This was my sermon for Grace Anglican Church on 7 August 2016.
The Story So Far
About fifty years have passed since the Persian Empire conquered Babylon and the new Persian King, Cyrus, issued a decree that the Jews could return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple that was there. About thirty years have passed since that Second Temple was finished. Now a fourth Persian king is on the throne, normally known as Xerxes though named in Hebrew as Ahasuerus. He rules over the largest kingdom the world had known to that point – about 8% of the planet pays homage to him.
But despite this great empire, with all its power and wealth, there are still two things that haven’t bowed to him. One was the Greek lands to the West, whom he had just tried to conquer and failed miserably. The other was his wife Vashti whom he got rid of after she refused to be treated as an object for public viewing during a great banquet and celebration. So now King Ahasuerus is looking for a new queen, and his young advisors (true to their tender age) have planned a kingdom-wide beauty contest. Young virgins from all over the Persian Empire are being gathered to the citadel of Susa where they can prepare themselves to impress the King and win his hand in marriage.
How the Beauty Contest Works
This beauty contest is described as an affair of large proportions. Women from all over are brought to Susa, collected in the King’s harem under the care of a eunuch named Hegai, and given cosmetics. As with a number of the details in chapter 1, verse 12 here uses an amusingly exaggerated duration of time – six months of certain oils and fragrances followed by six months of others – to highlight how big of a deal this preparation process was for these girls, and the extreme lengths taken to try to impress the King.
When I say “impress the King,” feel free to give in to a depraved imagination. Much of the language of this story uses the same words and phrases found in the book Song of Songs, and the oft-repeated phrase “go in” to the King is likely meant to be double entendre. As the text describes, these young women would enter the King’s chambers in the evening and leave in the morning. Like the classic tale 1,001 Arabian Nights, these women get just one chance with the King; unlike that story, though, these women at least survived their visit. After their night with him, they were returned to the harem where they would remain – in comfort but without freedom – unless or until the King asks for her again.
For the most part, as I suppose many of you might be thinking, this is a very degrading position for someone to be in. World history is unfortunately full of examples of such objectification of others, especially against women. There is, however, a small nod to some sort of dignity and personality to these women: they were allowed to bring whatever they wanted along with them when they got to visit the King. No examples are listed here in Esther, but reasonable possibilities include aphrodisiac foods or fragrances, musical instruments, games, clothing, and jewelry. The women were able to express their personality and make use of their strengths and interests in the course of trying to win the heart of King Ahasuerus. It was slavery, but it was not the brutal form of slavery that we are usually taught to imagine.
Esther rises through the system
In the midst of this system arises one Jewish girl called Esther. As the book notes briefly, Esther is her Persian name; pointing out that her Hebrew name was Hadassah. This signals to us that even though she’s living far away from Jerusalem and the Promised Land, she’s still at least somewhat faithful to her heritage as a member of God’s people. She’s introduced alongside her cousin Mordecai who has adopted her as a daughter. Their family history is briefly described; the significance of the genealogy is something I’ll save for next week, but the note about when their exile began is a connection to prior biblical history. The exile with King Jeconiah of Judah was not the final conquest of Judah, but one of the smaller defeats leading up to that end. During those defeats, only the wealthy and the rulers were taken away captive; so Mordecai and Esther’s family can be assumed to be of some respectable noble heritage among the Jewish people.
In that light, it is probably of no surprise that Esther does pretty well for herself in this crazy Persian situation. She was gathered up for the king’s harem, along with countless other young women, and verse 9 says she “won favor” with Hegai the eunuch overseeing the harem. Another way the Hebrew could be translated here is to say Esther “lifted up” favor, indicating that she was actively trying to be the best she could be in her new situation. Additionally, the word for “favor” is the same word translated in other parts of the Old Testament as “steadfast love,” referring to the faithfulness of God Himself to his covenant – the favor Esther received was serious! Still, we can’t read into this too much; there’s no indication here that she received special treatment compared to the other women, but rather, that she rose to prominence “quickly,” according to verse 9. Additionally, Esther is not cut off completely from the outside world. As it turns out, Mordecai is able to stick around and hear how she’s doing and what’s going in there. For reasons unknown to us, he instructs Esther to keep her Jewish identity a secret. This may just be a plot device to ensure that the next chapters of the story make sense.
