A sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI.
By now the Kingdom of Judah has been conquered and all the people of any social standing whatsoever have been taken to Babylon in a couple of deportations. The Exile was a pivotal point in the history of the people of God.
For the history of God up to this point, they have been a holy people on a pilgrimage to their holy land. They have entered into their land and eventually a temple was built. Their entire identity has been wrapped up in the connection between their identity as a people, the land that God gave to them, and the temple which sits at the highest point of the holy city. But in the exile, the people were dispersed. Not all were taken to Babylon, others stayed, but still others went north, others went south, and this marked the beginning of the Diaspora, or the dispersion. From this point on, God’s people will not be concentrated in a particular geographical location, but will be dispersed throughout the world, something that exists until the present day.
By this time, there has been another major shift in the politics of the region, and the Babylonian Empire was defeated by the Persian Empire, and their king, Cyrus the Great, had a policy of allowing those in captivity to trickle back to their homelands, after all, they are more willing subjects if they are happier.
But the captivity was not just a couple of years, it was a significant amount of time. Following the commands from God through the prophets, they put down roots, built homes, established businesses. But more than anything, they had to figure out what it meant to be God’s people while they were away from the land and the temple. What did it mean? The Hebrew world would be forever changed. Instead of holding place as the center of their faith and practice, they held the text as a center of their faith and practice. This was when rabbis and synagogues arose, this is when the Old Testament as we understood it began to take form and become committed to writing.
But when they were allowed to go home, not everyone did. People had families and homes and businesses in the places where they had been taken. So while some people did return, many remained in the diaspora, in dispersion.
Our story takes place within the Persian Empire, a few kings after Cyrus.
Ahasuerus is king and at the beginning he is hosting a banquet. The King calls for the queen Vashti to come and parade her beauty. Now, it is important for us to remember that in this context, queens had prestige, but no power. They were to be seen when the king desired, but absent every other time. They were not to speak, just be pretty. This is not okay, but this is the context in which this story arises. So the king calls for Vashti, and she says, “No.”
Well, the king is very displeased by this disobedience and he deposed Vashti as queen.
So, now the king needs another queen. The king, then, calls for beautiful women be gathered from around the empire to brought to him so that he could choose another queen. Among them is Esther, who was being raised by Mordecai, her uncle, because she was an orphan. Mordecai and his family were Jews who lived in Susa, a principal Persian city. So to make a long story short, Esther is eventually the one who wins the heart of Ahasuerus and she is made queen.
Mordecai sat at the king’s gate, which denotes that Mordecai was in a relatively close position to the king. After Mordecai uncovered a plot to kill the king, Haman was made a very high official in the empire, above all other officials. Everyone else at the king’s gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, but Mordecai refused to do so, after all, God’s people cannot pay homage to anyone other than God.
Haman, of course, didn’t like this one bit. scripture tells us that Haman was “infuriated”. Haman was then told that Mordecai was a Jew and so Haman didn’t want to deal with Mordecai himself, and instead, he went to the king, and brought up a bunch of fear within him.
“There are people in your kingdom, throughout your kingdom, and their laws are different, they are different, their language is different, and they do not obey the laws.” Haman also promised to pay a great deal of money to the king’s treasury if he signed this law. So Haman convinced the king to let him kill all of the Jews throughout the kingdom, to purge the kingdom of these foreigners, of these immigrants, those people who speak a different language and have different customs.
So the king signs this order with his signet ring and it became a law, a law which may have been popular amongst the native Persians, but a law which was wrong and unjust nonetheless, and it was done through a process with which we are very familiar to this day.
This is what brings us to our text, Mordecai learns of this plot, tears his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes and let out a loud cry in the midst of the city, all signs of grief and mourning.
Now, Mordecai cannot go in and talk to Esther as she is the queen and he is in sackcloth, and no one in sackcloth is allowed to enter the king’s gate, so Mordecai and Esther send messages back and forth through one of the servants pledged to her services.
