For a Time Such as This: Reading Esther in Advent

 

In Advent, we wait for God to come near. On the second weekend of Advent, we re-light the candle of Hope and we light the candle of Peace. God’s coming into our world means peace –peace within our own hearts, peace between people, peace for the entire earth.

But what does Peace look like? Will we even recognize it when it arrives?

Enter Esther.

Our text for this weekend is unlike a lot of what we find in the Bible. After a couple of weeks reading the prophets, it may seem a little jarring to find ourselves in the middle of a historical romance novel –but here we are.

Esther is an unusual book –one of only two books in the Bible named for a woman, and one that seems to studiously avoid making many kind of reference to God.  But it paints a portrait of patience and faithfulness in the midst of some very challenging times.

Esther 4:1-17

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.3In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. 4When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them.

5Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. 6Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, 7and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews.8Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people. 9Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.10Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11“All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 12When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14For 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.” 15Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16“Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”17Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

The story of Esther may not be a familiar one. If so, you have come to the right place. This is a story worth knowing –the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim.

Esther is set in a particular context: the experience of exile. Five and a half centuries before the birth of Christ, the nation of Israel had been conquered, Jerusalem destroyed and the homeless Jewish people exiled and scattered throughout the known world, forced to live as a tiny minority in hostile foreign nations.

One such nation was the mighty Empire of Persia, stretching from Greece in the west all the way to India in the east.  Esther, the hero of the book that bears her name, was a Jew in exile, living in the Persian Empire.  Her parents had died when she was very young, and she was raised by her uncle Mordecai.  He took her into his home and loved her as a daughter.

One day, a messenger comes to town with exciting news:  The king of the entire Persian Empire is hosting a beauty pageant. Women from throughout the kingdom can compete, and the winner will be crowned queen of all of Persia!

So Esther packs her bags and hops the first bus to Atlantic City. She spends an entire year in training: special diet, cosmetic treatments, workouts with a personal trainer. She practices her posture, balances books on her head, rubs Vaseline on her teeth.  She studies all the esoteric arts of the beauty pageant.

After a year, Esther is more than ready. When she meets the king, he is blown away.  He says, “This contest is over! I have found my Queen.” He places the tiara on her head and strikes up the band and they have a huge party.  Mordecai nearly bursts with pride. Esther is crowned Queen of all of Persia.

But the party will not last for long.

On Mordecai’s advice, Esther has hidden the fact that she is Jewish. Nobody knows. Well, one day, after Esther is crowned queen, the king hires a new prime minister, a wicked, wretched, evil little man named Haman.  Haman loves power and prestige.  Haman loves to have everyone else bow down in front of him.  And everybody does, except Mordecai. Mordecai will not bow down to anyone except Almighty God.

Haman does not care for this.  The more he thinks about it, the angrier he gets. As his anger grows, Haman devises an awful plan. He goes to the king, and requests a royal decree to destroy Mordecai’s entire race. The king issues the edict and the Jewish people are marked for destruction.

Our Scripture reading for this week picks up the story at this point.  Mordecai learns of the king’s edict, and tears his clothes and puts on ashes and sackcloth.  He wails and he weeps for his doomed people.  Mordecai asks Esther to go to the king and intercede for the Jewish people, to plead for their lives.  But Esther is afraid to go.  This king has a temper.  If she goes to him without being invited, under Persian law, the king could have her killed.

Mordecai does not mince words.  He urges Esther to stand up for her people, to do what is right. “Who knows?” he asks. “Maybe you have come to be queen precisely for such a time as this.” Esther knows what she has to do.  She agrees to go before the king, even though it is against the law.   “If I must die for doing it,” she says, “I will die.”

Esther had a lot more to her than beauty and charm.  She found her courage; she faced the king, she delivered her people out of death.  Today the Persian Empire is a dim memory, but the Jewish people are alive and well.

Not bad for a beauty Queen.

Esther’s story is exciting, highly entertaining –but also awfully insightful. What does God’s peace look like? How are we to live in the time of our exile?

Questions worth pondering. See you in church!

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