The way this chapter is written, Esther first is introduced, and then the beauty contest is described without mentioning her at all. This provides some build up of dramatic tension – we hear about the selection process and get hints of what these women are able to do in order to win the king’s hand in marriage, but Esther is kept out of the picture for those verses.
Finally, Esther’s turn comes. In verses 15-18 Esther is brought before the King sometime in December or January, bringing with her only what Hegai the eunuch advises her to bring. Perhaps he knew the King’s favorite foods for her to bring, perhaps he knew the King’s pet peeves for her to avoid. Most likely, though, I suspect he advised Esther simply to be herself and not try to impress the richest man in the kingdom with his own wealth. Where the previous paragraph made a number of potential sexual references, the description of Esther’s winning of the King’s favor reads much more cleanly, though it’s still fair to say that anything could have happened when she had her night with him.
The point, at the end of all this, is not about her beauty or her womanly wiles or even her personality per se, but that she immediately won the King’s favor and was chosen to be Queen (seemingly) that very day. Again, the book of Esther is a story-telling book, not a strict history, so we don’t want to try to over-analyze the details. Instead, we must hear it as a story: the heroine of our story “was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her,” as verse 15 puts it.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Just as chapter 1 began, chapter 2 brings us full circle to another banquet – this time in honor of the new queen, Esther! This is a moment of triumph in the story, and as we listen to the story-teller reading us this book we can cheer along for the brave Jewish girl who has won the heart of the king. Not only Esther, but even Mordecai is elevated at this point in the story. He seems to have taken up an official role in the Persian bureaucracy: the “king’s gate” is a building where palace administration is housed and justice is dispensed; perhaps he has become some sort of secretary. This closeness to the King and Queen enables Mordecai to continue his adoptive father relationship with Esther, which is an important plot point for the rest of the book.
But of course, as the gospel according to Spiderman says, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Esther is now in a situation that can be very degrading and dangerous for women. Remember from last week how quickly and easily Queen Vashti was discarded! And by the way, the Persian court was not all fun and games, banquets and parties. They also had their fair share of palace intrigue, including assassination attempts. The final three verses of chapter 2 give us a quick straight-forward story to further advance the plot of the book.
Two conspirators gang up to assassinate the King; one of them (Bigtha) is among the funny-named eunuchs mentioned in chapter 1. No historical record (that I know of) confirms this assassination attempt, but it is known that King Ahasuerus was killed by an assassin in 465BC who was let into his private chambers at night by a traitorous servant; so this incident fits right in with known practice of the time. Anyway, Mordecai heard about the plot, reports it to Esther, Esther reports it to the King, and the whole plan is stopped and the conspirators executed. A subtle irony can also be seen lurking in this story: despite the King’s strong network of palace spies who were somehow able to uncover this plot, he never figures out that Mordecai and Esther are Jewish until they reveal it a few chapters later! Again, the powerful and wealthy king has an air of bumbling comedy about him.
This little episode also highlights one of the major themes of the book of Esther: honor and shame. We also saw this dynamic in chapter 1 as the King and his officials were trying to figure out how to deal with Queen Vashti. In this chapter Queen Esther was rightly honored as the new Queen; the King should have been honored by his eunuchs but wasn’t; Mordecai should have been honored for his help in uncovering the plot, but wasn’t; and the traitorous eunuchs were rightly shamed in their deaths. The lack of due honor toward Mordecai is an important plot device for later in this book. As far as can be said right now, these sorts of extreme situations and sudden reversals of fortune are things that continue throughout the book of Esther.
A lesson from the grammar on Passivity
As far as what we can learn from this chapter in the story of Esther, something that particularly stands out here is the proliferation of passive verbs. It may seem like a bit of a strange thing to preach about grammar, but hear me out! Chapter 2 is full of passive verbs – nearly everything is happening to Esther. She does actively participate in her place in the harem, but over all she is not in charge of her situation. She is taken to the harem, she receives advice, she is chosen by the King, she is elevated in honor… none of these things came about by her own volition. It’s the same with Mordecai’s promotion. Even the fact that they’re there in Susa at all is not owed to their active choices; their family was taken in exile.
