Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
August 12, 2018
Esther (selected passages), (CEB)
2 16Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, to his own palace, in the tenth month (that is, the month of Tevet) in the seventh year of his rule. 17The king loved Esther more than all the other women; she had won his love and his favor more than all the others. He placed the royal crown on her head and made her ruler in place of Vashti.
3 12So in the first month, on the thirteenth day, royal scribes were summoned to write down everything that Haman ordered. The orders were for the king’s rulers and the governors in charge of each province, as well as for the officials of each people. They wrote in the alphabet of each province and in the language of each people. They wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed the order with the king’s royal ring. 13Fast runners were to take the order to all the provinces of the king. The order commanded people to wipe out, kill, and destroy all the Jews, both young and old, even women and little children. This was to happen on a single day—the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month of Adar). They were also to seize their property.
4 10In reply Esther ordered Hathach to tell Mordecai: 11“All the king’s officials and the people in his provinces know that there’s a single law in a case like this. Any man or woman who comes to the king in the inner courtyard without being called is to be put to death. Only the person to whom the king holds out the gold scepter may live. In my case, I haven’t been called to come to the king for the past thirty days.”
12When they told Mordecai Esther’s words, 13he had them respond to Esther: “Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace. 14In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.”
15Esther sent back this word to Mordecai: 16“Go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa and tell them to give up eating to help me be brave. They aren’t to eat or drink anything for three whole days, and I myself will do the same, along with my female servants. Then, even though it’s against the law, I will go to the king; and if I am to die, then die I will.” 17So Mordecai left where he was and did exactly what Esther had ordered him.
7 When the king and Haman came in for the banquet with Queen Esther, 2the king said to her, “This is the second day we’ve met for wine. What is your wish, Queen Esther? I’ll give it to you. And what do you want? I’ll do anything—even give you half the kingdom.”
3Queen Esther answered, “If I please the king, and if the king wishes, give me my life—that’s my wish—and the lives of my people too. That’s my desire.
8 5She said, “If the king wishes, and if I please him—that is, if the idea seems right to the king, and if he still sees me as a good person—then have people write something to call back the order—the order that put into effect the plan of Haman, Hammedatha the Agagite’s son, that he wrote to destroy the Jews in all the royal provinces. 6How can I bear to watch the terrible evil about to sweep over my people? And how can I bear to watch others destroy my own family?”
7King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to Mordecai the Jew, “Look, I’ve given Esther everything Haman owned. And Haman himself my servants have impaled on the pole because he planned to attack the Jews. 8So you yourselves write to the Jews whatever you like in the name of the king and seal the letters with the king’s royal ring. Anything written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s royal ring can’t be called back.”
16For the Jews it was a day of light, happiness, joy, and honor. 17In every province and in every town—wherever the king’s order and his law arrived—for the Jews it was a day of happiness and joy. For them it meant feasts and a holiday. Many people in the land became Jews themselves, out of fear of the Jews.
Let’s talk about this woman, Esther. And I actually want to start today, at the end of her story. Were any of you able to read through Esther this week? If so, then you know that the ending of the book seems a bit strange. Here’s how it goes, “Certainly, Mordecai the Jew was second only to King Ahasuerus in importance. The Jews also admired him greatly, and his many brothers and sisters were proud of him. He always wanted to do good things for his Jewish people and to speak up for all his family whenever they needed help.”
It seems a little strange doesn’t it; that the book that bears Esther’s name ends with extravagant praise of Mordecai? Now, we could very easily make all kinds of snide remarks about how men get all the credit and so on. But I don’t think that’s really what’s going on here. The Jews needed a reason to celebrate, and they were celebrating everyone and everything they could at this point in their history because things were awfully tough. And they have celebrated Esther, too. In fact, there is still a Jewish holiday, called Purim (poor ‘eem), which celebrates Esther alone. And she does have the distinct honor of being one of only two women in the entire Christian canon who has a Biblical book that bears her name. So why was it so important for the Jewish people to celebrate Esther and Mordecai? Well, to understand that, we need to understand why things were so tough for the Jewish people at this time.
This is a time in Israel’s history when division reigns. You will remember from earlier weeks that for many, many generations, Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. The Northern Kingdom had eventually been conquered by the Assyrians, and where we pick up this morning, the Southern Kingdom, too, has been conquered, twice; first, by the Babylonians, then later, by the Medes (meeds) and Persians. The result of all these conquests is that the Jewish people were ripped from their homeland and scattered all about the now vast Persian Empire. Now, as many of us would discern, a key to survival in a foreign and hostile place is to sort of “lay low” and not “rock the boat,” so to speak. And that’s how the Jewish people lived during this time of exile. They did their best to assimilate into the culture around them, while at the same time remaining true to the one true God.
