Leading from the Second Chair (Part 2)
Warning: long post ahead. It’s not easy covering a book in a sermon. You may want to download this file, print it out, and read over it with a coffee and favorite snack!
Mordecai and Esther, principal characters in the book of Esther, may well have been ‘subordinate leaders’, but they accepted the purpose God had for them. The courage and wisdom they exemplified saw them honored throughout the empire (10:2-3) and remembered in the Feast of Purim (see 9:22-28).
In a hostile environment, standing up for your values takes courage. Courage is defined as the ability to do something that frightens us. It speaks of mental determination and emotional resolve. Courage is about being motivated by the heart to do something brave.
When an environment drifts further from the heart of God, it takes mental determination and emotional courage to accept our purpose. Using the acrostic, COURAGE, I want to highlight seven characteristics of Esther and Mordecai's behavior that can help us take responsibility in a hostile environment.
C Considered Spirituality (4:9-17)
There's nothing ‘super-spiritual’ about the spirituality on display. Esther is probably the most secular book in the Bible due to the absence of any direct reference to God in its pages!
The question comes, “How is faith expressed when God can’t be mentioned?” The faith on display in Esther is what I’d call ‘considered.’ By considered I mean it is there, but it is brought out intentionally and strategically. I’ll share a little of how this is done in my sermon, God Behind the Scenes.
For now, note that Esther entered into the challenges she faced on the basis of her national identity, not the religious behavior that her national identity brought with it. Put another way, Esther entered into existential conversations on the basis of who she was—a Jew.
In the same way, there will be times when we must enter into critical conversation on the basis of who we are—children of God—not on the basis of actions we think we have to do because we are ‘Christians’ (e.g. share the Gospel with one person at work every day). Doing what we think we need to do, and indeed should do at some point, is not how ‘a considered spirituality’ looks.
The Esther model does not support an in-your-face approach. In difficult places, the book of Esther suggests the wisdom of what I am calling, ‘a considered spirituality.’ That is, we minister from the basis of our identity as sons and daughters of God, led by the Spirit, not on the mistaken idea that if we do not do certain things in work then we are not faithful. Ministry is first and foremost about who: who we are doing it for, and who we are when we do it. Who always comes before ‘how’ (we do it) and ‘what’ (we are to do).
The problem in acknowledging the wisdom of being considered in our approach is that some can use this to feel justified in saying nothing at all. In no way can a convictional Christian be a ‘covert Christian.’ Just because people don’t like your faith does not mean it is right for you to hide it away.
Esther 4:9-17 is the critical passage for this. Mordecai reminds Esther that the task has fallen to her to speak out (4:15-16).
It is not always the case that to be faithful we must be outspoken. Yet it is true that the time will surely come when we need to. It takes courage to do so and knowing how hard this was going to be, Esther asks people not simply to pray, but fast. She understood that this was her time.
In Colossians 4:5-6, Paul writes: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Paul explains how important it is in difficult environments to make the most of every opportunity. We are to speak purposefully at all times, but we do it in a considered way, discerning how to answer.
It’s in this context that we see the importance of having a dynamic relationship with God—something Pastor Toran addressed a few weeks ago. Without that dynamic relationship we may never know when a given moment is our moment.
When environments get hostile, Christians are to be considered not covert.
Next up, is O…
O Openness to People (2:10, 15-17, 20)
The mind and heart, someone has said, are like parachutes. They do not function effectively until they are open. As the Esther story unfolds, we see how important it was for her to be open to people and to the ideas they bring.
Esther was willing to grow into a role she never asked for and felt was beyond her. She finds favor however, because her kind, generous, and caring disposition brings her favor everywhere she goes and with everyone she meets. What makes this more remarkable is that Esther had experienced a lot of pain. Chapter 2 tells us that her parents had died and that Mordecai, her cousin, had raised her as his own daughter (2:7). While pain hardens many, Esther managed to keep her heart open.
Esther teaches us that we don’t change the world by looking at it and locking ourselves away because of the pain we have experienced within it. As Kory said last weekend, do not underestimate the power of a survivor. Esther shows us that we can change the world by the way we choose to live amongst others within it. As Esther interacts with people, her winsome character triumphs over and over again.
In a secular culture it will be impossible to agree on everything and there are times when the pain will tempt us to hide ourselves away. Trouble and heartbreak are guaranteed (John 16:33), disagreements will be common, but that does not mean that we are to be closed, unkind, and contentious (Matthew 5:38-47). To thrive as a convictional minority, we must work at keeping ourselves open—even to people whose values are diametrically opposed to our own.
