Texts: Esther 4, Esther 6
It takes you by surprise. You get a phone call. Or maybe someone stops by the house unannounced. You recognize, right away, by the tone of their voice that this is something different, this is serious. “Do you have a few moments, I need to talk to you about something.” You reply, “Yes, of course. Why don’t we sit down?” Your heart misses a beat because you feel the intensity of the moment. Your mind is racing, trying to guess what is coming next. And within a few seconds a new reality unfolds. Something deep down in your gut informs you: “This conversation is going to shape the rest of my life. This news affects me in a way that changes everything.”
That is what it was like when Esther got a message from her cousin Mordecai. They were living in Susa, one of the four capitals of the great Persian Empire. A hundred years earlier, the Jews had been overrun by the Chaldeans and were forcefully taken into exile in Babylon. Fifty years later, Babylon was captured by the Persians and the Jews were allowed to return home. However, some Jews decided to stay where they were. They had discovered something important. God did not just live in the land of Israel. God was here too. Mordecai and Esther were among the Jews who stayed behind.
But living as a Jew in the heart of the Persian Empire was extremely risky, as the book of Ester makes clear. At the start we meet King Xerxes, the most powerful man in the world. And quickly we learn that not only is the King an extravagant man, he is also an imbecile, who is both extremely reckless and easily manipulated. This is especially dangerous because whenever he passes a law, that law cannot be changed, even if it turns out to be a disaster. And the king is so absent-minded that even when Mordecai saves his life, he forgets all about it. The more I read the book of Esther, the more convinced I am that the book is less about the heroism of a woman and more about the stupidity of men. But that’s an important story that many of us need to hear more regularly too.
And not only do these Jews find themselves living under an unreliable monarch and an unworkable legislative system, they also find themselves among sworn enemies. One of these enemies is Haman. Haman and Mordecai despise each other. When Haman rises to the post of prime minister, Mordecai riles him so much that he manipulates king Xerxes into issuing a decree that will wipe out all Jews in the Empire. At that point, the land of Israel was still part of the Persian Empire. So this decree threatens to eliminate the Jews from history altogether.
There is only one faint hope for the Jews – one tiny thread holding them up from the abyss, Esther. Five years earlier, Mordecai’s cousin and adopted daughter Esther, without revealing her ethnic identity, had joined the king’s harem. The king’s previous wife, Vashti, had publicly humiliated him, when during a seven day party she refused to be shown off to the king’s crowd of men. Well the king couldn’t let this act of defiance go unpunished. After consulting with his advisors, he issued an edict saying Vashti could not come into his presence again (which is, by the way, exactly what she wanted all along) so that women throughout the empire wouldn’t get the impression that it was OK to say no to a man.
This meant that Xerxes needed a new queen. So Xerxes set up a competition which strangely resembles the TV show, The Bachelor. Women from all over the kingdom joined the king’s harem in hopes of being selected as his future queen. For a year they were groomed to prepare them for their one night with the king. And once Xerxes met Esther, he was so enamored with her that he instantaneously proclaims her the winner. However, being queen did not give Esther the automatic intimacy with the king one might imagine. The king still kept his harem, and no one could address the king unless he took their fancy and he waved his golden scepter at them. If you approached the king without him waving his golden scepter at you, you would be put to death, no matter if you were the queen.
This is the context for Mordecai’s conversation with Esther. Despite being queen, Esther is so isolated that she has no clue that the Jews are set to be exterminated in a few months’ time. Mordecai must inform her of the catastrophic decree. However, the one important detail which Mordecai conveniently omits is that he is the one who got them into this mess. The decree came about partly because of Mordecai’s mindless stubbornness in angering Haman. For he refused to honor Haman when the king promoted him to the post of prime minister.
What Mordecai does tell Esther is this: “Look, Esther, we are in trouble. Soon the Jews will face widespread destruction, and you might be the only one who can do something about it.” You can feel Esther’s stomach muscles tightening and her breath getting short. She tries to escape: “Don’t you realize that if I approach the king without him waving the scepter at me that I’m as good as dead. Do you really think, me revealing my Jewish identity and begging for mercy will make a difference?” Mordecai replies coolly, “What makes you think you’re going to survive this massacre? Your secret will one day come out, and being queen ain’t gonna help you. If you keep silent and do nothing, God will eventually turn this whole thing around. But it’ll be too late for you and for me. Maybe this is exactly why you have become queen. You thought it was a way to save yourself, but perhaps this is how God will save God’s people. Maybe you have come to this royal position for exactly this moment, for just such a time as this.”
What does Esther do at this decisive moment? She stops denying, stops making excuses, stops running away. She realizes this needs more than her own strength, so she falls back on the devotional habits of her people and calls on the Jews to fast with her. She resolves that she will do all that she can to help her people, even it it means approaching the king, and his great scepter. She takes stock of the reality of her situation and realizes that she must disclose her true identity. And she says simply, “If I perish, I perish.”
As Sam Wells points out in his commentary on Esther, what we have here is a mini-Gospel. The great King Xerxes, the ruler over the whole world, is a clumsy parody of God. Mordecai is a kind of Adam, whose pride puts his whole people at the point of death. Haman is a kind of Satan. And Esther is a kind of Jesus, who willingly risks laying down her life for the salvation of the Jews. The whole story of Esther by the way is structured around a series of meals, just as the Bible is a story stretched between the first meal of Adam and Eve, the Last Supper of Jesus and the disciples, and the final heavenly banquet of the kingdom of God.
