Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 30, 2018
Esther 7:1-6, 9-20; 9:20-22 Commentary
Our text from Esther today speaks to the human tendency to forget important events, even events that changed our lives and altered the course of history. That’s why history echoes with cries not to forget. “Remember the Maine!” But who does? “Remember Pearl Harbor!” But do Millenials do that? We have Memorial Day to help us remember those who gave their lives in war for our freedom. But it has become little more than an extra day of vacation for many. Our Lord knew this tendency to forget even the most important event in history, so he gave us the Lord’s Supper with the command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Long before that central event in all of history, Mordecai instituted the Feast of Purim to make sure the Jews would never forget the day he and Esther (and God) changed the history of the Jewish people. More accurately, that Feast was designed to help the Jews remember the two days that insured that there would be an ongoing history of the Jewish people. This whole book of Esther is designed to remind God’s people in perpetuity of the origins of the Feast of Purim.
And it worked. This book is a favorite among Jewish people around the world. In her book entitled Girl Meets God, a delightful account of her conversion from Orthodox Judaism to evangelical Christianity, Lauren Winner describes the way Jewish people read the book of Esther. “When the book is read in synagogue during the Feast of Purim, you boo and stomp and sound noise makers when you get to the name of Haman; you…scream to fulfill the command to wipe out his name and the name of Xerxes, the king who eventually stops Haman’s plot against the Jews and sends him to the gallows he built to hang Mordecai.”
That’s all well and good if you’re Jewish and you are celebrating the wonderful turning of the tables that preserved your race from a holocaust. But what does this book and the reading for today have to say to Christians? I mean, contrary to the rest of sacred history, God does not even appear, does not speak or act, in the book of Esther, at least not overtly. Why should we pay any attention to this godless book or preach on this snippet of the story?
Here’s why. Aren’t our lives a lot like the book of Esther? How often do we see God in our lives? Or hear God? Or have our prayers answered spectacularly? I think that is the larger, non-Jewish reason Esther is in the Bible. It shows us that God really is present behind the veil of history, working silently and invisibly in the events of life, even in those tragic events where God seems most absent, and especially in those strange coincidences that turn life upside down.
In fact, there is a sense in which this old Jewish book is a foreshadowing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How so? Well, think about the cross, where God did not act to save Jesus, and by doing so saved us. In Jesus, God saves not by being conspicuously present, but by being conspicuously absent; not by powerful intervention, but by powerless non-intervention. His enemies said, “Let him come down now from the cross, if he is the Christ.” But he didn’t, precisely because he was. They said, “Let God save him if he is the Son of God.” But God didn’t, precisely because the death of God’s Son is how God saved us.
But I am getting way ahead of the text for today. The words of Esther 7 are the Aha in the story of Esther. When I speak of Aha, I’m referring to the five parts of any good story—the Oops, the Ugh, the Aha, the Whee, and the Yeah. Those interjections come from Eugene Lowry in his classic books on narrative preaching.
Good stories begin with an Oops, in which something very unusual upsets the equilibrium of the reader, like a Jewish girl wining the Queen of Persian beauty contest. Then the story develops an Ugh, as the plot gets thicker and uglier and more filled with conflict, like the Jewish girl’s uncle irritating the second most powerful ruler in the Persian kingdom, who then decides to kill all the Jews. Things get Ughier, as Esther has to decide whether she will intervene to save her people. Her decision to go to the King puts us on the edge of the Aha. We don’t know how this is going to work out for her and the Jews. It might go wrong and get her killed or it might go well and everything will turn out OK for God’s people. We don’t know—Ugh!
Our text in Esther 7 is the Aha, the great Reversal of Fortune, in which the downward direction of the story suddenly turns and heads upward, as Mordecai is honored and Haman is hanged. Then the upward movement accelerates into the Whee, as the Jews are allowed to defend them against their ancient enemy and win stunning victories. Finally, the story reaches its Yeah, the final resolution, as everything settles into place for the Jews, and they celebrate their surprising victory by instituting the Feast of Purim.
Esther has decided to deny herself, take up her cross and follow Mordecai’s command to beg Xerxes for mercy. Dressed in her royal best, she approaches the potentate, who graciously receives her. Surprisingly, Xerxes offers anything she wants up to half his kingdom. Instead of asking, she suggests a party, not just for the two of them, but for Haman, too. After the boys have drunk a great deal of wine, Xerxes repeats his fantastic offer. But wise Esther senses that the moment is not right yet, so she invites them to a second banquet tomorrow.
Haman dances home on the clouds. But when he sees his enemy Mordecai sitting in his usual place at the king’s gate, he is filled with rage. Once again, Mordecai will not bow to this most favored of the King’s officials. When Haman gets home, he boasts of his great good fortune but complains about the one thorn in his side, this cursed Jew. His wife and advisors suggest that he build a seven story tall gallows and hang Mordecai on it in the morning. Mordecai claps his hands like a delighted child, orders the gallows built over night, and goes to bed a happy boy.
