For Such a Time as This
Esther 7:1-10: 9:20-22
Sometimes a story is the best way to hear something. Tonight we get Esther’s story. Like all good stories, it starts with someone else. In this case, the king of Persia…
The king of Persia was used to getting anything or anybody he wanted and one of those was a beautiful wife named Vashti. Well, when the book of Esther begins this king is giving a 7-day-long party. It’s a big blow out and the king is having a great time showing off his power and riches when he decides to call for Queen Vashti. He wants her to come before him wearing all her finest clothes and jewels. But something unexpected happens: Queen Vashti refuses.
The king is so confused by this – nothing like it has ever happened to him before – that he actually has to summon his wisest counselors to consult with him. The men he gathers around him decide that if the queen can flaunt the laws and customs of their society like this, then surely she’ll give other women bad ideas about how to behave. They are going to need to nip this is the bud. So Vashti is banished and it is decided that her title will be given to someone else more suitable.
All this happens in the book of Esther before Esther shows up. But here she comes.
Esther, an orphan, was raised by her cousin Mordecai. Esther is actually her Persian name but at home her Hebrew name was “Hadassah.” (You might find it interesting that Hadassah means “I will hide” while Esther means “star.”) Anyway, when Mordecai heard about the king’s search for a new queen, he took Esther to the palace to try out like the rest of the girls. “One thing,” he told her, “There’s really no need to mention you’re Jewish. Just keep it to yourself, ok?”
You can probably see where this is going. Of all the beautiful young women, the king chose Esther to be his replacement queen for the ousted Vashti. Now, if this were a bedtime story it might end here. But the Bible’s usually a bit more convoluted than a bedtime story.
So while Esther is getting used to her new palace digs, cousin Mordecai encounters the king’s right hand man, Haman. Mordecai was spending a bit of time around the palace gates, just to make sure Esther would be ok and maybe to say “hi” every now and then. Along comes Haman, who particularly liked the royal rule that ordered all who were at the palace gates to bow any time anyone from the royal court came by. But on this day he happened upon Mordecai, who was the only one at the gates who didn’t bow. Haman was furious and ordered his people to find out why this man so flagrantly disobeyed the royal rule. When word came back that Mordecai wouldn’t bow to him because Mordecai was Jewish, Haman determined that Jews were not to be tolerated and began plotting to bring about their demise. In fact, he convinces the king that they need to kill all the Jews in the land.
When this plot comes to light, Mordecai sends word to Esther and expects her to intercede with the king on behalf of all the Jewish people. Her note back to Mordecai says, “You know that an audience with the king has to be at his initiative; he has to hold out the scepter to me before I can approach. I can’t just go in there. I really don’t think it will work. Sorry.”
Mordecai’s next note was a little more direct. He wrote, “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” (Esther 4:13-14).
Who knows what went through Esther’s mind then or how she made such a quick change of mind? All we know is that she sends word back to Mordecai asking him and all the Jews he knows to fast for 3 days while she and her maids do the same, in preparation for her conversation with the king. She’s now willing to make the request and to accept the consequences. “I’ll go,” she says, “and if I perish, I perish” (4:16).
After three days she puts on her finest clothes and goes to stand just at the edge of the king’s inner court, hoping to catch his eye and to be invited in. The king notices her instantly and asks her in to talk. When Esther tells him that her heart’s desire is to host both him and his right hand man Haman at a dinner, he says “yes” at once.
Like a lot of good plans, apparently this one takes time, because it actually takes a couple of dinners for Esther to pop the question. The first night, after the conversation and the fine meal, the king bursts out his appreciation and says to his queen, “Whatever you want is yours, even up to half of my entire kingdom. What is it that you want?”
Esther demurely says, “Sweetheart, what I’d like is to have you and Haman back for another dinner tomorrow night. Would that be all right?” Now what do you think he said?
So the next night the king and Haman show up at Esther’s quarters again.
Allow me to pause here and fill you in on how smug Haman was after the first dinner. He was on his way home that night and his jubilant mood turns sour when he sees Mordecai loitering at the palace gates. So he stomps home and – after telling everyone in the family and the neighborhood how he was hanging out all evening with just the king and queen – issues the order to build a huge gallows in his front yard. This will be for that pesky Mordecai!
