God’s Grace in the Life of Daniel

“God’s Grace in the Life of Daniel”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 23, 2017

8th Sunday after Pentecost

Daniel 6:1-28

 

Mystery surrounds the book of Daniel. We don’t know who wrote it or exactly when it was written. It is part story and part vision; written partly in Hebrew and partly in Greek. Hungry lions, kings with unpronounceable names, death and salvation in unlikely places[i]—the stories of Daniel are wondrous and I want to preach them all.  I want to preach about young Daniel and a few others, who are taken into captivity into Babylon. When they are told to eat royal rations of food and wine—Daniel sees this as an unclean practice—so he proposes an alternative. “Give us vegetables to eat and water to drink—after 10 days, compare our appearance to those who are eating the royal rations.” The palace master agrees to the test—and Daniel and his friends pass with flying colors.

 

 Is it no wonder that I want to preach about the time King Nebuchadnezzar makes a huge golden statue and he gathers the peoples to hear the herald proclaim, “When you hear the music, fall down and worship the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever doesn’t fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” All the peoples fall down and worship—all—except for Daniel’s friends—Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. They will not bow down, even when the king spells it out for them: “If you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” Still, they refuse. The king is enraged—so much so he has the furnace heated up 7 times its normal temperature.

 

The young men are tied up and thrown into the furnace—clothes and all. It’s so hot, the men who toss them inside are killed. But when the king looks in expecting to see 3 men ablaze, lo and behold—he sees not 3 but 4 men—unbound—walking in the middle of the fire—unharmed—and the fourth looks like a god.

 

And who wouldn’t want to preach about the times Daniel interprets dreams and happenings for the kings of Babylon—when no one else can—particularly when King Belshazzar has a festival. Intoxicated, he throws caution to the wind and commands that the vessels of gold and silver, which were taken from the temple in Jerusalem, be brought out so that the partiers can drink from them. And drink they do—all the while praising the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. It would be a bit like someone coming into our sanctuary, taking the bowl from the baptismal font and saying—let’s use this for our salad luncheon as we praise the gods of the harvest! What a mockery! In those days, too, such behavior is a mockery—and God will not be mocked. Immediately God’s wrath is revealed as a disembodied hand begins writing on the wall. The king sees the hand and the writing; he turns pale; his knees begin to shake and he cries out for the diviners and all the wise men of Babylon to come and read the writing on the wall.

 

No one can interpret it, no one that is except Daniel who is known for interpreting dreams. Daniel comes and reads the words that pronounce God’s judgment: “The days of your kingdom are numbered; you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting, and you will lose your kingdom to the Medes and Persians.”

 

Yes I want to preach all these wonderful stories found in the book of Daniel but I see Jeff Stewart has started twitching and I imagine you came to hear just one sermon—so let’s move on to our reading from Daniel chapter 6—another incredible story.

 

By this time, Daniel is likely a man of ripe old age. He’s been in Babylon for many years. He’s seen kings come and kings go. While there have been changes aplenty, God has remained the same. So has Daniel’s passion for God. E.M. Forster has been quoted as saying, “One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested.”[ii] Rest assured—Daniel is more than merely interested when it comes to his relationship with God.

 

It’s noteworthy that even though he is a Jew, Daniel has risen to high rank in this foreign country. Along the way, he has made some friends and (have no doubt) he has made some enemies—enemies who set this story in motion because they’re jealous of Daniel. They want to see him lose his power—more than that—they want to see him lose his life. So they devise a plan.

 

Now imagine for a moment that you are the king and your loyal subjects come to you—seemingly eager for everyone to know how important you are. Your chest puffs out, and you smile with satisfaction, when you hear the plan: “Establish an ordinance that whoever prays to anyone divine or human, for 30 days, except to you, shall be thrown into a den of lions.” Yes, yes, a splendid idea! And without a second thought, you sign on the dotted line. Little do you know you’ve just walked into a carefully made trap.

 

Soon, the king learns that Daniel has been praying and seeking mercy before his God and—clang—the doors of the trap are shut tight. Evidently during the exilic period, praying toward Jerusalem and down on one’s knees becomes the custom for private prayer. It is Daniel’s custom—and he is not about to sway from it because of a decree signed by an earthly king.  Daniel’s citizenship in God’s kingdom concerns him most.  So he goes to the upper room in his house, with the windows open, down on his knees, facing Jerusalem, and he prays and he praises his God—like clockwork, three times a day.  Now you may be wondering couldn’t he have shut the blinds?  Couldn’t he have gone to a secluded place to pray?  No, in this area of his life, Daniel isn’t about to compromise.

