For Such a Time as This – Rev. Amanda Wagner
October 4, 2015 (Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
Psalm 124; Esther 7:1-6, 9-10
Within the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, that is, the Old and New Testaments, there are exactly two books named for women. Ruth is one, and the other, which I read out of today, is Esther. Don’t worry if you don’t know much about Esther or her story; there’s probably a good reason for that.
In this church, we get our readings from the lectionary, which is just a fancy way of saying that a bunch of smart people set up a schedule where we can read through the highlights of the Bible over the course of three years. What that means for us as we follow the three year lectionary cycle, is that for one Sunday, every three years, we get to read part of one chapter of the Book of Esther. That’s it.
To be honest with you, before this week, I’m pretty sure that the last time I actually sat down to study the story of Esther is when it came up in the lectionary three years ago. Before that, even with all of the classes I took in college and seminary, I think the most I learned about Esther came from the Veggie Tales video.
But for as little as it’s emphasized, particularly in Christian circles, the Book of Esther is a pretty cool story. You’ve got irony and intrigue, plot twists, royalty, a villain, and of course a hero who rises up in order to save the day. Or perhaps I should say heroine, because as the name of the book implies, Esther takes a starring role.
The book isn’t very long, only 10 chapters, and it can be read in less than an hour, as our Wednesday night Bible Study found out this week. So I’m going to suggest that you take some time this week to sit down and read it, or read it again, or have someone read it to you. Because I’m about to give you the Cliff’s Notes version, and I know I won’t be able to give it the justice it deserves.
The Book of Esther takes place while the Hebrew people are living in exile in Persia. The story begins with the Persian king, Ahaserus, who has thrown a great banquet and wants to show off his queen, Vashti, to all of his officials and other important people in attendance. But Vashti decides that she doesn’t want to parade around in front of a bunch of drunk people, so she refuses to go.
Well the king is livid. Not only has Vashti embarrassed him, but by standing up to the king, she has become a “bad example” for all the other women of the land who might begin to look with contempt on their husbands – and we can’t have that! So King Ahasuerus has Vashti banned from the kingdom, and vows to find another woman, an even prettier woman, to take her place.
Enter the young woman, Esther. She’s a Jewish orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai. When the palace officials round up all the beautiful young virgins of the land, Mordecai urges Esther to go and see if she can find favor with the king.
After all of the young women are given a year’s worth of spa treatments, the king is allowed to spend time with each of them, dismissing one after another after another until he gets to Esther. She is the most beautiful of all the women, and he immediately crowns her his new queen.
Meanwhile, Mordecai, who has been watching the proceedings from the palace gate, catches wind of a plot to overthrow the king. He tells Esther about the plot, and she passes the word on to the king. The plot is uncovered, the king is saved, and the would-be assassins are sent to the gallows.
Things progress happily for a while until King Ahasuerus appoints Haman to be his chief advisor. Haman is quite power-hungry, and he really likes it when the king commands all of the servants and everyone else around the palace gate to bow 0down in deference to Haman.
But Haman notices that there is this one person who refuses to bow down to him: Mordecai, the Jew. Haman becomes very angry, but then he says to himself, You know, I ought to just beat him right here, but that’s beneath me. No, I’ll get back at him. When the time is right, I’m going to have all of the Jews killed.
So Haman bides his time, putting everything into place for what will essentially be an act of genocide. He begins to feed evil ideas to the king, telling Ahasuerus how horrible the Jews are, and that they refuse to bow down to anyone, even the king himself. Haman continues to push the king until Ahasuerus agrees to issue an edict sentencing all the Jews in Persia to death.
As the edict is sent out to all the provinces of Persia, Mordecai goes to see Esther. He tells her that she has to do something to save them, especially since Esther has never revealed that she is also Jewish, and the king has essentially sentenced his very own queen to death as well.
In what is probably the most well-known line from this book, Mordecai muses aloud to Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have become Queen for such a time as this.”
Esther tells Mordecai that she will speak to the king, knowing full well that appearing before him without being called is even worse than when Vashti refused to go after being summoned. Anyone appearing in the king’s presence without being summoned runs the risk of being put to death, even the Queen herself.