To a large extent, this is how the book of Esther deals with the relationship between God and His people. God is the one who is active; we are the ones who are passive. We do get to act and participate and exercise our free wills, but in the big picture it is God who gets the real work done. It doesn’t matter where you are, this truth always holds. In heaven, angels and saints constantly worship God, but the most perfect worshiper in heaven is the great high priest, Jesus, who is God the Son. In the Church, ministers preach the Word and celebrate the Sacraments, but it is God the Holy Spirit who refreshes our souls. In the world, godly rulers and judges promote peace and justice in their countries, but God is the King of kings. And even in ancient Persia, where the kings did not know God, He is still sovereign over all.
This passivity of the life of faith is one that we need to understand better. Our culture generally derides passivity as weakness, favoring the active, the free agent, the independent thinker and doer. But godly passivity, as described in the Bible, teaches us that we need to spend more time paying attention to what God does instead of what we do. So what are some ways that we can develop this sense of godly passivity? Let’s look at five examples: the ways we worship, sing, pray, read the Bible, and behave can all help us orient ourselves better around the centrality of God’s activity rather than our own.
First of all, worship should keep our focus on God. How we approach both a worship service and a time of private devotion influences and reflects the true center of our focus. What is your posture during worship – are you standing, kneeling, sitting comfortably? How do each of those postures help or hinder your focus on God? Oftentimes you’ll find different postures fit different forms of worship. Also, where are you facing or looking at during worship? Sitting and praying in a circle is going to be different from a congregation in pews face-to-face with the ministers, which in turn is different from the traditional ad orientem in which the minister is facing the same direction as the congregation – all toward the Altar. And, for that matter, your surroundings also have an effect on how we focus on God – or how well we focus on God. A crucifix sets a different mood than an plain Cross. Stained-glass windows, icons, statues, and ornate carvings can be enhancers to an environment of worship, handled rightly. Art and beauty can also be a distraction, handled wrongly.
Second, music should keep our focus on God. Ignoring the strengths and weaknesses of different music styles, let’s cut to the chase with the actual lyrics. Who’s the active party in the lyrics of a given hymn or song? Like in today’s story from the book of Esther, there is a place for our active participation within God’s works, but we can have a tendency to overemphasize our own importance. Consider these examples from popular contemporary worship songs:
We fall down (Chris Tomlin, 2001)
We fall down, we lay our crowns / At the feet of Jesus The greatness of mercy and love / At the feet of Jesus And we cry holy, holy, holy / We cry holy, holy, holy / We cry holy, holy, holy / Is the Lamb
10,000 Reasons excerpt (Matt Redman, 2011)
Bless the Lord oh my soul / Oh my soul / Worship His Holy name Sing like never before / Oh my soul / I’ll worship Your Holy name
The sun comes up / It’s a new day dawning / It’s time to sing Your song again Whatever may pass / And whatever lies before me Let me be singing / When the evening comes
Oceans excerpts (Hillsong United, 2013)
You call me out upon the waters / The great unknown where feet may fail And there I find You in the mystery / In oceans deep / My faith will stand refrain And I will call upon Your name / And keep my eyes above the waves When oceans rise / My soul will rest in Your embrace / For I am Yours and You are mine
And, lest we just blame contemporary Christian music, consider also the lyrics to the hymn All hail the power of Jesus’ Name.
All hail the power of Jesus’ Name! Let angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem And crown him Lord of all!
Crown him, ye martyrs of our God, Who from his altar call:
Praise him whose way of pain ye trod, And crown him Lord of all!
Almost every verse addresses God’s people: Ye seed of Israel’s chosen race, Sinners whose love can ne’er forget, Let every kindred, every tribe…
These are all honest, pious, and doctrinally sound lyrics which are worthy to be sung by Christians. What we want to be aware of is if we’re properly balancing our acts with God’s acts. Consider, by contrast, one hymn we sang today:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me; It was not I that found, O Savior true; No I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold; I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
‘Twas not so much that I on thee took hold, As thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole Of love is but my answer, Lord to thee;
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul, Always thou lovedst me.
