Lord, may we have ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts open to your revelation, in Jesus name we pray – Amen
This morning you heard read an excerpt from one of the least known books of the Bible – Esther
It is the only time in the three year cycle of readings that anything from Esther is heard
I, myself, after three years of seminary, six years of ordain ministry and daily reading of the Bible, need to use the index in order to even find it
And yet out of Esther comes one of the nine major holy days, and two of the five minor holy days for the Jewish people – Purim
The Book of Esther has no mention of Jerusalem, the law, prophets, the Promised Land or exile, …or even God!
It includes no formal prayers or miracles (though it does depict fasting as a pious practice)
Its only internal tie to the rest of the Hebrew Bible is that it involves the survival of the Jewish people from what was to be certain genocide
It is this detail that it is a pivotal moment in our spiritual ancestors’ very existence that it is included in the canon of scripture
Yet, right in the middle of the book there is a real gem, there is twice repeated the very essence of Esther
Chapter 4 verse 14 - … for such a time as this…
The story of Esther is about how one responds when faced with climatic moments
When circumstances, ordained beyond us, calls us to act, to respond, to consider our very existence and purpose in life… to be… for such a time as this…
I ask rhetorically, who knows the whole story of Esther, her life as an orphan, the role of Mordecai, how she came to be Queen,
Who has ever heard of Haman, or why he has orchestrated the destruction of the Jewish people.
Before today’s reading did you know that by the end of the book, great reversals ensue, that the powerful are brought low, while the servant is raised up.
For most Christians the story of Esther is not well known
So today let’s explore the story of a pivotal character in Jewish history
The Book of Esther begins with a six-month drinking feast given by King Ahasuerus, (a-has-u-air-us) for the army of Persia and Media, for the civil servants and princes in the 127 provinces of his kingdom
At the conclusion of this, there is a further seven-day drinking feast for the inhabitants of Susa, rich and poor – Susa was thought to be the location of one of 4 royal Persian Palaces
This week, there is a separate drinking feast for the women organised by the Queen Vashti in the pavilion of the Royal courtyard.
At this feast Ahasuerus (a-has-u-air-us) gets thoroughly drunk and, at the prompting of his courtiers, orders his wife Vashti to display her beauty before the nobles and people wearing her royal crown.
Some commentators suggest that the text implies that the royal order is to be only her crown
Queen Vashti refuses… And Ahasuerus decides to remove her from her post.
He then orders all young women to be presented to him, so he can choose a new queen to replace Vashti.
One of these is Esther, who was orphaned at a young age and was being fostered by her cousin, sometimes referred to as uncle, Mordecai.
She finds favor in the king's eyes, and is made his new wife. Esther does not reveal that she is Jewish. In fact under Mordecai’s advice she conceals the detail of her race
Shortly afterwards, Mordecai discovers a plot by two courtiers Bigthan and Teresh to kill Ahasuerus
They are apprehended and hanged, and Mordecai's service to the king is recorded in the daily record of the court.
Ahasuerus appoints Haman as his prime minister.
Mordecai, who sits at the palace gates, falls into Haman's disfavor as he refuses to bow down to him.
Haman, a very vain man, having found out that Mordecai is Jewish, plans to kill not just Mordecai but the entire Jewish minority in the empire,
Which was likely the vast majority of Hebrews in the world at the time, as the Persian Empire was the dominant power and spanned an immense region, most of the ancient Middle East
Obtaining Ahasuerus' permission and funds to execute this plan, (as the king was not one for noticing the schemes of others)
Haman casts lots ("purim") to choose the date on which to do this
When Mordecai finds out about the plans he orders widespread penitence and fasting.
Mordecai apparently has some authority both as an advisor in the royal court and leader amongst the Hebrews
Esther, through her royal eunuch, communicates with Mordecai and he presents to Esther a compelling argument that she cannot hide from who she is
Mordecai suggests that all that has happened to Esther, from the removal of Queen Vashti, to Esther selected beyond all the other young women –
ALL has happen … for such a time as this…
That she is placed where she is, so that she might save her people
Esther requests that all Jews of Susa fast and pray for three days together with her, and on the third day she seeks an audience with Ahasuerus, a request that if not granted could cost her, her life
The Persian king was seen as unapproachable by ancient Persian law, even by his queen
During her audience with Ahasuerus she invites him to a feast in the company of Haman
During the feast, she asks them to attend a further feast the next evening.
