Sermon: Invisible Providence

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Esther. Esther is in the Old Testament – at the end of all the history books. If you are in Ezra or Nehemiah you have not gone quite far enough, if you are in Job or Psalms, you have gone a little too far. Esther chapter 2, beginning in verse 1.

This fall we are listening together to the book of Esther to hear how God works in the lives of people in exile. Last week, we recognized that the world of Esther is not too different from our own. We live in a land that is our home and yet not our true home. We must try to live faithfully to God while navigating the ever-shirting demands and pressures of a world often at odds with God’s kingdom. We, like Esther, are a little like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. In the classic film based on the musical, the Russian Jew Tevye describes his life as being like someone trying to play the fiddle while standing on the roof – teetering but trying not to fall. He says it like this:

A fiddler on the roof – sounds crazy, no? But here in our little village of Anatevke you might say that every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask why we stay up there, if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevke is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition.

As Tevye learned, we will learn that it takes more than tradition to navigate being a fiddler on the roof. Like Esther, we can struggle with what appears to be God’s silence or absence in our lives. We can struggle with morally difficult situations and wrestle with how to be faithful in ugly and terrible circumstances. And like Esther, we can hope, trusting that the God who holds the universe, holds our lives in his hands.

Esther, chapter 2, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me:

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher,  and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

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

After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. Then the king’s servants who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in the citadel of Susa under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; let their cosmetic treatments be given them. And let the girl who pleases the king be made queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king and he did so.

Now there was a Jew in the citadel of Susa whose name was Mordecai son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite. Wish had been carried away from Jerusalem along with the captives carried away with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon carried away. Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother. The girl was fair and beautiful and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter. So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed and many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. She pleased him and won his favor, and he quickly provided her with her cosmetic treatments and her portion of food, and with seven chosen maids from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her maids to the best place in the harem. Esther did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to tell. Every day Mordecai would walk around in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was and how she fared.

The turn came for each girl to go in to King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, for this was the regular period of their cosmetic treatment, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women. When the girl went in to the king, she was given whatever she asked for to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she went in, then in the morning she came back to the second harem un custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines. She did not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.

When the turn came for Esther daughter of Abihail uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai, the king’s eunuch, was in charge of the women, advised. Now Esther was admired by all who saw her. When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the ten month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, the king loved Esther more than all the other women, of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king gave a great banquet for his officials and ministers – “Esther’s banquet.” He also granted a holiday to the provinces and gave gifts with royal liberality.

When the virgins were being gathered together, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. Now Esther had not revealed her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her, for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him. In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshhold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai and he told it to Queen Esther and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. When the matter was investigated and found to be so, both the men were hanged on the gallows. It was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.

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

There are some contests you simply do not want to win. Sportscenter’s Not Top 10 plays. The Darwin awards. Or the annual Golden Raspberry Awards, commonly known as ‘Razzie,’ which serve as an anti-Oscar award show, where people vote for the single worst movie of the year. Some contests you do not want to win.

The grand search for the new queen of Persia is one of those contests. Before we go any farther, let me dispel any romantic notions you may have about Ahasuerus’ search for a queen. This is not Bachelor: Persia. This is not a contest where women are seeking the heart of the handsome prince. In fact, it is not accurate to even call it a contest. The participants do not volunteer – young beautiful women are taken from their homes. Taken. Every verb we have related to these women is passive. They are gathered, they are taken, they are put in custody of Hegai. These women do not have a choice to participate.

Not only do these women not have a choice, but they do not get to go home once the contest is over. After their one night with the king, they are brought back to the second harem. There is nothing romantic about a harem. They were pampered – yes, they were fed and clothed – yes, but these women were snatched from their homes and taken to the palace, where their only value was as the king’s sexual play things.

Make no mistake, this is sex trafficking. They were taken and trafficked, all for the pleasure of one man. The king is not looking for an equal, he is not looking for a partner. The only qualifications for the new queen are that she is to be a young, beautiful virgin. All Ahasuerus seems to care about is what he sees on the outside.

If your stomach has turned a little sour, it should be. If you are now troubled by what we hear and see in the second chapter of Esther, you should be. This still happens today, by the millions – yes, millions of people, often vulnerable young people like Esther, are taken to be used and abused. It happens in this country. It happens in this state, even in this community.

This is the situation that beautiful, young Esther finds herself in. Because of sins generations past, she lives as a Jew in Susa. She lives in a land where the government claims everything, even the bodies of its subjects for the service to the king. And if you think the king only claims the bodies of women, let me remind that it is unlikely that all these male eunuchs in the story became so willingly.

