By Pastor Cherie Dearth
This week we are beginning our new sermon series, Esther: God Remembers You. Our foundational text for the whole series is actually from Proverbs 16:9, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (NRSV).
We will have this verse with us throughout the sermon series, as we travel through the entire Book of Esther over the next six weeks.
We will be doing the whole Megillah. How many of you have heard that phrase, the whole Megillah? It comes from this book, The Book of Esther, and it means the scroll, par excellence. It is read aloud and its entirety during the Festival of Purim, the whole Megillah.
Esther is set in the time following the Babylonian exile. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Judah, and after a revolt, he brought the aristocracy back to Babylon with him. Basically, it was so that they could not lead another revolt.
God gave them instructions for the Prophet Jeremiah:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the god of Israel, says to all those I carried into Exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: build homes and settle down. Plant Gardens and eat with a produce. Marry and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in numbers there. Do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have called you into Exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prosperous, you two will prosper. (Jeremiah 29: 4-7)
In other words, settle down and live your life. After 70 years, Babylon was defeated by Cyprus the Great of the Medo-Persian empire. One of the first things he did was allow the Jewish people to go back to Judah and Jerusalem. Many did. You can read about them in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, but many stayed. They had built lives and careers. Esther and her cousin Mordecai were two of these people. This story is about Jewish people who remained.
What are the defining characteristics of the Book of Esther is that there is no direct mention of God in the entire book, but there is evidence of God all through it. It is an illustration of are foundational text from Proverbs. “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (Proverbs 16:9). God is working in the background throughout.
The Book of Esther is special in another way. It is almost like an adventure story. It is exciting as the plot moves in unexpected ways.
It starts out in chapter one with several parties. We are in Susa, one of four capitals in the vast Persian Empire that reached from Afghanistan to Egypt. The grandson of Cyrus the Great is on the throne. Some of our Bible translations refer to him as Xerxes. Hebrew name for him is Ahasuerus. He is in the third year of his reign, and he throws a six-month party for all his governors and officials! The Book of Esther revolves around parties. Is he preparing to go to war with Greece, or is he trying to offer his officials with his wealth and power. We are not told.
At the end of the 6-month party, he throws another one that last 7 days for all the officials and everyone who works in the king’s citadel or fortress. A lot of wine is flowing. At the end of the seven days the king orders Queen Vashti to appear wearing her royal crown. She’s described as extremely beautiful, and Xerxes wants to show her off.
Vashti, who is hosting her own party for the women, refuses. The king, who is used to having his slightest whim fulfilled, is enraged. He accepts the rash advice of one of his advisers to banish Vashti and remove her as queen. This is where today’s scripture picks up in chapter 2.
Esther 2:1-8 (CEB)
1 Sometime later when King Ahasuerus was less angry, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what he had decided about her. 2 So his young male servants said, “Let the king have a search made for beautiful young women who haven’t yet married. 3 And let the king choose certain people in all the royal provinces to lead the search. Have them bring all the beautiful young women together to the fortified part of Susa, to the women’s house, to the care of Hegai the king’s eunuch in charge of the women so that he might provide beauty treatments for them. 4 Let the young woman who pleases you the most take Vashti’s place as queen.” The king liked the plan and implemented it.
