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Stories for Children and Grown-ups: A Beautiful Queen – Esther

February 27, 2011
Sermon: Stories for Children and Grown-ups: A Beautiful Queen – Esther
Text: Esther 4:14

While Clare and I have been recovering from a virus, we have enjoyed reading.  One of the ways that we read at the same time is by getting books on tape from the public library.  We recently listened to a new novel by Fannie Flagg entitled I Still Dream about You.  It is a fictional account about Miss Alabama, a woman who was the second runner up in a Miss America Pageant.  Now older and with a little mileage on her, this woman is struggling to find meaning and purpose in life.

I suppose this character’s situation is the hazard of being a beauty queen.  Once beauty begins to fade, something else must become more important in life.  Fannie Flagg tells her story with wonderful wit, humor, and Southern charm.  She is, after all, an Alabama lady from the word “go.”  I Still Dream about You is a delightful book, one you would probably enjoy.  Clare and I certainly received much pleasure from reading it.

Our story today, one from the Old Testament, is about the beauty queen named Esther.  Just as my grandmother told me and I guess your grandmother told you, beauty is only skin-deep.  What is so striking about Esther is not only her physical beauty.  She also has inner beauty, strength of character, and courage.

The book of Esther is a little unusual in the Hebrew Scriptures because it was not included in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Council of Jamnia, which met in 100 A.D., decided which books to include in Canon, the closed collection of the Old Testament books.  The book of Esther barely made it into this compilation, which lets us know that it was not until very late that Esther was regarded as Scripture.

Some scholars wonder why Esther’s story should be included.  Most startling to them is the fact that the name of God is not mentioned anywhere.  Some would say, “This is not a religious book at all.”  I beg to differ.  You will find, as we go through the story, strong evidence of faith on the part of Esther.

The most obvious rationale as to why the book of Esther is included in the Old Testament is that it is the only Scriptural precedence for a feast that the Jewish people dearly love, the Feast of Purim.  Some say that the reference to this happy, delightful feast in the book is the reason it was included in the Old Testament.  Purim is somewhat like Mardi Gras before the more somber observance of Passover during Holy Week, before Lent.  Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz describes the carefree celebration as a combination of April Fool’s Day and Halloween.  People play practical jokes on each other and dress up in funny costumes.

Some years ago during the week before Purim, Rabbi Sam Cohan, the former rabbi of Spartanburg, wrote in his newsletter, Temple Topics, that he had decided to convert and become a Southern Baptist.  He blamed me for his decision.  Of course, he was kidding and making a joke, as is the custom of Purim.

A deeper reason exists as to why the book of Esther is included in the Old Testament.  We learn from this source about a time in Jewish history when a particular people were not able to worship in the temple.  They were so far away from Jerusalem that the temple was the furthest thing from their mind.  The temple had been utterly destroyed, and they were living as strangers in a strange land during the period called the Diaspora, or the Dispersion of the Jews.  How can Jewish people maintain their identity if they are nowhere close to Jerusalem, if they have no temple in which to worship?  They did not necessarily observe all of the dietary laws during this period.  Neither did they observe the Sabbath.  You see that the book of Esther mentions none of those details.

This week’s sermon is the last in the series Stories for Children and Grown-ups.  I can tell you that as children’s Bible stories go, this narrative of a beautiful queen is a favorite for our daughter, Betsy.  Carrie also commented that it is one of her favorites.  Many little girls find great strength in the story of Esther.

The story unfolds in four scenes.

Scene 1- Esther 1:1-22

Most people believe that the king of Persia at this time was named Ahasuerus or Xerxes.  He was somewhat like Middle Eastern leaders we have seen on television in recent days.  He is depicted as a man who has absolute authority, all the power he can imagine.  He is also depicted as a man who makes a fool of himself.  Because he rules by whim, not by wisdom, Xerxes makes numerous mistakes.  We do not have to look very far to see many leaders who seem to rule with little wisdom.

We read that Xerxes enjoys Persian banquets where both men and their wives gather and the wine flows.  Just about the time that the men become a bit inebriated, the wives leave and continue a banquet of their own.  Into the hall come the concubines who take the place of the wives as the men continue to drink and make merry.

In those days, queens were chosen from one of seven noble families that were considered dignified, respectable.  During one particular banquet, Xerxes summons his queen, Vashti.  He asks her to return to the banquet hall so that he can parade her before his male friends.  He wants the men to see how beautiful his queen is.  Vashti refuses the king’s request.  At that point in the banquet, the hall is the place for concubines, not for a woman of noble birth, not for a woman of dignity, not for a woman deserving respect.

In a moment of great impulse, King Xerxes flares up in anger.  Still inebriated, he ridicules his queen.  He acts on a whim, not displaying any kind of reason at all.  He instructs his charges to banish her from the kingdom.  The king’s impulsive decision makes him look extremely foolish.

