Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, once said: “To the world you are only one person, but to one person you can be the world.” The story of Esther is a tale of the ripple effect of powerful decisions made by individuals -one person at a time.
The story of Esther is set in an opulent, decadent royal Persian court, where no expense is spared for entertainment, the wine flows endlessly, and banquets last months. At the center of this hedonistic display is King Ahasuerus, also known to history as King Xerxes, one of the most powerful men in the world at his time, ruler of a kingdom that stretched from Africa to Asia.
The story begins as King Ahasuerus makes a snap decision, in one of his more inebriated moments, to show off Queen Vashti in all her splendor. The King is not introducing the Queen as an official, but as the royal playtoy, one among other beautiful objects, the golden goblets, stunning robes, and luxurious décor of the palace.
Queen Vashti makes a momentous decision of her own: she refuses to be displayed before a group a lecherous, drunk, men, setting off a major diplomatic scandal. How dare the Queen humiliate the king in front of the officials of the kingdom? To help the king save face, the court officials draft a declaration to banish Vashti, and to make sure no other woman gets an idea to get uppity, a decree in motion that every man is is due honor and is king of his own home. Now we know where that started!
In Queen Vashti’s absence, the King, lonesome for female companionship, again turns to his officials who come up with the making of an ancient beauty pageant. Beautiful young virgins from across the entire realm, are taken (not asked, not volunteered) into one of the King’s harems. Today we would call it sex-trafficking. Each candidate prepares with an extravagant year’s worth of beauty treatment. Then by chance, each girl is called out to spend the night with the king. She is then discarded into harem B, where she essentially is imprisoned, unless the king desires her services. And so the Beauty Games begin. Into this fray comes Esther, an orphan and a Jew in exile. What chance did she stand?
Then Esther is noticed by the chief eunich of the king’s haram, Hegai and he takes a liking to Esther. Esther cultivates his friendship and follows his advice carefully. So Hegai makes a decision to help Esther and promotes her to the best spot in the harem, out of hundreds of other candidates. Eventually Esther’s turn with the King’s comes and she wins his favor. Esther is crowned Queen.
Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, stays close to court. He does two things that change the course of events. First, he exposes a plot to kill the king. Second, when Haman is made the king’s highest official, Mordecai refuses to bow to him, for his faith had taught him to bow to God alone. Something similar happened in the book of Daniel – in the exile in Babylon – remember his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down before the gold statue the king built – and were sentenced to death in the fiery furnace. Haman, with his grandiose ego, is infuriated and decides to kill not just Mordechai but all the Jewish people in the Kingdom. Like when Queen Vashti was vanquished, the king merely rubber stamps what Haman before him. He could care less it seems managing his kingdom – unless it deals with him directly. So the lot is cast and the Jewish people are to be killed. Haman even builds the gallows and waits in glee to see Mordecai hanged.
In sackcloth and ashes, Mordecai turns to Esther. He reminds her: her royal station will not protect her. What happened to Queen Vashti proved that. Esther needs to help. She’s the only chance left. Mordecai suggests that perhaps Esther has come into her position for such a time as this – to be in the unique position to save her people.
Esther didn’t choose any of this. She didn’t choose to be an orphan. She didn’t choose to be an exile. She didn’t choose to enter the King’s harem. She didn’t choose to be made queen. She didn’t choose to be a spokesperson for the Jewish exiles. Like many of us, we find ourselves caught between choosing to ignore an injustice or taking action, an action that may cost us dearly – in Esther’s situation, her life.
Esther knows if she approaches the king without being summoned she can be killed. She prepares with a fast, and is joined by the Jews of the capital, Susa. She approaches the King, who immediately grants her clemency – and she asks the king to attend a banquet along with Haman. The King, Esther has observed, has a fondness for banquets, and Haman a fondness for power. She repeats her request another night. Then Haman’s plot unravels. Haman ends up hanged, his position and positions turned over to Mordecai. At Esther’s request, the King rescinds the order to kill the Jews, and the story ends with much merry making and banquets – although in the full story of Esther is darker than what we read this morning – revenge is taken by the Jews – but in a sense all works out for Esther, Mordecai and their people – they are saved and they rejoice. In the midst of exile and threat the heroic deeds of two Jews give cause for celebration.
Despite being a powerfully written story, the book of Esther has not held favor in the church. Only one passage of Esther is normally read in our lectionary. Its place in the bible has been disputed. Nowhere is God mentioned. No one prays. There’s nary a miracle. While some early church fathers approved of the book, very little was written on it for the first seven centuries. The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin questioned whether Esther should be a book in the bible. How could such a secular work, filled with decadence and debauchery and lust for power, become an instrument of God’s grace?
Maybe that’s the point. God works through each of us – right where we are at. God works through all kinds of circumstances – whether we would label them holy or unholy. God is not limited to or by our prayers, to overt religious actions. Did not Jesus find grace with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors? Bidden or not, God is there.
So in fact we need the book of Esther. Esther reminds us not just of a rags-to-riches story, not just of a Jewish Cinderella tale – but of a young woman, caught in the circumstances beyond her control, an orphan, an exile, forced into the king’s harem, who, with help, chooses not to play it safe, but to risk her life on behalf of her people.
It is a lesson for us this Lent. To take the time to remember God uses us wherever we are to bring healing and justice into the world. Every time is God’s time. Each of us can make a difference, wherever we are. We are the power of one – interwoven, working together for the power of good. So today we acknowledge the power of one in God’s hands:
One song can spark a moment,
One flower can wake the dream
One tree can start a forest,
One bird can herald spring.
One smile begins a friendship,
One handclasp lifts a soul.
One star can guide a ship at sea,
One word can frame the goal
One vote can change a nation,
One sunbeam lights a room
One candle wipes out darkness,
One laugh will conquer gloom.
One step must start each journey.
One word must start each prayer.
One hope will raise our spirits,
One touch can show you care.
One voice can speak with wisdom,
One heart can know what’s true,
One life can make a difference,
And that life can be you!
You are the world to somebody. Spoken or unspoken God is there. God will work through you –in whatever situation you face - for you have been born for a time such as this. Amen.