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Rules of Engagement

October 1, 2000

Esther 7:1-10

by Tony Grant

I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Esther chapter 7 and follow along as I read verses 1-10. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).

1 So the king and Haman came to banquet with Esther the queen.

2 And the king said again unto Esther on the second day at the banquet of wine, What is thy petition, queen Esther? and it shall be granted thee: and what is thy request? and it shall be performed, even to the half of the kingdom.

3 Then Esther the queen answered and said, If I have found favor in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request:

4 For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. But if we had been sold for bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my tongue, although the enemy could not countervail the king's damage.

5 Then the king Ahasuerus answered and said unto Esther the queen, Who is he, and where is he, that durst presume in his heart to do so?

6 And Esther said, The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman. Then Haman was afraid before the king and the queen.

7 And the king arising from the banquet of wine in his wrath went into the palace garden: and Haman stood up to make request for his life to Esther the queen; for he saw that there was evil determined against him by the king.

8 Then the king returned out of the palace garden into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman was fallen upon the bed whereon Esther was. Then said the king, Will he force the queen also before me in the house? As the word went out of the king's mouth, they covered Haman's face.

9 And Harbonah, one of the chamberlains, said before the king, Behold also, the gallows fifty cubits high, which Haman had made for Mordecai, who had spoken good for the king, standeth in the house of Haman. Then the king said, Hang him thereon.

10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then was the king's wrath pacified.

Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.

The FBI has them, as well as the U.S. military and NATO. Janet Reno and the INS had them when they grabbed Elian Gonzalez in a pre-dawn raid on April 22, 2000. They are called Rules of engagement (ROE).

Fathers have them for their teenage daughters. Here are a few of the highlights of one father's "Application for Permission to Date My Daughter":

After asking for standard information like name, date of birth, IQ, GPA and Boy Scout rank, the application then asks,

• Do you own a truck with oversized tires? YES/NO

• Do you have an earring, nose ring or belly-button ring? YES/NO

• Do you have a tattoo? YES/NO

The application notes: If YES to any of the above, discontinue application and leave the premises immediately.

Other items on the application include:

• In 50 words or less, what does LATE mean to you?

• In 50 words of less, what does DON'T TOUCH MY DAUGHTER mean to you?

After completing the application, the applicant affirms that the information provided is true under penalty of death, dismemberment and torture. The fine print at the bottom of the application notes that the applicant should allow four to six years for processing. Rejected applicants will be notified by two gentlemen wearing white ties and carrying violin cases.

Those are what you call tough rules of engagement. Such Rules entered our cultural consciousness after the Waco fiasco. Dan Gifford made the Academy Award nominated documentary, "WACO: The Rules of Engagement." The documentary later won an Emmy, but it was not a popular film. A few art houses ran it. Most theaters shied away from it, no public relations firm wanted to handle it, most journalists ignored it.

Gifford told the California First Amendment Assembly on September 18 after a screening that he believed journalists ignored the documentary because most newsrooms are liberal, anti-gun and somewhat suspicious of deeply religious people. They did not want to be seen siding with gun-toting "wackos" against the U.S. government..Few journalists these days have been in the military or handled firearms, and Gifford said, "they are extremely deferential to law enforcement in these matters."

The two-hour-plus documentary traces the history of the Branch Davidians and their beliefs and their violent, fatal encounters with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Four federal agents were killed when they attempted to storm the sect's Mount Carmel Center. Later, 76 men, women and children who belonged to the Branch Davidians were killed, although the FBI asserted at the time that its agents never fired a shot and that the sect members committed suicide. More recently however, an FBI agent has admitted that was not true.

By the way, Gifford is a former newsman with ABC News, CNN and the MacNeil-Lehrer Report on PBS. He is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. He is a classic liberal in the sense that he does not believe the authorities should oppress people just because they are outside the cultural mainstream.