 

So the trap is set. Daniel walks into it and kneels down.  And the king, well he’s there too—not literally, of course—but he is powerless to extricate himself from the situation—for we are told that according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, once the king signs a law into effect, it cannot be revoked.  So there they are—locked in a trap set by those who seek evil instead of good.

 

Of all people, the king is probably the most shocked by the circumstances.  Honestly, I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Yes, he made an unwise decision. Yes, he let his ego get the best of him. But here is a person who is supposed to be the most powerful man in the nation yet his hands are tied. We know he’s very fond of Daniel. He can’t eat. He can’t sleep. He probably paces the floor all through the long night and what a long night it must have been.

 

Waiting—it’s so hard, isn’t it?  When our middle son, Seth, was a baby he was diagnosed with strabismus. The muscles in his eyes were not working well together so surgery was needed to fix the problem. By this time, I had worked in the hospital a few years—long enough to have just enough knowledge to make me dangerous. In great detail, I remember that morning, standing outside those daunting double doors, waiting to hand our baby over to the surgical team. Just prior to the procedure, the surgeon came out to speak to Kinney and me.  He could sense my anxiety and he said, “Glenda, it’s a simple procedure, probably won’t take more than an hour—you work in the hospital—you know how this goes.”  And I said to him, “Well, yes, but I’ve always been on the other side of those doors.”  It took only an hour or so…but the time passed so slowly.

 

It makes a difference, doesn’t it?  When we are the one sitting—waiting—praying. It is a hard place to be.But wait the king does—until the break of day. At first light, the king rushes out to see what has happened to his friend. Has Daniel made it through the night?  Have the lions devoured him?  The king runs and calls out as he nears the den, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you faithfully serve been able to deliver you from the lions?”  And a voice calls back, “O king…my God has sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths…”  The trap is opened—both the king and Daniel are freed by the hand of God—and quick as a flash—those who set the trap—find themselves in it.

 

Daniel is loyal and obedient and God’s salvation story is worked out in his life in wondrous ways. Through him we find hope for our own faith walk. But we are wise to fight the temptation to moralize the story, taking it to mean that if we are faithful enough, things will go our way and we’ll rise to places of power and success just like Daniel. We only have to look to one person—Jesus—to see that isn’t always so.  We only have to look to one place—Golgotha—to see that isn’t always so. Yet, resurrection hope is still ours for remember, Jesus is only held in the trap of the tomb three days. Three days and then victory of victories because even death cannot stop God’s ultimate plan for good.

 

In addition to Daniel’s way of life, we can learn something from Daniel’s friends’ behavior, too. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are about to be thrown into the fire, essentially they say to the king, “If our God is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace, let God deliver us. But if not, know this, we will not serve your gods and we will not worship your golden statue.” These young men would rather take their chances with God than anyone else. It sounds like the Apostle Paul, doesn’t it?  “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”[iii] What wonderful news—we can’t lose—no matter what, we are the Lord’s. No matter what, Daniels friends will bow to no one but God and no matter what, Daniel will let no one sway him from his passion for God.

 

You see, Daniel has seen kings come and he has seen kings go—but one thing remains the same—God.  So come what may, Daniel goes to his upper room and kneels toward Jerusalem and he praises God and he prays and he prays and he prays. Amen.

 

 

[i] Daniel Commentary from The Life with God Bible, NRSV, James M. Rand

[ii] Quoted in The Best Advice I Ever Got, Katie Couric

[iii] Romans 8:14.

 

*Cover Art  “Daniel’s Answer to the King,” Thomas Agnew and Sons, 1982; Public Domain

 

God’s Grace in the Life of Joseph

“God’s Grace in the Life of Joseph”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 23, 2017

7th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 1:1-28; 50:15-21

 

It was her first day on the job. She entered the Pre-School with anticipation, expecting to care for the newborns. Instead, Sarah found herself in a room full of 4-year-olds who invited her in as their guest. As their guest, she had a special role to play. During “circle time” Sarah had to answer any question the four-year-olds asked of her. How else could they get to know their new friend?  Politely taking turns, the children asked questions and Sarah patiently answered. The questions were what one might expect from a four-year-old, and Sarah fired back answers with little effort…until the little girl with long brown curls in the pink dress raised her hand.  “Miss Sarah, I have a question for you. Who is your favorite princess?”  Nearly stumped, Sarah had to stop and think for a moment. Then she responded, “Well if I actually liked princesses, I suppose Cinderella would be my favorite because she worked really hard before she became one.”

 

Echoing Sarah’s sentiment, if I were really fond of princes, I suppose Joseph would be my favorite because he worked really hard before he became one. Of course, technically, Joseph is never called a prince in Scripture; nonetheless, it is certainly how his father, Israel (or Jacob, as he is better known) treats him.

