Beyond this, Mordecai exhibited a second kind of faith, one we seldom talk about as Christians. He had faith in Esther. He trusted that she would be brave enough to do the right thing and take her life in hand to appear before the king's court uninvited to plead for the deliverance of her people. This was a king who had already punished the poor protocol of his previous queen.

This faith in faithful people is important. It trusts that God is at work in the actions of people. It values the contributions they make by virtue of their personalities and positions. It is one of the central themes of the book of Esther since not once is God mentioned by name in the book. It is a literary device to help us see this faith in people. It is purposeful so that His sovereign work is evident as we trust faithful people that God is leading. I want to learn to have this faith in people even more than I do right now.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

genocidal tendencies

Letters were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.
Esther 3:13

This is the totally unexpected plot twist to the book of Esther. You can't see it coming. What begins as a romance of sorts turns into a political thriller. And the main story that has taken us to this point is really the sub plot to a bigger set of world-shaping events. All of this clearly points to the sovereign hand of God in the events of the subplot to get us to the bigger issue.

And the story's main conflict is the ghastly genocide of all Jews living in Persia. One powerful man's prejudice influenced the king to declare a murderous strategy... to wipe out all Jews in one day in the kingdom. Haman planned to annihilate the entire Jewish race over a protocol snub from one Jew, Mordecai. And in the kingdom of Persia, his plan was wildly accepted and put into place.

It would take the sovereign hand of God, who had already begun defeating this plot before it was even hatched, to work to save the Jews from genocide. Haman and the king may have casually sat down to dinner after signing the death warrant for thousands of Jews, but the city itself was in turmoil over the decree. God was moving to override human pride so that His covenant with Israel could abide forever.

No evil of humankind will thwart the kingdom of God. God will bend the actions of a superpower to His supernatural control. And even though the intent and actions of people are definitively opposed to God, those actions cannot succeed in defying God's decrees. That is the rest of the story of Esther.

Monday, November 26, 2012

they began happily ever after

...the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
Esther 2:17

Esther was the "winner" of a year-long beauty pageant. The king's advisors got the bright idea to make a public spectacle of the search for a queen to replace Vashti. And so this massive search led to a large harem assembled from across the Persian empire. The goal was for Ahasuerus to pick a new queen from among them. This was sort of like "X-factor", but with sex and politics thrown in for good measure. And one young Jewish woman was among the crowded field of contestants.

For one year these women were pampered and sequestered. They were given the best beauty treatments of the day. It was like living at a spa at royal expense. Then one by one they were brought before the king in some sort of court contest. When Esther was summoned, her beauty, protocol, graciousness, and charm all immediately caught the eye of the king. There was an overwhelming attraction and he made her his new replacement queen, thus permanently deposing the disgraced Vashti.

In most romantic tales this would have been the ending. But in Esther, now that the girl has found her Prince Charming, the story is just beginning. All of the preceding events were the background to a much bigger story. A story in which the fate of a people and the sovereign work of the hand of God are crucially told to us. It is filled with political intrigue, big-scope suspense, and personal conviction. From here on out the Book of Esther is not a romance, but a thriller.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

macho man & the trophy wife

"According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?"
Esther 1:15

This question by the king of Persia forms the basis of events that creates the unique sovereign drama of the book of Esther. It began with a marital spat. At a massive royal party, queen Vashti refuses to be displayed like the trophy wife that Ahasuerus thought he had. And this disdain tarnished her value in the sight of the king. She went from being camera candy to being a profound embarrassment.

I find it amusing that the way in which human beings act has not changed much in a few thousand years. Ahasuerus and Vashti could represent a Hollywood marriage today. Everybody's personal egos drove the relationship. Vashti proudly refused to be the king's trinket. Ahasuerus had a sense of wounded pride that drove him to end the royal marriage by decree.