Mordecai wants Esther to do something to stop this, but Esther reminds Mordecai that if anyone, the queen included, approaches the king in his inner courts without being summoned, they will be killed. Mordecai responds that if this is carried out, it will come to light that she, too, is a Jew and that she will not be safe. And then Mordecai’s message ends with the very well known line, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
I can imagine that Esther had great fear and doubts within her, and likely let out a great sigh. She tells Mordecai to ask people to fast for her, as she will do for three days.
The story continues, “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
The Book of Esther is a unique book, in that it does not mention God by name — in any of the Hebrew words used for God. It does not speak of the burning bush or Jerusalem or the temple or deliverance from Egypt, or the law or Abraham or anything. We do not have any of the typical religious language that we associate with religiosity. Instead, we have the story about a family and a people and a king and injustice.
Esther’s people were still trying to figure out what it means to be God’s covenant people away from home, how to live out their faith in a foreign land. In the language of that great Psalm of lament, Psalm 137, they are still learning how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. All the while they are longing for a promised Messiah, who will bring redemption to their peoples, trying to live faithfully in the time of waiting.
While the Book of Esther doesn’t mention God explicitly, God is still present. God is present in the background, God is present through Mordecai and the king choosing Esther and Esther. There are a number of coincidences in Esther, but in reality, they are the movements of God.
I think that in many ways, the book of Esther reflects our experiences. We all want to hear God’s voice in a burning bush, but very few of us will experience this. We all want to have messages from God chiseled into stone by God’s hand atop the mountain, but rarely, if ever, will we experience this. We want to hear God’s voice as clearly as it seems that Abram hears it, but very few of us will have this experience. We want to be able to do something big, like stand in front of Pharaoh, call “Let my people go” and lead them through two walls of water into freedom, but very few of us will have this role. Instead, we have our ordinary lives filled with ordinary people trying to figure out what it means to be a the people of God, trying to live out our faith in a land where the overarching culture doesn’t hold the same religious convictions. We try to live out our faith remembering that the messiah has come, but looking forward to the time in which the messiah’s work will be complete, when justice and peace and wholeness and true harmony will reign. When sickness and death and crying and pain will be no more. When there will be no more hunger, when there will be no more gap between the rich and the poor, when there will be no one on the margins, when we will not have to talk about another unarmed black man getting killed by white police officers, because we will neither be prejudiced or colorblind, but we will appreciate the diversity of the palette with which God created us.
As we think about living out our faith, as we think about God’s command to feed the hungry, welcome the immigrant, clothe the naked, release the prisoners, and so on, we so often ask ourselves, “what can I do? the problem is so big?”
In Esther, we see people just doing what they can. Mordecai speaks to Esther, and Esther, although reluctant at first, sets aside her fear, and even though she is breaking the law and may perish, she stands before power to work for justice. Everyone does their part, and with God’s assistance in the process, their efforts become more than the sum of their parts. While it is likely that none of our efforts will bring forth radical and massive change, God doesn’t demand for us to do things on a grand scale. God calls for us to live out our faith, to be Christ’s hands and feet, to work for peace and justice in our lives because this is what God desires of us. And trusting that God is working in the background, we have the faith that the fruit of our labors will be more than the visible sum of its parts.
Esther’s people were strangers in a foreign land, as are we. Esther’s people were trying to figure out how to live out their faith without controlling the social structure, as do we. There was no burning bush or voice from smoke and fire. There is Esther who becomes the queen, Mordecai who is in the right place at the right time, there are a lot of coincidences in this book. Or maybe they are not coincidences, maybe they are the fingerprints of God’s action behind the scenes. So as we move through Advent, let us take a lesson from Esther, that even as we wait for the redemption that the coming of God will complete, we too cannot just throw our hands up at such a time as this, for maybe, just maybe, we are in the situation we are in for such a time as this. Perhaps this is all a part of us finding out way as we wait for redemption and restoration.