This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Esther 4:1-17
Sermon prepared by Rev. Mark Verbruggen, Sioux Center, Iowa
The Biblical story of Esther is a very interesting one. It begins with a king deposing his wife because she refused to obey him. In Esther 1 Queen Vashti refused to come to the drunken party of her husband, King Xerxes, and for that she was done away with. In the second chapter of this book there is an empire wide search for a new queen. It is at this time that Esther, a young Jewish woman, is encouraged by her cousin Mordecai to join with the others in order to win the king’s favour. Eventually she becomes the chosen one, but not before selling out her identity as a Jew and a member of God’s covenant community. Too often we are eager to make so called “faith heroes” out of the people we meet in the Bible. But more often than not, they are sinners just like you and me. Esther is no hero of the faith - at least not at the beginning of this story. She sells herself to the Persian Empire and its values. However, in spite of her questionable behavior, the silent hand of providence is at work in her life. God, who is never mentioned at all in this book, is not finished with Esther or her people. He remains the true and sovereign King in everything that we read. Now let us enter the story in Esther 4.
Our reading begins with a grief observed. At the end of Esther 3, King Xerxes and his trusted adviser Haman sat down to drink and congratulate themselves on being the masters of the universe. But the empire was thrown into confusion. The reason for this was that a word had gone out and it was a word of death and destruction. God’s covenant people have been signed, sealed, and delivered unto death by the decree of the king. This decree was written up by Haman who is an enemy of the Jews. In particular he has a personal grudge against Mordecai, Esther’s cousin. Therefore Esther 4 begins with a grief observed when it says, “When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.” This is the cry of one man on behalf of his entire people. The empire is not a safe and benign place for God’s people.
For that matter the kingdoms of this world have never been and are still not safe for those who claim a membership and loyalty to a different kingdom, the Kingdom of God. Jesus says in Luke 21:17-19, “All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.” Our loyalty is never first to the country whose passport we happen to carry, but to a Kingdom which has come in Jesus Christ. In our reading Mordecai cries out “loudly and bitterly” over the injustice which is being done to him and his people. Verses 1-3 of our text show the community of God’s people in sackcloth and ashes.
However, something is missing. It’s the same thing that is missing throughout this book. And what is that? It is God. Nowhere do we read in the midst of all the weeping and wailing and sackcloth wearing that Mordecai or any of the Jews cried out to the covenant Lord to help them. This is a book of the Bible where, if you just read the story, God appears silent. However, as already mentioned, this is certainly not the case. Though God may never be mentioned by name, his hand of providence is very much at work in the events of the narrative. This text too will reveal the grace of God in Jesus Christ if we listen carefully to the story.
We need to begin by understanding that what we now read in Esther 4 happens in the context of God’s grace coming in “time”. In this book time is grace. The reason we can know this is that a full year is scheduled between the decision and the execution of Haman’s plan for the destruction of the Jews. They could have been killed the same day the decree went out, but this did not happen because of the time given between the decision and the execution. Therefore, the grief observed in Mordecai and the Jewish community is possible only because of that grace.
That being said, we can now turn to the other events of Esther 4. Beginning in verse 4 Queen Esther enters into the narrative. As Mordecai laments, word about his behavior comes to the attention of his cousin, the Queen. Mordecai is unable to enter through the king’s gate into the palace because he is clothed in sackcloth. Verses 4-8 describe for us the back and forth communication between Mordecai and Esther through her servant, Hathach. What we must first observe in this section of our reading is that news travels out of the palace better than it comes in. By this I mean Esther is clueless about the decree calling for the destruction of the Jews. She has been sequestered in her comfortable life within the palace of the king so much so that she has no idea of what the ordinary people of the empire are now facing. Iain Duguid in his commentary on the book writes, “She is apparently the only person in the whole Persian empire who had not heard the news. Perhaps she didn’t have time between her manicures, pedicures, and other beauty treatments to keep up with the local coffee klatch about the fortunes of her own people.” Esther has given herself to the empire and has hidden, and maybe even forgotten, her true identity. To be fair, she has done this on the advice of her cousin. Therefore if she is a “sell out”, so is Mordecai. But notice what he now requests of her at the end of verse 8. He asks that she “go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people.” So much for being a clueless trophy wife in the king’s harem! Esther is called to action.
She is told to “beg and plead” for “her own people”. This is a very different word from Mordecai to Esther compared to when he was willing to sell her at all costs to King Xerxes’ harem. Earlier in the story the two of them showed no hesitation in working and grasping for what might actually be a useless position within the empire. Before she was told to hide the inconvenient truth of her identity, now she is told to own up to it. You can run and hide from your identity but invariably you will be found out. Therefore, from her quiet life of isolation and ease, Queen Esther is now being called to a cause bigger than herself. God save the Queen! God save her from a meaningless life of luxury and isolation and make her a gracious and noble person who will be used to lead her people to a victory over the enemy.
Esther’s response to Mordecai’s urgent request comes in verses 9-11. In essence she says that she can’t. Everybody in the whole empire knows “that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death.” The Queen goes on to say, “The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold scepter to him and spare his life.” We need to pause here in the text because a very important word is spoken that we might miss if we read the text too fast. Our NIV translation may muddle the words a little bit. Literally Esther says that all who approach the king uninvited are to be put to death, “except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live.” Except! The law is death “except” it is not always true. The word “except” is the gospel of grace in Esther 4. Everyone dies, except this is not always the way it is! This little word is a bombshell in the story!
