This article linked to The Living Word Bible Study for September 26 draws out the teaching point from the three Bible readings (listed in the inter-denominational Revised Common Lectionary used by many different churches and chapels).
OT: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 — God’s providence in Esther’s petition for her people’s lives
NT gospel: Mark 9:38-50 — The pathway to eternal life starts with saying ‘no’ to sin
NT letter: James 5:13-20 — The abundant life of the kingdom flows as sin is renounced
• See the Really Quick Introduction video Choose God’s Kind of Life
GOD IS the author of life and He wants us to experience His kind of life in all its fullness — joy, security and a sense of belonging in loving relationships.
Our idea of ‘life’ may start at a different place. This is the time of year when many young people go to college or university and find they are living away from home, perhaps for the first time. And they let their hair down and ‘experience life’, often unhelpfully in that first term until they learn that the real freedom, is being free to make good choices.
And that’s where we are in this week’s article — learning to choose life by relying on God and letting Him guide our choices.
We start in the OT with the story of Esther, who the mighty King Xerxes of Babylon has chosen as queen without being aware of her Jewish ancestry. However her people, the exiled Israelites, are in grave danger of being exterminated as a result of a decree drawn up by corrupt principal court official Haman whose hatred of the Jews is legendary.
The immediate part of the story that we are reading, starts in Esther 5, when Queen Esther so impresses the king that he holds out his gold sceptre in a gesture of favour and asks what she would like. She replies that she would like to invite the king and his principal advisor, Haman to a banquet, hinting that she might reveal more of her request there.
At the banquet, the king asks her once again to make her petition, which will surely be granted.
Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favour with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life — this is my petition. And spare my people — this is my request. For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.”Esther 7:3-4
Esther’s older cousin and protector, Mordecai, was about to die a horrible death at the hand of Haman, who bitterly resented him — together with the rest of the exiled population. But Haman’s plot was exposed and Mordecai’s part in saving the king from an earlier plot to kill him came to light. And so Haman himself received the punishment he had devised and God’s people in exile were spared.
This story has come down to us from Mordecai’s recording of the events, and in Judaism the festival of Purim (lots) remembers God’s hand in changing what appeared to be certainties, in order to save His people, following Esther’s petition to choose life. It’s a story about God’s providence for those who rely on Him, and seek courageously to do what is right in His eyes.
Next we see Jesus teaching the disciples about choosing life — or rather, choosing the values that lead to the kind of life that God will bless. This time it is not a one-time event or a deliverance for a nation, but about the intention made by an individual to honour God by living free from sin.
Jesus’ teaching on making righteous choices, and being a righteous example to others, is graphic — and uncompromising:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in Me — to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.Mark 9:42-43, 45
“And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.”
And then, in a further illustration, Jesus made a point about keeping our faith sharp and distinctive — not allowing it to become blurred by compromise and accommodation to the world.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”Mark 7:50
There seem to be two things going here, but really they are two facets of the same thing. Jesus is urging us to be ruthless about killing off attitudes that are self-seeking and independent from God. And to make this one of our lifestyle values will make us distinctive. But as soon as we compromise, like Dead Sea salt of the kind that contains more gypsum than real salt, that distinctive ‘flavour’ is lost. The people of the world have little respect for those who ‘talk the talk’ but do not ‘walk the walk’, however many religious titles or liturgical complexities they juggle.
The Spirit-filled believers of the Early Church had two things going for them that no one else had. They knew peace with God through Jesus, and assurance of their salvation. And they had the Holy Spirit’s leading to discern God’s will and draw faith from that, and then prayerfully see situations change for the better. Sick people became well. They helped each other stay free from the grip of sin. And they had the capacity to see circumstances changed through faithful prayer.
But in James’ teaching on this, there is an important thread we must recognise. There is a connection between dealing with sin issues, and seeing prayers answered.
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.James 5:14-16
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
Here we see clearly the two ideas connected: The first thing is to “Confess your sins to each other”. Then “pray for each other so that you may be healed”. James reinforces this by continuing: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
What is a righteous person? The Bible is clear that a righteous person is defined by faith, not by good deeds; all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. The other side of the coin is, that faith in Jesus Christ gives us an avenue to cancel out our sinful acts and attitudes as they arise, and that faith is what we live by, now counted as righteous people, whose works will show the good fruit of that relationship (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:22; James 2:24). So being aware of sin and dealing with it, is a vital part of maintaining the right standing with Jesus as Lord — enabling us to pray with power and effect in His Name.
Whichever way we look at it — the merciful providence of God when we rely on Him, our diligence on making the kind of choices that Jesus would make, and in the strength of that partnership and good standing, making a difference through our prayer — we are given the choice of two similar, but divergent tracks in life.
There’s the independent track (not recommended, many difficulties, but we can walk it in our own way) and there’s the life-giving track, where we need to keep in step with Jesus but we are assured of His companionship and help. That’s choosing life.