February 21, 2016 (Lent 2C)
The story reads like a melodrama. For hundreds of years, there was lots of argument about this story. Did it belong in the Bible or not? Some Jewish scholars loved it, but Martin Luther hated it and wished it didn’t exist. The story has some unique literary and theological features that suggest Luther might have had a point:
- The details of the plot seem exaggerated and the main characters aren’t developed very well, from a literary standpoint.
- Historical accuracy is questionable, at best.
- There’s enough sex and violence to make the story into a movie, but we tend to fast forward through those parts when we are in church.
- The actions of the characters do not reflect their faith so much as struggles about their ethnic identity.
- Most problematic of all, the story never mentions God by name.
- Neither is prayer or worship mentioned, though we can make some assumptions that prayer, at least, plays an important part in the climax of the story.
With all this going against it, we have to wonder how the story of Esther made it into the Bible at all. Yet, there it is. Accepted as the Word of the Lord, even though the Lord is never mentioned.
Some scholars insist that the story of Esther was made up to justify celebrating the Feast of Purim – or the feast of dice. It’s a major Jewish celebration, but it is not one of the feasts named in the Law of Moses. During Purim, people dress up in costumes, put on silly plays, and enjoy lots of food.
There is even a tradition that encourages drinking wine in excess, just as King Xerxes and his guests did at their feasts. But the humor and silliness of the celebration highlight an underlying seriousness. The story is about escaping death, after all.
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker writes, “Indeed, the joke goes that Jewish holidays can be summed up in this way: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”
So what does the story of Esther tell us about God and God’s plan to win his people back? The answer is found right in the middle of the story, in chapter four.
Evil Haman has tricked King Xerxes into signing a decree that gives people permission to kill off the Jews living in all the provinces of Persia. Haman rolls the pur, or dice, to determine the exact date when this attack will happen. When Mordecai learns of the decree, he tears his clothes and puts ashes on his head, as signs of mourning and repentance.
Queen Esther tries to get him to put on clean clothes and to stop making a spectacle of himself. Remember that she has managed to avoid revealing her Jewish identity up to this point, and her uncle Mordecai’s behavior threatens to expose her secret.
But Mordecai sends a message back to Esther, and in this message, he issues a call to action that cannot be ignored.
Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, 7 and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews.
8 Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.
9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death.
Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”
12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 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.”
15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him. (Esther 4:6-17)
Here’s what we can learn from Esther, and there are striking similarities between these lessons and similar lessons we find in the New Testament:
- First, Esther knew the risks of approaching the king without an invitation. She was afraid for her own life, but also for the lives of her people. She had a clear sense of the worst thing that could possibly happen, but she also had a clear sense of what would happen if she didn’t go to the king. Most of all, Esther had a clear sense of her own identity, both as a Jew and as a queen.I can think of someone else who clearly understood the risks involved in preaching good news, healing the sick, forgiving sins. Jesus had a clear understanding that his ministry would lead to the ultimate sacrifice, but he also understood what would happen to us sinners if he didn’t go to the cross. Jesus had a clear sense of his own identity, both as Son of God, and as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
We can learn to look for clarity as we weigh the cost of discipleship against the cost of non-discipleship. We can learn to establish our identity as dearly loved children of God, and followers of Jesus.
- Second, Esther didn’t depend on her own wisdom or strength, or even her beauty. She called on all the Jews in Susa, as well as her own maids, to fast with her for three days. We can assume that for Esther, fasting meant praying. She bathed the endeavor with prayer, and she called on her community to join with her.Jesus was famous for carving out time to spend in prayer, and he taught his disciples to pray with him. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane and spent the night in prayer. (Matthew 26:36; Mark 14:32)
We can learn to bathe every endeavor with prayer.
- Finally, Esther responded in faith with 100% commitment. She laid it all on the line. Knowing the risk, Esther risked everything. She didn’t hedge her bets. She went all in. “If I perish, I perish,” she said.Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14). Jesus did lay down his life for all of us. We call it the “ultimate sacrifice.” He went all in.
We can learn to commit completely to God’s will for us, to go all in.
Esther fulfilled God’s purpose for her, even though it meant risking her life. Because of her faithfulness, hope was kindled among God’s people.
The challenge to Esther from her uncle is the heart of the message: If you don’t fulfill God’s plan for you, someone else will be chosen to complete the task, but you will lose out. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to your present situation for just such a time as this. God has put you in exactly this time and place for a particular purpose. It’s up to you to fulfill it.
What is God’s unique purpose for our church at this moment in time? We have done some difficult and important work to discover that this weekend, as many of you participated in discussions with our consulting team through the Healthy Church Initiative process. Right now, we have a window of opportunity in front of us. If we choose to ignore what God is calling us to do, some other church will undoubtedly step in to meet that need. But we will lose out.
God has put us on this corner of Center and Broadway for just such a time as this. It’s up to us to decide what we are willing to risk, and how faithful we will be in fulfilling the purpose God sets in front of us.
Perhaps even more important than the call God is placing on our congregation is the call God is placing on each one of us in our individual lives. Regardless of the direction this congregation chooses to go with HCI, the real question is, “What is it that you personally have been brought to this time and place to accomplish for God? What is God calling you to do or be?” And what are you willing to risk to answer that call?
Here’s another way to look at it. What crisis are you facing right now? What threatens you most? What is the thing you cherish most, and are you willing to sacrifice it to follow God’s call on your life, as Esther was willing to do?
Maybe you’ve been burned before. You committed to a ministry or a project that didn’t turn out well, and you felt foolish or embarrassed for being connected to such a flop. Are you willing to risk feeling foolish or embarrassed?
Maybe you’re burnt out. You’ve worked and worked hours and hours, and no one has even noticed or said thank you. You’re tired, and you wouldn’t mind so much, but you’d like your work to be appreciated maybe just a little bit. Are you willing to risk going unrecognized?
Maybe you’ve kindled your hopes before, only to have them dashed by buckets of opposition and resistance. You see what needs to happen, but you know you can’t do it alone, and nobody seems willing to help you. In fact, it feels like others are actively working against your efforts to change and grow. Are you willing to risk the possibility of conflict and even some hostility, in order to answer God’s call on your life?
I have some good news for you. It’s often true that, when we are willing to give up the very thing we hold onto most tightly, the thing that matters most to us, when we are willing to risk it all, God showers us with blessing.
Esther was willing to give up her life, the thing she cherished most. God blessed her with not only her life, but the lives of all her people, the wealth of her former adversary, and an elevated position for her cousin, Mordecai. All because she was willing to say, “If I perish, I perish.” Her act of bravery not only saved her people, it kindled hope among them.
What hope is God kindling in your heart right now? As you name your fears, how is God speaking into your life, and into the life of this congregation, to say, “I have chosen you for just such a time as this. Don’t be afraid. I’m with you?” The Apostle Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Each of us has been called according to God’s purpose for us. We are invited to be part of God’s story, right here, right now, for just such a time as this. Will you accept the invitation?
Holy God, you sent your servant Esther into a unique and strange situation to fulfill your purpose not only for her, but also for your people. You gave her courage to risk her life, and that courage saved not only her life, but the lives of many. We ask that you give us that kind of courage, Lord. As you work out your purpose in each of us, and your purpose for our congregation, help us to join you in the work you are already doing here. Kindle hope in our hearts, give us a clear vision of your desire for us, lead us to seek you earnestly in prayer, and help us to give you our all, even as you gave your all for our sakes. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.