Esther 4:10 - 5:3
May 17 2009
As best as I can remember I've known only three Esthers in my life. There's one who lives here in Mount Airy that I used to coach in swimming. There's another one who sat next to me in 7th grade math, and she'd always help me with the problems I didn't understand (which was most of them). I also knew an Esther; an elderly lady who lived down the street from where I lived in Richmond. She made excellent oatmeal raisin cookies.
There's one other Esther that I know about but have never had the pleasure of meeting her – although I'd like to very much. In fact, I wish we all could. We learn about her in the scripture reading Mark just read – an amazing story about how an obscure Jewish woman finds herself queen to the Persian King, and the unbelievably difficult choice she comes to face.
The book of Esther in the Old Testament has all kinds of stuff that makes for a good story – romance, drama, betrayal, lies, justice. I like to tell my college students that it's like a soap opera, except a good one. To try and do justice to the whole story would be hard in a sermon. But suffice to know that a plan has been set in motion by some in the king's court with ill intent; a plan that would result in the extermination of every Jewish person living in the kingdom. The king himself is not aware of this, nor is he aware that his beloved wife Esther is, in fact, a Jew herself.
It is frightening, I know, just to talk about this sort of thing, the wiping out of a whole group of people; especially when that group is the Jewish nation. It wasn't too long ago that our world was faced with that very prospect, and someone who actually set out to do it.
Esther, by the way, is aware of what's going on, so it would seem like a no-brainer that she run and tell the king as soon as possible, right? Ah, but see, there's the catch (and there's always a catch in a good story, isn't there?) The catch is that no one – and I mean no one – was ever to appear in the king's inner court unannounced. You could only go in when the king himself summoned you there. Crashing the scene was not just poor form, it was a most egregious transgression that could get you put to death – literally. They weren't fooling around. And it applied to everyone, including the queen whom the king loved so much.
So it's a difficult choice Esther faces in the fourth chapter: either risk her life speaking to the king the truth he needs to hear, or keep her mouth shut and witness the horrible injustice. If this were really a soap opera, we'd be cutting to commercial right about now, with the camera focusing in on the conflicted face of the great queen, mood music in a minor key pulsating as the screen went to black.
After commercials we'd come back to the mood music and find Queen Esther, all decked out in her Sunday best, standing at the entrance of the king's inner court. I have no idea what that entrance looked like, but let's imagine it was pretty noticeable – an awning, a large curtain, something which separated everything outside from what was inside. Esther is standing there, fighting off her fears and the distinct possibility that she could be taking the last few steps of her life. She breathes in a deep breath and proceeds forward; and on the other side she is greeted by the surprised and horrified looks of the court hands and the king himself. The attendants glare at Esther as if she is a walking dead woman; but the king nevertheless extends to her his royal scepter – a kingly way of saying, “hey, we're cool.” Most curious as to why his queen has risked her life, he asks Esther what she wants. And Esther invites the king to a special dinner, for him and one of his highest court hands, who she knows instigated this plan against her people in the first place. And it is there at that meal where she will speak the truth to the king and tell him all that is happening around him, exposing the injustice before his eyes. And in the end, like any good story, the bad guy loses, the Jewish people are spared, and Esther is hailed as a hero.
It's an amazing story about an amazing woman who spoke the truth, even when it wasn't convenient for her to do so, even when it could have cost her her life. Even though every fiber of her being wanted to resist, she chose to go ahead and step inside the inner court. The inner court – that place where reality is not as real as it should be, where people have either grown accustomed to the brokenness that surrounds them or are unaware of it. Where the temptation is not to go in, but instead to stay outside and keep to yourself. The inner court is that place in our world, in our communities, in our families, in society where God's good word is not fully good yet.
Esther's story is not unique to the Bible, we know. Countless others found themselves in the same place – the choice between keeping their mouths shut or speaking the truth. Moses told Pharaoh to let God's people go. The prophet Amos told the rich landowners to stop preying on the poor. Nathan said to King David, as he revealed his great sin, “you are the man!” John told the crowds that he was preparing a way. Jesus told his accusers that he was God's son. All of them, like Esther, had a decision to make – play it safe or take a risk. And all of them made the choice to brave the inner court.
