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The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture Reading: Esther 7, 9:20-22
7 So the king and Haman went to Queen Esther’s banquet, 2 and as they were drinking wineon the second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”
3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. 4 For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.[a]”
5 King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
6 Esther said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”
Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen. 7 The king got up in a rage, left his wine and went out into the palace garden. But Haman, realizing that the king had already decided his fate, stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life.
8 Just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining.
The king exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?”
As soon as the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face. 9 Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A pole reaching to a height of fifty cubits[b] stands by Haman’s house. He had it set up for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.”
The king said, “Impale him on it!” 10 So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided.
- Esther 7:4 Or quiet, but the compensation our adversary offers cannot be compared with the loss the king would suffer
- Esther 7:9 That is, about 75 feet or about 23 meters
Sermon: “From Sorrow to Gladness”
You’ve probably seen this commercial or one like it on TV.
Is changing your culture as easy as changing your clothes? I don’t think so. Today’s reading from Esther is about a woman who tried, and finally failed, to do just that.
Esther has a long history of making interpreters scratch their heads. It doesn’t mention God, the Bible, Jerusalem, or the Temple. On the other hand, the of Esther mentions the pagan king Ahasuerus 190 times. It’s full of backstabbing, deceit, and revenge.
The book ends with the massacre of 75,000 people, whose deaths are the foundation of a new holiday. The main characters in Esther never pray, never quote Scripture, and show absolutely no signs of following Jewish law. Let’s take a closer look.
The story starts with King Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire, holding a six-month long drunken feast. Near the end of it, the king demands that his wife, Vashti, make an appearance.
He wants to show her off to his drunken, rowdy guests. Ahasuerus tells Vashti to be certain to wear her royal crown, perhaps implying that’s all she should wear.
Vashti refuses. That mortifies the king, and terrifies his advisors. What would happen if word of this got out and women—horror of horrors—began speaking their minds and stopped bowing and scraping before their husbands’ every whim?
Vashti’s struggles are as old as Esther and as current as today’s headlines. Then as now, the easiest thing to do was try to silence her voice. The king sent Vashti into exile.
Ahasuerus got lonely after a while, though. The hangers on at the royal court suggested having what amounts to a “Miss Persia” contest. Ahasuerus liked this idea—no surprise there!
Women came from all 127 provinces of the king’s huge empire. Among them was the gorgeous Esther, whose cousin Mordecai raised her. They happen to be Jews, but don’t tell the royal officials that.
Esther wins the contest, and Ahasuerus picks Esther as his new queen. As far as the Bible is concerned, it’s about the smartest thing he ever did. Here’s how Frederick Buechner described him.
King Xerxes of Persia, otherwise known as Ahasuerus, has the distinction of being the only person in the Bible whose name begins with an X. There’s not much else you can say for him. He was a blowhard and a show off, and anybody with an eighth-grade education could wrap him around his little finger without half trying. Or her little finger.
Ahasuerus chooses Haman, an especially nasty man, to head up his royal officials. Haman at once demands that everyone who meets him bow to his greatness.
Mordecai refuses, either out of stubbornness or faith. My guess is stubbornness. Anyway, Haman gets so mad that he decides to murder not just Mordecai, but all the Jews Ahasuerus rules.
Ahasuerus naively lets Haman write his own edict in the king’s name, ordering the execution of all the Jews in the empire.
Bear in mind that Israel is still part of that Empire at this point. Wipe out the Jews, and you’ve wiped out ALL the Jews, forever.
Esther, living in the palace, is as clueless about the plot as her husband the king. Mordecai fills her in and then urges her to stop the coming slaughter.
The problem with Mordecai’s plan is that the king can have anyone who comes to him without his permission killed.
Mordecai urges Esther to take the risk. “Who knows?” he asks. “Maybe this is the moment for which God created you.”
Esther stops running, stops ignoring, stops making excuses, and, most importantly, stops denying who she is. Esther remembered her roots. I have a short clip that speaks to that point.
It comes from the movie Sweet Home Alabama, in which Reese Witherspoon stars as Melanie Carmichael, a rising New York clothing designer who finds herself engaged to mayor’s son, an eligible bachelor destined for important things, perhaps even the presidency.
The trouble is, Melanie hasn’t told her fiancé about Jake, her husband back in Alabama she married in high school who refuses to divorce her. Melanie heads home determined to end their marriage and put her past behind her. Things don’t quite turn out that way.
Melanie remembered her roots. So did Esther, but she had a lot more at stake. Mordecai reminded her that she was a Jew before she was the queen, and that prompted her to act.
Esther said, “If I die, I die,” and went to see the king. Luckily, he was having a good day.
Esther invited Ahasuerus and Haman to one dinner, and then to another. Puffed up with pride as he is for attending not just one, but two, royal feasts, Esther catches Haman completely caught off guard. After that, things don’t go well for him, as we heard.
Esther saved her people. More than that, she and Mordecai also got King Ahasuerus’ permission to slaughter all the Jewish people’s enemies. They even went back and asked for an extra day to do the job right.
When the dust settled, and the blood stopped flowing, 75,000 lay dead. Their slaughter marked the start of a new holiday.
The book of Esther isn’t what we expect to find in the Bible. No wonder early collections of the Hebrew Scriptures left it out.
Maybe the most troubling thing about it is that God’s footsteps, as well as the One who left them, are hard to see, shrouded in darkness.
We don’t like that. How are we supposed to believe? Why can’t God show off a bit? We would. That would make God a lot more like us, and faith a lot easier, all the way around.
But God isn’t like us, and not just in the book of Esther. Here’s what Second Isaiah wrote: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” (Isaiah 45:15)
It’s not so much that God hides from us as it is that God shows God’s self in ways we don’t expect. Martin Luther, commenting on those verses from Second Isaiah, said:
Now it isn’t enough for anyone, and it does people no good, to recognize God in God’s glory and majesty unless they also recognize God in the humility and shame of the cross. In this way, God destroys the wisdom of the wise.
Moses discovered that God’s name is, “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be.” Learning to see God at work in acts of justice and judgment is just as important as learning how to call on God’s name in prayer. Sharing in that work when we have the chance, as Esther did, is more important still.
We’d like to sail through life above the fray in our version of the royal palace, confidently telling anyone stuck listening to us what this country needs, or what this church needs, or what this family needs, or what this world needs.
Of course, palace dweller that we are, we won’t lift a finger to do anything about it. That’s someone else’s job. Whenever we start mouthing off like that, aggravating old Mordecai taps us on the shoulder.
“Maybe God gave you these skills and experiences, these privileges and challenges, so that just at this very moment you can do what no one else can do and be what no one else can be. Maybe you came to be here for just such a time as this.”
Even though Mordecai’s stubbornness almost wiped out his people, he has a point.
We’re to look at where we are now, not obsessing over what could have been or what is not, but laying hold of whatever chance we have to make a difference now.
Like Esther, we should strive to find new things without forgetting the true things. It may be that God has put us right here, right now, for just such a time as this. Esther listened. Will we?