For a Time Such as This – 2017/11/12

Selections from the book of Esther

Sermon:

We have reached the end.  I started this sermon series on the Old Testament waaaaay back on June 11.  That means we’ve been five MONTHS in this series.  We’ve seen creation, the flood, the Exodus from Egypt, the time of the Judges, the rise of the Kings, the dividing of the Kingdom and the Exile in Babylon.  We’ve heard about Abraham and Moses and David; Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a whole bunch of other Old Testament figures.  The last two weeks, we heard reading about hope for return to Jerusalem from Exile in Babylon.  Indeed, brothers and sisters, that time comes, and the Jewish people are returned to Jerusalem.

But today’s final reading from this very long series of Old Testament sermons is about something else; this reading is about the time in which the Kingdom has been restored and the Temple rebuilt.  But instead of taking place in Jerusalem, this story, as you heard, takes place in Persia.

The book of Esther is really interesting.  Chronologically, it is the last book to take place in the Old Testament.  It is therefore a fitting end to this series.  In college, I actually took an entire semester class on Esther, so I can talk about this book waaaay longer than anyone would want to hear about it.  So why not end with a book that actually takes place in Israel?  Well, Esther’s family was one of those families that, during the Exile, moved away from Babylon.  They established themselves in Susa, the capital of Persia, and that’s where they made their lives.  Even when they were allowed to return, they didn’t.  So, this story is partly about being Jewish in a foreign land.  And there’s some relevance to Christians in that; we don’t really have a “promised land” to go to; we are without a homeland, so ending on a story about people far from home makes sense to me.

But, as you may have seen in the pre-worship slideshow this morning, Esther is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God.  At all.  So… what are we supposed to make of that?  I mean, if we’re going to end this series by talking about a book that teaches us to be faithful no matter where we may be, it would probably make more sense if the book in question actually talked about being faithful, wouldn’t it?  If we are meant to use this bit of Scripture in our faith lives, it deserves some attention as we try to figure out what it has to say to us.

In case it went by too fast for you, the brief outline of the book of Esther is that there are four characters, living two stories which come together in fascinating fashion.  King Ahasuerus, who is looking for a queen.  Then there’s Esther, the most beautiful woman in the whole kingdom, who becomes his bride.  Their story, the first of the two in this book, is pretty straightforward.  Esther is Jewish, raised by her uncle Mordecai after her parents died.  Mordecai is a scribe.  And he runs afoul of another servant of the king named Haman.

It begins when Haman gets a promotion.  He parades around town, looking for people to bow to him.  Mordecai won’t do it.  Mordecai doesn’t because he’s a Jew, and he won’t worship some human ruler – that’s never mentioned explicitly in the text, but is obvious if you’re familiar with other parts of the Old Testament.  This behavior infuriates Haman, who believes Mordecai is not showing proper respect – but Haman also thinks murder is beneath him, so he goes the sneaky route to punish Mordecai.  Haman tells the king that there’s this group of people who don’t follow the same laws as everyone else – the Jews.  They should all be put to death; I mean, what other solution is there to this problem?  The king, who, as you’ll see, is played like a fiddle by everyone in this story, agrees, and signs an order that the Jews can be killed on this one particular day in a couple months.

Hearing this devastating news, Mordecai and Esther conspire about all these events.  Mordecai tells Esther, “You have to DO something!”  Esther says, “But if I approach the king without permission, he can have me killed.”  Mordecai says, “Yeah, but you’ll probably die, anyway.  Don’t think that being the queen will save you from this planned genocide!”

So Esther decides to go into the king’s palace without his permission.  As she is his favorite, the king grants her permission to speak.  She, being clever, invites him (and Haman) to a special dinner she throws for them.  At that dinner, the king is so taken with Esther that he says, “I’ll give you whatever you want!”  She says, “There’s this plot to kill me and all my people, and Haman made it!”

The king, furious, fires Haman, and then gives Mordecai Haman’s old job.  He has Mordecai draft a letter saying the Jews are allowed to fight back on that planned day when they were to be murdered, and everyone lives happily ever after – well, everyone except Haman, but that’s a pretty gruesome part of the story, and I skipped it.  So that’s basically the whole story.

As we try to see what this book has to offer us, let’s first remember that Jews are a people united, not just by religion, but by shared ancestry.  That explains why Jews wanted to re-tell this story, and even why there’s a holiday (called Purim) in honor of it.  However, even if it’s important, why is it in the Bible if it’s not about God?

I have a couple of answers for that.  First of all, this book helps us understand how God is present, whether we name God or not.  Just because the people of this book didn’t name God, that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there.  As Mordecai says to Esther, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  In other words, “Maybe God put you in this position so you can save us.”  Even without naming God, Mordecai has shown us something important:  God puts us in certain places at certain times to do the right thing.

