Actions Speak Louder Than God

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
So the king decides, like any mature ruler, to just get a new queen. That’ll teach her! He really was an idiot. So he tasks his servants with finding the most beautiful young maidens, collects them all in one place, like they’re trading cards or something, and then they would undergo a year’s worth of treatments, with creams, oils, perfumes, etc., to make them as pleasant as possible for the king. Then, after their year of treatments, they were ready to be called to the palace for a night, to “audition” for the role of queen. This is where Esther enters the scene. She was one of these young maidens who was summoned to the palace on one of those nights, after which the king chooses her to be the next queen. However, this young maiden turned queen, had a secret, a secret that she hadn’t shared with the general public. 
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.

Family Drama

Inspired by Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4; 3:17-19

Advent is finally upon us. It is probably my favorite season of the church year. I think that’s because it’s so counter-cultural. While the rest of the world is in full crazy Christmas mode by this time, Advent whispers to us, ever so gently, “Hey, slow down. Christmas isn’t here yet. This craziness, isn’t Christmas. There are other things to attend to besides these things. But Advent is different things to different people. For much of the world, it is simply the chaotic month leading up to Christmas that exploded on Black Friday.

In the liturgical life of the church, it is a season of hope, a season of waiting, a season of calm, in spite of how the rest of the world experiences it. It’s the eye of the storm, filled with peace and comfort. But for many, even us, it is anything but a peaceful time. It is filled with busyness, with frantic shopping, with social events, with financial burden, and of course, no Advent would be complete without family drama: Where will we gather for the holidays? Who’s cooking? How are we getting there? If he starts talking politics I swear I will leave! Ah yes, family drama at its finest. And we haven’t even got to Christmas yet!

Families argue. Couples fight. We stress out at this time of year. It’s natural. It’s normal, mostly. And most of us get over it. We makeup and move on, or at least we move on. We do that because we love each other. All of this is why this reading from Habakkuk is so perfect for this first Sunday in Advent. I’m going to be honest with you though, when I first read it, I didn’t like it. And I had no idea what in the world I was going to do with it! But then I remembered Advent and all that this season entails, good and bad, and I realized that this reading from Habakkuk had all the ingredients that we need. It’s full of arguing, and it’s full of hope. It has a sense of despair, and it contains a promised future. It is full of juxtapositions and dichotomies, just like Advent is. So let’s dig-in to Habakkuk.

To give you a little background, Habakkuk was a prophet along with Jeremiah in the city of Jerusalem just before the exile, just before the Babylonian empire conquered and sent God’s people out of their homeland. And by this time it’s too late for the city or the kingdom to be saved. Unlike Jeremiah from last week, Habakkuk is not there to tell them how they can escape destruction.

Habakkuk is there to spell out their doom for them, and give them hope for a future, which, I know, seems pretty contradictory, but such is faith. And it all begins with an argument between two family members: Habakkuk and God. Like I said, what would an Advent be without some family drama! Habakkuk voices what was probably on everyone's mind! “How long O Lord, will I call for help you not listen?” he asks. “I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us.”

The prophet doesn’t hold back. He takes this complaint to God like it’s a lawsuit. I imagine Habakkuk red in the face, trembling, practically foaming at the mouth, as he yells at God at the top of his lungs! “How long, O Lord!” How long? And then God answers. And lo and behold, it’s probably not what he expected. I mean, if I yelled at one of my parent’s like that as a teenager, I’d have been popped in the mouth! But not Habakkuk.

He was probably expecting to be struck down by a lightning bolt right where he stood. But that’s not what God does. Now don’t get me wrong, I imagine God responding with a raised voice too, but with passion, not so much with anger. God begins by confirming their worst fears, that the Babylonians will indeed invade and conquer. Not exactly the news he wanted to hear. And so, Habakkuk and God continue this back and forth argument.

Then, Habakkuk says, ok, I’ll keep watch, and see how God will respond to my complaint. And God responds, again probably not the way he wanted God to respond. He wanted an immediate solution, an immediate rescue out of the predicament they were in. But God, always full of surprises, instead says, “There is still a vision.” A vision for the future. Always the optimist our God is. But in the moment, I’m sure that was not comforting to Habakkuk or any of God’s people. “A vision?” they probably thought, “We don’t need no vision statement right now God! We need rescuing, right now!” But God is relentless in this hope business! It’s almost annoying really. No matter how dire the circumstances, God never tires of delivering hope.

So God continues, “If [the vision] delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late.” In other words, whenever it arrives, it will arrive exactly when it was supposed to. It’ll be right on time! And Habakkuk, always the realist, takes a look around at the predicament they find themselves in, at the fig trees that don’t bloom, bare vines, withering crops, unproductive fields, abandoned sheep, and lost cattle—a very bleak picture he paints—and he too responds in a very surprising way.

After painting this bleak picture, the prophet Habakkuk says, “I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance.” And I thought to myself, “Rejoice? How can you rejoice Habakkuk? Everything is falling apart! Nothing is going right! And you’re rejoicing?” I went from arguing with God over this passage to arguing with Habakkuk!

And that’s when I realized some things that I can rejoice in, when I’m in the midst of turmoil and anguish and arguments with God—that I have a God who welcomes those arguments, that I have a God who wants me to name my complaints, to take God to task when things aren’t going right, that I have a God who will not stop giving me hope, no matter how much I may not want to hear it in the moment! Because God is relentless in this hope business.

And on top of that, Habakkuk ends by saying that God will give him feet like a deer to walk upon the heights. In other words, God will give him the ability to walk on difficult terrain. Have you ever followed someone even though you disagreed with them? Or followed someone even though you couldn’t see where they were taking you? That’s a special skill, isn’t it? That’s what Habakkuk is doing here. He’s looking around at his world and probably thinking, “I don’t see any signs of hope here God. I don’t see how your promise of a future could possibly be real. However, I know you, and that’s going to have to be enough right now. So, I’ll rejoice in that.”

As we dive headfirst into this Advent, with all its chaos, stress, debt, and family drama, my hope for us is this: that we can accept the hope that God continues to give to us, that we can believe the promised future that God continues to proclaim into our lives, especially when things look bleak.

That no matter what, no matter if everything this Christmas isn’t perfect, no matter if we couldn’t give all we wanted to give to our loved ones, no matter if all the decorations went up, no matter the family arguments that will indubitably ensue, Christ will come to us, Christ has come to us, and Christ will continue to break through all of that to be by our side. In spite of it all, Christmas will come. Now that can fill you with a sense of dread, but my prayer for you, is that it fills you with a sense of relief, when you need it the most, and with the prophet Habakkuk, be able to rejoice in those moments. Amen.