The Same As It Ever Was

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Every fall I seek to organize the church life around a big theme. My first year we took on the ambitious church-wide study of Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy. In year two we took a dive into the missional church. What does it mean for the church to be sent into the world? In year three, we focused our attention on Paul’s short letter called Philippians and even wrote some letters of our own. This year has presented us with so many challenges, and I wanted to focus our energy and attention on something that could speak into the uneasiness of a world rocked by protests, divisive politics, and a global pandemic. What Bible story goes in-depth about how human actions and choices make a significant difference in the world? Could we look back into our stories and see ourselves somewhere? Our Youth Director, Maddie, was already planning to use the story of Esther from the Old Testament as part of her programming. Esther is a fascinating story. It certainly speaks to the point that human actions can have history-defining consequences – for good or for ill. So, we decided Esther would be our text, but we needed more. Action is great, but the actions of any Christian should be undergirded by faithful prayer. Given how grave so much feels, I know that many of us are ready to rush headlong into what we feel is right – show up at that protest and make demands, support the candidate for president or senate or representative who fits your political leanings, go boldly forward into the world thinking you’ve figured out how to live without getting Covid. Believe me, I get it. Being patient and reflective takes time most of us don’t have. And what is more, doing so might just cause us to change who we are or to change our minds, which can be a frightening prospect for any of us. So, on top of the book of Esther, I want to challenge you to go deeper in your prayer life this fall. Don’t just think before acting. Pray! So, we’re going to learn to pray together this fall, and we’re going to do something about bringing the reign of God to bear in our world. We’re calling this series Prayerful Action. Prayer needs action, and action needs prayer. They can exist without each other, but they become vanity. All prayer and no action misses the mark. All action and no seeking of God’s will misses the mark. We need both. I have been praying about this fall for a while, and my prayer remains that the actions I am now taking are ripe to make a discernible difference in your lives. So, let’s get straight into Esther. It’s a great story, but many throughout history have questioned why it’s even in the Bible. Think about these many points against this book. First, it is one of two books in the Bible that never mentions God. Second, while the story is about the Jewish people, one could easily put any other ethnic group in their place and the story would still make sense. Third, the Jews in the story really aren’t interested in things that Jews in the Bible typically value. This story is set in the 480s B.C., after the Babylonian exile and while the Temple is being rebuilt. Neither Jerusalem nor the Temple make an appearance. The main characters don’t pray (kind of working against my whole sermon plan here, but we’ll survive it!), and they don’t appear to be very observant when it comes to the law. Esther eats the Gentile food. Her uncle, Mordecai tells her to conceal her Jewishness, which is the exact opposite of the first half of Daniel, a story that takes place in a similar context. Why is this even in the Bible? I found out this week that the founding theologian of Presbyterianism, John Calvin, never preached on Esther, nor did he write a commentary on it. Martin Luther even denounced the book, “I am so great an enemy…to Esther that I wish [it] had not come to us at all, for [it] has too many heathen unnaturalities.” Despite all of these strikes against it, the Holy Spirit saw fit that it made the cut for our Scriptures, which tells me that God is doing work through it when we engage with this text – even in our hard questions. What I find today in this story dating back 2500 years are lessons that are applicable right now. I see the unseen God who becomes apparent in visible human history. I see an imperfect story that is worthy of our attention, our questions, and our wrestling, so that we might find blessing and calling in these days. So, let’s turn to the first chapter of Esther. It’s a story set in the Persian Empire, which stretched from Sudan to India. It’s a story of political maneuvering, of power grabs, of men behaving badly, of women negotiating hard circumstances to achieve something better, of genocide, of bravery, and ultimately about how even the heroes of the story trusting in their own merits get things wrong. It begins with a banquet. Xerxes is emperor, and he is exceptionally powerful. You may be wondering why I called him Xerxes, when our translation said Ahasuerus (pronounced A-hash-wer-osh). Well, I’m doing it because it’s easier to say and remember, but here’s the deal with the names. Ahasuerus is the Hebrew version of his Persian name. Xerxes is the English version of it. So, I’m