In the case of Daniel, he is the model Christian in an alien world, a captive of Babylon, when he is told to bow down to the King, Daniel refuses and stands up with boldness and courage. When Daniel is thrown into the Lion’s Den the Lions leave him in peace. Daniel prays, interprets dreams, interprets a miraculous handwriting on the wall. Esther’s response, when facing a similar situation, she hides her identity, Mordecai her cousin/guardian instructs her to not reveal she is a Jew, we are never told Esther prays, there are no miracles recorded, no dreams. In fact, the book of Esther is so devoid of God that God is not even mentioned.
I would like to be a Daniel, as the old Sunday School jingle went way back in my first Sunday School days when I was taught by my mother, “Dare to be a Daniel.” But more often, I can relate to Esther, as I forget to pray, I am not bold. As one commentator said about Esther, “God is most present when he is most absent.” And when I look back at my life, that is the truth. God guiding my life….
Many years ago I sat in a basement room of the art building at the UW. It was a life changing day. I had completed my first introductory class to be accepted into the graphics department. The next class was by invitation only, the first hurdle to be accepted into the program, then after that class, the final cut was made to determine the next wave of Graphic Design students. I sat in the middle of three professors… and they told me I had the skills to be a graphic designer, but…they did not feel I was aggressive enough for the business part of the degree. Just like that, the way I envisioned my life’s direction was over. They said I could try again in a year, but I knew I would not wait that long…at that moment I had no plan, no ideas, no fallback… so I left the room, feeling so alone, stunned, shocked… I slowly walked about 20-30 feet, and guess who I ran into? A young beautiful woman who I first met a few months earlier, I had been getting to know, her name was Sally. I’d like to say I went to my room and prayed and God answered my prayers, but I was not feeling all that spiritual, more lost and uncertain and confused. And along came Sally. Together, one thing led to another, and we made life plans/decisions together. Esther is a story of completely ordinary circumstances that are life changing. God is present even in the most ordinary daily ebb and flow of life.
Daniel is the model of faith, Esther is God working in the ordinary life. Nehemiah also lived at about the same time as Esther. Nehemiah petitioned the king of Persia to return to the homeland and rebuild Jerusalem. He prayed and God moved the heart of a foreign King. Nehemiah fought off enemies with a sword in one hand and trowel in the other. The people had been captive for generations away from Jerusalem, and in an extraordinary move, Nehemiah returned and rebuilt the ancient ruins.
Then there is Esther. She stayed behind. The book of Esther is for those who can relate to the brother that stayed behind, while the prodigal son begged for an early inheritance, went to a foreign land, squandered all his money, and returned home to a party with the fatted calf… There you are, just there, dependable, stable… I had a funeral for a women a few years ago, if I remember correctly, almost 100. Her daughter, now in her mid-50’s, had never lived apart from her mother. When the daughter was 16, a knock on the door changed the families life when a police officer told the family that the woman’s brother, the only other child, had been hit by a drunk driver and killed. Two years later, when the daughter graduated from Meridian, her father died unexpectedly, and it did not seem the right time to move away from her mother. Soon the years rolled on, and she spent the rest of her mothers life as a constant companion, a caregiver in later years, a best friend. No parties through the years to go off to college for this woman, no celebrations of marriage, just a quiet ordinary life. God is present in the ordinary… Esther stayed in Babylon, that’s where she was born, that’s all she knew. A permanent outsider. She never had the excitement of seeing Jerusalem rebuilt, but hid her identity in a strange and foreign land, tried to fit in. I’d like to be a Nehemiah, accomplishing something great for God, something splashy, something amazing. But more often I can relate to Esther…fitting in. Friends from around the country will ask me how it’s going in Sumas. I tell them I’m trying to fit into a community and be involved in the ordinary daily life of people to try and make a difference.
Do you feel different than anyone else? not quite understood, out of your element. When Sally and I lived in S.F., for a time we had a woman and her child live with us, Michelle and Kristofer. Did you notice I am white? Michelle and Kristefer are black. When Michelle wanted to move back home I offered to drive her to the other side of town to the projects and she hesitated and hemmed and hawed. She was so afraid something would happen to me, as a white man driving a black woman into the projects. I convinced her everything would be fine, and as we got closer Michelle started becoming unglued with worry….nothing happened, other than she did a good job of making me feel like an outsider…. Is there anyone that doesn’t feel different, like nobody else understands?....