Meanwhile, Haman is again offended by Mordecai's refusal to bow to him
He builds a gallows, 75 feet in height, for Mordecai, with the intention to hang him there the very next day.
That night, Ahasuerus suffers from insomnia, and when the court's daily records are read to him, to help him fall asleep, like we might count sheep or what shapes we might see in the stucco
He learns of the services rendered by Mordecai in the earlier plot against his life.
Ahasuerus asks whether anything was done for Mordecai and is told that he received no recognition for saving the king's life.
Just then, Haman appears, and King Ahasuerus asks him what should be done for the man that the King wishes to honor.
Thinking that the King is referring to Haman himself,
Haman says that the honoree should be dressed in the king's royal robes and led around on the king's royal horse.
To Haman's horror, the king instructs Haman to do so to Mordecai.
Later that evening, Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther's second banquet, at which she reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, which includes her.
Ahasuerus (a-has-u-air-us), for the love of his Queen, instead orders Haman hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.
The previous decree against the Jews could not be annulled, ancient Persian law thought of the King as a demi-god and therefore anything decreed by him to be divine wisdom
So the King allows Mordecai and Esther to write another decree as they wish.
They decree that Jews may pre-emptively kill those thought to pose a lethal risk.
As a result, five hundred attackers and Haman's ten sons are killed in Susa.
On the following day, another 300 are killed in Susa.
Over those two days throughout the empire 75,000 of the Jews' enemies are killed
No spoils are taken, somehow symbolically displaying the righteousness of their actions
Mordecai is placed into the position of second in rank to Ahasuerus (Haman’s former role)
And institutes an annual commemoration of the delivery of the Jewish people from annihilation
The very day that had been decreed for Persians to attack Jews, is now decreed as the day for Jews to defend against these enemies.
Taking the name “Purim” to celebrate the marvelous twist in fate for the Jews
Haman had cast lots, known as ‘Purim’, originally to select the date
But circumstance, and Esther’s timely action has transformed Purim to a celebration, instead of Genocide
Jews win, Persians lose.
These reversals offer theological reassurance to a religious minority in the post-exilic context
That God is indeed still at work, delivering his chosen ones
It runs deep to the essential promise of the foundational Abrahamic covenant
That the Jews would be God’s chosen ones, from whom the whole world will be blessed
It is vital for the ongoing story of God’s relationship to all humanity – that from Abraham’s line, a saviour, a Messiah will bless the world
The story of Esther is not merely a story of one race or one clever and brave woman action in the face of certain peril
But the pivotal moment in the continuation of God’s plan for all humanity … and our response to circumstances when there is …such a time as this
Living as a religious minority requires careful and sophisticated judgments about how and when to claim Jewish identity.
The question of how to claim Jewish identity occupies much of the early story about Esther and Mordecai,
With different judgments at different times about hiding and revealing one's Jewishness in varying contexts.
Ultimately, deliverance comes through claiming Jewish identity.
Esther takes a great risk in revealing her true Jewishness,
Though Mordecai points out that she is sure to die either way.
Nevertheless, once revealed, the king responds favorably and the Jewish people are saved.
While the powerful (and often evil) appear in control, there is an unseen hand at work in all things, leading to great reversals.
Though God is never explicitly cited, the book shows a greater power at work throughout.
God has not abandoned his people.
No matter how bad things get for Jews under the hand of foreign powers,
God is still God.
These take-aways are pretty useful, too, for Christians who struggle to claim their identity within a dominant culture
That would have them be Canadians first, or employees first, or consumers first,
other identities that compete for the hearts of those who follow Jesus.
Esther is a story of an extraordinary women showing great courage and winning on behalf of her people their salvation.
She risks everything… herself… for others.
This is what our Lord, Jesus Christ does for His Church.
He not risks not only everything,
He gives everything, … including life itself
Let us pray – Thank you Lord God that you are mindful of your people, that your provisions align all the circumstances towards your son, our saviour’s immeasurable act of sacrificial service. May we be mindful to have ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to trust in your never failing love. Amen