And in the book of Esther God sovereignly works in human beings just as they are to bring about His saving purposes. He would bring His will to Persia through the actions of an obstinate king and through a proud king's wounded macho dignity.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Persistence of Iniquity

Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities.
Lamentations 5:7

"Our Fathers sinned..."
generations make choices
that are in conflict with God
we raise our voices
in the same place they were

"...and are no more..."
The wages of sin
is a separating death
the shape we are in
could not save us any less

"...and we bear their iniquities."
still the same
as our fathers were
we bear guilt and shame
for the sins they bore

"Our fathers sinned..."
sinners they were
from birth to grave
and sinners we are
only grace will save

"...and are no more..."
mortality is the price
iniquity is the offense
but Jesus made it right
by dying in our stead

"...and we bear their iniquities."
once marked with a scarlet stain
we are now in Christ forgiven
true holiness, forgiveness is our gain
no more in death but looking toward heaven

Friday, November 16, 2012

fallen leaders, fallen people

The LORD himself has scattered them; he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders.
Lamentations 4:16

The first to fall and the worst to suffer when God's judgment came to Jerusalem were the leaders. For generations they had perpetuated a status quo of cool disregard for God and His Law. And when the punishment came, it came strongly upon those who had done this. God scattered the leaders in the terror of war.

There is a twinge of irony in this poetry. The king was meant to unify the nation, yet Jeremiah laments that it is now scattered. And in obedience to the Law, Israel was supposed to know the love of God. Now they experienced no regard from Yahweh. They were indifferent. Now God was. Priests should have honored God and thus have been honored. Elders should have been worthy of respect and shown favor. Now neither group was respected. All those who had helped lead the nation down a path of apathy were now ignored by God. It was part of the destruction God can bring on people who covenant with Him only to break faith.

I look at the pain in Lamentations and I see the tragedy of sinful failed leadership. I find it interesting that my study had me pick up Lamentations after I had studied Nehemiah, whose leadership had a reviving effect on the Jews 70 years after the events of Lamentations. The difference between the two scenarios can be found in the role of personal faith and commitment to God on the part of the leader. As a leader, my first and most motivating leadership task is to submit wholly to God so that He may lead me.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


You came near when I called on you; you said, 'Do not fear!'
You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life.
Lamentations 3:57-58

When I was far away
I called out to You, Lord
and found You were near.

And on my roughest day
when I turned to You, Lord
I found You near.

When I was running away
You were waiting there
to calm my fear.

And on my repenting day
You ran to me where
I was, to pull me clear.

You have come to rescue me
from my trouble and my sin
wiping away my every tear.

You paid the price, buying me
from the slavery I was in,
redeeming me with blood so dear.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

false and deceptive visons

Your prophets have seen for you
false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
that are false and misleading.
Lamentations 2:14

Not only does Jeremiah describe the physical devastation of Jerusalem along with the personal tragedy of death, starvation and homelessness in the streets, but he also intersperses his mourning with insights into the spiritual deterioration of the nation. For generations the Israelites believed what they wanted to be true. They trusted in themselves. They listened to the "positive and encouraging" messages of false prophets who made them feel good in their continued sin.

There was a lot of spiritual activity in Jerusalem. It was just the wrong kind. Idolatry was rampant for generations. The worship of The Lord, when maintained, was more of a cultural remnant than a living commitment. Yahweh had become another god among many. And for the most part the majority of the prophets and spiritual leaders did not expose this for the evil that it was.

The false prophets deceived the people. And deception's worst pain comes when the big lie is uncovered. But by then it was too late for the exiled generation. Families were destroyed. Children starved in the rubble of Jerusalem's broken and burned gates. Spiritual lies will take a massive toll on humanity... even ones that seem so enlightening. Of all the tears shed in the book of Lamentations, I think the most bitter ones fell at the realization of the layers of lies woven by the false prophets. It could have all been avoided by real trust in the covenant and in The Lord of Israel. But leaders lied, twisted the truth, and many people died in the unraveling of it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

themes of Lamentations

Her foes have become the head; her enemies prosper, because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
Lamentations 1:5

In the sadness of the ancient book of Lamentations, Jeremiah the prophet becomes Jeremiah the poet. And he uses his expressions to mourn over Judah's exile to Babylon. The personification of the ruined city of Jerusalem as a fallen prostitute whose lovers have destroyed her is difficult to read. Judah is undone and broken by her own sins. Her own heart's affections led to her downfall.

