Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Mark 9:38-50
For the last several weeks we have been exploring what it is that makes church relevant in this day and age and in particular what makes this church so compelling.
Last week we reflected upon how this faith community can help shape us; this week I’d like us to think about how we can help shape the world.
But before we begin, Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
Let me begin with a question. Am I mistaken to assume that most of us here are rather unfamiliar with the Book of Esther? That most of us don’t know its whole story? Have never read through its pages? Is that fair to say?
No need to look sheepish if that is the case. The Book of Esther is really not that well known in the Christian community. Tucked into the Hebrew Scriptures between Nehemiah and Job, the Book of Esther is rather odd. It is quite distinct from all the other books of the Bible. For it is the only book in the Bible that does not contain any explicit religious or ethical teaching. In fact, there is no direct reference to or mention of God at all.
But what the book of Esther does have is intrigue. It is a tale deception and indulgence, of murderous plots and counterplots and the burning question, “Can good [people] find a fruitful place in a depraved, conniving and confining world?”
Actually come to think of it, the Book of Esther reads more like a chapter from the Hunger Games than from the Bible. I would not be surprised if author Suzanne Collins had the Book of Esther in mind when she wrote that wildly popular young adult series.
So let’s turn now to this Book of Esther and let me catch you up on all that has been transpired before the passage that was read for us today. The story opens with the Persian King Ahasuerus of Susa throwing an extravaganza of a party for all the big shots of the kingdom. In vivid descriptions, the text sets the scene of over the top opulence and excess. The party lasts for over one hundred and eighty days. “Drinking was by flagons without restraint” (1:8). In the middle of it all is the King, who seems far more concerned with having a good time and looking good to those around him than looking out for the good of his subjects. In fact it is his self serving pompousness that sets the plot in motion. The text says that when he was quite merry with wine he decided to show off in front of the powerful gathered around him and so he summoned the Queen in to the banquet hall instructing her that she was to wear her crown. She flatly refuses and Jewish scholarship says that the reason she refused to come is because the King insisted that she come wearing nothing but her crown. The queen’s refusal to play her husband’s game and refusal to sacrifice her dignity, is the first hint of the countervailing current of integrity and authenticity that will fully played out later in the story.
But the King cannot see anything redeeming in her actions. He is incensed by her defiance and immediately strips her of her title and sends her away. Then before her crown is even cold, the King decides to hold a kingdom wide beauty pageant, sending out his advisors to all corners of the provinces to bring back the most beautiful young women that they can find, so that he can pick a new wife and Queen from among them.
And these royal beauty scouts find Esther.
Now Esther was an orphan who was being raised by her uncle Mordecai. Esther and Mordecai are Jews. Mordecai’s grandparents were taken into exile like thousands of other Jews by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar upon the fall of Jerusalem. Two generations later, Mordecai is now rather assimilated to Persian life. While holding his Jewish heritage important to himself he holds it privately and instructs Esther to do the same. He instructs her to try to fit in as best she can. It turns out that fitting in is not hard for Esther because in a court that values superficialities, Esther’s beauty quickly lands her in the Kings favor. She will be quite a prize for him to display. So Esther becomes queen, takes up her place within the Persian court all the while hiding her Jewish identity.
But court as we have seen is a place of the capricious use and abuse of power. Instability and danger lurk around each corner, one has to be on ones toes. And so it happens. One day Haman, the King’s chief advisor, who is used to having everyone in the kingdom bow down to him out of respect for his office comes across Esther’s uncle Mordecai. And Mordecai does not bow to him, for as a Jew, Mordecai will not bow down to anyone or anything except God almighty. That is the line in the sand for him. Again in a response of profound narcissism, Haman is so furious by what he sees as Mordecai’s disrespect that he connives a plot that results in the King issuing a decree that on a certain day not just Mordecai but all the Jews in the Kingdom will be killed. Haman is so pleased with himself for having manipulated the King to secure the outcome he wanted, that he rushes home and has a seventy foot high scaffold built where he personally plans on hanging Mordecai.
Now when Mordecai hears of the plot against his life and against the life of the Jewish people he is grief stricken. He tells Esther that she must not hide who she is any longer. The time has come when she must go before the King and entreat the King on behalf of her people. Now in this court, it is a capital offense to approach the King unbidden. Esther will take her life in her hands if she goes to the King unsought. But she does, she goes to the King. She is courageous, but she is no fool.
