Sermon 07-22-12: “Sunday School Heroes, Part 8: Esther and Mordecai”

July 26, 2012

“Who knows,” Mordecai asks his adoptive daughter, Queen Esther, “but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” He was challenging Esther to imagine that, despite the desperation of her plight, God was working behind the scenes in her life and world in order to accomplish his saving purposes. In other words, he was challenging her to believe in God’s providence—that we don’t live a moment of our lives apart from God’s love and care. That was true for Esther and Mordecai and their fellow Jews, and it’s true for us today. In this sermon, I’ll explore the meaning of providence for us.

Sermon Text: Esther 3:8-11; 4:1-17; 7:1-10

The following is my original manuscript.

I’m guessing that Tim and Stephanie Newton’s favorite sporting event is the NCAA basketball tournament, especially those championship games that their beloved Kentucky Wildcats often seem to win. But their second-favorite sporting event is one that most of us probably care nothing about: I’m talking, of course, about the Kentucky Derby—which I think is just an excuse to wear funny hats and drink mint juleps. Still, even I had some interest in the Kentucky Derby a few years ago, when a horse named Mine That Bird won the race.

The horse was such a longshot that the Sports Illustrated writer assigned to cover the race never bothered to find out about him before the race. The horse had lost 31 of his previous 32 races. At 50-to-1 odds, he was the longest longshot to win the race in over a century. One newspaper handicapping the race said that that horse ought to just stay in the barn.[1] And for most of the race, true to form, Mine That Bird was in the back of the pack, where everyone thought he belonged. Then, at the last turn, with 12 horses in front of him, Mine That Bird began a late surge and passed all the other horses so quickly that the TV announcer doesn’t even have time to figure out the horse’s name until the race was nearly over. So how did the horse pull off this upset? The jockey explained, “I rode him like a good horse”—the implication being that, by all appearances, this wasn’t a good horse. The jockey had to act as if the impossible were really possible—you know, the way we Georgia Tech fans act every Thanksgiving weekend when we play the Bulldogs! The jockey had to stare in the face of near-certain defeat and believe that the horse could somehow win, and to act as if the horse could somehow win.

In today’s scripture, I suspect that Esther and Mordecai know just how that jockey felt. In the face of very long odds, in the face of near-certain defeat, they believed that, with God’s help, they could accomplish what seemed nearly impossible: they could prevent their people, the Jews, from being annihilated.

At this point in Israel’s history, after the Babylonians had been defeated by the Persians, some Jews had returned to live in Palestine. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell that story. But this story is about Jews who continued to live abroad—scattered around the Persian empire. Years earlier, Esther was forcibly taken by the Persians to live in the harem of a king named Xerxes. Mordecai was Esther’s older cousin, who adopted her as his own daughter after her parents died. He followed Esther when she went to live with the king, and he got a job working in the king’s court. But he told Esther not to reveal to anyone that she was Jewish. As is so often the case, then and now, there was a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment. So she followed his advice and kept her ethnicity a secret

Esther was also stunningly beautiful. And charming, and she had a winsome personality. She had a way of winning the favor of people wherever she went. And she even won the heart of King Xerxes, who made her his queen.

But it’s not a fairy tale that ends “happily ever after.” Five years after she became queen, the king’s chief adviser, Haman, who hates Jews, manipulates the king into issuing an edict that would eliminate them from Persia. If this reminds you of the Holocaust, it should! This was going to be an act of genocide on a large scale—and it was set to take place soon. Scripture tells us that throughout “all the provinces, wherever the king’s proclamation was made known, there was loud mourning among the Jews. They fasted, wept, wailed, and most of them put on sackcloth and lay in ashes.”

