I’ve had my share of strange conversations over the course of my life. It’s funny how some of them have stuck with me for years and years. One of those was with my seventh-grade science teacher, Miss Williams. She was the kind of teacher who was open to having fun conversations with her students. She related really well to us. For some reason the students in the class were talking about the Bible before class started. Some were saying it was a stupid and boring book. Others, I’m sure including me, knew that it was important, so we were trying to defend it. To my knowledge, Miss Williams was not someone who went to church. I don’t think she had much interest in religion, but she dove into our conversation about the Bible with these words: “I like the Bible. It’s like an R-rated movie. There is so much violence and gore and bad stuff in there, it makes it a fun read.” With those words we moved from our conversation into our science lesson for the day. Now, I was stunned by those words. On the one hand, I felt good because I felt like Miss Williams’ defended my position that the Bible was important. On the other hand, she did it in a way that made me wonder if the Bible was really like an R-rated movie – the kind of movie I wasn’t allowed to watch at that age. And if it was filled with all of that horrible stuff, what does that say about God? The stories I knew from Sunday School seemed so clean and simple. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but he comes out on top! King David makes some errors, but he’s on the winning side! Stephen bears witness to Jesus; people kill him for it; but he’s going to heaven! With my young understanding, it was easy to jump over the hard stuff for the happy stuff. Of course, as I’ve aged and learned more, I realize that Miss Williams was right. Much of the Bible really is R-rated. There’s some real “Game of Thrones” stuff going on throughout it. What used to seem pretty black-and-white to me then now appears far messier. This messiness shows up throughout the pages of Scripture, and it sure shows up in our texts today. Joseph’s brothers did sell him into slavery, and he suffered much for it. There is incredible brokenness in that story, long before its happy ending. The Book of Esther is matter of fact about what a corrupt and vile context Esther’s world is. There are people behaving badly – drunken parties, women treated as property, oppression, abuse, anti-Semitism – but those are things that are part of the very real brokenness of the world. I’m glad the Bible is honest about this brokenness. It’s a good thing. “One of the great characteristics of the Bible is that it faces those facts. It does not deal with issues of a merely spiritual kind. It deals with how things are in our world.” It also stands to show us how great God’s justice is because it is great enough to stand against all of this wickedness and defeat it. My childhood version of Esther was a lot simpler than my reading now. It was a lot more Veggie Tales than Game of Thrones. There’s an opening in the palace. Esther wins the beauty contest. She helps her people out from the bad guys. The end. That’s not how I see things today, but again, I’m glad that it’s not so simple. The difficulties presented by this story mirror the difficulties that we face in a world filled with confusing and messy choices. The challenge I want to set before us is this: Mordecai and Esther are put into a difficult situation out of which they must find their way. I want to say that God put them there, but since this book never mentions God, we’re at least dealing with a God who, at best, is watching things unfold without intervening or, at worst, doesn’t care that all of these bad things are happening. What do we do with this challenge – that God allows people to pass through the crucible for long periods of time so that ultimately good might come from the situation? So, let’s get into what’s happening in the second chapter of Esther. We read about the excessive banquets Xerxes threw. These are costly for Queen Vashti, but someone has to pay for such excess. Nehemiah 5 recounts the suffering of the poor in Jerusalem. Remember, these are the Jews who have returned from exile under the Persians, but that doesn’t mean they are free. They pay hefty taxes. People come up to Nehemiah weeping because they don’t have enough food to eat. Others have had to borrow money to pay their taxes to Xerxes. Think about that for a second. People don’t have enough food to eat or money to pay taxes, but Xerxes can throw a six-month-long party. Seems unfair, doesn’t it? Time can be deceptive when reading the Bible, since it only takes the reader minutes to go from one chapter to the next. In actuality, four years have passed since Xerxes held his lavish banquets and since Vashti refused him. During this time Xerxes has been away fighting a disastrous war with Greece. While he is away, many young women have been gathered by the king’s staff so that they can go through months of cosmetic treatments to be presented to the king. One of those young women is Hadassah, a Jewish orphan raised by her relative Mordecai, whom we know as Esther. Upon Xerxes return, night after night a new girl spent the night with him. All except the one he chose as his primary wife would