Friday, May 28, 2010

A Sermon on Esther 4:5-17 - "Esther & Mordecai Make a Difference"

1. Introduction to theme

God is actively calling us to make a difference in the world, both in small ways and in big ways. We just can’t escape this fact! God had redeemed us to himself so that we can partner with him in righting society’s wrongs. This aligns with how Jesus taught us to pray – “God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done … on earth, as it is [already] in heaven”. Today we study two characters within one story that made such a difference – Esther and Mordecai. Just as God chooses to use us in all our imperfection, Esther and Mordecai in their imperfection were used as instruments to alleviate a real threat to God’s people.

We shall notice that the reversal of fortune for the Jewish people in this story occurred when the banqueting stopped and the ‘fast’ began. For those who have read on past chapter 4, you might notice that the decisions made when the fasting stopped and the banqueting recommenced were not so ethically sound – in fact we could go as far as saying that subsequent events were downright horrific. This is a controversial narrative in many ways, especially as we read it far removed from its culturally bound context, but we will focus on the one and most famous incident where the action of two people supported by a community in prayer really changed a people’s future. This little segment of the book shines out as a moment of good sense and courageous action.

2. Background to story

The story of Esther is set in the Persian Empire about five centuries before the birth of Jesus – in the reign of King Ahasuerus also known as Xerxes. This was a very powerful king reigning over a vast kingdom, which included Jews who were descendents of those taken into exile in this region a century or so earlier. We read of this king in party mode expecting his queen Vashti to comply with any of his wishes including displaying herself for the pleasure of his banquet guests. Her understandable yet culturally rebellious unwillingness to comply led to the king’s irrational anger, and an implied national threat to male dominance and control, and a concerted plan to replace the queen with another woman.

For all the indecency of this, it did open the opportunity for Esther to be pushed up as a potential queen through the efforts of her guardian Mordecai (who had assumed parental responsibilities for Esther following the death of her parents). Some commentators react critically of the way such a morally bankrupt system and Esther herself were used here, including the denial of Esther’s Jewish background, yet we might reckon that drastic times require drastic means, or that the ends justify the means, or that we gain nothing if we simply throw our hands in the air and choose to let things be. For example, council politics (or any politics) can be a very rugged business, but should we refuse to participate just because it has many deficiencies and corrupt dealings? With such a volatile and erratic king in power, Mordecai would have known that to have Esther as queen would one day provide great advantage.

Ultimately Esther won favour and became queen. Esther was also able to inform the king of a devious assassination plan against him that Mordecai had overheard and passed onto Esther. While there was no reward for Mordecai in the short term, when it became known later that it was Mordecai who had really saved the king, this saved his own life, and Mordecai subsequently became a high ranking official on the king’s staff. At the same time as Esther became queen, a man by the name of Haman was promoted and gained great influence over the king.

We read that Mordecai, who was initially some sort of royal attendant, refused to bow down to Haman as he passed by, which was a huge rebuff to Haman. Mordecai seems to so refuse to bow because Haman has descended from traditional enemies of the Jewish people. But it also could be that Mordecai knew that Haman was an evil man with selfish intent, undeserving of his respect. As a result, Haman, hearing that Mordecai was a Jew, launched a vengeful plot against all the Jewish people of the region. This plot was based on a personal and violent obsession stitched together with half-truths. This sent Mordecai into deep grief, mourning for the future of his people. Something had to done! In symbolic witness to this injustice, Mordecai tore up his clothes, then wore sackcloth and covered himself in ashes, and took up residence at the gate of the king’s palace.

3. Biblical Text

As we pick up the narrative in chapter 4, Esther had been living in her own secluded world in the king’s palace and thus had become distant and isolated from human affairs. She had not really gained any sense of the reason why she might have so incredibly become queen in the first place. Esther became aware of Mordecai’s brave and rebellious action of tearing up his clothes, wearing sackcloth and ashes (denoting great mourning), and wailing loudly at the entrance of the king’s palace, which no-one was permitted to do.