 

Our story begins with Joseph at the tender age of seventeen who is the “helper” of his older brothers in shepherding the flock. But there’s a problem. Joseph’s brothers hate him. We are told he brought a bad report of them to his father. In other words, (dare I say it) Joseph is a tattletale. To make matters worse, Jacob loves Joseph more than any of his other children—a fact that he doesn’t keep secret—instead, he broadcasts his feelings by making Joseph a special coat.

 

There’s debate over the appearance of this coat because the Hebrew word describing it is difficult to interpret. The KJV and my Children’s Bible describe it as a “coat of many colors.”  The NRSV describes the coat as a “long robe with sleeves,” and the NIV says it is a “richly ornamented robe.”  In the end, defining the word is less important than understanding the power the object holds.  Joseph’s special coat is an outward symbol of a truth Joseph’s brothers know beyond any doubt:  Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son!  And while this symbol effects Joseph’s siblings, it also effects Joseph, who grows into the persona of the precocious favored son of the family, strutting around in his special coat, sharing his dreams of superiority—dreams which imply that his brothers, as well as Jacob, will one day bow down before him. Jacob rebukes his young son, but we are told: “he kept the matter in mind.”  No wonder since Jacob has had a few dreams and visions of his own throughout his life.

 

One day, at the request of his father, Joseph goes to check on his brothers. In Shechem, a man finds Joseph wandering in the fields like a sheep without a shepherd. He can’t find his brothers.  “They have gone to Dothan,” he is told. And that is where he finally catches up with them. They recognize him from a distance—maybe because of his special coat flying in the wind.  “Here comes the dreamer,” they say. Quickly, they devise a plan to kill Joseph and his dreams along with him.  But their plans change, and, although his brother, Reuben, tries to intercede, Joseph is sold for twenty pieces of silver to a caravan of Ishmaelites. Now, what will they tell their father? Another plan is devised…a lie that will haunt them for years.  Having stripped Joseph of his coat, they dip it in goat’s blood and send it to their father. Jacob recognizes the blood-stained coat immediately and assumes a wild animal has devoured his most beloved Joseph. Jacob, who was once a deceiver himself, is deceived by his own sons in the cruelest way.

 

Of course, Joseph isn’t dead. In Egypt, he’s sold to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials. He finds favor because we are told—God is with him.  But the favor is short lived. He is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and spends 2 years in prison. But even there, Joseph excels, becoming overseer of the prisoners, for we are told, the Lord was with Joseph. After a time Joseph, the dreamer, interprets the dreams of two of the prisoners. Eventually, this act of kindness will lead to his release when Joseph is called forth to interpret the troubling dreams of Pharaoh. Listen to the exchange between Pharaoh and Joseph:  Pharaoh says to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it.  I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answers Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” Mmmh…could it be that Joseph, the young lad, has grown up?

 

We know the rest of the story. Ultimately, Joseph becomes the 2nd in Command in all of Egypt. He is instrumental in saving his father, Jacob, and his entire extended family from death by famine. Joseph’s dreams do come true. His brothers do come and bow before him, but they are sorely troubled when they learn that this ruler of Egypt is, in fact, their brother. They fear for their lives but Joseph reassures them, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me ruler over the land of Egypt.”

 

Though Jacob and all his family live in Egypt under Joseph’s protection for 17 years before Jacob’s death, his brothers can’t truly accept Joseph’s forgiveness.  They’ve held onto the family secret so long, they can’t let it go. So when their father dies, again they are filled with fear. “What if Joseph wants to pay us back now for what we did to him so long ago?” And again, Joseph must offer forgiveness to his brothers. Again he must extend to them the love and grace that God had extended to him as he reassures them saying, “Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”

 

Joseph may appear larger than life but if we dismiss his experiences as too distant from our own, as having nothing of importance to teach us, we do so at our loss. So what might we learn? One thing that stands out is Joseph’s ability to forgive. He suffered tremendously because of his brother’s hatred, yet he is able to forgive and treat them with love and kindness. Truly, a spirit of unforgiveness and a spirit of peace cannot reside in the same person. Joseph is blessed to be a man at peace with his past and with his present. But it has not always been so.  Although we are given no specifics, along the way, Joseph was sure to have had doubts.  Where was God when his brothers threw him into a pit?  Where was God when he was sold into slavery?  Where was God when he was unfairly imprisoned?  Where was God?

