Sermon from July 5: Esther
Esther: For Such a Time as This
Pentecost V (O. T. 14); July 5, 2020
One of you said you would like to hear sermons about some of the strong women in the Bible. You mentioned two: Mary the Mother of Jesus, and Queen Esther. We will definitely talk about Mary sometime this summer and today we’ll talk about Esther. Mostly I want to tell you her story, so you can see her strength of character for yourself. Being a preacher, I won’t be able to avoid adding a thought or two!
The story begins when the people of God were in exile in Babylon. A new empire was rising in the East to challenge the Babylonians, the Persian Empire, and they swept west and conquered Babylon. Cyrus, the Emperor of Persia, decreed that the Jewish people could return to their homeland. Most of them did, but some remained in Babylon and quite a number settled in other places in the Persian Empire, including Susa, the winter capital. That is where Esther’s story takes place.
Esther, a young Jewish woman, became Empress of Persia after a beauty contest of sorts. Here’s how that happened. The Book of Esther refers to the Emperor as Ahasuerus, which probably represents the King we know as Xerxes. Ahasuerus was throwing a big party for his noblemen; he was showing off his wealth and power, but also being a good and generous host. The royal officials’ wives, in the meantime, were enjoying the hospitality of the Empress, Vashti. After six days of excess, Ahasuerus decided to show off his greatest treasure: Vashti. He sent servants to order the Queen to doll herself up and come parade in front of the men. She refused. She was the Empress of Persia, she was throwing a party for some important women, and she was not going to be paraded around like a prize horse.
Well, the King was first angry, then bemused and befuddled. What was he to do? His advisors told him to give the Queen the heave-ho, lest she set a bad example and women throughout the Empire begin disobeying their husbands. So he divorced her and advertised for a new Queen. I started out mentioning Esther’s strength of character; let’s not overlook Vashti, who (as Frederick Buechner put it) may have lost her crown, but kept her self-respect. So the King’s servants did a search of the Empire to gather the best-looking women; they were brought to the palace for several months of preparations, and then the King could have his choice.
Among these women was a young Jewish orphan named Esther, whose older cousin Mordecai had raised her. It happened that Ahasuerus admired Esther most, both her looks and her personality, so they were married and she was proclaimed Queen. At about the same time, Mordecai, who often hung around the gate of the palace, overheard two of the King’s servants plotting to assassinate him. Mordecai sent word to Esther, who told Ahasuerus, and the plot was foiled.
Now enter the villain of the story, a certain royal official named Haman. The King promoted him to high office, and Haman loved the way everyone (except, of course, the royals themselves) bowed and scraped before him. Mordecai didn’t bow, though, because Jews bow to no one except the Lord God Almighty. This really chafed Haman, and he decided that all Jews needed to pay for Mordecai’s insolence. He decided to get the King to decree a day on which people throughout the Empire could slaughter Jews, because they weren’t good citizens.
Now, Ahasuerus was basically a good guy, but he was easily led. Haman convinced him that the massacre was a good idea, and to sweeten the deal offered the King a hefty bribe, and the King signed the decree, setting the date for about eleven months later – to give time for the decree to be circulated throughout the Empire. Mordecai, of course, heard about it and began to roam the city, wearing sackcloth and ashes and wailing. When Esther learned that Mordecai was wearing sackcloth, she sent him better clothes, which he refused to wear. So she sent a servant to ask what was going on. Mordecai told her about Haman’s plot and said that she should go to the King to stop it.
Well, you heard what happened next, but I’ll recap. Esther reminded her cousin that it was against the law to go to Ahasuerus without being summoned, and he pointed out that the massacre of all Jews meant all Jews, including her. And he said, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” He felt sure that if Esther did nothing, then God would find another way to save the Jews, but perhaps God had worked the divine will for Esther to be the means of their salvation. She asked Mordecai and all the other Jews in Susa to fast and pray, and then she would go to the King, come what may.
Well, the King was delighted to see her. “What is your wish, dear Esther?” he asked. She said that she would like for the King and Haman to have dinner with her that evening. They did that, and during the dinner the King again asked, “What do you want of me?” She said, “Come to dinner again tomorrow, and then I will tell you all that is on my mind.”
The King was delighted, and Haman even more so. He went home and boasted to his family that he was so important that the Queen had invited him to a private dinner with just her and the King! But he was so upset that Mordecai would not bow to him that he decided then and there to hang Mordecai to death on a gallows right there in Haman’s front yard.
Well, King Ahasuerus could not sleep that night. He felt he had left something undone, but what was it? After studying the recent records, he realized what it was: Mordecai had saved his life, and he had done nothing to reward him! He decided to ask his most trusted advisor, Haman, how to reward his rescuer. When Haman came in, the King asked, “What do you think I should do for the man I wish to honor?” Haman thought, “Well, that has to be me; who else would he honor but me?” So he told the King: Dress the man in one of the King’s robes, set the man on one of the King’s own horses, and have one of the King’s top officials lead him around the city square, announcing, “This is what the King does for the one he wishes to honor!” Ahasuerus loved the idea, and told Haman himself to escort Mordecai around the city, just as he had suggested. Haman did it, and was humiliated.
But then came the banquet; he and the King were eating with Queen Esther, and Ahasuerus said, “Now, my Queen, what is your request?” And Esther replied, “That you save my life, and the lives of my people. We have been sold to be massacred.” The King said, “Who has done this?” And the Queen said, “Our enemy: this wicked Haman!” The King was furious and went out into the garden to think about this, but Haman threw himself at Esther’s feet to plead for his life. When the King came in, he saw Haman on Esther’s dining couch, and cried, “Will he even assault the Queen here in my own house?” The servants took Haman out of the palace, and he was hanged on the very gallows that he had built for Mordecai.
Well, that was the climax. The rest of the story is that the King promoted Mordecai, and the three of them cooked up another decree that stopped the massacre. And Jewish people remember this story every year when they celebrate the holiday called Purim.
It is an interesting feature of the Book of Esther that God is not mentioned in it even once. Now, I wrote God into the story, because it’s clear that Mordecai did not believe Esther had become Queen when she did by chance or by fate, but by the will of God, even though he didn’t put it that way. It’s a wonderful story of faithfulness, courage, and intrigue, and the downfall of a villain. And the phrase that sticks with me is what Mordecai said to the Queen, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
You might ask yourself sometime: when were you in just the right place at just the right time? You became the instrument of God’s good will. Perhaps you came to that position for just such a time as that. I’m glad one of you asked me to tell the story of Esther, because I have thought about it quite a bit during these extraordinary times. Perhaps you and I have come to where we are for just such a time as this. And even if God remains anonymous in the story, thanks be to God for giving us that opportunity.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master