Esther's faith was considered. She was open. She was also…U…
U Undeterred by Opposition (3:2-4, 13-15)
A third key character in the book of Esther is Haman. Haman rose through the ranks, off the back of Mordecai's success. Haman hated Mordecai and ordered the annihilation of the Jews. Without an understanding of Old Testament history, Haman's behavior appears illogical and antisemitic. His hatred of the Jews is not without reason and it is absolutely personal.
Haman is an Agagite. The Agagites descended from Agag, king of the Amalekites. Saul was told to wipe them out, but he spared King Agag (Samuel would eventually kill him). Haman hated the Jews for what they'd done to his people. This is the emotional background to Haman's behavior.
Mordecai knew this. He also knew that to be a Jew was to live with the reality of opposition. There is an undeniable preparedness among Jews of the inevitability of opposition and attack. This story, and the whole council of Scripture suggests that God's people have had, and will continue to have, enemies.
We’d be foolish to believe our future will not include resistance and opposition. The global church is much more prepared for opposition than the western church. Being prepared for opposition should not consign us to despair. Ephesians 6 calls for God’s people to put on our spiritual armor reminding us that we do not fight flesh and blood, but principalities and powers opposed to God’s rule and reign. We are told to armor up. God’s people are to be undeterred by opposition.
One of the most notable and encouraging elements to the book of Esther is how God works behind the scenes to protect his people. On the very night that Haman plots the death of Mordecai and celebrates it (5:14), we read this: “That night the king could not sleep…” (6:1).
The very night that Haman was plotting his revenge on the Jews, God was orchestrating His salvation of His people. In exile, God is not only present ‘with’ his people, He is also present ‘for’ His people (Jeremiah 29:13-14).
If history is the signpost to our future, we’d have to say that the history of the church suggests that there is an inevitability of opposition to our cause. Esther reminds us that God works for us when nothing seems to be working in our favor. God cares enough to carry us through it.
Esther and Mordecai’s loyalty to the Jewish cause teaches us that nothing worth saving comes easy and never without self-sacrifice. Throughout history faithful believers in hostile places had to work out for themselves what loyalty to God looked like in their context. Esther, Mordecai, Daniel, and Joseph are all examples of people who were fiercely loyal to Yahweh. This loyalty to God forced them to work out their loyalty to the ‘crown’ in very different ways. Each environment was unique, but they were all unflinching in their loyalty to God and undeterred when challenged to compromise.
While pastoring in Germany in the early 2000s we had more than one Lutheran Church pastor attend our worship services. These people felt called by God to minister in a denomination that watered down the Gospel. They came to our services for the refreshing they needed to continue. These pastors helped me appreciate how some people are called to places where loyalty to Biblical values isn’t easy. Their call to stay faithful in a liberal environment required regular discernment in knowing where to draw the line. While for many, ministering in an environment that waters down the Gospel is reason to leave, for them it provided the very reasons to stay. They were unquestionably loyal to God and wholeheartedly obedient to the call, but such obedience exposed them to challenges many in evangelical churches in America have only recently begun to face.
Unlike many pastors, managers and leaders of companies subject to federal regulations understand this challenge only too well. It is tiring and taxing to continue pressing on in the face of opposition. What helps us is the ability to go back to God’s people knowing that they will stand with us. You may be a minority where God has placed you, but you do not stand alone.
A considered spirituality, an openness in spite of opposition, and fourth we see …R…
R Respect for Authority (2:14-15, 18, 20; 3:1)
On numerous occasions, Esther is portrayed as having a deep respect for authority. I’ve listed three examples in the verses cited in this subheading. Even though Esther rises through the ranks from orphan to queen, she does not allow the rise to go to her head. Multiple times she is offered ‘the world’ but declines it out of respect for the God she worships and the people she serves.
Chris Brown says that he has two desires for his children. First, to know Jesus personally. Second, for them to never experience fame. Chris says that human beings are not designed for the challenges fame brings.
Something that amazes me about Esther is that she never allows her success to go to her head. She never uses the authority she’s granted to serve herself. She also continued to have the ultimate respect for the people around her. She succeeded because, in those early days, she managed to show respect for authority even when she was deeply troubled by the course of action King Xerxes had taken.
What we see through the book of Esther is how people and organizationally positive behavior matters. Esther and Mordecai managed to maneuver skillfully in a hostile environment because they treat people and the cultural systems with the utmost respect. In the story, Haman seals his fate because he ignored the cultural rules around the king’s harem. Esther, on the other hand, knew the rules about a woman entering the king’s presence and skillfully navigated her way through it.
I don’t think many of us would have to look far to find someone working for a leader they find it hard to follow. We can lose faith in a leader for a lot of different reasons, and for people of faith there’s no more solid a reason than when a leader charts a course that is driven by revenge and hatred for God’s people. As understandable as that is, if Esther would have responded in the wrong way, especially early on, she would have set her task back significantly if not fatally.