I confess that I read this scripture differently on Friday morning of last week than I did on Thursday night. Like the rest of you, I woke up Friday morning sickened to learn that a man named James Holmes walked into a Colorado movie theater—where hundreds of people had turned out to enjoy a midnight screening of the new Batman movie—and he murdered 12 people and wounded 58. Parents with their children, friends enjoying one another’s company, couples out on a date… Each one peacefully living their own lives, going about their normal routines, wanting nothing more than to enjoy themselves for a couple of hours… None of them knew James Holmes. None of them ever did anything to him. None of them ever hurt him in any way. And now, for no reason and through no fault of their own, they were in his crosshairs.

Brothers and sisters, don’t tell me that our God doesn’t have wrath. Don’t tell me that God isn’t angry because of this kind of sin and evil! You better believe he is! “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.” Amen to that! God will ensure that justice is fully and finally done, in this world or the next.

My point is that in today’s scripture Haman is James Holmes. This is exactly the kind of man that Haman is. Our world today isn’t so different from the world of the Bible.

The most poignant thing I read in the aftermath of the shooting was the story of Jessica Ghawi, a sports journalist, who was killed Friday morning. Just a month earlier, Jessica narrowly escaped another gunman, who opened fire in a Toronto shopping mall food court minutes after she left the scene. She blogged about that experience later. She wrote:

I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening. ¶ I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.

If there are more fitting words for us in the aftermath of the massacre that killed the woman who wrote these words, I can’t think of them: Life is fragile. We don’t know when or where our time on earth will end—when or where we will breathe our last breath. Every day is a gift. Every second of life is a blessing. Like Jessica, these Jews in today’s scripture were suddenly reminded of each of these truths—and, as a result, they repented and prayed and fasted and sought to get their lives right with God while they still had time.

Do any of us need to do the same while we still have this gift of life and breath?

No, our world is not so different from the world of the Bible. So the Jews repented, fasted, and prayed—and Mordecai did the same. He must have known that the prayer he prayed was a long-shot kind of prayer. But sometimes the Lord answers long-shot kind of prayers, and the Lord answered him. The answer must have sounded something like this: “I hear your prayer, Mordecai. And I’m going to answer your prayer. And guess what? You’re going to be an important part of the answer to the prayer you’re praying. Because I want you to go to your cousin Esther and plead with her to use her power and influence to save my people.”

When we pray for God to do something, are we open to the possibility that sometimes what we’re asking God to do is really what God is asking us to do? That sometimes praying for God to do something means listening for God to tell us what to do? That sometimes we are the answerto the prayer we pray? One of the sweetest gestures of love and support that was extended to me in the wake of my mom’s death were these handwritten notes I received from fellow pastors in the North Georgia Conference, whom I barely knew or didn’t know at all, telling me that they were praying for me—that God would comfort, encourage, and strengthen me. These clergy had read about Mom’s death in a weekly conference email that lists prayer concerns. The funny thing is that through the very act of my receiving, opening, and reading these handwritten notes, God was giving me comfort, encouragement, and strength. The people sending me these cards were helping to answer their own prayers for me!

Look, I know a handwritten note is a small thing… But God taught me something profound through that experience! See, for the past eight years, I’ve mostly ignored those prayer-concern emails… Ask me if I ignore them now. Honestly, one of the highlights of my work-week each week is hand-writing cards to my fellow clergy who are going through a tough time. I hope God is blessing them through these cards that I send, but I know for a fact that God is blessing me. Because God is teaching me how to be a more loving and caring person. God is teaching me how to be a less self-centered person. God is teaching me to get out of my own and see the needs of other people all around. God is equipping me to be a better pastor—and not to mention a better human being. As Mordecai knows all too well, prayer doesn’t usually mean “letting go and letting God.” It usually means letting go and letting God show us what we’re supposed to do about it!

