A Date with the Gallows
September 26, 2021*
By Pastor John Partridge
Do you watch movies?
Have you seen Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean?
There is a literary device that has been used in many books and movies and was used to good effect in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The literary device to which I refer is one in which one of the main characters has been sentenced to death by hanging and awaits their appointment with death and their date with the gallows. In The Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Jack Sparrow stands in line and waits for his meeting with the executioner until Will, and then Elizabeth, intervene to save his life.
As we read such stories or watch such movies, we imagine what it would be like to be in such a position ourselves. How would we feel if we were sentenced to death and were only waiting for our date with the gallows or our appointment with death? And imagine how much worse it would be if everyone that we knew, everyone of our family, friends, and community, were similarly condemned? How would we feel? What would we do? It seems impossible, but that is exactly the situation that Queen Esther, her cousin Mordecai, and all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire, faced. An enemy of the Jews, Haman, was a close aide to the king, and had deceptively persuaded the king to sign an edict that doomed every Jew in the Empire. But Esther had a plan. Even though the mere act of appearing in the king’s presence without an invitation could be punishable by death, even for the queen, Esther dares to do so anyway. And when the king rescues her, invites her in, and allows her to speak, she invites him to dinner for further discussion and then in Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22, we hear this:
7:1 So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. 4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” 6 Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
9 Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” 10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
9:20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
Once the truth was known, and the consequences of the king’s edict, and Haman’s treachery, were understood, the king found a way to turn the tables. The Jews were saved, Haman was hung on the six story tall gallows that he had built, and the sorrow of the Jews was changed into joy, and their tears transformed into gladness.
But sometimes it is hard to tell one side, or one team, from another. It’s a bit like trying to watch, or even to play, a football game in which all of the players, from both sides, are wearing the same uniform. That is the situation in which the disciples find themselves in Mark 9:38-50. They thought they knew which side they were on. There was Jesus, and then there was the twelve, and then there were the handful of people that generally hung out with them. But suddenly their entire understanding of “us” and “them” is disrupted.
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck, and you 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 to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Jesus takes this moment to teach a two-part message. First, “us” is not so easily defined as “Jesus and the twelve.” Jesus says that even if someone wasn’t physically following Jesus but was doing “deeds of power” in Jesus’ name then they couldn’t say anything bad about Jesus and must have been connecting to the power of God through Jesus’ name. For us, that means that we shouldn’t always be so certain that we know who is “us” and who is “them.”
The second part of that instruction hits even closer to home for the disciples, and probably does for us as well. Jesus says that not only are there people on our side that we didn’t know about, but we also need to be careful not to drive people out of the kingdom of God by doing, or saying, something foolish. Our words, and our actions, can sometimes be the things that cause others to trip and fall, or to step off the cliff into unbelief. And Jesus says that we must not be a stumbling block, we must not be the reason that someone else stops believing. Worse still, Jesus’ description offers us a terrifying picture of what might happen to those who cause others to stumble.
Finally, Jesus reminds us that, like salt, we were created with a purpose. And, just like salt that isn’t salty, we cease to be useful if we fail to do the things for which we were created. Salt that isn’t salty was typically just thrown out and used to fill in potholes on the walking path outside your house. We wouldn’t want God to have that kind of opinion about our usefulness.
Instead, we should strive to be about God’s business and to do the work that Jesus has left for us to do. Jesus’ brother James has this to say in James 5:13-20:
13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth yielded its harvest.
19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
James reminds us that while we are trying to be useful, one of the things for which we were created is to connect with God through prayer. Pray for the sick and the suffering, sing when things go well, and ask for forgiveness when we fall short. If the prayers of Elijah could stop the rain for three years and then start it back up again, then we know that our prayers are sufficient to bring the wanderers and the prodigals home again and return the lost to a closer walk with Jesus.
Never forget that rescuing God’s the lost children is the purpose for which we were created. Without Jesus, we are like those pirates and other characters in books and movies who were waiting for their date with the gallows, or like the Jews who waited for their destruction. Without Jesus, death awaits us all. But when we return the lost to Jesus, through prayer or through the actions of individuals or through the work of the church, we change sorrow into joy, and tears into gladness.
Let us not sit idly and watch as others wait for their date with the gallows.
Instead, may God find us busy doing the work of rescue and restoration.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.