Esther was a stranger in a foreign land but it was the only home she ever knew. She was a Jew, a woman of faith, yet she did not want anyone to know. Esther is for the person whose life does not go quite as planned, the job that does not work out, the couple who is disappointed to find that they cannot have children, the untimely illness that changes everything… yet Esther keeps going, keeps adjusting…. When I was a young pastor I had this idea that I needed to be proactive in my ministry, more idealistic, make plans and carry them out and change only when necessary. Maybe that is a better more honorable way, the world needs Daniels/Nehemiahs/Billy Grahams… but it did not work for me. Today I find much more satisfaction in making some plans, but reacting, seeing what my days bring forth, responding, adjusting, changing. It fits Sumas (I think), it fits me. Nobody will ever ask me to teach a leadership class because I am not proactive enough. That’s ok. That is the Esther kind of ministry. She has no idea what’s coming, but can only respond as life confronts her. Esther is for Christians who mean well, have expectations, but life throws different twists and turns. And we have no choice but to let God be God.
“what do you do when it seems everyone is moving forward but you?” It’s a good question. I say, look at Esther. There are others, like Daniel, who appear more spiritual. There are those, like Nehemiah, who go off and do exciting things. Esther is stuck in Persia. Life happened to her. She had little control. Yet she responded, at times quite imperfectly, and in the end, we can only sit back and say wow. Keep on going seems to be her motto. God sometimes seems so absent, our faith seems so ordinary, yet God is faithful. Esther is a wonderful example of the truth of Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his good purpose.” If you don’t know the end of the story of Esther, read ahead. It’s a wonderful story of God being present even when he seems absent.
Let’s look quickly at the first verses. Esther is not mentioned in the first chapter, but the chapter serves as the setting and character of the place and times she lived. King Xerxes, is shown to be a man of power, vast authority, ruler of 127 provinces, and the king throws a lavish banquet. From other records we know Xerxes reigned from 486-465 B.C. The third year of his reign puts the story of Esther beginning at about 483 B.C. The entire story of Esther takes about ten years to unfold. At first glance the world seems overwhelming. How can one foreign woman possibly make a difference? At first glance everything around us seems to overwhelming. We want to do great things for God, but how can we? We’d even settle for mediocre for God.
The King holds a banquet, like no other banquet, READ 1:4-5. We know from history that Xerxes was undoubtedly mustering support of his vast empire for his next great conquest: to move against the Greeks and expand his territory. The wealth and luxuriousness is emphasized: READ 1:6-7. Esther is written to those of us who at times feel insignificant, helpless, powerless. We want to believe, but we wonder if God will use us to his glory. But even in these opening words there is a silver lining of faith. Unless you are a student of history, the modern reader cannot see a subtle message surely designed to inform the reader to keep the faith, to keep on going even when you world seems overwhelming, even when you feel stuck/small/hopeless. Even when life is seemingly overwhelming, there is hope. Even when it look impossible to keep on going. You never know with God. God is most present even when he appears to be most absent.
Esther begins with the words “This is what happened during the time of Xerxes…” The book of Esther is written down at a time in which the readers can look back. Xerxes is presented at the height of his power, ruler of 127 provinces, impressive, a six month lavish banquet spotlighting his wealth… What the original readers undoubtedly knew, that is lost on us modern readers, is that Xerxes returned from Greece four years later after a surprising defeat that depleted his wealth. Xerxes could have been depicted as the king who lost everything, but instead we are reminded of his wealth, his power, his opulence.
When we are overwhelmed, uncertain, not having a clue as to how things are going to work out, disappointed, never forget that God is still at work. When I stepped out of that room after having been told my life dream of graphic design was effectively over, I wanted to cry. But God had other plans. When you are faced with one more month of uncertainty, not enough income, failing health, overwhelmed by life, never forget that God is still at work. Xerxes was at the top, but looking back, he was defeated. At the time, who would have ever known? The story of Esther is the story of a reversal of fortune. For the king he went from everything to nothing, for Esther, she went from nothing to everything. Keep on going, keep the faith, even when it looks like God is absent. He’s not. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his good purpose.” The Lord’s purposes will prevail in your life. We may not always see them in the present, but make no mistake but that God almighty is at work. We may stumble and struggle in the present, but the Lord’s desires will triumph. Amen.