become a part of his harem. (I told you these were disturbing stories.) Long story short, Xerxes is most pleased with Esther, and he throws another lavish banquet to celebrate the selection of his new queen. What does this text tell us about these main characters of Xerxes, Mordecai, and Esther? Xerxes is fairly simple. He is a man who gets what he wants when he wants it. The human cost does not matter, whether it comes to war or wives. His life is one of sensual overindulgence. It’s about him, not the people in his care. We’ll also see that he is easily swayed by his advisors to achieve their wicked aims. Mordecai is a bit of a different story. He has known exile. Removed from his youth in Jerusalem, he had grown to be an old man under the rule of Babylon and now Persia. Over decades he’s had to learn how to survive in a foreign land, and it seems like he’s figured out a way to get himself some power in Persia. It makes me wonder if Mordecai helped position Esther to get noticed for this royal beauty contest. Did she really just happen to get chosen, or was her uncle responsible for putting her in the right place at the right time to get a little closer to the throne? And then there’s Esther. So far, she has uttered no words. She’s taken into the preparation regimen for King Xerxes, but we know little about her. She does excel and gets noticed by those in charge of the preparation. There is something magnetic about her. Yet, she remains tight-lipped about being Jewish, under the orders of her uncle. When her time comes to be with Xerxes, she excels. He chooses her over all the other women, and she becomes his queen. This is not a scenario we’d wish on anyone, yet through the madness of this whole process, it appears that things will pan out for Esther. She subjected herself to some pretty terrible things, yet she made it. She’s the queen. As I’ve said over the past two weeks, this book never mentions God. It doesn’t do a lot of moralizing. It just tells the story. Perhaps this is where its silence can be a help to us. We don’t know Esther or Mordecai’s character or faithfulness to God. Yet, “regardless of whether they always knew what the right choice was or whether they had the best of motives, God was working through even their imperfect decisions and actions to fulfill [God’s] perfect purposes.” We’re only at the beginning of Esther’s story. Time will tell what good or bad came of her actions. There will be both, for sure. Yet, I find it so interesting that in the midst of God working behind these scenes, we see that things aren’t exactly great for Esther. I mean, would you really want to swap places with her? How would you feel? We heard from the end of the Joseph story in Genesis today, but it’s another story where it takes years and years for God’s purposes to work out. Unlike Esther, God is much more present in Joseph’s story, yet he is sold into slavery, where he serves well but is then falsely accused of seducing his master’s wife and is put into prison where he languishes until, in God’s time, he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams. Eventually he becomes second in command in a foreign land, but he’s disconnected from his family until they experience a famine. Still, at the end he can utter these words to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). How much faith and perspective does it take to utter those words? Think about those in our own country’s history who have worked for a better future amidst terrible circumstances. What about Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave, separated from his parents, and taught himself how to read and write. After years of hard work, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, noted for his exceptional writing and speaking. Slave-owners claimed that the slaves were inferior and did not have the capacity to function fully as citizens, but here was Douglass, a living refutation of their racism. Or what about the nine black students who were chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957? They went from segregated schools to facing mobs to attend school. Eisenhower had to order in the National Guard to keep these teens safe from the mobs. Not everything we do for righteousness has an immediate and positive impact for those on the ground. They go through the crucible. Yet, God is there even in that crucible. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: This world is filled with evil. As followers of Jesus Christ, we should not expect that the easy path is the right one. In fact, we should expect that we will suffer the slings and arrows of the evil that pervades God’s creation. Jesus tells us that we are in the world but not of it. Neither our hearts nor our motivations will ever be entirely pure. Yet, I believe that God is at work even behind the scenes in your life right now, as messy as things may feel. Right here – in this pandemic, in this struggle for the soul of the nation. The Bible is messy because life is messy. Would that we enter the mess with the love and justice of Jesus Christ, knowing that in the crucible – in the mess – God is shaping us into what we can be. 1 Goldingay, John. The Bible for Everyone: Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, 164. 2 Jobes, NIV Commentary, 107-108.