“God’s Grace in Life of Esther”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 2, 2017
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
The Book of Esther tells the heroic tale of a Jewish woman who risks everything to save her people from the threat of genocide. Still today, the book is read in its entirety in synagogues on the Jewish Feast of Purim. Yet, the Book of Esther is surrounded by controversy for numerous reasons. Particularly because Yahweh, the Jewish name for God, is never mentioned. Neither prayer, nor other outright “religious” rites are specified—only fasting. As a result, another unusual aspect of Esther is that there are several different versions. One, a Greek manuscript, goes about “fixing” all these literary dilemmas with six additions not in the best Hebrew manuscripts.
The Book of Esther, written in the style of a short, thrilling novel weaves a wonderful tale of power, providence and purpose. For those who have trouble accepting The Book of Esther on its own merits, I offer the words of author, William P. Young, “Well their mistake isn’t fatal. Rumors of glory are often hidden inside of what many consider myths and tales.”[i]
Let’s take a closer look at this story of intrigue, deception, and the power of good to overcome evil. The story is set in Persia during the Exile. King Ahasuerus has banished his queen for disobedience and will, in time, seek a new one. Esther is a most unlikely candidate. She’s a Jewish orphan who’s been raised by her cousin, Mordecai. Yet, Esther pleases the king and is chosen to be his queen—although she keeps the fact that she’s a Jew a secret as instructed by her cousin, Mordecai.
About this time, Haman, a Persian, rises in the court and he is set above all the officials to help the king to rule. Everyone bows before him—except Mordecai. Haman is infuriated. After learning that Mordecai is a Jew, Haman plots his revenge to destroy not only Mordecai but all the Jews who are in exile. Unaware of the ramifications, King Ahasuerus signs a royal decree, proclaiming a day when the Jewish people will be slaughtered. When Mordecai learns this, he tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth and ashes and wails bitterly at the entrance of the king’s gate. Esther sends a servant to find out what’s happened and is instructed by Mordecai to intercede for her people. At first, Esther is hesitant for all the province knows that if anyone goes to the king uninvited—there is but one law—all alike are put to death. Only if the king holds out his golden scepter, indicating his acceptance, is the intruder allowed to live.
Esther’s excuse falls on deaf ears. Mordecai is persistent. “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 carefully weighs the words of Mordecai. She determines to use her influence, whatever that might be, to save her people. She instructs Mordecai to gather all the Jews in the area and hold a fast on her behalf. She and her maids will fast as well. “After that,” she says, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” In the end, Esther bravely approaches the king. Her request for mercy is granted and her people are given the freedom to defend themselves and their rights are restored. Evil Haman meets with destruction and Mordecai is elevated to the 2nd in command. In the end, good overcomes evil.
The Book of Esther is a story about power. Perhaps it will help us if we consider power as meaning a “circle of influence.” Haman uses his power, or influence to do harm. His arrogance gets the best of him and, eventually, results in his own demise. Mordecai uses his power to help his orphaned cousin and then to encourage her to seek the king’s mercy. Esther, who feels powerless, is in due course able to influence the king so that she and her people are saved.
Many of us, I suspect, think we have little power in this life. I mean, we aren’t kings or presidents or people of great influence. Or are we? My friend, Tammy, traveled to Venezuela on a mission trip. There she realized that power is relative. Although she lives a simple life and would hardly consider herself rich and powerful, she learned that through the eyes of the people she met in Venezuela, she had great power. “Why?” I asked. “Because I had the choice to visit their country and, more importantly, I had the choice to return to mine. By their standards, before I even spoke a word, I was a woman of power and influence.”
As citizens of the United States, in light of our Independence Holiday this week, without a doubt we have freedoms and powers that many do not possess. How blessed we are and how important it is that we use our power for good. As citizens of Heaven, we also have freedoms and power given to us by God. But it isn’t power as the world sees it (as in the case of Haman who uses his power to further his own purposes). No, the power given to us by God is the power to serve God and to serve God’s people.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the mother of James and John asks Jesus for a favor. She wants Jesus to grant her two sons the honor of sitting beside him in his kingdom, one on his right and one on his left. Jesus says to her, “You don’t know what you are asking.” And then he explains to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”[ii] Whatever power or influence we may have has been given to us for the service of others. That is our calling as God’s people.
The Book of Esther is about power. It’s also about providence—divine care. There are signs of God’s handiwork, filling the pages with one coincidence after another—too many to be mere happenstance. And though some scholars have been disturbed because there’s no mention of Yahweh or prayer, it seems to me that one can hardly read the story as non-religious. When the people of Israel speak of deliverance, when they speak of fasting, of sackcloth and ashes, how can the presence of Yahweh not be understood? Truly, God is everywhere—even when we don’t speak God’s name!
A doctrine of providence, writes Shirley Guthrie, “recognizes signs here and now of God’s presence and work in our lives and the world around us. The final victory of God over the powers of darkness and evil is yet to come” but small victories can be seen even now. “Here and now, once in a while…here and there, sickness is healed, life is spared, justice triumphs over injustice, war gives way to peace, people who are suspicious of each other and hate each other are reconciled—light breaks into our darkness….These little victories…give us courage and confidence.[iii]
In our own lives, coincidences may reveal the gracious hand of God, but we can’t know for sure. All we can do is act in an attitude of hope, taking advantage of whatever opportunities God sets before us.
If the Book of Esther is a story about power and providence, it’s also a story about purpose. Esther, an orphan, becomes queen of a foreign nation and bravely saves her people from certain death. In the early chapters of Esther, we see her acted upon. She’s taken in by her cousin and follows his advice and instruction implicitly. In time, she becomes a person of substance who accepts her role as a woman able to make a difference. She accepts that she’s been brought to a place of influence “for such a time as this” and she steps into her future with courage and purpose.
We, too, are people marked with a purpose. God has a plan for our lives. We’ve each been given gifts of the Spirit to be used for the common good, to build up the church as a beacon to all those who are in need of God’s saving power. Some are given the gift of wisdom, some knowledge, some faith and healing, some are appointed to be teachers, preachers, some have a special ability to help others, and the list goes on and on.[iv]
What is our purpose? In the Lord’s Prayer, when we say “thy will be done…” we claim our desire for God’s will to be done in the world. And as God’s people, we accept that we each have a part to play. Today, as we gather around the Table of our Lord, may we prayerfully consider the purpose God has for each of us.
The Book of Esther is a story of power, providence and purpose. Esther uses her influence and the opportunities given to her to fulfill her purpose—to save her people. In this way, she offers us a glimpse of the Savior who comes to save us all from the powers that would overwhelm us—providing, instead, abundant life. Thanks be to God.
[i] Young, The Shack
[ii] Matt 20:25-28
[iii] Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 189
[iv] I Corinthians 12