Sermon 10-19-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 10: Esther”

November 5, 2014

superhero graphic

In the popular dating app Tinder, singles “swipe right” if they “like” someone and “swipe left” if they don’t. All they have to judge the person, however, is the most superficial thing of all: a user-selected profile picture. We live in a superficial age—a “swipe-left, swipe-right” kind of world in which we constantly judge based on appearances. As today’s scripture demonstrates, however, God usually works in ways that we can’t see. Esther and Mordecai teach us to see beyond appearances and trust in God.

Sermon Text: Esther 3:8-11; 4:1-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook last week to BuzzFeed article last week entitled: “13 Breathtaking Places Guaranteed To Make Your Stomach Drop.” And like all productivity-killing BuzzFeed articles, I just had to click on it. These are tourist attractions that daring adventurers around the world can go see—if they don’t mind taking their lives in their hands. They include climbing the Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. Or walking out on something called “Troll Tongue” in Norway. Or wading out into this pool on the edge of a very steep waterfall in Zambia. Or get a load of this foolishness: in Norway, you can stand on a small boulder wedged between two other rocks, hundreds of feet up in the air.

buzzfeed

The Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

There were very few things on that list that I would be willing to do. Because, as I’ve said before… I’m chicken. I don’t like taking needless risks. I like to play it safe.

So I can totally relate to Esther, in today’s scripture, when her guardian Mordecai warns her that she can no longer play it safe—that she’s going to have to risk her life in order to save her fellow Jews—and save herself—from destruction.

But first, how did she get in this predicament?

The Book of Esther takes place in the fifth century B.C. Remember that the Babylonians came and conquered Judah, and took all the prominent Jewish citizens into captivity in Babylon? Babylon was later conquered by the Persians. The Persians allowed some Jews to return to their homeland in Jerusalem. 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.

In Esther Chapter 1, the Persian king, Xerxes, was having a banquet for a bunch of powerful dignitaries throughout his empire. He used the occasion, as the Common English Bible translates it, to “show off” the “awesome riches of his kingdom and beautiful treasures as mirrors of how very great he was.” Unfortunately, one of the “beautiful treasures” he wanted to show off was his wife, Queen Vashti. But the queen refuses to be objectified in this way. So he divorces her and strips her of her royal title.

So now it’s time to find a new queen. 

This is where Esther comes in. The children’s Bible version of the story has Esther winning a beauty pageant—perhaps a fifth-century B.C. version of The Bachelorette—but of course, in the real world, the truth is far less innocent than that. Basically, King Xerxes has his men round up the most beautiful virgins they could find throughout the empire and bring them to live in a harem. From that large group the king would select the ones who pleased him most, and they would then compete to be queen. After a year’s worth of spa treatments and salons and makeovers, the king would spend the night with each one and then decide which one he liked best—and then make that person queen. Then, as now, young women were being exploited by powerful men for sex.

I realize that nothing quite that bad happens today—at least, not legally—but still… it’s easy enough to see that our culture has a lot in common with theirs.

Think of Tinder, for instance. I bet there are a few young people in our church who use Tinder. It’s an online dating app on our smartphones that uses GPS technology to locate other Tinder users nearby. It links with Facebook to show a profile picture of eligible single people. And if you like what you see when you see the person’s photo, you “swipe right” on their photo. And if they like what they see when they see your photo, they “swipe right.” And then you can chat on your mobile devices and arrange to go out on a date, if you like. If you don’t like the person’s photo, you simply “swipe left.” Rejected.

So, on what basis is a person accepted or rejected? The most shallow, the most superficial thing of all: an image. And it may not even look like the person anymore because, after all, they would naturally select the most flattering photo of themselves possible. “Man, I looked really great in 2003. Let me just select that one.

tinder

Let’s face it: We live in a “swipe-left” or “swipe-right” kind of world—a world that judges us based on appearances, on images, on superficial things—just like in today’s scripture: King Xerxes liked what he saw in Esther, and so he “swiped right,” married her, and made her queen.

Look, when it comes to being vain, when it comes to being shallow, when it comes to being superficial, when it comes to being sinfully proud, when it comes to judging based on appearances, I’m not all that different from King Xerxes.

For example, on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, one of my fellow pastors said that he was preparing for charge conference, and he was putting together the reports, and he was adding up the numbers—and, lo and behold, he noticed that just in the past few months he’s recently baptized dozens of people, including several adult converts, and he’s received many more into membership in his church.

When I read these words, do you think I said, “Praise God! Look what the Holy Spirit is doing in that part of metro Atlanta. Look at how God’s kingdom is growing”? Did I think that?

No. Instead, I read his words and thought, “What a show-off! Bragging on Facebook like that!” I couldn’t even be happy for my fellow pastor!

Why?

Because I’m not so different from King Xerxes! I want to show off too! I want to look good in other people’s eyes—just like this king did! And if, unlike my clergy friend, I don’t have all these great numbers to show for myself, what will other people think of me? How will they know that I’m doing a good job? How will I know that when Bishop Watson looks at me and my accomplishments he won’t just… swipe left… and say, “You’ve been rejected, Brent. You’re not worthy. You don’t measure up.”

You know in the cartoons when you have the little angel or the little devil on your shoulder. Maybe some of us have a little King Xerxes on our shoulder whispering these words in our ear: “You’re ugly. You don’t fit in. Why can’t you be more like your friends? No one cares about you. You’re a loser. No one cares what you have to say.” Swipe left.