To keep the story short, Esther does, indeed, save her people. She does so because she is stirred to an act of extraordinary fortitude. She does so because she strings Xerxes along until he is putty in her seductive hand. She does so because of a benevolent turn of events triggered by the king’s insomnia. And she does so because Haman’s outsized ego and his hostility to Mordecai obscure his political judgment. In other words Esther requires a mixture of courage, charm, insight, and luck. The king issues a new decree that enables the Jews to live another day.
The story teaches us a number of general lessons. It teaches us that life under totalitarian authority is dangerous for everybody, especially women and minority ethnic groups. It teaches us that power is not simply an all or nothing thing. And the story highlights the wildness of life: Esther is queen and yet still vulnerable; she is a Jew and yet she can marry the most powerful man in the world; she can be completely unaware that she is shortly to be executed yet she can also wrap the king around her little finger by using her exquisite sense of timing, her insight into human nature, her beauty and her sexuality.
But the heart of the story lies in these echoing words, words which are meant to make our stomachs tighten and our breaths falter just as much as if Mordecai were speaking them to us today. “Perhaps you have come to this place, to this moment, to these people, to this challenge, for just such a time as this.”
I want you to think about Esther. She had some things. She lacked other things. She had beauty. She had a certain kind of training. She had a very ambitious cousin. She had a very powerful husband. But she didn’t have any power over her own life. She didn’t have her parents around to guide her. She was cut off from her people, isolated in the king’s palace from what was happening to her people. Being Queen wouldn’t be enough to save her when people came to kill her people. It also didn’t grant her any real personal intimacy with her husband.
Think about Esther, and then think about yourself. You have some things. You lack other things. Maybe you have the gift of great intelligence. Maybe you don’t, and you are free of the burden of feeling that you have to be wise all the time. Maybe you have good looks, and maybe you do not. Maybe you have a calm and stable family life. Maybe you feel like no one is there to support you, and that you have to experience the hardship, anxiety, and fear that come when you aren’t surrounded by loved ones. Maybe you find yourself doing a job which you love, or maybe you have no idea why you are doing what you are doing, but are uncertain about what to do next. Maybe you find yourself in a prominent public role where your voice can be used to make changes to the injustices all around us, or maybe you find yourself out of the limelight, uncertain of how you can make a difference.
Think about yourself, what gifts you uniquely have, and which you know that you lack. And then think about the situations in which you find yourself. Think about all the ways in which you feel powerless. About the number of times you have said: “What I need is,” “What my family really needs,” “If only my job was more like,” “What Dallas needs is.” And “what Peace Mennonite or Mennonite Church USA needs to do is…” And then think of all those times when you believed that there was nothing that you could do about it.
And then imagine an exasperated man, Mordecai, coming up behind you and tapping you on the shoulder. He tells you: “Perhaps you have been given these skills and experiences, these privileges and deprivations, so that just at this very moment you could do what no one else could do, you could be what no one else could be. God made you just as you are because he wanted someone just like you. Maybe all this happened and you came to be here for such a time as this.”
Think again about Esther. She didn’t have it all that easy. Neither, no doubt, do any of you. She had some real gifts, and so do all of us here. She embarked upon a long period of training and preparation, the final purpose of which, for most of the time, she didn’t really understand. Maybe this is how you often feel too. She found herself at a crucial moment – not a moment for sudden action, but a moment when she realized that the next bit of her life must be given for a cause that went way above her desires, her safety, her own privilege, even her status. You could call it a moment of conversion. And what she was converted to was a further time of preparation, of waiting, fasting, planning, bidding her time until it was worth taking an enormous risk and then executing a careful plan. Perhaps most curious of all, the person who brought her face to face with her destiny was no saint, but her stubborn, proud, scheming cousin, who had done a whole lot to put his people in this mess in the first place.
Like Esther, we all can come up with reasons to say no. Reasons which make it easy for us to say that now is not a good time. Maybe you are thinking that you are too young to be worrying about all this stuff. Maybe you are getting ready to start a family. Maybe you are nearing retirement and are not sure what is next. Maybe you are thinking, well let me just wait until I find a new job, or maybe you are thinking that you are getting old in years and that you have made those big decisions a long time ago.
Watch out. For sometime in your life, often when you don’t feel ready, a Mordecai will come into your life, perhaps not a role model character either, who will nonetheless speak the truth: “Look back at all those parts of your story that make you unique, especially those events that felt like setbacks at the time but are now vital to who you are. Look at the position you’re in now, not obsessing about what it’s not, but seeing the unique opportunities in front of you. And look at these massive challenges facing us. Global challenges about migration, poverty, continual war and climate change. Ecclesial challenges surrounding unity, difference, sexuality, and finding new ways of displaying God’s peace to our neighbors. Local challenges about how to inhabit the story of the South while combatting white privilege and bigotry. About how to help DFW become a city of which all its citizens can be truly proud. Maybe God has put you right here, right now, for such a time as this.”
Esther listened. Who knows what would have happened to the Jews if she hadn’t. Scripture and history are full of other examples of people, ordinary men and women who listened as well. Who risked confronting the darkness which we know inhabits the world. Who were unwilling to sit idly by, unwilling to accept the excuses which entered into their heads, and instead found small ways to use whatever gifts they had to be agents of change in our world.
The question today is “Will you listen?” Will we listen? Will we do what Esther did, realize the reality of our situation, seek all the help we need, plan carefully, fast, and put our lives in the hands of God? Because maybe, just maybe, God put us all right here, right now, for just such a time as this.