There are several themes woven into these verses of lament. Predominant is the sorrow over the destructive outcome of disobedience to God. It is an element of nearly every verse in this epic poem. There is also the theme of subjugation. God's people are now under the control of the Gentiles. Other people own the fate of Israel. A third theme is the retributive justice of God. It is seen in judgment on Israel's sins (most notably in the destroyed city of Jerusalem) but God's justice is also implored by the survivors as they see their enemies reveling in cruel sin over their captives.

In all the losses mourned over in Lamentations, there is still an undercurrent of strong faith in The Lord. There is an acceptance that God was right in bringing the curses of the covenant to correct His people. There is a trust that God will eventually avenge the enemies of His people for their treatment of them. And even in places there is a hope flickering in the ashes for a merciful renewal yet to come.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.
Nehemiah 13:22

The final chapter of the book of Nehemiah shows a series of tests to Nehemiah's leadership as the new commitment of the Jews to the covenant is seriously tested. While Nehemiah was away to the Persian court on official reporting business as governor, the people of Jerusalem began to stray away from their faith's demands. It began with the priests making an allowance for a gentile within the temple walls. Other offenses included clear Sabbath violation as well as intermarriage with foreign wives. Nehemiah confronts each issue with a seriousness, pointing out its error, illustrating God's judgment in the past, actively confronting those leading the sin, and demanding repentance in new actions.

Time is the test of all spiritual commitment. And great leaders are moved by a long term view of the steadfast love of God. Nehemiah fell on the longsuffering mercies of God for the nation as he led them once again to do the things that showed their commitment to be the people of God. God was faithful in His steadfast love even as Israel still struggled. Nehemiah's leadership again turned them back to God.

Often ministry is about leading people to do the right thing over and over. And that was the real value of what Nehemiah did. He committed himself to a faithful God even as he had to keep admonishing a less than faithful people. The result was regular repentance and renewal. And that is often what it takes for a group of people to know their God is at work among them.

Friday, November 9, 2012

a joy heard far away

And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.
Nehemiah 12:43

This celebration came after a lot of hard work and tears. The hard work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem was done. But the hard work of resettling Jerusalem had to be complete before this celebrations could truly occur at this scale. And in between those two events was a tearful renewal of the covenant as the people took responsibility for past sins and recommitted to follow The Lord and keep His Law in their hearts and lives.

Nehemiah organized a massive city-wide worship service. The Levites stationed choirs and worship leaders all along the wall. The city was encircled by praise. And when the joy started in song, then all of Jerusalem ...every man, woman and child... joined in. It was impressive.

The joyful celebration was so festive that the sound carried away from the city to echo in the Judean hills. The whole of Judea was aware of the worship of God in Jerusalem on that day. It was a joy that carried on the winds of praise.

There can be moments where worship is this sort of transcendent experience for me. And I am transported to a hope for eternal pleasures from God. That is the emotion I feel when I read this text. I cannot fathom the joy that must have swept Jerusalem on that day. But I do know that eternity will be blessed with a constant sensation of it. And that is a hope that helps me carry on when joy is fleeting right now.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

priority: followers. premium: leaders.

Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem. And the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in Jerusalem the holy city, while nine out of ten remained in the other towns. And the people blessed all the men who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah 11:1-2

This was the strategy for repopulating the city of Jerusalem. Now that it had strong walls for the protection of the citizenry, it was time to fill it with homes and families. The solution was simple. Ten percent of the rural population surrounding the city in the hills of Judea would relocate to start new lives in Jerusalem. Volunteers were encouraged and recruited. If enough volunteers did not come from any particular village, lots were cast until that ten percent quota was reached. In this way Jerusalem was resettled.