So that there will be no more Wacos, the Federal Government has developed ROE, rules of engagement. These are ground rules for responding to threats and intimidation, specific procedures that provide guidance on when and how to deal with extreme situations.

Esther certainly had no clear vision of the outcome when she ventured into the court of the king. She and her cousin Mordecai were aliens in a strange land - Jews living in the Persian empire in the fifth century B.C. – however, they did not let their outsider status prevent them from engaging the great powers of the empire, but they did have ROE. By having rules of engagement, they ensured that the architect of the anti-Jewish plot - a Persian official named Haman - ended up swinging from the same gallows that had been erected for Mordecai.

By the way, today is a first for me. I have been preaching for 25 years. Today is the first time that I have ever preached on the book of Esther. Esther chapter 7 is the climax of the ongoing rivalry between Haman, a high official in the Persian court and Mordecai, a Jew living in exile in the Persian city of Susa . The story has no mention of God. On the surface Esther and her cousin triumph because of their ingenuity and courage. Of course, God was working in the Persian Empire. God was working through people. God is here with us today, working through us.

The rivalry between Haman and Mordecai began with Mordecai's refusal to bow down to Haman, who had been elevated to a position of considerable power and wealth under King Ahasuerus. Showing proper respect for those in authority by bowing was not against Jewish law, so probably Mordecai's refusal to bow down to Haman was more personal grudge than religious precept. Mordecai simply refuses to acknowledge an undeserving, worthless rascal. In an enraged response, Haman persuades the king to kill all the Jews living in the Persian Empire. The Persian Empire at that time dominated the Middle East, so in effect Haman wanted to kill all the Jews. It was a totally idiotic overreaction. Why kill a whole people because you do not like one guy? But this shows us the kind of immature, murdering scoundrel that Haman was.

Meanwhile, Mordecai's young cousin, the beautiful Esther, had become Ahasuerus's queen, and Mordecai appealed to her for aid in the face of the impending destruction of their people. At the same time, Ahasuerus learned from a royal chronicle of Mordecai's aid some years earlier in uncovering a plot to assassinate the king, and ordered that Mordecai be elevated to prominence as a reward. Thus, Mordecai was royal favor. Then Esther , at the risk of her life, requested an extended audience with the king in the form of a series of royal banquets to which only Haman and the king are invited.

The opening verses of chapter 7 note that this is the second day of the banquet. They had been drinking wine for two days. In the Bible, the drinking of wine is the prelude to a number of disasters (In GN9, Canaan is cursed after Noah's drunkenness; GN19 describes the incestuous union of Lot and his daughters, after Lot became drunk; In 2 Samuel 13, Absalom murders Amnon, after a drinking bout.). So aware were the Israelites of the dangers of drunkenness that some members of Israelite society (e.g., nazirites), avoided alcoholic beverages altogether. In Esther 7, we wonder if Ahasuerus was not pretty drunk because he offered Esther half the kingdom. King Ahasuerus is not presented in a favorable light in the book of Esther. He comes across as a rather stupid man, easily manipulated by courtiers and favorites.

Esther's response to the kings offer is a petition, that her life be given her and that the lives of her people, the Jews, be spared. In verse 4, when Esther reports to the king that she and her people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. The final clause of Esther's request is puzzling: "If we had been sold merely as slaves ...", she says. The clause implies that making slaves resident exiles would not have been a big deal. Destroying the king's property, however, is a gravely different matter—and resident aliens like the Jews were, in effect, the king’s property.

Esther's revelation of Haman's plot to destroy the Jews, his property, sends Ahasuerus into a fury, and he leaves the banquet hall for the palace garden. When he returns, the bumbling Haman has literally thrown himself on Esther to plead for his life. Ahasuerus mistakes Haman’s action for a sexual assault. The king is even more outraged and has Haman hanged on the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai—which was poetic justice.

So let us talk about the rules of engagement for Esther and Mordecai.