 

We still ask “Where is God?” when evil appears to be winning out but it would behoove us to remember things are not always what they seem.  We may draw comfort from the story of Joseph, which reminds us God’s hand may be moving long before God’s hand is revealed.  We may draw comfort from the knowledge that God’s love and care are far-reaching…a sentiment echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

 

In reviewing Joseph’s story, we may also note that the hand of God shapes the whole course of Joseph’s life.  It is God who brings him to his destination, not chance.  This must have brought Joseph comfort as he looked back over his life. As believers in a Sovereign God, it is a comfort we can claim as well.  Wherever we are, wherever we are going…we are never alone.  The psalmist says this so beautifully in Psalm 139, “Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar…you hem me in behind and before, and lay your hand upon me, such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”

 

As a young man, strutting around in his special coat, Joseph envisions others bowing down to him. He seems self-focused and self-centered. But in time, Joseph becomes the caretaker of a nation, more concerned with the needs of all the people of the land than with his own needs. This is a much-needed message for us today. In our individualistic society, too easily we become trapped in the vicious cycle of seeking our own purpose above all else. Then we let our own desires become the focus of our very existence. Too easily, this attitude creeps into the life of the church. When that happens, when we stop being the community of God—then we are like young Joseph, out wandering in the fields, like a sheep without a shepherd—but (in our hearts) still looking for our brothers. We, the church, need each other.  We need to look out for the good of our sisters and brothers, holding each other up in times of darkness; celebrating the joys of life in times of gladness.

 

Joseph, the young man, despised by his brothers, is given a coat—a special coat—a coat that declares his royal status. But it will take years before his character grows into his coat. Then and only then does he become the man God intends for him to be. Through Joseph, God will save his chosen nation from death by famine.  And through this chosen nation, the Son of God will come into the world to save us all.

 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

*Cover Art by Patriarch Joseph the All-comely Orthodox Icon; Public Domain

 

God’s Grace in the Life of Hannah

“God’s Grace in the Life of Hannah”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 16, 2017

6th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 1:1-28

 

It’s a dark time in Israel’s history.  They have become a nation weakened by their own disobedience toward God and by the on-going threat of their enemies.  For over 200 years they’ve been ruled by judges and during this time their history has followed a familiar pattern:  a period of sinfulness followed by God’s judgment, then a desperate plea to God, then, out of God’s faithfulness, God raises up a judge to deliver God’s people.  For a time there is peace, but ultimately, complacency and disobedience return and the cycle is repeated, until we find in Scripture: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” The nation of Israel is in a state of moral and spiritual decline.

 

Still, God is at work—about to bring salvation hope to God’s people and it will come from a most unlikely place—from a family whose turmoil mirrors that of the nation. The family is that of Elkanah who has two wives:  Hannah and Peninnah.  While Peninnah has given Elkanah children, Hannah has remained barren—a fact that Peninnah will not let her forget. Year after year the family goes to worship God at Shiloh—a name that means tranquility. But there will be no tranquility for Peninnah continually mocks and provokes Hannah to the point of despair.

 

Hannah, whose name means grace, has been shown little grace or unmerited favor by the people around her.  As a barren woman, she has suffered horribly. In a world controlled by men, a woman’s unique ability was childbearing and if she couldn’t do that, what good was she?  On this particular trip to Shiloh, when her weeping and inability to eat catches the attention of her husband, he offers some semblance of comfort when he asks, “Why are you so sad?  Am I not more to you than 10 sons?”  Hannah isn’t consoled.  She turns from Elkanah and heads toward the temple.  Hannah will take her problem directly to YAHWEH. But wait, Eli the priest is seated near the temple door.  Why does Hannah walk right past him?  How interesting!

 

It is a dark time for the people of Israel.  It is also a dark time for those who come to worship at the temple of Shiloh. If we read just one chapter further into I Samuel, we learn that for too long Eli has taken his priestly duties too lightly.  His role as a priest is to lead, guide, and intercede. He is supposed to represent God to the people. Instead, he has allowed his sons to act in abominable ways and he has not stopped them. In God’s time, payment will be required of Eli and his family.

 

Since Hannah comes to Shiloh each year, it’s likely that she has heard of Eli’s shortcomings and of the evil-doings of his sons. Maybe that is why Hannah bypasses Eli and goes straight to God.  She prays to the Lord—not as a religious duty but as a pouring out of her soul. While people often pray aloud in the temple, Hannah prays silently, and in her prayer, makes a radical vow. She vows that if God will grant her a male child, she will set him before God as a nazirite, set him apart for special service to God, until the day of his death.  Usually, such a vow was taken for a specific length of time, but Hannah’s vow is for a lifetime.

 

Eli, sitting beside the doorpost of the temple, sees Hannah and he misunderstands her grief-stricken state. He thinks she’s drunk. When Hannah explains that she is a woman deeply troubled who has been pouring out her soul to God, Eli does not inquire into her situation or ask about the cause of her grief.  (So much for pastoral care!)  But note how Hannah responds. She responds to the misguided priest graciously and, punning on her own name, asks that “she find favor (grace) in his eyes.”  Eli has seen “grace” right in front of him but he has not really seen it or the woman who bears the name.

