Rev. Teri Peterson
7 December 2014, NL1-14, Advent 2
The scripture reading today is from the book of Esther, the fourth chapter. Since this is the middle of the story, allow me to recap what has happened up to this point.
The Book of Esther opens with an enormous 180-day party thrown by the King of the Persian Empire, ruling over 127 provinces. As the days of feasting draw to a close, he summons his wife, Vashti, to show off her beauty by appearing wearing only her crown. But Vashti refuses, so the king banishes her. After a while, he begins to miss his queen. His officials propose an elaborate beauty contest of all the kingdom’s beautiful maidens, from whom he can choose a new queen. From all over the 127 provinces, beautiful women are brought to the palace, trained in ways that please him, given lessons in clothes and makeup, and one by one introduced to the king for a night.
Esther is a Jew who lives in the capital city. She is an orphan who was raised by her uncle, Mordecai, one of the leaders of the Jewish people in exile. When they come to take her to the palace, Mordecai insightfully instructs her not to reveal who her family is or that she is Jewish. After a 12 month process, Esther is deemed the fairest of them all. “The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she carried charm and favor before him more than all the other virgins, so he placed the royal crown on her head, and made her queen in place of Vashti.”
Mordecai doesn’t tell anyone he is related to the new queen, but he does frequent the palace gates to hear news of Esther’s well being. One day he overhears two men plotting to murder the king and he quickly sends word to Esther, who reveals the plot to the king in the name of Mordecai. The plotters are caught and executed, and Mordecai’s name and deed are written in the king’s Book of Chronicles.
In the meantime, the king appoints Haman as Prime Minister and issues a decree that all should bow to him. Mordecai refuses to bow down before Haman. Mordecai’s refusal infuriates Haman. Already driven by his family’s historic hatred of the Jewish people, Haman goes to the King with 10,000 silver pieces and asks for permission to destroy the Jews. He presents the issue to the king as a matter of loyalty, saying “There is a certain people, scattered and spread out among the peoples in all the states of your kingdom, their laws are different from other peoples and they do not observe the king’s laws, so it is not worth it for the king to leave them alive.” The king agrees and issues an edict to all 127 provinces saying that on the 13th of the month, the Jews in all the provinces are to be exterminated and their property kept as plunder.
Upon hearing this vile edict, Mordecai dons sackcloth and ashes. He quickly sends word to Esther that she must go to the king and stop this horrible decree from becoming reality.
We pick up the story in chapter 4, verse 10:
Then Esther sent a message for Mordecai, saying, ‘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.’ When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai 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. For 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.’ Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘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.’ Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
For such a time as this.
What time is this, exactly?
It is Advent—the time when we prepare for God to break into the world in the flesh.
It is winter, the time when darkness comes early and stays late.
It is a tumultuous time in our nation, as we wonder whose lives matter.
It is a violent time in our world, with fighting between ethnic groups, governments, individuals, gangs…fights over political ideals, fights over water, fights over drugs, fights over land.
It is a time of paradox, as 20% of our children go hungry even as we produce more food than ever.
For such a time as this.
And yet many of us feel helpless, carried along by the current of news and daily expectations. We pray for people who are hungry, and we grow produce for the food pantry, and we serve dinner. We pray for an end to violence, and we do our best to stay out of dangerous neighborhoods. We light the Advent candle and look for light in the darkness. What else can we do? We don’t have the power to change much.
That’s what Esther said too, of course.
She was nobody—an orphan, raised by an uncle. She was a Jew in exile—when the Persian empire defeated the Babylonians, some Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, yet Esther and Mordecai are still here among a community of other exiles. She was taken into the king’s harem, not by choice but because it’s what happened to beautiful girls. She was groomed for a life devoted to pleasing the king. She became the queen, following a woman who was exiled for defiance, so she knew her place. She was a woman with a secret identity, one that meant she would never be truly in the upper echelons of society if she were found out. She didn’t have any power in her situation.
