This is the message I preached on Sunday, December 16th, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.
For Such a Time as This
Esther 4:1-17, New International Version
When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. 2 But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it. 3 In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
4 When Esther’s eunuchs and female attendants came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. 5 Then Esther summoned Hathak, one of the king’s eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why.
6 So Hathak went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate. 7 Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him, including the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. 8 He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict for their annihilation, which had been published in Susa, to show to Esther and explain it to her, and he told him to instruct her to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people.
9 Hathak went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, 11 “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”
12 When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, 13 he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
17 So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.
These are the words of God, for the people of God. May God speak through them to us today, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I have recently been reading The Book of Joy, which tells the story of the friendship between retired archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, and the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, and shares their conversation about where we can find lasting joy in a troubled world according to their different faiths. Throughout the book, Desmond Tutu continues to talk about his experience as a black man living under the tyranny of apartheid, a system of racist oppression and at times violence, which South Africa inflicted on its majority black population until it ended in the early 1990’s. At one point in the book, the author tells of the difficult decision Desmond Tutu made in the 1970’s. He and his wife Leah had been living and working in England, which had long abandoned such oppressive racist systems and laws, and enjoying raising their children in an air of freedom. Tutu was offered a ministerial position in South Africa, which ultimately began the journey of him becoming a voice speaking up for freedom and equality of all people. He and Leah were torn by this offer, as it ultimately meant exposing their family to oppression, discrimination, and all kinds of threats they had long since left behind. And yet South Africa was home and Desmond Tutu felt a call to speak up for the rights of others like himself, who were long being crushed under the oppression of apartheid. Looking back, we can all be thankful they made the choice as a couple to return to South Africa, raising their voices for equal rights for all, but in the moment they could not know how things would work out.
Similarly, in our reading from the book of Esther, we join Esther and Mordecai at a point of decision in Esther’s life. At the encouragement of her uncle Mordecai who raised her from childhood as a devout Jew after the death of her parents, Esther had entered into a competition, a beauty contest of sorts, where unmarried women throughout the Persian empire competed for the right to become the queen of the emperor of Persia, the same emperor who ruled over the Holy Land. When she won, she followed her uncle’s advice to downplay and not drawn attention to her status as Jewish, since Jews were often persecuted when open about their faith.
Now, at the beginning of our reading, Esther is in a comfortable position. She not only won the contest, but has been given the crown. She is the queen, wife of the emperor of Persia. She has at her disposal all the wealth, comfort, and pleasures the empire has to offer. As long as she is a good wife to the emperor, in his mind, then she can live comfortably the rest of her days. She has arrived.
At this moment, her uncle Mordecai comes to her with terrifying news: a plot has emerged to wipe out the Jewish people from across the empire. And Mordecai suggests: perhaps it is for just a time as this that your good fortune has come. In other words, perhaps God has brought you to this position of power just in order to fight for freedom and the lives of your own people.
Esther’s call and her response to her call, like Tutu’s, sets a powerful example, an example which both anticipates Mary’s choice to embrace becoming the mother of Jesus and speaks a powerful word to us today.
First, Esther’s choice, like Tutu’s, anticipates the choice Mary makes when asked to embrace the calling to be Christ’s mother.
Desmond and Leah Tutu’s choice to return to South Africa and become leaders in the faith community who speak up against the injustice faced by those under the boot of apartheid was one that came with great sacrifice and risk. They are stepping back into a situation of oppression. They are also choosing to speak up in a place where others who have spoken up have been beaten, abused, threatened, jailed, even executed. Yet they know it is for such a time as this that God has brought them as far as they have, for that journey has prepared them to fight for the rights of those suffering in their home. How could they but say yes to God’s call?
Esther too faces risk if she uses her position to speak up for her own people. For all she knows, her emperor who is now her husband shares the prejudice against her own people that is behind the threat to exterminate them she has heard about, since she has not yet shared with him he is unaware she is Jewish. And anyone approaching the king without his consent or invitation, even the queen, risks him trying or even executing them for insubordination. The first chapter of Esther tells us that the way in which Esther inherited the good fortune of becoming queen of Persia was by the preceding queen falling out of favor with the king, so a threat to her position or even her life was a real possibility. Yet Esther knows that her uncle is right: she did not get where she was all on her own, and it may be that it is for just such a time as this, a time that someone was needed in her power and position to speak up for justice, protecting the life and limb of her own people. So the book of Esther tells us she takes this risk, and ends up helping bring just this protection for them.
Almost 500 years later, a young, as yet-unmarried woman, Mary, is pledged as fiancé to the carpenter Joseph. The Gospel of Luke tells us she faces a similar choice. The angel Gabriel appears to her, calling her to accept the offer of the Holy Spirit to come upon her, causing her to be with child, to give birth to and raise the Savior of the world, whose only father is God, her son Jesus. Like Esther, Mary could say no. She would have good reason. Who is to tell her that her fiancé, Joseph, won’t call off the engagement if she becomes pregnant with a child who is not his? How will people look and point, judging her? And yet, Mary responds to this call with a yes, saying “I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me as you have spoken”. Mary knows it is for such a time as this she has come into the world.
And thank God! Each three choices open up the opportunities for liberation for others to be born.
We too each face moments of decision, big and small in our lives. We face times where we can choose the comfortable, easy way. Or where we can embrace courage and faith. Such a choice has risk, but it also has opportunity. Unlike Mary, we rarely have an angel or vision reveal that we are at such a moment, but like Esther and like Desmond Tutu, we can recognize that God appears often hidden as our own lives, and God’s call comes revealed by listening to our life and the lives of others speak, suggesting to us why we have been drawn to just such a time as this. When we choose to recognize the opportunity to use the moment we are in, the position we’ve been given, the gifts and challenges of this moment, to stand for the hurting, to do justice, to express God’s love to another, we are joining Esther, Desmond Tutu, and Mary in doing God’s work, being ones who help labor and give birth to a bit of God’s dream through where and when we find ourselves.
May we each like Esther, Desmond Tutu, and Mary of Nazareth, answer this call in our lives with a yes, let it be with me as God as spoken. Amen and amen.