We are in the middle of our sermon series, Esther: God Remembers You. The focus of the series is that even when we cannot detect God’s presence, God is always there helping us, guiding us. Our foundational text for the whole series comes from Proverbs 16:9, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.”
We’ve been following the story of Esther, which is kind of like an action adventure story full of twists and turns. We’ve been treating the series like a TV mini-series. Now, it’s time for… “Previously on Esther: God Remembers You…”
It is the time soon after the end of the Babylonian Exile. Babylon was consumed by the Persian Empire, and their rulers allowed the Jewish people to return to Judah and Jerusalem if they wanted. However, many stayed, like Esther and her family. And in a story similar to Cinderella, Esther, an orphaned Jewish girl won the heart of the king and was crowned queen. Meanwhile, Haman rose to high position in the Empire and was insulted by Esther’s adopted father, Mordecai. Haman was not satisfied simply to punish Mordecai, but had to take out his revenge on all the Jewish people in the Empire. He persuaded the king to allow him to write a law that would bring about the complete annihilation of the Jewish people living in Persia all in one day, 11 months in the future.
Mordecai learns of this and demands that Esther go to the king and plead for mercy for her people. Esther resists this, not only because the king is surrounded by guards with axes there to execute anyone who has not specifically been summoned by the king. Also, the king has not sent for her in 30 days. She doesn’t think that she would have any influence.
But Mordecai responds with the most famous verse in the Book of Esther, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place… And, who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).
That is the turning point for Esther. She is all in. She says that she and her maids will fast for three days and nights, and she instructs Mordecai to gather all the Jewish people in the capital to do the same.
And that is where episode begins today…
Esther 5 NIV
1 On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. 2 When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.
3 Then the king asked, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you.”
4 “If it pleases the king,” replied Esther, “let the king, together with Haman, come today to a banquet I have prepared for him.”
5 “Bring Haman at once,” the king said, “so that we may do what Esther asks.” So the king and Haman went to the banquet Esther had prepared. 6 As they were drinking wine, the king again asked Esther, “Now what is your petition? It will be given you. And what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”
7 Esther replied, “My petition and my request is this: 8 If the king regards me with favor and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will answer the king’s question.”
9 Haman went out that day happy and in high spirits. But when he saw Mordecai at the king’s gate and observed that he neither rose nor showed fear in his presence, he was filled with rage against Mordecai. 10 Nevertheless, Haman restrained himself and went home.
Calling together his friends and Zeresh, his wife, 11 Haman boasted to them about his vast wealth, his many sons, and all the ways the king had honored him and how he had elevated him above the other nobles and officials. 12 “And that’s not all,” Haman added. “I’m the only person Queen Esther invited to accompany the king to the banquet she gave. And she has invited me along with the king tomorrow. 13 But all this gives me no satisfaction as long as I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate.”
14 His wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Have a pole set up [gallows built], reaching to a height of fifty cubits [75 feet high], and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai impaled [hanged] on it. Then go with the king to the banquet and enjoy yourself.” This suggestion delighted Haman, and he had the pole [gallows] set up.
Wow! Despite how well Esther’s plan seems to be working things are not looking too good for Mordecai at the moment.
But let’s go back to the beginning and look more closely at Esther’s day. It is the third day after fasting, and she is resolved and ready. She puts on her royal robes. She is doing more than getting dressed for an important day, doing more than dressing for success. She is dressing herself in royalty. She is assuming the full power and persona of the Queen of Persia. She has been in this position five years now, and it has become a part of her. She is taking on all of the symbols of her office as she goes off on her dangerous mission.
How many of you are familiar with Mission Impossible, the TV show from the 60’s and 70’s or the recent films with Tom Cruise? The mission always seems, well … impossible. Yet somehow the team always manages to pull it off. That famous voice, “Your mission if you choose to accept it…” Esther has accepted this seemingly impossible mission, but there’s someone who is with her every step of the way.
Esther has on her royal robes, and the time has come, the time of greatest danger. She goes to the inner court of the palace where the king can see her, surrounded by his axe men. Can you imagine how she felt? Resolved, confident, knowing all the people who were behind her and supporting her? Feeling that God would grant her his favor? Nervous, anxious because of all the people that were counting on her success? Scared because death might be a few feet away?
