By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: the Book of Esther
This morning I am continuing this current sermon series, looking at Hebrew bible stories and characters that are well-known and heroic. Today, we have – not a hero – but a heroine. Like last week, in order to provide a better context and foundation for the morning message, rather than reading a few verses of the story, I’ll be summarizing the whole story… much like I do when I tell the bible story at our monthly Fusions.
The Story of Esther opens in the court of the Persian King Ahasuerus. He is throwing a 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 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 chaos in the palace will result in chaos throughout the empire. So Vashti should be properly and promptly 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 becomes, well, 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, whoever pleases him most, will become the new queen. The rejects will remain as a part of his harem. Now, let me acknowledge that there is a lot about this story that is distasteful and misogynistic. There’s a lot about this story that didn’t make it into the Veggie Tales version… and for good reason.
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 cosmetic treatments. Esther, for her part, goes along with everything. Once again, troubling, but that’s the story.
When it comes Esther's time to "audition," so to speak, for the king, he is delighted with her and she becomes the new queen of Persia.
The scene shifts again… 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. Haman thinks quite a lot of himself. Mordecai, however, is not nearly so impressed. While other palace employees bow before Haman (the king's right-hand man), Mordecai does not. He refuses and such disrespect drives Haman nearly mad with rage. And, in his rage, he makes a 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 fear. He tells the king that these Jewish people are different from other people; they have different laws. They separate themselves from other people and disregard the king. Certainly the Jewish people were different and did have distinctive commandments from God. But, they have been living peaceably among the other inhabitants of the Persian Empire and the Jew Mordecai has 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 Jews. Anyone who may like may slaughter them – even their women and children. They are to be exterminated.
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. Esther is in a quandary for, not even the queen can approach the king unless she has been summoned. But her cousin Mordecai's words of wisdom compel her to act. He says (in Esther 4, verses 13-14): "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, Esther agrees to take the risk. She will approach the king unsummoned – a transgression punishable by death. Fortunately, 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. Within her culture, 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 do them honor. 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, still incensed by Mordecai's failure to bow before him, 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 perhaps, could the Almighty be at work in all this tossing and turning? He summons servants to bring him books of the royal archives. If that wouldn't put you to sleep, I don't know what would. But, the king reads until dawn, at which time he comes across the story of Mordecai the Jew who foiled a plot to assassinate the king. King Ahasuerus notices that there is no record of Mordecai having received a reward for his 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 horse. 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 is the climax of this tale of the unlikely heroine, Esther the Jewish Queen of Persia.
The story of Esther is unusual for a multitude of reasons. For one thing, the book itself never so much as mentions God’s name. It is, in a certain sense, a quite secular story that bears striking resemblance to stories from other ancient Near Eastern cultures. It also features a very unusual leading character. Esther would be, by our modern standards, considered oppressed and marginalized. She is a woman in a man’s world and makes no attempt to challenge this misogynistic culture. She is a foreigner who does not even acknowledge her ethnic identity until her back is pushed to the wall. She is, quite understandably, a reluctant hero.
But that is, perhaps, what makes her so sympathetic and relatable. I mean, some bible characters hear God speak to them in an audible voice and see vivid signs to accompany their call from God. But, for most of us, it’s never that clear, right? I mean; I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time in prayer asking God if he could just be a little clearer, a little more specific. My prayer life is characterized by a lot of “perhaps.” Perhaps God wants me to go here and do this. But perhaps, God is calling me to go there and do that. How on earth can I know for sure? Well, welcome to Esther’s world; a world framed by the great theological “perhaps.” It is the only direction her cousin Mordecai can give with certainty: Perhaps you have come into these circumstances for just such a time as this.
As I’ve already mentioned, Esther is also marginalized by her culture and her circumstances. Now one thing I don’t want to communicate this morning is the message that God wants you in a vulnerable position or that God has ordained you to be marginalized. That is not the message of scripture or of the Book of Esther and it is certainly not my message. But here’s my question: how many times have some of us thought to ourselves that, we’d like to make a difference, but we doubt our own power or influence. So here is what I want to say this morning. Esther is clear proof that all of us, no matter how humble our circumstances, have the capacity to exercise influence and that perhaps, just perhaps, we can use that influence to protect and preserve the lives of others. If we are creative, if we are imaginative, if we are courageous, all of us can carve out a space of influence around us. Esther took a risk when she asked to see the king. But it was a calculated risk. She knew his fondness for her. And when he asked what she desired of him, she proceeded with caution. Was it manipulative? Maybe; it was certainly clever. But it did him no harm. In fact, all that she did ultimately honored the king.
I suspect that, far too often, we become aware and slightly uncomfortable with the awareness that something in our immediate surroundings isn’t as it ought to be. Something isn’t right; isn’t just. But we downplay our own ability to make a difference. Until we hear the holy “perhaps.” Look a little more closely. Perhaps being where you are, who you are, affords you the opportunity to exercise a distinctive kind of influence. Maybe others have told you that your influence is limited in some way by gender or ethnicity or marital status, or age, or sexual identity, or physical ability, or mental condition. And that status may be true and accurate. But why would that limit you? Perhaps it is the very thing that will allow you to act in a way that will protect and preserve the lives of others who are waiting for your voice, who are waiting for you to act decisively on their behalf.
Again, some of you may feel that something happened in your life that made you a victim and robbed you of your influence and your voice. And it may well be that what happened to you was painful and humiliating and certainly not the will of God. But what will you do now? Will you hang back and lie low? Perhaps God can use you; who you are and where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced to be a voice for others.
That is part of what Trinity’s Caring Fund is about. Many of you know that, we try very hard these days not to simply make out checks for assistance and mail them off and send folks on their way. Rather, we try to engage people in our church and community. We try to help them identify other resources, things they can do, tasks they can accomplish that empower them because, even in the midst of difficult and challenging circumstances, there is always a holy “perhaps.” God can work within us and through us regardless of who we are and where we have been.
Now there is just a bit more to the Esther story that I did not tell this morning; a final act in the drama. Haman is not the only one punished and put to death. For when Mordecai and Esther gain power and influence, when the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak, they seek revenge on anyone who in anyway threatened or oppressed them and hundreds of people are slaughtered by the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. And so, despite her heroism, the story of Esther still ends with brutality and, in that regard, it is a cautionary tale to be balanced against last Sunday’s story of Jonah. Esther is a cautionary tale and it is more than the name of God that is absent from this story. God’s mercy and grace are absent as well. And so it reminds us that, when we find our circle of influence, when we find our voice, when we speak out and speak up, we must be cautious about protecting and preserving life and not merely taking revenge.
A more godly and righteous response was provided by Nelson Mandela – a man with many ties to Methodism, I might add – when he was released from decades of captivity and cruelty under apartheid in South Africa. Mandela could have presented a call to arms and savage revenge. But he called for healing and reconciliation. He found a way to stand firm for equality without subjugating others and destroying his enemies. Asked not long after his release if he was too forgiving, Mandeal replied, “[People] of peace must not think about retribution or recriminations. Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”[i]
So friends, this morning’s story of Esther reminds us that God is present in all of our stories whether we acknowledge God’s presence or not. And at some point in time, some circumstance in life will undoubtedly present us with our own holy “Perhaps…” What about you? Perhaps you have come into your current life’s circumstances for just such a time as this. Perhaps where and who you are presents an opportunity that others may not have. Perhaps God is calling you to speak up and speak out to defend the lives of others. And, if we are creative and careful, we can defend the lives of others by promoting peace and not destruction. Are you aware of your circle of influence and how where you are and who you are could be used by God to preserve the lives of others? Perhaps you are being called for just such a time as this.
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