Or consider a more contemporary song:
In Christ alone my hope is found / He is my light, my strength, my song.
This Cornerstone, this solid ground / Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace / When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All / Here in the love of Christ I stand.
The majority of that song recounts the Gospel story of what Christ has done and applies it to us, rather than focusing directly on our own works or responses.
Thirdly, prayer should focus on God before self. The first half of the Lord’s Prayer emphasizes strongly the primacy of God, his will, and his kingdom. The Prayers of Consecration during Holy Communion highlight Christ’s work of salvation, not our faith. The Gospel reading we heard today (Luke 18:9-14), also is a great example of the difference between God-centered prayer and self-centered prayer. I also wrote a blog post last week about the danger of self-interested prayer. Yes, we bring our needs and concerns to God, and we offer ourselves to God; but we cannot allow that to dominate our prayer lives, either in corporate or in private prayer.
Fourthly, Bible-reading should focus on God. The Bible has been described in a number of ways: “God’s love letters to his people.” “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” These are catchy, and do affirm important aspects about what the Bible is, but the primary purpose that the Bible exists is not to tell us what to do, but to tell us what God has done, and who He is. In particular, the Bible reveals to us Jesus Christ and His Gospel; Jesus said so a number of times. In John 5:39 he said “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me.” Therefore Christo-centric reading must come before application to our lives.
Fifthly and finally, good works and pious actions should reflect and reveal God’s glorious work in us. This is perhaps the most challenging of all; as we get the hang of getting our worship, song, prayer, and Scripture-reading focused on God over ourselves, we become ready to be transformed by the Holy Spirit into people who also direct our actions into God-centered actions. It makes the difference between “a good person” and “a godly person.” A “good person” performs a good deed and then explains, “I do this because I care, I love, I am spiritual, I am a Christian.” A “godly person” performs a good deed and then explains, “I do this because God has loved me, the Spirit compels me, Christ saved me.”
Being made Partakers in Christ
It is a challenge to get away from self-centered thinking and living. Devoted study of the Bible and devoted involvement in the liturgy are powerful means of paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s course corrections in our hearts and minds. We want to be active, we want to be assertive, we want to feel busy and accomplished, we want to be able to take credit for at least some of the good things we do, we want to build up our confidence and self-esteem. But none of those things give us salvation. In fact, most of those things hinder the work of the Gospel in our lives. We have to let go of our egos, our desires, our interests, our strengths, and recognize that it’s in Christ alone our hope is found. In a short-term earthly sense, we can do some good things in life, but at the end of the day, there is none good but God alone.
This is a challenge both in a person’s initial conversion to Christianity and in our continuous growth in the faith. Evangelists can be tempted to water down the Gospel, saying, “just make a commitment to Christ,” instead of the tougher but more biblical instruction, “surrender and repent.” Esther went through a long beautification process just to see the king, and even then it was entirely up to the king whether he chose her or not. The Gospel picture is annoyingly similar: we are put through a lifelong process of sanctification – being made holy – and start to finish it hangs entirely on Christ’s work on the Cross and the Father’s declaration “well done, good and faithful servant.” Our good works have a necessary part in this Gospel story, but when it comes down to it our salvation is only by God’s grace to us undeserving sinners.
Holy Communion gives a very simple picture of this reality. Jesus said “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Christ provides himself to us as the bread of life and the cup of salvation. In the course of the worship service, the bread and cup is handed to us, or in more traditionalist churches put directly on our tongues for us! Eternal life in Christ is not something we choose, let alone earn. Rather, it is handed to us by God; he makes us partakers in Christ. Salvation is like a marriage: Jesus is the groom and we are the bride; Jesus chose his bride, proposed, takes her up in marriage, and a preview of the wedding banquet is celebrated in Holy Communion.
Thanks be to God: our great high priest who makes intercession for us, who bore our sins for us on the Cross, who ascended on high so we could be seated with him, who makes us to be born again, and who feeds us the food of eternal life. As Jesus said, “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Let us pray. O God, who declares your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may obtain your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.