Or rather, she believed she didn’t have any power.
It takes her uncle to help her see reality. Esther was queen. She was a person of great privilege, no matter how she felt about herself. She was not automatically suspicious. She was not afraid to go about her daily tasks, and people were not afraid of her as she did them. She had access to the halls of power. Now the question was: how would she use that privilege? Would she sit back and pretend it didn’t exist, even as she benefitted? Would she use it to get ahead herself? Or would she respond to the needs of others, even if it meant risking her own comfort and the status quo that protected her?
For such a time as this.
For a time when peace seems more elusive than ever, and justice lies in the street while we look on with excuses. For a time when our neighbors fear for their lives as they do their Christmas shopping. For a time when perceived protection for some means pain for others. For a time when our automatic, ingrained fear has taken control.
Perhaps we have been given so much privilege for just such a time as this.
Esther balked, as we do, at the idea that she could do anything. Everyone knows the way things are, she can’t do much about that without risking her own life, her own comfort, her own safety.
But ultimately, her call is from God, and that call overrides the rules of the king and her own discomfort.
And so Esther goes into Advent mode—she prepares, with prayer and fasting, and she asks that the whole community of Jews join her in that preparation. They are preparing for something they hope for but cannot yet see, for a new liberation, for the coming of peace. They make room in their bodies and their spirits for God to do a new thing yet again.
And into the throne room Esther goes. For such a time as this, she answers God’s call in spite of the fact that it requires her to break every rule of her society and to risk her position.
Often this is where we stop in the story of Esther. We jump from here to “the king heard her request and the Jews were saved. Yay Esther!” But for those of you who haven’t read the second half of the book in a while, here’s what happens:
Esther invites the king and Haman to a series of banquets. In between the two feasts, Haman encounters Mordecai and looks for a reason to kill him. Worse, the king reviews his records and finds that Mordecai was never honored for uncovering the assassination plot, and the king sends Haman to do the honors. At the end of the second banquet, Esther reveals that she is a Jew and that Haman has orchestrated the destruction of her people, and she pleads with the king to reverse the decree that allows the people to kill the Jews and plunder their homes. The king says that a decree cannot be reversed, but he instead issues a new decree: that the Jews may assemble a protest and kill those who wish to harm them, on the very day that was slated for their slaughter. He also agrees to hang Haman on the very gallows Haman had built for Mordecai. And on the 13th of the month, the Jews rise up and fight back against the people who had hated and feared and killed them simply for their ethnic and religious backgrounds.
No wonder we prefer to gloss over the end of the story. It hits all our nerves—a woman uses her power, a minority group fights back, and the person who had so carefully orchestrated his own self-advancement goes to the gallows.
And yet here it is, in the middle of our holy book, and in the middle of Advent. The people in exile longed for God to do something. And so do we—we wait amidst the shining decorations and cheerful songs, we beg God to create peace, to bring the kingdom, to break in and comfort the people who sit in darkness. Meanwhile, God is begging us to create peace, to bring the kingdom, to break in and comfort the people who sit in darkness. Just like Esther, our call is from God, and that call overrides the rules of society and the potential for our own discomfort. Just like Esther, God calls us to put aside our fear and use our privilege to help others. Just like Esther, we are called to stand up, even at the risk of our own lives, and create justice for those whom society teaches us to fear.
We can, with Esther, claim that we aren’t actually privileged, but ultimately we will, also with Esther, need to see reality. On a global scale, we are some of the wealthiest people around. On a community scale, most of us are free to go about our lives without being followed or harassed. People assume we are good and honest. We have access to education and healthcare and transportation. Perhaps it is for just such a time as this that we have been given this set of gifts—blessings that call us to be a blessing. God has gifted us with the privilege and the responsibility to make the world a better place, to build the kingdom here on earth, to help others see that every person is made in God’s image, to create a community that reflects all God’s glory, to be a light shining in the darkness.
God’s call overrides the rules. Will we answer?
May it be so.