Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's Advent, the 4 weeks prior to Christmas when we "get ourselves ready". It's my favoritest season of the whole year, on any calendar. But it isn't an easy one: the stories are of incredible (as in unbelievable) events: the upsetting of "natural order" at the end of time; a crazy baptizing preacher from the wilderness; pregnancy for women for whom pregnancy doesn't seem possible.

Maybe those are the things I like about the stories in Advent. I can't explain them, I don't know why God works in such illogical and messy ways, but that is where God seems to do the best work. These stories keep the mystery of God, rather than trying to be logical and understandable. HOW God is present isn't as important as THAT God is present, after all.

In Advent we live in this paradox time: the hope of what is to be in Jesus, and the confidence that it's already fulfilled in Jesus. Add it to the list of mysteries, I guess.

I'm listening to "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee (somehow missed reading that before). There was a memorable quote today: "There are just some kind of men [sic] who are so busy worrying about the next world, they've never learned to live in this one." Advent is a time when we prepare to celebrate that God is present in THIS world, at THIS time, born again each year in Jesus--not that God needs a do-over, but we sure seem to need a reminder.

In the midst of tents being staked out and mobs descending at Wall Street and Wal-Mart, I invite you to remember God's presence and promise with us. The incarnation, after all, is about God finding this world "good"-- good at creation, and good enough to dwell in in Jesus.

I have for decades had a postcard on my wall, given to me by a friend in seminary: "Indeed! If God is really in this place, we know God is, we can't be in too much trouble now, can we?" (Thomas Merton)

May you be blessed in Advent, with discovering something about God and yourself, and with the trust gained by not needing to know more, which is one facet of faith.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November Bible Study: Esther

We’ve talked a lot lately about the law as we’ve looked at Jonah, Amos, Zephaniah, and Malachi in the Hebrew testament. What we translate as “law”, Torah, is the instruction of God, mostly about how to live together well to preserve the identity and well-being of the community. The Torah sets a boundary around those who observe it: they are defined over and against other communities, nations, and religions. We tend to view Torah as rules and regulations; things you “have” to do or God will get mad at you. But I think Torah is more like customs that distinguish a group of people, as we might say, “Oh, those Germans drive so fast on their autobahn” or “Texans love brisket” (stolen from an ad I saw today!). These are not stereotypes (though they could be) as much as they are what’s “famous” about the group as a whole. Torah functions somewhat like this: God’s people keep Torah, know the laws, know how the relationship with Yahweh is structured; others do not.

In the book of Esther, there is more “over and against” defining of who God’s people are. Esther takes place after the divide into two kingdoms, after the Babylonian exile, after the return home and rebuilding of Jerusalem. But after a few generations of relocation, not everyone thought of Israel as “home”, so the Jews were scattered throughout the region, having established homes and families in foreign countries.

The city of Susa, in what is now Iran, was the winter capital of the king of Persia, which was a very diverse kingdom made up of locals as well as immigrants and refugees who had been taken captive or dispersed abroad under the Babylonian empire. The book of Esther provides a contrast between the rich and powerful Persians and the humble Jews, who seem to be trying to fit in and to remain faithful (although, interestingly, God is never mentioned in this book!).

The most striking contrast is between those who live by fate and those who live by faith. The Persians put stock in fate: casting lots (“Purim”) to determine significant days in the calendar (3:7), and attributing bad policy and the suffering of others to “fate” (1:15, 8:8). The Jews, however, trust that God will provide, and they take action on their own behalf to “make room” for God to intervene: Esther is put forward as a candidate for queen (2:8) giving her privilege and power she, or any Jew living as a foreigner in the country, would not have had. Her influence with the king in gaining an audience and exposing Haman’s plot can be seen as “divine intervention”, although God is not credited in the story.

Esther is one more story of God saving God’s people in the midst of imminent danger, when they are about to be wiped out—and a thorough destruction it would have been if Haman’s decree had been carried out. It is less explicitly Jewish than other books, in that “what it means to live as people of the covenant” is not described or addressed, and God is not even mentioned. It is a story about accountability as, and to, the community, by those in power on behalf of those on the margins (4:14).

Q: Does this story remind you of any others, in the Bible or outside the Bible?
Q: How explicit do we have to be about our faith in order to be considered faithful? Is the absence of God’s name a problem, considering this is a Biblical book?