Sermon: Learning to Laugh

It was 586 when the walls of Jerusalem crumbled. Ripped from the land God had given them, the people of God were carted off into exile. The Lord who had chosen them, who handed them over to be stripped from the land, promised to one day bring them home. But until then, the people of God lived in exile.

Never truly at home, they now lived as one small people amidst a vast, powerful, and pagan empire. It was one thing to follow God in a land where faith was supported, encouraged, and part of the very culture, but it was quite another to follow God in a land filled with the trappings, temptations, and pressure of pagan Persia. How do we live for God in the land of exile?

The people could stand out boldly – be radically different from the world around them – and then find the heavy hammer of the empire pounding them (thunk, thunk, thunk) back into submission. Or they could assimilate. They could buy into the vision of the good life promised by the kingdom they lived in, but then they would have to abandon their faith – abandon their king and his kingdom. How do we live for God in the land of exile?

This question leads us to the book of Esther, where we will soon see that the ancient people of Israel were not the only ones to live in a foreign and pagan land. It was not only our spiritual ancestors, but we ourselves, who must learn to live “teetering on an unstable perch in a hostile world” (Duguid 3). The situation of Esther is not far distant from our own. The challenge to live in the world, in the country, in the empire that is our home, while maintaining our primary allegiance to God is something we all face. So this fall, we will be listening to God’s word through the book of Esther to learn how God is at work in the land of exile and how we might live there.

At some point during this time of exile, the story of Esther begins. It takes place in the capital city of the Persian Empire – Susa (in modern day Iran) – during the reign of a king named Ahasuerus.

Before we hear God’s word, I want to give you a quick explanation and a word of permission. First, we will be using the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible for this series, which is different than the New International Version in your pews. The main difference you will notice is that the NIV calls the King of Persia Xerxes, while the NRSV calls him Ahasuerus. The actual original text of the Bible, in Hebrew, calls him Ahasuerus, which is why we are using the NRSV in this series. The reason your pew Bibles have a different name is in doing historical research, scholars determined that Ahasuerus of the book of Esther is the same person as King Xerxes in secular historical writings. So if you are following along in your pew bibles and keep hearing me say Ahasuerus but see Xerxes written in your Bible, they are the same person.

Lastly before we hear God’s word, you have permission to laugh at the Bible. In fact, it is encouraged. The book of Esther is telling us history, but it is telling us in way that is mocking the Persian Empire, mocking all empires that claim our allegiance instead of God. So if you feel any urge to laugh at something you hear, please do.

Before we hear God’s word, let us pray together.

Father, you poured out your spirit upon dry bones in the wilderness and they were knit together, given flesh, and came to life. Upon the dry bones of our lives, we ask you to pour out your Spirit this morning and breath new life into us. By your Word and through your Spirit, bring us to life and help us to live in ways that honor you, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, Amen. 

These are the very words of God from the book that we love:

This happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. In those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present, while he displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred eighty days in all. 

When those days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa a banquet lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones. Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. Drinking was by flagons, without restraints, for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. Futhermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.

On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended him to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show the officials and the peoples her beauty, for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged and his anger burned within him.

Then the king consulted the sages who knew the laws (for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and custom, and next to him were Cashena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven officials of Persia and Media, who had access to the king and sat first in the kingdom. “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?” Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the people in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who hard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials and there will be no end of contempt or wrath. If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus, and let her royal position be given to another who is better than she. So when the decree given by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will given honor to their husbands, high and low alike.”

This advice pleased the king and his officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed: he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Hands in the air: How many of you think that the king’s master plan to get all the women of the empire to respect their husbands is going to work?

Ahasuerus and his buddies are afraid of all the women finding out what Vashti did and then using it as some ammunition for a female uprising of some sort. The most ironic part is that by sending out an edict to the far corners of the empire, they made doubly sure that every one would know. Instead of solving the problem, this beautiful piece of beaucracy only made things worse. Persian tax dollars at work.

Already in this first chapter, we get a glimpse of Ahasuerus’ character. He is an incompetent, weak-willed fool who cannot think for himself. He is a buffoon, but a powerful and dangerous one.

The story starts with this amazing party. For six months – 180 days – all the governors, all the officials, all the army – pretty much the whole government, shuts down in order for Ahasuerus to have a banquet. And what is the purpose of the banquet – verse 4 – while he displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred eighty days in all. The king shuts down the government for six months to make sure everyone knows how rich and awesome he is. Persian tax dollars at work here.

Then, as if that is not enough, this six month party culminates in a week-long after party for all the people in the capital city. The wealth and excess displayed at this party is absurd. Couches made of gold and silver, even the ground people walk on is made of precious stones. Golden goblets, no two goblets the same. Wine being drunk by the flagon with the only command for everyone to do what they want.

Verse 9 tells us that the women were having a separate banquet, so this seven day drink-fest was more like a glorified stag party. So to top off a half-year celebration of Ahasuerus’ wealth and power, he throws a week-long drinking party for him and his 5,000 closest male friends.

