September 30, 2018: "The Identity of God's People"
“The Identity of God’s People”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 30, 2018
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
This reading we’ve just heard from the Old Testament book of Esther drops us right near the end of a tale of power, jealousy, deceit, attempted murder, and divine intervention. To get more to heart of what we’ve just heard, let’s remember together the story of Esther.
King Ahasuerus ruled over 127 provinces, spanning from India to Ethiopia, the largest kingdom the world had ever seen. His other name was Xerxes, which is easier to pronounce so let’s just call him that. Xerxes wanted to display his wealth and great military power to the world, so for 180 days he paraded his military, he decked the halls and buildings of Susa with lush fabrics and stone columns, and he hosted lavish banquets. At these banquets, guests could recline on couches made of gold and silver and marble, and they drank out of gold goblets. Xerxes ordered his officials to keep every goblet full at all times until the guests simply couldn’t drink any more. At the same time, while Xerxes was showing off his wealth and military power to the men of the kingdom, his wife, Vashti, gave a similar, though smaller, banquet for all the women.
About a week into this bacchanal for the ages, the scripture says that Xerxes was ‘merry with wine’—drunk—and he commanded seven of his eunuch servants to bring Queen Vashti before him wearing the royal crown. Vashti was Xerxes’ most prized possession and he knew that when the men of the kingdom saw her, his power would be clear. But Queen Vashti refused to come. The scholarly consensus is that Vashti refused to be paraded out in front of Xerxes and his drunk friends because she was commanded to wear the royal crown and only the royal crown. Vashti refused to be used as a pawn in Xerxes’ game of power.
Xerxes is enraged. He calls together all of his court lawyers and scribes to figure out how he can recover his honor. One of the court lawyers says to Xerxes, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the people who are in the provinces of the king...this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands…” This scared the king. It scared him to think that Vashti’s resistance might inspire other women to be disobedient. Right then and there Xerxes decides to keep the ladies in check by tossing Vashti out of the palace on her ear. Xerxes and his advisors then concoct a plan to replace Vashti.
From all over the kingdom, Xerxes orders his eunuchs to gather young virgins into his harem. Right near the king’s palace, there was a Jewish man named Mordecai who had become guardian over a girl named Esther; Esther’s parents had died. Mordecai heard of the king’s search for a new queen, so he pushed Esther into Xerxes’ harem. For twelve months, the scripture says, the women stayed in a special dormitory where each underwent treatments with cosmetics and perfumes and oils. Then, one by one, each woman was sent in to spend a night with the king. When she came out in the morning, she did not return to the dormitory with the other virgins, but was made to stay in a different place with the rest of the king’s mistresses.
Even after the eunuchs had ushered women in and out of the king’s bedroom for many months, the king could not find one woman that pleased him. Ten months into this spectacle, it was time for Esther to spend a night with the king. The king loved Esther more than any other, so he placed on her head the crown that Vashti refused to wear at the king’s banquet.
Not long after Xerxes made Esther his queen, he promoted a man named Haman to be the most powerful official in the kingdom. Haman loved this position because everyone bowed down to him when he walked in the streets or in the palace. One man refused to bow down to Haman, though. When Haman was out in public, Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, refused to bow down to him. When Haman asked around about Mordecai, folks didn’t really know much about him except that he was a Jewish man. From that point on, Haman vowed to destroy the Jewish people because Mordecai would not bow down and give him honor.
Now because Haman was so powerful, he did not need permission from the king for anything. Through the king’s scribes, he sent an edict to every region of the kingdom ordering all the non-Jews to take up arms and slaughter the Jews on a specific day not far in the future. Of course, no one questioned Haman because he was second only to the king. When Mordecai learned what Haman had done, he tore his clothes and covered himself in ashes and wailed loudly outside of Xerxes’ palace. Mordecai put on such a display of grief that eventually Queen Esther learned about it through her servants. Esther went to Mordecai to beg him to stop. But it was Mordecai who did all the talking. He begged her to go into the throne room of the king and ask that he rescind Haman’s orders. Mordecai says to Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”
Three days later Esther put on her royal robes and, disobeying a law that forbid anyone from entering the king’s throne room without permission, she pushed her way in to see the king. She bowed down before him and invited the king and Haman to come to wing of that palace that evening for dinner. It was a lovely evening, and the king and Haman ate and drank their fill. Esther said, “If I have won the king’s favor, let the king and Haman come again tomorrow to have dinner with me.” On the way out, Haman was so pleased with himself and with how things were going that he erected gallows outside his home where he would hang some Jews on the slaughter day that was approaching.
