Sunday, July 10, 2011

Women of the Bible: Esther – Esther 3: 8-14 and Esther 7:1-10

Pretty somber and bone chilling words from the story of Esther this morning. Let us unpack these a bit together, shall we? Today we are going to continue our preaching series focusing on the lives and examples of a few prominent women in Scripture and as we look to these women, I believe you will see their great acts of faith and devotion in how they lived their lives. Last week we focused on the story of Deborah and how her faith in God and her ability to be humble, allowed her to deliver the Israelites from certain defeat. This morning we will turn to Esther, a woman who was a head of state, who helped the Jewish people maintain their personal freedoms, and a Jew who became queen over the Persians who held the Jewish people in exile. Many people may have heard of Esther before, but what gets lost about this incredible woman is the impact she had on the Israelite people. For us today, Esther is a lesson in courage and faith.

Esther's Story
The book of Esther is only ten chapters, but it’s a fascinating tale of mystery and politics. The story actually begins many years earlier when the Jewish people had been carried off into captivity by the Babylonians. Eventually the Babylonian Empire fell to the great and mighty Persian Empire.

We learn about Esther because of the downfall of the Persian queen Vashti. She snubs her husband King Xerses in front of a huge throng of very important people. For this, she is banished, and a search begins throughout the entire Persian Empire for a beautiful replacement. Hearing about this, a Jewish man named Mordecai talks to his beautiful orphaned niece Esther about presenting herself as a replacement for the queen. At first Esther argues, saying she would never be chosen because she is Jewish. But Mordecai tells her not to reveal her heritage. It’s fitting – for Esther’s name means “one who is hidden.” Esther becomes part of the search, and she impresses the people in charge, not just because she was incredibly beautiful, but also because she was charming and friendly to all she met. Esther caught the attention of King Xerses and just like a fairy-tale, she became the next queen of the Persian Empire.

But there were some problems in empire. There was a man named Haman, who was the king’s chief minister. He got the king to make a law that everyone had to bow down when he passed by. Everyone obeyed except Mordecai, who as a good Jewish person believed that you should only bow to God. This made Haman mad not only at Mordecai, but also at all the Jewish people. So he deceived the king to pass a law that would kill all the Jews. The king agreed, not knowing that his own wife would be one of the people targeted. Mordecai went into mourning wearing sackcloth and ashes when he heard. He also sent a message to Esther urging her to go before the king and plead for the Jewish people.

Esther replied back, you didn’t just go before the king without being summoned. To do so meant death, unless the king extended his royal scepter as you approached. But that didn’t happen often. To add to the problem, it had been over thirty days since Esther had last been called before the king. But Mordecai told her that because she lived in the palace she would be spared. And then he told her, “Who knows but that you have come to this royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

Then Esther asked Mordecai to gather all the Jews in the area and ask them to fast for three nights and days. She and her maids would do the same. And at the end of the time, she would approach the king, even if it meant she died because of it.
When the king saw Esther, he was pleased and extended his royal scepter to her, saying he would grant her whatever she wished, even up to half the kingdom. Esther invited the king and Haman to a special banquet she hosted that very night. When the king asked her that night what she wished, she once again invited Haman and the king to a banquet the next night. On his way home, Haman saw Mordecai, who still wouldn’t bow for him. So he had a gallows erected on his property from which to kill Mordecai. At the banquet the next night, when the king asked for Esther’s request, she told him, “If it pleases your majesty, then may my life be granted at my petition and my people at my request?” (Esther 7:3)

The king was stunned as Esther explained her Jewish heritage and how Haman had deceived the king and plotted to kill all the Jews. The king was so angry that he had to leave the room to walk for a moment in the garden. Haman began begging Esther for his life, even falling upon her on the couch where she sat. But when the king walked in and saw him, he became even more enraged. So the king ordered Haman to be hung on the very gallows that he had built for Mordecai.

Because the law ordering the death of the Jews had been signed by the king’s seal it could not be taken back. But because of Esther’s bravery, the king wrote a new law allowing the Jews to band together and protect themselves against their enemies. This ensured their survival, by basically discouraging anyone from going after them in the first place. Even today, Jewish people still celebrate the Festival of Purim (poo-rim) commemorating this time when they were saved from destruction.

And this means...
Looking at this story, the drama, the characters, and their behavior, Esther can teach us many things.

Feel free to add to this list but for me one thing we can learn is that in a time of crisis, we must have courage. To those of us who have lived in the democratic republic of the United States, the act of a queen approaching a king may seem insignificant, certainly not anything requiring courage. But in the Middle Eastern culture, where ruling kings have absolute power, the possibility of assassination was very real. Hence the law that no one could approach the king without being invited seemed reasonable.

