Such A Time As This

This story takes place in a particularly dark time for God’s people.  About a hundred years before, the Israelites were conquered and taken from Judah into exile.  The temple in Jerusalem was demolished.  While the Persian king had recently started allowing Jews to return to their homeland, there was very little to return home to.  Many Jews remained in Persia as strangers in a strange land, trying to obey God and live their lives in exile.

Esther 4:1-17

This story takes place in a particularly dark time for God’s people.  About a hundred years before, the Israelites were conquered and taken from Judah into exile.  The temple in Jerusalem was demolished.  While the Persian king had recently started allowing Jews to return to their homeland, there was very little to return home to.  Many Jews remained in Persia as strangers in a strange land, trying to obey God and live their lives in exile.

Our heroine today, Esther, was one of these people.  But she wasn’t just a foreigner – she was an orphan.  The only family she had was her cousin Mordecai, the protagonist in our story, who bore her no legal responsibility but cared for her only out of kindness.  Esther had three strikes against her: she was a woman in a time where women had no standing, she was an orphan in a time where your status came from your family, and she was a Jew in a land where her ethnicity and religion made her second-class.

We know a little bit about the ruler of Persia, King Ahasuerus.  The beginning of the book of Esther tells us that he is wealthy and proud, surrounded by sycophants and his harem of women.  In the midst of one of his grand parties, he summons Queen Vashti from the harem to come and dance for the guys.  When she shows she has a spine and refuses, he banishes her.  So we know he’s fickle, hot-tempered, and doesn’t hold women in high esteem.

This is the court that Esther enters.  The vacancy left by Vashti prompts a nation-wide search, and Esther’s beauty, wisdom, and ability to follow the rules put her at the top of the list.  Prompted by Mordecai, she doesn’t mention her Jewishness and quickly cements her position as the best of all of Ahasuerus’ women.

Things look pretty good for Esther.  With nothing going for her she’s found her way into a privileged, safe position.  If she can keep the king happy, she can live a comfortable life.

Enter Haman.  Haman is one of the king’s advisors, and he’s not a big fan of Mordecai.  Because Mordecai wouldn’t show Haman as much respect as Haman thought he deserved, Haman decided to have Mordecai killed.  Better yet, Haman decided to have all of Mordecai’s people killed.  Haman panders to the king’s self-centeredness and tricks the king into signing an edict to have all the Jews murdered.

This is where our story begins this morning.  Mordecai hears the plot and goes deep into mourning, wearing sackcloth and ashes as a symbol of his deep grief.  Esther is embarrassed by the one person who can connect her back to her humble roots, so she tries to get Mordecai to pull it together.  Instead, Mordecai tells her that she’s the only one who can pull it together.  She must use her position to petition the king and save her people.

Consider what this means for Esther.  She has barely made it into a life of comfort.  All she’s ever known is loss, struggle, and exclusion.  For once in her life, she has not only safety and stability, but luxury.  And she only has that title because the woman before her had the guts to speak up for herself.  Vashti’s sense of identity and courage lost her everything she had.  If Esther takes this same risk and petitions the king, she could lose her position.  She could lose her life.  So at first, she says no to Mordecai.

Mordecai will not accept that answer.  God will save Esther’s people one way or the other, Mordecai contends, because God always has, through slavery and war and exile.  But if you don’t stand up for your people now, you’ll die.  Maybe you’ll die if you talk to Ahasuerus out of turn, but you might also die because you’ll be killed alongside the other Jews.  Esther is between a rock and a hard place.  She has an impossible choice to make.

But then, you don’t need to be an incognito queen hiding her orphaned, foreign past in a kingdom 2,500 years ago to know how that feels.  Maybe the stakes aren’t quite as high as your life, but they’re still high.  You know how it feels to be stuck between what’s expected of you and what you know is right.  You know that gnawing truth that your faith calls you to greater, better, braver things, but you also know the truth that it’s hard to do in a world that invites you to think of number one and use your privilege for your own gain.  It’s easier to ignore your identity as a child of God in favor or any number of identities sold to you by political parties, corporations, and even your friends and family.  You know that it’s always safer to go with the flow, to not take the risk, and if you go down, at least you go down comfortable.

How do you choose?  How do you pick between what is dangerous and right and what is safe and a betrayal of your faith, your sense of self, your God?

Esther heard the call to remember who she is, what her values are, and what God does even through the most ordinary of people.  Mordecai follows his challenge to her with hope: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  Maybe, Mordecai proposes, maybe you were meant for more.  Maybe you’re here not for your own comfort and glory but so that you can do something.  Maybe everything you are, everything you’ve ever been, maybe it can get used not sometime in the theoretical future, but here, now, at such a time as this.  Maybe your identity isn’t a liability.  Maybe it’s your strength.  Maybe – no, certainly – you are exactly who God intends to use for the good of the world.

People of God, that is the high point of this story.  Not the fact that Esther goes on to risk death and being found out, not the fact that her risk pays off and the king actually listens to her, not the fact that he reacts with shock at Haman’s plot, not the news that the fate Haman planned for the Jews is the one that Haman himself faces, that’s not the high point of this story.  At least not the way I see it.

The high point is that Esther is faced with choosing vulnerability or safety and in spite of everything she chooses to claim who God has called her to be and risk losing everything for the sake of what is good, what is right, what God’s people need her to be.  All she is: orphan and queen, Jew and political insider, poor and privileged beyond measure, all of this has led her to this point.  For such a time as this.

Maybe you don’t want to admit it, but the same is true for you.  Christ is coming, he is coming soon, and we must face the hard truth.  We can keep living as if our faith doesn’t matter, or we can put our faith to work.  We can pretend that Christmas is just about cultural and familial expectations, or we can see Advent as a time to prepare our hearts and minds and lives for the coming of the one who changes everything, who makes us into more than the sum of our parts, who calls us to vulnerability and risk as we put all we are and all we have into loving God and loving our neighbor for the sake of the world.  We can put off living our faith daily for an easier time, a better time, a quieter time, or you can believe that now is the time, this is the time, and all you are is for such a time as this.

You are called, friends.  No matter how high or lowly you think you are, you are called for such a time as this.  Claim your faith.  Live boldly.  Serve your neighbor in the name of Christ who comes.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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