 

Eli offers a parting blessing and Hannah leaves in peace. Hannah, through pouring out her soul to God finds “tranquility” in Shiloh. After a time, Hannah gives birth to a baby boy, calling him Samuel “because I asked him of the Lord,” she says.  She receives God’s favor, God’s grace, and she responds just as she promised. After three years, Hannah takes little Samuel to Shiloh where she gives him back to God. Not to be outdone, God pours out even more blessings upon Hannah, giving to her three more sons and two daughters.

 

There is much to be learned from this mysterious drama between God and Hannah, the woman of grace. But for today, I would like us to consider two lessons that might help us in our own faith journey. First, Hannah models for us the way in which all believers can approach the throne of grace—directly.  We no longer have to go through an earthly priest for Christ is our High Priest. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we may boldly enter the Most High Place.  Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we may draw near to God in full assurance that our heart’s yearnings will be heard. Thanks be to God!

 

Another lesson to be learned from this story comes in the form of a question:  Why does Hannah know what Eli doesn’t?  Although we recognize that the Spirit had not been poured out on all believers in Old Testament times, it seems that Hannah models the gift of discernment for she is able to recognize spiritual truths. I wonder, could it be that she’s been walking with God while Eli has not?

 

In I Corinthians 2, Paul writes of the wisdom that is made available through the Holy Spirit:

 

[The things of God] have been revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God…Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned…”

 

Both Eli and Hannah discern something out of their own experiences. Eli discerns that Hannah is intoxicated.  Intoxication…he’s seen before…but whole-hearted pursuit of God?  Hmmm… Instead of being spiritually discerning, perhaps Eli has become merely religious—going through the motions.  He may know the law of God but he does not appear to know the heart of God.  And, sadly, any knowledge that he possesses is not being translated into care and compassion for God’s people.

 

On the other hand, Hannah, out of her understanding, discerns that she should seek God for what she wants. She has learned that her husband cannot solve her problem. She has learned that she is powerless to resolve it herself. And she puts no trust in Eli who has become a poor excuse for a priest. Hannah takes her petition to Yahweh. It stands to reason that she has seen God’s faithfulness in the past. Believing that God honors those who seek him, spiritual discernment leads Hannah to the truth of God’s goodness.

 

Spiritual discernment can lead us to God’s truth as well.  Do you ever have a moment when you feel that twinge—that nudge—from God that says, “Ah…a truth!”?  Once, I heard a woman say that she gets “holy chill bumps” when some unexpected, profound truth has been spoken. Frederick Buechner offers this word of wisdom:  “Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near.”

 

 

On the other hand, I’ve also heard people speak of times when they have read or heard something and they have felt that twinge in their heart that says, “Oh…There’s something not quite right here.”  Once, while channel surfing, our youngest son, Shane, happened to see a televangelist asking for a donation “of a mere $350 to assure God’s blessing—just send your money and then lay your hands on your television to get your blessing,” he said.  To which Shane responded:  “Mom, you’re not going to believe this!”

 

Spiritual discernment can lead us to God’s truth…IF we will only listen.

 

Our story begins with a barren woman, who is mistreated by a hateful co-wife, and misunderstood by a priest. But Hannah dares to take her case before God and God listens. Hannah recognizes that her future rests beyond her control, and in doing so—she becomes open to God’s future—a future where Shiloh, tranquility, can be found.  In the end, her faithfulness blesses an entire nation who gains a much-needed spiritual leader in the person of Hannah’ son, Samuel. Through Hannah, the woman of grace, God, the giver of grace brings salvation hope to God’s people.  Amen.

 

*Cover Art by Robert Dudley

God’s Grace in the Life of Jeremiah

“God’s Grace in the Life of Jeremiah”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 9, 2017

5th Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 1:1:19

 

The book of Jeremiah opens with a conversation between God and Jeremiah. It appears that God needs a prophet—one who will be a messenger called to share God’s word with God’s people.  And what might the message be?  Through prophets in the Old Testament, God often speaks out against following after false gods, the sins of society and the crimes of brother against brother.  God’s word often includes a call for repentance—something God’s people resist.  So the work of a prophet isn’t easy.  It isn’t safe either.  In Israel’s history prophets are mistreated, arrested, imprisoned, thrown into cisterns, beaten or worse.