Nehemiah refused to let Jerusalem be filled with a bureaucracy. Before the resettling, that was the city's condition. It was thinly populated with leaders, priests, government officials, and levites. Nehemiah knew that the average population from the countryside would bring balance to the city. That is why this plan was instituted. And it turned Jerusalem back into the thriving urban center it was meant to be.

You can't be successful only as a city of leaders. Someone has to follow. But idolizing leadership can be a mistake we make about leadership today. There is a tendency in evangelical American Christianity to think that leadership is the goal of discipleship. But following Jesus is the goal of all discipleship. Some of those followers have leadership gifts and may gain titles. Most of them do not. And in "populating" our churches, Christians should realize this. We should train followers and also affirm and grow leaders. But followers are the first priority... disciples of Jesus who are following Him with their lives all around the globe.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

a curse and an oath

The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God's Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his rules and his statutes.
Nehemiah 10:28-29

The revival under Nehemiah led the people to pledge a solemn oath to follow the Law of God. They had already taken responsibility for past sin. They knew the reason Persia ruled over them was because of the flagrant disregard Israel had in her past for the covenant. Re-committing to the covenant was done with broken hearts over past sinful failures.

In making this recommitment, the citizens of Jerusalem were saying that they were ready to put themselves and their families under the accountability and discipline of the Law of God. That is why it is called both a curse and an oath. It was an oath of allegiance. It was a curse if they turned from God again. Every commitment to God has its obligations and its warnings. And the Jews in Jerusalem went into this solemn obligation with both of those things in view.

Everybody wants God to bless them. But few will agree to His corrective discipline. Yet both are necessary for maturity and growth in holy living. It isn't much of a commitment if I will not let God show me my wrongs by correction.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

why a ballot cast is for a post-christian America

In a brief departure from the normal content of my blog, I want to address why this election (like every election) presents Christians with weighty issues to slog through in the casting of a ballot. Personally, I think it is good to do this exercise, but in the end there are always issues from both parties that make me disappointed with politics. I participate in my citizen's right to vote anyway. Many people serve this country to protect this unique freedom. Men and women have died so that I can do this. For that reason alone I feel like sitting out an election is unconscionable.

Look at the party platforms. Both Democrats and Republicans have set out their agendas for America. And for the most part the Republican platform seems harmless enough. Except, I am worried about the concern for restoring the American Dream. As a pastor and a biblical counselor, I have seen a great deal of idolatry come from the expectation that a high standard of living is "my right". I struggle with that because I have been to third world countries and have seen how Christians thrive in many ways stronger than we are. Do I really want policies enacted that create the idolatry of materialism? ...Something for me to think through.

Then there is the Democratic Platform. Huge moral problems for me to deal with. Two come to the forefront... Unwavering commitment to a woman's "right" to abortion and the redefinition of family to include same-sex marriage. At that point I cannot find biblical priorities for these issues. I can applaud some of the social concerns, but then these issues have me backpedalling away from the platform.

Lest I think that only the democratic platform continues the trend of post-Christian societal redefinition, I am reminded that the Republican presidential candidate is non-Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. Not even close. Oh, I guess it is more "Christian" than Zoroastrianism is. But it is in reality not even monotheistic. So a Mormon president will also continue a post-christian cultural direction.

There you have the quandary. Politics and presidents are going to fix it all. Every election in this culture is not clearly black and white. It requires evaluation and making a choice most close to what you want... in my case... what I think best supports biblical values. But I am not kidding myself. Neither party will end post-christian cultural decline. That is my job... really every Christian's call through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the gospel... starting with myself and then extending through a caring church to my community and my world.

