Feb. 10-11 Esther: Woman of Beauty and Courage
Scripture: Esther 4: 1-16
Well, I just want to say a word about last week. What a testimony from our friend, Bill Hebenthal. I’m so grateful that Bill was willing to share with his story with us. Bill’s story is a story of redemption and restoration, of God’s story breaking into his life. I think we can all say that we were blessed by Bill’s message. And I hope it encourages us to think about the ways God directs our steps and repurposes our lives. So thank you, Bill. And if you didn’t get a chance to hear Bill’s story, might I suggest you take him out for a cup of coffee and hear it personally? You won’t be sorry!
In many ways, Bill’s message was a wonderful bridge to our next movement in the Story. Today we find ourselves lodged in the middle of a book entitled Esther, which is a wonderful example of how God’s story intertwines with our own. This a book filled with all sorts of juicy subplots. In Esther’s story, we find oppression and abuse, beauty and tragedy, trials and courage, the powerful and the powerless. But what I really want to focus on today is this: This book is about Esther’s invitation to claim her role in God’s story, and to step into it. And that’s our invitation as well.
Now, to really understand this story it’s important you have some background information. Like several of our recent stories, Esther’s story also finds its location in exile. Esther lives in the city of Susa, which was the capital of Persia. The Scriptures tell us that she was a Jewish orphan, (God always seems to have a special compassion for orphans) taken in and raised by her uncle Mordecai and eventually she ends up as part of the King’s harem. As the story is told, the king notices her good looks and tells his entourage to bring her in. So here is this young woman, exploited by a man in power, thrust into a man’s life she doesn’t know. But behind the scenes, God is working. Over time, Esther ascends to a prominent place in the King’s palace and becomes his queen. And that’s where we pick up the story today…
For such a time as this…that’s the statement that most people remember about the book of Esther, and it changes the tone of Esther’s story. It’s a statement of invitation, and signals a deeper lens through which to explore Esther’s journey. It suggests that maybe God has placed Esther in a particular place at a particular time to influence a larger story. And, I would suggest, it’s a statement that invites us to see our places in history from a redemptive perspective and to step into God’s initiating activity. Essentially, this story begins to answer the question: How can God use me, right here and right now, for God’s grand purposes? How can God take my situation, my story, my brokenness and use them for bigger purposes? If you’ve ever asked that question, Esther’s story is a story for you. So, how does this story speak to our hearts and inform our faith? I’m going to suggest to you three ways this story helps us see the very real and tangible ways God wants to bless others through us.
First, I would offer to you that Esther’s story invites us into the work of justice in our world. I believe Esther’s story makes abundantly clear that God’s grace-filled activity involves standing up against injustice in whatever shape and form that injustice takes. Now, let me say this: I know we try at times to toe the political/spiritual line, but sometimes our faith cannot avoid the messiness of lines we wish were clearer than they really are. And sometimes, our faith requires us to get off the fence and speak out. There’s a potential for disastrous consequences in Esther’s story. Mordecai has uncovered a plot to exterminate the Jewish people, threatening the existence of an entire demographic of people And in Mordecai’s mind, this isn’t the time to discuss whether the matter at hand is political or spiritual, because it’s both! And when injustice, oppression and inequality threaten the wellbeing and existence of fellow human beings, people of faith have a role to respond. This is the messy work of faith.
As Esther listens to Mordecai’s plea, it is not her politics that are put on line, but her faith. She is invited to claim faith in a God who demands nothing less than love for our neighbors, even if (and especially when) they don’t look or think like us. I can’t help but think of the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Fundamentally, it’s a story that answers the question, “Who is my neighbor” and Jesus, of course, stretches our faith to include all people as our neighbor. As the old prophet Micah ponders, “What does the Lord require of us? The Lord requires justice, mercy and humility. These are words of action and activity, words that get down into the dirty work of living out our faith.
