210926 Lectionary 26B
September 26, 2021
Sermon: “For Such a Time as This”
Rev. Kristian Wold
“If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” -- Esther 4:14
The story we get to think about this morning is the story of Esther. We had a wonderful presentation of it earlier, with artwork by our children and narration from the Spark Children’s Bible by Jane Henderson. This is the only Sunday in the three-year lectionary system that we get to hear from this book of the Bible. Which is too bad, because it’s a wonderful story. I encourage you to look it up and read the full version in your Bible; it’s a very entertaining read – and edifying too, as we’ll see in a moment.
I wanted to dwell on Esther this morning because we’ve been focusing attention for the past month on the lectionary texts from James and Proverbs that are examples of the wisdom tradition in the Bible. This is the tradition, remember, that meditates on the specifics of what it means to live a good, true, and beautiful life in this world—a wise and not a foolish life.
Last week the lectionary offered us a picture of this kind of life in the “Woman of Valour” of Proverbs 31. I didn’t comment on the passage in the sermon, but I posted a link to an excellent reflection on that text by Rachel Held Evans on our website. Her central point about that text is that it was never meant to be a prescription for the ideal feminine life. It was never meant to tell women that they had to conform to that model, and that model only, of competent domesticity. (Unfortunately that’s the way it’s been used in some Christian circles.) Instead Proverbs 31 celebrates a woman who lives a wise and valorous life. The opening line of the poem asks, “A woman of valor, who can find?” – and then goes on to celebrate the ways a particular woman lives in a particular circumstance with competence, virtue, skill, initiative, generosity, strength, dignity, wisdom, kindness, and industry—or in a single word, with valor. In this case it is in the sphere of middle-class domesticity, but it needn’t be limited to that. Ruth—a homeless, poor, and childless field-laborer—is also praised in the Bible as a woman of valor because of the way she embodied loyalty, courage, boldness, and love. The significant thing is that in scripture, women are treated, equally to men, as agents of divine blessing and action, and models of the valorous or wise life.
And today, in Esther, we come to another.
Her story is filled with drama and intrigue, heroism and villainy, suspense and satisfying turnarounds, humour and sly satire. A lot of the story was significantly tamed down, glossed over, or downright reversed in the children’s version we heard. But at its heart still stands the courageous and shrewd person of Esther who is able to do the right thing at the right time. She speaks up with truth and integrity, even when it is dangerous to do so, and so offers another model of what it means to be wise. She rises to the occasion. Moreover, her right action gives her a place in God’s mysteriously unfolding plan of salvation for the world. As her cousin Mordecai speculates in the story, Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.
Such a time as this. What was that time for Esther? Here are some features of it.
It was a time of corruption and decadent leadership. Contrary to the children’s version we heard, the book of Esther portrays King Ahasuerus as far from wise. Instead, he is decadent, vain, insecure, and out of touch with the realities of governing his empire, out of touch with his people. He spends his time in lavish banquets that show off his power. He signs executive orders with no real understanding of the consequences, as when the courtier Haman presents a decree that would mean the genocide of a religious minority in the empire, the Jews. He (along with all his top officials) is shocked and horrified when Queen Vashti refuses his command to dance before him and all his leering guests. They immediately pass a law requiring all women everywhere to obey their husbands. Because, they say, news of what the queen did will reach all women, making them look down on their husbands… There will be no end of put-downs and arguments. And so the edict is prepared and translated into all the languages of the empire, and messengers on fast horses immediately carry it far and wide. It’s a hilariously overblown but strangely realistic depiction of the way patriarchal authorities react to challenges to their power. Esther’s was a time of corruption and decadent leadership.
It was a time of court intrigue and shifting power dynamics. Throughout the book there is plotting and jockeying for power among courtiers. Esther herself is sold as a child into the king’s harem in order for her family to gain advantage at court. Advisers like Haman and Mordecai engage in a deadly struggle for the power that comes from having the king’s ear. Haman is willing to murder not only Mordecai himself, but his whole people just to eliminate a rival. All the players in this courtly game are motivated by greed, vanity, spite, and revenge. Esther, in her time, was surrounded by court intrigue and shifting power dynamics.
It was a time when to stand out and be different from the majority could be deadly. When Esther was first sent to the king’s court she was warned never to let anyone know she was a Jew. This warning is repeated several more times in the story. To be Jewish is to face discrimination and prejudice, fear and suspicion. It could be, and it definitely turns out to be the case in the story, that being a known Jew could put your life in danger. Eventually, when Haman manages to get the king to sign his genocidal order—commanding citizens of the empire to wipe out, kill, and destroy all the Jews, both young and old, even women and little children, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, and then to seize their property—no one seems to raise any objection. Not one scribe, translator, messenger, governor, soldier, or citizen makes any fuss. It seems the majority is perfectly willing to scapegoat the Jewish minority. Maybe they always harbored feelings that the Jews were an unclean blemish on the body politic anyways. In Esther’s time to stand out and be different from the majority could be deadly.
So much for Esther’s times. As for Esther herself, she is called to become a woman of valor. Where the court and people around her were drunk with decadence and power, she became a queen of independent mind and spirit, aware and caring for the people of her realm. Surrounded by greed, vanity, spite, and revenge, Esther instead took a different path of generosity, courage, and integrity. Where it was prudent in her culture to go along and get along, being willfully blind to injustice, Esther acted with awareness and freedom, confessing her identity as a Jew. By Esther’s courage and integrity an evil plot of genocide was foiled and her people, the Jews, were saved. In such a time Esther became a woman of valor.
Just as God placed Esther in just such a position in just such a time in order for her to have the opportunity of becoming a woman of valor, so God leads you and I to such places and times as to become women and men of valor today. It is up to us to continually ask Mordecai’s question of ourselves: perhaps God has led me to this moment for this. What is that moment? What is this time? What is God calling you to do and be? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know that they will be different for each person, and they will shift over time. The answers might be different on different occasions. As another work of wisdom literature reminds us:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
To become women and men of valor we must constantly be discerning what time it is for us. To ask the question is already to start to become valorous, and to act our answer is the beginning of wisdom.
May God grant us all inspiration from Esther, to become people of valor in our times – courage when fear is all around, integrity when dishonesty prevails, love when there is so much hate, understanding in the midst of denial. God is faithful and, when we ask, will give us discernment. And in the end by Christ’s mercy we will find ourselves, like Esther, mysteriously instrumental in the working out of God’s beautiful plan of redemption for the world.