However all Esther could think of to do at this time was to try to minimise embarrassment and controversy by offering Mordecai some new clothes. Mordecai has made his stand – Esther is yet to! But she does investigate; and in this investigation makes such a significant discovery. There has been a vicious plot launched by an official named Haman, who has both fooled and bribed the king, which will lead to the destruction of all the Jewish people living in the region. Haman’s bitterness had derived from Mordecai’s prior refusal to bow down to him. Such was the evil in Haman’s heart that one singular piece of resentment would lead to a revengeful desire to destroy a whole people group. And according to Mordecai, it was she, Esther, that would have to foil this plot by making an appeal to the king (which would also involve revealing her own Jewish identity).

Esther now knew what was required of her, yet standing in the way was the threat of death … if she was so presumptuous to approach the king without having first been invited. As we read in chapter 4 and verse 11 – absolutely everyone knows that anyone who approaches the king inside of his inner court without invitation is definitely a ‘dead duck’! Here is a serious test for Esther’s availability and commitment to this challenge. The fact that she hasn’t been called into the king’s presence for the last thirty days suggests that this is not likely to happen anytime soon and that she may have even lost the king’s favour – Esther is in no position to wait with any confidence of being invited. And death is a serious threat against Esther here if she makes the first move. Esther understandably faces fear.

When Mordecai hears back word of Esther’s dilemma, he considers that Esther is at real risk of succumbing to her fear, and thus requires somewhat of a reality check. This plot of Haman is not a threat removed from Esther personally; it is not simply targeted at some other random group, it is directly pointed at her own people, and Esther herself will no doubt be caught up in it. Whereas Esther fears the mortal ramifications of approaching the king herself, she can’t remove herself from the larger threat of death hanging over her whole national community.

Secondly Mordecai points out that this is Esther’s moment! Even though “relief and deliverance will rise from another quarter” if Esther keeps silent (code for ‘God will find another way’), all that has led Esther to being in this place at this time points to the fact that this is indeed Esther’s moment to put up! We could say that God has placed Esther in this situation for this very important time in the lives of many people under extreme threat. The opportunity stands to be embraced or to be ignored! But to ignore it would bring its own personal consequences.

Esther now sees the truth of what Mordecai has said, and thereby stands committed to approaching the king and making a stand on this issue. But there is still the matter of the mortal threat for approaching the king, even for the queen. In the confidence of the rightness of the cause, Esther’s fear may have dissipated somewhat, but still of concern would be how Esther will be able to live long enough to make her case to the king?

And so Esther did the best thing she could possibly do in the complexity of these difficult circumstances. She ordered a fast. Esther said that Mordecai should gather all the Jews he could find and get them to abstain from eating and drinking for three days and nights. Esther and her staff would also fast over the same period. This fasting was the complete opposite of all the banqueting that had been going on, showing that there needed to be a serious reversal in national thinking. Esther was now on the front foot leading a campaign to undo the evil that had been unleashed on her people.

It would be normal and natural for these people to connect prayer with their fast, for they would now not be distracted by their partying from a singular and complete focus on God, seeking his wisdom for the matter at hand. Prayer customarily went hand-in-hand with fasting in times of sorrow, anxiety or repentance. As we read in verse 16, this was to be done on Esther’s behalf, so that Esther would know how to go about her mission, get her message to the king, and if possible survive the whole experience. Yet this prayer was not so much targeted at personal safety, but rather towards the action that would be required to change the king’s edict of destruction. Esther was now committed to such action (wherever this led) – she just needed to know she had back-up. Mordecai left his post to pass the word around about the fast, knowing that Esther had now firmly taken up the cause.

4. Significant Results

And the results were remarkable, which led to a complete reversal of outcome. Despite the fear of approaching the king, we read in chapter 5 and verse 2 that, “As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favour and he held out to her the golden sceptre that was in his hand” – which meant that she had permission to approach him; then the king went on to say, “What is it Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to half of my kingdom”. From there, Esther is able to get the king onside and demonstrate the evil injustice that Haman was seeking to perpetrate. A large and heavy door, as it were, had been opened.

