When Dale and Dick came to visit me during the search process a bit more than a year ago, Dale commented on the number of my sermons that were on the Old Testament. I had explained to both of them that the OT makes up nearly two-thirds of Scripture. If I had my druthers, I would preach on the OT about 2/3 of the time. Events in parish life, like Baptisms, and our calendar make that hard to do. In Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter, I think we clergy ought to be focused on the Incarnation, the work and person of Christ. That is not to say that the OT does not look forward to His Coming. But it is to say that the people are more clearly focused on Jesus and His redeeming work during those seasons and, I suppose, we are right to spend a bit more time in discussion about them.
That all being said, I think it has been nine weeks since I preached on the OT. Nine weeks. Thankfully, we get a good story this week that speaks to all our ministries in the world around us. Those of you paying close attention may have thought Leslie mispronounced the king’s name. Those listening closely would have heard her say Xerxes instead of Ahasuerus. In truth, they are one and the same. And let’s face it, Xerxes is much easier to say than Ahasuerus. Xerxes rules Persia or Babylon, if you prefer, some 100 years after Nebuchadnezzar. The Jews are a dispersed community within the empire. It was common practice in those days to take a subjected, conquered people and spread them out throughout an empire. If numbers were small enough, no group would have the critical mass necessary to foment rebellion. They would be too busy trying to scratch out a life. And, if three or four or more subjugated peoples were in an area, so much the better! It is really hard for people to plot and plan rebellion if they cannot speak to one another.
In this case, though, there had been rebellion. Mordecai, we learn in chapter 2, is of the tribe of Benjamin and has been carried off to the capital of the empire, Susa. Through the trials and hardships of being settled in another land, Mordecai becomes the guardian of the girl Esther, who Scripture tells us was beautiful and had a lovely figure. This last bit was important because, Xerxes was later enraged by his Queen Vashti’s insolence. You see, during a state dinner, he had commanded his wife to appear before him and those at the dinner. We are given no reason; we are told only that she refused.
Well, Mel Brooks is right in this respect at least: It is good to be the king. I know we modern men are used to our wives’ coming to our every command, so we can understand just why Xerxes put Vashti away and decided to choose a new king. Wait, why are you laughing? In typical kingly fashion, there was a beauty pageant held to determine the next wife. Not unsurprisingly, the beautiful virgin Esther, with a lovely figure, was chosen to be queen.
Flash forward a bit. Mordecai is working and becomes aware of a plot to kill the king. He tells Esther, whom he has raised, who, in turn, warns the king. The king places in the annals of the king, the official record, if you will, that Mordecai, through Esther, had preserved his rule.
Flash forward a bit more. Haman is now the second-in-command in the kingdom. Everyone bows to him, except this old Jew named Mordecai. Though those in his family and those who advise him tell him to forget the old man, Haman refuses. The perceived arrogance of Mordecai gnaws and gnaws at him. He has no idea who Mordecai is. He does not know that Mordecai has been favored by his boss, Xerxes. He certainly does not know that Mordecai raised the queen, as she kept the details of her birth secret so that she would be eligible to be chosen queen. Eventually, he plots to kill Haman and all the Jews in the empire.
Over time, the plans become known. It’s hard to keep such a secret when you are building scaffolds in view of the public and sending letters to the reaches of the kingdom declaring a date of execution for a people previously favored by the king. Eventually, the likely success of the plot causes Mordecai once again to seek out Esther and have her intercede on behalf of the Jews with the king. Esther is understandably nervous. Queens today are rather imperious. Back then, and especially with this king, being a queen was dangerous work. A queen could only approach Xerxes if she was summoned. This idea of interjecting herself into the daily regimen of the palace ran the risk of causing him to think of her as a bit too arrogant to be his queen. Vashti’s insolence, whatever it was, had given Esther the opportunity to be queen in the first place. And Esther’s presentation, as Scripture points out, is illegal. Nevertheless, she bids Mordecai to tell the people to pray and to fast for three days, that she might figure out a way to do what he asks.
I should note here that God is not mentioned in this book. Nowhere in the text of this book is a name of God mentioned. It seems strange to those of us who study Scripture that He would not include His name in a book about Him. But that is precisely how He inspired Esther to be written, edited, and recorded in Scripture. It is a problem that dogged Rabbis and scribes for some time, but that is another tale. The book seems so far removed from God that the only particularly religious activities mentioned are the praying and fasting asked by Esther of Mordecai.
