For Such a Time as This

Published: Monday, 29 January 2018

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound on 28 January, 2018.

Reading: Esther 4: 1-17

Study Guide

Today’s study comes from a book of the Bible that we seldom dip into. This little book is sandwiched between the popular books of Nehemiah and Job. There was controversy over whether this book should be included in the canon of Scripture. Christian leaders like Martin Luther argued that this book should be snipped from the Scriptures. Their argument was that the book of Esther is the only book in the Bible that never mentions the word ‘God’. It doesn’t contain any prayers or hymns so how can such a godless book have any spiritual nourishment?

Can you express something of the love of God without mentioning God’s name?

Can you show something of the courage of Jesus without naming his name?

Does the energy of the Holy Spirit silently pulsate through your conduct and your conversations?

Esther’s story reminds us that we don’t have to tie Bible texts onto tulips in order for them to communicate the wonder and beauty of their creator.[1]

 

On one memorable night, this book came alive for me! A friend invited my sister and me to the synagogue one Sabbath. My sister was relegated to the balcony with all the other women, while we men with our skullcaps were close to the action, and learned about a remarkable woman!

The service went for about three hours and the people walked in and out as they wished. The rabbi stood in the middle of the congregation, and by reading and singing he led the worshippers through the readings. It was all in Hebrew but it was so absorbing as the people were caught up in retelling the Bible stories.

Each year at Purim or the Feast of Easter, Jewish people read this little book out loud twice, and what a fascination it holds for them.

The story takes place amid the politics of the Persian Empire. At one of the 10 banquets described in the book, King Xerxes is so irked by his wife’s non-appearance when he called for her, that he pulls the rug out from under her feet. A Persian rug. Xerxes gave Queen Vashti an early retirement.

This domestic dispute escalated into a national crisis, because the King got so angry when his ego was dented. He thought if he didn’t make an example of Vashti, all the men in the empire might be treated with contempt by their wives refusing to jump when they were summoned.

To find a new queen, the King sponsors a beauty contest. What is it about some world leaders who love to organise beauty contests? The winner was to be crowned Miss Persia and first prize was to become the new Queen of the Empire. (Esther 2:4)

The successful contestant was this woman called Esther. (Esther 2: 17) Beauty, cleverness and courage she had in abundance, but she was an unlikely choice for she was one of the Jews exiled in Persia. She’s an outsider. What’s more, she’d been orphaned and was fostered by her cousin Mordecai, who happened to be working in the Persian bureaucracy. (Esther 2:7)

The plot thickens when Haman is promoted to Prime Minister. (Esther 3:1) He expects everybody to bow and scrape before him and when it’s observed that Mordecai is not bowing down, Haman responds with a plan not only to kill Mordecai but to exterminate the entire Jewish population. This is like the genocide by the Nazis! Haman is an early version of Hitler!

The news spread among the Jews, who felt their chance of survival was slim. But they devised a plan. Mordecai must go to his cousin, Queen Esther, to get her to intercede with the King on their behalf and have the death warrant annulled.

Esther initially hesitated and verse 11 tells why:

“All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death.”

Esther 4: 11 

But Mordecai persists, v14:

 

“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.”

Esther 4: 14

 

“For if you keep silence at such a time as this…

 

I remember an old pastor who, in his prayers of confession, would ask God to forgive us for our ‘sins of omission and commission’. As a child, I never understood what he meant. I thought the sins of commission were sins committed by greedy insurance salesmen.

I thought our sins were simply the bad things we did.

But the sins of omission are the good things we fail to do. (James 4:17)[2]

“For if you keep silence at such a time as this…

Who am I?

“I never was guilty of wrong actions but on my account lives have been lost, trains have been wrecked, ships have gone down at sea, planes have crashed, cities have burned, battles have been lost, and governments have failed. I have never struck a blow nor spoken an unkind word, but because of me homes have been broken up, friends have grown cold, the laughter of children has ceased, partners have shed bitter tears, brothers and sisters have been forgotten, and fathers and mothers have gone broken-hearted to their graves.

Who am I? I am neglect.”

“For if you keep silence at such a time as this…”[3]

Will Esther speak up? Will she resist the status quo? Will she challenge the prejudice towards her people?

Maybe the things we’re called to speak up about don’t appear to be as critical. But are there not certain issues about the wellbeing of people and the rights of outsiders where because we are human and because we are Christ’s people, we must not keep silent?

Mordecai continues his appeal:

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity…to this royal position (NIV)…for just such a time as this.”

-          Esther 4: 14

I wonder if you feel this about your life, at this time, that God has placed you right there – right there in that class – right there in that office – right there in that organisation? It may not look very regal, and, impossible as it may seem, God wants to use you in that small corner, in that particular role, to do something significant.

In 2015, Ashley Judd disclosed that she had been sexually harassed by a movie mogul.[4] Last October, she identified him as Harvey Weinstein. Ashley’s speaking up gave rise to an outpouring of stories from many women speaking out about sexual harassment at the hands of influential men.

Others had said, “It’s too risky” to speak up or “I spoke up internally and no one took action” and “I don’t want to suffer the career consequences of taking it further”. Judd said, “I am a teller…Our greatest fear is being thrown out of the tribe…we’ll get thrown out if we don’t comply. If we’re not in, we die.”

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

-          Esther 4: 14

For Such a Time as This.

Esther 4: 14

 

A beachcomber was rummaging along the seashore gathering stones and shells. High up on the beach he noticed a shell far more beautiful than any he’d yet discovered. He thought to himself: “That shell is safe enough. I’ll pick it up later.” But as he delayed a massive wave came up over the beach, recaptured the shell and swallowed it back into the ocean.