At Central I try hard to remind our team of the importance of doing the right things, the right way even when they feel a person is in the wrong. Such behavior protects the health of the culture we’re a part of. In the business world there’s a term used for this. It’s called organizationally savvy behavior. To be organizationally savvy a person must navigate safely through complicated and often convoluted policy, process, and interpersonal organizational dynamics.
Within any organization there are two critical chains: the values chain and the chain of command. Within every organization there are times when values are not reflected in appropriate behavior, and it’s especially true when the chain of command has been ignored. When the chain of command is ignored or outflanked, leaders need to address it. A person who moves quickly and impatiently will be seen as someone who pursues their goals over the goals of the organization. They will often disregard the complexities of the organization in the process. Such a person can’t win long-term.
Doing the right thing the right way meant Esther had to take her time, especially at the banquet she threw for Xerxes and Haman (5:1-7; 7:1-10). Patience with the process meant Esther avoided critical errors and did nothing to strain key relationships within the royal household (e.g, 2:8-9). Mordecai possesses this skill too. After being honored by Xerxes, we see Mordecai returning to the king’s gate (6:12)! Even though he’s just been honored Mordecai does not succumb to the temptation to use his favorable status against Haman. He avoids interfering and trusts the plan that has been carefully established.
Without trust in God, I don’t believe any of this would have been possible. Esther and Mordecai developed the endurance needed for their people-positive culturally-savvy behavior because they knew that there were certain battles God needed to fight for them if they were to win.
That couldn’t have been easy. When Mordecai stopped the plot against the king, Haman got the promotion. Rather than rage, Mordecai waited patiently. He was organizationally and politically savvy. When viewed from Harman’s perspective, the book teaches us to never overestimate our own value or force our way through but allow room for God to work.
So we have a considered spirituality, an openness, being undeterred by opposition, a respect for authority, and …A…
A Authenticity (2:12-15)
A few weeks ago, Pastor Toran Scott warned against skin-deep superficiality. Such superficiality was on full display in the year-long beautification the potential queens undertook in chapter 2. Esther did not succumb to the temptation to the superficiality on display around her. If authenticity is about being ‘fearlessly and bravely you’ as someone has said, then Esther is authentically her. Not needing the approval of others, Esther warmed herself into key peoples’ hearts. Her behavior is a great example of substance being more important than style. During the twelve-month preparation, Esther lived true to who she was. She didn’t go with the flow of the palace culture. Remaining social, likable, and open to learning, she won friends and influenced people.
It takes courage to live with authenticity, especially in environments where corners are cut, values are ignored, and externals are valued more than internals. Such courage is a form of integrity and a hallmark of authenticity. Brian Tracy claims that “Courage combined with integrity is the foundation of character.”
Esther and Mordecai’s courage to live out their faith with integrity was a critical foundation for God using them as He did. We lay the foundation for God to work through us when we commit to model the faith we claim to believe. When your boss asks you to cheat at work, it takes courage to refrain. Authenticity, at that moment, is having the courage to act from a deeply ethical and moral conviction. In addition to Esther and Mordecai, Daniel and his three friends are revealed to be wired the same way. Daniel wouldn’t defile himself by eating the Babylonian king’s choice food because it violated the Jewish dietary laws he observed. He also refused to compromise when commanded to worship King Darius. All of these heroes demonstrated their faith to be authentic. They were people of integrity. Billy Graham once said, “Integrity is the glue that holds our way of life together. We must constantly strive to keep our integrity intact. When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.”
The penultimate quality is …G…
G Graceful Self-Control (2:9-10)
Esther 2:9 literally says that Esther “lifted up grace before his face.” The next verse talks about Esther’s restraint and self-control (2:10). Thriving in a hostile environment requires both of these traits. Learning how to be verbally restrained yet exuding grace is a critical trait to winning favor.
I have a dog who loves to eat. Whenever it is food time, I raise my finger to make Ella sit. Recently I’ve found myself warming the milk for Wibke’s coffee whenever I’m feeding the dog early in the morning (it’s not often because Wibke is up at the crack of dawn!). When the delay is too long for Ella, she doesn’t disobey my command to sit. The wait, however, is simply too much for her and her feet start to stomper and her wagging tail bangs loudly against the wall. She’s still sitting, but the graceful peace that typified her when I raised my finger is now absent. She’s hanging on in there but there is very little grace in her waiting.
To thrive in a hostile environment, we need to learn how to be as gracefully self-controlled as Esther and a lot more patient than Ella. A glance around us makes us realize that graceful restraint is a lost art. In the climate of immediate judgment and spontaneous rage it’s not enough to restrain ourselves. Our restraint needs to be graceful.