Eventually, Esther decides that a meal will serve her purposes best. She invites the king and Haman both to a meal. Haman is beside himself with glee. He gets to dine in private with the king and the queen. His power and prestige are, in his mind, confirmed. This type of invitation just does not happen. Esther uses the slow play. When Xerxes offers her whatever her request is, even to half of his kingdom (sound familiar?), Esther asks the king simply if he and Haman can return the next night. The king promises and Haman is overcome with pride. He recounts to his family and friends the honor shown him by the king and queen, though the lack of respect on the part of Mordecai eats at him.
The next day arrives. As it happens, king Xerxes had been unable to sleep the prior night. In a fit of desperation, he had had the annals brought to him and read by the attendants. They just happened to select the passage that dealt with Mordecai and the plot of the eunuchs Bigthana and Teresh. As he laid there unable to sleep, he asked what he had done for such service. His attendants informed him that he had done nothing. What kind of king fails to reward those who save his life? The question gnaws at the king.
Timing, of course, is everything. As he is contemplating that question, he asks who is in the court. At that moment, we are told, Haman had entered to have the king put Mordecai to death. The king summons Haman and asks what should be done for one whom the king wishes to honor. Haman, given last night’s invitation and this evening’s, naturally assumes he is the man whom the king wishes to honor. Haman “suggests” that the king have one of his most noble officials present the man, robe him, place a crown on his head, and even ride a horse ridden by the king. Xerxes loves the idea and commands Haman to do all that he has said to Mordecai. You can imagine the stunned expression of Haman. He came to court to have Mordecai killed, and Mordecai is the one honored by the king. Talk about a topsy-turvy world!
Later that evening, Haman and the king join Esther in her quarters for another meal. Again, the king is overcome by Esther’s beauty and cooking. Once again he makes the offer of even half his kingdom. This time Esther responds. She begs the king to spare her life and that of Mordecai and the rest of the Jews. Had her people only been sold into slavery, she says, she would have said nothing. But the threat of death is too much.
As we might imagine, the king is enraged. He does value Haman, but he also values Mordecai, and he at least lusts for his queen. He steps out for a moment to gather his thoughts. Haman, of course, reads the king mood. He knows that the king will destroy him for his plotting. Haman’s conspiracy against the Jews has made the king look double-minded and ungrateful. He goes to plead for his life from Esther when he trips and falls onto her couch. Just as the king is entering. Imagine the scene in his eyes. At best Haman is attacking the queen. So the king, with a little help from other advisers, has Haman put to death and gives his family to Esther, who places Mordecai in charge.
The story is not yet over. Haman’s letters of instructions to the governors are still out there. The Jews are going to be killed. So, the next day, in spite of the dangerous mood of the king, Esther presents herself at court yet again. He extends his scepter, and she speaks. Esther tells the king that she cannot be silent in the face of such death and destruction. The king agrees and says she can do whatever she wishes with his seal.
Scripture relates that, in the turned tables, the Jews in Susa killed three hundred enemies. Further, the Jews in the outlying provinces killed nearly 75,000 people. Scripture also relates that, although Xerxes gave the Jews permission to loot the destroyed families, the Jews did not. They left the treasures, presumably as a sign that this was a holy war. The day has become a special day in the life of the Jews. Those of you who have heard of Purim now know the story upon which it is based. Haman had cast Pur, the lot, to crush them and himself had been crushed.
But the story of Esther raises a number of questions with which we Christians need to wrestle, particularly those of us who have largely grown up in a country that has no kings and queens and courts and those of us who have not really suffered the threat of death at the hands of enemies. And, do not be ashamed to wrestle so with Scripture. Rabbis for some 20 plus centuries have argued whether it should be included in their canon. And I have taken the time this morning to fill in those details skipped by our editors. I understand why they skip the difficult parts, but I think we do ourselves a disservice when we do. So what is going on? Why do we think God thought this an important story to relate to us, as distant as we are in political systems, miles, and whatever else we like to think?
One theological question presented in this book is the question of violence. In this book, we are presented with a real threat to existence. Haman had successfully manipulated the king to be in a position to utterly wipe out the Jews in the kingdom. It was not a fanciful possibility but a reality with a date certain. It would be akin to somebody grabbing hold of Hitler’s diary and seeing that he expected the last of the Jews to be killed on such and such a date in whatever year. Just as he was determined to wipe the Jews out, so was Haman. As American Christians, we certainly do not live under that imminent threat, but we have brothers and sisters around the world who do. ISIS is doing its best to stamp out Christianity wherever it gains control. The Muslim Brotherhood has performed a modern Haman on our Coptic brothers and sisters, many of whom now live in the dumps outside the cities. A little more than a month ago, we celebrated with our Armenian brothers and sisters. And they are here specifically because of threat to life in their home countries.