No matter how she feels, how prepared she is, it has to be difficult, but the stakes are high. Mordecai had instructed her to go to the king and plead for mercy. She is taking a different direction. The plan is hers, and she is in the driver’s seat.
Then, there is an indication that things are going her way. When King Ahasuerus sees her, Esther again wins his favor, and her life is spared. He takes notice of her formal approach. He realizes that all is not right because he immediately asks her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request?” (Esther 5: 3).
She has his favor. He is showing concern. Does she fall on her knees and say, “Save me and my people”? No, she invites him to a banquet. This may seem strange to us, especially in the American culture where time is money, and we want things done efficiently with plain talk. We want it our way, right away. This may be less so in Wallowa County, but compared with much of the rest of the world Americans are considered in a rush. We don’t take the time to exchange the pleasantries. We can be considered quite uncivilized.
In the Middle Eastern culture, this is even more so. When one has a request, when does not ask immediately. It is considered rude and presumptuous. One leads up to it slowly, making a series of smaller requests. Each time the benefactor is affirming that they will agree to the primary requests, and they know it. So what seems like manipulation is really an acceptable cultural practice that both sides understand. Each agreement makes it more impossible for the king to refuse Esther’s ultimate requests.
But why a secluded banquet away from the court? Again it is cultural. This time it is about preserving honor. Esther can speak about the matter privately with no possible public embarrassment. Perhaps, she learned something about Vashti’s public refusal to come before the king at his banquet years ago. He was humiliated in front of all of his officials and governors from across the Empire and the common people from the citadel of the capital. That humiliation resulted in rash action by the king. Perhaps, this alternative approach will have a better outcome for Esther.
When she has shown her hospitality, and the king is in his affable wine drinking mood, he asks again. “Now what is your petition?” It is to invite the king and Haman to another private banquet tomorrow, further ingratiating Esther to the king.
And then there’s Haman. He doesn’t speak through the entire banquet. For that matter why is he even there? He is the king’s most trusted advisor. However, having him there reduces his influence. He cannot secretly counter Esther’s petition when she makes it. It also flatters him and lulls him into a false sense of security.
The plan is moving forward. Everything appears to be going well. Esther has learned a lot in the five years that she has been queen.
NT Wright tells a story in his book, Surprised by Scripture about an unusual airplane crash you may remember from the news years ago. He writes, “An aircraft took off from La Guardia [Airport] and almost ran into a flock of geese. The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger III, made several lightning decisions and perform dozens of complex flying maneuvers in a couple of minutes, and the plane landed safely on the Hudson River. Lots of people said that it was a miracle, and I wouldn’t for a moment say that God was not involved in the whole process. But the reason the plane that landed safely was that Sullenberger had been flying planes and gliders, and teaching others to do so too for thirty years. His character had been formed so that all those complex thoughts and actions were second nature. The danger in using the word miracle, in other words, is that we assume the zero-sum either/or. Either God did it or the pilot did it” (NT Wright, Surprised by Scripture, 14). Often, we only think of miracles as something happening instantaneously. God, however, sometimes performs a miracle overtime and in a way will often miss if we are not looking for it.
Esther was prepared for this moment. We are prepared, for such a time as this. The fact that we learned things along the way that we have honed skills and developed gifts does not mean that God was not the guiding force behind it all.
What if this order to annihilate the Jews was put into effect by Haman five days after Esther have been crowned queen instead of five years later? There is no way that she would have had the knowledge and the resources to do what she is able to do now. God still could have done it, but it likely would have looked very different.
Last week I gave you a challenge to look at the potential of your position and consider and prepare to take one small step to be used by God in that area.
This week I give you something else to consider. Psalm 143: 5 says to God, “I remember the days of long ago: I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.”
Take a few moments this week to look back on your life and recall a time when God clearly went before you, preparing the way in a difficult situation. And write out a prayer of Thanksgiving to God, acknowledging his power, presence, and provision in your life.
Thanks be to God that he is always with us, that he will never leave us or forsake us even in the most challenging of situations. Even when we cannot detect his presence, God is still there, for you, for me, no matter what.
Esther’s impossible mission is not over, and her father, Mordecai, is an even greater jeopardy than ever do to the blind hate of Haman. Will Mordecai be able to avoid with Haman has planned for him? Don’t miss next week’s episode of Esther: God Remembers You.