A poet put this little experience into verse:

Hurry along the beach!

You’ve only one chance!

Put out your hand and reach

before the tidal dance

Takes the beautiful shell

And leaves the sand all bare;

Falter and you’ll never tell

What you could have done, or where.[5]

The cries of human need are so like this. When the wave of another day has flowed back up the beach, many precious opportunities and resolutions that we thought were easily within our grasp, have now been washed into the past.

If a person is sick, the time to show sympathy and give help is now. The time to speak up about climate change is now, not when islands like Kiribati have disappeared under the Pacific Ocean.[6]

This isn’t a call to be impulsive. This isn’t a call to act first and think later.

The thoughtful, prayerful consciousness about speaking up and the sensitivity towards timing is inherent in our story when Esther says in v16:

 

“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;

-          Esther 4: 16

Esther asks her community to fast with her in reflection, in preparation and in counting the cost. Then she says:

“If I perish, I perish.”

-          Esther 4: 16

Don’t you admire her courage?

Several years ago, Ruth Berenda, an American psychologist, carried out an experiment with young people.[7] She brought groups of 10 teenagers into a room for a test. On the wall, there were three charts of lines. Each group was instructed to put their hands up when the teacher pointed to the longest line on the three charts.

But one person in the group didn’t know that the others had been told ahead of time to vote for the second longest line.

So regardless of the instructions, when they were all together, those in the know were to vote not for the longest line but the next to longest line.

The experiment began with nine teenagers voting for the wrong line. The tenth person would look around, frown in confusion and slip their hand up with the group.

Time after time the stooge would sit there declaring that a shorter line is longer than the longest line simply because they lacked the courage to challenge the group. The conformity occurred in 75% of all cases.

Ruth Berenda concluded: “Some people would rather be president than right.”

Things are quite safe under the watchful eye of the psychologist. It’s another thing when it happens to be your child or you or me when we’re surrounded by a majority that says: “The next to longest line is really the longest line.” The moral and ethical implications of such an experiment are frightening.

Whether we’re taking the cause of an outsider, whether we are taking a stand against government insensitivity or whether we are admitting our allegiance to Jesus Christ, there’s usually a cost to be paid.

Esther bravely broke the silence. As a result of her intervention the King granted her request, the tables were turned and what a reversal occurred! Haman was hung on the gallows he’d prepared for Mordecai. Mordecai replaced Haman as the Prime Minister and the Jewish people enjoyed peace instead of extermination.

At the service for the Feast of Esther (which is on 1st March this year), modern day Jews get so involved in the telling of this story. Every time the name Haman is mentioned they stand up. They shake their fists. They boo.

When they come to this part where Esther decides to go to the King, they clap. They cheer. They get so wildly excited.

For them Esther is more than a national hero.

This story reminds them of the sacredness of God’s calling.

It reminds them of God’s saving power in the face of tremendous odds.

It illustrates for them God’s involvement in everyday life.

But you might be thinking, where I work, it’s such a different atmosphere from here where we worship.

But here’s the secret.

The key actor in this whole drama is the One whose name is never mentioned.

Because who else is responsible for the unlikely appointment of Esther?

Where else does Esther get the moral fibre needed to take such a stand?

Who else could turn the tables so skilfully upon Haman?

And who does know that Esther has come to her position for such a time as this?

If God is silently at work through a beauty contest, if God is invisibly involved in corrupt politics then we can be sure that God will be with us tomorrow where ever we are.

This God will silently work with us in the everyday stuff of life, ordering our steps, urging us to take a stand, bolstering our courage, prompting the words to say and sustaining us through every consequence.

Amen

Prayer

Lord our God, you invite us to share with you not only now in the worship of the sanctuary but in the work of tomorrow.

So, help us to be aware of your presence even in the most ordinary events. May we recognise your urgings, surprise us with your appointments and enable us to be absolutely sensitive to your timing.

Loving God, your Son has called us not to sit on a cushion but to carry a cross and we would want to carry it courageously with your strength day by day.

We pray this for goodness sake and for Christ’s sake,

Amen

 

[1] Tying texts on tulips is not an original thought but I can’t remember who first proposed this idea!

[2] Bruce Turley in ‘Being There for Others’ (p16) writes of Christ’s hostile attitude toward idleness. The useless fig tree was ordered to be cut down (Luke 13:6-8), the lazy steward received a strong rebuke (Luke 19:11-27), the follower whose performance did not match his promises was condemned (Matthew 21:28-31). It was tragic inaction which wrought judgement in the sermon delivered by Jesus and reported by Matthew (25:41-43). Through Luke we hear of a fictional though lifelike character who was so preoccupied with fulfilling ritual requirements that he postponed an urgent personal need. (Luke 10:30 to 37).

[3] Martin Luther King Jnr once said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

[4] Adam Grant, Ashley Judd is Just Getting Started, Esquire, December 12 2017. While she had told her story about the assault many times before, Judd said, “the difference in 2017 was that folks were ready to hear it.” Ashley Judd said: “I knew that God was taking care of me. I knew that I was doing the right thing at the right time, and I had a significant peace about my decision-making process.”

[5] June O’Donnell wrote this poem after visiting Long Beach, Dunedin.

[6] Matthieu Rytz, Sinking Islands, Floating Nation’, New York Times, January 24 2018.

[7] Told by Charles Swindoll in ‘Living Above Mediocrity’, p. 225-226.