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Esther: For Such a Time as This?

Filed under: Writings of the people — Pastor Jeff at 4:49 pm on Sunday, September 24, 2017

A sermon Preached by Tracy Booth on September 24th, 2017 based upon the Book of Esther


Good morning. I am your sister-in-Christ Tracy Booth, and I am a sinner saved by grace. I am here today to talk about my favorite Old Testament story, Esther, and something that has been on my mind and in my heart for a while. I am not a trained professional, I don’t have a background in theology or Biblical studies, and I am not an official lay leader of the church. Everything that I am going to say today, except for the parts where I’m quoting or paraphrasing someone who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, is my opinion for you to consider…or not. But you all are my family, and I know you will give me the benefit of the doubt, so I want to thank you for that in advance and tell you that I will do my best not to let you down.

The passage that Bob read for us this morning comes from the Book of Esther, one of only two books out of the 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New to be named for a woman (the other is Ruth, which is earlier in the Old Testament). Esther is only ten chapters long, and comes right before the significantly longer and much more often-referenced Book of Job, which is 42 chapters long. The story takes place in Persia, which is now Iran, where the king is a man named Xerxes – though this is a rough translation of other names from Greek and Hebrew. I mention this because there is historical and archaeological evidence that King Xerxes really did rule Persia from approximately 486 to 465 B.C., but beyond that, scholars can only speculate whether the events of Esther actually took place. Esther reads more like a dramatic story than a historical account, but the events are considered so significant to the Jewish people that there is an entire holiday dedicated to its reenactment. It’s called Purim, and it’s celebrated in the late Winter or early Spring. The entire book is read aloud, and listeners cheer for the good guy and hiss at the bad guy. (I’ve never been to a Purim celebration, but I’m hoping for an invite one day because I love this story.) I’m going to summarize it for you, primarily in my own words, but where I’m quoting scripture it will either be up on the screen, or I’ll use air quotes.

Chapter 1 begins with King Xerxes throwing a six-month-long party to show off his wealth to his nobles, officials, and military leaders. This party is attended only by men, as was the custom. At the same time in a different part of the palace, the King’s trophy wife, Queen Vashti, is throwing her own party for the noble women.

Well, at the end of this six-month bacchanal, King Xerxes decides that he hasn’t quite impressed his guests enough with his glorious palace or his unlimited wine “served in goblets of gold,” so he calls for his stunningly beautiful wife to be brought before all of these men, “wearing her royal crown.” Now, Vashti is, presumably, having a grand old time at her own party, so she refuses to come. King Xerxes is furious, and, after consulting with his misogynistic advisors, has her sent away and an edict proclaimed throughout the land “that every man should be ruler over his own household,” lest anyone think King Xerxes is weak because his woman won’t listen to him.

A few years pass, and King Xerxes’ advisors convince him that it is time to find a new wife. But they definitely don’t want another Vashti, who actually has a mind of her own and might not do as she’s told occasionally. So they suggest something that sounds like a really messed-up version of the Bachelor, the reality dating show where a bunch of beautiful women compete for the affections of one man. In this version, many dozens – possibly hundreds – of virgin, teenage girls are brought to a harem – the Bible actually uses the word “harem” – near the palace to prepare to meet the king. Chapter 2, verses 12-14 explains this in a much more tactful manner than I would if I were to paraphrase it:

12 Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. 13 And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14 In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.

But this book isn’t called Xerxes the Jerk, it’s called Esther. And this is where Esther enters. She is a Jewish orphan, being raised by her cousin Mordecai. Esther is “lovely in form and features,” so it’s not surprising that she becomes part of the king’s harem. Mordecai doesn’t just let her go and forget about her, though…he first tells her to hide her “nationality and family background,” so she has a better chance of actually surviving in this highly anti-Semitic society. And then he also follows her, and every day he walks by the courtyard outside the harem and tries to find out how she is doing. Inside the harem, the eunuch in charge of the virgins takes a particular interest in Esther, so he assigns her seven maids and moves her “into the best place in the harem.” He also tells her exactly what to bring when she finally meets King Xerxes (wouldn’t you love to know what that was), and it works. Little Jewish Orphan Esther becomes Queen Esther, and the King throws another big party and declares a holiday in her honor.

Now, one day when Mordecai is sitting around outside the palace gate, he overhears a plot to assassinate the king. He tells this to Esther, who tells her husband, and the men are found and killed. Esther makes sure to credit Mordecai as the one who discovered the plot…that’s important for later.

Shortly thereafter, King Xerxes elevates an incredibly xenophobic, anti-Semitic man named Haman to “a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles.” I imagine this position is similar to the one Joseph took at the right hand of pharaoh back in Genesis. The king orders everyone outside the palace to bow down to Haman (physically bow). Mordecai is part of this crowd outside the gate, but he will not kneel. For days, he is warned that he is defying the king’s edict, but he still will not bow down to this hateful man. So Haman, who has learned that Mordecai is a Jew, decides that he wants to punish not just Mordecai, but all of the Jewish people in Persia. Here is chapter 3, verse 8:

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.

But rather than just kicking them out, Haman convinces King Xerxes to give him free reign to exterminate the Jews in Persia. Haman sends out an edict that all Jews – “young and old, women and little children” – are to be killed on the same day, a day that he chose by casting lots. Mordecai finds out about the edict, tears his clothes and puts on sackcloth and ashes, and begins to wail loudly outside the king’s gate. Esther hears about this, sends a trusted servant to Mordecai to find out what is going on, and this is where the passage that Bob read for us begins.

