Stories and Scriptures we don’t hear in worship
Book of Esther, and Purim
12 July 2015
Last week in our summer sermon series, “Stories and Scripture we don’t hear in worship,” we read from the Old Testament Apocrypha book of 1 Maccabees, and learned about the origins of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
Today we continue in that theme, looking at another Jewish holiday, called Purim … but this time, through a book of the Old Testament that is in the Bibles which are before you, and in your homes as well: the book of Esther.
Esther is a story, a book, that is much like Maccabees; focusing on the personal attributes of people as they struggle to live out the faithful life. However, it differs from Maccabees, and other books of the Bible, in that it doesn’t speak a lot about God’s actions, but instead, about what people do to try and live faithfully.
In particular, the text focuses on Queen Esther, and how she saved her people from the wicked Haman, who wanted to destroy the whole nation of the Jews over an insult he felt from Mordecai.
The Book of Esther is only read once in the three-year lectionary cycle, and it’s limited to the text we have before us today. For our Jewish friends, though, Esther is the main text for the annual festival of Purim, which usually falls during late February or early March.
Purim is a party time; you might say, very loosely, that it’s the Jewish version of Mardi Gras, with clowns and carnivals, fun and laughter and surprises. The kids love it. And the adults like it too.
Here’s a little description of what Purim is about, that I found on “Judaism 101” on the Internet:
The primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the book of Esther. It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle noisemakers whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the service. The purpose of this custom is to “blot out the name of Haman.”
We are also commanded to eat, drink and be merry. It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to perform plays and parodies, and to hold beauty contests.
In addition, we are commanded to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts to charity.
So that’s Purim. But what about the story of Esther itself? And why is it a good message for us?
To answer that, we need to read the whole book … or at least hear someone sum it up for us.
Esther is a story set in the time that the Israelites were taken into captivity in Persia … what’s now Iran. The king was Ahasuerus … a typical tyrant of the time, who lived in a beautiful palace with “white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars.” One day Ahasuerus decided to give a banquet, which lasted for seven days, and when “the king was merry with wine” on the seventh day, he sent for his Queen Vashti, to show her off, so the officials and peoples could see how beautiful she was.
Only one problem: Vashti wouldn’t come to Ahasuerus. She made him look foolish before his people. And one of the king’s officials told him, “You have to do something, because if word of this gets out, then all women will look with contempt on their husbands; the noble ladies will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” So, the king did two things … he banished Queen Vashti and took away her crown; and he decreed that in all of Persia, every man should be master in his own house.
But, you just know this is a set-up for something bigger to happen. And that something … or someone … comes next into his life … Esther.
Ahasuerus was lonely after banishing Vashti. He wanted another queen. So he sent out a open casting call … think “Persian Idol,” with young women lined up around the block to get a chance at being the new queen. Mordecai, a Jew, had a young beautiful cousin named Hadassah (a Hebrew name) who he took to the open call. But she changed her name to Esther (a Gentile name) so she’d have a chance, because no Jew could be married to the Persian king.
Well, of course, Esther was favored by the king’s servant and chosen as a candidate for queen. So she got The Royal Treatment … a twelve month makeover, “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women.” Finally, at the end of that time, she was admitted to the King’s palace; Ahasuerus loved her more than all the other women, and she became queen.
A beautiful ending. But not the end of the story.
Remember Mordecai? He was waiting at the gate of the palace to see how it would all turn out. While he was waiting there, he overheard two of the king’s servants who planned to kill the king. Mordecai told Esther, Esther told the king, the two servants were hanged, and the good deed of Mordecai got recorded in a book.
But not remembered. Because along came Haman (boo, hiss, boo, hiss!)
Haman became the king’s servant in the place of the two that plotted against him. But Haman was no better. He – Haman - got the king to order that everyone should bow down when Haman passed by. And everyone did … except Mordecai. He was a Jew. He worshipped God, and no man. Haman was insulted. And so he plotted to get rid of not just Mordecai, but all the Jews.