 

So is it any wonder that when God comes knocking on Jeremiah’s door, Jeremiah answers with an excuse:  “Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  As excuses go, this one sounds pretty good, for Jeremiah is probably around 12 or 13 years of age.  Nevertheless, God calls him.  “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God says, “Before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  Jeremiah offers an excuse—but have you ever noticed that God isn’t one for accepting excuses.

 

In his book, Teacher Man, Frank McCort tells of his years as an English teacher trying to connect with his students; trying to get them interested in creative writing—but to no avail. One day, however, while the students are taking a test, Mr. McCort pulls out a stack of “excuse notes” he has accumulated in a desk drawer.  Notes that he only glanced at before, he begins reading with real interest.  He makes two stacks: one for genuine notes written by parents and the other for forgeries.  The second is by far the larger stack with writing that ranges from imaginative to just plain crazy.  Then Mr. McCort has an epiphany.  Students who resist any kind of writing assignment are capable of the finest prose when writing excuse notes:

 

  • The stove caught fire and the wallpaper went up and the fire department kept us out of the house all night long, it was incredible…
  • Arnold doesn’t have his homework today because he was getting off the train yesterday and the door closed on his school bag and the train took it away—something should be done…

 

Obviously, these students do not know that honest excuse notes from parent are usually too dull to merit a place in the trash bin…something like, “Peter was late because the alarm clock didn’t go off.” So one day, Mr. McCort types up a dozen notes with the names omitted to protect the guilty.  “What’s this?  What’s this?” his students ask.  “This is the first class in the world to ever study the art of the excuse note, the first class, ever, to practice writing them…” They smile—eager to write their first assigned excuse note.[i]

 

Jeremiah is at a critical moment in his life. God is calling him for a service for which he feels inadequate. What’s that in your hand, Jeremiah?  “My excuse note:  Oh, Lord God, I can’t.  I am only a boy.”

 

It may surprise you that as a minister I, too, have a few excuse notes. Today, I’ll share only one.  (If you want to hear more, you’ll have to make an appointment). This particular excuse note was submitted before I began seminary.  I was working as a Laboratory Manager but my heart wasn’t in it.  Instead, with each passing day, I became more passionate about my work in the church.  I taught classes, worked with the children, led spiritual retreats.

 

 

In my heart, I wrestled with the feeling that God was calling me to full-time vocational ministry—nudging me toward seminary.  The struggle continued until one morning I went out for a walk. The sun was rising, blessing a new day, but I hardly noticed.  I walked and I fussed.  I walked and I fumed.  What’s that in your hand, Glenda?  “My excuse note.” I told God, “I’m a woman,” and I imagine God laughed and said, “Really?”  I said, “God, I’m the mother of 4 children,” and I imagine God said, “Yes, they were my gift to you.”  Then, I played what I thought was my trump card, “Well, you know I’m a Baptist.”  And I think God laughed and whispered, “Not for long.”

 

Finally I quit offering God excuses and in the silence, God gave me a gentle response through the words to a poem—a poem that gets at the heart of all my excuses.  I have entitled it: “The Not Enoughs.”

 

There is a Land called the Not Enoughs.

A place where some come to visit.

A place where others stay a life time.

And in this place you will hear the voices of darkness.

In this place you will hear:

You’re not pretty enough.

You’re not smart enough.

You’re not old enough.

You’re not young enough.

You’re not strong enough.

You’re not well-read enough.

You’re not well-spoken enough.

You’re not patient enough.

You’re not loving enough.

You’re not loved enough.

But, dear child, when Jesus died on the cross and said, “It is finished.”

He was also proclaiming, “I AM enough!”

 

Excuses!  We all have them.  But isn’t it amazing how God works in us and through us nevertheless? God worked in and through Jeremiah, responding, “Do not say I am only a boy, for you shall go to whom I shall send you and you shall speak whatever I command you.”  And then God gets right to the point.  “Do not be afraid…I am with you…” God knows that Jeremiah’s excuse comes from a place of fear.

 

It seems to be the case for many of us. Whatever our excuse for not serving in a capacity for which God has gifted us, for not making a wrong right, for not sharing the love of God with the stranger—isn’t it so often rooted in fear?  Yet God says, “Do not fear; I am with you.” Whatever God calls us to do, God calls us to do it through God—not alone—never alone. And if we feel inadequate—great!  God has an endearing love for folks who feel inadequate.

 

Although Jeremiah certainly feels he is too young for God to use, ultimately he serves as God’s mouthpiece to God’s people for some 40 years. Jeremiah stands alone, declaring God’s message, announcing the new covenant while his words fall on deaf ears. And Jeremiah weeps for the assured fate of his beloved country.  By the world’s standards, Jeremiah is a failure.  But in the eyes of God, Jeremiah is obedient. Jeremiah is faithful. Jeremiah is a success.  He, who meets God’s call with excuse note in hand, comes to know the power of God’s grace in his life and becomes a man of faith and courage.

