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Sunday, October 18
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:9-15 & Esther 6:1-11
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Small Group Questions
Esther 6:1-11, Ecclesiastes 3:9-15
In 1995, Alanis Morissette released her first album titled Jagged Little Pill. It has sold over 33 million copies worldwide with many of its tracks released as singles, surely her songs have reached billions of ears at this point. One of those singles was a song called “Ironic,” a song that lists out situations framed by the chorus, “And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?” These situations include:
These all gets summarized by her chorus, which I’m sure many of you know:
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take
And who would have thought? It figures.
Of course, the supreme irony of this song is that all of these situations aren’t technically ironic – they’re unfortunate, for sure – but really not irony. Irony is when something on its surface appears to be the case but it actually very different from being the case. The irony of the song “Ironic” is that it is not really ironic at all.
Now, Disney, unlike Alanis Morissette, often uses irony with great skill. Their film Ratatouille portrays a rat who is a master chef, and of course, we all know that rats shouldn’t even be in kitchens. Or to take an even better example, their movie Monsters Inc. is about monsters who scare children so that they can power their world with the kids’ screams. What we come to find out, however, is that monsters are deathly scared of children, which, of course, is ironic. The movie goes even further in that it’s ironic that children’s laughter is better than their terror in supplying power to Monstropolis, and the monsters learn that they can be the providers of joy to these children. Yes, it’s ironic that the thing they were scared of turned out to be the thing that was most capable of positively solving their problem.
Irony didn’t begin with Pixar or with Alanis Morissette. It shows up at times even in the Bible. Esther 6 is a prime example of irony appearing the Bible, and it is perhaps the most ironically funny chapter of the whole Bible. It’s the night following Esther’s first banquet leading into the second banquet. The king can’t sleep. Who knows why? Maybe his stomach is upset after all that rich feasting and drinking he gets up to. When I can’t sleep, I’ll go into the living room, turn one light on, and try to read a couple of magazine articles to change the focus of my mind. Since King Xerxes didn’t have the pleasure of Sports Illustrated, it seems he liked reliving history, so he has one of his attendants start reading through the stories of his own empire. Miraculously, they read about the time when Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate the king. Of course, we know that the king never did anything to honor Mordecai for this deed, but years later things line up for this to happen. I guess sometimes we have to wait – even years – for things to be made right, don’t we? Patience and endurance are essential in life and faith.
Now, early the next day, Haman comes by the palace to get the king’s permission to hang Mordecai, when Xerxes asks him this question, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” And here’s where the irony hits with full force. Haman assumes everything good is about him, so he starts listing off all of these things that he believes he deserves. “Well, king,” Haman says, “Let’s start with clothing him in some of your clothes. Put him on one of your horses. And give him one of your crowns. And, while we’re at it, let’s have the next highest official in line get the honor of doing all of this. Then throw a huge parade so that everyone in the city knows how much honor this person deserves.” Basically, Haman wants to look like a king, and his ego has ironically led him into the exact opposite of what he’s seeking. While Haman is still lost in thought about how great this will all feel for himself, the irony hammer drops. The king speaks, “Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.” Haman is stuck. He has to do it. He has to bring the honor he sought to the man he hates and wants to kill. The tide has turned for him and his plan, and it’s all because of a sleepless night.
We’re now a little over halfway through this remarkable story, but what I find interesting is that this story turns not on Esther’s bravery to seek an audience with the king but on a sleepless night. Everything in this tale pivots on Xerxes’ inability to sleep, which is really something outside of anyone’s control – except God’s. The very structure of this story points to this sleepless night as the moment of reversal. The Bible is filled with writing that follows a chiastic structure, which basically is a series of events of statements that happen and are echoed in reverse order. I’ve put a version of that structure on the screen to help us visualize it. It goes like this – A1, B1, C1, D1, D2, C2, B2, A2.
There are a few ways to look at Esther in this manner, but examining the feasts reveals this most simply. It begins with the two banquets held by Xerxes – A1 and B1 together. The next banquet is Esther’s coronation – C1. Then, we have Esther’s two banquets for Xerxes and Haman – D1 and D2, with the sleepless night nestled in between. The next feast celebrates Mordecai – C2 – echoing Esther’s elevation. The end of the book shares the story of the Jewish feast of Purim – days one and two, A2 and B2 – echoing Xerxes feasts at the start of the book. One thing the structure of this story shows us is that Xerxes’ inability to sleep is the event that turns the whole story around. It is the reversal, and ironically, we see in it the immediately reversal of Haman’s nasty intentions turned into good for Mordecai and his people.
God is in the reversal business. We know this to be true, most fundamentally, because God in Christ is making all things new – including all of us. Yet, we are living in a moment where the tension is extreme and so many of us are wondering what in the world God is up to right now. In the midst of the storm and stress, it is sometimes difficult to see God working. In the book of Esther, we have to work at seeing what God is up to, since it is, quite literally, behind the scenes. If I asked you all to tell me what you thought the turning point of this particular story was, I’d guess that very few of you would tell me it was this verse, “On that night the king could not sleep” (6:1), yet here I am telling you that this is the pivotal moment. It wasn’t the brave step of Esther or Mordecai’s planning. It was God using a sleepless night to get the king to happen upon the overlooked story of Mordecai’s faithfulness to turn Haman’s evil intentions into good for the Jews.
I think we are all searching right now for what our version of that sleepless night looks like. These times are so difficult. I know they’re grinding you down. I know that it is easy to feel like God is absent. I know this because I’m feeling it too. The words of Pastor Kristine keep echoing through my head – “This. Is. Hard.” Mordecai went years without getting the recognition expected for his brave deed. He even saw what was rightfully his go to someone who hated him. Yet, God was at work, and at the right moment, reversed the course of the story for all involved. Ecclesiastes 3:11 reminds us that, “God has made everything beautiful in its time. God has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” God makes everything beautiful in its time. Even this time, friends. Even this time of pandemic and angst, God is at work making things beautiful. It is hard. It is draining. It is discouraging, yet I’d invite you to make it your daily practice of prayerful action to seek to see what God is doing in your life and world even now. It may take time. It may be very difficult to see, but I believe that God is at work even right now, working things together for good. In this hard time, seek God.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, gives us a good picture of what this might look like. “The search for God is a reversal of the normal, mundane worldly order. In search for God, you revert from what attracts you and swim toward that which is difficult. You abandon your comforting and familiar habits with the hope (the mere hope!) that something greater will be offered you in return for what you have given up…. If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be… a prudent insurance policy.”
Friends, God is in the reversal business. God is in the redemption business – taking that which is broken and making it whole. In this time, you may feel broken, spent, or beat up, but God is at work in your life and world even right now. Seeking what that is will be worth your effort. God is making all things beautiful in God’s time. Even you. Even me. Even us. Keep seeking. Keep looking. God’s at work, even in the hardest, least obvious places. God will make even this new.