Sermon Series: Is it I, Lord? Stories of following God's lead
“Esther: A Call of Conscience”
We are looking at stories from the Bible about God leading people’s lives, and we have a strange story this morning.
It is the story of Esther from the Book of Esther in the Bible. One of the strange things about the Book of Esther in the Bible is that it never mentions God. God is never explicitly mentioned in the entire story of Esther.
Scholars have for centuries tried to figure out why a book of the Bible never mentions God. There are a few theories. One of them is that the Book of Esther in an earlier version included references to God but someone later edited them out. The problem with this answer is that it raises more questions than the original answer. Why would someone edit God out of a book of the Bible?
Here’s what I think. I think that faith has times and seasons. Not all times in history have the same degree of faith as others.
We as individuals do not have the same degree of faith. Some of us are gifted with more faith than others.
In Romans 12:3 the Apostle Paul says:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
There are different gifts that each of us is given. Faith is a gift and different degrees of faith are assigned to each of us. For some of us faith comes easier than for others.
I’ve often told the story of one of my teachers, Edmund Steimle. His wife said one Saturday morning, a Saturday the day before Easter, that she was not feeling well. By the end of the day she had died.
Easter morning Ed got up and went to church. He had never not gone to church on Easter in his life so he did what he had always done. He said, in the middle of the first hymn, he realized he could not sing the hymn that morning. He could not sing the “alleluia.”
He was upset about this, until he suddenly realized he didn’t have to sing the alleluia that Easter. The rest of the congregation could sing it for him.
The point of Ed Steimle’s experience is that the basic unit of faith is not the individual but the congregation. In any congregation there will be those with a gift for faith and others with other stronger gifts. There will be times when others in the congregation believe for us.
There are three great gifts, Paul says: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is… love.
Faith is not even the greatest gift. Matter of fact, people who have a strong gift for faith and not a strong gift of love can make you nervous.
So I am suggesting that faith is not distributed among people evenly, and that this is an intentional thing. We’d probably have very little theology if everyone had a strong faith. Theology is mostly trying to make sense of faith over against the disbelief of a time.
Preaching is trying to make sense of faith over against the disbelief of a people.
There are entire ages of incredulity and ages of greater credulity. I grew up in a time of incredulity. Lots of my preaching is wrestling with the difficulty of faith.
I think the Book of Esther was written in a time of incredulity when God talk did not come easily.
The reason the story of Esther is helpful is because it speaks to those of us who do not find it easy to believe. Those of us for whom believing in God is not a natural or easy thing.
Here is the story of what happens in the Book of Esther.
It takes place in Persia where Ahasauerus is king. We know him historically as Xerxes. [
Xerxes is a self-indulgent king in the Book of Esther. He throws a 7-day stag party for the men of Persia. Seven continuous days of drinking.
On the seventh day Xerxes ordered his wife Vashti, the queen, to come and “display her beauty” for the drunken men of Persia. Vashti is the only one who comes through this story with any dignity left. She refuses. The men of Persia become very nervous. If the queen gets away with refusing the king, what will the other women of Persia do? They tell the king he has to do something, so he divorces Vashti.
Now the king needs a new queen. The king’s advisors advise him to hold a beauty contest. All the attractive young women of Persia are assembled. King Xerxes will have a year-long beauty contest and pick a new queen.
Among the Persians there is a small community of Jews who had been taken into exile there by King Nebuchadnezzar. One of the Jews is a beautiful young woman named Esther. She wins the beauty contest and becomes the new queen.
Meanwhile a rich and influential Persian named Haman has taken a dislike to the Jews because they will not bow to other human beings. They believe in bowing only to God.
Haman has taken a particular dislike to Esther’s cousin Mordecai who raised her after her parent’s death and who is like a father to her.
Mordecai gets word to Esther about Haman’s plot to have all the Jews in Persia killed and asks her to intervene on their behalf with the king.
Esther doesn’t want to. For one thing, she has never told the king she is Jewish. Secondly, to enter the king’s presence without him having invited her can result in her death unless the king makes an exception to the rules.
So Esther would rather not take the chance.
Mordecai sends her this message: It says: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Who knows? Perhaps you’ve reached the position in life you’ve reached for just such a time as this.
Esther approaches the king. She holds a series of parties for the king— remember he liked parties with his pretty queen by his side—until she manages to figure out how to save the Jews in Persia without losing her own life.
I think this is a call story for those of us who live in times of incredulity, in seasons when faith is not easy or in societies where faith is not easy. Or perhaps we are persons for whom the gift of faith does not come naturally.
If we are part of a season or society when and where God seems remote and we don’t hear God speaking to us the way God seemed to speak to Abraham and Sarah and Moses, how do we think about the idea of God guiding our lives or calling us?
Here’s three things I think we can learn from the story of Esther.
First, two very important words: “Who knows?”
Even if faith is difficult, can we at least keep an open mind? Might there be a loving reality at work in our world and life even if we can not perceive it?
I have a friend in his late 80s who was an agnostic or an atheist most of his life. He tells me that in the latest years of his life, that he is beginning to come to the conclusion that human beings are no more likely to have evolved accidently than a motor cycle accidentally assembling itself. He is convinced that there most be something like a God and that the nature of God must be love.
Faith did not come naturally to him but he kept an open mind for 80 some years and he has eventually gotten there.
Even if we find it hard to believe that there is a loving God whose purposes are being lived out in my life, who knows?
Second, the word perhaps. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to your position for just such a time as this?
If we are positioned in life to do good, we have an obligation to do it even if we do not have certainty about God being behind it.
This may actually be a more realistic understanding of how God guides our lives and calls us than some of the other stories in the Bible.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kiekegard said: “Life can only be understood backwards. But we must live it forwards.”
Most of the call stories in the Bible are told backwards. They are theological history written after the fact. Esther’s story may reflect more accurately what it is like most of the time. We need to make decisions without clarity.
Esther assumes that if we are in the position to do good with our lives, we have to assume that we are called to do it.
Someone said this week that this feels like a guilt trip… that those of us who have advantages and privilege are being made to feel guilty for what we have.
One of the basic teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is:
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. (Luke 12:48)
We need to assume that our privilege is a God-given opportunity to make a difference.
God apparently does not call us to turn off our brains.
In fact, I think there are things—lots of things—that God leaves up to us.
I had to make an important vocational decision once that I was very divided about. I had very mixed feelings. Should I continue the work I was doing or accept an invitation to do something else? I loved the work I was doing but the invitation was very exciting as well.
I went to a spiritual director and told him the decision I had to make. I had a week to make it. He gave me some scriptures to read, some spiritual discernment exercises to do, some guided prayers. Then I was to listen to what God told me.
A week later I went to meet with him and he asked me what I heard God saying to me.
I said I thought I heard God saying to me, “It’s your call. It is up to you. Either choice would be fine.”
I think there are decisions in our lives that God uses either way we decide. There is not always just one possibility.
So in that particular case when I could not discern what God thought, I just listened to what Jane thought I should do.
I don’t think we are ever called to not think, although we may be called to stop thinking and act. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the paralysis of analysis.
For some of us, faith comes easy. For others of us we are given the story of Esther.
Esther advises us to keep our minds open. To assume that opportunity to do good is God’s call. And, for those of us who do not find faith easy, we are often given another gift, which is our minds. We may be called to serve God by keeping our brains engaged.