Sermon at St Mary Hadlow –Trinity 17- HC(CWO1) – 27 September 2015
Esther 7 vv 1 – 6, 9 – 10 and 9 vv 20 – 22 – Esther reveals her petition at a feast for the King and Haman. Haman is hanged. Mordecai recorded this basis of the feast of Purim.
Mark 9 vv 38 – End – Jesus tells the disciples to co-operate with others of good will.
- Introduction. What place does a book, that does not mention God once, have in the canon of scripture? Furthermore the book is so embedded in the context of Jewish history, with acts of killing in revenge on their enemies, that a Christian might well say, “I will stick with the New Testament, thank you very much.” or at least, “My reading and study of the Old Testament will not include the book of Esther.” Yet some Christians are very fond of the book of Esther. I am going to attempt to look at the book as a whole, see what its message is for Jews and what we as gentile Christians can learn from it. I will firstly look at the historic setting of the book; secondly summarize the story of the book, before then going on to look at the messages then and now. All that hopefully in 19 minutes!
- Setting. The story of Esther is set in Susa or Sushan, one of the three capitals of the Persian Empire, during the reign of the Persian King, Xerxes (Hebrew, Ahaseurus), in the period 486 – 465 BC. Susa was just East of the river Euphrates near the head of the Gulf, in the area, where in the last century there was conflict between Iran and Iraq,
on the borders between the two countries. Xerxes ruled over a vast Empire, not quite as large as the British Empire in the 19th Century, but consisting of 127 provinces stretching from India in the East to Cush in the upper reaches of the river Nile, in the South. There were sizeable populations of Jews in Susa and other parts of the Persian Empire, arising from the deportation of Israelites in the Assyrian period at the end of the 8th Century BC and the Babylonian exile of Jews in the early 6th Century BC. That very briefly is the setting of the book.
- Story. Now to the story of the book. In the city of Susa there lived, near the King’s palace, a Jewish couple, Mordecai and his wife. Mordecai had taken into his household and care his young cousin, Esther, whose parents had died. The Persian king, Xerxes, at the end of a great banquet for the men – Queen Vashti was having her own banquet for the ladies – summoned Vashti to come to him. Probably because Vashti feared for her safety at the hands of her drunken husband, she refuses the royal command. The King divorces her and initiates an Empire-wide search for beautiful young women from whom he can select a new queen. One of those chosen was the beautiful young woman, Esther, who in due course becomes queen. Mordecai forbids Esther to reveal her nationality or family background.
In due course Mordecai becomes aware of a plot to assassinate the king. He tells Esther to inform the King and the two guilty men are hanged. Later, King Xerxes promotes a man called Haman to be his right hand man in the kingdom and commands that all people should kneel down and pay honour to Haman. But Mordecai refuses to do so. Haman persuades the King that he should take action not solely against Mordecai but against all the Jews in the Empire, because they are a subversive people. The king publishes an edict that on a particular day all the Jews in the Empire are to be killed and their goods plundered. The edict is translated into the languages and scripts of all the 127 provinces and sent out by dispatch riders to the whole Empire. Mordecai is deeply disturbed and tells Esther that she must help and must not think that because she is Queen her life will be spared. There are two major problems. Firstly that the laws of the Medes and Persians cannot be changed. Secondly anyone unbidden, seeking an audience with the King, is liable to the death penalty. At risk to her own life, Esther goes to the King but rather than immediately reveal her request, invites the King and Haman to a banquet and only on the second night of the banquet does she reveal her request. Meanwhile King Xerxes, unable to sleep after the first banquet, calls for the state records to be read to him and finds that Mordecai has never been honoured for revealing the plot against the King.
Haman has already prepared a huge gallows on which to hang Mordecai. In today’s reading we find that Haman is hanged on those very gallows, for his wrongful action against Mordecai and the Jews in general. The King issues an edict that does not annul the original edict against the Jews, but permits them to arm themselves to defend themselves against their enemies. Mordecai is made the King’s right hand man in place of Haman. As we heard in today’s reading, Mordecai both recorded all these events and issues an edict throughout the Empire that all Jews are annually to celebrate the festival of Purim to remember the great triumph of the Jewish people when they were under severe threat, during the reign of King Xerxes in the 5th century BC.
