Rev. Caroline Barnett
Survival and Celebration
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be gran
ted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled."
Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me -- that is my petition -- and the lives of my people -- that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and 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."
Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?"
Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high."
And the king said, "Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
Someone call Netflix because I’ve got their next award-winning show right here.
But seriously, I am actually a little surprised no one, as far as I know, has ever made a movie or TV show about Esther, because her story has all the makings of television greatness.
It begins in a land where Esther, and her people, are not at home. The Jewish people are living in Persia, where they are not quite persecuted, not quite accepted.
One day, Esther, our young Jewish protagonist, is plucked from her ordinary life to marry the King. It’s not a marriage of love, but few in the ancient world are. But Esther makes her way in the King’s court, while hiding her identity as a Jew, and she eventually rises through the ranks to become his favorite wife.
And the story continues following Esther’s life in the palace. In one episode, there is an assassination plot against the king, and Esther, along with her cousin Mordecai who secretly gives her this information, saves the day and reveals the plan.
Every good story needs a good villain and we find one in Haman, the king’s advisor. He’s powerful, but insecure about his power which makes him obsessed with flaunting it at all times.
Haman wants to be adored or feared by everyone he meets. As he walks around the gates of the palace he meets Mordecai— who’s connection to Esther is still a secret— is sitting. And Haman, our villain, becomes enraged as Mordecai refuses to bow down to him. How dare this person— this nobody, this Jewish man— disrespect someone so powerful as Haman!
Haman our dramatic, evil villain takes his revenge to the extreme. He advises the king to kill all of the Jewish people in the land.
He tells the king— there are these people who live in your land, but they are not like you and me. They follow different customs, different laws. They are a threat to all of us, they are a threat to you. Let us kill all Jewish people across the kingdom.
Haman doesn’t tell the King that this genocide is all because one individual wouldn’t bow down to Haman. And the king, who is admittedly not a strong leader, follows the advice of his second-in-command, no idea that his favorite wife is also Jewish.
I told you, this makes for a great story.
Of course, Esther and Mordecai find out about the plan and that Haman is behind it, so Esther approaches the king, risking her own life, to reveal not only her own Jewish identity, but Haman’s evil plot.
The King, seeing the error of his ways, reverses his decision, gives Mordecai Haman’s old position, and the Jewish people are saved from genocide, all thanks to Esther.
Intrigue. Drama. An interesting and unlikely main character. The book of Esther has all you need for a great story.
But it is missing one thing— and that is God.
Yes, this story, with all its adventure, does not contain any mention of God. There are a couple of vague references, and a mention of a fast, that could point the reader toward seeing God in the story, but God’s name or anything resembling God’s active participation in the story never appears.
For as long as Esther has been considered scripture, by both Christians and Jews, people have wondered, why is this book in the Bible?
If scripture is the testament of God’s relationship with humanity, then what do you with a story where God is simply not there?
When I was growing up, I had a youth director who, while on mission trips or trips to Montreat, liked to ask the group at the end of the day: Where did you see God?
It’s a pretty good question to ask — and the answers would start to flow: I saw God in serving others. I saw God in the beautiful sunset when we hiked up a mountain. I saw God while having a conversation with someone I’d never talked to before.
But it is easy to see God in mountain top experiences, sometimes perhaps when we are literally on top of a mountain looking out at this beautiful world, but what about the rest of life, the ordinary and the mundane? What about the worst of life, the traumatic and the debilitating?
Where is God when the view isn’t so nice?
Perhaps our most central belief as Christians is that God is with us in all things— in our highs and lows, our ups and downs. That is the crux of our faith— that God is with us and for us, and even in our hardship that means that we are never alone.
But I, like all of you, have experienced my own painful parts of life, and I, like all of you, have sat with others as they experienced their own painful parts of life. And I, like all of you, see that we live in a broken world full of pain and suffering and loss, and I admit: I don’t always see God in that mess.
And I wonder if Esther felt the same way.
Esther, who lives in a nation and a palace where she has to hide part of herself to survive. Esther is faced with the choice to either speak up for her people and risk her own death, or quietly protect herself and watch as her king and husband kills her people.
I wonder if Esther, or even the people who first told her story while living in exile, asked that question: Where is God? And I don’t blame them if they couldn’t find a satisfactory answer.
I mentioned earlier that scholars and theologians have been wondering why Esther is a part of scripture for a long time. And this is where it is helpful to look to our Jewish siblings who also call this text sacred.
The most obvious reason for Esther’s inclusion in the Hebrew Scriptures— and therefore our Christian Bibles too— is that it is the origin story for the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Purim is a day to remember how the Jewish people were not destroyed, a day of feasting and gladness, a celebration of joy as scripture says it should be.
For many today, Purim is a day filled with good food and drink, where children and adults dress up in costume. Special treats are served and members of the community put on satirical skits. Synagogues read the story of Esther, and whenever Haman’s name is read, the congregation hisses, stomps their feet, and drowns out the sound of his name.
It is meant to be a joyful and a little raucous commemoration that the Jewish people were not destroyed. They survived.
But the book of Esther is more than just a story that explains a holiday. It’s a story that reminds us that sometimes God’s presence isn’t always obvious.
It’s a story that reminds us that even with the movie-worthy plot line, Esther’s journey is filled with small moments where she makes difficult choices, with no guarantee she will be successful.
It’s a story that requires so much faith and trust that even we, as the readers, have to trust that God is a part of Esther’s story of difficult decisions, of loneliness and hidden identity. We have to believe that God’s presence is not just in moments of triumph on top of mountains, but in the valleys of life where all we can hope for is survival on to the next thing.
But as Esther’s story reminds us, survival is worth celebrating.
Anytime we face the hardness of life, anytime people stand up with courage for what is right, anytime we choose selflessness over our own selfishness, like Esther does, it is worth celebrating.
Celebrating with joy and abundance, costumes and feasts, gifts and charity.
A celebration where, even if it’s not totally evident, we believe that God is celebrating with us too.
Thanks be to God. Amen.