I wish we could all be more like Esther, don't you? As individuals in our own lives. And especially as the church. Especially as the church. We've been called as the body of Christ to “go out into the world, baptizing in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, teaching everything we've been commanded.” But it's easier said than done, isn't it? You know as well as I do that, just as the church has done some wonderful things in the name of Jesus, there have also been some not-so-wonderful things done in his name, too. The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, indulgences. And it's not just about what has been done, but even moreso what's been left undone. Consider this, from an op-ed piece I read in the newspaper this past week:
Between 1955 and 1968, as the forces of oppression used terrorist bombings, police violence and kangaroo courts to deny African Americans their freedom, the Christian church, with isolated exceptions, watched in silence.
Beginning in 1980, as a mysterious and deadly new disease called AIDS began to rage through the homosexual community like an unchecked fire, the Christian church, with isolated exceptions, watched in silence.
(http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2009177077_opinc06pitts.html, visited on 5.11.2009)
Now it'd probably be good to mention that the writer of this column is not some anti-Christian with an ax to grind. On the contrary, he's an active member of his church. But he's a church member who recognizes the many instances where the church has chosen to remain on the sidelines with issues that the gospel speaks to directly, opting not to enter the inner court but instead to “play it safe” and focus on more benign elements of faith that easily distract from a higher calling.
Ouch! But you know, hard as it is to admit, he's got a point. And not only has the church had a tendency to stand pat from time to time, it's also watched as others have gone on to do our work for us. Last month my family attended this year's Earth Day celebration at Wake Forest University. Hundreds of organizations, groups, schools, students, musicians, and businesspeople came together to educate, inform and inspire. Know how many Christian churches or groups took part? Not a one. The church has stood at the entrance to the inner court and watched as others have taken up this cause, even though we label as “God's word” a holy book where God creates everything, calls it good, and commends it to our care.
We've stood at the entrance and watched a late-night comedian on Comedy Central take center stage in the debate over torture. A late-night comedian! We've stood and remained silent, even though the one to whom we pledge our utmost faith was a Middle-Eastern man who was arrested by the imperial government of his day, unjustly imprisoned, and wound up being a victim of the worst kind of torture himself.
We've stood at the entrance to the inner court and watched as dozens of rock stars and movie celebrities banded together to form The One Campaign, to tell the world about the tens of thousands dying of hunger each day – a football stadium of people, disappearing from the face of the earth every 24 hours. We've stood there, even though we follow a man who once saw thousands of hungry on the countryside and commanded his disciples to give them something to eat.
Now don't get me wrong: I'm glad these folks have done what they've done. It just frustrates me sometimes that the church hasn't been at the forefront, you know? How is it that we have grown so comfortable standing outside the inner court? How is it that we as the church have sometimes become, as that writer described in his column:
How is that? You know, there are probably a hundred answers to that question, each with some varying degree of truth. Some think the church needs to change things totally and embark on a completely different course; others believe the church must “get back to the basics.” There are those who think the church needs to look more like the culture in which it exists if it wants to be effective; while others believe it should totally remove itself from the culture.
There is no easy answer. There rarely is. But there is one thing I am convinced of, beyond a shadow of doubt – and that is that the church is worth fighting for. Just this past week I had a conversation with a friend, someone who has struggled in her relationship with the church over the years. She feels like the church is too hypocritical, too exclusive, too focused on fear. And while I think that's a pretty big generalization there, I have to admit she's got a point.
At one point in our conversation she told me, I'll become part of a church when they get their act together. I don't want to be part of something and have to try to fix it at the same time. And that's when I suggested to her that the only way to really “fix” anything, including the church, is to become part of it – if you believe enough in it, if you have a passion to make it better, to make it more like it should've been all along. Besides, I asked, aren't the things we care most about the very things worth fighting for?
That's why more and more I sense our calling as the church, in this day and time, is to be like Esther and brave the inner court. We need to be reminded that the God who transforms our lives and offers us redemption can do the same for his church. We need to find our voice – not a voice of condemnation but one of love; not a voice of reticence but one that speaks out against injustice; not a voice that excludes anyone, but one that includes everyone; not a voice of fear but one of hope and promise. We need to find this voice alongside other Christians, especially those we don't always agree with, and especially with Christians all over the world. We need to find our collective voice together, not acting out of our own agendas and desires, but pursuing something larger than us: pursuing the very kingdom of God on earth.
You know, in so many ways the church of the 21st century is standing outside that inner court with some incredibly good news to share! The question is: will we be brave enough to go in? Will we be brave enough to speak to and live out the grace and mercy and love of our God? My friends, they don't call it “faith” for nothing! Thanks be to God. AMEN.