But that same night the king was perusing the royal records and came across the information that someone named Mordecai had thwarted his assassination. He asks around and finds that this great deed had not been properly recognized. Haman is back at the palace, high on anger and gallows-building, so the king had him brought in to his chambers. “What would be a great way to honor someone who’s done wonderful things for the king?” the king asks Haman, who, of course, assumes the king is talking about him.
Haman doesn’t hold back. “Well, I really think no expense should be spared. Here’s what should happen: Get some of your own royal robes, ones that you’ve worn yourself, along with a horse which you yourself have ridden. Then get one of your crowns. Next instruct one of your noblest officials to drape these garments on the one to be honored, along with the crown, and conduct the man on horseback through the center of the city for everyone to see.” “Great idea!” says the king. Then he says, “Haman, go and do just what you’ve said. You’ll find Mordecai outside at the gates. Do all this for him.”
As you can imagine, this was not well received.
Back to banquet #2. The king and Haman enjoy the second fabulous feast. The king is overcome with joy and gratitude again, and again he offers Esther anything she wants, up to half of his entire kingdom.
“If I’ve won your favor, I ask for my life and the lives of my people,” she says simply.
The king asks who is proving to be such a menace and she answers that it is he himself and Haman.
Now the king is in a real bind when he realizes that she is a Jew and that he himself has issued an order to kill her and everyone like her. He leaves the room to walk around the garden for a few minutes and think.
While he’s out, Haman sees that things really aren’t going his way, so he throws himself at Esther’s feet, begging for his own life from one of the very Jews he pledged to destroy. The king re-enters and uses Haman’s prone posture as an excuse. He accuses him of trying to make time (or worse) with his wife while his back is turned and immediately sentences him to death on the gallows he built for Mordecai.
Then the king sends word to all his armies and officials to let them know the hunt is off and the Jews are spared. End of story….
Esther didn’t start out to save anyone. She didn’t even start out to be queen. And when she was first given the opportunity to save a huge number of people – her people – she said she didn’t want the job. Here’s the thing about this story: it doesn’t really matter how she got there. She could have conceivably sought the office of queen in order to wield great power but she didn’t and she tried to shirk what power and authority she had. Doesn’t really matter how she got there.
And who would have thought God – YHWH – would use a Jew in a foreign land, ensconced in the power of some other people’s government, to be a savior for God’s people. And a woman at that! A woman who had to wait around seductively to have a scepter held out to her in order to gain permission to even speak with her own husband. A position of dubious power, at least.
Could it be that each of us is uniquely positioned wherever we find ourselves?
You know, there wasn’t any neutral position for Esther to take. We like to think that the status quo or the position of the majority or “doing nothing” are neutral positions but we’re wrong about that. If Esther had “done nothing” she would have actually “done in” all the Jews in Persia. If Esther had kept to the rules, watched out for herself and chosen to not get involved in murky moral decisions – especially ones that could require great personal sacrifice – if Esther had maintained the status quo, she would not have been “doing nothing.” There is no moral neutral ground. There isn’t any “no man’s land” between helping and hurting. Esther, the star who wanted to remain hidden, was ideally situated to do something, either way.
Could it be that each of us is ideally situated to either help or hinder?
Next week we don’t meet for Sunday Night Worship because it’s fall break. Too bad, since it will be World Communion Sunday, a time when we remember that each time we feast at this table, we feast with all of our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the body of Christ. What would it mean for us to act like these people are really family?
This is not just a meal or a placid memory of something Jesus once did. It’s a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, of the kingdom come in all its fullness. We are called to be co-creators of that kingdom with God and with all those around the world sharing this meal today.
They are our people…black, white, starving, well-fed, educated, dying of AIDS, refugees from war, soldiers in Iraq, widows and orphans in Africa, scientists dreaming of summer in Antarctica, those from developed countries and those who no longer have a country….They are all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
There are no people any place in this world who cannot act for God. There are no neutral positions. The God of life and love, the God of Esther and all our brothers and sisters now and throughout time, our God has put us – each and every one of us – here for just such a time as this….What will we do next?
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis