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Sunday, October 11, 2020
Scripture: 1 Samuel 18:6-16 & Esther 5:9-14
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Small Group Questions for Esther
It’s a fact that negative things stick with us far more than positive ones. In one experiment participants gained or lost the same amount of money, but in responding to this change, those who lost the money were far more distressed than those who gained were happy about their success. “Put another way, you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.” A professor of social psychology at Florida State noted in an article that losing money, being abandoned by friends, and receiving criticism will have a greater impact than winning money, making friends, or receiving praise. I think if we examined our lives, we’d see this to be true about ourselves, wouldn’t we?
This summer I took a week off to rescreen my back porch. This project took significant planning and around four days of solid work to complete. I’ve never done something like this before, but I felt reasonably good about what I was doing. After stapling all the screens to the frame, getting them as taut as I could, I started putting slats over top of them. On one of the final screws – after literally hundreds of others – the bit slipped out of the screw head and put a small hole in the screen. It was the only time it happened, but I tell you what, as much pride as I feel about the project, I still kick myself when my eye is drawn to the tiny puncture in the brand-new screen. The negative burrows its way into our hearts in a way that the positive can’t.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself. At work, your supervisor tells you all the things she loves about the work you do but adds one critique – in the future I need you to be prompter in responding to emails. Or, at school, your child works hard on an assignment and gets a good grade, but the teacher has expressed that the student needs to eliminate run-on sentences, bringing your child to tears because he doesn’t even know what that is. Or, you take a risk to speak publicly and get a standing ovation for your effort, but at the end of the event, one person comes up to you and tells you the color of your shirt clashed with the background. I sure do miss shaking hands on the way out of church and the passing commentary. “Wasn’t the music just uplifting today?” you’d say. “Man, that sermon really spoke to me,” another would say. Then later in the line someone would add, “I didn’t like that new song we sang today.” Guess what sticks? The critique about the song! I actually keep an email file called “encouragement” filled with positive notes because I need it to fill me back up when criticism comes. I don’t want to let bitterness take up space in my heart. Bitterness is poisonous.
We see that fact in both of our texts today. Let’s start with Esther. Last week you encountered Esther’s brave decision to present herself before the King without his request. You heard the most famous saying from the lips of Mordecai – “Perhaps you have come to this royal position for such a time as this.” Chapter 5 begins with Esther entering the inner court. It’s the first time in the book that Esther is called Queen Esther. There’s some dignity about her that leads to this shift. She’s no longer the young woman whose value is judged solely on her beauty. Her brave choice elevates her, and King Xerxes takes notice. Her risk pays off, and he extends his scepter towards her, meaning she will live. He will hear her request. She invites the king and his right-hand man, Haman to a banquet. They come, and at that banquet after lots of wine, Esther invites the two of them back for a second banquet. She has a request for the king, but she’s doing all she can to butter him up.
Our text begins with these words, “Haman went out that day happy and in good spirits.” And he should be. He’s the top advisor. He has a plan to get rid of the people he hates. He’s got money and power. Everything is going right for him, except for one thing. He spies Mordecai his rival who will not bow the head to him – the only one in the whole empire except for the king who won’t do so – and he gets angry. He complains to his wife about it, and she offers him a solution. “Use your power to hang Mordecai, your rival,” she says. This one bitterness he harbored in his heart leads to the desire to kill. So, Haman orders for gallows to be built. These are comically tall gallows. They are 75-feet high, the equivalent of a six-story tall building, taller than any building we have in downtown Grand Haven. Such is the bitterness Haman has. Everything is good, except this one thing, and that’s what he holds onto.
We see this same in our text from 1 Samuel. King Saul is the most important person in all of Israel, yet he cannot handle that David is growing in stature. He has power and might and prestige, yet because David killed Goliath, the people start giving him praise. “Saul has killed his thousands,” they cheer, “and David his ten thousands,” which displeases Saul greatly. He hates David so much he tries to kill him. This bitterness would define the remainder of Saul’s time as Israel’s first king. It would eventually lead to his downfall. Everything is good, except this one thing, and that’s what he holds onto.
Haman has everything except Mordecai’s deference, but that’s what controls him. Saul has everything except the praise David receives, but that’s what controls him. Letting bitterness take root in the heart is one of the most destructive things a person can do. It is deadly. Both Paul and Jesus say as much. In Galatians 5, Paul lays out what he calls the “works of the flesh.” This vice list includes such terrible things as hatred, jealousy, anger, and envy, and he tells us that these things have no place in the kingdom of God. Instead Paul contrasts them with what characteristics should define the Christian. He calls these the fruit of the Spirit, listing them out – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we allow space in our hearts for things like envy or anger, those wicked things will quickly crowd out what should be there, the fruit of the Spirit.
Jesus does the same in the Sermon on the Mount. He points out how it’s the smaller, interior motivations that lead to the bigger, exterior actions.
Don’t murder, the Law says. Don’t let hate even enter your heart, Jesus says.
Don’t commit adultery, the Law says. Don’t even objectify another person, Jesus says.
It’s too bad Haman and Saul didn’t have Jesus around to help correct their course. Saul was so jealous of David, it ruled his life. Haman was so bitter about Mordecai, that he could not enjoy all the good stuff that he already had.
So, what about us? It’s easy to say don’t be bitter over someone who has harmed you or against someone you disagree with, but, truthfully, it’s incredibly hard to let it go. Yet, if we let that bitterness stick around, it will eat us alive from the inside out. When you are bitter about something or someone, you have given free rent to that person or thing in your very soul. They’re hanging out right inside of you for as long as you’ll harbor that bitterness. But, here’s the good news. We don’t have to be like Haman. By the power of God’s Spirit working in us, we have the ability to release the bitterness – to let it go – and to replace that with God’s healing work inside of each one of us.
So, have you given free rent to anyone or anything in your own soul? Isn’t it time to let that go? This series is all about prayerful action. I urge you to pray for that person or thing, asking God to help you lose the bitterness or anger, or disappointment. Then, let it go. The prayer wall outside of the church is a perfect place for you to go through that action. Come to the church. Take a marker and piece of cloth. Write down what you need to let go of. Give it to God. Hang it on the wall and move on.
Friends, bitterness imprisons life. Love releases it. Isn’t it time for you to let God’s love soften those hardened spaces?