In no uncertain terms, Mordecai tells Esther, “If you don’t do something, people will die. So will you do something or not?” Injustice and oppression happen all over our planet and in our backyards. It’s the stuff and decisions that threaten the well-being of our friends and neighbors, that threaten to rob them of the quality of life we all long to lead. And somehow, our faith compels us to act. Sometimes our faith demands that we speak truth to the abuse of power that leaves others with no hope; sometimes our faith demands that we stand up and with those who can’t stand up for themselves; and sometimes our faith demands that we raise our voices for those who go unheard day after day. For such a time as this. Maybe God has placed you where you are so that somebody else’s life is saved.
Secondly, I would offer to you that God is fully capable of making sense of and redeeming our messy lives. Anyone feel like your life is a mess and hard to understand? That’s Esther. Esther’s life is a tangled-web of misfortune, seduction and opportunity. But the door has been opened for her to step into a new God-given identity. She doesn’t have to play the role of victim. We’re so good at this, allowing ourselves to be suppressed by the things that have happened to us. And they are real and deserve healing, but those things don’t have be the defining story of who and Whose we are. Esther doesn’t have to let her past define her present. God acknowledges our pasts but calls us out of what we can’t change and invites us to step into the presence of One who make all things new!
Esther might not be able to see it, but she is right where God needs her to be. Sometimes we wish we could be anywhere else than where we are, but maybe where we are is exactly where we need to be. Let this be a word of encouragement for you: I don’t know the circumstances that led to where you are right now, but I do know that God is waiting and willing to redeem your “right now” reality. You can grow into the person God wants you to be when you choose to move forward with God’s leading. Your past steps –however you define them- have shaped you, but so will your next step. God is not done shaping you. God is not through defining you. God is still forming Christ-likeness in you. We call that grace! I love how Esther responds to Mordecai’s challenge. She embraces her identity, puts her mind to fasting and praying and prepares to embark on a new journey. She trades in her “woe is me” attitude for the chance to be a change agent for God’s people! What past steps do you need to release today? Let go of the victim status. Let go of the shame, the humiliation, the hurt, the pain, the failure... Let go of those things that cannot be changed and instead embrace the Savior who calls you his own.
Finally, I would offer to you today that Esther’s story points to God’s invitation to receive and reflect His story of self-giving love. This is what faith looks like. Jesus puts it this way to his disciples in John: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” As Esther listens to Mordecai’s plea, she senses that this might cost her her life. To be so bold and courageous as to lift her concerns to the king was risky, as she knows it. But to step out in faith would be an undeniable act of love, and in doing so, the whole world would be introduced to a new kind of power, a power that gives instead of takes, a power that chooses the needs of others over self. In a way, Esther is what we call a “forerunner” of Jesus Christ. Her actions prepare the way and model the actions of a God who so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son to the world to save it. Esther, of course, doesn’t know that story yet. She doesn’t know that the Cross of Jesus will foil an eternal conspiracy set in motion by Satan, that Christ’s love will overcome the power of sin and death. All she knows is that God has invited her to step into a similar story of self-giving love, for such a time as this, and Esther responds with bravery and courage: If I perish, she says, then I perish.
I had a friend in college who once asked me why Christians are so wimpy. He could never wrap his mind around our interest in Jesus and the things of the Bible. He wanted to lift weights and be strong; he wanted to strut with authority and power; and when he was angry, he wanted to let the whole world know with his fists and his voice. And I guess my answer is that we are allowing Jesus to show us a new and different way to live. If that’s wimpy, so be it. But what I see in Esther, and what I know in Christ, is the stuff of real strength and courage and faith. To offer yourself in an act of self-giving love is one of the strongest actions you could ever take. And what’s more? It usually leads to life!
All the emotions Esther experienced are no different than the ones we endure. To live out our faith, especially in the face of tangible evil, could cause us to “lose out” if we’re concerned with the things of this world. Like Esther, we could die, suffer, get hurt, finish second, go unnoticed, feel forgotten, experience humiliation or even fail. Or, we could experience the grace of God who is mighty to save. Mordecai’s words ring out: Maybe we’re right where we are for such a time as this. Which story will you claim today? Today is a day to claim your story, to claim your faith. Will you claim the story that says “Stay put, be comfortable and live out your days?” Or will you, like Esther and like our friend Bill, step into God’s story of self-giving love, and let God tell His story through you? Amen.