Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, December 17, 2018
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For Such A Time As This

Esther 2:5-11 and 4:1-14

We have once again skipped over a lot of history. Last Sunday we left off with the prophet Elisha, who ministered mostly in the Northern Kingdom that continued to be called Israel. Shortly after his ministry, Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, continued on alone for another 130 years, but then they too were overwhelmed, this time by the Babylonian Empire. Most of the people were taken off into captivity, the 70 year long Babylonian Exile. And then the Babylonian Empire was defeated by the Persian Empire, and some of the Jews returned to Jerusalem.

But many did not. Many continued to live in other parts of the Persian Empire, the beginning of what was known as the Diaspora, the scattering of the Jewish people, which, coincidentally, was one of the factors that would later help the Christian message to take hold in many different places.

One of those Diaspora Jews was Esther, the main character of our story today. Now the Book of Esther is unique in the Bible. It is the only book that never uses the word "God" or even a variation of it. It begs the question: Is God absent from it? I think we’ll see the answer is "No."

Esther begins with the reign of Xerxes as emperor of the Medes and Persians. Xerxes is best known to history as the emperor who led an unsuccessful campaign against the Greeks in 480 BC. They defeated the Greeks at a place called Thermopylae, but the courage of 300 Spartan soldiers who stood alone against Xerxes’ million man army steeled the resolve of the Greeks, and they were eventually victorious. The six month long banquet at the beginning of the book was actually used to plan the invasion.

It was also the event that led to Esther’s rise because Xerxes, while drunk, called for his first wife Vashti to come and present herself before his guests. According to the customs of the Persians, the queen was sacred. No one was allowed to look at her, except the king. But Xerxes wanted to "show her off." She refused, and Xerxes deposed her as queen.

The story picks up a few years later, after his unsuccessful Greek campaign. Maybe Xerxes was depressed about losing, and he starts to miss Vashti. But he can’t change his mind. According to the Law of the Medes and Persians, the king was a god in human form. And as a god, his words could not be undone. No royal law could be rescinded, though its effects could be nullified by a later law. So Xerxes goes looking for a new queen.

This introduces us to Esther and her cousin Mordecai. They were cousins, but apparently Mordecai was much older because he had adopted Esther as his own daughter after her parents died. Esther, or her Hebrew name was Hadassah, being an attractive young virgin, was taken into the king’s harem.

Now Xerxes had instituted monogamy, having only one wife, throughout the Persian Empire. But he didn’t really practice it himself. He had a large harem, 360 young women according to some historical sources. But he only had ONE queen. Well, at least only one at a time! That was his version of monogamy.

Esther finds favor with Hegai, the chief eunuch who watched over the harem. Eunuchs were often used in royal courts of the ancient Near East. They were typically taken from distant lands. That way they had no family nearby, and being eunuchs, they were not able to father any "royal" children with the king’s harem.

Hegai gives certain advantages to Esther, and so she is chosen to be the new queen. But she doesn’t reveal her identity.

Meanwhile, Mordecai, who was a palace guard at Susa, discovers a plot by two eunuchs to assassinate Xerxes. Through Esther, he warns the king and saves his life.

Everything seems to be going well, until a man named Haman is promoted to the position of vizier, or prime minister, second-in-command to the king. Haman was an Amalekite, a people with a long-standing hatred of the Jews. Haman was proud and ruthless. He demanded that everyone bow before him as a sign of his superiority. But Mordecai refused to do it. And when Haman learned that Mordecai was a Jew, he became especially bitter about him.

Haman decided it wasn’t enough just to kill Mordecai. He wanted to kill all the Jews in the Empire. So he cast lots to determine the best day to carry out his plan. Lots, or in Persian, PURIM, were basically like dice, except that they had different symbols on them. And it was believed that God determined the casting of lots. So he casts the lots and finds the best date for his vengeance was almost a year away.

He goes to Xerxes and asks him to issue a decree authorizing the enemies of the Jews throughout the Empire to kill them and seize their property without recourse. His rationale is that "They don’t follow your laws but live by their own," referring of course to God’s laws.

Xerxes agrees to Haman’s request, and the order is sent throughout the Empire. Mordecai learns of it and informs Esther. He tells her to go to the king and to plead for the fate of the Jewish people. But she’s afraid to. Even as queen, she really doesn’t have any more rights than the rest of the harem. She can only go into the king’s presence when he calls for her. And since he had a harem girl for every day of the year, her odds were pretty slim. If she went into his presence without his permission, he could kill her. And since Haman controlled access to the king, she couldn’t even request to see him.

But Mordecai has faith: "If you are silent, deliverance for the Jews will come from some other source. Who can say but that you have been elevated to the palace for such a time as this?" Mordecai believes there is some unseen hand that has placed Esther in the palace for this very reason, to rescue her people.

So Esther says, "Pray for me." Seems like a good idea. "And will go to see him, even if I die." She knows the risks but is willing to take them.

She goes in to see Xerxes, and she is received. She asks Xerxes and Haman to come to a banquet that she has prepared for them. Apparently, she has planned to reveal the plot and plead with Xerxes there. But for some reason, she doesn’t. Maybe she loses her courage, and instead only asks Xerxes and Haman to come back the next day.

Regardless of the reason for the delay, God uses it. Haman’s bitterness boils over. He is unable to wait until the appointed day. He wants Mordecai dead the very next day, and he makes plans accordingly.

But meanwhile, Xerxes finds himself unable to sleep. To pass the time, he asks for the records of his reign to be read to him. And in the midst of that, he is reminded of Mordecai’s faithfulness to him and remembers that he never displayed gratitude to Mordecai. So the next day, instead of Mordecai dying by Haman’s plot, he is instead honored by Xerxes, and Haman himself has to do the honoring.

When Esther receives Xerxes and Haman that evening, she reveals the plot and her true identity and pleads for her people. The king hears her plea and executes Haman in the same way he had intended for Mordecai. Evil plans have a bad habit of backfiring from time to time!

Since the decree authorizing the killing of the Jews could not be revoked, Xerxes instructs Mordecai, who takes Haman’s place, to issue a new decree authorizing the Jews throughout the Empire to defend themselves, effectively nullifying the earlier decree. And the story ends with the occasion of this deliverance being remembered through the Festival of Purim.

The big question about Esther is this: Is God absent from the story? He’s never mentioned, so does that mean he’s not there. I would certainly say not. He is present in many ways. He is present in the favor that Esther finds from the king and his servants. He is present in the casting of the lots that determines a date far enough in the future that it gave time for the plot to come unraveled. And he is present in the king being unable to sleep so that he has an occasion to be reminded of Mordecai’s faithfulness.

God is always at work to accomplish his purposes, and one of God’s purposes is to preserve his people. But he does expect the faithful to come alongside him and join him in his work. Mordecai was confident that even if Esther did not come alongside of God, God’s purposes would still prevail. But he clearly understood that God expected Esther to take part in what he was doing.

God is also at work around us. And he wants us to join him in his work. He invites us to be a part of his plans. And when we see him at work, we are wise to remember Mordecai’s words, "Who can say but that you have been put in your place for such a time as this?"

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