A Sermon for 30 September 2018
A reading from Esther 7:1-10 and 9:20-23. Listen for God’s word to us.
“So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. 4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” 6 Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. 7 The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. 8 When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face. 9 Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” 10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated. . . . Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. 23 So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Do you ever feel as if we are living in a time absolutely consumed by values unlike those of Christ? Maybe you look at the lives of neighbors or friends and wonder: what in the world drives them to do what they do? Perhaps you turn to the news and think: does anyone care any more about things like compassion, forgiveness, truth? If ever it seems like the world around us is like foreign territory, we can give thanks for the biblical reminders that we are not alone. Throughout the story of faith, God’s people have lived like aliens in another land. Doing their best to be who God needed them to be, no matter where they found themselves each day. From Abram and Sarai in Egypt, to the exiles in Babylon. To Jesus who was a young Jewish boy hiding out as a refugee in Egypt because of the foreign king of his land. The earliest stories of Christ’s movement remind us that Rome once fatally rejected Christ’s ways – not only killing Jesus, but later putting to death one of his most strident followers Paul, and scads of early Christians too. If we ever wonder how to be faithful in the midst of a world that lives and moves and values things quite unlike the ways of Christ, then taking a dip back into Scripture might lend some helpful clues.
For instance, consider the life of the great Queen Esther. Once orphaned by the death of her mother and father, young Esther was lucky enough to have a cousin who took her in. Though we often refer to him as Uncle Mordecai, he technically was a first cousin who adopted Esther to be his own. Orphaned children don’t always get a great shot in life. But Esther had one thing going for her and Mordecai seized upon it. A delight to the eyes, Esther was absolutely beautiful. It’s a bit of a harsh story – especially in light of the current climate of #Why I Didn’t Report. A drunken king is shamed before his kingdom when his Queen Vashti refuses to be summoned to the debauchery in order to be on display. To save face and keep every man – as Esther 1:22 reads: “master in his own house,” Queen Vashti is banished from ever again setting foot before the king. Stripped of her crown, the king demands another. It is then that Mordecai jumps into action. His reasoning being he and his people, the Jews, are aliens in a foreign land. Exiled by Babylonians, they eventually found themselves under Persian rule. After years of keeping themselves alive, Mordecai figures a beguiling queen who hides her Jewish identity could come in handy someday. Beautiful young Esther is sent to the palace. The story goes that she favors the king’s head eunuch so, that she rises in the ranks of King Ahasuerus’s harem. This is the point of the story when we really don’t wanna know all that Esther had to do. Scripture merely records that it is her beauty that deeply impresses the king during the times when she went in to see him. . . . Though no mention is made of God in the entire book of Esther, we have to wonder if Mordecai alone is running the show, or if Yahweh the Sovereign of the Universe was busy making a way where there seemed to be none. Esther – keeping her Jewish identity a secret – soon finds herself the new Queen of an empire stretching from India to Ethiopia!
It might be helpful for us to know that when the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah fell, the Assyrians took a divide-and-conquer approach to Israel – flinging their captives wide across the known world. Some from a tribe being sent there. Another being sent here. Still others, all the way over there. Years later, the Babylonians sent Judeans all together into foreign land. All the way from Jerusalem, they mourned the destruction of their lives, their land, their Temple. Psalm 46 poetically reminds what always eventually comes to be: “the nations are in an uproar,” the Psalmist writes. “The kingdoms totter . . . the earth melts” (Psalm 46:6). Which is pretty much what happened. The nation of Assyria rose. The nation of Assyria fell. The nation of Babylon rose. The nation of Babylon fell. The empire of Persia came to be. And it too would see the end of its mighty rule. . . . Kings of empires often are inflated. The stories of Scripture are full of leaders who are puffed up on themselves only eventually to fall. I guess being a successful invading emperor easily could leave one feeling they can do whatever they want. After all, if you think you’re at the top; who’s going to be around to tell you no?
The king of Persia was smart enough to know alliance matters. When someone warns you of an internal assignation plot, you make sure the one who saved your skin is favored. From all his time at the palace gate, old Mordecai hears that two eunuchs close to the king have grown angry enough to kill him. Mordecai gets word to Queen Esther who in turn lets King Ahasuerus know what’s in the works. When a new man rises to position number two next to the king, he doesn’t at all like that Mordecai refuses to bow before him. Deciding it’s beneath him to have Mordecai alone killed; Haman, the new number two to the king, sets his sights instead on annihilating all the Jews of the empire. . . . Scholars believe the book of Esther is a part of Scripture to explain how the Jewish festival of Purim came to be. According to one biblical commentator, “the purpose of the feast, actually two feasts, are to celebrate the rescue of the Jews from their wicked enemies, their escape from death that turned their ‘sorrow into gladness and . . . mourning into a holiday’ (Esther 9:22). This liturgical feast was to be made unique by its exuberant gladness, the sharing of gifts of food with one another, and the giving of presents to the poor” (Kathleen M. O’Conner, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 101). Such deliverance reminds of a brilliant quote we read this week in our new Book Group book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Author Rachel Held Evans writes: “My Jewish friends like to joke that you can sum up nearly every Jewish holiday with, ‘They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!’” (p. 40).
None of it would have come to pass if not for the courageous Queen Esther – who was smart enough to listen to the wise sage Mordecai when it came time to look beyond her own comfort to the salvation of her entire people. When Mordecai sends word to Esther to use her position as queen to plead for the lives of all the Jews, he’s eloquently quoted in Esther 4:14 as saying: “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Perhaps we are living in a world of such challenge as followers of Christ’s way, for such a time as this. Oh, we may not be beautiful queens of an ancient empires stretching the wide expanse of almost all the known world. But we are a people of immense privilege living in a land of incredible wealth. We have been gifted with positions in business and education and industries of service. We have the pleasure of living in relatively safe neighborhoods in comfortable homes with access to just about anything we could want. . . . I’ll never forget the words of another wise sage when I drove her from inner city Nashville to do a minute for mission in the church I was serving in Brentwood. As a student of Vanderbilt Divinity School who was serving on the staff at a church in subdivisions where corporate wealth was on the rise, it was common to hear fellow Div. School folk questioning if I cared at all for the plight of those in need – as if need only wears a face related to money. On our way to Brentwood for a minute for mission by Ms. Laura, the founder of the Luke 14:12 Feeding Program of Edgehill United Methodist Church; I’ll never forget the words she spoke to me. She said: “Jule, those crushed by poverty need others to speak for them to those who have the power to make a difference.” She encouraged me faithfully to follow wherever God sent me – no matter what anyone else might think. With Mordecai, she might as well have been reminding us, saying: “Who knows? Perhaps we have come to our positions in life for such a time as this.”
In the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther stuck to a doctrine of divided kingdoms – the realm of God and our station in this world as separately distinct from one another. John Calvin, the genius behind our Presbyterian thoughts and ways, believed there is no separation. As Christians, we are in this world to make an impact. Summarized beautifully in the Great Ends of the Church, the missional statements of the PCUSA proclaim, we are here as Christ’s Church for “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; (for) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; (for) the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and (for) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (PCUSA Book of Order 2017-2019, F-1.0304, p. 5).
Indeed, each one of us – wherever we go every week, we are needed for such a time as the one in which we find ourselves today. . . . Take heart, royal priesthood. Be brave, members of the household of God. The God of Jacob and Mordecai and Esther is with us! We are here, now, for just such a time as this!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit. Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)