“Reversal of Fortune”
September 30, 2018*
By Pastor John Partridge
Esther 7:1-10, 9:20-22 Mark 9:38-50 James 5:13-20
Have you ever watched a gigantic reversal in a game that you were watching? The Browns are losing but in the last seconds of the fourth quarter the Cardiac Kids would score two touchdowns and squeak out a win. There have been games when the Indians drive in several home runs, or one grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. Or some player on Jeopardy! Is in dead last, but then sweeps two or three entire categories, hits a daily double, bets everything, wins, and then put it all on the line in Final Jeopardy, and wins again, to come from behind and take home the prize money.
Hugh E. Keough once said, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that is the way to bet.”
But sometimes the betting pool is wrong. Sometimes, the unexpected happens. Sometimes the underdog wins. And that has everything to do with our stories from scripture today.
We begin in the book of Esther at the climax of her story. Prior to where we begin, Haman, a high-ranking advisor to King Xerxes (pronounced Zerk-sees), convinced the king to sign an edict that would allow everyone in his kingdom to kill any Jew that they found and take their wealth, whatever it may be, for their own. What Haman didn’t know, was that King Xerxes’ queen, Esther, was a Jew and she wasn’t about to sit idly by while this atrocity played itself out. And so, she invited both Haman and the king to dinner, but chickened out and couldn’t bring herself to make the big announcement. But then, she invited them both to a second dinner, and that is where we join the story. (Esther 7:1-10, 9:20-22)
7:1 So the king and Haman went to Queen Esther’s banquet, 2 and as they were drinking wine on the second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”
3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. 4 For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.”
5 King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
6 Esther said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”
Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen. 7 The king got up in a rage, left his wine and went out into the palace garden. But Haman, realizing that the king had already decided his fate, stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life.
8 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?”
As soon as the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face. 9 Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A pole reaching to a height of fifty cubits [75 ft.] stands by Haman’s house. He had it set up for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.”
The king said, “Impale him on it!” 10 So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided.
20 Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, 21 to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar 22 as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
Haman was descended from a tribe of people that had been almost wiped out by the people of Israel when they fought over, and settled into, the land that God had given them. His hatred was for Ester’s uncle, Mordecai specifically, but also for all Jews everywhere, and he allowed his hatred to propose something truly evil and make it sound palatable and convincing to the king. But God had put the right person, in the right place, at just the right moment. As Mordecai had said, Esther was chosen by God “for just such a time as this.” And suddenly the tables are turned, and the hunter becomes the hunted. To make matters worse, Haman throws himself on the feet of Queen Esther to beg for his life just as the king returns to the room and it looks as if he is attacking her. And before Haman leaves the room, they have already put a blindfold or a hangman’s hood over his face, and he is sentenced to die by being impaled on the same pole with which he had intended to kill Mordecai.
If you read the rest of the story, King Xerxes is unable to retract his earlier edict, but instead issues a second one that allows the Jews, wherever they are, to gather together and use whatever means necessary to defend themselves and, if anyone attacks them, the Jews get to keep the wealth of their attackers. The moment that Haman had intended to watch his enemies die, became the moment of his own death and he dies on the pole that he had built for his enemy. In the end, a day that was intended for the destruction of the Jews becomes a great victory instead. It was a great reversal of fortune. The unexpected happened, the underdog won.
This type of reversal of fortune is somewhat common in scripture because it is in the unlikely, the improbable, and the outright impossible that we most easily see the hand of God. But, as we read the stories of the New Testament and the Gospels, we also see moments when the unexpected is not found in the miracles of God, but in the unexpected and expansive grace of God. In Mark 9:38-50, the disciples come to Jesus because God has players on the field that aren’t on the team that the disciples thought they should be on.
38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where
“‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’
49 Everyone will be salted with fire.
50 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
First off, Jesus does the unexpected when he tells the disciples that there are others who follow Jesus, and who perform miracles in Jesus’ name, but who are not among the twelve disciples or among those that they know. How can this be if Jesus told Peter that “on this rock I will build my church”? How can followers of Jesus not follow Jesus? But Jesus says that anyone who preaches the gospel is not their enemy. Moreover, anyone who does good in the name of Jesus will be rewarded by God.
Conversely, Jesus says that God will punish those who do things that cause others, even children, to go astray. We all know, many of us from painful experience, that it’s better to shut up, and be silent, than to say something stupid. And Jesus make the same sort of point. It’s better to lose a hand, or an eye, than to suffer in hell so even though doing the will of God and following the example and the teachings of Jesus may occasionally be inconvenient, or even painful, or costly, being inconvenienced is far better than being condemned to hell.
Jesus says, “everyone will be salted with fire.” And the best way to understand that is to remember that gifts to God, sacrifices made to God, were burned on the altar. And so, what Jesus is saying is that our inconveniences in following him, the sacrifices that we make, the trials that we endure, the pain that we suffer, in the name of Jesus are sacrifices that burn on the altar before God which ultimately purify us.
But what is that thing about salt losing its saltiness?
Remember that Matthew 5:13-16 says,
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Taken together these scriptures tell us that the sacrifices that we make, in order to follow Jesus, the inconveniences that we experience, the suffering that we endure, these are the things that make us different than the people around us. These are the things that reveal the works of God to the world around us. These are the things that make us the salt of the earth. And if we lose our saltiness, if we become just like everybody else, and look, and act, just like everyone else, then we also lose any ability that we had to change our culture, to change our world, for the better.
Those are lessons that were unexpected.
But why is all of this important? Why do we want to be salted with fire? Why do we want to be the salt of the earth? Why do we want to change the world? And in James 5:13-20, we find the answer.
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
This passage if full of the miraculous and the unexpected.
Saying a prayer to an invisible and unseen God, whose temple doesn’t even have an idol, and that prayer has the power to heal the sick. Expose yourself to potential pain and ridicule by confessing your sins in public, so that you can be healed. And, James says, we do all of these things so that one life might be changed. All of this is worthwhile, a multitude of sins can be erased, if just one person is rescued from death and returns to the ways of God.
This is the ultimate reversal of fortune.
The sinner, condemned to death, repents, returns to God, and is saved. Life comes from death. The world is changed for the better… one life at a time.
And all of that happens because the followers of Jesus Christ are willing to lay their comfort, convenience, pain, and suffering on the altar and give it to God. When we are willing to live our lives differently than the people and the culture around us, when we are willing to be salty, it is then that we can be seen. It is then that the world, and the people around us can see God at work in us. It is then that we are able to change the world, one life at a time, and be a part of God’s greatest reversal of fortune ever. Rescuing the lost, restoring the condemned, and literally bringing life out of death.
That is certainly worth a little inconvenience and suffering.
Our inconvenience, pain, and suffering, in the name of Jesus, is the salt that will change the world.
Don’t ever be afraid to be salty.
“Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
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