A second answer as to what a book that doesn’t mention God can tell us about God is this:  we live in an increasingly secular age in the United States.  This has been true for a couple of generations, though most people only realize it now.  There are some positives from it, though most often we’re likely to dwell on the negatives.  But how do we see God’s hand in the world, even when no one around us is saying it?

Traditionally in our country, Christianity was taken for granted, so we could say Christian things and flaunt Christian symbols in public.  But to some extent, I think, that made us lazy believers.  We came to believe that saying Christian things was the same as doing Christian things. Faith in God has to be about more than just public prayer, more than using Christian language.  It seems to me that people are more likely to complain about a lack of stores having “Merry Christmas” signs than they are about whether or not their own Christmas celebrations actually reflect anything about the Christian life.  It becomes about seeming Christian rather than being Christ-like; saying the right things rather than doing them.

Perhaps the most explicit way I’ve seen this play out in my own life was in the form of the WWJD bracelet.  You remember those, right?  For those of you too young to remember these (and I feel really old saying that), these were little rubber or woven bracelets that had the letters “WWJD” on them.  It stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and it was supposed to be a reminder to behave in a Christian way all the time.  In my opinion, this was a great idea – until they got really popular.  See, when they started, they were a subtle reminder to people to act like Jesus.  You were actually supposed to look down at them and think twice before you spoke or acted.  What they became, though, was a status symbol to show off your Christianity to others.  You started seeing them on people who wanted to look Christian, rather than people who cared about the message at all.

In this regard, the book of Esther can be a really good thing to keep in mind.  What Esther does in this book is not have a showy prayer.  She doesn’t win favor by converting the emperor to her beliefs.  She isn’t a big political hero who turns everyone into a follower of God.  Instead, she changes the world by acting in a way that a follower of God would is supposed to act.  She stands up for the innocent.  She speaks truth to power.  She risks her own life and well-being in pursuit of the greater good.

But it’s not just Esther who is to be our example.  After all, this whole story hinges on Mordecai and his unwillingness to bow down to someone who isn’t God.  Haman is parading through the streets and expecting complete and total obedience.  Mordecai, a good Jew, doesn’t want to bow down to him, because Mordecai knows that he’s just a man.  Mordecai knows that it’s not about the posture of your body; it’s about the posture of your heart.  Mordecai’s heart is right, because he puts God first; Haman’s heart is wrong, because he puts himself first.

Mordecai’s action enrages Haman, who orders not just Mordecai’s death, but death to all Jews throughout Persia.  But, even though the book of Esther doesn’t have a single mention of God, we can see that Mordecai is unwilling to bow down to idols.

To me, that’s the third and biggest takeaway from this book.  Sure, one of the lessons this book teaches is about knowing God is there, even when no one even says the word, “God.”  And a second one is that it shows us how to be faithful in a culture that isn’t explicitly our faith.  But probably the most important thing I see in this book is that we’re meant to stand up to idols, and to be obedient only to God.  If we’re familiar with the language of the word, “idol,” we’re probably used to hearing about idols in the Old Testament as statues made of wood or stone or precious metals that people worship instead of worshiping God.  In our day and age, we tend not to worship statues, and we think that makes us more “advanced” than the people who came before us.

Yet, at the end of the day, we bow down to idols often.  You see, idols don’t have to be statues.  Anything we put ahead of God can be an idol.  Concepts like pride and status are common idols.  Feelings like lust and greed can be idols.  Probably the most common idol in our culture is money.  If it’s not that, it’s our own comfort, or perhaps our own happiness.  Beyond concepts, individual people, perhaps family members or even celebrities, can become idols when we start to put them first in our lives.  Political affiliations, countries, and the flag can become idols.  The ideas of “safety” and “security” are immensely powerful idols in our culture, convincing us to push aside the radical call of inclusivity and justice in favor of staying “safe.”

The book of Esther teaches us about the courage it takes to stand up to idols.  Sometimes, the world around us is telling us that something other than God is what’s most important.  Mordecai stands up when he feels the pressure to fall in line like everyone else.  Esther stands up to the King and transgresses her station.  She has to violate the law to do what’s right, but she saves her entire people.  These are models for us, because they show one of the ideas we talked about last week in the Book of Ezekiel:  their whole lives become part of their faith witness.  It’s not just about words; it’s about living a life that makes God’s presence apparent in you.  Esther and Mordecai do that.

So let us take the example of Esther and Mordecai and live it out in our own lives.  Let us not treat God’s name like a status symbol, or a piece of jewelry we can put on or take off as we please; let’s make it a tattoo that marks us as God’s forever, and that’s visible for all the world.  Let us not believe that saying “Merry Christmas” in public, or support of school prayer, is the test of someone’s faith; instead, let our actions show that we believe God is in charge, and let our lives reflect what God wants us to do.  Let us embrace living a Jesus-life.  Let us live as God intended us to live, loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Amen.