Some modern commentators like to claim that the Jews were exorbitant in their fight. They used the kings favor to wipe out some 75,000 thousand enemies. Who does that? The problem, of course, is that the punishment was just. Haman and those who plotted to destroy them planned this end for them. They were to be killed and their loot divided as the spoils. What happens in this narrative is just. The Jews only destroy those who wished to wipe them out. The text points out three times that the war was not for financial gain. Although Xerxes say and justice would say it would be fair, the Jews leave the spoils. It is their way of reminding themselves that they need God on their side, an important lesson to an exiled people and an important lesson to us. We may place our trust from time to time in our health, our wealth, our whatever, but our real trust needs to be in God. The judgment also serves as a warning to those who would choose to fight against God and His chosen people. For a while, Haman seems to have the upper hand. All his schemes seem to be falling into place, and then the unexpected happens. Xerxes cannot sleep. He listens to the annals and is reminded that he shorted Mordecai. How might the story had been different had Xerxes slept like a baby or the attendant read from another section of the book?
There is another interesting detail in the celebration after the killings. The people feast and give presents to the needy in their towns. It is a curious thing to be shedding blood for a couple days and then returning to feast and serve those in your community in need. Those of us might recognize the roots of the behavior in Deuteronomy. The enemies of God and His people have been dealt with, but there are still hungry and poor who need help. God may not be mentioned by name, but His people act as if they believe and accept His instruction.
Another lesson in the book for us, I think, is the day to day nature of the book. I mentioned earlier that God is not mentioned in the book. It seems weird that a book that reveals to us the character of God somehow forgets to mention His name. But is it any less weird than the way we tend to live our lives? How many of us go through our daily and weekly lives forgetting God is there? How many of us find ourselves in odd encounters, strange conversations, boring everyday life only to later realize that God was really at work in an event? I have shared with some the circumstances surrounding the death of Clarence a couple weeks ago. What connected us was me needing furniture for the rectory in January and Jane. From that tenuous thread some serious theological discussions happened, as has some serious pastoring. Oh, and did I mention that Clarence had been raised Baptist and then moved on to the Jehovah Witness. Some might say it was lucky for him that I spoke Baptist and exclusion and understood the consequences of shame. Some might say that, but I think the connection was far too tenuous to be other than the nudgings of God. And isn’t that how He works far more often in our lives. A nudge here; a whisper there. Sure, He parts the waters from time to time; He does the incredible every now and again just to remind us of His power. But far more often He is simply whispering, encouraging, inspiring, and acting far more mundane than we would ever wish.
The last lesson upon which I want to touch, and perhaps the most important, is the obvious one. In this narrative, who is the Christ-like figure? Who is the figure that is presented as an offering, elevated, and then intercedes on behalf of God’s people, thus saving them from death and destruction? I see the faces. The OT hates women, right? It is misogynistic, patriarchal, and written by white European males to keep themselves in power, right? In a day and country where we marry for love and believe in equal rights, it is easy to forget the context of Esther. The death of her parents meant that she was likely consigned to prostitution or begging. She had no value in the society of Susa. Yet Mordecai fulfilled his obligations. God may not be mentioned by name, but many of the Jews seem to be trying to live in accordance with His teaching. Mordecai takes in the additional mouth to feed. He raises her, educates her, and even counsels her. Our modern sensibilities might be offended by his willingness to enter her in a beauty contest, but who could provide better for her than the king. Yes, in a way she was an offering, an offering that pleased the king.
And look at Esther’s response to her situation. Her predecessor has been removed for being the kind of queen Esther will need to be to preserve her people. When the time comes, though, she chooses to act. She is willing to give up all the cushiness of being queen to save her people; she is willing even to lay down her life, not unlike the King whose ministry she foreshadows. She asks only for prayer and fasting. That is her “armor,” if you will. And though she is queen, she understands humility. As part of an exiled community she knows what it means to be on the margins. Rather than forcing her position on the king, she waits for him to make the request of her. And she does, twice, knowing that each request could cost her her life. Can you imagine? An orphan elevated to become queen and then used to save a people?
Brothers and sisters, the book of Esther speaks to the everydayness of our existence. Each and every day of our lives is consecrated to and lived to God, if we are truly serious about being His people. We may touch people outside the covenant in different ways, but our lives should be no less an offering to the One who promises eternal life in Christ. You may be a teacher who straddles yourself with extra, unpaid tutoring for a struggling student. You may be a doctor or nurse who gives a bit more time pro bono than your colleagues because someone just needed it. You may be a worker, a paper pusher, or even a priest. You may think your work is the least glorious in the world. The truth is that God is every bit at work in our daily, humdrum lives as He is in the miracles. And you and I are promised that one day we will share in that glory when He returns. Better still, you and I are called to be that intercessor, that Christ-imitating person, who acts to point others to the God where people really should be placing their faith, their lot.