Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Book of Esther

In the days of King Ahaserus in Babylon, after the Jews had been invaded and conquered by Babylon, many Jews were taken away as captives to live in the Babylonian empire, which stretched from Persia down in to Africa. The Babylonians were all powerful, and many nations had become subject to the Babylonian rule.

The book of Esther tells about the effect of this war on the Jews in one family, and then it tells of how the surviving members of this one Jewish family played an important role in a time of great threat to all the Jewish people who were living in Babylon.

We hear of a family where the Jewish mother and father were killed in the Babylonian attack on Israel, and how their daughter, Esther, survived and was adopted by her older cousin, Mordecai, and his wife who were all three taken captive to live in Babylon. Once in Babylon, the Jews found a way to survive, and tried the best they could to live in peace and faith before God.
So, our story begins with this situation of Esther living with her adoptive parents, Mordecai and his wife. One obscure Jewish family in the foreign land of Babylon.

Now, at the time that Esther and her family were trying to establish a home in Babylon, King Ahaserus was expanding his power and the wealth of his empire. And, in the royal palace, he threw a great party, inviting important nobles from all over the empire. The men were partying in one section of the palace, and the Queen, Queen Vashti, held a banquet for the women in another section of the palace. And, apparently, the king even allowed people from all over the city to come and join in some festifities in the outer courts of the palace. And, this partying went on for days, and on the 7th day, we hear that the king’s heart was merry with wine (now, I don’t know whether that means he was just feeling good after two or three, or whether he was drunk). But, he was feeling it pretty strongly, or the writer wouldn’t have mentioned it. And, of course, as the king was feeling good under the influence of his wine, he started bragging about how pretty his Queen was, and asked one of his servants to go get her so she could present herself before all his party of nobles. Well, Queen Vashti, knew what was going on over there, and knew that no matter who you were, it wasn’t smart to come show yourself to a bunch of drunken men. So, she refused the king’s request. She refused to leave her party and go to his.

Well, as you can imagine that didn’t go down very well with the king. King Ahaserus was humiliated in front of all his friends, and a little impulsive at that point and likely to fly off the handle as well. So, after some quick discussion among his counselors, the king decided that Queen Vashti should be deposed, and replaced by a new Queen. And, further, that the king should take a stand against this type of female arrogance, and write a new law, making clear that every woman was to be subject in her household to the man of the household. So, this whole thing starts out in the palace as some drunk king trying to boss his Queen who is sick of being bossed, and she says: NO. Then, the story turns to one that is first about keeping women in their place, then about keeping Jews in their place, and, well, let me just tell the story.

The king has to find a replacement Queen, so he takes a whole bunch of unmarried women who are beautiful into custody at the palace, and they go through a beautifying, training period to see who will be chosen as the new Queen. One of those taken into custody is Esther, the young Jewish woman, daughter of Mordecai. Esther happens to be very beautiful. Surely Mordecai and his wife are heartbroken to see young Esther taken away to the king’s palace, and Mordecai warns her to not let anyone know that she is Jewish. Esther is smart enough to befriend the king’s head servant/eunuch who is in charge of this harem of young women. He likes her very much, and he gives her advice on how to best position herself to be chosen as Queen. And, as it turns out, after the year of training, and after the king has seen all of the young women many times, he chooses Esther as his new Queen. The king is so thrilled that he holds another great festival for Esther and she takes her place in the palace, and no one knows that she is a Jew.
Her adoptive father, Mordecai, however, never hides the fact that he is a Jew. And, right after Esther becomes Queen, he does a good deed for the king, revealing a plot to kill the king and saving the king’s life, and this good deed is recorded in the annals of the king, with Mordecai the Jew given credit.

Things seem to be going just fine for Esther in the palace. But, things are not going quite so well for Mordecai outside the gates of the palace. Because, the king has issued an edict that whenever the king’s newly appointed right hand man, Haman, leaves the palace or enters the palace, that everyone around should bow before him, and pay him homage. Well, everytime Haman came or went, there was Mordecai, and though everyone else bowed down to pay him homage, Mordecai would not bow down. When the king’s servants begged him to bow to avoid punishment, Mordecai let them know that he wouldn’t bow because he was a Jew, and he would only bow to worship the God of the Jews.

