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Esther 3.8-11; 4.1-4, 13-14

Additions to Esther, selected verses

  (11.12, 2.20. 14.1-3, 10.4-12)

Palatial Politics

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

This morning’s sermon is a tale of mystery, conniving and palace politics set in the court of King Ahasuerus, better known to history as Xerxes.  The story is told in the biblical book of Esther, which is the final historical book of the Old Testament.  Many of the details have been verified by historical sources, so we can be confident that much of it is factual.  You may find some parts of it offensive, or at least of questionable taste; it certainly doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny and sensibilities of the 21st century reader.  But at the end of the day, it is a powerful witness to the courage of one woman surrounded by a gaggle of less-than principled men.

In the middle of the fifth century BCE, Xerxes I was the ruler of what we know today as central Asia.  His empire stretched from Northern India to Ethiopia, and his power and fame are matters of historical record.  George Frederick Handel once composed an oratorio about Xerxes.  One afternoon, during one of the many parties Xerxes often threw, parties which often lasted for more than a week, the king decided to show off his pride and joy - Queen Vashti, one of the most beautifule women in the empire.  Xerxes summoned his queen and asked her to dance.

But for some reason, the Bible does say why, Vashti refused to dance.  Now in the 5th century BCE, queens did not refuse their kings, and Xerxes banished her from his kingdom and began his search for a new queen.

From across the Persian empire women came and paraded before the king in the search, but he found none that pleased him until his eyes rested upon a Hebrew woman named Esther.  The king was instantly smitten and decided then and there that she would become his new queen.  But, advised by her foster father Mordecai to keep her race a secret for the time being, Esther did not tell Xerxes she was a Jew.

Mordecai had a rather mundane job in the king’s court, but he made it a habit to sit at the gate of the palace, watching people come and go.  One afternoon Mordecai overheard a conversation between two of the king’s personal servants, who were plotting to overthrow the king and put him to death.  Mordecai himself lacked easy access to Xerxes, but he passed word of the plot along to Esther, who in turn warned the king.  As a result, the two servants were arrested, and the story of how Mordecai saved Xerxes’ life was written in the court records, called the book of the Chronicles.

Now the Grand Vizier, or prime minister, of Xerxes’ court was a man named Haman, one of Xerxes’ most trusted and dependable men.  However, Haman possessed a fatal flaw:  his overweening pride.  No one thought more of Haman than Haman himself.  And for the most part, everyone gave Haman the regard he demanded.  Everyone, that is, except one:  Mordecai, a faithful Jew, stubbornly refused to bow before the man.  It was a snub that incensed Haman, because everyone in the court noticed it, and it was not a good look for Haman.  The Vizier’s anger seethed and grew until it encompassed not just Mordecai, but all Mordecai’s fellow Jews as well.  In that moment, Haman swore his vengeance.

He hatched a plan which he presented to Xerxes, although he was craftily vague about his intent.  “There is a certain people,” Haman told the king, “scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom.  Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.  If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction.”  Xerxes, assuming that Haman meant only the best for the kingdom, assented.  So a decree was issued which set aside a day for the destruction of the people whom Haman so ambiguously and deceptively described.  They were the Jews.

Mordecai heard about the edict.  He wailed and put on sackcloth and ashes, and all the Jews of the kingdom did likewise.  For you see, once the king issued an edict, it could not be rescinded, and the Jews were certain that this would mean the end of them all.  Naturally, word of the edict quickly reached the ears of Esther, who was both frightened and perplexed about what she should do.  She sought Mordecai’s advice, and he laid it out for her:  “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  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 been chosen for just such a time as this.”  Who knows?  Perhaps you have been chosen for just such a time as this.

Esther knew what she needed to do, yet no one – not even the queen - dared approach the king without first being summoned.  To do so meant certain death, unless…  Unless the king held out his scepter and granted an audience.  But at the risk of her life, she was determined to stand up for her people.

After days of prayer and fasting, Esther donned her most beautiful robes and ventured into the presence of the king.  Xerxes watched as she approached, remembering the impertinence of the former queen Vashti, and wondered why this new queen appeared unsummoned.  After tense moments of locked gazes and steely silence, the king offered the scepter.  Esther’s life was safe.  “What is it, Queen Esther?” the king asked, “what is your request? It shall be given to you, even to the half of my kingdom.”

Esther measured her words carefully.  “If it pleases the king,” she replied, “let the king and Haman come this day to a banquet that I will prepare for them.”  So they did, and Haman was so pleased with himself that he dined with both the King and the Queen that he never suspected that Esther was setting a trap.  When the meal was done, she suggested they do it again the next night.

