Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Esther? Who even knew there was a book in the Bible that tells the story of Queen Esther? If we had time, I’d really like to just read you the entire book—it’s only about a dozen pages long—but if you’re not familiar with it at all, I’d suggest spending an hour reading this fascinating glimpse of history. It reads like a James Patterson novel, and I can envision Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe in the starring roles of the soon-to-be-made movie version of this tale.
So, what is the Book of Esther about? Quite simply, it’s the story of the deliverance of the Jewish people from death at the hands of Haman, the wicked advisor to the Persian king. The book was written in about 300 BC, but it rings true even today. Its messages and challenges are as relevant for us as they were for Esther, her cousin Mordecai, the evil advisor Haman, and the ruling authorities. In fact, the Book of Esther is the basis for the annual Jewish feast of Purim, where Jews celebrate their deliverance by sharing food and gifts with each other and with the poor. Purim falls on Adar 14 in the Jewish calendar. (This year Purim was celebrated from Feb. 28 to March 1.)
Why did the Jews select Adar 14 for Purim? That’s the day when the Jews were saved and their enemies defeated. Here’s the story. In a nut shell, Mordecai, a Jew, refuses to bow down to the king’s advisor, Haman. Infuriated that Mordecai disrespects him, Haman decides he must kill not only Mordecai but also all of the Jewish people in the land. Haman gets the king’s permission and casts lots to determine the date on which Jews will be, quote “eliminated,” in all 127 provinces of Persia. The date so chosen is Adar 13.
Listen to how Haman persuades the king:
Your Majesty, there are some people who live all over your kingdom and won’t have a thing to do with anyone else. They have customs that are different from everyone else’s, and they refuse to obey your laws. We would be better off to get ride of them! Why not give orders for all of them to be killed? I can promise that you will get tons of silver for your treasury.
Today’s Scripture reading focuses only on the dinner when Esther pleads for the lives of her people and where Haman’s treachery is revealed and he is punished by death. This is a story of grace under pressure, where Esther is challenged to reveal her true self for the good of the Jewish community that will otherwise be slaughtered. It is Esther’s cousin Mordecai, who raised her after she was orphaned, who first tells Esther to never reveal that she is a Jew—and who later pleads with her to reveal her true self and intercede on their behalf with the king. While she pleads, “Save me from me fears,” Mordecai encourages her by saying, “It could be that you were made queen for such a time as this.”
I’m sure you’re wondering how this Jewish woman ever became queen. Here’s the skinny on that. The first queen, Queen Vashti, was banished after she refused to obey the king. There was a fear that other women in the kingdom would hear of this and refuse to obey their husbands. This led to the queen’s replacement by Esther and to the king issuing an edict to all the provinces, saying that husbands should have complete control over their wives and children. Hmm. Time does not permit us to get into this aspect of the story, but needless to say, many modern women see Queen Vashti as a courageous leader in the women’s rights movement. It’s an interesting side note.
So, the story continues with Mordecai refusing to acknowledge the power of Haman, refusing to bow before him. The plot thickens, however, when Mordecai saves the king’s life, thus setting up his place of honor with the king. But the day of the Jew’s annihilation is coming, and Mordecai pleads for Esther’s intervention with the king. Esther decides to reveal her Jewish heritage, to expose Haman, and to plead for the lives of her people. She does this through a dinner she has arranged for the king and Haman. And it works! Esther’s courageous act of self-revelation wins favor with the king. Truth wins out. The Jewish people are saved, and Haman is hanged on the scaffolding he had prepared for Mordecai’s demise.
The story ends with the Jewish people killing their enemies but not taking any of the plunder from them. They further decree that this victory will be remembered annually and celebrated as Purim—a reference to Haman’s casting lots to choose their day of destruction.
So, where does that leave us? What can we take from the Book of Esther? One of the most striking things about this book is that in it, there is not one mention of God and not one prayer offered. Think about it. Can you imagine a book of the Bible not mentioning God? It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.
I said there is no mention of God. I did not say, however, that God was not present—and that’s my point. Actions speak louder than words. What Esther’s story says to us today, I think, is that we are called to act with courage to help save the world: that is, to bring about the kingdom of God by loving and serving others.
God was not absent from Esther’s story. We know that God provides and protects—but God works through PEOPLE, people like you and me. God gives us the courage to speak out against injustice and to serve those in need. Emmanuel will be doing just this starting tonight as we begin another week of serving the homeless.
It saddens me, though, to think that humanity’s xenophobia—fear of foreigners—goes back unabated to Biblical times. Had we learned the lessons of Haman’s wickedness, might atrocities such as the Holocaust, the Trail of Tears, lynchings in this country, and the ethnic cleansing that continues throughout the world, have been avoided? Sadly, the human family still has much to learn.
Our fabulous Emmanuel choir sang today of God’s saving power, singing “He is mighty to save” and calling God “the author of salvation.” We need that power in our world today—a statement that has been true throughout the ages. Jesus triumphed over the grave, and that same power to save is available to us today. Can I get an “Amen”?
How, though, can we connect with this power and use it to bring good into the world? We could learn to do that by following Christ’s example. And by following Christ and living out our faith, might we show others another way of being—a way based on love and not hate, on inclusion and not division, and on the precepts laid out in Micha 6:8?
I love Micha’s words for their simplicity and their wisdom. You remember them: “This is what the Lord asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Esther did this, I think, by risking her own life to save her people. Esther did not have Jesus as a role model, but we do. Today’s bulletin cover says it all: “Jesus gave up his life for his friends. Jesus loves you. Be like Jesus.”
In the name of the one who calls us to be like Him, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
SCRIPTURE READING: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” The King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the ager of the king abated.
Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.