Haman (bhbh) got the king to decree that the Persians should destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, women and children, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month. Esther heard it and was sad; but she wondered what she could do. No one could come into the king’s presence unless they were called – you could be put to death for this – not even the Queen … remember … after Queen Vashti, “all men were to be honored by their wives,” so even the Queen wasn’t to come into the King’s presence unless she was called. So she waited and wondered. And Mordecai sent her a message: “Don’t expect that it will be any better for you once you are found to be a Jew also. If you don’t say something to the king now, someone will, because God will always take care of his people. But Esther, maybe this is your time.”
So Esther risked. She went to the king. And the king received her, because he loved her. And what did she ask for? A party, with only two guests … the king, and Haman (bhbh).
Esther had the party. And made another request … for yet another party, again with just two guests … the king, and Haman (bhbh). By this time, Haman’s got a swell head. He was thinking that he was really hot stuff. But then – to bring him down again - he once again saw Mordecai, still waiting at the palace gate, who still refused to bow down to him. He’d had it up to here with this jerk! All his joy was brought down because of his obsession with Mordecai. So Haman’s wife said, “why don’t you build a gallows, fifty cubits high, and hang Mordecai on it?” So Haman built it.
That night, the king couldn’t sleep. So he got his servants to read him some old legal books – something that would put anyone to sleep – and lo and behold, he heard about that time when Mordecai saved his life. The King was surprised. Had anything ever been done for Mordecai, he asked his other servants? No one could remember anything.
By chance, Haman was walking in the King’s court. The King had him summoned, and asked him, “What should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” And of course, Haman thought, “He’s talking about me!” So of course Haman poured it on … “give him robes, your horse, a crown, let him be proclaimed great in the streets.”
Imagine Haman’s surprise when the king told him, “Go do this for Mordecai.” His world was starting to fall in on him.
And then … the king got his as well. At the party that night … as we have before us in our reading today … Esther, who had waited for the opportune time, now, before both the king and Haman, proclaimed the truth … “this wicked Haman” had plotted to destroy, to kill, to annihilate my people.” The king stomped out, and Haman tried to plead with the Queen as she lay on her couch … but the king saw this and thought Haman was trying to have his way with the Queen … and it was just too much. And then we have the most ironic part of the whole story … the words of Harbona, proclaiming the ultimate irony, “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.”
It’s like an old Western … or maybe, Shakespeare. The bad guy gets his in the end. The king looks like the buffoon that he is. The real smart ones are Esther and Mordecai. And the epilogue is the words about how Purim became a holiday for the Jews … “days of feasting and gladness … days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.”
A good story. But it’s also a good word for us.
First, it’s a word about “what goes around comes around.” God’s justice is inevitable. This story serves to remind us that we have a God who keeps promises. God stood by his people even when they didn’t stand by him. God brought them to the Promised Land, watched over them in exile, and brought them back home.
And God keeps those promises to us in Jesus … the Ultimate Promise … the promise in flesh and blood, the promise we receive in these forgiving waters … in loving words … in the meal of welcoming and wholeness and sending forth to serve that we’ll soon share. God Keeps Promises. Even when we don’t keep ours, God still Keeps Promises. For Us.
And the second message is just as important. God Doesn’t Make Junk. God created us smart, with brains to think and hands and feet to act. We keep alert … we keep watchful … to note when people are oppressed, unjustly accused, kept down in their poverty, lorded over by those who would wish them ill. We keep alert … and we watch for the opportune time to act. We have eyes and ears and brains … and we are charged to use them … use them as Esther did, all her God-given talents, charm, beauty, all that she had, shrewdly, carefully, boldly; not deceitfully but honestly, to save her people from destruction.
It is a good word for us.
So, I wonder where will this word find us and take us, each of us, this week …
… because that is your story, my story, each of us, to write and tell now.
So let’s get to it!