At the same time, the king discovers that Mordecai was the one responsible for his earlier survival, and thus Mordecai receives the reward that Haman had expected for himself. Haman rightly suffers the indignity of having to lead the procession of praise toward Mordecai. Subsequently, Haman himself suffers death on the gallows that he had built specially for Mordecai. The Jewish people are saved.

In the following chapters there are many ethically dubious actions (carried out in the name of Esther), which include a complete lack of mercy and a very violent reprisal disproportionate to what might have been required, and I think we are entitled to look at these happenings with great shock and horror. We might interpret these happenings as the result of people resuming their banqueting (with all the attached excesses) and ceasing their fasting completely. These banquets in the Book of Esther basically represent the celebration of self-interest. In fact this book may be just as much about the problems and tragedy that occurs when the people don’t fast, as it is about the great outcome when they did actually fast!

This may serve to challenge (or even warn) us to maintain our prayerful focus on God even when we have seemed to have gained a great victory. So often we can take our relationship with God for granted, and regress back to our own agendas and our old nature when things seem easy.

5. Application to life

Sometimes it will be necessary for us to travel through an open door, that we have been encouraged to enter, even though we don’t know fully why or don’t know where it will lead. This of course will require good discernment, which is best found within prayerful Christian community.

Sometimes we might not know why we are in a certain position … why we have gained some level of influence or responsibility; it might just seem part of the mundane side of life. But we should try to work through deeper and higher reasons for where we are and consider where God might be in this. Before Esther understood the seriousness of the matter at hand, she just tried to stick a ‘band-aid’ over it by offering Mordecai some new clothes. But this would have been avoiding the issue, and missing the God-given opportunity to make a difference for good.

We have to understand as Esther had to understand, that our humanity is connected to the humanity of others – not just those in our family units or church congregations, but all of humanity – all those we interact with and live near, for our well-being in society is interlinked with the behaviour and decision-making and life situations of these. We will need some of these to give us a job or produce our food or provide good government. Some of these co-citizens may oppress or hurt us, which is so unfortunate and so anti-God; yet brings the challenge of addressing the societal issues that breed such behaviour.

And as followers of Jesus we will never escape our God-given responsibilities to make positive contributions to others in practical and spiritual ways … those close to us, those far away, and those seeking asylum amongst us. I personally feel so angry when I see the results of bullying, hear stories of problem gambling, or see evidence of animal cruelty, and at times feel so powerless to make any sort of impact in these areas. Yet I’ll explode if I don’t find a way to do at least something positive to help.

When Esther was convicted over the plight of her people and connected that up with her level of influence and responsibility, she finally knew that she had to do something, and started by calling for a fast … with a view to taking whatever action it turned out she could.

Just as Esther was chosen to make a difference here as the person best placed to do so, we are called to partner with God to bring about the outcomes that align with God’s will for the community and the world where we are best placed to do so … our family, our neighbourhood, and our places of study, work, recreation and worship. And some of us, like Mordecai firstly, then subsequently Esther, will need to be prepared to take the lead.

Yet it’s very difficult for any person, on their own, to make such a huge difference in society. In Esther’s case, the ground for change had been prepared by another … Mordecai. Mordecai had been alert to the possibility of his ward Esther gaining a place of influence and responsibility, and ushered and supported her into this role. This is a credible example to us, despite how we might feel about the cultural practices involved at the time. Mordecai was never deterred from taking the action that led to Esther’s own heroic activity.

Some of us will be preparing the way for others to more publicly make a difference. And let’s not forget the other partners to the success here … those who fasted (and prayed). These are the ones who put aside for a time their own needs and comforts, and focussed solely on the bigger issue of the future of the Jewish people in exile in a foreign and potentially hostile land and prayed concerning Esther’s role in saving them.

The results following Esther and Mordecai’s efforts were generally good, at least for the Jewish people involved, and they were certainly successful in undoing Haman’s evil intentions. Yet the results of our particular missions are always God’s business and often only seen with a broad vision. Our responsibility lies in embracing opportunities – walking through open doors, bashing on a few that appear closed (but just may not be), and standing against injustices of all kinds whatever the cost.