Graceful self-control is possible because of …E…
E Emotional Balance (4:1-8; 5:9-6:14)
The graceful self-restraint of Mordecai and Esther contrasts sharply with the emotional imbalance of Haman (5:9-6:14). From being ‘happy and in high spirits’ (5:9) one day, to ‘rushing home, with his head covered in grief’ the next (6:12), Haman's inability to move beyond his hatred has left him a slave to his pain.
I can’t read Haman’s parts in the story without seeing a man enslaved to his pain. Haman’s pain was internal, and he may think it’s hidden, but it is on full display in his lack of emotional balance. In some respects, Haman is like many men who have a difficulty acknowledging their pain. I have lost count of how many times Wibke has asked me, “What's wrong?” only for me to respond with, “Nothing.” In one sense the answer is absolutely correct. There is nothing wrong with us for experiencing pain. Sometimes, we men can think that there is. What is wrong however, is that we never move on from there to discern how we express and manage that pain.
David Kundtz in his book, Nothing's Wrong: A Man's Guide to Managing His Feelings writes:
The inner life is the life you live when you are alone and just thinking. Everything that you fantasize and imagine is part of it. It is what you feel when you see someone you like, or dislike. It's what you experience when you think of an enjoyable event or a terrible one. It's everything in your life that is not visible in some way—love, understanding, jealousy, and those kinds of intangible values. It's what moves you, what motivates you to do what you do and be who you are. Your inner life determines your character, your qualities, your vices, your virtues, what you value a lot, what you don't value at all. It's your loves, your hates, your fun, your fears—but especially it's your secrets. It's the part you can keep hidden, but it's the part that everyone sees the results of. That's because your inner life determines your response to your "outer life" or the part of your life that others can perceive. [p.19]
Haman is so motivated by revenge that he is emotionally imbalanced. As the story unfolds, we see the correlation between processing pain and acting wisely. Mordecai hears of the plot against the Jews and processes the pain, before communicating factually to Esther’s messenger, Hathach. Mordecai avoids the erratic imbalance of Haman. He is presented in an emotionally balanced way.
Before anyone thinks that I am being way too simplistic with Old Testament genocide, I know. I don’t have room in this blog to address how someone should feel when God says wipe out your people. This is a troubling part of Biblical history that I’ve addressed elsewhere. There are parts of the Bible I struggle with too. Yet, the emotional balance theme is a key element in this story. Mordecai and Esther are presented as emotionally mature people who keep their head about them when it would have been easier to flip out. One of the most important lessons I have had to live out in ministry is the need to process my emotions before I act. In the early days of my ministry, I’d often respond too quickly and too harshly to negative interactions. The rush to respond would frequently cause me to dig an even deeper hole I’d later need to get myself out of.
Haman’s actions could not get him out of the mess he’d created.
In chapter 7 Esther throws a banquet for King Xerxes and Haman. Knowing what we know about the risks Esther was taking and the plans Haman was making, this banquet is one of the most emotionally charged banquets in all the Bible.
There’s so much riding on this banquet and yet Esther is calm and considered throughout. She only uttered her request after the king had pleaded with her to make it and reassured her that he would approve of it (7:1-2). I can’t think of a better display of graceful self-control and emotional balance!
As soon as the request is made, and the king’s anger rises, Haman knows his fate. Esther 7:7b says, "But Haman, realizing that the king had already decided his fate, stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life."
There’s so much going on here. First, Haman was not allowed to do what he’s just done. He’s breaking royal protocol. More on that in a moment. Here’s the question: If you were Esther, what would you do in that moment?
In the Bible I am reading while preparing this, there is three-quarters of a blank line before verse 8 continues the story. It can’t be more than an inch and a half in length. It’s not long but the gap to what happens next would have felt like an eternity for Esther, especially with Haman falling on his face on the couch besides her.
Rather than tear into Haman, Esther remained silent. Verse 8 breaks the silence. "Just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining. The king exclaimed, "Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?"
Verse 8 needs some explanation. It was against harem protocol for a man outside of the king to be left alone with a woman of the king’s harem, let alone fall on the couch besides her. When King Xerxes left the room, Haman was duty and culture bound to follow. Current COVID protocols require us to stay six feet apart. Back then, no man could move within seven steps of a woman from the king’s harem. When the king left, Haman should have left too.
Esther didn’t say a word but Haman’s emotional imbalance sealed his own fate. If there was a chance the king would spare his life, it was gone now. Previously, Haman had shown hatred for the Jews. Now he was personally betraying the king.
The banquet in chapter 7 brings to a conclusion the key tension in the book. Esther and Mordecai are honored and respected while Haman ends his days in disgrace, impaled on the pole Haman had set up for Mordecai. Haman’s story emphasizes how the leader’s greatest challenge is to manage themselves.