After Vashti’s banishment, the king feels forlorn.  He misses his wife, whose very name means “beloved one.”  I read of his loneliness and think of the country song “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.”  I guess we could say he was sleeping single in a king-sized bed.  Once he makes the decision to banish his queen, he cannot recant.  Xerxes seeks advice from his trusted counselors.  They suggest what I believe is the first recorded beauty pageant.

Scene 2 – Esther 2:1-23

All eligible young women are gathered from across the Persian Empire.  They go through a year of training, a year of preparation, for what amounts to a beauty pageant.  Among those gathered is Esther, a young Jewish woman.  By all accounts, Esther must have been orphaned.  No mention is made of her mother and father.  We do not know why she is included in the group of women.  We do know that she has an uncle, Mordecai.  The king does not realize that Mordecai is Jewish, and nobody knows that Mordecai and Esther are related.

Esther’s Persian name means “the one who is hidden.”  Nobody knows at this point in the story that Esther is Jewish.  Esther’s Hebrew name is Hadassah, which means “Myrtle.”  Some of you will recognize that name, which is used for a women’s organization within the Jewish community.  It is also the name of a hospital in downtown Jerusalem.

Esther is smart.  She primes herself to be the number one candidate for queen.  She talks with the eunuch and about the king’s likes and dislikes.  Mordecai also offers Esther some valuable advice.

Finally after the nationwide search, the day comes for the king to select his new bride. All of these young women are paraded before him and his court.  With great delight, the king sees Esther, the most beautiful woman of all.  Xerxes chooses this Jewish woman in a strange land for this very important position.  The king enjoys Esther’s presence.  He enjoys her company.  This story says to Jewish people that God has a plan for each person, regardless of background, regardless of location.  God will place a person where He can best use him or her.

One day, Mordecai hears of a plot against the king’s life.  Mordecai tells Esther that the king’s life is in danger.  Esther reports Mordecai’s news to the king.  The plot is cut shot, and the perpetrators are put to death.  Scriptures tell us that Mordecai’s good deed is merely recorded in the chronicles of the king.  Mordecai receives no form of recognition.  The king does not even acknowledge the measures Mordecai had taken to save his life.  The account is recorded, then forgotten.

Scene 3 – Esther 3-8:14

Haman, who is very close to the king, wants to curry even more favor with Xerxes.  He hates Mordecai and wants to do whatever he can to rid himself of the threat that Mordecai poses.  Haman sees his opportunity when he witnesses Mordecai failing to bow down to him.  I do not know the exact reason why Mordecai refused to kneel.  It was neither compulsory nor a matter of conviction.  Sometimes Jews bowed; sometimes they did not.  Haman views Mordecai’s refusal as a rebuff, an insult.

We sometimes believe that anti-Semitism came only in the Christian period.  We see here in Haman that anti-Semitism existed long before the time of Jesus.  His anger with Mordecai expands to the kingdom of all Jewish people when he discovers that Mordecai is a Jew.  He feels they are an ethnically inferior bunch.  The decimation of a group of people for the good of the kingdom is the final solution for Haman.  Haman is so prejudiced against Jews, but we know that prejudice derives from fear.  Haman was afraid of Mordecai.  Haman orders the building of a scaffold, a gallows, on which to have Mordecai put to death.  Haman is so proud of himself.  He has found a way to eliminate this threat.

Because King Xerxes’ friendship with Haman is substantial, he once again acts on impulse and whim when Haman suggests eliminating the Jews.  He agrees, saying, “Let’s get rid of them.”  The absolute power of the king seems strange to us, but he had the authority to issue an order to kill all Jews.

It is then that Mordecai approaches his niece, Esther.  Now as the queen, she has an opportunity to intervene and save her uncle’s life when no one else can.  She can also save the lives of her people.  Mordecai asks Esther, “Who knows but what you have come to the kingdom for just such a time as this?”

Esther is a little bit hesitant to respond.  She knows what happened to Queen Vashti.  She knows that the king is unreasonable.  She knows the dangers of approaching the king on her own.  It is important to remember that in those days, a queen did not have access to the king unless he summoned her.  Nevertheless, Esther resolves to step in to save herself and to intervene on behalf of her Uncle Mordecai and all of the Jewish people.  Her words are, “If I perish, then I perish.”

We see that Esther’s beauty is not just skin deep.  She has the beauty of conviction.  She has the beauty of courage that comes to the fore when a person is in the right place at the right time, when a person has an opportunity to do something that nobody else can do.

Esther does not act quickly.  First, she tells Mordecai, “I want all the Jewish people to pray and fast.”  Mordecai calls all the Jewish people to prayer and fasting.  Do not tell me this is not a religious book.  Esther knows the value of faith.  She knows the value of corporate faith.  She knows that through prayer and fasting God can work miracles.

Only then does Esther make a very, very daring move.  She goes before the king.  Xerxes could have ordered her banished.  He could have ordered her executed.  Instead, he holds out his golden scepter, which is the sign that he wishes to receive her.

