This is my sermon on Esther chapter 4.
What is Conversion?
What do you think of when you hear the word conversion? Is it that moment when an atheist finally admits belief in the divine? Is it when someone comes to believe in the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as the true God of all gods? Is conversion not until someone actually accepts the Gospel of Jesus Christ, recognizing one’s own sinfulness and need for the Savior whom God has given us on the Cross of Calvary? Each of these are conversion in their own right. Each step is a transformative experience, coming out of darkness into light. Each of these conversions are marked by a change of mind, a turning around of a lifestyle, and the grace of God enables each one. But there is also a fourth and final conversion in this progression: a conversion to Christ’s Church.
Conversion to the Church is about entering into the life of Christ as commanded in the Scriptures. With only the first three steps, believing in a god, believing in Jesus, and believing in the Gospel, one only has an infantile Christian faith at best. At that stage people get stuck into a rut of some sort. For some it is the infantile “Jesus and me” spirituality, where the individual has some sort of imagined love affair with Jesus, and the Church is entirely irrelevant to their private walk of faith. For others, the rut is one of legalism: it’s a shape up, go-to-church, “do what you’re told” spirituality; follow the rules and you’re a Christian. It is the fourth conversion, to the Church of Christ, that breaks one past those places of infant faith and into the full life of Christ. Conversion to the Church involves embracing our membership in the Body of Christ. It involves moving from the First Great Commandment (love the Lord your God) to the second (love your neighbor).
Esther’s Conversion in chapter 4
Esther, in chapter 4, undergoes this fourth and final conversion to her membership in the Old Testament Church – the faithful Jewish community. She (uniquely in this book) has been undergoing character development since she first appeared in chapter 2. One could say that she is introduced with that “do what you’re told” sort of spirituality. There is no indication of her personal sense of spirituality at first, and only bit by bit do we see faith in God showing forth in her character. The storyteller, relating this story of Esther to us, also gives us a hint that Esther isn’t as actively faithful as other biblical characters we know by referring to her all the time as Esther. We’re told in chapter 2 that her Hebrew name is Hadassah; Esther is just her Persian name. Now, lots of exiles were given names by their captors; for example, Daniel was named Beltashazzar by King Nebuchadnezzar. But throughout the Bible Daniel is known as Daniel, his Hebrew name. He is not undercover like Esther.
Furthermore, Esther lives in the royal palace, where she is somewhat cut off from regular life. As the story in this chapter describes, Mordecai has to explain to her through a messenger what the king and Haman have plotted against the Jews; she doesn’t seem to know about it even though the entire city and empire is in shock over the announcement to commit genocide. So Esther is living in a bubble, a “safe zone,” if you will, where she doesn’t have to hear about threats to her worldview and lifestyle. Mordecai has to call her out of that, through the course of this chapter, to make her realize that whether she’s an actively faithful Jew or not, this edict is going to affect her just as much as the rest of them. The final command Mordecai gives Esther, as her adoptive father, is to reveal her identity as Jew. Come out from hiding, stop being a loner, and stand in solidarity with your people. He believed that she was the key to God’s plan to save His people, though Mordecai did trust that even if Esther failed, God could still act in another way.
As we continue to explore who Esther is and analyze her faith, we are confronted with what I like to call A Tale of Two Esthers. When the Early Church affirmed together the canon of Scriptures, they did it by identifying books that were recognized or not recognized; they did not dig through the manuscripts to say exactly which manuscript versions of each book was the right one. For most of the Bible that’s no big deal, but with the book of Esther we are presented with an interesting quandary. The 1,000-year-old Hebrew manuscripts that translators like to use have the shorter version that we’re used to seeing in our Protestant Bibles. Manuscripts in other languages such as Greek, which are older than our Hebrew copies, tend to be longer versions with additional material scattered throughout the book. Depending upon the manuscript you look at it, these additions are mostly bits of extra historical information, prayers said by various people throughout the story, or letters issued by some of the officials. After chapter 4 follow two such inserts: one a prayer by Mordecai (which we read a part of), and another a prayer by Esther as she prepares for her meeting with the king:
And Esther the queen, seized with deathly anxiety, fled to the Lord; she took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body, and every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair. And she prayed to the Lord God of Israel, and said:
Lord, thou only art our King; help me, who am alone and have no helper but thee, for my danger is in my hand. Ever since I was born I have heard in the tribe of my family that thou, O Lord, didst take Israel out of all the nations, and our fathers from among all their ancestors, for an everlasting inheritance, and that thou didst do for them all that thou didst promise. And now we have sinned before thee, and thou hast given us into the hands of our enemies, because we glorified their gods. Thou art righteous, O Lord! And now they are not satisfied that we are in bitter slavery, but they have covenanted with their idols to abolish what thy mouth has ordained and to destroy thy inheritance, to stop the mouths of those who praise thee and to quench thy altar and the glory of thy house, to open the mouths of the nations for the praise of vain idols, and to magnify for ever a mortal king. O Lord, do not surrender thy scepter to what has no being; and do not let them mock at our downfall; but turn their plan against themselves, and make an example of the man who began this against us. Remember, O Lord; make thyself known in this time of our affliction, and give me courage, O King of the gods and Master of all dominion! Put eloquent speech in my mouth before the lion, and turn his heart to hate the man who is fighting against us, so that there may be an end of him and those who agree with him. But save us by thy hand, and help me, who am alone and have no helper but thee, O Lord. Thou hast knowledge of all things; and thou knowest that I hate the splendor of the wicked and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised and of any alien. Thou knowest my necessity — that I abhor the sign of my proud position, which is upon my head on the days when I appear in public. I abhor it like a menstruous rag, and I do not wear it on the days when I am at leisure. And thy servant has not eaten at Haman’s table, and I have not honored the king’s feast or drunk the wine of the libations. Thy servant has had no joy since the day that I was brought here until now, except in thee, O Lord God of Abraham. O God, whose might is over all, hear the voice of the despairing, and save us from the hands of evildoers. And save me from my fear!”