If you listen to that voice, well… you’re listening to the wrong king.

The good news is that we have another king… Jesus. And the Bible compares his love for us to the love that a husband has for a wife—except, not just any human and sinful husband, but a husband who loves us perfectly. The apostle Paul says that our King Jesus takes us as his bride in order that “he might sanctify [us], having cleansed [us] by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present [us] to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that [we] might be holy and without blemish.” Do you hear what Paul is saying: Our King Jesus doesn’t love us and make us his own because we’re beautiful to him—but in order to make us beautiful!

This means you don’t have to earn his love! His love for you is based on nothing but pure, unmerited grace! You might say, “Well, I’m sure the Lord loved me back when I was 12 or 13, and I went through confirmation class, and I got confirmed, or I got baptized, or I made a profession of faith. But that was a long time ago. I’ve sinned a lot since then! Surely he can’t love me now!”

Are you kidding? He didn’t love you and save you back when you were a kid because of who you were and what you did! And he’s not going to love you and save you now because of who you are and what you do! There’s no “swipe left” with Jesus; if you’re willing to come to him in repentance and faith, it’s always “swipe right” with him. Which is another way of saying he loves you and accepts you on the basis of grace alone! You’re not powerful enough to do something to make the Lord stop loving you! Your sin, even at its very worst, is no match for the cross of Jesus Christ! That’s what scripture means when it says that God proves his love for us in this: while we were yet sinners”—while we were deformed and disfigured and made ugly by our sin—Christ died for us!

King Xerxes may have had a hard time seeing beyond appearances, but not Mordecai, Esther’s older cousin who raised her as his own child after her parents died.

In today’s scripture, Mordecai shares some terrible news with Esther: the king’s Prime Minister, Haman, has hatched a Hitler-like “final solution”—to have all the Jews living throughout the empire annihilated—wiped out. And through a messenger, Mordecai tells her. “Go to the king, Esther, plead with him. Tell him to make this stop.” And at first she’s deeply reluctant and afraid. She explains to him that you can’t go see the king any time you want, even if you’re the queen. It’s against the law. In fact, if you try to see the king without being summoned, you’ll probably get executed. Besides, she says, the king hasn’t “summoned me” in over a month, which is another way of saying that the king has found plenty of other women in the harem to keep him happy. So Esther is afraid for her life. She’s afraid to take the risk to do the right thing.

Can’t we all relate? Isn’t her story our story? How committed will we be to Jesus when he calls us to do something we find difficult, challenging, or frightening?

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? Shouldn’t we ask that of all our confirmands? Shouldn’t we ask that of one another? How would you answer that question if you were asked?

We know how Esther finally answers the question: She says: “If I perish, I perish,” just like every hero before or since. And Esther becomes a hero. She springs into action. She takes charge. And what does she do next? Does she burst into the throne room and boldly tell the king to stop this genocide? No. Not at first. The first thing she does is command everyone to fast for three days. While the book doesn’t mention prayer, it can be assumed that she intends for her fellow Jews to fast and pray before she goes to see the king.

Her example of faith inspires me because, personally, I’m more of an “act first, pray later” kind of guy. But not Esther. She has her priorities straight. She understands that the only way her human plans will succeed is if God enables them to succeed. We clergy frequently have to go to classes and seminars for “continuing education” credit. And the theme of each one of these classes or seminars is often, “Here’s the seven steps every pastor must take if he wants his church to grow.” But I kid you not: not one of those seven steps will ever be, “Get down on your knees and pray or fast or meditate on scripture or seek God’s guidance.” No, it’s all about getting out there and getting to work!

And what these church leadership books and leadership experts are teaching us is that prayer is some optional extra thing—the cherry on top of our “ministry sundae”—when in reality prayer ought to be the main course! It’s ridiculous. Our priorities are all messed up. In my Romans Bible study on Wednesday nights, I point out how much time Paul spends praying for his churches—read the first chapter of any of his letters. And it’s clear that the reason Paul was the most successful missionary who ever lived is because of the priority he placed on prayer. 

As Paul well knew, as Mordecai well knew, as Esther well knew, success for us Christians doesn’t just happen. God will do things for us when we pray that he wouldn’t otherwise do for us if we don’t pray!

So… why did Esther change her mind and decide to confront the king? Mordecai’s words convinced her: “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place… And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

In other words, Mordecai is saying, “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.”

We don’t want God to work like that—silently, invisibly, behind the scenes. When we pray for God to do something, we want him to work in big, dramatic, spectacular, clearly miraculous ways. After all, when God used Moses to deliver his people, he used things like burning bushes, and staffs turning into snakes, and water turning into blood, and frogs and locusts and flies appearing from nowhere, and angels of death, and Red Seas miraculously parting and then coming together to drown enemy armies. When God works in our lives, we want the Cecil B. DeMille production! We want George Lucas’s Industrial Lights and Magic! We want the CGI Special Effects!

But we almost never get that kind of miracle, do we? Instead we get the same kind of miracle that Esther and Mordecai and their fellow Jews in today’s scripture got: what one theologian calls the “miracle of timing and coincidence.” This kind of miracle is all over the place in the Book of Esther. If you read the book, you’ll see a dozen of them! This kind of miracle looks like an accident. Or it looks like a lucky break. Or looks like being in the right place at the right time. Scripture says, “No… See beyond appearances. God is at work everywhere and in everything and through everybody. Don’t be afraid!”

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 sure that 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!”

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