September 30, 2018
For Such a Time as This: The Book of Esther
Rev. Debra Bowman
The story of Esther is a tale of beautiful spirits and evil hearts, of power, lost and power gained, of bravery and stupidity, of whole peoples being saved and whole peoples being massacred. In the midst of it all, the role of God is never named, we are only to assume the people’s faithfulness to God, and God’s faithfulness to them. While it’s an ancient story, it has very contemporary themes.
The tale begins in the court of King Ahasuerus, probably a reference to King Xerxes, who ruled in the Persian Empire about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. For reasons that I can’t go into this morning, King Ahasuerus is angry with his wife Vashti. He is so angry in fact, that he decides to choose a new queen, a woman called Esther.
Esther has a cousin named Mordecai, who is part of the king’s entourage of unofficial advisors, and as such he lives in palace compound. Mordecai has raised Esther since she was orphaned, and they are both Jews. On Mordecai’s advice, Esther settles into her new, regal role, although she says nothing to the king about her ancestors or her race.
One day, Mordecai learns of a plot to kill the king. He tells Esther, who in turn tells the king, naming her uncle as the source of the warning. We’ll see that this act of protection serves Mordecai well later in the story.
Haman was the highest-ranking official in the government. He was very full of himself and enjoyed the fact that everyone would bow down as he passed by. Everyone that is, except Mordecai, who refused. As a Jew, he will bow down to no one but God. His lack of obeisance infuriates Haman, who decides not to take out just Mordecai, but to eliminate all the Jews of the land. He convinces the king that this ethnic cleansing is a good idea and enhances the suggestion by offering a large sum of money to help make it happen. A decree is sent out over all the land, declaring that on the 13th day of the 12th month, all the Jews are to be slaughtered. All of them, men, women, and children.
When Mordecai hears of this plan, he tells Esther she must intervene by convincing the king to stop the slaughter. However, a person can only enter the presence of the king at his invitation, to show up uninvited leads to death. Esther has not been invited into the king’s presence for 30 days and she understandably balks at Mordecai’s instruction. But Mordecai persists: “Don’t think that just because you live in the king’s house you’re the one Jew who will get out of this alive. If you persist in staying silent at such a time as this, help and deliverance will be wiped out. Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this. Esther was convinced: ‘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.” (Esther 4: 13-16)
Esther is taking an enormous chance; indeed she is putting her life on the line. First of all, when she approaches the king she risks execution for turning up uninvited. And when she asks the king to save the Jews, she will need to out herself as one of the ones to be persecuted. Her fate will be bound up with theirs. She must choose between guarding her own life, or trying to rescue an entire people.
In a move that says something important to us as communities of faith, Esther asks her people to hold her in their thoughts and prayers and to embody those thoughts and prayers by refraining from eating, putting their whole bodies into their prayers. After she does the same for three days and nights, she enters into the king’s presence at the banquet table.
She’s in luck, or perhaps we are to understand that God is on her side. The king is so taken with her beauty that he not only welcomes her, he offers her whatever she wants. “Let’s have dinner,” she says, “and, invite Haman” she adds almost as an afterthought. And so the three gather for dinner, and when the king asks again what she’d like, she requests yet another gathering. ”Let’s eat together again tomorrow night, the three of us.”
Haman is thrilled, going home and boasting to his family and friends about all this. His friends are impressed – now is a great time to go after Mordecai they advise him. And so he sends out carpenters to get busy building a gallows, from which he anticipates hanging Mordecai.
That night, the king is restless. He is reviewing the records of the kingdom and is reminded of the time when Mordecai saved his life by warning him about the assassination plot. He sends for Haman to ask his advice about how he might show his appreciation. When the king asks him: “What would be appropriate for the man the king especially wants to honor?” Haman thinks the king wants to honour him. He suggests all kinds of favours and honours that should be bestowed upon the fortunate recipient of the king’s pleasure. Imagine his mortification when it is Mordecai that is to be showered with all that he has suggested. And imagine his fear. Haman has encouraged the king to have all the Jews killed. And the man the king has just singled out to be honoured is a Jew. And the kings’ savior.
The next night at dinner, the king one more time offers to give Esther whatever she’d like. “Just name it” he says, “even half my kingdom.” And then, Esther gambles it all. “If I have found favour in your eyes, O King, and if it pleases the king, give me my life, and give my people their lives. We’ve been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed – sold to be massacred, eliminated.” The king is appalled and demands to know who the villain is. “The evil Haman,” Esther answers. Haman ends up dying on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.
All is not yet saved though. The king cannot rescind the order to kill all the Jews, but he can send out a new order. In a new decree, he gives the Jews permission to defend themselves. And they do – at the cost of 75,000 lives of non-Jewish people. The end of the story is brutal – the only softening the fact, repeated three times, that the Jews did not plunder and did not kill women and children, which they could have done.
For such a time as this…the story hinges on Mordecai calling Esther into the present moment of peril, calling on her to use all the gifts and capacities she has to act at that moment. Make no mistake; we too are in a time like no other in our lives. What we have always understood as the ways things were, are and always will be is turning upside down. Economies are unpredictable, the environment is under siege, democracy is eroding, good and common sense seems like a romantic memory. Millions of refugees are fleeing unstable governments and environmental catastrophes and we need to figure out how to help. Every single day in the media and through stories we hear personally there is an unveiling of the racism, misogyny, and fear of the other that roils just barely below the surface of human interactions. For such a time as this, the Christian community is being called to be just that, Christian community. Fully followers of Christ.
For several decades our churches have pondered our deep purpose. We have wondered what sets us apart, not better, not above or below, but what it means to be people formed and called by God. We had over time forgotten our story, forgotten what makes Christian, Christian. We had forgotten that we have a story that starts at the very beginning with God restoring order from chaos, and not any order but one that God calls good, very good. We have a story that tells over and over again, through millennia, of good being wrought from evil, of light breaking through even the darkest of times. Of ordinary people rising up and risking it all not to ‘win’, but to assert God’s deepest yearnings for peace, and compassion for all creation. A story that recounts the ongoing actions of God’s people to emulate Christ in the world. We have had a collective amnesia regarding the particularity of being a Christian community, but in such a time as this, we need to remember and be remembered, restored by the passion and the power of our story.
In Esther’s time ‘her people’ were the Jews. Today, ‘our people’ includes everyone. In the global village, and in the kingdom of God, ‘we’count as not only everybody but all creation. And the church is being called to consider, in such a time as this, how we are to be part of God’s new thing, God’s new creation that is emerging even as the old one falls away. For indeed, God is in the midst of this and God is calling us to be part of a new future, God’s future. Increasingly, in such a time as this, that is a radical call, a counter-cultural call, one that includes a remembering of who and whose we are and a fully conscious alignment with the life and teachings of Christ and the tugging into the future of God.
Perhaps we start where Esther started, fasting and praying together. Aligning not just our thoughts and prayers, but our whole lives to God’s quest for the restoration of the goodness of creation. And then, in solidarity with each other and with the Holy Spirit, we do what we can to ensure that God’s will, will be done, in such a time as this. May it be so. Amen