September 26, 2021
Esther is a book that we only get once every three years, which is a shame because it’s a really good book. It was a book written by the Jewish community in Persia some time after the fall of Jerusalem, when the destruction of their homeland and the subsequent exile caused Jews to scatter around the known world in what is known as the Diaspora. Now, when you’re a community like that, you do tend to develop a certain worldview. Particularly, Jews worried that the ways that they were so different from their neighbors, the ways they kept to themselves, and the fierce loyalty they had to God would lead to persecutions (which did happen). Esther is, in a way, a book written to talk about that worry and what God was doing about it.
So Esther was an orphan who was taken care of by her uncle Mordecai. Due to some disruptions at court, the position of Queen had opened up and the King held basically a national beauty contest to find a new one. Because of her beauty and some strategic help from a palace eunuch, Esther ended up being the one the king chose. The catch was that the King never knew that Esther was a Jew.
At the same time, there was a palace official named Haman who was a vain, jealous man. Part of his position meant that everyone had to bow to him when he passed, but Jewish law wouldn’t allow a Jew to bow to anyone but God. That’s where Haman and Mordecai ended up at odds with each other. Because of this insult (as far as Haman was concerned, anyway), Haman decided to punish the Jews as a whole and used his influence with the King to get it done. He essentially tricked the King into issuing an edict that the Jews would be open season for anyone that wanted to hurt them and take their stuff on a specific day.
The scene we read today is the climax of the story. Esther had to deal with the tension of her identity. Up to this point, she had been able to pass as just another Persian subject. She never had to reveal that she was a Jew. If she never told anyone, then she could avoid all the violence that Haman had plotted against her people. But while the decision to reveal her identity and protect her people might seem obvious to us, it’s important to know the downside of her coming out. The whole story kicked off with the king flippantly dismissing his queen because she embarrassed him in front of his friends. Reversing an edict, sent to every governor of every province in the kingdom, would be at least that embarrassing—even more because the reason was that the king didn’t even know the ethnicity of his own wife! There was a very real possibility that the king wouldn’t side with Esther in this just to save himself from looking weak or foolish.
It’s a big deal, then, that the King so completely sided with her. It was a moment where the original Diaspora Jewish listeners would have breathed a sigh of relief. Staying true to their identity, even with all the forces and pressures around them indicating it would be easier just to pass, to blend in, to let go of their history for the sake of going along to get along, was something that could work. They could be out and proud of who they were, not having to hide from their neighbors who might turn on them at any moment. If Esther could risk it all and come out okay, they could too. Even when they couldn’t see God, even without an Exodus-like encounter where God showed up in a burning bush or spoke from a pillar of cloud, they could trust that God was there.
Because that’s the other thing about the book of Esther. It’s the only book in the whole Bible that never once directly mentions God. God never speaks. In fact, no one even speaks the name of God throughout the story. But God is unmistakably there, because we can all see the way that God has set things up just right to make what needed to happen, happen. Mordecai gets the closest to being explicit when he tells Esther “perhaps you have been called to royal dignity for just such a time as this,” when her people needed a savior. God’s presence can be discerned, even if it’s not seen.
The lesson the Diaspora community needed was to know that God was there, even when they couldn’t visit the Temple or see the walls of Jerusalem. The story of Esther took their own lived experience—the fear of their potentially hostile neighbors, the unapproachable hugeness of the empire they lived in, the pettiness and jealousy of officials that could do so much damage—and gave them a story of how God didn’t abandon them, that God was still with them, and all they needed to do was look for the bread crumb trail that God left to show them how God was still at work for their sake.
And that’s what we’re called to do too. Generally, God doesn’t speak directly to any of us, as if out of a burning bush or from a thundercloud or something like that. Instead, God shows us evidence by the small ways that things just seem to go the way they were supposed to go. God gives us hints by chance conversations with others just when we needed them. God guides us with a “closed road” sign to experience something else we never realized got us on the road to our calling. When we start looking for those small things, that evidence of God’s work, it starts to show up everywhere.
So if you are in a place of wondering about God’s presence, longing for a burning bush but seemingly only getting silence, look smaller. Write down those times when some coincidence happened that revealed something bigger and more important to you. They’ll happen more often than you’d think. Approach situations with Mordecai’s words: “Who knows? Perhaps you have been called for just such a time as this!” And trust that the more you look, the more you’ll find. Because God is present, and God is at work, encouraging us to step outside of our comfort zone and trust that even when we can’t see or hear God, God is still with us. And God cares for us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.