sticking with Xerxes to save me stumbling over Ahasuerus, a name that hard to say even in Hebrew. Xerxes throws a banquet – two actually – something that occurs a ton in this short story. (The word for banquet shows up twenty times in Esther and only twenty-four other times in the entire rest of the Old Testament. I guess that also makes it a book about parties.) The first banquet lasts for six months. It’s a chance for him to consolidate power and to show off his wealth to the nobles, military leaders, and governors – all males, mind you. After six months of partying, Xerxes throws a seven-day banquet, this time for those living in Susa. The story goes into great detail about the excesses of the feast – the best of all the world, drinking without restraint! The Greek historian Herodotus noted that the Persians would drink to deliberate matters of the state. If they were drunk when they made a decision, they would evaluate it the next day when sober. If they took a decision when sober, they would evaluate it while drunk. Sounds like a terrible system to me, but it’s what they did. So, at the end of 187 days of drinking and feasting, Xerxes is full of himself and wants to show off that he’s the most powerful man in the world. He orders Queen Vashti to parade herself in front of his drunken guests. But she has a dignity she is not willing to sacrifice. She refuses to come, which is a major issue for Xerxes, whose displays of power in front of all of these nobles came crashing down around him when they see he can’t even order his own wife to do what he wants. Good for Queen Vashti, I say, but her conviction is costly. Xerxes is forced to flex his muscles in deposing her and in sending a decree out that all women must honor their husbands, high and low alike. His masculinity was threatened by a woman standing up to him, and so he overcompensates. What this does for our story, however, is clears that way for Xerxes to bring a new wife into the palace. Keep in mind, this is Persia 2500 years ago. Surely Xerxes has a harem, but he has a public role to fill that will lead him to a Jewish woman named Esther. There is room by Xerxes’ side, yet it is there because he is a human behaving badly. More on that to come. One challenge I have for you is to read the story of Esther with us this fall. It’s ten chapters long, so you could read one chapter each week, which would take just a few minutes. The entire book probably takes about twenty minutes to read, so some of you might want to read the whole thing weekly to see what God speaks into your life. Because this is a longer story with a narrative arc, the lessons we draw from it every week will only be a part of the picture. Knowing the story will help you track with what we’re doing, so read it. What lesson can we draw from chapter one? In the wise words of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” or to quote the Talking Heads, “Same as it ever was.” Sure, the times have changed, and empires have come and gone, yet the story remains the same. The cynic in me sees the levers of governmental power as a place where people amass greater power and wealth and exert control over their opponents. The optimist in me believes that these instruments can and should be used for the benefit of all people – particularly the poor and powerless. While nothing has really changed, we have a calling to go beyond mere cynicism to trusting prayerfully in the God who holds history in hand. The psalmist asks, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?” and answers, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” The Book of Esther may never mention God, but I believe that God reigns over the messes that humans make with their power plays, greed, and sexism. God’s work may be invisible to our eyes or inscrutable to our minds, yet God is working in human history to fulfill the covenant God has made in Jesus Christ. That I can say with full faith and assurance. So, look at the world with prayerful eyes. Be angry at injustice. Be upset about abuses of power. Be wary of your own desires to use systems to fit with your ideology. And pray, pray, pray for God to work in and through history so that we might see God’s benevolent will for all the world unfold before our eyes. Over the coming few weeks, I think praying the St. Francis Prayer will be very helpful in shaping your heart and life as you live in and love God’s world. I encourage you to pray it every day. Doing so might even commit it to memory the way you have the Lord’s Prayer memorized. Repetition helps heal and shape the heart. You can Google it to find it, or we’ll provide you with a copy of it. We’re also eager for you to find a prayer partner over these weeks, someone in whom you’ll find mutual encouragement in prayer and in life. It could be a spouse. It could be a friend. It could be someone in this church or someone not in this church. As you meet with this prayer partner, share life, and offer to pray for each other. You might even close your time with this prayer to remind us of God’s sovereign control and of our humble role as God’s children in a broken and fearful world. St. Francis teaches us to pray: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.