So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed and many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women.

Esther is placed in an awful situation. God’s design and will for sex is that it is only to be enjoyed within the bounds of marriage, and yet Esther has been taken and placed into the harem of the king. Not only this, she is being prepared for twelve months for her one night with the king, who probably has only one thing on his mind. Even greater, the king is a Gentile and an unbeliever. Her virtue as a woman and as a Jew has been placed in incredible peril for no other reason than that she is beautiful.

What is she to do? Pastor Olga and I discussed, debated, and wrestled together over this very question. Should she have hidden her faith like she did, at Mordecai’s command? Should she have stood up, said ‘no’ and suffered the consequences, even if it meant death? Did she fear Mordecai would suffer if she did? Is she being wise by hiding her faith? Is she sinning? Is she making the best of a bad situation and showing incredible wisdom?

We wrestled with these and other questions, probably some of the ones you have in your heart right now. But many of them we didn’t have answers to, because, for reasons known only to God, he has not told us. Many of the questions we had about this passage, God does not provide answers for here. We aren’t told whether Esther acted rightly or not, whether people knew she was Mordecai’s daughter or not, what choices she really had or what consequences she might face. What we do know is this – Esther faced a terrible situation, filled with difficult choices and incredible threats – and she survived.

Not only did she survive, but scripture tells us that people noticed something different about Esther. Wherever she goes, she leaves an impression on people. It could be her beauty, but I think there are indicators that it is something more. She continually wins the favor and support of the people around her – first Hegai and then King Ahasuerus. The first action she takes is one of incredible wisdom – for her night with the king, she asks the advice of Hegai, the eunuch is likely closest to the king.

Even without speaking of her faith, something about the wisdom and bearing of Esther is noticed by those around her. And in this terrible situation, Esther finds herself exalted. There are a lot of parallels between this portion of the story of Esther and the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Both are taken captive and placed in peril. Both eventually find themselves in the king’s palace and suddenly rise to favor, being second in command of the whole kingdom. Both are Jews who hide their identity and then use their high status to rescue God’s people from danger.

The parallels to Joseph help us begin to answer what may be a lingering question for many of us in this story: Where is God?

In the whole book of Esther, God is not mentioned by name. Does this apparent silence mean that God is absent, that he isn’t working in the life of Esther and Mordecai? Do the periods in our lives where God seems silent mean he is far from us and not working in our lives?

Even though God is not mentioned in the book, his fingerprints are all over it. If you were able to come last Sunday night for our Purim celebration, we listened to the whole book of Esther in one sitting. It gave us the ability to see the big picture and view the big story. In doing so, we were able to see all the dozens of events that happened in just the right way for God’s people to be delivered. Like the story of Joseph, the book of Esther shows the incredible leading of God to put his people in the right position for their obedience to make an impact for his kingdom. God’s leading doesn’t make Ahasuerus’ actions right any more than it made it right for Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. As Joseph says at the end, “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Despite the suffering and ambiguity of Esther’s situation, she is put on the throne. As the story unfolds, we will see that her position enables her to be part of God’s work in rescuing his people.

But that is all in the future, right now we only have hints. Right now, through the first two chapters, it can look like God is not involved at all.

But just because we do not see God working, does not mean he isn’t.

Why did Vashti throw away her royal position for a noble but ultimately futile gesture? Why did Ahasuerus make the demand in the first place? Who came up with the idea to replace Vashti with ‘a better woman’ instead of trying to reconcile the King and Vashti? Why have a nation-wide search for the new queen? Why was Esther brought in? Why did she win favor with Hegai and he tell her to bring what she needed?

All of these events are, on one level, easily explained as normal human events. Yet all of them are necessary to put Esther on the throne and give her the ability to protect God’s people from a powerful enemy. Are they coincidences? Absolutely not. They are the hand of God at work.

In our own lives, the hand of God at work often looks more like the book of Esther than the book of Exodus. We often have soft guidance instead of powerful plagues. More often, God’s work is invisible, but no less powerful. But that means that there will be times in your life, as well as mine, where it will be difficult to see whether God is working at all. There will be times where it feels like we have been left out on our own.

But the story of Esther reminds us that we are not left alone. We can hope, trusting that God is still working even when we cannot see. We can hope, trusting that as we look at our past and how God has led us through valleys and across mountains, that even when we walk without seeing or feeling his presence, he is still at our side.

Just because we do not see God working, does not mean he isn’t. This was true for Esther and we must trust that it is true for us as well. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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