At dinner the next night, the king finally asked Esther what all of it was about. Esther says, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given to me, and the lives of my people. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.” Shocked, the king asks, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” “This wicked foe and enemy,” Esther says pointing across the table at Haman. The king blows his lid, and as he is storming away from Esther and Haman he sees the gallows standing outside of Haman’s house. “Hang him on that,” the king ordered. And to this very day, our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate a holy day called Purim where they celebrate how Esther’s heroics saved them from destruction.
This story has served as a mirror for God’s people since the time it was first told. Like a mirror, this story offers to us a clear and accurate picture of just how sinful and just how powerful and faithful we can be. Our identity as God’s people is clearly pictured here. If we changed the names, and updated some of the details, the story of Esther and Mordecai and Haman and Xerxes is one that might appear on the front page of any newspaper in America tomorrow morning. Like Xerxes, we love to display our power and wealth. Like Xerxes, we love to project power and might, showing to the world exactly what we think about ourselves. Like Haman, if someone wrongs us, even just a little, we try to destroy them in our righteous anger. Like Haman, we have been given power—by God, by constituents, by the church—and do with it what we please even if it means folks get hurt. Like Xerxes, we exploit and waffle and we don’t settle unless we get exactly what we want.
The good news of God for us today is that even though we are such sinful and broken people, God is persistent. If you read the book of Esther from start to finish, you’ll notice something curious: there is zero, zilch, no mention of God. In my retelling of the story there was also no mention of God. Esther is one of just two books in the Bible where there is no direct speech or action from or appeal to God. It seems as though God is entirely absent from the story. But through Esther, God’s divine grace and favor works to save the Jewish people from utter annihilation. God inspired Esther to break every code of conduct and decorum in going before the king to ask him to the first dinner. Esther broke every code of conduct and decorum when she directly named Haman as a criminal. Esther broke every code of conduct and decorum by refusing to stay silent because her silence would have sealed the fate of so many. Esther simply refused to be used and devalued and silenced. All of these things were punishable by death, but God persisted. And Esther saved her people.
Think about how wonderful that is. Even though we continue to be sinful and fallen human beings, we cannot and will never stand in the way of God’s activity in the world. If this isn’t the very definition of Christian hope, I don’t know what is. Regardless of how bad things get, regardless of how bad we get and how terrible we are to each other, God saves us, God redeems us, God brings us back us to life from the dead. God’s redemption is going to reach into every nook and cranny of creation and drive all the sin and darkness and hell away. When evil people rise to power and abuse that power, God will topple them from their thrones. When dark plans are hatched in hushed back rooms, God will blow the doors open and expose the darkness to blinding light. When God’s people are in danger or on the precipice of destruction, God has promised to be our strength and shield. When systems run amok, when they put down this group or those people, when they try to enforce destructive norms, when they try to keep a structure in place that empowers some and silences the rest, beware—God’s power levels, God’s power evens out, God’s power brings true equity. Silent, or booming in the clouds with lightning and thunder, God is speaking, God is acting, God is at work.
I pray today that we don’t take this exceedingly good news as an invitation to be lazy. God is going to do what God is going to do, with or without us. But God wants to do the work with us, God has made a covenant with us. I pray that we make the choice to stand with God as God works in and through us just as God did with Esther. Now, more than ever before, the world we live in needs peace, it needs true God-like love, it needs truth and honesty and commitment. It’s easy to run away, to hide from the pain and difficult and complexity. But we must not run and we must not hide. We must stand firm. We must stand firm as our sister Esther did so that God can use us. God is continually transforming all of creation. God invites us to take part in that work, to be active as all things are made new. Will we stand up and stand firm and allow God to work through us? When we stand up and stand firm, God isn’t going to push us to side—God will shine through us and this desperately dark and needy world will begin to turn, maybe slowly at first, into the place God truly desires for it to be.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, do not lose hope. The clouds may gather, the light may start to dim a bit, the joy and the peace might start to lose their luster and shine. It may even look like evil and sin has started to get the upper hand. But do not lose hope. Who knows? Maybe the winding course of your life, maybe all the study and prayer and worship, maybe the tears and the pain and triumphs—maybe all of that has prepared you for such a time as this. Thanks be to God. Amen.