Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on September 27, 2009
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
How long has been since you heard a sermon from the most godless book of the Bible? Godless I say! It’s godless because there’s absolutely no mention of God whatsoever. Nothing, nada – no pious tip of the hat, not even a silent prayer offered in the face of the immense silence of God. Welcome to the godless book of Esther! There are two issues worth exploring: Those issues present in the story and those that are missing. I suppose it would be honest to admit that in every circumstance we deal with what is as well as what is not.
“The road not taken,” is how poet Robert Frost described. It could be a way of describing all those futures not lived out because we made this choice and not all those other choices. What does it mean that we have a biblical morality tale with heroic characters but without God as one on whose behalf the heroism is offered?
A while back, I watched a preschool boy who was obviously bored at his grandmother’s funeral, so he walked over to the table where a row of desserts were lined up along the table’s edge. The little boy walked over and passed slowly down the row of desserts deliberately sticking his index finger into each piece of cake with great care, leaving an indelible sign of his presence even after he returned to his seat. Absence can be a powerful reminder of how presence can continue to be experienced.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Bruce Springsteen wrote a collection of songs that explored the despair of the families left behind when their loved ones didn’t come home that day. His lyrics echoed the deep personal loss and the multi-layered feelings of absence felt by the survivors. In the song “Missing You,” he soulfully explored how powerful one’s absence can be experienced in grief:
Shirts in the closet, shoes in the hall
Mama’s in the kitchen, baby and all
Everything is everything but you’re missing
Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair
Papers on the doorstep but you’re not there
Everything is everything but you’re missing
Pictures on the nightstand, TV’s on in the den
Your house is waiting for you to walk in
But you’re missing
You’re missing when I shut out the lights
You’re missing when I close my eyes
You’re missing when I see the sun rise
Arguably one’s absence speaks as loudly as one’s presence. Is there anything more empty than the emptiness of the bed? Is there anything more empty than clothes hanging lifelessly in the closet? All are reminders of how loudly absence can be felt.
God may not be identified in this little book, but God is anything but absent. Even though the writer of Esther goes out of the way in not mentioning God, there’s the strong promise of God’s presence even though absent.
Before we read the highlighted verses from Esther, let’s stand just outside the text for a moment or two so we might take in the whole of it in order to unravel the particulars in these few verses. Some would suggest the Book of Esther is akin to a Shakespearean tale of intrigue of the royal court. It’s a story complete with predictable political scheming – there’s even a beauty pageant as the Queen is asked to show herself before a group of foreign dignitaries and eventually Esther’s great beauty gives her access to the court’s power in order to save her people from annihilation by a power-grabbing enemy.
Some have argued the book of Esther is a non-religious, non-historical novella. While there are some historical facts that create structure for the story – most scholars believe it’s filled with non-historical elements that more resemble a well-told tale about the political intrigue of a Persian Court – as Esther thwarts the plot of Haman to assassinate King Xerxes I and exposes his plot to massacre the entire tribe of Israel who are captives in the land.
We don’t like to think about it but throughout history the mass genocide of whole tribes of people have occurred right in front of our eyes even when we’ve tried our best to close them to what’s actually happening. In our own time, millions have died in genocidal wars: Rwanda, Darfur, Sudan, Chad, Bosnia, Armenia, Croatia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia. Genocide is insidiously simple: It’s the systematic, planned annihilation of a racial, political or cultural group.
King Xerxes was the ruler over Persia, the ancient country we know today as Iran. In those days, the king banished Queen Vashti because she refused to display herself to his banquet guests and through a chain of events, he chose Esther as his new queen because she was beautiful.
Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and a wise elder in the Jewish tribe, learned Haman, the deputy minister with great power, was not someone to be trusted so he refused to bow down to Haman’s role as the king’s deputy. Haman was furious with him and schemed to massacre all the Jews in retaliation. So he presented to the king a decree to accomplish this and had the king seal it with his ring. Mordecai didn’t know what else to do so he pressed Esther to go to the king to intervene, something she was reticent to do as she didn’t have the power to simply go to him with her concern. That’s when Mordecai gave her the word of courage: “Don’t 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 come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:13-14).
“For such a time as this …” That’s a powerful reminder to us that in the confluence of time and opportunity, God may place us in circumstances that give us the opportunity to stand tall on behalf of God’s work and perhaps to play a pivotal role in saving others who do not have the opportunity to save themselves.
History reminds us that some have stood tall in those moments of opportunity to say a decisive and critical word or to do something that makes a real difference in the world. It takes courage we may not know is there; courage is what God gives us in the moment if we’ll accept God’s gift. “For such a time as this …” we have been placed in the world to act courageously on Christ’s behalf. Paul wrote late in his life to a young disciple named Timothy that, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). When will your moment come? It will be marked by any opportunity that demands courage and tests the limits of your faith.
Last January, we witnessed the power of someone acting faithfully with the circumstances life presented. As US Airways flight 1549 lost all its engines just after lifting off in New York. Flying at hundreds of miles per hour, the plane was headed directly toward Manhattan and unable to reach any nearby airports in order to land, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, age 57, used the skill he acquired in years of faithful training to glide the jet down the Hudson River until the plane touched down skimming the surface of the water until it stopped and where it remained afloat until all 155 passengers were escorted outside the plane and onto the wings where they were pulled to safety.
You never know when the experiences you accumulate in daily life will be put to a test. A well-trained pilot took action in an unplanned moment and did what needed doing. On other occasions others step forward courageously and refuse to let evil reign, intervening just as Queen Esther did. Perhaps there’s some heroic act of faithfulness God is calling us to perform on behalf of those unable to work for their own good. “For such a time as this …” the godless book of Esther tells us and in the silence of God’s seeming absence, something good is accomplished.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).