 

 

How about you?  Have you given an excuse note to God?  Maybe you’re thinking:  “Really Glenda, I’ve been called to be neither a prophet nor a preacher.”  Sorry but that excuse note doesn’t merit a place in the trash bin.  Not for us.  Not for a tradition that upholds 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  Yes, we are a priesthood of all believers.  Each one of us has been given gifts for service.  Each one of us has been called for something.

 

Today, I offer you your very own blank excuse note. (You will find it in your bulletin.) Because I’ve been called to be your preacher and teacher, and because you love me, I hope you’ll allow me the privilege of giving you an assignment. Take your excuse note home. And this week, meditate on the life of Jeremiah and the work to which God called him and equipped him. Then pray about your place in the priesthood of all believers. What gift has the Holy Spirit given you for service?  Are you called to be a teacher, a leader, an encourager, a preacher?  Do you have the gift of hospitality, the gift of faith, the gift of wisdom or knowledge, mercy or helps?  Pray on these things and then, if something is holding you back, write down your excuse.

 

Perhaps you offered God your excuse long ago and you and God have worked it out.  Still take some time to write out what happened. Reflect on God’s grace in your life. And then give God the glory and praise for whatever you’ve been able to accomplish in God’s name. You’ll be glad to know that this assignment is given on the honor system—I won’t be asking you to turn it in. This is a matter between you and God.

 

And don’t be afraid. It’s not like God hasn’t heard it all before: What’s that in your hand, Sarah? “My excuse note: Now that I am old, shall I indeed bear a child…” What’s that in your hand, Moses? “My excuse note: Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now…” What’s that in your hand, Isaiah?  “My excuse note:  Woe is me.  I am a man of unclean lips…” What’s that in your hand, Jeremiah? “My excuse note:  Ah, Lord God, I can’t. I’m only a boy.”

 

Offering God an excuse is not dreadful in the sight of God.  Offering God an excuse is merely a place to start. It’s a place for God to get our attention and remind us of our calling to be God’s people and share God’s love. It’s a place for God to get our attention and remind us of his promise:  “Do not fear; I am with you.”

 

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] Teacher Man, McCort, 83-90

Cover Art  “A New Covenant” © Jan Richardson Images; Used by subscription.

 

God’s Grace in Life of Esther

“God’s Grace in Life of Esther”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 2, 2017

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Esther 4:1-17

 

The Book of Esther tells the heroic tale of a Jewish woman who risks everything to save her people from the threat of genocide. Still today, the book is read in its entirety in synagogues on the Jewish Feast of Purim. Yet, the Book of Esther is surrounded by controversy for numerous reasons. Particularly because Yahweh, the Jewish name for God, is never mentioned. Neither prayer, nor other outright “religious” rites are specified—only fasting. As a result, another unusual aspect of Esther is that there are several different versions. One, a Greek manuscript, goes about “fixing” all these literary dilemmas with six additions not in the best Hebrew manuscripts.

 

The Book of Esther, written in the style of a short, thrilling novel weaves a wonderful tale of power, providence and purpose. For those who have trouble accepting The Book of Esther on its own merits, I offer the words of author, William P. Young, “Well their mistake isn’t fatal. Rumors of glory are often hidden inside of what many consider myths and tales.”[i]

 

Let’s take a closer look at this story of intrigue, deception, and the power of good to overcome evil. The story is set in Persia during the Exile. King Ahasuerus has banished his queen for disobedience and will, in time, seek a new one. Esther is a most unlikely candidate. She’s a Jewish orphan who’s been raised by her cousin, Mordecai. Yet, Esther pleases the king and is chosen to be his queen—although she keeps the fact that she’s a Jew a secret as instructed by her cousin, Mordecai.

 

About this time, Haman, a Persian, rises in the court and he is set above all the officials to help the king to rule. Everyone bows before him—except Mordecai. Haman is infuriated. After learning that Mordecai is a Jew, Haman plots his revenge to destroy not only Mordecai but all the Jews who are in exile. Unaware of the ramifications, King Ahasuerus signs a royal decree, proclaiming a day when the Jewish people will be slaughtered.  When Mordecai learns this, he tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth and ashes and wails bitterly at the entrance of the king’s gate. Esther sends a servant to find out what’s happened and is instructed by Mordecai to intercede for her people. At first, Esther is hesitant for all the province knows that if anyone goes to the king uninvited—there is but one law—all alike are put to death. Only if the king holds out his golden scepter, indicating his acceptance, is the intruder allowed to live.