Esther, the orphan Jewish girl, and one of the generations of Jews forced to live in captivity, naturally would be hesitant to approach the ruler of her country. In addition, she had been queen for only a short time and she didn’t want to die. It was her faith, and the three days of prayer and fasting held by her and her fellow believers, that imbued her spirit with wisdom and courage. In the crisis, she was able to rise above all thoughts of herself and seek the common good.

As I reread the story of Esther this week, I was reminded of Corrie ten Boom, a brave Christian woman from the Netherlands who, because of her faith, risked her life to help many Jews escape Hitler’s death edict for the Jews during World War II. Because they believed that this was wrong, she and her family in Holland hid Jewish families above her father’s watch shop. Eventually they were arrested and Corrie and her younger sister were sent to a concentration camp. Corrie’s sister died there, but Corrie was released in 1945. She began to establish rehabilitation homes in Holland for concentration camp victims, as well as homes for refugees in Germany. Through writing and speaking, she told the story of her experiences and bore witness to her faith in Jesus Christ. It was Christ, she said, who gave her the courage to help her Jewish neighbors and who encouraged her in her imprisonment.

Today you and I are not unlike Esther. We must live out our faith in a secular culture surrounded by a great diversity in religious beliefs and faith. Although I believe we must be respectful of the faiths of others, it is important for us as Christians to know what we believe, stand up for it, and have the courage to present our faith in an intelligent and attractive way. Even more courage will be required to stand against secular practices that are destructive – especially for our children and youth. But as representatives of Christ, we must do it! Mordecai’s question to Esther echoes through the ages: “Who knows but that you have come to this position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

Another lesson taught to us by Esther is that in a time of crisis, we must be cleaver. Esther was clever as well as courageous. She used her head, even though her heart was heavy with fear for her own life as well as for the lives of her people. In her time of prayer, she obviously was given a plan. Then she carefully set about arranging the details before approaching the king.

Jesus warned us about what we are likely to be up against in the world when he said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocents as doves” (Matt. 10:16). It seems to me Esther did both. She was aware of who she was up against, Haman, a ruthless, deceitful, egotistical opportunist. Yet she didn’t run to the king, whining, crying and accusing Haman behind his back. Instead, she staged the banquet in her own setting. The invitation to her two banquets inflated Haman’s ego so that he was totally unprepared for the factual accusation she gave the king in Haman’s presence. Esther gave Haman enough rope to hang himself easily and he did.
Where did Esther get her cleverness; her control and wisdom? I believe the three days of prayer prepared her. James tells us: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (James 1:5). Unlike Esther, we often charge into a situation without having our emotions in control, without having throught clearly or asked God for wisdom, especially when a crisis takes us by surprise. But if we will take time to call upon God, he will give us the wisdom we need.

Life’s a balancing act. We must be wise, not naïve, in the ways of the world. Only then will our voices by heard. Yet we must stand firm on our Christian convictions so that we can be as innocent as doves. This is what it means to be in the world but not “of the world” (John 15:19). Like Esther, we must be wise and yet innocent.

Go and Do Likewise
Esther was an underprivileged orphan, raised by her uncle, living as a minority in a foreign country. According to Scripture, she was “lovely in form and features” (Esther 2:7). But Ether didn’t only possess physical beauty, she also had a good mind, kindness and humility. You might call it charm, something that attracts and delights people.

Yet for all her beauty and charm, Esther never could have been so courageous and wise and influential in her own strength. It was the power of God at work in her life. Because she had a strong faith, she sought God’s direction and was willing to be used for God’s purposes (Esther 4:16). Her life and the life of her people were forever different.

God can take us, with all our mistakes and our idiosyncrasies, and, if we are willing and faithful, turn us into persons of peace, poise, and power. God is at work in our lives, though we often see it best in retrospect. Remember that God’s time is not marked by our calendars. Our job is to take time to listen carefully to God’s direction, to be steadfast in our responsibilities, and to trust God for the future.

Esther is remembered in Scripture for her bravery in the face of great personal and religious crisis. She put her status as queen and her very life on the line to try and save the lives of her people. From her we can see the benefit of having courage and being clever in times of crisis. And we also can see how we need to learn to take the time to lean on the Lord for wisdom and guidance and trust that he can work through our own humanness and transform us. And that can begin right here, right now. This altar rail is here for you to come and either begin that journey or ask for strength to continue that journey. God is here, God is waiting, God is ready. I encourage you to not less this opportunity pass. Esther is for us a lesson in courage and faith. May we always remember her impact and her legacy. Amen.

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