The most often-quoted verse in Esther comes from this passage, chapter 4, verse 14: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will this?” Mordecai recognizes that this young, Jewish woman – who, in any other situation would have no power at all – is possibly the only person in the entire kingdom who has more influence over the king than Haman. However, we’ve already established that the king does not like to be questioned, especially by a woman. So Esther has to play this very, very carefully.

She goes before the king in her best robes, and he is so happy to see her that he offers her anything she wants, including up to half his kingdom. That, right there, is a miracle, because if he’d been in a bad mood, he could have had her executed on the spot for approaching him without an invitation. Esther proceeds to ask to have a special dinner with her husband and his top advisor, Haman. She says she’ll tell her husband what it is she wants at that time. Well, Haman is over the moon when he finds out. He brags to everyone that he is so important that Queen Esther is holding a banquet in his very honor. But while he’s outside bragging, he sees Mordecai off in the corner, weeping and wailing in his sackcloth and ashes. And he just hates Mordecai so much that he decides to build a 75-foot high gallows to hang Mordecai on personally come the day of execution.

That night, the king can’t sleep, so he asks for the chronicles of his own reign to be read to him. Basically, he wants someone to read him the official biography of himself. In the process, he is reminded of when Mordecai saved his life by telling Queen Esther about the assassination plot. And he says to his servant, kind of, “Hey, whatever happened to that guy? Was he rewarded?” And the servant says he was not.

So the king asks for whichever of his advisors is around at that moment to be brought to him. And, of course, in walks Haman. He asks Haman, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?”

And Haman thinks the king is talking about him. So he comes up with this grand plan to have the person paraded through the streets wearing royal robes, on a majestic horse, while “one of the king’s most noble princes” proclaims, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”

Well, the king loves that idea, so he says, go out to the gate and get that guy Mordecai, and do all that for him.

Haman does as he is told, as humiliating as it is for him, because he knows he’ll be killed if he defies the king. But that’s just the beginning. That night, he is brought to the palace for Queen Esther’s banquet. And as the three of them are gathered, the king again asks the queen what she wants. And she takes a deep breath and says (this is my paraphrase), “I want for myself and my people not to be annihilated by that guy.”

And then Haman is hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai, the Jews of Persia are not only saved but given permission to slaughter the people who were plotting to kill them, and Mordecai becomes one of the king’s most trusted advisors.

So, why did I just tell you all that? How does the 2500-year-old story of Esther relate to us, here, today?

I don’t know about you, but I have had a rough year. There are some days when I get so sad and/or stressed out that I can barely function. I’m stressed at work, I’m stressed and often sad at home…pretty much the one thing that doesn’t stress me out is my cat. She is the only thing that gets me to smile some days.

But then I turn on my TV, or the radio, or I open the newsfeed on my phone, and I am reminded that the whole world is having a rough time right now. And no matter what happens to me, it’s nothing compared to what other people are facing. The world that we live in today is not as different from Esther’s world as we might like to think it is. Plenty of people are persecuted and even killed because of what they look like, where they come from, who they love, what they believe – basically, anything that distinguishes them from the ruling class. And if that’s not enough, it’s like the planet itself is hurting, and it almost seems to be crying out to us, begging us to take better care of it. When I see images of what has happened just recently in Charlottesville, or Houston, or the Caribbean, or Mexico, or Syria, or Myanmar, I immediately stop worrying about my own problems, and I start wishing that there was some way I could help. I mean, I pray, and I give money to aid organizations where I can, but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. And knowing the people in this room as I do, I would guess that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

We, and I’m referring to those of us in the Western world generally, but I’m also referring specifically to this congregation: we are the lucky ones. It doesn’t always feel like it, but we are. Our children, the vast majority of the time, live to adulthood. They get to go to school regardless of their gender or parents’ economic status. We don’t live in a war zone, and those of us from my generation forward don’t know what it’s like to live with the constant threat of nuclear war…though I fear we may find out. We get to choose where we live, who we live with, how we make our living, how we spend our free time. We have free time. We have indoor plumbing. We have electricity. We have air conditioning and heat so we can survive brutal temperatures at both ends of the spectrum. We have roofs over our heads and clothes on our backs, and chances are pretty good that we know where our next meal is coming from. We have problems – some of us have problems so devastating that I cry every time I think about how difficult living with them must be – but in many ways, we are the world’s royalty. Not in the sense that we’re superior to anyone else, though there are some Haman-like people out there who think so. I mean in the sense that just by virtue of being Americans, being educated, being middle class, and for most of us, being white, we have power. Probably a lot more than we realize. And when we combine that with the power that God has given us to love others the way that God loves us, we are a force to be reckoned with. I can say that with authority because I have directly benefited from the power of this congregation. I owe you all my life, and I am not exaggerating. And I’m definitely not the only one. Many others have benefited from the kindness and generosity of this congregation through our ministries.

Mordecai said to Esther, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” I’m standing here today, way out of my comfort zone, because it’s been on my heart for a while that maybe what I’m supposed to do with my royal position is stand in front of some the strongest, smartest, most generous people I know, and say: Let’s do something big. Let’s work together, and use this power that we’ve been given to try to effect real change. I don’t know exactly how…this is as far as I’ve gotten. But I have seen what we can do, and I know that we’ve just scratched the surface of our power. So let’s talk about it, let’s pray about it, and let’s just try to quiet our minds, open our hearts, and see where God leads us. I truly believe that this congregation is being called to do something amazing. And I can’t wait to be part of it.

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