So Esther tells Mordecai to gather all the Jewish people in the area, and have them fast and keep vigil for three days. “After three days, she says, “I will go to the king, and if I die, I die.” For the next three days, the people fast and wear the sackcloth of mourning.
At this point their fate rests entirely in Esther’s hands, and Esther’s fate rests entirely in the king’s hands. Amazingly, when she does go in to see the king, Ahasuerus spares her life and agrees to see her. He tells her that he will give her whatever she wants. She asks to throw a private party just for King Ahasuerus and Haman, telling the king that she will reveal what she really wants at the banquet.
Now Haman is super excited. He runs home to tell his wife all about how the Queen has invited him to a private banquet. But on his way home, he runs into Mordecai at the palace gate. Mordecai again refuses to bow down before Haman, and Haman decides right then and there that he just won’t have any fun at the banquet unless Mordecai is dead. That very night he builds a giant gallows, and plans to ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai hung.
Now I promised you irony and a plot twist, and here it is. While Esther is setting up for the banquet, King Ahasuerus is looking back through the royal log book and realizes that Mordecai was never honored for his part in foiling the plot to kill the king. So Ahasuerus calls Haman as his chief adviser, and asks, “If I want to really honor somebody for valiant service, what would you suggest I do?”
Haman of course thinks that the king wants to honor him, so he says, “Well, you’ve gotta throw a parade. Take the guy out on your very own horse, put a crown on his head, give him some fancy clothes to wear, and get an official to walk the guy all around the city declaring what an awesome person he is.”
The king gives it some thought, and says, “That’s a great idea! Do all of that for Mordecai.” So Haman, who entered the palace to demand that Mordecai be killed, instead ends up parading Mordecai around town, shouting about how wonderful he is. After that, Haman slinks around town with his head covered so nobody will recognize him.
Now we’ve come to the part that I read earlier. Haman goes to the Queen’s banquet, and when the king asks her to make her request, she reveals that she is Jewish. Then she asks that her life and the life of her people be spared.
The king realizes that Haman is behind this evil plot, and a helpful servant points out that there just happens to be a brand new gallows waiting to be used. So the king orders his people to hang Haman on his very own gallows. I guess that’s what they call “poetic justice.”
There’s a bit more to the story, but I’ll stop there. I want to talk for a moment about what a strange story this is. Of course, having a named woman as one of the central characters is unusual enough, but did you notice that I never once mentioned God in this story?
The name of God never appears in the Book of Esther. In this story, it is Esther, not God, who commands that the people fast for three days. It is Esther who delivers her people out of the hands of those who wish to kill them. But even though God is never named in the story, God is not absent either.
God is present and active in the life of Esther. Innocent lives are saved because of her action. The humble are lifted up and the haughty are brought low. The experience of the people is turned from mourning into dancing, into a holiday called Purim, which is still celebrated today.
All of the things that happened in the Book of Esther are echoed in psalms and prayers throughout the Bible. Anticipating the birth of Jesus, Mary prays, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Psalm 30, verse 11 states, “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” Even though the name of God is never spoken, it does not mean that God isn’t there.
We have this strange preoccupation with naming God in this country. We fight over prayer in schools and having the Ten Commandments on display in the courtroom. We argue over the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, never questioning if we should be pledging our allegiance to any flag or government.
Mordecai didn’t have to utter the name of God to know where his allegiance lay and who he would and wouldn’t be bowing down to. There are a lot of places in this world where uttering the name of God isn’t allowed. But it doesn’t mean that God isn’t there.
Conversely, there are a lot of places in this country where we fight to include the name of God, when God has been there all along. Instead of fighting over when and where to invoke the name of God, let us give thanks for the God who is already here with us and has always been here with us.
Let us take the opportunities, whenever they come along, to take a stand for what is right, not to make ourselves look good, but to point others to the God who has not abandoned us, who is working within us and through us to make this world a better place.
We don’t have to be appointed queen or king to make a difference. We can do God’s work and share God’s love from whatever place we find ourselves. Who knows? Perhaps we have been brought to this place for such a time as this… Amen.