- Message for the Jews. That succinctly is the story of the book of Esther and by now you perhaps are seeing something of the overall message, that good triumphs over evil and God overrules even the decrees of the most powerful king in the world to preserve his chosen people. God uses people who are loyal to him to achieve his good purposes. Like other great acts of salvation, God’s purposes are achieved through one person being willing to risk her life for the sake of many others.
But why am I bringing God into the situation when He is not even mentioned once in the whole book? Firstly, because the book is there in the Old Testament and therefore has been recognised from ancient time as revealing part of God’s plan of salvation. The Bible is salvation history. It reveals God at work in a variety of ways.
Secondly, there are many hints and indications that the hand of God is invisibly active behind the scenes of this great story. Bear in mind that even before Haman’s plot against the Jews, they were probably regarded with suspicion. They had their own laws. Generally they didn’t intermarry with other races and kept themselves to themselves. That is why Mordecai tells Esther not to reveal her race or family background. For the Jew, his identity was not just racial but religious. However the story shows King Xerxes in a good light, as one who had been hoodwinked by Haman and, despite the suspicion surrounding Jews, was prepared to appoint Mordecai as his right hand man. One is reminded of his predecessor, King Cyrus, who gave exiled Jews and other peoples permission to return to their own lands, supported them in so doing and whom Isaiah tells us was God’s servant. Mordecai’s allegiance was not just to his fellow Jews but to God and this allegiance transcended allegiance to foreign kings although nonetheless he was loyal to King Xerxes.
I just mention here a few of the several hints of God being behind the actions of this book.
(1) Mordecai would not kneel or bow down before Haman (3 v2). Why? The second commandment of not bowing down before or worshipping anyone or anything other than God (Deut 20 v 8).
(2) Mordecai seeks God in prayer and fasting. This is expressed in slightly veiled language (4 v1) that he ‘tore his clothes, put on sack cloth and ashes, weeping loudly and bitterly’.
(3) After Esther’s first banquet when the King could not sleep and had the official records read to him and randomly the record of Mordecai foiling the plot on the King’s life is read (6 vv1 & 2) there is clearly no human intervention. We are left to infer that the invisible hand of God was at work.
(4) After the publication of the second edict, allowing the Jews to defend themselves, we read that, ‘Many people of other nationalities became Jews for fear of the Jews had seized them’ (8 v17). Now strictly speaking you cannot become a Jew, you are either born a Jew or born a Gentile. You can however accept the Jewish faith as a proselyte and follow the Jewish law and teachings because you have faith in the one true God, creator of heaven and earth, who reigns supreme over all earthly kings.
- Message for today. What then of the message of Esther for us in 21st Century. In today’s gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples to co-operate with people of good will and who are doing good works. Surely the book of Esther and today’s gospel reveal the US presidential candidate, Ben Carson, who states that he considers that a Muslim could not be the US President, is running counter to Biblical teaching as well as probably recommending something counter to the US constitution. God today raises up people of faith and people of good will to forward the work of his kingdom.
The book of Esther also raises the question of the extent to which we discern the invisible hand of God in national and international events. Last Sunday evening Julia and I watched the programme of highlights of the annual Battle of Britain Service at Westminster Abbey, this year celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Battle.
A splendid service, but I have to say I was a little disappointed in the opening words of the Dean of Westminster, which put the service very much in a human context of the courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty of the aircrew and those supporting them on the ground. The Chaplain-in-Chief of the RAF referenced it more clearly to God.
This is not to underestimate the human aspect but to see that there is the hidden hand of God at work as well.
We can see in Esther, willing to risk her life for the sake of her people’s temporal salvation, a pre-figuring of Christ’s sacrifice for the eternal salvation of all peoples. Let us be encouraged by this account, that good does ultimately triumph over evil and let us seek to cooperate with people of good will to hasten the fulfilment of God’s kingdom.