5 Now there was a Jew in the fortified part of Susa whose name was Mordecai, Jair’s son. He came from the family line of Shimei and Kish; he was a Benjaminite. 6 (Benjaminites had been taken into exile away from Jerusalem along with the group, which included Judah’s King Jeconiah, whom Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar exiled to Babylon.) 7 Mordecai had been a father to Hadassah (that is, Esther), though she was really his cousin, because she had neither father nor mother. The girl had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at. When her parents died, Mordecai had taken her to be his daughter. 8 When the king’s order and his new law became public, many young women were gathered into the fortified part of Susa under the care of Hegai. Esther was also taken to the palace to the care of Hegai, the one in charge of the women. 9 The young woman pleased him and won his kindness. He quickly began her beauty treatments and gave her carefully chosen foods. He also gave her seven servants selected from among the palace servants and moved her and her servants into the nicest rooms in the women’s house. 10 (Esther hadn’t told anyone her race and family background because Mordecai had ordered her not to.) 11 Each day found Mordecai pacing back and forth along the wall in front of the women’s house to learn how Esther was doing and what they were doing with her. 12 According to the rules for women, the moment for each young woman to go to King Ahasuerus came at the end of twelve months. (She had six months of treatment with pleasant-smelling creams and six months with fragrant oils and other treatments for women.) 13 So this is how the young woman would go to the king: They gave her anything that she asked to take with her from the women’s house to the palace. 14 In the evening she would go in, and the next morning she would return to the second women’s house under the care of Shaashgaz. He was the king’s eunuch in charge of the secondary wives. She would never go to the king again unless he was so pleased that he called for her by name. 15 Soon the moment came for Esther daughter of Mordecai’s uncle Abihail, whom Mordecai had taken as his own daughter, to go to the king. But she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch in charge of the women told her. (Esther kept winning the favor of everyone who saw her.)
16 Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, to his own palace, in the tenth month (that is, the month of Tevet) in the seventh year of his rule. 17 The king loved Esther more than all the other women; she had won his love and his favor more than all the others. He placed the royal crown on her head and made her ruler in place of Vashti. 18 The king held a magnificent, lavish feast, “the feast of Esther,” for all his officials and courtiers. He declared a public holiday for the provinces and gave out gifts with royal generosity.
When we hear the story with our modern ears, it can sound a bit outrageous, Gathering beautiful young women in a contest to see who would be the next queen. In many ways this story is similar to Cinderella with its ball to seek out a bride for the prince. We also have our contemporary version of this with TV shows like The Bachelor and its counterpart The Bachelorette, which is going on right now. These particular shows have been on the air since 2002! And there are no signs of it ending in 2018. Sixteen years, can you believe it? I have a hard time with that myself.
And now we have our main character, Esther, who has been thrust into the middle of the Ultimate Bachelor Contest, not merely to win a game show, but to become queen of a vast empire. It easily could have been a frightening experience.
She lost both her parents and was adopted by her cousin, Mordecai. Then as she is brought into the woman’s house, she effectively loses him, too. It would be easy for Esther to feel abandoned by God.
Have you ever felt lost or abandoned? I remember when I was five years old. I was not sitting in the grocery cart. I was walking with my mother, looking at all the things on the shelves. All of a sudden, I realize that my mother isn’t there. I go walking through the store, looking down each of the aisles, nothing. After what felt like a very long time to my five-year-old mind, I go up to the front and tell someone up there that I can’t find my mommy. Soon there was this voice over head telling my mother where to find me. Then, I saw my mom. I thought I had been lost and forgotten, but my mother was close by, and by that time very ready to take me home. I was not forgotten, and neither was Esther.
She could have felt abandoned, but there were people in her life to help guide her. Her cousin Mordecai adopted her at a time when that usually did not happen. Once in the woman’s house, she had Hegai, who looked after her. He liked her and helped her. It was very similar to what happened with Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, at the beginning of the Babylonian exile. (c.f. Daniel 1)
In the end, Esther won the Ultimate Bachelor Contest and became queen. One of the things I find interesting is that it doesn’t say she was the most beautiful. Some Bible translations differ, but the Hebrew most closely matches the version we read today. “The king loved Esther more than all the other women” (Esther 2:17a). He loved her, and she was well-liked by everyone.
We’re all these coincidences? Perhaps, but the number of them? There is a vacancy for a queen, and this little orphan girl wins the favor of Hegai, receives the best living arrangements and the most help. Wisely she accepts it, and this woman becomes Queen. Queens were supposed to come from noble families, not poor orphans Jewish girls. Coincidence?
It is said that “coincidences are miracles where God wishes to remain anonymous” (Beth Moore, Esther: It’s Tough Being a Woman, video 1).
This is just the beginning of the story. A story of adventure and intrigue. The stage is set. We will have twists and turns.
Coincidence or God’s plan? Can God be working behind the scenes when we are not aware?
Coincidence, “Miracles where God wishes to remain anonymous.” But there is one thing for sure God never wants to be anonymous in your life!