Two dinners in two nights in the exclusive company of royalty -  Haman was over the moon!  And yet as he strode triumphantly through the palace, Haman saw Mordecai, still at the gate, still refusing to bow to him.    “Even Queen Esther let no one come with the king to the banquet she prepared but myself,” Haman bragged.  “And tomorrow also I am invited by her together with the king.  Yet all this does me no good, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.”  But his wife gave him an idea.  “Let a gallows be made,” she said, “and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged upon it; then go in good spirits with the king to dinner.”  It was the simple solution Haman was looking for.

But that night, Xerxes found it difficult to sleep.  He tossed and turned, but remained awake, so he sent to have the book of the Chronicles read to him.  As he heard accounts of his own exploits and victories, the king’s heart was lifted.  And as the chapters progressed, the account of Mordecai saving the king’s life was eventually told, and the king remembered it, and asked himself, “What honor has been given Mordecai for this?”  When he remembered none had been given, he immediately sent for Haman and his counsel.  “What shall be done,” Xerxes asked, “for a man whom the king wishes to honor?”  Haman, full of himself, assumed the king was talking about him, so he recommended that the man whom the king wished to honor be given the royal robes, and a crown, and the king’s own horse, and be paraded through the streets with a herald crying, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king honors!” so everybody could see and hear.  Xerxes loved the idea, and replied, “Quickly, then, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so for the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king’s gate.  Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.”

Haman was crushed.  Not only was this honor to be given to the man he most despised, but it was Haman himself who was chosen to lead Mordecai and the king’s horse through the city streets, and shout, “Thus it shall be done to the man whom the king honors!”  Mordecai was honored, and Haman was humiliated.

That evening though, Haman went to dinner once again with Xerxes and Esther, and some of his chagrin had worn off.  Over the meal, the king asked his queen once again what she desired from him.  Esther’s moment had come. “Perhaps you have been chosen for just such a time as this.”  She revealed to the king that she was Jewish, and Haman blanched.  Esther described for Xerxes how all the Jews of the kingdom were condemned to death through one man’s connivance.  The king was incensed at the injustice and demanded to know who that man was.  “This wicked Haman,” Esther replied.

The king was furious, and left the room for a few moments to think and to let his rage subside.  While he was gone, Haman rushed to Esther’s side and took her arm, begging her to plead for mercy from the king.  The more he implored, the closer he came to her, until their faces nearly met.  At that moment Xerxes walked in and saw them.  “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” he thundered.  The insult was too much for the king to bear, and he ordered Haman hanged on the very gallows which Haman himself had prepared for Mordecai.

But… there was still the matter of the slaughter of the Jews which Xerxes had ordered. Remember, it was impossible for the king to rescind his order, but Mordecai thought, and acted.  He composed another order, which Xerxes approved, that the Jews would not only be permitted to resist using every means at their disposal, but they were also given  liberty to plunder the homes of anyone who attacked them.  When the day of the edict arrived, hardly anyone stepped forward against the Jews, and those who did were summarily defeated.  And from that day until today, the rescue of the Jews from certain annihilation is celebrated at the feast of Purim, an annual Jewish holiday.  So ends the story of Esther.

My intention this morning was just to tell the story and let you chew on it for a while, but it turns out there are one or two things I want to tease out of it.  One that I mentioned at the outset is that large parts of the story don’t settle well in contemporary ears.  A king, in the middle of a week long drunken party orders his queen to dance for his guests, and when she balks, he banishes her and then chooses his next queen in a kind of Persia’s Got Talent show.  Further, the story is not only shaded with Haman’s anti-Semitism, but Xerxes basically agreed to order a genocide without so much as an afterthought – until Esther came along that is.  Also, Esther is one of only two books in the Bible that never mention God.  It is a wonderful story with a grande heroine, but very little of it is religious or spiritual in nature.  This is what led to the additions that Diane read for us, presumably to correct that minor oversight of the divine.

But for me, the most important aspect of Esther after all is said and done can be found in Mordecai’s prescient words, “Perhaps you have been chosen for just such a time as this.”  For Esther, and perhaps for us, the opportunity to make a difference in the world, whether large or small, must be seized when it presents itself.  The opportunity to speak truth to falsehood, to give voice to the voiceless, to name the evil, and to put yourself on the line for the safety if not outright survival of others, is a precious opportunity,  We never know when it may occur, but the meaning is clear:  when it arises, seize it, seize it with courage and conviction, because it may only come once.  Mordecai’s words to Esther 2 ½  millennia ago echo in our own ears today:  “Perhaps you have been chosen for just such a time as this.”

          Amen.

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