FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS
TEXT: Esther 3:8-4:17
The book of Esther has had a hard life. When it wanted to become a part of the Hebrew Scriptures there was a lot of objection and it had a lot of explaining to do. Some folks objected that it wasn't historically true. They said it was just fiction written to justify bringing a pagan festival into Judaism--the festival of Purim. Others said it was morally bankrupt, and still others had problems with the fact that it was missing important elements of the Jewish faith--things like law, covenant, prayer, dietary regulations, or Jerusalem. And the real kicker is that the book also neglects to mention God--not even once. If the book of Esther had been facing the Board of Ordained Ministry it may just as well have given up and gone home.
And yet, despite all of the objections, there was something enduring in the story of Queen Esther. Somewhere in this story of greed and lust for power and vengence and chauvinism was a message of truth that overcame the objections and landed the book in the canon, forever to be labeled as Holy Scripture.
If you haven't ever sat down and read through the book of Esther in one sitting, I encourage you to do that. It's not that long, and the narrative pulls you along easily. The basic story is this: Once upon a time the King of Persia decides to call for his Queen. So he sends messengers ordering the Queen to come. Well, the Queen has other ideas, and she sends back her own message that says, "King, I ain't comin'!" Well, the King is not pleased with this response and thinks it sets a rather bad example for the other wives of his kingdom, so he deposes the Queen and begins a search for a new one. He hosts the biblical equivalent of the royal ball given by the prince in Cinderella where all the fairest young maidens of the land come to be inspected by the king--although I suspect the King of Persia inspected his young maidens a bit more intimately than Prince Charming inspected his. The King finally decides on Esther, a young Jewish girl--who does not reveal her racial heritage--and Esther becomes queen of Persia.
Esther has an uncle named Mordecai, who one day hears about a plot against the life of the king. He tells Esther, who tells the king. The plot is thwarted, the king is saved, and Mordecai is a hero--except the king forgets to honor Mordecai for his efforts. Meanwhile, there is a power-hungry official in the court named Haman who is promoted to be the right-hand man of the king. This job suits Haman just fine, because in his new position all the people of the land bow down to him when he passes by, and Haman gets a real high on this power trip.
But there's a problem. Whenever Haman goes out into the city, everyone stops what they are doing and bows down to him--everyone that is except old Mordecai. And this one bit of insolence is spoiling the whole deal for Haman. So Haman asks around to see why Mordecai is so uppity and discovers it is because Mordecai is a Jew, and a Jew will bow the knee only for God. Well, this bit of Jewish silliness is spoiling everything for Haman, so Haman goes to the King and says, as we read in today's Scripture beginning in Esther 3, verse 8:
"Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king's laws, so that it is not for the king's profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king's business, that they may put it into the king's treasuries.' So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews. And the king said to Haman, 'The money is given to you, the people also, to do with them as it seems good to you.'
"Then the king's secretaries were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king's satraps and to the governors over all the provices and to the princes of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king's ring. Letters were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all the Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation to all the peoples to be ready for that day. The couriers went in haste by order of the king, and the decree was issued in Susa the capital. And the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was perplexed.
"When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; he went up to the entrance of the king's gate, for no one might enter the king's gate clothed with sackcloth. And in every province, wherever the king's command and his degree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
"When 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. Then 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 this was and why it was. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king's gate, and 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. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people. And Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him 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, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter that he may live. And I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.' And they told Mordecai what Esther had said. Then Mordecai told them to return answer to Esther, 'Think not 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 house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?' Then Esther told them to 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. Then 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."
I'm not going to tell you the rest of the story. If you don't know it, go home and read it. But I am stopping at this point because I think the first real wisdom in the book of Esther appears here, in the words of an uncle to the woman he raised as a daughter: "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."
As I said earlier, God is not mentioned once in the entire book of Esther. But this statement is a statement of absolute faith, coming from a devout Jew steeped in the history of the relationship between God and God's people. Hear the faith that underlies what Mordecai is saying. He has absolute confidence that there will be deliverance for the Jews--he is well aware of God's promise of restoration, and he is so confident that God will keep God's promises that Mordecai can continue to believe in ultimate deliverance even in the face of his own death.
Look Esther, he is saying, God is going to deliver his people no matter what, but if you won't be part of the solution, you and me and all of our family are going to be wiped out as part of the problem. Have you ever considered that maybe you got to be Queen so that God could use you to solve this very problem?
What Mordecai is saying here is that people matter and our actions make a real difference. God will make sure that God's overall plan is carried out and will intervene directly to ensure that end. That's what the coming of Christ is all about. But when it comes to the details of the plan-- like exactly who is going to do what and when, that part is left to the free will of human beings. The message of Esther is that God might engineer the circumstances, but what happens after that is ultimately up to us. God might prod us, but we might refuse. And if we refuse, people might die.
