The people of Israel had been taken into captivity in Babylon, roughly what is today Iraq. It is during this time of captivity in Babylon that many of the prophets we have heard from over the past several weeks – Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and so forth – wrote, longing for a return to their promised land. Unlike the prophets, the book of Esther doesn’t directly address a longing for return to the promised land, but it does tell a story of the survival of the Jewish people amidst the dark oppression of living as exiles in a foreign, and at times unwelcoming, place.
This morning’s reading comes from Esther 4:1-17, nearly halfway through the story. The Persians had since conquered the Babylonians, and today’s story takes place in Susa, the capital of the Persian empire. The King of Persia has conducted a nation-wide search to find a new Queen … and he selects the beautiful young Esther, who becomes Queen of Persia. Now, the King doesn’t know she is a Jew, and in the course of his rule as King, he approves a request by one of his trusted advisors, Haman, to slaughter all the Jews in his kingdom.
Upon hearing news of the impending massacre, Mordecai - Esther's uncle who raised her, and who is still a "commoner" even though his niece is now the Queen - puts on sackcloth and ashes, and publicly weeps and wails standing at the palace gates. He pleads with Esther to go to the King to get him to change this deadly decree. Yet Esther is not sure she can, for going before the King without being summoned is punishable by death - even for the Queen.
(Many thanks to the Rev. Chris Duckworth, pastor of New Joy Lutheran Church in Westfield, IN, for graciously sharing the above summary and introduction to today's reading.)
Read: Esther 4:1-17
Times were most certainly dark for Esther. Maybe it doesn’t seem so because this unknown Jewish girl has risen to the position of queen. The way I glossed over it, it almost sounds like a rags to riches fairy tale, but that’s not quite the case. The previous queen, Vasthi, the one whom Esther replaced, was banished from her position and from court because she refused to come be displayed before the king and his friends and advisors in the middle of a drunken feast. To find a replacement the king gathered young girls, kept them under his control for twelve months, then one by one spent time with them to decide who would be his queen.
The lines are not hard to read between. There is nothing pleasant about how Esther has ended up as queen, and from what she reports to Mordecai about her inability to even speak without fear of punishment, there is very little pleasant, very little freedom in her position as queen, either.
And likewise times were dark for Esther’s people throughout the empire. The Jews who were in exile in Babylon, which has now been conquered itself by Persia, were a minority, and therefore viewed as curious at best, suspicious on a bad day, and downright dangerous when the majority was at its worse – dangerous enough that a plan for their destruction was just a few steps from being carried out. Times were dark if you didn’t fit in, if your ethnicity or your faith or your national identity didn’t fit the norm.
Individually, we have our share of dark struggles among our congregation. At any given moment in the life of our church family we have among us those who are struggling with chronic illness, those whose bodies are growing frail, those whose families are in turmoil, those who are grieving, those who are experiencing a crisis of faith, those who wonder if their jobs will be around tomorrow. We have all manner of darkness that creeps into our lives and our homes, all kinds of worries and anxieties and sadness. We remembered those as we wrote our laments last week in worship, as we asked God in prayer, “How long, O Lord? How long?”
And collectively in our community and around our nation there are experiences of darkness and struggle. The need for a larger homeless shelter, while it is a blessing it is being provided, is a sign of darkness in our time. The struggles individuals and families face trying to just get transportation to adequate, affordable medical care, even here in St. Croix County, is a shadow that hangs over us. The divisions that exist in this nation along the lines of race and class cast a deep darkness over our communal life together, over our ability to care for one another with justice, mercy, and grace.
Darkness is real in the exile. It’s real in Advent. It’s real in this time of waiting for the kingdom of God that has already been ushered to be more fully realized in our lives and in the world. So the question is, how do we wait?
Esther gives us an amazing example of how it is God’s people can wait in these times that are in between. While she sits as queen in the city of Susa, she is essentially powerless. She has been chosen for her beauty and appeal to the king, not as a representative of her people, which she has kept secret, not as a strategic partner, for she can’t even speak without being summoned. She has no sway in the political sphere, but suddenly her uncle brings her this news, sheds a little light on the situation that is stirring among her people outside the palace walls - - and the question is before her - - What will she do with this knowledge?
Lots of people focus in on the end of verse 14 as the most crucial moment of this story. I have, too. It’s that part of the plea of Mordecai that says maybe all of this has happened to Esther on purpose, maybe everything she has experienced, not a fairy tale royal treatment, but essentially human trafficking, slavery, and being held whether she likes it or not, is because this is exactly where she needs to be, maybe because God has put her there, to save her people. I’m not so comfortable with the idea that God would have put her through this kind of denigration on purpose. I’m slightly more comfortable with the idea that God can use a bad situation for good. And I’m even more thrilled to shift the focus off of “such a time as this” and onto the words that Esther speaks for herself about the whole situation. We find them in v. 16.
“After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
“If I perish, I perish.”
That’s how Esther tells us we’re supposed to wait in the times of darkness. Waiting in exile, waiting in Advent isn’t passive. In fact, active is a bit of an understatement, too. Waiting in exile, waiting in Advent, waiting with Jesus has come, and we’re waiting for him to come again is actually very risky. This time of waiting is a time when the people of God are sometimes called to break the accepted rules of the culture and kingdom in order to bring a greater peace, a brighter light to the world.
In a culture that says our spare change in the red kettle is good enough, the people of God are called to give spare change and then more. The people of God are called to ask the questions about why people are poor, why there is plenty to go around, but it doesn’t always seem to go around, and what can we do to make God’s vision of a heavenly feast where all are welcome and all are fed, an earthly reality.
In a culture that says it isn’t polite to talk about issue of race and discrimination and prejudices and biases, the people of God are called to break those rules and be the center of real, deep, difficult conversations. The people of God, particularly the people of God who find themselves in the powerful majority, are called to look inward at our experiences of privilege and examine what those mean for our lives and the lives of those who don’t experience that privilege.
In a culture that says this is the season to buy, buy, buy and indulge, indulge, indulge, the people of God are called to a period of fasting and prayer, of examining what we already have, what we need to release, what is in the way of our receiving the most important gift of our lives - - the gift of God’s love in Jesus our Christ.
In a period of darkness, it isn’t playing by the rules of the culture that saves Esther and her people. It’s breaking the rules, bucking the expectations, and risking EVERYTHING that lets the light of God’s reign break into the world, that eventually brings peace to her people. Breaking the rules and taking risks isn’t polite or easy. Standing in the middle of the darkness and waiting, actively waiting, pointing to and moving toward the Messiah who calls for a world to be turned upside down, for the weak to be made strong, is a risky posture to take, but it is the posture to which we are called by the prophets, by Esther, by Christ himself in the mandate of his life and ministry.
May the remainder of our Advent season, and our lives of discipleship in this time between Christ’s birth and his coming again, be marked by broken rules that let God’s light shine in the darkness.