The Road of Thanksgiving (Leads Through Enemy Territory)

What happened to our “happily ever after”? Jesus came to rescue the world, yet it still seems to need a rescue. You came to Jesus for salvation, yet life still feels messy. At the end of chapter 7 in the Book of Esther, we may have expected a “happily ever after” summary. Haman’s evils plots have been exposed, Haman himself hanged, and we expect  God’s people should now be able to live happily ever after. Indeed there is great celebration:

For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor. 17 In every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict came, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a festival and a holiday. Esther 8:16-17

While thanksgiving is not specifically mentioned, it could hardly be missing from the celebrations.

However, the story is not done. There are battles ahead. There will still be fighting, there will still be violence:

The king’s secretaries were summoned at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and an edict was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews and to the satraps and the governors and the officials of the provinces from India to Ethiopia,  . . . . By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods 12 on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. Esther 8:9-12

Bible scholars point out that chapter 8 reflects chapter 3, even using the same language in parts, to demonstrate a great reversal. There is the giving of a ring (3:10; 8:2), the summoning of secretaries (3:12; 8:9), the writing and sealing of letters (3:12; 8:10), the instruction to kill people including women and children (3:13; 8:11), the publishing of a decree (3:14; 8:13), the speed of couriers (3:15; 8:14), the response of the city of Susa (3:15; 8:15), and the clothing of Mordecai (4:1; 8:15).

With a wonderful reversal, there is much for God’s people to be thankful for. However, this is no “happily ever after”. The road ahead would not be easy. The former edict to wipe the Jews out could not be simply undone. That is not how things were done in Persia. As foolish as it seems, what the king writes is final. Instead, a new edict was provided to allow the Jews to assemble an army together, to give them the right to defend themselves. Their road of thanksgiving would lead through enemy territory.

As Christians we celebrate a great reversal, we have the greatest reasons for celebration and thanksgiving. Instead of heading toward death, we are headed toward eternal life. We celebrate God’s grace. But like God’s people in Esther’s day, the road of thanksgiving leads through enemy territory. In Esther’s day God’s people were not simply removed from the Persian empire with all its quirks. The Christian today is not simply removed from a broken world with all its troubles. There is great thanksgiving, but the road of thanksgiving leads through enemy territory.

The teaching of the New Testament encourages us to be ready for this road.

Jesus teaches us to rejoice in the midst of trouble:

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12

Jesus teaches us to pray for deliverance:

And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one. Matthew 6:13

Paul teaches us to put on the full armour of God:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Ephesians 6:10-17

James tells us that the devil will be tempting and inviting us:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. . . James 4:7-8

Peter tells us that troubles will come:

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:6-7

Peter further tells us that we the devil will come at us:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 5:6-1

Anyone who tells you that God will lift you out of all troubles when you follow Jesus is being selective in their reading of the Bible. The road of thanksgiving leads through enemy territory. Expect trouble. Prepare for it.

There was great celebration for God’s people in the Book of Esther, they knew all would be well, it was a time for thanksgiving. But it was also time to prepare for battle. In Christ we have a great salvation to celebrate, all shall be well, it is a time for thanksgiving. But it is not a time to let our guard down. It is time to prepare for battle, to prepare for the road that leads through enemy territory. The road of thanksgiving leads through enemy territory, but God leads us through it.

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matthew 28:20

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

The Fall. The Christmas Story Continues . . .

Last week we saw how the story of Christmas really has its beginnings way back at Creation. God’s desire from the outset was to be with us, and Christmas is a big part of that happening. As we look to cover the Christmas story from beginning to end, we do not even get out of Genesis chapter 3, or out of the Garden of Eden for that matter, before we see something else critical to the Christmas story. The Fall is part of what Christmas is about. Let us focus in on God’s promise to the serpent:

The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:14-15 emphasis mine

Here we have a promise of struggle. This not really about humans and snakes, this is about humanity’s struggle with evil. Snakes provide a good metaphor for this struggle. A strike to a snake’s head could be fatal. But so too, could a snake’s strike to a human’s heel. We are not sure at the time the promise is given who will be victorious, and who will end up dead.

The odds don’t look to be in our favour, especially given the fact that evil won the first battle when we had our best advantage. We had home field advantage in the Garden of Eden. We had everything, including the amazing presence of God Himself. But we had to have that one fruit. Things do not go our way throughout the pages of the Old Testament either. The history of God’s people, Israel, is a history of trying and failing, getting up and falling, again and again. And consider world history. Though there are bright moments, evil seems all too often to have the upper hand. Given the capacity of humanity to end all life through nuclear warfare, the odds have never been more in the favour of evil winning the war. Who will win in the end, the offspring of Eden, or the offspring of the serpent? It seems like a war humanity has not been winning and cannot win. However, Christmas points us to a clear winner!

Christmas points us to a clear winner when the angel speaks to Joseph.

She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

Mary will bear a son. Jesus is therefore is a candidate for being the “offspring,” or “seed” of Eve. But how can this one man conquer evil when no other man before has? How can this man do what has been impossible for every person before him right back to Adam and Eve, namely, lead a sinless life? And never mind leading his own sinless life, how will he also deal with the sins of others? Though being born of Mary and therefore the offspring of Eve, Jesus is so much more. The next verses make this clear:

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:22-23

While this seems to be a war humanity cannot win, this particular seed of Eve has an advantage! He is God with us.

Christmas points to a clear winner when the angel speaks to Mary.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. Luke 1:30-31

Born of Mary, and so the offspring of Eve. But again, so much more:

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. . . . The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Luke 1:32-35

The war will be won with this man, a man of holy divinity, on our side!

While we are thinking of Mary, we should note here how the promise of Genesis 3:15 pertains to the offspring of Eve, and not Adam. Note also, how Jesus is born of Mary, but not to Joseph. Here is a hint, though just a hint, way back in Genesis, of the virgin birth of Jesus.

In addition to Christmas there are two other events that point to a clear winner. 

Christmas leads to Easter. The death and resurrection of Jesus points to victory. Paul confirms this for us in Romans 8 when he speaks of evil not being able to knock God’s person down. Satan is the accuser, the one most likely to condemn, pointing the fingers  and declaring “unworthy sinners! You will never be victorious over evil for you are evil.” Hear what Paul has to say:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Romans 8:31-39

While Satan may be the accuser, God is the judge. God has already demonstrated His love for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus, by giving His life for us, has already declared that He is on our side. Paul goes on about the potential of evil to knock us over and down:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Romans 8:35-37

In the face of much evil, we are more than conquerors, not because we are able of ourselves to get the upper hand over evil, but “though him who loved us.” No expression of evil in the world can gain the victory and separate us from the love of God:

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38

Advent is a time of expectant waiting. The second advent of our Lord points us to the clear winner:

Revelation 20:1-3 (NRSV) Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, . . . .  And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Revelation 20:1-3, 10

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, recalls the struggle promised in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. The serpent’s head is crushed. Evil is utterly defeated.

Looking out at our world we may wonder if humanity can ever win the struggle against evil. Christmas points us to a clear winner. Easter points his to a war already won. The coming Day of the Lord, the second advent of Christ points to every battle finished.

At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of God as the answer to the prophetic question asked in Genesis 3:15; “will humans ever win this struggle against evil?” Evil struck the heel of Eve’s offspring when the forces of evil conspired together to put Jesus to death. But in dying and in being raised to life, Jesus has crushed the serpent. We have a clear winner. Christmas points the way to victory. We have the opportunity to become “more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

All Bible references are from the NRSV