by David Baer, December 7, 2014
Text: Esther 4:1-17
What was it like to become the queen of an empire? What was it like to be taken from your family to live in a luxurious palace, given cosmetic treatments every day for a year? What was it like, finally, to be summoned before the king, and chosen? All these things the book of Esther narrates as though it’s a fairy tale, where the dreams of commoners of foreign ancestry can and do come true. And maybe that was how Esther saw it too. But we don’t know that for sure. We do know that none of it was her choice. Others chose for her. Other people took her from her home and family. Other people ordered her clothes and changed her appearance, so as to please the king. As a woman she didn’t have a voice in what happened to her. She didn’t act or choose. She was chosen. She was acted upon.
This was no accident. The last queen, named Vashti, had been deposed for not being pliable enough to her husband’s wishes. When the king was “merry with wine,” as the scripture puts it, he had summoned her to come into the banqueting hall so that he could show off her beauty to all his buddies. Vashti refused, and so the angry king sent her away. Esther became queen because there was a vacancy created by a woman who dared to think and act for herself. There was a powerful example of what happened to women who rocked the boat.
But Esther found favor with the king, and so she became the new queen. Yet King Ahasuerus, for all his riches and power, wasn’t a very bright or very good man. Whatever comfort and whatever influence Esther gained as queen, the price was marriage to a pompous buffoon of a king. He held lavish, drunken parties where he ran his mouth off. He gave the reins of the empire over to his officials who could all too easily manipulate him into using the power of the royal office for their own personal vendettas.
And that’s how it was that the king authorized the slaughter of all the empire’s Jewish subjects. Haman the Agagite, a high court official, held a grudge against Mordecai, the older cousin who had raised Esther as a child, because Mordecai refused to bow down to him like all the other court officials did. No one, including Haman, knew the connection between Queen Esther and Mordecai, and no one knew that the queen was a Jew. But in any case, Haman wasn’t content to take his revenge on Mordecai alone, so he convinced the king to sign orders for the destruction of all Jews throughout the kingdom, in exchange for a sizable payoff to the royal treasury.
So here is Esther, who has been carried along through her whole life like a leaf in a stream, watching Mordecai wearing sackcloth and ashes outside the palace gate. It’s likely she has no idea what is happening–why would Haman and the king involve her, a woman, in these affairs of state. But her heart is pricked to see her relative, her adoptive father, in such a state, and so she sends out a fresh set of clothes for him, which he refuses. Mordecai communicates through Esther’s servant to let her know the plot that has been hatched, and that Esther is the Jewish community’s best hope for deliverance. Go to the king, he says. Beg him to relent.
I can’t do that, Esther says. To crash uninvited into the presence of the Persian king is a capital crime, pardonable only by the king himself. And in case you forgot, just look at what happened when the last queen offended the king. Esther says, essentially, sorry, but I can’t help.
Here’s where I want us to focus our attention this morning—on what Mordecai says next and on the way Esther responds. The book of Esther has come in for criticism throughout the years from people that point out that the word “God” doesn’t even appear in the whole story. None of the Jewish characters pray. The story doesn’t mention Jerusalem or the Temple. It’s a pretty good bet that Queen Esther isn’t keeping kosher in the palace or otherwise following Jewish customs. In short, just what does this story have to say to people of faith? But listen to what Mordecai says, and you hear God moving in the shadows of the story.
He says to Esther, “Do not think that … you will escape any more than all the Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter….” Relief from another quarter—Mordecai is saying, in spite of all his mourning and desperation, that he deeply believes the Jewish people will be saved from their enemies, that one way or another this plot against them will fail. That’s an extraordinary amount of faith to have in the perseverance of the Jews as a people in history. And, even though Mordecai doesn’t say this in so many words, that faith doesn’t make sense at all apart from a belief that the Jews are a special people, chosen and protected by God. So the first thing Mordecai says is this: God will deliver us. God wants us to live, and God can’t be thwarted. He’s vague on how this might happen. He can’t quite see it. But he believes it will happen.
But even if Mordecai can’t be certain about where deliverance is coming from, even if he can’t be sure about how God is working in this situation, he raises the question for Esther: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Without at all diminishing the mystery surrounding the working out of God’s purposes in history, Mordecai is challenging Esther to ask herself, “What if? What if I am the answer to my people’s prayers? What if I, in my position as queen, can make a difference?”
The God of the book of Esther is not a God of a burning bush or an angel messenger. The God of this book of the Bible is a God whose hand is unseen, who works in the shadows, out of sight. It’s a story with remarkable coincidences—the chief coincidence being the sudden rise of a Jewish queen just as the Jews come under threat. And yet none of these coincidences is so clearly marked that you absolutely have to attribute them to God. All of them can be explained as coincidences. But the overall shape of the story reflects God’s purposes.
And I can relate to that, can’t you? Most of us don’t receive unambiguous commands and visions from God. Most of us put our trust in a God who works in the shadows, a God whose kingdom, Jesus says, is like yeast mixed with flour to make a dough that rises, even though you can’t see it working.
Esther recognizes that there’s no guarantee of safety or success when we step up to play our part in God’s unfolding story. “If I perish, I perish,” she says. She knows that her life hangs in the balance, that she can fall from power just as quickly as Vashti if the king is in the wrong mood. Because of her uncertainty about how God is working in this situation, she doesn’t know whether she really is the one everything depends on. But she acts anyway, because the opportunity to make a difference is there. She gambles everything… And, just to give the ending away, she and her people win. But she doesn’t know that in the moment.
Advent is a season for getting ready for the birth of Jesus. It’s also a season for remembering why it was Jesus needed to come, a time for taking stock of why we need a Savior, feeling our hurts and brokenness. We feel the wounds in our own lives—relationships that are strained or unhealthy, choices we regret, the fragility of our own bodies and spirits. And we feel the wounds of the world, too—homeless families like those of the Family Promise Shelter, which will benefit from the concert later today; and the families with someone in prison that we’ll be serving through Angel Tree. We don’t know how God is going to put it all back together. But from time to time we find ourselves in circumstances where we need to ask, like Mordecai asked Esther, “Who knows? Maybe you have come to these circumstances, to this position, for such a time as this.” As we watch and wait in the season of Advent, the story of Esther reminds to ponder the possibility of providence in our own stories.
In the end, we and the world need something more than what we can do. We live in the hope of the God who is working in secret, whose deliverance will come from another quarter when our courage and imagination fail us. And we live in the hope of a God whose purposes are not secret, who in Jesus is reconciling the world to God’s own self, binding up every wound, wiping away every tear. We do what we can because maybe we are where we are for such a time as this. We do what we can, and we sigh, with the prophets, with believers throughout history: “Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come!” Amen.