Complementary Reading: Matthew 5:13-16
Preaching Text: Esther 4:1-17
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
As we wind down our journey through the Hebrew Scriptures on this Second Sunday of Advent, we come today to what I would venture to guess is one of the more unfamiliar books of the Bible for our congregation: the Book of Esther. This book takes its name from its central character, a young woman who finds herself caught up in a power struggle within the court of the Persian Empire and who is forced to risk her life to save the lives of others. Since this story is likely unfamiliar to many of us, I hope you’ll forgive me for briefly summarizing what’s happened so far and where it fits into the story of Scripture we’ve been exploring over the last three months.
The story begins in the third year of the reign of Xerxes, a king who reigned over the Persian Empire between the years 486 and 465 BCE, about 100 years after the exile that devastated the people of Israel. By this time, many of those who had been caught up in the exile had been allowed to return to their homeland; in fact, the temple in Jerusalem had already been rebuilt and rededicated some thirty years before Esther’s story takes place. Despite the fulfillment of God’s promise of restoration, many Jews remained scattered throughout the world, including a large number who had settled permanently in Persia, an empire centered in modern-day Iran that covered roughly the same area as the lower forty-eight states during this period of time. Among those Jews was Esther, the title character of our story, who had been raised by her uncle Mordecai, an official serving the king. As the book opens, Xerxes becomes angry when his wife, Queen Vashti, refuses to come to a royal banquet when she is summoned. Xerxes removes the queen from her place, and begins a year-long process of scouring the kingdom to find a suitable replacement for his disgraced wife. Enter Esther, who is sent by Mordecai to present herself to the king (and to conceal her Jewish identity from him). She quickly wins the favor of the king, and becomes the Queen of Persia.
Trouble arises when Mordecai finds himself on the wrong side of Xerxes’ right hand man, Haman, after he refuses to bow to him out of respect for the God of Israel. In response, Haman uses his authority to convince the king that the Jews are unwilling to submit to his authority, and that they should be eliminated for the sake of the empire. Xerxes agrees, and a date is set for Haman’s genocidal order to be carried out.
With that, we arrive at today’s reading. Mordecai pleads with his adopted daughter, Esther, to intercede for her people with the king and stop Haman from slaughtering the Jews. The problem: another law that forbids anyone from approaching the king without being summoned first under penalty of death. Esther, then, is faced with a choice: risk death by going to the king without being summoned, or say nothing and allow her people to be killed. Mordecai’s response is one of the most memorable passages in the whole book:
“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, NRSV)
Esther agrees to approach the king – revealing her Jewish identity – and her appeal leads to the deliverance of her people, the downfall of Haman, and the elevation of Mordecai, who is finally recognized for his faithfulness to Xerxes, demonstrated most clearly in his role in foiling an assassination plot against the king.
Esther’s story is unusual in many ways, and unique in at least one: It is one of only two books of the Bible named for and prominently featuring women, and it is the only book of Scripture that includes no references to God. That doesn’t mean, of course, that God isn’t active; Mordecai’s statement makes clear his belief that God was at work to save God’s people through Esther. In fact, that belief is perhaps the most important thing for us to ponder as we reflect on the story of Esther.
In this season of Advent, we are once again called to the awareness that the world is not as it should be. We yearn for justice to be done on earth, for war and famine and disease to end, for peace to prevail between nations and people, and sometimes it is difficult for us to overcome the nagging feeling that there’s no hope for a better day. The central message of the book of Esther, and the focus of our reading for today, is that God acts in history, through people and events, to bring about God’s purposes for deliverance. Esther had to choose whether to see herself as the vehicle of God’s salvation, or to allow her fear to keep her on the sidelines. In the same way, as we look at the world around us, we are invited to ponder what God is doing around us, and to consider how we might be given an opportunity to bear witness to God’s reign of justice and peace that began with the coming of Jesus and awaits fulfillment when Christ comes again to reconcile all things to God. Who knows? Perhaps you have been chosen for such a time as this. Perhaps you have been chosen to speak a word of peace into a situation of brokenness and pain. Perhaps you have been chosen to join your voice to those who cry out for justice. Perhaps you have been chosen to help meet the needs of our friends and neighbors here in the Falls City area. Perhaps you have been chosen to use your God-given gifts to make the love and grace of God known in the days to come.
Brothers and sisters, as we continue through this season of preparation, we draw ever closer to the celebration of God’s coming, not only in the past, but also for such a time as this. As we remember Esther’s courage and Mordecai’s persistence, let us open ourselves to the possibility that God intends to use us to make God’s reign known. Let us keep our eyes open to the ways that God is working in our midst to redeem and save us and the world around us. Finally, let us pray that we might recognize Christ’s presence among us each new day as we trust God, love one another, and live in the hope of God’s promised future. Thanks be to God! Amen.