I love scripture. But, I have to confess that, sometimes, I also find the stories of our scriptures frustrating. It seems to me that God communicated a lot more clearly to those bible characters than he does to me. They saw visions and had angelic encounters. God promised them very specific signs and he delivered. Now, that's not to say that I'm not aware of places where God is moving in my life. But, sometimes when I am struggling with a decision, I wish God would deliver his answer in such a blatantly obvious fashion that I just couldn't miss it.
Well, if you ever share my frustration, then this morning's Old Testament story of Esther might be encouraging for you. Now, if you've never read the book of Esther – don't feel embarrassed. Esther – like the Book of Revelation – only just barely made it into the bible. The reason? The book of Esther doesn't mention God a single time. However, the fact that God's name isn't mentioned in Esther doesn't mean that God isn't at work in Esther.
Now, before we get into the story, I want to give you a little background to provide the context for our story. Last week I preached about King David. Under David, Israel and Judah are united in a strong, cohesive monarchy. But, David's son, Solomon, so embitters his subjects that, shortly after his death the kingdom is split in two. Later the ten northern tribes of Israel are conquered by the nation of Assyria. But, the southern tribes of Judah manage to hold their own until they are overrun by Babylon. Babylon trashes Jerusalem and they take the brightest and best of the Jewish people away into captivity. Now, no doubt, life in Babylon posed challenges for the Jewish people. But apparently, some of the Jews adjusted well to life in this foreign culture and land. Later, when the nation of Persia defeated Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland. But some chose to remain where they were. And that brings us to this morning's story – the story of Esther. Esther is a young Jewish woman living outside her Jewish homeland – living within the vast Persian Empire. Now, if you dislike history and you’ve checked out over these last couple minutes, here's your summary: Once Israel was its own mighty nation. But, at the time of Esther, the ruling world power is Persia and Jewish people have been dispersed throughout the Middle East.
And so the story of Esther begins…
The king of Persia is named Ahasuerus. He is throwing a grand party for his officials and advisors and, as the party progresses and he becomes drunk, he sends for his queen – who is elsewhere entertaining the ladies in a more proper lady's fashion, we assume. However, Queen Vashti – for a reason we do not know – denies the king's request and refuses to appear. The king becomes enraged and consults his advisors about what he should do. They remind him that insubordination in the palace will result in chaos throughout the empire. So, if men are to remain in control of their households, Vashti should be properly punished. And she is. She is banished and a royal decree is sent out throughout the kingdom that "each man should be master of his own house."
Scene 2: Some time passes and the king has grown lonely. New advisors suggest that he summon all the virgins throughout his empire. They are to be brought to the palace, where they will spend an entire year undergoing a regiment of beauty treatments. Then, one by one, they will have one night with the king and, whichever virgin pleases him most, will become the new queen. Now, this part of the story is, obviously, distasteful to us today. But, it was a different world and different times.
Among the young ladies summoned to the palace is Esther. When Esther's parents died, she was adopted by an older cousin, Mordecai. Mordecai is already employed within the palace. And, for a reason we do not know, although everyone is aware that Mordecai is Jewish, no one seems to be aware that Esther is Jewish. Now Esther is, apparently, a lovely young lady, and, upon her arrival at the palace, the king's assistant immediately begins to favor her. He gives her the best food and the best cosmetic treatments. And, he moves her to the head of the class, so to speak. When it comes Esther's time to "audition," shall we say, for the king, he is delighted with her and she becomes the new queen of Persia.
Next scene… Now, the story focuses on Esther's cousin, Mordecai. Mordecai is a faithful servant of the king and, on one occasion, he uncovers a palace coup. He reports the assassination plot to the king, via his cousin Esther. Although the king is grateful, he fails to reward Mordecai for his loyalty… A fact which will become critical as the story unfolds.
Second in command to the king is a man named Haman. Now, don’t get lost in our character list here. We have the king, Ahasuerus; his new queen, Esther; her cousin and the king’s advisor, Mordecai; and the king’s #2, Haman. Now Haman thinks quite a lot of himself. Mordecai, however, is not nearly so impressed. While other palace employees bow before Haman, Mordecai does not. He refuses and such insolence drives Haman nearly mad with rage. And in his rage, he makes a vengeful decision. Since he knows that Mordecai is a Jew, he decides that he will respond to his insubordination by exterminating the entire Jewish population. This he can do, of course, only with the king's approval.
So Haman approaches the king, dishing out half-truths designed to appeal to the king's ego and incite fearful self-preservation. He tells the king that these Jewish people are different; they have different laws. They separate themselves from other people and they disregard the king. Now, certainly the Jewish people were different and did have distinctive commandments that God had given them. But, they have been living peaceably among the other inhabitants of the Persian Empire and this Jew Mordecai has obviously demonstrated great loyalty to the king. Nevertheless, Haman's speech – and a rather large bribe – secures the king's approval for a day of slaughter. Haman may send out a decree throughout the empire that, on the 13th day of the month of Adar, it will be open season on the Jewish people. Anyone who may like may slaughter them – even their women and children.
