Inspired by Esther 4:1-17
I know I say this about a lot of Bible books but I’m serious this time, if you have not read the book of Esther in its entirety, you must put this on your reading list! It’s a pretty quick read, only ten short chapters but it is one heck of a story! It reads a lot like a twisted fairy tale, as you read it, you’re almost waiting for a dragon or knight in shining armor to appear. Spoiler alert, neither shows up. But that’s because Esther doesn’t need a knight or dragon to come and save the day, she has that well under control.
How many of you have seen the movie The Princess Bride? For those of you who haven’t, what are you even doing with your life? Kidding! Hey, I wouldn’t be doing my job as your pastor if I didn’t shame you for something! Anyway, this story of Esther is like a sexist version of The Princess Bride with a twist of genocide thrown in for good measure. Like I said, it’s a crazy story! You won’t be disappointed!
However, that’s not all that makes this book so interesting. It is the last book that made it into the Jewish Bible. In fact, it almost didn’t make it at all! And here’s why, there is no mention of God in the entire book. And that was a huge hurdle for the assemblers of the Jewish Bible to get over. And it’s hard to blame them, I mean, if the Bible is supposed to be a collection of books that help our own journey with God, it makes sense that the book has to at least mention God in order to make it in.
But I’m sure glad they were able to overlook that in this instance. Because allowing it to be included in the Bible, without any mention of God in it, communicates something in and of itself. That tells us that there are many ways for us to communicate what we believe about God to others. It opens doors, opportunities to share God’s love with others in more subtle, nuanced, and creative ways—but more about that in a minute—let’s talk about the actual story first.
Though the book is 10 short chapters, we’re only going to cover the first four today. What I read a moment ago was chapter four but let me first catch you up. Last week’s reading came just before the exile, when God’s people were conquered and forcibly removed from their homeland, being dispersed throughout the Babylonian empire. Then, after many years, the Persians conquered the Babylonians, because there’s always a bigger fish, and the Persian king decided to allow the Jews to return home.
However, not all of them did, remember, this is generations later and wherever the exiled Jews ended up, was now their new home—which is why our story occurs in Persia, where Esther was born, and the country she calls home. Unfortunately, like many countries who have a diverse population with many people from other countries, comprised of many different ethnicities, racism was alive and well in Esther’s Persia.
And that’s actually how we get this amazing story. So the book starts out with some turmoil between the king and queen of Persia. Queen Vashti was very beautiful and the king, like any misogynistic ruler, liked to show her off any chance he got. And so, a habit of his was to call her whenever he was having a party or hosting other world leaders, so that they could all look at her. Well, Queen Vashti had enough of that nonsense and finally refused to come when she was summoned!
Well, you’d have thought she was caught with another king! The whole palace was thrown into turmoil! Then they had to decide what they were going to do with this disobedient queen! Do we try her for treason? Do we execute her? This part is pretty comical really. At one point, the king’s leaders tell him that they have to punish her in some way, because, if they don’t, all the women in the kingdom will think they can do whatever they want! It’ll be total chaos!
|"Queen Esther" (1879) by Edwin Long|
She had lived her life hiding the fact that she was Jewish, due to all of the racism that Jews had to endure. Her family thought it best to hide that part of herself, for her own safety, and so that’s what she did. And for those of you who have not had to endure racism, that may seem pretty extreme. But believe it or not, people of color still do this in a variety of different ways. Especially those who are light-skinned enough to pass as possibly white or multi-ethnic, or to those of us who don’t “sound” like a person of color. Let me give you a couple examples from my own life. As proud of my last name as I am, there are times when I ask for it not to be used; maybe it’s for a flyer we are creating for a church event, or even on my business card that some of you are fond of handing out. You won’t find my last name on it.
Why? Because I don’t want any stereotypes of Hispanic names to be the first thing that comes to a person’s mind when they see it, especially in association with Bethlehem. I would hate for that to be why someone doesn’t come and check us out. Here’s another one, when my wife Sara and I are house hunting or car shopping, I always ask that she be the first face they see. Again, so that any stereotypes that may come into play, at least won’t come first. Now, for those of you who haven’t had to endure racism, that might sound extreme, maybe even a little paranoid. I have one request of you, on behalf of every person of color living in an extremely racist society, please don’t draw those conclusions too quickly, especially knowing that you haven’t and will never walk in our shoes.
But back to our story. At this point, the story takes a very serious, tragic turn. Through a series of unfortunate events, the details of which I’ll let you read for yourself, the king finds is necessary to decree that all the Jews have got to go. And I don’t mean that he wanted them to move—he wanted them dead—and so the royal decree commanded all the people in the kingdom to “wipe out, kill, and destroy all the Jews, both young and old, even women and little children.” Oh, and it also ordered their property to be seized. Sound familiar? For Esther, this meant that she was now faced with a choice. She could keep her identity secret and remain alive. But she also realized that she may have an opportunity here to save her people by using her position as queen, if she revealed her true self.
This is where our reading jumps into the story. Her family warns her that this is a dangerous idea, that she should not assume she will be given leniency just because she is queen. I mean, look at what happened to the last queen and all she did was not come when summoned! Not to mention the fact that there was this law that people could only go to the king when summoned. To arrive otherwise was a death sentence. In spite of the danger, Esther could not bring herself to remain silent while her people were exterminated.
Even if it meant her own death. And so that’s what she does. She goes to the king to reveal herself and ask for mercy on behalf of her people. And what does the king do? Well, you’ll have to read that for yourself! What a wicked pastor I am! I’m telling you, you won’t be disappointed! It plays out very dramatically with lots of theatrics! I really do want you to read this for yourself. But also, what the king ultimately does isn’t important to this sermon.
What I want you to chew on from this half of the story, is the hidden nature of God. Remember, God is never mentioned in this story directly, but knowing scripture like we do, and knowing Jesus like we do, it’s nearly impossible to read this and not see God’s influence throughout this entire story. I mean, where do you think Esther’s willingness to die on behalf of her people comes from? If that doesn’t have God written all over it I don’t know what does! Why? Because God is revealed not only in words, not only in the naming of God, but also in actions, especially in sacrificial actions, in actions that cost us something. You know the old phrase, “actions speak louder than words.” Well, in the case of the book of Esther, actions speak louder than God! And I believe that allows God to shine all the more radiantly through this old, old story that never mentions a word about God.
And my hope, is that it allows us some breathing room in our own ministries, in our own faith walks, as we discern where to be vocal about our faith and when our faith is simply calling for action. I think it’s easy for us to be pretty hard on ourselves for not being as vocal about our faith in public as we think we should be. In this story of Esther, I hear a different calling, a call to act, to put our money where our mouth is so to speak—to allow our actions to open the door for God to shine, brightly, into a dark world. Maybe the real challenge here, and why I love this book so much, is figuring out how to communicate God’s love, without using words, using only our actions. May we be ever ready, especially in the chaos of this Advent and Christmas, to speak God’s love without words. Amen.