Gospel Priorities: For Such a Time as This
Sermon Recap | Esther 4:1-3
When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went up to the entrance of the king's gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth. And in every province, wherever the king's command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
What is your response to suffering? Because of the sin that pervades every part of life, suffering is an inescapable reality. When you experience suffering, Pastor Alex Shipman asks, do you face it or do you try to hide it? Do you put on your “church face” because you don’t want anyone to know what’s really going on?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the Christian Gospel is a two-way road. On the one hand, it seeks to change the souls of men, and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand, it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed.”
“What is your response to suffering? What is your response to your own suffering and to the suffering of others? What is your response individually and what is our response corporately as the body of Christ?”
“For such a time as this,” Pastor Shipman says, “the church needs to care about the souls of people and the church also needs to care what those souls experience day in and day out…the church needs to care about the salvation of non-Christians and their suffering, because we have been providentially placed in this city to be salt and light for God’s glory.”
Gary Haugen is a civil rights lawyer. A few years ago, he gave a TED talk on poverty. In it, he recounts his experience investigating the Rwandan genocide:
In 1994, I was sent to Rwanda to be the director of the U.N.'s genocide investigation. It turns out that tears just aren't much help when you're trying to investigate a genocide. The things I had to see, and feel and touch were pretty unspeakable…What I can tell you is this: that the Rwandan genocide was one of the world's greatest failures of simple compassion. That word, compassion, actually comes from two Latin words: cum passio, which simply means "to suffer with." And the things that I saw and experienced in Rwanda as I got up close to human suffering, it did, in moments, move me to tears. But I just wish that I, and the rest of the world, had been moved earlier. And not just to tears, but to actually stop the genocide.
A genocide is what the Jewish people in Esther are facing. The decree of this genocide handed down from the king (Esther 3:12-14) is the reason Mordecai tore his clothes and cried. A helpful way to understand this text, Pastor Shipman suggests, is to put ourselves in the shoes of the Jewish people. We must remember this is not a fictional account but actual history. The entirety of the Jewish race is on the brink of being eliminated and the king and Haman are essentially toasting to it (Esther 3:15).
It is difficult for us to put ourselves in Mordecai’s shoes, Shipman say, because lament is often not a part of our spiritual vocabulary. Unfortunately, one author says that “in Western Christendom the lament has been totally excluded from man’s relationship with God,with the result that it has completely disappeared above all from prayer and worship.”The result of failing to lament creates indifference in us, Shipman says.
The biblical response to suffering is lament, so we must assess if we are ready to lament for our own suffering and that of others or do we simply respond by saying, “that’s just the way it is?” Or perhaps a “more spiritual” response, “God is sovereign.” And while God truly is sovereign and any person suffering needs to eventually cling to that truth, our first response to suffering must instead be to lament personally and/or with others who are suffering.
So what is lament? Pastor Shipman defines it as “a direct cry to God; a prayer by those deeply disturbed by the way things are.” It is essentially crying out “how long O’ Lord?” These Jewish people are going to be eliminated in a year’s time and they are powerless to change it, but in hope they lament.
In all this, we have a savior who both gives us an example of lament and came to be the solution to all of the sins which cause us to lament. In Matthew 23, he laments over the city of Jerusalem. In John 11, he lamented over Lazarus’ death. He lamented in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was betrayed and crucified. And he lamented while on the cross as well, paying the price for our sins. Therefore, when we lament, it is not empty. We are lamenting to God himself who demonstrated his concern for what causes us to lament by coming in the flesh and suffering and dying on our behalf.
Therefore, Pastor Shipman says, we must follow in Christ’s footsteps and lament personally for those things which cause us grief and suffering. We must also lament for and with others in their grief and suffering. We must show up in their presence as Christ showed up in our presence. “If you love this church and this city and you are deeply disturbed by the way things are, come together and lament together; cry out to God together as one voice.”As we practice this kind of lament, we have the confidence that we are crying out to a God who cares for us and hears us, and we have the confidence that we are crying out to a God who can bring healing and has promised that he will.
Questions for Discussion/Reflection
*These questions taken directly from Pastor Alex Shipman’s sermon
1. Can people in our church lament without being judged?
2. Can the minorities in our church lament racial and social injustice without being judged and without being called liberals or Marxists?
3. Can the majority culture in our church lament without being called racist or indifferent?
4. Can the people from different generations in this church lament without being judged?
5. In sum, can this be a “lamenting free space?” Not free from lament but free tolament.
Gary Haugen, “The Hidden Reason for Poverty the World Needs to Address Now,” TED, March 2015, https://www.ted.com/talks/gary_haugen_the_hidden_reason_for_poverty_the_world_needs_to_address_now.
Claus Westermann, "The Role of the Lament in the Theology of the Old Testament," " InterpretationXXVIII (1974):25.
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations and illustrations are from Alex Shipman.