When the king asks, “What can I do for you?” she tells him, “I want to give a banquet in your honor.  I want you and your good friend Haman to attend.”  The king is thrilled that his queen wants to give him a banquet.  Haman is also overjoyed.  He considers it an honor to be invited by the queen.

Pleased that everyone at the banquet is having such a good time, the king promises, “Esther, I will do whatever you want me to do, up to half of my kingdom.”

Esther knows that when approaching a man about an important decision, it is vital that he be well fed.  When she suggests, “Why don’t we have another banquet?” the king agrees.

In the meantime while a second banquet is being planned, the king’s sleep is disturbed.  Because he cannot sleep, he orders one of his cohorts to read to him from the chronicles.  I cannot imagine anything that would be more boring than listening to a record of events than perhaps reading the book of Leviticus.  Listening to the archives would surely put the king to sleep.  During this reading, however, Xerxes hears again about Mordecai’s attempt to save his life.  He then realizes, “I have not even written this man a thank you note.  I have done nothing to reward him for saving my life.”  He resolves to show Mordecai his great appreciation.

The king, trying to decide how to honor Mordecai, asks Haman, “If I really want to honor somebody who has found special favor in my sight, what should I do for him?”

Haman thinks, Xerxes is talking about me. He answers, “You have to lay it on thick.  Be extravagant.  Treat him like royalty.  Do all kinds of good things for him.”

The king agrees, “You are exactly right.  That’s exactly what I am going to do for Mordecai.”

You can almost see Haman’s face drop.  He thinks that this honor is coming to him, but it is actually going to Mordecai.

Haman attends the night of celebration, though sad as he is.

In the course of the banquet, the king has such a good time that he says, “Esther, is there anything I can do for you?”

Esther answers, “There is one thing you can do.  I would like for you to spare my life.”

Bewildered, the king asks, “What?  What do you mean spare your life?  Your life is not in danger.”

“Oh, yes.  My life is in danger.  Mordecai’s life is in danger, too.  The lives of all Jewish people are endangered because of an edict you have issued.  I beg you to spare our lives.  I plead that you will save the life of my people.”

The king exclaims, “Whoever heard of such a thing!”

The Scripture says that when Haman realizes that he is trapped, he falls down on Esther’s couch.  I do not quite have a picture of that couch in my mind, but I do know that Haman’s reaction is a little too close for comfort.  Haman tries to convince the queen to protect his own position in the court.  When King Xerxes discovers Haman’s attempt to seduce Esther, he orders Haman to be executed on the very gallows that had been built for Mordecai.

Scene 4 – Esther 8:1-17

Throughout the entire account, Esther makes not one false move.  She makes decisions with wisdom, with careful consultation with people in-the-know, and with prayer and fasting.  This young Jewish girl, physically beautiful and morally sterling, has the opportunity to save the life of all of the Jewish people.  On the very day that her people are to be annihilated, they are all saved.  Those who would have destroyed them were put to death.

Why is the story of Esther so important?

First, it offers the rationale for the Feast of Purim, a happy occasion.

The story of Esther stresses that everyone is important.  The spirit of Esther is that all people are precious in the sight of God.  You remember singing, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.”  Perhaps you will recognize that Esther’s Hebrew name, Hadassah, is the name of a hospital in downtown Jerusalem.  I have been there and seen the windows that surround the synagogue in the hospital, windows on which Marc Chagal painted the twelve tribes of Israel. I have also been to the maternity unit in that Hospital.  I have seen the care being given, not only to Jewish women and children, but also to Palestinian women and children.

The story of Esther takes the sovereignty of God far beyond the city of Jerusalem.  It takes the sovereignty of God far beyond Israel or Palestine.  It takes the sovereignty of God all the way to Iraq and Iran, to places where these Jewish people were in exile.  The story of Esther takes the sovereignty of God to that faraway town of Susa, Xerxes’ winter palace.  It is said that a tomb believed to belong to Esther and Mordecai can be found in Iran.

The story of Esther stresses the importance of women in leadership.  When Ezra and Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, Nehemiah issued a decree, stating that men were to divorce any woman of mixed blood.  He was interested in purifying the land.  The book of Esther runs counter to that view.  It seems to say, “Listen.  No matter who you are or who your parents are, no matter where you are from, no matter what your background, God has a place for you in His kingdom.”  Not one single one of us is disposable in the eyes of God.  We are all important.  He has a plan He wants each of us to do.  Did you notice the words printed in your bulletin underneath the anthem?  Jeremiah said to the people in exile, “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to do you good and not harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

How do we find out what God’s plan is?  First, we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  Jesus is God’s perfect expression of His love.  When we acknowledge Jesus as our Savior, we come into that personal relationship with God.  He begins to work in our lives and unfold this wonderful plan “to do us good and not harm, to give us future and a hope.”

Have you accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior?  If you have never done that, could I invite you to do so today?  You know what God has laid on your heart.  We invite you to respond.

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