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You Shall Not Murder

February 28, 2024; Rev. Kurt A. Lantz, Pastor
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Called to Preserve Life

If there was a poll asking the public who is the greatest murderer of all time, what do you think the answer would be? I don’t usually do well with public opinion polls, perhaps because I don’t usually align with popular thought, but I had an idea of who it might be. I checked my computer search engine to confirm and yes, Adolf Hitler, the infamous leader of the Nazi Socialist Party, was the first hit. He was the architect of the Jewish Holocaust associated with World War II. But reading past the initial sentence the given answer suggested that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin likely killed more people than Hitler did, and that both of them were clearly outdone by the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong.


We acknowledge that none of these three actually committed all of the murders, but we do hold them responsible nonetheless. They arranged for the executions to happen. They made the decrees and gave the orders that others had to follow. They planned for the extermination of millions of people. Throughout history there have been individuals like these for whom killing one person was not enough. The Book of Esther relates to us the account of one who tried to institute a similar campaign as Hitler, in order to exterminate the Jews from his land.


Haman was a court official in the kingdom of the Medes and Persians. When he walked through the gate of the palace, all of the king’s servants would bow down to him. But there was a Jew named Mordecai who hung out by the palace in order to watch over his cousin Esther who had been taken into the palace on account of her beauty, and had been made queen. Mordecai was concerned for her spiritual and physical well being in the pagan court. When all of the king’s servants at the gate would bow down to Haman as he entered. Mordecai would be the only one standing upright, refusing to bow down because of the First Commandment. He would bow down only before the LORD God.


The sight of this one man, a foreigner, standing at the palace gate not bowing to Haman while everyone else did, infuriated him. Haman used his high standing in the court and his favour among his own people to go to the king with a complaint: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, that they may put it into the king’s treasuries” (Esther 3:8-9). So Haman wrote a decree in the king’s name and sent it “to all the king’s provinces with the instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day,... and to plunder their goods” (3:13).


“When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry... And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes” (4:1,3). When Haman continued to see Mordecai at the king’s gate, still not bowing to him, but now also in sackcloth and ashes, he hated him all the more. He arranged for the personal execution of this man who vexed him so. He had a gallows built fifty feet high and planned to hang Mordecai on the gallows (5:14).


Some science fiction, time-travel fantasy shows explore the possibilities of going back in time to kill murderers before they execute their crimes. Would it be right to go back in time to kill Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Zedong before they could initiate their atrocities? Throughout the war in Ukraine, many people voiced the idea that someone should assassinate Russian President Vladamir Putin and stop his military invasion of Ukraine before more millions of lives are ended. The United States made a big point, strategically and with publicity, of hunting down and killing Osama Bin Laden, whom they credited with the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.


Mordecai was a regular fixture at the palace gate. He had Haman in his sights every day. Perhaps there were times when he contemplated some kind of an assassination plot in order to put an end to Haman’s planned genocide of the exiled Jews. But that is not what Mordecai did. That wasn’t the LORD’s plan. The Book of Esther tells us that it was the LORD Himself who visited justice upon Haman, by causing the king to have a sleepless night in which he looked over some historical reports and saw the accounts of Mordecai’s previous valiant behaviour in revealing a planned assassination of the king. Mordecai’s faithful carrying out of his vocation even as an exile under the rule of a foreign king, resulted in him being highly esteemed by the court, rather than executed by Haman.


Nevertheless, the Book of Esther is largely about the role that Esther plays to get the king to reverse the decree to exterminate the Jews, which Haman had made in the king’s name. She made use of the vocation God had given her in order to preserve the lives of her people. Her humble and faithful service to the king as his queen, made him willing to hear her plea on behalf of her people. The king’s love and respect for his faithful queen resulted in him granting her request to stop the genocide.


Neither Mordecai nor Esther initiated any assassination plot. They did not take matters into their own hands. They did not act outside of their vocations. They did not assume the vocation of the king in making the decisions that involved the judicial punishment of Haman. But they did everything within their power and vocation. Keeping the commandments is not only about what we refrain from doing, but also what we are called to do in the specific vocations that God has bestowed upon us. What are our callings and responsibilities as citizens, as family members, as the children of God?


Our reading for tonight was about Mordecai’s vocation as one of God’s people. He not only used the vocation God had given to him as a citizen to speak up for his people, but as we heard in the reading: along with fasting, and sackcloth and ashes, Mordecai prayed for the salvation of his people. Our spiritual disciplines as God’s children, which we highlight during the season of Lent, are the same as those of Mordecai and his fellow Jews in exile. We fast, we put on ashes, and we pray, not only for ourselves but also for others, particularly those who are suffering and in danger.


As God’s people, living under His commandment “You shall not murder,” God has not put us in vocations to take justice into our own hands, to kill in order to prevent killing. Those vocations have been given to others. God has given us vocations in which we can act to preserve life. We can be honourable and faithful citizens who gain the respectful hearing of members of the court and parliament. We can make our appeal to them on behalf of others who have no voice for themselves. And moreso, God has called us to pray to Him on behalf of our neighbours.


The act of justice is in His hands. We are not called to go back into history to try to change what has happened before. It is not our vocation to take things into our own hands to punish those whom we think need to be punished, or to assassinate those we think may cause too much suffering. These things are in God’s hands and He has called others to be His hands in such situations. Those are callings that belong to police, military, courts, and governments. My vocation is to pray for them and to make my appeal to them on behalf of my brothers and sisters.


It is the sinner’s plight that so often we neglect the vocation that God has given to us, including that of prayer, with a desire to take up the vocations that we have not been given. That does not only include those vocations which dispense justice, but we even want to seize the authority of the LORD God Himself. We want to be the ones to determine who gets to live—and who should die. And what a sorry job we would make of it. We are so sure of ourselves in our judgment of who is guilty and who is innocent, we see no reason why we haven’t been called to be judge, jury, and executioner all in one.


But the LORD’s justice requires more than we can give to such a calling. It requires knowing all of the facts of the case, not just one side. It requires a dispassionate resolve to deal with everyone and every situation according to justice alone, and at the same time it requires an incalculable passion to find a way to dispense mercy and grace. For in God’s justice no one living is righteous. There is not one (Romans 3). And yet He has mercy, forgiveness, and grace for all who are repentant, every single one.


I must confess that I don’t know if Hitler, Stalin, or Mao are in heaven or hell. I have nothing more than an informed guess based on their public actions and confessions as recorded history. But God would not be just if He allowed Jesus Christ to suffer and die for the sins of the world, and did not include the most renowned of murderers. Yet that forgiveness must be received by faith in the One through whom it was secured. There is nothing in the life or words of those three particular men that remotely indicates they wanted anything to do with the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus.


In the same incomprehensible nature of God’s justice and grace, I can be sure that I am going to be in heaven, even though I know how I have so often failed in my vocation to care for others, to plead for them to the governing authorities, to pray for them to the merciful God of heaven. The salvation that was secured for sinners through the sacrifice of God on the cross, has covered me. I don’t deserve that salvation but Christ has given it to me anyway. Similarly, many people have not done anything to deserve my prayers for their lives, and yet God has called me to pray and to plead for them. The Ten Commandments, including the Fifth, are God’s means of dispensing His justice. Yet He holds us and our faithfulness in such high regard, that He has called us to vocations in which we play a part in His justice and grace.

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