Haman became enraged by this act of defiance of this Jew, Mordecai, and plotted against the Jews. Esther went about her business of being Queen, with no idea of what was going on right outside the palace. Pretty soon Haman had had enough of Mordecai and his Jewish defiance, and he got the king – King Ahaserus - to put into law an order to kill all Jews in the land. As this law was being published, Mordecai got word to Esther about it. Esther said: “the king hasn’t even invited me into his chambers for 30 days, and if anyone goes into the chambers without invitation, and the king does not hold out the golden scepter, that one is executed by royal decree.” Surely, Esther had heard what happened to Queen Vashti when she thought she could oppose the king. But, here, Mordecai expected her to ask the king to change a decision that he had already made – the decision to exterminate the Jews. And, Esther would now make clear for the first time that she was a Jew herself. Esther was afraid to approach the king, and told Mordecai this.

But, Mordecai insisted. He said: “maybe you have come to the kingdom for a time such as this”

Esther said, then “I will go. My maids and I will fast for three days, and then I will go. If I die, I die.”

On that third day, she approached the king’s inner chamber, and he held out his golden scepter to her. She had made it past the first danger. And, then, Esther took it slow. She had a plan.
First, she just invited the king and Haman to dinner. Then, to another dinner the next day, while she was getting things set up just right. What Esther worked out was to make sure that someone read from the book of the King’s annals the part that recorded that once Mordecai, her adoptive father, a Jew, had saved the king’s life. And, so the night before the second dinner for the king and Haman, the king heard about Mordecai, and was grateful for what he had done, and wanted to reward him. Well, it just so happened that on that second day before Esther had dinner for the king and Haman, the king had heard about Mordecai, and came in ready to reward him. And, then it became clear to Haman that he was in trouble, because now the king was in favor of Mordecai who was Haman’s enemy. So, by the time the second dinner was over, Esther had the king thinking just the way she wanted him to think: that he had been fooled by Haman into ordering the killing of Jews. Instead, the king ordered the killing of Haman, and raised the Jewish people up to favored status, and promoted Mordecai, a Jew, to second in command.

What a turn of events. But, there was a time when Esther the Queen hesitated. There was a time when she was going to just say, this is too risky, what can I do? But, Mordecai wouldn’t take no for an answer, and, as he said to Esther so well: “perhaps you have come to the kingdom for a time such as this?” Mordecai’s point was: “if you don’t do something now, we will all be lost.” And, Esther thought about who she was; and, she thought about where she had come from; and she remembered that she was a Jew; and, that her father, Mordecai was a proud Jew who had refused to bow, because of his faith in the God, the one true God. Yes, Esther remembered who she was when it would have been convenient to have forgotten. And, as a result God worked salvation for the Jews in Babylon.
Have you ever been somewhere when it would be easier to forget who you are, to forget where you came from, to forget the loyalty you owe to those who have raised you and stuck beside you. That’s where Esther was. She sat there in her Queen’s chambers thinking of how far she had come and considering whether to risk it all on a plan that probably wouldn’t work anyway. But, she took the risk; she took the chance. And, she found new life on the other side of risk; she found new life on the other side of taking a chance on what her heart told her was right. She took the risk we call faith, and it is only in that faith that carries some risk with it, that we find new life.

Some of the most painful memories we can have are memories of betraying those we love; turning our backs on our God or our family or our friends or those we owe a duty to. If you take a risk in faith and love, and it doesn’t work out, there is no shame in it. If you back away from the calling to step out in faith, then, well, you never know what you might have missed. And, in the end, there is some real regret in life for chances never taken, for ventures never risked.
We don’t have an unlimited number of days on this earth, and we cannot hold onto what we have right now anyway. Life and what we have slip through our hands, like fine grains of sand. We think we can hold on to what we have, but, as Jesus says: he who saves his life will lose it, and he who gives up his life for my sake will save it. Esther gave up her claim on her life that day; she put it all on the line in faith. And, instead of losing it, she got her life back fully, being able to claim her faith, her Jewish identity, her family and remaining Queen. What if she had not taken the risk? What if she had held onto the royal life she had? Wouldn’t her life have really slipped right through her hands? Wouldn’t she be left empty-handed, full of regret deep inside?
We can’t hold onto our lives. We can’t insure that our family members are all safe. We have found out that we can’t even count on money in the bank being completely safe. We can certainly try and be careful and try to help protect others. But, we can’t insure safety and life and peace and quiet. No, if we could, we wouldn’t have lost so many we have loved. No, it is an illusion to think we can play it safe always and never lose. Faith calls us to live boldly, to look to the future and seek God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is not in the past; its in the future. Its out in front of us. If we reach out to that kingdom, new life comes when we thought we would never see new life again. New plans arise, when we thought we were done making plans. New love and purpose arise, when we were just content to ride out our lives with whatever we had already experienced.