Rule 1. Guidance. Back in 4:16, Esther called for a fast to seek divine guidance. They will do nothing until they have the leading of God. They do not talk about God in the book of Esther, but they certainly conceive of themselves as living and moving in God’s providence, as we all do.

Rule 2. Timing. Esther and Mordecai agree that the time must be right. Mordecai argues that Esther had arrived at the court of the king "for just such a time as this" (4:14). It is God’s providence that she is where she is. She must now act according as God has given her the opportunity to act. This is good advice to us. God has given us opportunities. Let us act on those opportunities.

Rule 3. Planning. They devised a plan so that everyone would be on the same page, acting in concert one with the other.

And they did it. That is Rule 4. Work your plan.

All of which brings us to the question of how Christians should function as "resident aliens" in a multicultural, pluralistic secular society that is often hostile to Christian values. We are challenged to consider if and how the church should engage with secular powers. Should the church be making political pronouncements during this season of high political activity? Should candidates be endorsed? Should propositions be favored? Some Christians say we should have ROE, rules of engagement. Other Christians say we should have ROW rules of withdrawal.

Ed Dobson, a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He once was one of the founders of the now defunct Moral Majority. Today he has totally changed his approach. He says nothing from the pulpit about politics. He believes that political involvement hinders his role as a pastor.

Dobson lays out new rules: (1) We are to pray for political leaders. (2) We are to preach the Bible. And (3), we are to exercise our rights as citizens. Pray, preach and exercise our rights, Dobson says we can do more good in this world by focusing on these three than by pouring time, money and energy into a potpourri of political activities.

Here is the problem. Not all Christians agree on political issues. One person's vendetta is another person's values. So very often if the church becomes politicized, it shuts out certain people and groups of people, and to the extent that it does that, it is not the church.

The movie "Insider" told the story of how one man stood up to the tobacco industry. The movie "Erin Brockovich" recounted the tale of one woman who took on the Pacific Gas & Electric Cooperation, and won. And certainly the church must likewise be willing to critique the culture. But Christians are going to disagree on many issues for which no clear scriptural guidance exists.

It would be easier for the church to pick a side in conflicts about social issues if we had clearcut villans, like Haman in out text today. Show us a Haman threatening our very lives, and the church will rise up against him. The devil in red we can recognize, but unfortunately the devil does not often wear red, and we have not been good at recognizing evil, except in hindsight. Few people today for example remember how much support Adolf Hitler had in American in the early thirties. If you want to research that I suggest you look up the history of the American Bund, or you might look at the biographies of Henry Ford or Charles Lindburg. Yet today with the privilege of hindsight, Hitler is probably considered the outstanding example of evil in this century. My point is simply this: historically the church has a poor record when it comes to recognizing political and social evil.

So what about today, when the issues are Al Gore or George W. Bush, or handgun control, or welfare reform, or prayer in public schools,or more taxation for education or the lottery, it is harder for the church to decide whether to apply ROE or ROW.

We come back to Esther and Mordecai. They sought divine guidance through prayer. They addressed the issue of timing. They conceived a plan. They worked their plan. We ought to plan also. We ought to think about where we stand on various social issues. That does not mean that the church needs to be on the frontlines, forming picket lines and organizing marches. When we plan and think about these things, we might decide that is not the thing to do. Furthermore, when we think about social issues, we need to remember that the church is called to minister to both sides on every issue. Here is a fifteen year old girl who has had an abortion. The church needs to minster to that girl, and not in a way that condemns or rebukes. Again, this week I was watching a debate on gun control, that became a shouting match. These two guys were yelling at each other at the same time, so that nobody could possibly understand anything. And the result was that I was totally turned off to both of them. They had a lot of heat; they did not have any light. That is not the kind of involvement the church needs. If the church is going to be engaged in social issues, and to some extent, we are obliged to be engaged, our rules of engagement require us to be involved in a way that is compassionate, and understanding, with love for all people. Amen.

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Last modified October 7, 2000