(Go to 18 min. point for Sermon)
The book of Esther is one of the most theologically dense books of the Old Testament, yet it’s also a story that will keep you on edge of your seat just like any action-packed movie shown in theaters today. It’s a story that’s loaded with intrigue, diabolical schemes, twists and turns, evil villains, heroines and royal splendor. The setting is the court of Ahasuerus who is the king of Persia, and the date is sometime around the 3rd or 4th century BCE.
It all begins with a party, but this is no ordinary party. This party goes on for six months, and the guests are the cream de la cream of the empire… officials and ministers of the administration, nobles and governors of the provinces — even the entire Persian army. Everyone who was anyone was invited to this party which was all about the king showing off his wealth. And for his grand finale — he orders his queen Vashti to parade before the guests showing off her beauty. Kind of reminds me of a certain public figure with a bad hairdo.
Well, Vashti refuses. Ahasuerus becomes enraged and then he starts to worry that all of the women in the kingdom will decide that they don’t have to obey their husbands either, and so to nip it in the bud he removes Vashti as queen and sends a royal decree across the empire declaring that all women will give honor to their husbands – “high and low alike.” Ahasuerus then orders that all of the beautiful young girls in the kingdom are to be presented to him, so he can choose a new and better queen to replace Vashti. One of these girls is Esther who is an orphan that is being fostered by her cousin Mordecai. Esther of course is the one who finds favor in the king’s eyes, and is made his new queen, but she has a secret – she’s Jewish.
Not long after Esther becomes queen, Mordecai discovers a plot to assassinate Ahasuerus. He tells Esther who then tells Ahasuerus, and the conspirators are apprehended and hanged, and Mordecai’s service to the king is recorded.
Five years pass, and Haman, the king’s top official, becomes angry with Mordecai for refusing to obey a royal edict to bow before him. Haman plots to kill not only Mordecai, but all of the Jews of the empire. He secures Ahasuerus’ permission to execute his plan, and then casts lots to choose a date. On the chosen day, everyone in the empire is free to massacre the Jews and plunder their property. Esther learns of the plan from Mordecai, who then insists that she intercede with the king. Esther is afraid because even though she’s queen, she could be put to death for approaching the king unsummoned. But Mordecai insists that she must do it or everyone will be killed — including her. So she approaches the king, and Ahasuerus, to his credit, stretches out his scepter indicating she may approach without punishment. She invites Ahasuerus to a feast and requests that he brings Haman. They must have had a good time because she asks them to come back the next night. In the meantime, Mordecai once again manages to offend Haman who then consults with his friends. His wife suggests that he immediately construct a gallows for Mordecai.
The next night, at the second banquet, Esther reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, including her. Ahasuerus is overcome by rage and he orders that Haman be hanged on the very gallows that he had built earlier that day for Mordecai. The decree that he had issued against the Jews could not be annulled, so he issues another one allowing the Jews to defend themselves during the attacks. As a result, seventy-five thousand Persians are slaughtered. The Jews then celebrated the failure of Haman’s plot, and the story is still celebrated today at the annual Jewish festival called Purim.
So that’s the condensed version of the story, which like I said is theologically dense and packed with everything, but, did you happen to notice what wasn’t mentioned in the story? Did you happen to notice that there wasn’t even the tiniest whisper about God? And not only that, but there’s nothing about prayers, miracles, deliverance, the law, Jerusalem or even the exile which landed the Jews in Persia in the first place. It’s kind of like finding an issue of Better Homes and Gardens in a box of Christian Century magazines.
Which leads me to wonder if perhaps the most significant thing about this particular book is the fact that God is not mentioned. Actually, I find it easier to relate to this story than the other stories because it’s like real life where God’s presence is not always so obvious. In my daily life I’m constantly challenged to find God in everyday situations; I have to think about it; I have to think theologically, which is to say I have to continuously practice locating God in the midst of whatever is going on around me. Esther is the only book in the bible that I have ever combed through carefully – looking for God – and that’s how it works in my everyday life. The rest of the bible talks about God and gives God a character and a voice. In Genesis God walks and talk with humans in the garden and then later throws them out for disobedience. In Exodus, God rescues the people from Egyptian tyranny after speaking to Moses from a burning bush. In the New Testament God takes on flesh and becomes human so that we might learn how to be more human too, and then after he is put to death on the cross, God returns to show that death does not have the final say — only God has that. All of that is obvious, but in this story, as in everyday life, there are no miraculous events, no hints of divine intervention. This is raw everyday life where people do the things they do and courageously trying to make what’s wrong right.