I am Martin Burch. I am speaking solely on my own behalf and am in no way or fashion representing any organization. And I approved this message.

owning up to the past: broken

And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the LORD their God.
Nehemiah 9:3

When the Jews in Jerusalem got serious in renewal of their covenantal obligations with God, it deepened their worship. They made serious efforts at it. They spent at least 1/2 of a day in this event alone. Three to six hours (depending on whether this is a 24 hour full day or a 12 hour daylight day) were devoted to reading the Law in a public gathering. Then an equal amount of time was spent in confession of sin. You can read the summary of it in all of Nehemiah chapter nine.

The generation in Jerusalem realized that disobedience to God's rule had been endemic in Israel. Their prayer of confession and repentance is a rehearsal of the nation's entire history, stopping at each important point to confess historical unfaithfulness. They owned up to their sinful history and realigned themselves with the truth of God's Word.

This has me thinking about how I ought to view Christian history. There have been historical failures in doctrine and practice in the church. Atrocious sins have marked those who have claimed to follow Christ. My tendency has been to shrug off Christian history's more wicked failures as something that other people did. But perhaps my view should change. Maybe a broken heart over the way Christianity has strayed is vital to the momentum needed to advance the gospel in my generation.

Humble confession from hearts broken by their own sins and the historic failures of past generations can make huge impact. I am open to God showing me how to own this as I should. And I pray He will help me show others what I come to understand.

Monday, November 5, 2012

city in tears

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.
Nehemiah 8:9

This is one of the tenderest moments in the book of Nehemiah, if not in all of the Old Testament. The occupants of Jerusalem have returned from exile. They have rebuilt the wall under repeated opposition. They have committed to The Lord. Now on a day devoted to the public reading of the Law, they are moved to deep spiritual emotion. A city is in tears because of their clear understanding of the Word of God.

Ezra had been leading the people in the long and difficult task of rebuilding the temple of The Lord. Nehemiah had led the people to rebuild Jerusalem's walls. The Levites had led the people to understand the Law's meaning. And this newly strengthened commitment, nurtured and modeled by godly leadership, came out in a weeping over past sin. Spasms of mourning shook the city. This was a repentance in tears. It was a good thing.

The leaders did an awesome thing in response to this. They created a way to turn the tears into celebration. They encouraged the people to think of this event as the start of a new day in which celebration should happen. They declared a feast for all the people to enjoy. And that celebration of the Lord's work and the Lord's Law spread to all. A city in tears became a city in celebration. Repentance became rejoicing. Weeping turned to worship. Preaching became a party. Introspection led to celebration... all because God's Word changed the hearts of His people.

Friday, November 2, 2012

faithful and God-fearing guards

I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many.
Nehemiah 7:2

And exactly what was the task that required such faith and a powerful testimony? These men were called upon to oversee the security of the city. There were to recruit, station, and train the city's guards along the wall. The wall alone was not a complete defense. The task of watching over and defending Jerusalem required faithful watchmen on the walls.

Nehemiah knew by the consistent faith of Hanani and Hananiah that they were capable of taking the responsibility seriously. And they would find in the defense of the city a way to faithfully serve God. This was about the character and reputation that comes through faithful obedience in walking with God. And it led them to increased opportunity to be faithful in even greater tasks than they had taken before.

This was a major concern for Nehemiah. All he had done in answering God's call on his life depended on the walls doing what they were built to do. God had protected Jerusalem while the wall was rebuilt. But each man still built with a sword at his side. God would protect the city now that the wall was complete, but guards still needed to care for the inhabitants by walking and watching the walls. It is this balance of belief and action, hard trust and hard work, that is the stuff of our lives.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

with the help of our God

So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.
Nehemiah 6:15-16

hard work is done
we finish what we've begun
the race is won
with the help of our God

we built a wall
strong and tall
and did not fall
with the help of our God

threats were made
nothing ever delayed
as workers stayed
with the help of our God

you can tell
conviction compelled
and we finished well
with the help of our God

enemies trembled in fear
for God was near
the hard work was here
with the help of our God

stone by stone
the wall has grown
and mercies were known
with the help of our God

established and strong
miracles moved us along
we can now sing a song
with the help of our God