As we hear this, we are supposed to be both amazed and revolted. Amazed at the sheer wealth and power that Ahasuerus wielded. He is no pint-sized prince. He rules 127 provinces. He not only has the resources to throw a six month party, but it takes him six months just to show how wealthy he is. This is the power and wealth of Ahasuerus. This is the most powerful man in the world – or is he?

At the end of the seven days, when the king was merry with wine (which is a nice way of saying he was a very happy drunk), the king sends seven eunuchs to go fetch his wife so he can show her off like a trophy. More excess – it takes seven servants to go get her. For reasons we could suspect, but are not told, Queen Vashti refuses.

Suddenly the world comes crashing down and the king is filled with anger. At the end of this celebration of who great and powerful he is, Ahasuerus is revealed for how weak of a man he is. Weakness, not in wealth or might, but in character.

And as we all do when threatened, he scrambles. He calls his advisors and, when all of them are probably still drunk, they hatch a plan. If all the women find out that Vashti doesn’t do everything he husband says, the world will turn to chaos. Let’s replace Vashti and send out a decree that all the women are to be respectful.

This is the kind of plan that only a room full of drunk bureaucrats could think would work. But it demonstrates both the foolishness and danger of living in a hostile world. We see a group of incredibly powerful men wielding their power with far more enthusiasm than skill. Vashti does not go along with the king’s drunken desire to parade her in front of his friends and we never hear from her again. She is banished, at best. Destined to be replaced.

This is the world in which God’s people find themselves – a world in which power is in the hands of the incompetent, who are amoral at best and immoral at worst. It is a world where power and wisdom are rarely connected.

So how do we live in that kind of world? How do we live as people faithful to God in a world like we find in the book of Esther?

We will see more as we continue through the story, but I think the first chapter teaches us at least two things. First, Esther 1 reminds us not to take the power and splendor of this world too seriously. We need to learn to laugh at it.

The world we live in routinely elevates the trivial to the status of extreme importance. If we think Ahasuerus and his cronies were ridiculous, take a look at the magazines in the check-out aisle the next time you go to Hyvee or Brother’s. People, Cosmo, Soap Opera Digest. We have entire magazines and multi-million dollar industries devoted to figuring out what might happen in fictional soap operas or in the lives of famous people. Or as much as I enjoy baseball, we pay grown men tens of millions of dollars a year to hit a little ball, but teachers, who are charged with educating and shaping our children, get paid how much?

And we think that Ahasuerus and his officials were focused on trivial things?

The empire of materialism in which we live wants us to take stuff with incredible seriousness. It wants to tell us what is really important in life. It wants us to study the ways to get ahead, to climb the ladder, and devote our lives to dream of a good life that it offers. However, Esther 1 – in the very way it is written – invites us to learn to laugh in that king’s face.

It’s just stuff. Like the old fable, Esther 1 reminds us that no matter how fancy and expensive the emperor’s clothes might seem, he is really naked.

It reminds us that for all the dazzle, pomp, and splendor, that kingdom has no real power. Laughter, then, becomes a form of resistance. It helps loosen the grip of materialism on our hearts. We cannot be near as attracted to that life if we can laugh at it. When we are tempted to get too caught up in all the stuff, in getting ahead, and being ‘it,’ then laughter becomes a kind of holy medicine that reminds us that it is only stuff.

No matter how expense the clothes, how lavish the parties, Esther 1 reminds us that the whole project is ridiculous.

What truly matters comes from an entirely different kingdom with a very different king.

And that is the second thing that Esther 1 teaches us. It teaches us to long for God’s kingdom while we live in earthly kingdoms. Our heavenly king is very different than Ahasuerus. Both throw banquets. Both speak words that cannot be challenged or changed. Both govern all things in their domain – great and small.

But who our king is and what he provides is so much greater than the Ahasuerus’s of this world.

God’s party provides dignity and joy for men and women. God never uses people for his purposes as if they were disposable commodities. God doesn’t parade us around like trophies, but instead graciously invites us into relationship with him. God’s kingdom does not grow through powerful displays of wealth and splendor, but through small and hidden ways. Ahasuerus came not to serve, but to be served. But our King, Jesus Christ, came not to be served, but to serve and to give up his life as a ransom for many.

King Ahasuerus summoned his bride to expose her to shame, but at the heavenly banquet, God will summon his bride (the church) in order to lavish his gifts and grace upon her. King Ahasuerus commands Vashti to come by force, but God gently woos sinners and draws them to himself.

The people of God lived in exile. They lived in a land not their own, away from their home. They daily had to choose who their real king was? Ahasuerus, with all his promises of wealth and strength? or the Lord God, whose kingdom was greater and more beautiful than all the golden couches, mosaic floors, or golden goblets that Ahasuerus could produce? God’s kingdom of grace and peace, where he invites sinners into eternal relationship with him, where we are more instead of less by being in his presence. Knowing their true home, their true citisenship, enabled them to laugh even when they were ruled by the dangerous buffoon Ahasuerus.

May we cling to our true king and learn to laugh at all the ridiculous values and promises of this world. Amen.

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