 

Esther’s excuse falls on deaf ears. Mordecai is persistent. “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Esther carefully weighs the words of Mordecai. She determines to use her influence, whatever that might be, to save her people. She instructs Mordecai to gather all the Jews in the area and hold a fast on her behalf. She and her maids will fast as well.  “After that,” she says, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” In the end, Esther bravely approaches the king. Her request for mercy is granted and her people are given the freedom to defend themselves and their rights are restored. Evil Haman meets with destruction and Mordecai is elevated to the 2nd in command.  In the end, good overcomes evil.

 

The Book of Esther is a story about power. Perhaps it will help us if we consider power as meaning a “circle of influence.” Haman uses his power, or influence to do harm. His arrogance gets the best of him and, eventually, results in his own demise. Mordecai uses his power to help his orphaned cousin and then to encourage her to seek the king’s mercy. Esther, who feels powerless, is in due course able to influence the king so that she and her people are saved.

 

Many of us, I suspect, think we have little power in this life. I mean, we aren’t kings or presidents or people of great influence. Or are we?  My friend, Tammy, traveled to Venezuela on a mission trip. There she realized that power is relative.  Although she lives a simple life and would hardly consider herself rich and powerful, she learned that through the eyes of the people she met in Venezuela, she had great power. “Why?” I asked.  “Because I had the choice to visit their country and, more importantly, I had the choice to return to mine. By their standards, before I even spoke a word, I was a woman of power and influence.”

 

As citizens of the United States, in light of our Independence Holiday this week, without a doubt we have freedoms and powers that many do not possess. How blessed we are and how important it is that we use our power for good.  As citizens of Heaven, we also have freedoms and power given to us by God. But it isn’t power as the world sees it (as in the case of Haman who uses his power to further his own purposes). No, the power given to us by God is the power to serve God and to serve God’s people.

 

In the Gospel of Matthew, the mother of James and John asks Jesus for a favor. She wants Jesus to grant her two sons the honor of sitting beside him in his kingdom, one on his right and one on his left. Jesus says to her, “You don’t know what you are asking.” And then he explains to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”[ii]  Whatever power or influence we may have has been given to us for the service of others. That is our calling as God’s people.

 

The Book of Esther is about power. It’s also about providence—divine care.  There are signs of God’s handiwork, filling the pages with one coincidence after another—too many to be mere happenstance. And though some scholars have been disturbed because there’s no mention of Yahweh or prayer, it seems to me that one can hardly read the story as non-religious. When the people of Israel speak of deliverance, when they speak of fasting, of sackcloth and ashes, how can the presence of Yahweh not be understood? Truly, God is everywhere—even when we don’t speak God’s name!

A doctrine of providence, writes Shirley Guthrie, “recognizes signs here and now of God’s presence and work in our lives and the world around us. The final victory of God over the powers of darkness and evil is yet to come” but small victories can be seen even now. “Here and now, once in a while…here and there, sickness is healed, life is spared, justice triumphs over injustice, war gives way to peace, people who are suspicious of each other and hate each other are reconciled—light breaks into our darkness….These little victories…give us courage and confidence.[iii]

 

In our own lives, coincidences may reveal the gracious hand of God, but we can’t know for sure. All we can do is act in an attitude of hope, taking advantage of whatever opportunities God sets before us.

 

If the Book of Esther is a story about power and providence, it’s also a story about purpose. Esther, an orphan, becomes queen of a foreign nation and bravely saves her people from certain death. In the early chapters of Esther, we see her acted upon. She’s taken in by her cousin and follows his advice and instruction implicitly. In time, she becomes a person of substance who accepts her role as a woman able to make a difference. She accepts that she’s been brought to a place of influence “for such a time as this” and she steps into her future with courage and purpose.

 

We, too, are people marked with a purpose. God has a plan for our lives. We’ve each been given gifts of the Spirit to be used for the common good, to build up the church as a beacon to all those who are in need of God’s saving power. Some are given the gift of wisdom, some knowledge, some faith and healing, some are appointed to be teachers, preachers, some have a special ability to help others, and the list goes on and on.[iv]

 

What is our purpose? In the Lord’s Prayer, when we say “thy will be done…” we claim our desire for God’s will to be done in the world. And as God’s people, we accept that we each have a part to play. Today, as we gather around the Table of our Lord, may we prayerfully consider the purpose God has for each of us.

 

The Book of Esther is a story of power, providence and purpose. Esther uses her influence and the opportunities given to her to fulfill her purpose—to save her people. In this way, she offers us a glimpse of the Savior who comes to save us all from the powers that would overwhelm us—providing, instead, abundant life.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Young, The Shack

[ii] Matt 20:25-28

[iii] Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 189

[iv] I Corinthians 12