Esther is cleaver, she goes to the King not to directly make her entreaty but instead to invite him to a banquet that she is preparing for the King and for Haman his top advisor.
This is where the passage for today picks up. Esther’s calculations pay off. The King accepts her invitation to dine. His ego and appetite are bigger than the offense of Esther’s boldness. Esther throws this lavish banquet and the King is so delighted that he says he will grant whatever her petition may be. So Esther steps out as a Jew and tells the King that she and her people are going to be “destroyed, slain and annihilated!” And that while this is devastating to her, it will also be a big loss for the King and he ought to be concerned about that.
The King is shocked at this news and asks who is it that is going to do this terrible thing. Esther turns to Haman who has been her guest at this special feast with the King and tells the King, it is he! The King is furious and orders Haman hung on the very gallows Haman built for Mordecai. The plot to kill all the Jews is thwarted. Esther and Mordecai are hailed as heroes and a festival, a festival of Prium is called to celebrate the people’s deliverance from death.
Whew, what a story. There are actually another couple of twists in the plot that I did not tell you so you’ll have to pick up the book tonight and give it a read. The book of Esther is undeniably a compelling story but why include it in the Bible? What is the relevance of this story to a life of faith? The story in the book of Ester is primarily a story about people trying to get by in a mixed up crazy world. This is a story where the presence of God seems so strikingly absent.
Well maybe the absence of an overt presence of God is precisely why it is included. Esther and Mordecai are living a long way away from Jerusalem, a long way from the dwelling place of the God of Israel. They are dwelling in a land ruled by empire and characterized by capricious use and abuse of power. They are trying to strike that balance of holding onto what is true and formative for them but cloaking that in an effort to fit in and assimilate to the culture around them. Esther allows herself to be wrapped in Persian fineness, to be dressed up and held up as someone other than who she fully is. And for a while that is OK. It works for her and it works for her Uncle.
To a large degree I believe that is exactly what we as people of faith are doing in this day and age as well. We may hold our relationship with God dear but we hold it quietly, privately. It’s is not something we talk about much outside of these walls. After all we too are trying to get by in a mixed up crazy world.
But there comes a choice point. There was one for Vashi, and Mordecai and most especially for Esther as well. There comes a time when the gravity of the injustice around her moves her from accommodation to confrontation. She cannot keep her convictions hidden any longer. She no longer can be complicit by her silence. And so she speaks. She acts, and when she does the waiting, watching, hovering presence of God rushes. For as H. James Hopkin writes in his commentary on this passage though “God is not named, God can still be known.” The presence of God is evidenced in this story in how “the humble are lifted up and the haughty brought down;” in how “the experience of Ester’s people was turned “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday.”
It is too bad, I think, that this book does not get much attention within our Christian tradition, because I think that it has the power to speak to our reality so keenly. For unlike the disciples in the Gospel who had God in flesh and blood in front of them helping them sort out who was with them and who was against them. Helping them see first hand what happens when God’s way and the way of Empire collide. Helping them see the spark of transformation that such collision can contain. They had Jesus pointing all of this out for them but it is not so clear for us. Sometimes, we can feel on out there on our own. Sometimes God seems very distant and the Way difficult to discern. Especially in those disorienting times when the values and actions of those shaping our society and culture may be vastly different than our own.
So perhaps the book of Esther is included in the bible in order to help us find a way to step into the story we live today. Will we have the conviction and courage to step out and confront when the abuses of power threaten those things we hold most dear? Will we step out from the cloak of assimilation, of fitting in and getting by, of even reaping benefits from empire? Will we find our voice and our footing? Will we stand for what God stands for?
I believe that what makes church relevant and this church so compelling is that we gather for healing, inspiration, fellowship and love, not just to help us be our most authentic selves and not just to help us learn how we are to be with each other but ultimately so that we can find and act out of the courage to stand in that place of where our convictions and the reality of the world collide and to move with God’s grace to spark the change that is needed.
So let’s return to the question the book of Esther raises. Can good people find a fruitful place in a depraved, conniving and confining world? Absolutely! But maybe it is more than a place. Maybe it is a presence. A presence that calls forth an in breaking of the life giving, justice bringing, world changing presence of God. Amen.