I learned this lesson--as I have most of my lessons--the hard way. I was at work--my first job--at one of the Brown University libraries. For about a week, we had been seeing two workmen who were in the library installing an alarm system on all the doors and windows. Toward the end of the week, I started to get that stirred up feeling you get when God is prompting you to do something. And I felt that what God wanted me to do was to stop those two young men and to tell them that God loved them and that I loved them. Well, I was 22 years old, newly married, and I didn't think it would be very smart to stop two strange men and tell them that I loved them. But the feeling persisted. And I persisted to refuse it--searching out work that would take my mind away from it.
I succeeded. The end of the day came, the men left--their work completed--and I went home without having embarrassed myself. When I came in the next morning, the library staff was buzzing with the news. One of those two men we had seen all week had left the library the day before but had not gone home. He had gone straight to the Jamestown Bridge and had jumped to his death. The note said, no one loved him. Perhaps I had been brought to that position in the library for just such a time as this, but when the time came, I was not faithful. You cannot tell me that God meant for that man to commit suicide--that it was planned from the beginning. God wanted to offer him a chance to live. But I was not willing to bear the offer.
The faith of Mordecai rings true--perhaps, Esther, just perhaps God allowed you to be Queen for just such a time as this. Perhaps, just perhaps, the positions that we attain in life are not rewards for good living but mandates for service. Perhaps, just perhaps, the people we encounter from day to day have been nudged close to us by God so that we might help each other along this stony path of life.
This one part of the story of Queen Esther shows us where the rubber meets the road. We can spend 10 hours a day in prayer and Bible study and go to church seven days a week. But if we can't respond to the call of God to reach out and tell someone else "I love you and God loves you" it has no meaning. If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. (I Cor. 13:1) Faith without works is dead. (James 2:26) Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. (I John 4:20). It's all over the place.
I want every one of you here this morning to think about two things this week. The first thing I want you to consider is your position in life. What are the circumstances of your life right now? What positions of responsibility have you been given? What resources are at your disposal? Perhaps, just perhaps, they were given to you for just such a time as this--a time when our children are killing and being killed on the streets and in their homes; a time when the major systems of our social structure are foundering for want of direction; a time when God's creation is groaning under the weight of our demands; a time when people are jumping off bridges for lack of love and hope.
St. John's is a congregation with resources and you hold positions of power and responsibility in the church and in the community. The message of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is that the resources you have are not yours. Not a dime in your pocket, not the job that you hold, not the spouse that you married, not the children you have borne, not even the breath that animates your body belongs to you. All of it belongs to God. We are not owners but stewards of the things that we call "ours." It doesn't matter if we are 12 years old or 112, God can use our circumstances to further the Kingdom of God, if we are willing.
And it's not easy. Queen Esther literally risked her life to save her people. If she approached the King without being asked, he could have her killed. She couldn't be sure that she would be received. She might die and her people might die anyway. That is why Queen Esther is an example of faith. It wasn't just her work that saved the people. It was allowing God to work through her...it was taking the position she had and placing it at God's disposal, knowing that she might lose it all in the process. It was the attitude of Job, who said "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."
What would it mean to you to use your life's circumstances in God's service? There are over 500 members here at St. John's. If just a tenth of those were fully living out their faith, Dover would be a different place. Jesus changed the known world with twelve. As they say in Cross City, you shouldn't be able to swing a dead cat in Dover without hitting examples of faith from this church. The influence of 500 plus Christians in this town should be as obvious as the nose on your face. What is going on in your office, home, or city? Maybe you have been given the position you hold for just such a time as this.
So I want you to think about your position in life this week. But I also want you to think about the people in your life. As I told the story of my failure to respond to God's call in the library, was there a name or face that came to your mind? Is there someone you need to call? Someone who needs to hear "I love you and God loves you?" Is there someone God keeps throwing in your path who you've thought about inviting to church or youth or Sunday School? Don't just sit back and believe that if you don't do it that someone else will. You may be the last someone else between that person and despair.
For those of you who have had a suicide touch your life, I want to be careful that you don't hear this message as a call to guilt. In a case like mine, I was, in fact, guilty. I knew what God asked me to do, I refused, and a man died. But that is not to say that if someone you knew committed suicide that you or someone else could have prevented it with a few words...or even a lot of words or a lot of anything. It's not that simple. That man might have died even if I had told him. It was his choice. I do know God wanted him to hear one more bit of information before he made it, but I did not cause his suicide. Please take that to heart. Dealing with suicide is hard enough without me laying additional guilt on anybody.
But I do want to use that story from my life to make you stop and think about how God uses us to help others and about how available we are willing to be for that purpose. Think about the people in your life--family, friends, co-workers, strangers who provide us with services, those who will work for food, those who won't work or can't work, the woman next to us in the grocery line, the child flying alone, the man in the nursing home who can't remember his own name. How do you live out your faith with the people you encounter every day?
Don't go to bed tonight without saying to somebody else, "I love you and God loves you." In fact, try not to leave church this morning without saying it to someone. Who do you gather and chat with after church? Look for a face you don't know. Look for a face out on the fringe of the crowd and go say hello. It might seem embarrassing or silly or unnecessary. But when you find yourself thinking that way, remember a young man installing alarm systems and a young Christian woman who refused to share God's love. Tell somebody. Tell everybody. We may have been placed here for just such a time as this.
© 2000, Anne Robertson
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