After the Babylonian exile there was the Persian takeover, and despite the fact that the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, some Jews continued to live in other countries leading to the “Jewish diaspora.” Perhaps this story is told as a way of examining what it means to survive as a people of faith while living in a strange and dominant culture. And to me, that seems just as relevant for Christians today, as it was for Jews back then.
I mean don’t you ever feel as though being a Christian is somewhat like walking a tightrope? We live smack-dab in the middle of the strangest and most dominant culture the world has ever seen. We ourselves are viewed by many as monsters. Most of what we have was built on the backs of and extracted from the sweat of others. My cell phone, your leather jacket, that diamond wedding ring…all of these things come at the expense of someone else. And while I might dislike it, I have come to depend on it the same as the rest of my culture.
Practices of faith are absent in Esther’s story, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any. It may have been a way of illustrating the integration of the Jewish community with the Persian Empire, and how easy it is to forget who you are under such circumstances. For Esther, living as a religious minority meant being very cautious about claiming her Jewish identity. When she became queen she didn’t reveal it, but, deliverance came through claiming it. She took a risk, but as Mordecai pointed out she was at risk either way.
This story is instructive for those of us struggling to claim our identity within a dominant culture that would have us be Americans first, or employees first, or consumers first, or any other identity that competes for the hearts of those who follow Jesus. This past week I listened with horror as certain public figures went on and on about how ridiculous the pope is for telling us that we need to start thinking about who and what is suffering as a result of our insatiable consumption. I listened to this on public television and I wondered how many so-called Christians were buying into it. If we want to follow Jesus, then it’s critical that we examine what our own integration is in this culture. How many situations are there where we prefer to blend in rather than risk revealing who and who’s we are? Among ourselves and within our Christian community we identify ourselves as disciples of Jesus and children of God, but what about within the surrounding culture?
Sometimes it just seems so much easier to go along with the crowd and the crowd’s values. Not in big obvious ways, but in little ways. Ways that are easy to ignore or overlook – ways that chip away bit by bit at our identity as God’s people. How often do we find ourselves rationalizing and even justifying our tiny little contradictions to the teachings of Jesus?
Esther’s story is actually a whole lot more about us than we might think. On the surface it sounds like a messy, compromising and ancient situation, but before we know it, we too are drawn in, as her story begins to speak to all of God’s people who long to be faithful in the midst of values and pressures that are foreign to who they are.
It’s the story of the Jews living in the diaspora. It’s the story of the Jews living under Roman rule. It’s the story of the early Christians living under Roman rule. It’s the story of indigenous people everywhere living under Christian rule. It’s the story of all people of faith who have tried to hang on to their identity within a dominant culture.
So the question becomes, how do we live and be part of our communities – while still remaining true to the One to whom we belong? How do we assimilate just enough so that we can change wrongs into rights? It is not helpful to simply withdraw from our society – had Esther withdrawn to the harem she would not have been able to save the Jewish people. Instead, she found a way to work the system to the benefit of her people. She risked herself and revealed her identity at a most crucial moment where timing was everything. She went against the grain – she spoke up – and she effected change.
Do we dare to risk revealing our identity as Christians to the powers that be? I don’t really know John Boehner’s reasons for stepping down as speaker of the house, but I do know that he is a very devout Catholic, he already felt compromised and the very next day after meeting the pope he resigned. Could this have been a man risking everything to proclaim once and for all his identity as a Christian? If so, my hat is off to him.
Unlike every other story in Bible, in Esther’s story God’s presence is far more subtle. The Jews were not delivered through amazing, miraculous events but through the actions of flawed yet courageous human beings who probably spent a lot of time second guessing themselves. It isn’t always easy, to know how to go about righting wrongs, and we’re not always confident that we’re the ones who are called to set things right. We have to listen a lot more closely and sort out all of the different words coming at us to hear God’s voice; and we have to be prepared when that voice comes to us from unexpected places. Sometimes God speaks to us through the words of the Bible; sometimes God speaks to us in church, but sometimes God speaks to us through the man on the street corner begging for our change. Sometimes God speaks to us from a jail cell in Birmingham Alabama. And sometimes God speaks to us through a young girl who has the courage to openly claim her identity and leave the rest up to God. I believe that we have a choice. And our choice is that we can either tie our brain in a knot trying to figure it out or we can just go all in knowing that God is there with us – urging us to step out of our safety zone and risk participation in the divine scheme. Amen