Advent 2: Peace (Esther)
Today is the second Sunday of Advent! Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. During Advent we are waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. We are preparing to recognize that God is with us. God is with us not only at the incarnation, not only when God became a human and dwelled among us in Jesus; God is with us at all times and in all places and in all moments in our lives. To help us prepare to celebrate God with us at Christmas, and to help us to notice God with us now, we focus on four words during Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. Last week we talked about hope, and today we will talk about Peace.
We are continuing to follow the Narrative Lectionary which brings us to Esther this morning. We have been following more or less the chronological order in which things happened in the Old Testament. Remember that after King Solomon, the kingdom split in two. The northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah. The northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians, but the southern kingdom survived. Then the Babylonians came and conquered the southern kingdom. After the Babylonian conquest, many of the elite people from Judah were taken into captivity and exiled to Babylon. But, then the Persians came and conquered Babylon. The book of Esther takes place during the Persian empire. It takes place in the capital city, Susa, so we know that the Jews in this story are exiles.
How many of you are familiar with the book of Esther? The book of Esther is a really interesting book. I highly recommend that you read it. It is the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim, which the Jews still celebrate today. The festival of Purim is a true celebration. During this festival, people read the whole book of Esther in Hebrew, they ALL dress up in costumes, even the most orthodox men. They eat and drink together. In fact, I spoke to a friend of mine who is a Rabbi and he said the tradition is that they drink until they get drunk and can’t tell the difference between, “Curse Haman!” and, “Bless Mordecai!” They also give alms to the poor so that the poor can also celebrate. My friend explained that this festival is supposed to help people remember to have fun and to celebrate together, because if you can’t have fun, what’s the point of life? What are they celebrating?
In the book of Esther, the Jews are saved from annihilation. And the interesting thing about this book in the Bible is that God is not mentioned anywhere. It is a story that is very much like real life in the sense that God works through humans, in hidden ways. The miraculous salvation from genocide comes through the courage of a woman named Esther who acted at great risk to her own safety, when she wasn’t even sure that her actions would work. Esther brought peace to her people. This is often what we experience. Often in life, God calls us to act for peace at great risk to ourselves without any guarantee that our actions will make a difference. As Mordecai said to Esther in 4:17, “For 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.” Mordecai says, “Who knows?” and “perhaps.” The result of her actions are uncertain, but he is certain that if she doesn’t act she will die. What brought Esther to such a moment?
As I said before, the Jews in this story are exiles, living in Persia. Esther was an orphan. Her cousin Mordecai had adopted her. Now, the king of Persia at the time was Xerxes. His first wife, Vashti, is known as a heroine because she was a strong woman: she stood up to Xerxes and refused to be paraded before his men. As a result, however, she lost her status as queen and Xerxes decided to find a new queen. When the palace sought young women to “try-out” for queen, Mordecai sent Esther. She underwent a year of preparation and eventually Xerxes chose her to be the next queen of Persia. Here we have another example of someone who was considered a nobody in that time in history (an orphaned, foreigner girl) becoming someone of great importance and power: the Queen of Persia, Queen Esther. God often works through “the least of these” and we do well to remember that.
When Esther was queen, her cousin Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate King Xerxes. He told Esther who told the king and the plot was uncovered. This was recorded in the minutes of the kingdom. Around the same time, a Persian official named, Haman, found favour with King Xerxes and the king ordered everyone in Persia to bow down to him. When Haman passed Mordecai, Mordecai wouldn’t bow down to him because Jews only bowed to God. This made Haman extraordinarily angry and he decided to kill Mordecai and annihilate the Jews. He convinced King Xerxes to write an edict giving the enemies of the Jews permission on one particular day to kill them all, down to the last child, and to take their possessions and property, to plunder them. This edict was sent out to every province in Persia. It is important to know that Esther never told anyone that she was Jewish so when King Xerxes wrote the edict, he did not know that it would affect Esther or Mordecai. When Mordecai heard the edict, he approached Esther and asked her to intercede with the king on behalf of her people.
As we heard in 4:11, Esther hesitated to approach the king because no one was allowed to approach the king without being invited to, and if someone did, the penalty was death. At this point, Mordecai says to her in 4:13-14 that she won’t escape the edict in the palace and that perhaps she has “come to royal dignity for just such a time a this.” Wow. That’s a lot of pressure. If she approached the king she could be killed but if she didn’t she would be killed anyway. How did Esther respond to this. She was a heroine: she showed that she had courage, that she was willing to risk her life for peace. She says in 4:16, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” First we see that even though God is not referenced, Esther seeks her community of faith and they together seek the Lord through their fast. They are seeking God’s favour for her so that she can approach the king, even though it is against the law, and not be killed. But, she says, “if I perish, I perish.” She knows there is a risk, yet she has the courage to take that risk for peace.
This is important for us to remember about peace. Peace comes at a cost. It’s not cheap or easy or automatic. We all have to work for peace, often at great risk to ourselves. Jesus is the prince of peace, as we remembered in our prayer of confession this morning. His coming was not without risk. Esther’s willingness to put herself at risk in order to bring peace to her people, reminded me of Mary. Remember in Luke 2, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit outside of marriage and that the baby is the Son of God, and that His kingdom will have no end. The implication is that Jesus is the peace that people have been yearning for for a long time. However, Mary’s own situation is fraught. She is engaged to Joseph and to be found with child would have been grounds for divorce, and we see in Matthew that this is Joseph’s intention when he finds out. She could lose everything. But, she is willing to take the risk, to play her part in bringing the Prince of Peace into the world. So she tells the angel Gabriel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
We know that for Mary it worked out: Joseph did not divorce her, but married her. And Jesus did become the Prince of Peace, but through his death and resurrection. It was hard, but Mary had the courage to play her part.
What happened to Queen Esther? Did King Xerxes have her killed for approaching him? While Vashti is considered a heroine for being strong and unconventional, Queen Esther is a heroine at this point in the story for being savvy and using convention to her advantage.
Queen Esther requested an audience with the king and Haman, the man who wanted to annihilate the Jews. The King granted it, and of course Haman felt honoured and bragged about it. After feeding them a banquet for two days in a row, Esther finally told King Xerxes why she wanted to speak with him and Haman. She let it drop that she was a Jew and that Haman had ordered the execution of her and all of her people. King Xerxes was livid. He in turn ordered Haman to be executed and then invited Mordecai into the palace. Together, they drew up another edict allowing the Jews to defend themselves against anyone who attacked them on the appointed day of the original edict. And then Queen Esther followed it up with a similar edict for the following day. The result of this was that the Jews were saved from genocide. Many people attacked them, but the edict allowed them to gather their own army and defend themselves without committing treason so they survived. Purim is the celebration of this victory. It is the celebration of the Jews being saved from genocide.
It is also the celebration of how God works through us, often in hidden ways. Even though God is not mentioned in the book of Esther, God is clearly at work behind the scenes. God is clearly empowering and working through Esther who had the courage to use her status and power, her savviness and her gift at working with the system to circumvent Haman’s genocidal edict. Just as we often don’t see God clearly, God is certainly present with us in our lives. The question we need to ask ourselves is, do we have courage like Esther? Do we have the courage to work for peace like she did? To take risks for peace? To make sacrifices for peace? Do we have the courage to step out in faith for God to work through us in ways that we could never ask for or imagine?
As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, the birth of the Prince of Peace, let us have courage like Queen Esther, and Jesus’ mother, Mary. Let us be willing to take risks for peace. May God’s kingdom come, may God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.