So that’s what God did for Mordecai. And through a messenger, Mordecai and Esther have this important conversation. “Go to the king, Esther, plead with him. Tell him to make this stop.” And at first she is deeply reluctant to go. “If anyone, including me,” she says, “goes to the king without being summoned, that person must die—unless the king holds out his gold scepter. Then that person’s life is spared.” Now notice what Esther says at the end of chapter 4, verse 11: “But it’s been a month since the king has sent for me.” That’s Esther’s way of telling Mordecai that the honeymoon is over. Five years ago, of course the king couldn’t keep his hands off her, but now… well, he’s got plenty of other women to keep him happy—this is not a love story; this is real life. So the odds of the king sparing Esther’s life are slim—what Mordecai was asking Esther to do was dangerous and scary. Is it worth the risk?

Esther’s story is our story. How committed will we be to Jesus when he calls us to do something difficult, challenging, or frightening? I just learned last week that in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, when young people go through confirmation, they are asked a series of questions—like in our Methodist confirmation liturgy—but they’re asked a couple of extra questions, too… For example, they’re asked: “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?”

Isn’t that a great question? Should we ask that of all our confirmands? Should we ask that of one another? How would you answer it if you were asked?

We know how Esther finally answers the question: She says: “If I die, I die.” The words of all true heroes. But not before Mordecai warns her: “Don’t imagine that you’re safer than any other Jew just because you’re in the royal palace.” Why would he say that? No one knows she’s Jewish unless… Wait, is Mordecai threatening to reveal her secret? Is he playing hardball with Esther? Is he blackmailing her?

Maybe a little, but mostly he’s relying on something far more powerful: faith. “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place.” In other words, Mordecai is confident that God will save his people—through Esther or through some other person or event—don’t worry about that. But who knows? “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” In other words, Mordecai says, “Maybe God has placed you, Esther, in this era of history, in this particular city of Persia, and even in this particular bedroom of King Xerxes so that when the time is right, God can fulfill his ancient promise through you.”[2]

Mordecai is talking about God’s providence. Providence means that God is working things out in our lives and in our world, in ways that we can’t even imagine or comprehend. It also means God is taking care of us in ways that we can’t imagine or comprehend.

It means that we don’t live a moment of our lives apart from God’s love and care. It means that we don’t die a death outside of God’s love and care. It means peace and security and unconditional love. It means that nothing can separate us from this love—neither death, nor life, nor principalities, nor powers, nor anything else in all creation—up to and including the hate-filled Hamans of the world; up to and including the John Holmeses of the world; up to and including the deadly rounds fired from a crazy man’s semi-automatic weapon. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[3] The only thing we have to fear is God, but the cross of his Son Jesus has taken away that fear for those who believe in him! “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[4] We have nothing to fear!

I remember playing hide and seek in my Aunt Carolyn’s house when I was a kid with some of my other cousins—including my four-year-old cousin Jennifer. She wasn’t a very effective hider. In fact, when it was my turn to be “it”—when it was my turn to “seek”—my cousin Jennifer was “hiding”… sitting on a beanbag chair… in the center of the living room. And of course Jennifer thought for surethat I couldn’t see her hiding. And why did she think this? Because… she was covering her eyes with her hands. She thought if she couldn’t see me, then, surely I couldn’t see her. Isn’t that funny? I had to laugh.

In the eyes of God, Esther must have looked the way my cousin Jennifer looked to me when we were playing hide and seek. [covering eyes] “I’m just going to hide here, in the king’s palace. If I keep my eyes closed, God won’t see me. God won’t find me. God won’t ask me to surrender my life to him, to sacrifice my life for him, to take a risk for him, to do something difficult for him. I’ll just keep my eyes closed.”

Open your eyes!”Mordecai tells her. “Open your eyes and see that God is right here—right here in front of you, right here beside you, right here behind you, right here around you, right here within you!”

Brothers and sisters: “Open your eyes… and see God!”


[1] This American Life 398: Long Shot. (08 January 2010). Retrieved from http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/398/long-shot

[2] Adapted from Karen Jobes, The NIV Application Commentary: Esther (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 138.

[3] Matthew 10:28 NRSV

[4] Romans 5:1 NIV

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