So it was that when one of the ruling elites in a little corner of the Persian Empire decided to have a beauty contest to pick his next wife, the Jewish women were included in the pageantry. They didn’t reveal they were Jewish, it would seem, nor did anyone ask. You see, King Ahasueurus had decided his wife, Queen Vashti, was a bit too rebellious, and he needed a Queen who would be more submissive to her King. Well, the King’s little beauty pageant served its purpose well, and a young Jewish woman named Esther was chosen to become the next Queen. Esther had been orphaned as a young child, and she had grown up in the home of her cousin, Mordecai. Now, the way the story is written, we are intended to believe, I think, that Esther would not have been chosen if her heritage and background were known. But it wasn’t known, and the King seemed to be so enraptured with Esther’s beauty that he didn’t bother to ask about those pesky little details like her past.
Yet, it seems there was much more to Esther than just good looks. I think it’s fair to say that Esther also possessed a certain “inner beauty.” Even by all measures of physical beauty, eventually one turns to something that is beyond measure: the person. Esther had such unique qualities that she “was admired by all who saw her,” the Bible says. And “the king loved Esther more than all the other women” that were brought before him. But the King’s Court wasn’t such a place of complete beauty. Of course, we’ve already seen that in the fact that the King decided to dismiss his wife because she refused to be at his every “beck and call.” But within the court, there was one even more corrupt than the king, a man named Haman.
If every story has a villain, Haman is the guy in Esther’s story. His sole focus was gaining more power for himself, and he was slowly moving up the ranks within the king’s court. Things were going his way and he loved it. As Haman would make his way to the royal palaces each day, the citizens would bow at his feet, and if anyone did not, he would stop his procession and order that person to bow before him. There was one citizen, though, who refused; a man by the name of Mordecai. Yes, the very same Mordecai who raised the young woman that now sat on the Queen’s throne. Well, Haman found out that the reason Mordecai wouldn’t bow to him was because he was Jewish, because of course, the Jewish people only worship the one true God. Well, Haman concluded that no honor would satisfy him as long as this one man continued to ignore him. Still, Haman felt it was beneath him to destroy one insignificant person, so when he learned that Mordecai was a Jew, he decided that all the Jews needed to be destroyed. So, he persuaded King Ahasuerus to sign a document that would allow, on a particular day, the complete destruction of this relatively small but significant immigrant group. The King gave his consent, and even at this point, King Ahasuerus did not know that his fair Esther was a Jew herself, nor did Esther know that the king had signed this edict against her people.
Well, word gets around, as it always does, and Mordecai learns of Haman’s plan. So he gets a message to Esther that she needs to go in and speak with the king to persuade him to rescind his order. Esther is more than a little skeptical; you don’t simply march into the king’s presence without an invitation. But Mordecai is more than persuasive. He says, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Well, when the man who raised you talks to you like that, you listen, and draw up your strength, because you really just can’t say, “No.”
So Esther goes to work; she begins to fast and pray, and sends word to all the Jews through Mordecai that they should do the same. And after three days, she enters the king’s presence. Esther was the only person who could do what needed to be done. She had won a place of great privilege, and now, with that position came great responsibility. The entire fate of her people rested squarely on her shoulders. We can be quite sure that Esther was mortally afraid of the task before her. But two things stand out about how Ester responded to this challenge. First, she put her concern for the lives of her own people above any concern for her own life. In other words, she was willing to make a sacrifice of her own life if that was necessary to save the lives of her people. And secondly, she turned to God for the support she needed to carry forward. That’s why the time of fasting and prayer was so important; Esther knew she needed God with her if this plan had any chance of working.
Fortunately, the king is pleased to see Esther when she makes her way to him, and he invites her in to his court quite willingly. The king asks Esther what she would like and promises to give her whatever she desires. Esther tells the king she wants him to come to a celebration feast. So he goes, and again he inquires of Esther what she desires, along with another promise to give her anything. Well, Esther didn’t want half the kingdom as the king had offered. She told the king that she desired her own life and the life of her people. She wanted him to call back the order that had gone out to kill all the Jews. We might fully expect the king to get angry at Esther for being rebellious, but his response is quite the opposite. He willingly grants Esther her desire, giving her permission to write whatever she wanted on behalf of her people, and that’s exactly what she and Mordecai did, and then the king signed off on it. And just like that, the Jewish people were safe once again.
I’d like to tell you that there’s some really profound lesson here. But I don’t think it’s that complicated. Esther’s story reminds us of the rather obvious, though not always easy. We have an obligation to one another. Our lives are no more and no less valuable than the lives of any other person. When we are in a position to help someone else, we have an obligation to follow through on that. Did you hear that story a few years ago about a guy in New York who dangled off a fire escape in order to save a man who was sitting in the window of his burning apartment with no where to go? That’s the kind of the thing we have to be willing to do. When we see someone else in danger; whether physical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise, we have to be willing to step out on a limb to save that person, even if it means risking our own well-being. That is what Esther did for the Jewish people, and it is also exactly what Christ has done for us. And each of us is called to “take up our cross” and to follow Christ. We are privileged to count ourselves among those who are saved by Christ. But with great privilege comes great responsibility, and that’s the responsibility to bring others into a life-saving relationship with Christ as well. And here’s the thing; if it seems too tough, all we have to do is lean upon God, through whom all things are possible.
Thanks be to God. Amen.