There is not much Esther in the Revised Common Lectionary, and few pastors have ever complained or requested more. The Lectionary likewise does little with Song of Songs or Jude, and if you follow only the Lectionary, you would be unlikely to generate a long series of sermons on Nahum or Revelation, either.
And it’s not hard to see why. The Bible does contain some strange material, and if the story proper contained in Esther is not strange per se, it is odd for its lack of theological precision or framing. Even as Psalm 88 is arresting in that it doesn’t really put in much of a good word for God (and never proffers any real hope), so Esther is arresting in that God does not appear at all. Actually it’s more striking than even that: God is not mentioned in the course of Esther’s narrative nor is anyone depicted as praying to God, praising God, or so much as tipping their hat toward the Almighty.
If you read the canonical Bible in its typical order, the Book of Job comes next. Even though that opening scene in the heavenly throne room is one odd scene, you as a reader might nevertheless feel relieved at least to see God make another biblical appearance after the God-absent road you just trekked in Esther!
The story of Esther is in its own way simple enough: it’s a story about how the right people found themselves in the right place at the right time to head off a calamity against the Jews in a way no one—least of all hapless Haman—could have seen coming. The story may be simple in its plot but it is loaded with intrigue, dark humor, close calls, and a pretty startling climax as recorded in the handful of verses the Lectionary assigns in this one and only Lectionary visit to Esther.
There are lots of ways to go when preaching Esther but a one-off sermon on it may be an occasion to give thanks that this book is in the Bible. Esther is hardly the only narrative in the Bible in which the “hidden hand” of God is implied by people of faith but because it is perhaps the most extended such narrative, it proffers hope for all of us whose days are not typically punctuated by God speaking to us from out of a cloud or appearing in our kitchen in the form of three divine visitors or some such spectacle.
Many of us were struck years ago when a writer revealed that for all the incredibly noble work she did across so many decades, Mother Teresa also endured a protracted divine silence that never lifted, so far as we know, before her death. She heard a call long ago to work among the poor and after that, God appears to have hung up the phone on his end of the line.
Amazing. But really, is it so very different from most of our lives? Years ago I spent a lot of time hanging out with sisters and brothers who were deep into Neo-Pentecostalism. Now I want to make clear that they were and are fellow believers and nothing I am about to write about them is meant to impugn their piety or their faith. But I was often vaguely shocked at the nascent competition that seemed to exist among many of them to see who could out-do whom in terms of daily direct communications from the Holy Spirit. The way they talked, they received fresh guidance and assurance over just about every bowl of Cheerios at the breakfast table, on most commutes into the office, and in the course of just about every prayer they whispered. “God told me . . . Then I heard clear as day the Spirit say to me . . . This morning God spoke to me and said . . .”
That was amazing, too, in no small part because unless I made something up, I had no such daily uplinks with God to report. My faith is strong, I sense God’s presence in my life, and here and there I see clear evidences of the Spirit’s doing stuff and coordinating events in ways I could never have guessed. As a guest preacher, I am frequently struck by how the seemingly random choice I made of what sermon to preach at such-and-such a church on such-and-such a Sunday meant that the sermon I preached was the exact word that either certain individuals needed to hear that day or, on somewhat more rare occasions, that the entire congregation needed as they were collectively going through something about which I had been completely unaware. Spooky. But wonderful.
Faith tells us that God is with us but reality shows us that this is not always easy to spy or to name in concrete ways. But even as God somehow got his plan advanced through devious characters like Jacob and through terrible events such as were orchestrated by Joseph’s brothers—and even as God raised up as a mini-messiah no less than Cyrus of Persia to get his people freed from captivity—so God is forever at work in surprising ways and places and people.
Esther bears witness to the ongoing work of God and if it’s strange that no one names God in the course of the narrative, it’s possible that the reason is because Esther and Mordecai and company didn’t realize just how mightily they themselves were being wielded by God for some greater good. Maybe they no more recognized their providential role than did King Cyrus. You wouldn’t expect Cyrus to sing a psalm of praise to Yahweh for having been anointed as one of God’s “messiahs,” and even though you’d guess Esther and company would have been a lot more likely to make that connection than some pagan Persian, maybe they didn’t. Maybe in humility they just did what they felt to be right without having any idea they’d become a cause celebre of divine work from that time forward.
And just maybe a lot of our days are like that even now. And so just maybe preaching on Esther becomes a source of encouragement for all of us who now and then struggle to figure out what God is up to in this world or in our lives. There may be many days when we, too, have no idea precisely for what we should be praising God in terms of his working out his larger purposes in us and through us. But Esther tells us that if so, we may well be in mighty fine company.
Frederick Buechner once whimsically defined theology by way of an analogy. Theology is the study of God and his ways. But for all we know perhaps beetles study humanity and its ways and call their observations “humanology.” If so, we would probably be more touched than irritated by this beetle-size attempt to grasp us. One hopes, Buechner concludes, that God feels the same way about our attempts to grasp him!
Within the larger scope of this theological enterprise, perhaps no area of study is quite as difficult as matters related to providence. And indeed, the providence of God has been generating a lot of heat of late. Traditional Reformed types of a Calvinist persuasion remain staunch in attributing all things—the good, the bad, and everything in between—to the direct hand of an utterly sovereign God. Others in recent decades have been less sure. Process Theology offered a different way to envision God’s traveling along with us through the vicissitudes of time even as the more evangelical theory of “Free-Will (or Open) Theism” tried to cut through certain theological knots with a different proposal. More recently Chaos Theory and those who believe that a degree of randomness is hard-wired into the cosmos have challenged providence in still other ways.
Who is God? How does God work? How can we discern divine action when we see it? These are questions as old as theology itself. And if you think about it, they permeate the atmosphere in Esther, too.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 26, 2021
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 Commentary