A Sermon for Proper 21; Ester 7:1-6. 9-10, 920-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50
In our early adult years my parents always threw a New Year’s Party Actually they threw three The first was for our neighbors The second was for their many friends The third was for our friends While generous, that party was earned, we provided some of the finger foods, but we really provided all the serving staff: keeping tables furnished, drinks fresh, and dirty dishes picked up You know, all that stuff that can cause you to miss the event you host. I don’t know how many years this went on, but it was at least ten. As great as these parties were, my folks could not hold a candle to King Ahasuerus, we know as Xerxes. In the Book of Ester alone there are ten parties, and that is in a relatively short time I say relative because one party was 6 months long! Six months! I did not know you could buy that many gold plates. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves
Xerxes’ exquisite banquet for the ministers, officials and officers of all 127 provinces is about over. In the last week he calls for Queen Vashti, who is hosting a party for all the wives, to make an appearance. She refuses. He gets angry. All his advisors get concerned that she may set a precedence for all the other wives. So, he dismisses her. After a while he misses having a queen; and so begins the process of selecting another one. It is an elaborate process.
You may remember that Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Israel and taken most of the Jews into exile in Babylon (Gaventa and Petersen). Among them is Mordecai, a distant relation to Saul (Gaventa and Petersen). His cousin Ester is among the young ladies drafted into the Can You be a Queen? selection. Xerxes, smitten by her appearance, makes her queen. She immediately wins his allegiance when she reports, by way of Mordecai, a plot to assassinate him.
It is Persian policy to treat all the conquered territories with respect, honoring the local languages, laws, customs, and religious practices and to integrate foreigners into the court (Sakenfeld). Among them is Haman, an Agagite, who Saul was supposed to destroy but chose not to (Gaventa and Petersen). Xerxes appoints him to the highest office in the royal court. It is customary for the people to bow as he comes by, and everyone does, except for Mordecai. He is so infuriated he decides to kill not only Mordecai but all the Jews in the Kingdom. He will start by hanging Mordecai from a 75-foot-tall gallows. Gruesome as it is, a 75-foot gallows are tinged with the humor of excess. He convinces the King, who is not told who the offender is, this disobedience is a danger to the laws and customs and is given permission and finances to exterminate all the Jews.
Needless to say, Mordecai is terrified. He asks Ester to intervene. She is afraid because it means death to approach the King without being summoned. He replies:
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 this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, 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 (Ester 4:13-14).
After much sack cloth, ashes, and fasting Ester approaches the King. At dinner when Xerxes asks what she desires, she says only that he and Haman come to dinner the next evening. But that night the King can’t sleep, and asks that the daily journal be read to him. The story of Mordecai exposing the plot to kill the king is read. He learns nothing was done for him. Haman is ordered to dress Mordecai up in royal garb and parade him around the court on the King’s horse. Utterly humiliated Haman returns home and tells what has happened.
Their reply is:
If Mordecai, before whom your downfall has begun, is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him, but will surely fall before him. (Esther 6:13)
At dinner the next evening the King again asks Queen Ester what she desires, even to half the kingdom. This night she answers:
If I have won your favor, O king, … let my life and the lives of my people be given me that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, are … to be killed, … to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king (Esther 7:3-4).
Xerxes demands “Who is responsible for such a reprehensible plot?” “Haman!” Furious, the King stalks out. While Haman is pleading for his life, leaning over Ester on her dinning couch, the King returns. “Enough is enough!” and he orders Haman to be hung on the very gallows he has built to hang Mordecai.
The King awards Haman’s estate to Ester, and appoints Mordecai to manage it. He also gives Mordecai the signet ring that Haman previously held. With royal permission, Ester and Mordecai send notices around the kingdom revealing the plot against the Jews, and providing for their defense. Ester, Mordecai, and the Jewish people are saved from annihilation.
This is as good a story as there is in scripture. As with any good fiction story, there are strong characters, Vashti and Ester, and ~ oh yea, Mordecai. There is a villain, Haman. There is intrigue galore: plots to kill the king and genocidal revenge. There are acts of selfless courage, and, of course, a Disney ending. I wonder when Aronofsky will take it on?
However, there is more here than a good story. If you noticed, I never mentioned God, prayers, or any kind of divine appearance or guidance. There are none. Well, there is no overt presence. Mordecai’s admonition to Ester about approaching the King includes the phrase:
“Relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place.”
Haman’s family’s reply to his complaining says, in part:
If Mordecai, … is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him, (Esther 6:13)
Commentators hear both as a reference to God (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner; Schifferdecker; Hoezee). There are remarkable coincidences:
- Ester just happens to become queen.
- The king just happens to have insomnia on the night of Esther’s first banquet; and
- The court records read to him just happen to be the ones that tell about Mordecai saving his life.
- Haman just happens to come to the court when the king is contemplating how to reward Mordecai.
- The King just happens to see Haman leaning over Ester.
Former Arch Bishop of Canterbury William Temple is quoted “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.” Jon Levenson defines a coincidence “as a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous” (Schifferdecker; Levenson). There are multiple implications of presence of God’s hidden hand that offers hope to us when we are confronted by an overwhelming challenge and have no sense of God’s presence (Hoezee). Just because we can’t perceive it, does not mean God is not there (Sakenfeld).
Beyond the coincidence, there are the manifold actions of the stories heroines and heroes, which include many back ground characters. Ester’s story emphasizes human initiative, responsibility, and accountability (Sakenfeld). Our lives are full of ordinary and occasionally extra ordinary events, coincidences and chance encounters. In them is the hint of God’s presence. Perhaps there is a hint of God’s call. Our challenge is to find the discernment to see. Our challenge is to find to courage to act (Schifferdecker).
Our action; however, needs to be prayerfully considered. Just prior to today’s Gospel reading, actually just before last week’s argument, about who is greatest, the disciples fail to cast out a demon. Jesus tells them “this kind comes out only with prayer” (Mark9:29). Today Jesus tells them
“no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (Mark 9:39).
The comparison reveals the possibility that the disciples were trying to cast the demon out with power compared to the unknown exorcist who is acting in Jesus’ name. So, before we act, it’s worth testing where we are acting from, power or Jesus name.
We are all aware of the many global, national, local and personal problems that seem so dominate. We could easily be overwhelmed. Even with Francis’ gentle persuasion to perceive and act with mercy, it is a scary world. It is easy to find ourselves stripped of all our customary go to resources. It is easy to feel persecuted. It is easy to feel desert, to feel alone.
You are not alone; you never have been, you are not now, and you never will be alone.
Recently Angie and Nugget were in one of the local big box stores. She was stooping down looking at stuff on the bottom self on an endcap. An employee, who knows them, saw Nugget, but did not see Angie, hurried to end of the aisle, afraid Angie had fallen or was in trouble. The employee was relieved Angie was okay. Angie was blessed knowing that someone cared enough to act.
I believe there are more of these kinds of acts than we know. I believe there are more anonymous divinely inspired acts than we know. It’s this belief that lets me know; we are never alone.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary – Esther 7:1-6, 9-20; 9:20-22. 27 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/>.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 27 9 2015.
Levenson, Jon. Ester. Westminster John Knox, 1997.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22. 27 9 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.