When the decree is posted, Mordecai is devastated. He dresses in sackcloth and ashes and sits outside the palace gate weeping and fasting. Word of his behavior reaches Esther who, at this point, knows nothing of the decree. She summons a servant to approach Mordecai who relays the message of their impending doom. Furthermore, Mordecai advises Esther that she had better do something. But Esther is in a quandary for, not even the queen can approach the king unless she has been summoned. Still her cousin Mordecai's words of wisdom compel her to act. He says: "Do not think that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this relief and deliverance for the Jews will rise from another quarter. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."
And so, Queen Esther agrees to take the ultimate risk. She will approach the king unsummoned – a transgression punishable by death. However, she is lucky and the king gladly receives her into his presence. Such a bold move, he can only assume, means she has a request to make of him. And he invites her to make her request known. But Esther is quite clever. She does not reveal her hand too quickly. She is an astute student of her culture. A culture in which, one of lesser station first begins by making small requests of those in a superior position. In doing so, they demonstrate their trust in their superior and honor them. So, Esther's initial request is that she be allowed to prepare a dinner for the king and Haman. That Esther would want to be in Haman's presence is a shock! But, perhaps this is an example of the adage: "keep your friends close and your enemies closer." Meanwhile, Haman continues to be incensed by Mordecai's failure, still, to bow before him and so, at his wife's suggestion, Haman erects a gallows on which Mordecai the Jew shall be hung to death.
We're brought to another scene. It is night time and the king is suffering from insomnia. Is it indigestion? Or could the Almighty be at work in this tossing and turning? Wide awake in the middle of the night, he summons servants to bring him books containing the royal archives. If that wouldn't put you to sleep, I don't know what would. But, the king is awake reading until dawn, at which time he comes across the story of Mordecai who foiled a plot to assassinate the king. King Ahasuerus notices that there is no record of Mordecai having received a reward for this good deed. About this time, Haman shows up for work. The king summons him and asks this question: "What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?" Haman, always full of himself, thinks the king is referring to him. So he suggests that the one the king wishes to honor should be clothed in royal garments and paraded through the city streets on a royal steed. Imagine how flabbergasted Haman is when he is instructed to do just that for his arch-enemy Mordecai.
Haman returns home with his tail tucked between his legs and shortly thereafter, he is summoned for the royal feast with the king and queen. As they dine, Esther finally makes her request known. She wonders if the king might spare her people whose lives have been sold and whose extermination is about to come to pass. The king, in his usual thick-headed fashion, wonders how this has come about. Duh. Esther points the finger at his right-hand man, Haman. Haman is seized with fear. The king, angry and clearly frustrated, takes a walk around the palace to clear his head. Meanwhile Haman, utterly distraught, proceeds to throw himself at Esther's feet and beg for his life. When the king returns he sees Haman throwing himself at Esther and assumes that he has added insult to injury by making a pass at the queen. Enraged, the king, under suggestion by a eunuch, has Haman put to death on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai.
And that, my friends, is the conclusion of this remarkable biblical tale.
As I mentioned before, the fact that God's name is absent from the story of Esther does not mean that God is absent; for it appears that God has set the stage perfectly at each step along the way so that his chosen people will be preserved and protected.
Yet God’s work is not demonstrated through some kind of miraculous, supernatural intervention. Rather, God appears to be at work through his people. Old Testament scholar Tom Dozeman says of this story: "The reader [of Esther] is given no easy clues to uncover divine action or motive in the events of the book. No prophets enter the story to tell us what God is thinking, and there is not an all-knowing narrator to link heaven and earth for us. Instead, we are only allowed to see the events unfold." In fact, we observe the inward struggle of a young Jewish girl in response to her wise cousin's question: "Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this." Who knows? Esther does not know for sure. She must determine if the risk is worth taking. She must determine where God may be leading her; her: a powerless young girl in a man’s world. But, although from her perspective, the risk may appear to be huge, God is faithful and working behind the scenes. The king's sleepless night insures that Mordecai will be honored, rather than executed. And, as I queried before, is it just mere coincidence that the king has a restless night? If you, like me, have ever awakened in the night with someone on your mind, knowing in a way that can't be explained, that they are in need of your prayers… Well, perhaps the king's insomnia is not so happenstance, not so random.
The bottom line is this, my friends… We cannot always know with certainty what is accidental, what is coincidental, and what is God at work. But we can decide to live as people who are willing to take risks – willing to step out in faith: to say what must be said, to do what should be done. Risking protocol and even our own security to do what is loving and just and right. And trusting that God, in whatever way God chooses, will be at work through you and me and all of his people – in all times and places. Who knows but that you are hearing God’s call this very day? Who knows but that God has placed you where you are so that his deliverance and faithfulness might be made known to others through you? Who knows how God will use you and whatever small sphere of influence you might have? Who knows? God knows. So, trust in him and step out in faith.
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