Experiencing Grace

Posted 9/30/2018

Scriptures: Psalm 124; Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

Sometimes things look pretty bleak. Like the Psalmist, we feel like we are drowning in a flood of troubles. We feel trapped, like a bird in a snare. We feel there is no future, there is hope.

In our Old Testament story for today, things looked bleak for Esther and her people, the Jews. Our passages come from the middle and near the end of the story. To understand their significance, we need to know the beginning of the story.

The story begins with Esther becoming Queen because the current Queen, Vashti, had displeased the king by not obeying him. Esther was an orphan, and her cousin, Mordecai, has raised her. Even after Esther was made Queen, Mordecai continued to be in contact with Esther. 

As the story develops, Mordecai refuses to show Haman, a court official, the honor Haman feels is his due. Haman decides to seek revenge — and what a revenge he decides to take! He knows Mordecai is a Jew. He determines to take revenge not only on Mordecai, but on all the Jews.  So he maneuvers the king into signing a decree that ordered the destruction — the slaughter — of all Jews. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the king, Esther, his Queen, is a Jew. 

It couldn’t get much worse. Esther and the Jews were truly “caught in a snare.” The floodwaters were about to sweep over them. Hope seemed far away. There seemed to be no future. Their destruction seemed certain. 

Yet the Psalmist knows that it is in this kind of situation that God is our help. When all other help is useless, the Psalmist declares, we can turn to God for help. When the waters rise over our heads, when we seem to be caught in a trap, God is the one — the only one — to whom we can turn for help. 

And that is exactly what Mordecai and Esther did. Mordecai got word to Esther of the decree. He urges Esther to act. Perhaps, he say, this is the very reason she has become Queen — to save the Jewish people from this evil plot. 

But there is a problem. The King hasn’t invited Esther to join him at all for a whole month. Esther determines she will take her life into her hands (literally) and go to the King. She knows that under the law for her to appear before the King without his invitation means her death — unless the King chooses to extend her mercy. 

As Esther plans to go to the King and appeal to him on behalf of her people, she asks Mordecai — and through Mordecai the Jews of the city — to pray for her. She knows that in this desperate situation it is only the mercy God which can assure her of receiving mercy from the King. 

Thus, in the midst of an impending total disaster, Esther and her people do the one thing that seems utterly useless — they turn to God in prayer. How in the world could prayer change their reality? Of what use is prayer in the face of a certain death edict? Of all the things they could do, prayer seems the most useless.

And yet the story witnesses that prayer does change reality. God, although not named in the book of Esther, acts to deliver. God grants Esther favor in the sight of the King when she approaches him. Esther invites the King and Mordecai to banquets she prepares on successive nights. She tells the King what has happened. And while the King can’t revoke his previous decree; he issues another one. This one allows the Jews to defend themselves. Thus on the day that was to be the day of their destruction, the Jews gathered together to defend themselves. As a result, they win a great victory over their enemies. The day that had been meant to be the day of their destruction becomes the day of their delivery and victory.

The story of Esther is an inspiring one, telling as it does of God’s deliverance from certain death. Yet it isn’t just in this situation that God’s people had experienced God’s deliverance from trying — even desperate — times. 

When they were oppressed slaves in Egypt, God had acted to free them. God sent Moses to lead them out of their slavery and to the Promised Land. 

When they were exiled captives in Babylon, God had raised up the Persian King, Darius, who granted the Jews permission to return to their homeland. God sent them Nehemiah and Ezra to lead them in the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

When they were opposed by the neighboring peoples when they sought to re-build Jerusalem, God gave them favor in the eyes of the Persian rulers. He opened the door for them not only to be protected from harassment by the neighboring peoples but also enabled them to receive government money to assist in their re-building projects. 

And it is not just in the Bible that we see God’s deliverance. We can see it in our lives as well. Pressed to the limit, we turn to God; and God delivers us. Sometimes, like the examples I’ve cited, the deliverance is wonderful, complete, beyond all we could ever have hoped for. Sometimes, however, it is a mere “escaping from the snare.” It is more like a simple continuing to survive than a miraculous turning of a day of destruction into a day of victory. But either way, in that deliverance we experience the wonder of God’s grace.

And that truly is what God’s grace is. It is the reality of God not only with us but also for us. The reality of God who not only became flesh in Jesus and lived with and among us; but also the reality of Jesus who died on the cross for us. It is the reality of Jesus, who reigns in heaven for us. It is the reality of Jesus who even now prays for us. And this is the good news of the gospel.

For you see, the gospel isn’t simply about our being delivered from sin — it is also about our deliverance from death. A deliverance from death into eternal life — here and now and at the time of our physical death. It is the opening up of the gates of heaven — the opening up of the possibility of true, abundant life in the here and now as well as in the future. For when we have experienced the grace of God — when we have experienced God’s deliverance — we can do nothing less than join the Psalmist in singing the praises of the one who is our help. We can do nothing else than praise the Lord who is the creator of heaven and earth. We can do nothing else than witness to the Lord who comes among us, dies for us, is raised from the dead and reigns for us. 

The fact is, each of us has experienced, or undoubtably will experience, at least one time in our life when things are desperate. When the future looks bleak. When all we can see ahead of us is a dead end. Yet the witness of Scripture, the witness of our Christian lives, is that in such moments we can turn to God for deliverance. And the good news of the gospel is that God does deliver! The wonder of God’s grace is that God is both with us and for us. That God doesn’t leave us alone to face the rising waters. That God frees us from the snare. 

That good news of God’s deliverance is why the  Psalmist sings. It is why he reminds us when we are at the end of our rope, it is God, and God alone, who is our help.