Christmas and Purim
Galatians 4:4 - "When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman. . . ."
Jesus was born right on time.
In our culture, a lot of attention is paid to the passing of time. We run our lives according to the marking of time on a clock. This has become especially noticeable as we approach the end of the year and the millennium. Of course the purists among us are correct in pointing out that we're celebrating the end of the millennium a year too early. Besides that, if we think that the year 2,000 means that Jesus was born 2,000 years ago, we're mistaken again. We now know that Herod, the king who tried to kill the Baby Jesus, himself died 2,004 years ago. So we've already been in the year 21st century for at least three or four years - and we missed the party!
It's interesting to me that when Paul wrote this letter, and made mention of the birth of Jesus, he used this particular word for "time". You see, there are two words to choose from: "kairos" is the word for time which has to do more with seasons. For instance, when talking about the harvest, this word is used because the time for harvest can't be scheduled. Rather, it's a season which comes whenever a variety of conditions have been fulfilled. But Paul uses the other word, "chronos", from which we get our word "chronological". This has to do with a more exact understanding of time, the measurement of minutes, hours, days weeks, months and years. And that's the one that we're very preoccupied with.
When Paul wrote about the coming of Jesus, he understood that God had a schedule, and Jesus was right on time. We may have lost track of it - we don't really know the exact time of Jesus' birthday. Why is that? It's because the early Christians were far more impressed with His death than His birth.
We all know how important timing is. If the timing in your engine is off, it won't run right. If you're playing baseball, it's important to swing at the correct time - preferably around the time when the ball reaches the plate around waste high. This week I was talking with one our members about his son who has done very well with the pole vault. He understands it very well; he runs fast, plants the pole exactly where it's supposed to be, swings his hips to the sky, thrusts his body upward by the strength of his arms and shoulders. But if the timing is off, there's no way he'll even reach the bar, never mind go over it.
As I was thinking about this, my memory took me back to another example of God's impeccable sense of timing. It's an Old Testament story where we see clearly the battle between the forces of righteousness and the destructive powers of evil, and because of God's perfect timing, there is victory. To this day, the Jewish people celebrate this victory in a holiday that goes by the name "Purim".
Of course you might expect that if we're going to talk about a Jewish holiday at this time of year, we should talk about Chanukah, the "festival of lights" that was just celebrated. However, the festivals of Purim and Christmas have some interesting commonalties. For example, we celebrate Christmas during the last, or 12th month of our calendar year. Purim is celebrated during the 12th month of the Jewish religious calendar. In the same way as we give gifts to one another, to the poor, and to the church, so also do Jews who observe Purim.
The name "Purim" is the Hebrew word for "lots" - the story it recounts is the story of an evil man who decided the date of the Jewish annihilation by tossing the dice. The date chosen was the twelfth month, and the thirteenth day (perhaps why the number 13 is believed by many be unlucky).
But God had a plan which would cancel out the intended evil, a plan which had been put into motion many years earlier.
Here's how it all began.
The King of ancient Persia, the ruler of the then-known civilized world, threw a party that would go down in history as the mother of all parties. It lasted for six months while people from all over his kingdom traveled to the capitol city to see the wealth and splendor of this great empire. At the end of that time, a seven day banquet was held in the most beautiful setting, complete with an open bar. On the seventh day of the banquet, the King wanted his beautiful Queen to entertain his guests with her beauty, but she refused to do so - perhaps the first recorded feminist, not willing to "strut her stuff" solely for the viewing pleasure of drunken, lustful men.
Of course Vashti's refusal angered the King, who was cultured in the pagan, and foolish way of thinking that women were the mere property of their men. His all-male advisors were very concerned that their own wives would stop serving them like slaves, so they talked the King into demoting his Queen and banning her from his presence. These advisors then crafted a legally binding proclamation, to be translated and sent to all 127 provinces declaring that "every man should be ruler over his own household." (Esther 1:22) Please remember that this was a "Persian" King, and a "Persian" law. The Biblical view of the woman's is so much higher, placing husbands and wives in partnership with each other, not as "lord" and "slave."
You know the story well - a new Queen was chosen by means of a massive, beauty contest which took years to complete. The choice was Esther. But during the six month party thrown by the King, the Jews living in the capitol city forsook their convictions, joined in the party, even to the exclusion of the Passover which happened to coincide with the 7 day closing banquet conducted by the King.