But even though it is spoken from the Queen’s own mouth, it is frustrating to see that she does not yet understand what she is saying. She is saying she can’t go to the king and beg and plead on behalf of her people because she has not been invited. In her own words, “But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.” Thirty days is a long time for a woman to be ignored by her husband. You can be sure that King Xerxes has not been sleeping alone during every one of those nights. She can’t go to the king, EXCEPT this is not true!
Think about Esther’s life and the words that she speaks because they are terribly relevant to the life we live in this world. When you sell yourself to the empire, when you grasp for a life of ease and comfort and accommodation, you cannot even hear another word even if it comes from your own mouth. When we buy into the empires of this world; when we sell ourselves to the empires of nationalism, secularism, materialism, and so on, the word of grace becomes a faint echo that is hardly discernible as we go about our comfortable and safe lives. We become deluded and spend more time trying to maintain and secure our lifestyles, than we do listening to a counter cultural Word that proclaims another Kingdom. Esther speaks the word of grace in our text but she cannot hear it. Her comfortable but meaningless life has made her deaf. She needs someone to wake her up. We all do.
Mordecai’s response to Queen Esther in verses 12-14 are classic. In a way his words might even be considered the heart of the entire book. Mordecai says, “Do not think that you alone of all the Jews will be spared.” “If you remain silent, help will come from somewhere else.” “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” “For such a time as this”. Time. Time is grace! Mordecai has basically told Esther to stop her self pity, to buck up and be a woman of character and grace! God save the Queen! God save her from a pampered life of luxury and ease. And God save us! Save us from a life of shopping and things and so many other trivialities. Buck up! You are a citizen of the Most High and Sovereign King of the Universe. You may pledge your allegiance to a flag, but that flag will not save you! For such a time as this God’s people are called to something bigger and nobler than anything the empires of the world have to offer.
And so Esther must respond. We all must! We read that Esther responds positively to the challenge. She surrenders herself to a higher and nobler cause than her life has thus far been. For the first time in this book, in verses 15-17 we can see Esther in a positive light. The beautiful socialite is gone and a woman of character comes forth. We see this in her response, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” Finally Esther arrives where she must be. The hand of Providence is at work in this narrative, guiding and leading all people and all events to his purpose. We should notice that Esther is still not a particularly “religious person”. The best that she can ask for from her people is that they fast. She does not call for prayers, just fasting, and she will do the same. But her willingness to sacrifice her life for the sake of her people is an indication that she is now living for a cause beyond herself and her self-centered world. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”
Esther realizes that her life is not her own. She is a member of the covenant community even if she has suppressed this truth from the King, and the rest of the royal court. In part she is now realizing the joys, the responsibilities, and the sorrows that go along with belonging to the Kingdom of Christ. In short, she realizes that she must give herself over to death. You cannot grasp for your life and save it. But as we read this narrative we hear it through the Word of grace. “All must die except those who won’t”. It is in learning to give up everything, including life itself, that we gain something more. Grace is heard in that word “except”, and we hear it through the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. As God’s people, as citizens of his Kingdom, we are called to death, except the death to which we are called is Christ’s death for us. Think about it: In baptism we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. There is no resurrection without there first being a death. We belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to our Savior and Lord. “If we perish, we perish” EXCEPT in Christ we die to sin and death and are raised to eternal life.
As Christians we have been given a royal position “for such a time as this”. As sons and daughters of the King of Heaven, we are called to live our lives with a vision for life in God’s Kingdom of Grace. As the powers and the empires of this world drone on and on saying that security is in this stock option, or this military strategy or in this political party, and that the way to happiness is through affluence - we say “we hear you, except you are wrong!” By the power of the Holy Spirit we need to hear another Word, a Word which might be just a faint echo to our ears because we have become so deaf by all the noise and callings of this world. In Revelation 5 John says, “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” And later in Revelation 11:15 it says, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” As we hear the story of Esther we must recognize that all of us who belong to Christ have been raised to a position of royal dignity in this world to live for the glory of God. For such a time as this we proclaim the gospel. And in this calling, even if we perish, we don’t! For the Sovereign Lord who calls us is faithful and he will do it.
Order of Service
Call to Worship: Psalm 95:1-7
Opening Hymn: “Praise the Lord Sing Hallelujah” PsH# 147
Votum: “Our help is in the name of the LORD , the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Prayer for God’s Greeting: “ May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen”
Hymn of Praise: “O Worship the King” PsH# 428: 1,2,5
Service of Reconciliation
Call to confession: I John 1:5-10
Prayer of Confession/Assurance: “My Jesus I love Thee” PsH#557
Assurance of Pardon: John 3:16
God’s Will for our lives: The Ten Commandments from Exodus 20
Hymn of Dedication: “To God Be the Glory” PsH# 473
We Hear the Word
Prayer for Illumination: “O God, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word proclaimed, we may hear what you are saying to us today. Amen.”
Scripture Reading: Esther 4
Sermon Title: “God Save the Queen!”
We Respond to Serve
Hymn of Response: “How Firm a Foundation” PsH# 500
Closing Hymn; Psalter Hymnal 542, “The Ends of all the Earth”
Benediction from Numbers 6: 24-26