The book of Esther is one of the most dramatic and beautifully told stories in the Bible. It tells the story of a young woman named Esther and her cousin Mordecai as they try to survive and thrive as Hebrews in the land of Persia. Mordecai and Esther find themselves in a very important position, possessing very powerful knowledge, at a very critical time. The story has quite a few unexpected twists and turns, and is loaded with drama, intrigue, irony, and comedy. It is also one of the most puzzling books in the Bible. First of all, there is no mention of God. The book nowhere acknowledges God’s activity on the stage of history. It doesn’t record anyone praying to God or asking for His favor (even though it does record a fast, which might be assumed to be prayerful). On top of that, the characters do not always behave as you would expect Biblical heroes and heroines to behave. There is a lot of moral ambiguity that can be difficult to sort out. Besides being a very entertaining read, it also has a lot to teach us about the tension we sometimes feel between God’s Kingdom and our culture. Esther and Mordecai are in a very tough spot to be a Hebrew.
Lessons from a woman caught between two worlds – This book raises all kinds of questions about how we are to deal with our culture. Many of us feel like Esther did – torn between two worlds. We love Jesus and His Kingdom, but our culture where we live is seductive and has its own allure. The power of Esther’s story is the tension she must have felt being stuck between two very different cultures. She was a Hebrew, and that gave her a sacred obligation to the will of the God of her people. At the same time, she found herself thoroughly entrenched in the Persian culture, a culture that was drawing her deeper and deeper into itself. She embodies the struggle to be in the world but not of it. This is one of the hardest things for followers of Jesus to do. What do you do when the culture you are in threatens to swallow your faith, rewrite it, or erase it? I have watched so many people struggle with how to interact with their culture as a follower of Jesus. This is the tension I want to explore in this series. Echo has people all over this continuum. Some are just holding on, barely surviving. Some have already been swallowed up by the culture. Some are doing their best to be the influence and not the influenced. People take three stances when it comes to the surrounding culture:
1. Isolation – No contact, no impact. Sometimes the church has gotten this wrong. Sometimes the church has been tricked into isolating itself from people far from God in the name of protecting the holy ones from corruption. I have met many people that really do love God, but they look at the world and our culture like it is full of potential sources of “infection.” Their strategy to survive is to create a separate culture, walled off from negative influence and protected from corruption. They end up living like bubble boy, afraid of what is out there that might corrupt them. The irony of this is that whenever we do this, we have been tricked. According to Jesus, His disciples are the ones that are contagious! The danger is not to us, but to the kingdom of darkness. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The light is more powerful than the darkness, and when you shut up all the carriers of light inside of little cloisters and holy communities and churches and concerts, there is no chance for anyone bound in darkness to discover the light. Jesus warned his followers against this: he said a “You are the light of the world; city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Look at John 17:13-19. Jesus prayed for his disciples, not that they would be taken from the world, but that they could be a force of influence and change in the world. Without contact, you can’t have any impact on your culture. You might get a little messy if you try this. Can you imagine a Jesus that avoided what He found impure? For this reason, Echo cannot be allowed to be a shelter from culture, a group of people separated from the world that needs them. I love that we have a pastor that models this. Our pastor, Brad Russell, created the Washington West Film Festival to interface with and engage our culture.
The story of Esther could be very different. At multiple points in the story of Israel, the Jews struggled with influence and took the path of isolation. You can imagine Esther and Mordecai being so offended by the suggestion that they be complicit in this corrupt and perverse culture! The story would be one where Esther was killed and Mordecai as well, dying to persevere her “honor” or virginity. This isn’t easy stuff by any means, but this is how the story goes. What I am saying is that it is possible to limit your influence because you limit the exposure other people have to the hope and life that is in you. Now of course, this works both ways.
2. Assimilation – You can’t stand fast without contrast. The other thing I see happen when it comes to culture is that people are just swept away by its current. The force of culture just swallows them whole and assimilates them, they become just like everyone else in culture and any distinctiveness about them is lost. If you are not strong enough to be the influence and you are always being swept away in the current of your culture and negatively influenced, you might need to limit your contact with negative influences. You cannot be a rescue swimmer until you stop drowning and learn how to swim. It is not what is the similar to everyone around you that will grant you influence, it is what is different. I am not talking about something weird, strange, or bizarre, but something distinct. If you lose your distinctiveness, you lost your ability to influence and attract others. If you are just like everyone else, just one more follower in the crowd of sheeple, why would anyone bother to follow you? The right kind of difference is contagious. Here me on this: if Esther was just another pretty face in the crowd of hundreds, this story would look so differently. Something made her different, something more than superficial made her stand out from among the others. The key to influence is to discover life on a level that few others ever find. Then you have found something that will make you stand out! The Jesus movement, the Kingdom of God – it is a counter-cultural revolution. It is not the popular thing but the right thing. It is not what everyone does, it is only what the remarkable can do. If you want to impact the world, you will have to do it living differently that everyone else. We are called to be aliens in this world, living “in it but not of it.” There is supposed to be a quality about us that is “otherworldly,” like we have been somewhere else and we are from somewhere else.
3. Transformation – Look at 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, and listen to this charge by the Apostle Paul. He describes the followers of Jesus as the ambassadors of Christ, as if God were making his appeal for reconciliation with the world through us. He is imagining a force of positive change unleashed on the world with transforming results. Esther’s initial struggle is this: how to I prevent being swallowed by the culture even as I am surrounded by it and immersed in it? That is where many of us are, barely surviving. In that case, you may need to find some sources of strength and change some habits and reroute some patterns. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that living for God’s Kingdom means staying “pure” somehow. It doesn’t mean anything that small! Esther eventually discovers this. It isn’t just about surviving. Not only does she want to survive, but she wants to influence her culture of the Kingdom of God. I know in Echo we have people that are struggling with both of these challenges. The secret lies in protecting the fire of God in your heart, so even when you are immersed in your culture without, you heart is captured by God within.
**Food for thought, seeds for discussion with your teenager:
*What do you find tempting or alluring about your culture?
*Why do you think “Isolation” isn’t an effective strategy for dealing with culture? Can you think of reasons why you should be isolated from some things in culture?
*What exactly should make a follower of Jesus distinct from others? What are some superficial ways that people sometimes look to distinguish themselves?
*What do you think Jesus meant when he prayed that his disciples would be “in the world” but not “of the world?”