Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Faith in God's Promises: Leadership and Courage

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.

Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “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.” Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “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.” Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him. Esther 4:1-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Esther. Our reading on this Second Sunday of Advent is from the book of Esther. I’m curious. How many of you know the story of Esther? (There’s no shame here.)

Esther is the Bible’s version of novellas. It’s like the novellas that are so popular in Mexican culture - stories that, on their surface, may seem a little silly or comedic, but that have serious undertones. Esther is also one of only two books in scripture that are named after women. (Can you name the other one?) And, one more note...nowhere in Esther is God mentioned. But, more on that later.

So, what’s the backstory? The story of Esther is set in roughly the fourth century B.C. We’ve progressed in time from last week’s reading in Habakkuk, which was set before the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Under the Babylonians, the people of Judah were exiled - sent away to other parts of the empire. But, then, God sent another ruler - Cyrus the Great from Persia - to conquer Babylon. The Persians now are in power. Cyrus has allowed some Jews to return to Jerusalem. Yet, there are others who have married, settled and made these foreign lands their homes. Who stay. Who continue to live as a religious minority in the heart of the powerful Persian empire. Within the city of Susa.

This is the setting for today’s story. For Esther’s story. Now, Esther is an unlikely heroine. She is an orphan. Like the exiled Jews, she has no security or identify or family roots. She is taken in by her cousin, Mordecai, who becomes her foster parent. Yet, this living situation is short-lived. Esther is very beautiful. And when the king - King Ahasuerus, who is better known as Xerxes - when he dismisses his queen because she has refused to obey him, Xerxes sends his officials out into the city and surrounding area. To find all of the beautiful women - beautiful virgins - and bring them back. To create a harem. Which will allow Xerxes to audition them. One by one. Until he finds the right one to be his queen.  

Esther is swept up in this search and taken from Mordecai’s home to the palace. It is there that she is thrown into the political and sexual intrigue of the royal court.

Soon it is Esther’s turn to audition. She is prepared for her audition. She is given six months of treatment with pleasant-smelling creams. And another six months with fragrant oils. She is given carefully chosen foods to eat. She is given seven servants and moved with them into the best rooms in the harem. After a year has passed, it is her turn to audition before Xerxes. 

We are told in chapter 3, that the king loved Esther more than all the other women. That she had won his love and his favor more than all the others. He placed the royal crown on her head and made her his queen. And then he held a lavish feast - “the feast of Esther” - for the entire court. He declared a public holiday. And gave out gifts with royal generosity. It was a huge celebration for Esther, the new queen.

But, Esther had a problem. She had a secret. No one, including the king - no one knew that she was Jewish. No one knew that her name really wasn’t Esther, but that it was Hadassah. As she was being taken to the king’s harem, her foster father Mordecai tells her not to tell anyone. Not to share her family background. Or her race. And, so, she hadn’t. She’d kept her secret.

Now Mordecai worked at the King’s Gate. One of the king’s officials was named Haman. Haman was an Amalekite, people who were enemies of Judah. Every time Haman passed by the King’s Gate, all of the workers would bow facedown to him, because the king had ordered it. All of the workers, except one. Mordecai. At first Haman didn’t notice. But, when the other workers mentioned this to him, he began to pay attention, and to see that Mordecai wasn’t kneeling or bowing down to him. Haman became very angry. He decided to kill not only Mordecai, but all of the Jews throughout the entire Persian kingdom.

So Haman went to the king. And convinced the king to issue an order. To exterminate all of the Jews, young and old, even women and little children. This was to happen one day in the near future. All of them would be killed. All of their property would also be seized on that day. The order was posted throughout the kingdom.

It is at this point where our story today opens. When Mordecai learns about the order, he is not silent. He tears his clothes, dresses in mourning clothes, puts ashes on his head, and then goes into the heart of the city and begins to cry out. Loudly. And bitterly. He begins to mourn. As more of the Jews hear about the order, they, too, begin to mourn and cry out.

Word of this reaches Esther in the palace. She sends Mordecai everyday clothing to wear, but he rejects it. Then, she sends one of her servants to go to Mordecai and to find out why he is acting this way. Her servant returns with the full story. It also includes a request from Mordecai to Esther - that she go to the king to seek his kindness and his help for her people.

When Esther hears this, she becomes afraid. Even in her position as queen, she does not recognize her own power and privilege. She is afraid that if she enters the king’s inner courtyard without a direct summons from him, that she will be put to death. Not to mention the fact that the king doesn’t know that she is a Jew.

When Mordecai hears how afraid she is, he sends word to her. He tells her that, even though she is queen, she will not be spared from the order. But that, because of her position, she is in exact place she needs to be to help her people. “Maybe,” Mordecai says to her. “Maybe it was for such a time as this that you came to be part of the royal family.” Finally, Esther sends word back. “Tell the Jews to fast and to pray for me. I will go to the king. Even though it’s against the law, I will go to him. If I am to die, then die I will.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the book of Esther, as I mentioned before, is that nowhere in the entire book is God mentioned. Nowhere in the book are there any theophanies - where God appears to a human. Nowhere in the book are there any angels who appear, saying, “Do not be afraid.” Nowhere in the book are there any prophets sent directly to the people by God. God is hidden in Esther’s story. Just as God is often hidden in our stories.

But, just because God is hidden, doesn’t mean that God is not at work. Esther’s story is a story about how we are to live as people of God. People who have been freed through the gift of life in Jesus Christ, given to us by God. But people who must still live and act in this world. How are we to act as people of God when the forces of death, evil, and violence seem so prominent. And the forces of God - the forces of life - seem so hidden. How are we to act?

Luther speaks to this directly in his writings on the two kingdoms. That our lives are a struggle between two cities: the city of God, which consists of those who love God and are obedient to God. And the city of the earth, which consists of those who love themselves and are dominated by the sin of pride. How are we to live and act in this world as God’s people especially when the values of this earthly kingdom conflict with our understanding of God’s kingdom?

How are we to live and act as countries put up border walls, yet we know that in God’s kingdom there are no borders? How are we to live and act when people are called “illegal,” but we know that God has created all people, and that Christ died on the cross for all people, and so that, in God’s kingdom, no one is illegal? How are we to live and act when the world tells us to find our security in weaponry, yet we know that our security is to be found in God? How are we to live and act in the world when the forces of death, evil and violence seem so prominent. And seem to be winning. And the forces of God seem hidden.

Perhaps it is for such a time as this. Perhaps it is for such a time as this that you and I have been called.  Like Esther, to act on the side of life. Even when it seems that God is nowhere to be found. Perhaps it is for such a time as this that you and I have been called to a place of courage. And leadership. And discipleship. Called to act on the side of life. On God’s side. Together. Even when it seems that God is hidden. Knowing that God continues to be at work in our world. Through us.

Perhaps it is for such a time as this. Amen.

Preached December 9, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 2
Readings: Esther 4:1-17; Matthew 5:13-16

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