When morning dawns, Haman sets off to the palace where he is the guest of honor at Esther’s banquet. As they were drinking wine, the King repeats his offer again. This time, Esther reveals her request very shrewdly, in verse 3. Xerxes takes the bait and Haman is hooked. This part of the story ends with Haman dead. The man who was at the top of the world found himself hanging from the top of a seven story gallows. Mordecai is given all of Haman’s property and, even more important, the king’s own signet ring, signifying that Mordecai now occupies the position Haman once had. The man at the bottom ends up on the top. All because of Esther’s courage and wisdom. What a remarkable reversal of fortune!
Except that “fortune” is not the right word. It suggests luck, coincidence, accidents, but that was not the case here. All of these unlikely turns were the secret work of God’s hidden hand. How do we know that? We know it from the mouths of Haman’s wife and friends back in Esther 6:13. “Since Mordecai… is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin.” Apparently even at the heart of the greatest secular kingdom of that time, some people knew that if the God of the Jews is for you, the other side doesn’t stand a chance.
That verse is one of the little covenant threads sticking out of the fabric of this cracking good secular story, reminding us that God is still faithful to his covenant, no matter how things appear. Working behind the veil in ways that look like pure coincidence, God has brought this whole matter to a most unlikely end, the total reversal of the condition of his covenant people. He used the wisdom and courage of Esther to complete his work, but God was the great author of the story.
Coming at the end of God’s progressive revelation in the Old Testament and followed by 400 years of divine silence that end with the Word becoming flesh, the book of Esther shows us a view of God we don’t find in the other historical books of the Bible. Here, instead of answering the cries of his people by intervening dramatically on their behalf, as he had done in Exodus and the return from Exile, God accomplishes his purposes invisibly. He answers their prayers for deliverance not by dramatically changing their reality, but by entering their reality himself, by going down into the disaster of their history with them, and then and only then, raising them to life with him. Sounds a lot like what God did in Jesus Christ, doesn’t it?
But what the Jews did to the family and allies of Haman doesn’t sound at all like the Christian gospel. It sounds like mass butchery, a mini-holocaust, even genocide. That’s exactly what it was, and that will take a little explaining. The key to the whole thing is another of those little threads of covenant history sticking up in Esther 3:1, where Haman is identified as an Agagite. That means nothing to us, but to the ancient Jews, it was a painful reminder of an awful chapter of Israel’s history.
Israel was marching to the Promised Land. They were the army of the Kingdom of God on earth, the advance troops of the Kingdom that would one day restore Shalom to God’s broken world. One nation repeatedly stood in their way, obstinately frustrating the progress of the Kingdom. They were the Amalekites, otherwise known as the Agagites. Because of their persistent refusal to make way for the kingdom of God, God finally ordered Israel under King Saul to completely eradicate them. But Israel stopped short of that terrible task, sparring some and taking all the plunder.
So the Agagites lived on in history. Here in Esther we find the quintessential Amalekite once again threatening the Kingdom of God. But a descendant of King Saul, the Jew named Mordecai, will finish what Saul had left undone. Thus, Mordecai orders the slaughter of tens of thousands of people who would have slaughtered God’s people as well as the ceremonial hanging of not only Haman, but also his 10 sons. The line of Agag was completely cut off. That threat to the Kingdom was ended.
No wonder the Jews were commanded to celebrate this great event every year on the 14th and 15th days of the last month of the year, the very days when Haman had planned to exterminate the Jews. In an act of supreme irony, or gallows humor, Mordecai called that celebration, “The Feast of Purim.” Purim means “lot,” and that’s a direct reference to Haman’s casting of lots in connection with his planned holocaust. He thought that by casting the Purim he could align his plan with the great overall Plan and thus guarantee his success. But he discovered that life is ruled not by Purim, but by the providence of God.
That bloody ending of Esther will turn off many of our listeners; indeed, many preachers will struggle with all the blood. But it reminds us of an important gospel truth. Evil is real and destructive. Sin is stubborn and deadly. So, the history of redemption from sin and evil is a hard, often bloody business. God loves the world, but in his love for the world, God must conquer the sin and evil that have ruined his world. Sometimes, indeed, at crucial times, that will mean the shedding of blood. It did in Israel. It did on the cross. God works in the most unusual, shocking ways to bring the kingdom of Shalom to the world loves.
Though we Christians don’t celebrate Purim, we do celebrate another Feast designed to help us remember the day God reversed our fortunes through the body and blood of his Son. As Mordecai said to the Jews, we must always remember the days “when we got relief from our enemies, when our sorrow was turned to joy and our mourning to celebration.” Let us feast with joy and give presents of food to each other and gifts to the poor (Esther 9:22).
Many countries have days of celebration focused on their national salvation through a bloody revolution that reversed the course of history. In the United States, we have the Fourth of July, which is very much like the Feast of Purim. Our celebration of the Fourth often doesn’t mention God either, but until recently most Americans knew that God’s hand was active in the events of that glorious revolution, even though it meant bloodshed.
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