I share this quote because depending on the version of the story you read, you get a different picture of who Esther is. In the shorter Hebrew version, she doesn’t come across as a women of great faith right away, and grows quite a lot through chapters 2, 3, and 4. In the Greek version that includes the prayer quoted above, Esther’s spirituality is brought to the fore, making her look less immature in the faith.
In either case, chapter 4 sees a conversion in Esther’s life as she accepts her place as a member of God’s people and stands up in solidarity with them. Whether the Greek insertion of Mordecai’s prayer for her is historically accurate or not, it is a reflection of the truth that we should indeed be praying for the strengthening of the weak. There are many who call themselves Christians that live on the very cusp of faith; they believe the Gospel but don’t know what to do about it, and are largely disconnected from the Body of Christ. They are especially vulnerable to the wiles of the devil, to false teachers, and their own sinful tendencies without the strengthening of the Spirit through the Church community, so we ought to be praying for such people!
By undergoing this conversion, Esther becomes a more distinct image of Christ. As the story unfolds in the next few chapters, she actually becomes the savior of the Jewish people from would-be genocide! That begins here, in chapter 4, where Esther decides that she is willing to put her life on the line for her people, and declares “if I perish, I perish.” She has learned to “love what God commands,” as our Collect of the Day says. We can see the fruit of the Spirit bursting forth in the final verses of this chapter; it’s a marvelous and beautiful moment in the story!
The Challenge of Full Conversion
This is a lesson that challenges many Christians in this country. We’re used to our faith being safe and easy, accepted and mainstream; but it isn’t any of those things. We’re used to talking about conversion to God, to Christ, and to the Gospel, but conversion to the Church – becoming a committed member of the Body of believers – is a step too far. There are lots of people who are happy to hear the Bible preached, the Gospel proclaimed, and the basic truths of God taught, but the moment someone tells them about how to live their life differently they accuse the preacher of “meddling.” And our culture reinforces this; we are taught to value independence and autonomy. The feeling of “belonging” is nice, but if “belonging” comes with too many demands and expectations, that suddenly is unacceptable. The Church is a very demanding Body for us to belong to. In one sense the rule is simple: love one another. But as you all know, love is perhaps the most difficult and costly thing we can ever attempt to give. Goodness, in a lot of cases, love is difficult enough to receive, let alone to give back!
So this conversion to the Church is a challenge. How far are we willing to go for one another? Do we want to sit in the safety of the throne room, like Esther initially preferred, in the hopes that the world’s problems will blow over? Are we content to show up on Sundays, talk about how much we love Jesus, and call ourselves Christians? Conversion to the Church, just like conversion to belief in a god, to belief in Christ, and to the Gospel, involves a total transformation of heart, mind, and lifestyle. As today’s Collect prays, let us love what God commands, that we may obtain what He promises. As today’s Epistle reading lists, let us be filled with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Most of those are things we can show toward God alone, but God’s command to love our neighbors in addition to Himself forces us to consider how we exhibit these fruit of the Spirit toward one another. It is great to have peace with God, and the Confession & Absolution in each worship service renews us in that state of peace. But then we have the Passing of the Peace – the extension of God’s peace with one another. Are you just greeting your neighbor with the appropriate Church-sanctioned phrase of greeting, or are you actually considering your state of peace with the rest of the Church? And it’s the same with all the other fruits on the list – do you love others, share joy with them, are kind and good and gentle to them, and so forth?
The Humility of Membership
The last thing I want to address here is one of the reasons that this conversion to the Church is so difficult. It’s humiliating. Membership means you’re a member, a body-part. As St. Paul used this analogy in 1 Corinthians 12, you might be an eye, or you an ear, or you a mouth. Some of you may be “presentable” body parts that can be seen by the world, and others of you may be best kept hidden for modesty’s sake.
The parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. – 1 Corinthians 12:22-26
And if that wasn’t enough, our membership of one Body also means that none of our roles are irreplaceable in the grand scheme of things. Yes, if one suffers, all suffer together. But if the Body loses an eye, the Body lives on. Learning and accepting this is a huge step of humility. Oftentimes we want to be heroes, we want to be needed, to be great men and women of faith (whether we want to be famous or not). Certainly God does raise up some individuals for great deeds. Mordecai made that observation about Esther when he said “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” The vast host of Christians throughout history whom we remember as Saints (with a capital S) also bear witness to the way in which God raises up some as positive examples to others. But Esther herself also recognized that this greatness is not our own, but only comes from God. At the end of chapter 4 when she agreed to go see the king at the risk of her life, she said “If I perish, I perish.” As we sang earlier, “The body they may kill / God’s truth abideth still / His kingdom is forever.” As members of the Body we may or may not find ourselves in prosperity or prominence; it’s entirely at God’s discretion. Entering fully into the life of Christ and His Bride, the Church, requires us to make the same profession – “if I perish, I perish.” It’s a lot like the marriage vow: “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘till death do us part.” Can you adapt that marriage vow to your relationship with God? Can you do so specifically with God as revealed in the Scriptures? Can you do so in relation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? And fourthly, finally, can you make the same vow to the Church, the Body of Christ?
It is worth the challenge, it is worth the risk. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s, and God has promised to vindicate his people on the Last Day. So don’t be afraid; let go of the works of the flesh that pull you away from the fullness of commitment to Christ’s Church; nurture the fruit of the Spirit within you; consider the possibility that God has called you into His Church “for such a time as this,” yet understand that this is His show not ours, admitting “if I perish, I perish.”