We don't have time here to recite the entire story, but it seems Mordecai, cousin to the queen, refused to bow down to honor the king's number one, right hand man, Haman. But this is where it gets interesting. This man, who as a measure of revenge against Mordecai, put into motion the plan to annihilate the Jews - this man Haman was a direct descendant of the Amalekite king Saul had refused to kill in direct disobedience to the command given through the prophet Samuel. On the other hand, Esther is a direct descendant of king Saul.
Haman, letting his new found power go to his head, decided to not only punish Mordecai, but sought for a way to destroy all of his people, the Jews. But he had no idea that the King's new, beautiful young Queen was also a Jew. Haman got his way with the King, securing an edict for destruction. It was then that Mordecai sent his challenging request to his cousin, asking her to risk everything to go before the King and intercede on behalf of her people. On the last day of a three day fast, Esther did as she was requested, and the King received her. To indicate just how urgent she felt about the situation, Esther invited the King and Haman to a banquet to be held that very same day, even though she herself could not participate due to her fast. That's why she invited them to the second dinner the next day, and at that time Haman's wicked plot was uncovered. He was defeated, Mordecai was exalted, and a new decree was written giving the Jews the right to defend themselves from their enemies. So on the 13th day of the twelfth month the Jews won victory over their enemies, and celebrated their victory during the next two days, what is now known as the feast of Purim, one of the most festive Jewish holidays. The day before Purim is called "the Fast of Esther", in remembrance of Esther's request of the Jews of the city of Shushan to fast for her before she went before the king. On the eve of Purim, the Book of Esther is read. While the reading is going on, every time the name "Haman" is mentioned, those present make as much noise as possible, to "boo" the evil character in the story.
Today Jews celebrate Purim by dressing up in costumes. Traditionally, they wore costumes of Queen Esther and Mordecai, but today anything goes. On Purim, it is traditional to send "goody bags" consisting of cookies and candies to friends and relatives, as well as the giving gifts to the poor, in order to commemorate the brotherly love and unity which Mordecai and Esther awoke among all Jews (and, hopefully, will stir among us).
Another less known custom associated with Purim is the giving of the "half shekel" at the synagogue just prior to the reading of the story. This money is designated for the needy. (This tradition is derived from a more ancient one found in the Torah. Exodus XXX 1-16 describes how half a shekel was collected from the Israelites in order to take a census of the adult male warriors. In the days of the Temple, a half shekel was donated during the month of Adar as an annual tax to pay for the purchase of communal sacrifices brought to the altar.).
In his request to Esther, Mordecai invokes one of the most important teachings in Judaism - "Every Jew is responsible for every other Jew." When John teaches "We ought to lay down our lives for the brethren", he was teaching the same principle for Christians.
But what's this "just in time" (JIT) message? Hear what Mordecai writes in his message to the queen, appealing to her to take action.
"For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14)
You see, there was God's part, and there was Esther's part. God took care of the larger picture, making sure Esther was in the right place at the right time. Esther only had to risk her life to wisely approach the king, and intercede on behalf of her people.
In the field of industry today there is an operating principle called "JIT", "Just In Time". What this means is that factories want to receive the raw materials they need right when they need them. They don't want to have to provide warehouse space. Then once the parts are manufactured, they want to have them delivered to the assembly plant right when they're needed there. All this is very complicated, and that's why we've become so dependent on computers, and one reason there's been a concern about the possible problems with the date change from 1999 to year 2000. But let me tell you the obvious, heaven has no computers - none are needed. God is a God of "JIT". Furthermore, he created the minds of the men who create the computers. God sent His Son "for such a time as this" - "in the fullness of time"
Right now the "Haman" of this world is plotting to destroy your soul. In fact, the edict has already been signed, and the Judgment Day has been set. But God set a plan in motion for Someone to plead on your behalf. This One also risked, no actually gave, His life so that He would be qualified to go before the King with His request. The request has been granted, a new edict has been sent forth, and for all who believe, the evil forces bent on your destruction have been defeated and will be annihilated.
Jewish tradition holds that the Feast of Purim will be the only festival that survives throughout all eternity. The feast of the Persian King lasted 180 days - the feast of heaven will go on forever. I don't know about you, but I intend on being there.