And, here we are at another Christmas season. And, there is a strong weight of the past –memories and nostalgia- I certainly remember past Christmases and those I love who have died. But, this Christmas, I am looking to future Christmases as well. I feel the pull of the future, stronger than the pull of the past. And, like Paul said: “forgetting what lies behind; I press on to what lies ahead in upward call of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Esther had it all. A secure place as the most important woman in the kingdom. She had wealth and servants and security. All the sudden she was in danger. There was a law that said all Jews had to die. If anyone found out she was Jewish, then she would die too. She could hide the fact that she was Jewish, or she could claim it and use it to help influence the king in her people’s favor. Letting him know she was Jewish would either doom her to execution, or save her people from death. Truth was, as Mordecai reminded her, there was no turning back, no hiding at this point. If all the Jews started getting killed, there were plenty of them that knew that Queen Esther was Jewish. If she didn’t try to help them, they would surely make known that she was a Jew. Truth was, if she really faced what was happening, she had to act. To avoid the risk of conflict with the king, would only delay the coming of danger. It was coming one way or another. So, she faced it – head on in faith.

We determine the course of our lives as much by avoiding decisions as making decisions. By not making a decision, we really have decided one way over another. If the last train is leaving off an island that is about to be hit by a hurricane, and I don’t bother to get on the train, then, I have decided to be on the island and be hit by the hurricane. So many determinations in our lives are made by default. By refusing to acknowledge a problem we have, we allow the problem to go along and grown unchecked. Life moves on like a river. You simply cannot stand still. You think you can withdraw or hold on to what you’ve got. But, life is not like that. You have to learn to ride the current, and ride the waves. Have you ever tried to stand in the ocean in one place when the water is up close to your chest? You can’t do it. The waves come in, the tide goes back out, and it moves you from where you are. Have you ever tried to stand in one place in water almost up to your head in the strong rapids of a river? You can’t do it. You do better to let go, and float on with the current until it takes you to calmer waters.

Whatever we build, whatever we try to hold onto, it will be knocked down and washed away at some point. Like a sandcastle built on the beach. The tide will rise up and wash it away every time.

Esther couldn’t stand still. That was what Mordecai convinced her. Events were moving along. She would either be swept up in them if she failed to act, or she would begin to shape them if she acted. Though faith is passive towards God in many ways, it is very active towards life in this world.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo!I am preparing a a talk on importrant women in the scriptures,and your comments fed my spirit,giving me new insights.There are lots of Mordecais and Esters in our society today.
    My wife and I defend the institution of marriage at every opportunity against the govermental and social Hamans that would sweep away and destroy God'd precise definition of this Holy union.We refuse to bow before the policy makers who would change God's moral code or give homage to those who are pushing same sex unions or ordaining ministers who are practicing gross perversion.

    The time has come for some backbone in this area.There is a Prebyterian Bishop who was ordained several years ago who is a practicing homosexual.A cursed wolf in charge of the sheep!He gets up on Sunday after doing unspeakable acts with his same sex partner.His nasty hands handle his vestments and then he defiles the Lord's sacrement with those same hands. When he preaches he speaks the vain and foolish philosophy of men devoid of truth and saving grace.He mocks the Sacrifice of our Savior with the stench of his lifestyle dragging the congregation who listens to his foolishness to the pit of hell.

    The Holy Spirit cannot dwell in such a place.Such a minister presides over a social club not a church.Those responsible for letting this wolf in the door will surely not escape God's judgement.

    We need legions of Esters and Mordecais in our nation to stand up in this day of trouble and risk telling the truth.