Sermon: Gospel Laughter

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Esther. Esther 6, beginning in verse 1. Esther is in the Old Testament – Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, and Psalms. Esther 6, beginning in verse 1. As always, you are encouraged to leave your Bibles open as we read and study God’s word together.

A couple weeks ago when we started our journey through Esther, I gave you permission to laugh at what was happening in the story. You didn’t do too badly. I know you like to laugh, but it can seem intimidating to laugh in church, but you managed. After all, in Chapter 1, Ahasuerus got drunk, got all his guy friends together, and order every man to be master in his own house. I doubt it worked very well, especially since Ahasuerus spends the rest of the book being anything but master of his house. He cannot make a single decision without someone else suggesting what he should do.

But since the opening chapter, there has not been much to laugh about. Ever since Esther unlikely ascension to Queen of Persia, the situation keeps getting worse and worse. Haman, the enemy of the Jews, has ordered the annihilation of all the Jewish people in the empire. Esther has had one banquet with the king and Haman and invited them to another, but at this point in the story, nothing has been done to avert disaster. On top of that, Haman, in his wounded pride, has set his sights again on Mordecai. Instead of waiting for his edict to be carried out, which would result in Mordecai’s death, Haman impatiently decides to have Mordecai killed now. At the advice of his friends and his wife, Haman builds a stake 75 feet high and plans to go to the king in the morning to tell him to have Mordecai killed and hung on it.

So far, there has been little to laugh about. But all that changes in our chapter this morning. So, I want to re-issue your permission to laugh this morning. Turn to someone else in your pew and tell them, “Guess what, it is okay to laugh in church.” Excellent. Now turn to someone in a different pew than you and say, “Especially when something is funny.” Good, I think we got a little practice. Now we are ready. But before we hear God’s word this morning, 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:

On that night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king. It was found written how Mordecai had told about Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, and who had conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. Then the king said, “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” The king’s servants who attended him said, “Nothing has been done for him.” The king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the king’s palace to speak to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for him. So the king’s servants told him, “Haman is there, standing in the court.” The king said, “Let him come in.” So Haman came in and the king said to him, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” So Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king wishes to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the king, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.” Then the king said to Haman, “Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.” So Haman took the robes and the horse and robed Mordecai and led him riding through the open square of the city, proclaiming, “Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.”

Then Mordecai returned to the king’s gate, but Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered. When Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him, his advisors and his wife Zeresh said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom your downfall has begun, is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him, but will surely fall before him.”

While they were still talking to him, the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried Haman off to the banquet that Esther had prepared.

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

Does anyone have an image in their head of Haman’s facial expression as he has to lead Mordecai around the city square? I imagine Haman with the ‘Joy face’ as he parades his archenemy through the city.

Finally, something to smile about, for us at least. I’d like us to walk through the story together and then notice two moments that point us to the good news of the gospel.

The dramatic turnaround in the book of Esther begins because the king cannot sleep. Verse 1: On that night the king could not sleep. By itself, this is nothing special. However, it is the first in a chain of seven events that seem to come from nowhere, but lead directly to the deliverance of Mordecai and the downfall of Haman.

  1. The King Cannot Sleep

Ahasuerus is inflicted with a sudden case of insomnia. It comes out of nowhere and we are not given a reason for his sleeplessness. He could have been worried. He could have been wondering what Esther would request. He could have been restless. God would not let him sleep. So Ahasuerus finds himself awake at night, looking for a way to sleep. Which leads us to event #2…

2. Reading the Annals -Verse 1: he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king

The richest and most powerful man in the world could have asked for anything for his late night entertainment: drinking, feasting, dancing, women. But seemingly from nowhere, he asks to have the book of records brought and read to him. The book of records is probably about as exciting a read as it sounds – somewhere between the IRS tax codes and the Minutes for a consistory meeting. Maybe Ahasuerus was hoping that it would help him fall asleep. But now the king is awake at night, listening to the book of records from over five years ago, when Mordecai’s name jumps off the page. This is the third event. 

3. Right book, Right page, Right time

On the night in which Mordecai’s life hangs in the balance, where Haman plans to arrive early to get the royal order to kill him, the king simply happens to be up at night, just happens to be reading the book of records, and just happens to read about an event that took place five years ago involving Mordecai. Right book, right page, right time. It strains believability to even call this a coincidence. Five years ago, Mordecai revealed a plot to assassinate the king and in doing so, saved Ahasuerus’ life. And it just happens that the night where neither Ahasuerus nor Mordecai know that Mordecai’s life hangs in the balance, the king opens the book and hears the story of Mordecai. Not only that – and this is event #4 – Mordecai has not even been thanked or honored for saving the king’s life.

4. Mordecai’s Deed Has Not Been Rewarded

Persian Kings were famous for richly rewarding those who had done a service to the king. The fact that Mordecai had gone unrewarded for five years would have been a great shame for the king. He immediately asks what has been done for Mordecai and when he hears the answer, he asks for who is in the court – Event #5

5. Asking for Advice

Ahasuerus never has an original thought. He is always taking suggestions from those around him. Being alone as dawn approaches, the king doesn’t spend any mental energy coming up with a fitting reward for Mordecai. Instead, he looks for the nearest person who can tell him what to do.

6. Haman’s Presence

Haman was eager to get his day started off right. He gets up early and goes into the outer court of the king’s palace so he can talk to the king about having Mordecai killed. The servants tell the king and Haman is invited in and has a very different conversation than he anticipated. This is the last event in the chain of deliverance for Mordecai – miscommunication.

7. Miscommunication

It’s best just to hear it again:

So Haman came in and the king said to him, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” So Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king wishes to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the king, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.” Then the king said to Haman, “Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.”

With a few hours lost sleep, a few books read, and a few words of miscommunication, Mordecai is saved. If Ahasuerus had mentioned who was being honored, the story would likely have turned out differently. But the king doesn’t say, and Haman, in his pride, assumes. I mean, who else but me? What does scripture say: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Not Haman. He hears What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor? and can think of no one else. You can almost sense his eyes glazing over for a bit as he imagines the scene – Haman sitting on the king’s horse, wearing the king’s robe, riding through the streets while everybody proclaims how honored and important he is. If they had communicated more effectively, the outcome could have been different. If the king has mentioned promotion in addition to honor, Haman would have known he was speaking about someone else – after all, Haman has already been promoted above everyone else. If the king had mentioned Mordecai by name, Haman would have found a way to discredit him. If any of these seven events had been different, Mordecai would likely have been dead. If the king had slept, if he had chosen different late night activities, if he had read through a different book, if he had already honored Mordecai, if Haman hadn’t showed up early. If any or all of this was different, Mordecai would have died.

But it didn’t happen differently. Through a series of seeming coincidences, God saves Mordecai.

God saves Mordecai when he didn’t even know he needed saving. Esther and Mordecai know nothing of what is happening. Only Haman and his friends know of the plot to kill Mordecai. And God knows too.

While Mordecai and Esther were sleeping, God was working. While they did nothing, knew nothing, saw nothing, God working – one, two, three, four…seven events going just the right way and by the time Mordecai wakes, he is honored and Haman is humiliated.

God works when we are not looking and before we even know we need him. This is true for you and me as much as for Mordecai. The psalmist echoes this in Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills –

from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;

he who keeps you will not slumber.

He who keep Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;

The Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun will not strike you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;

he will keep your life.

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in

from this time on and forevermore.

When Mordecai lay his head down to sleep that night long ago, God was not sleeping. God was working to deliver Mordecai from a danger he never knew was there. How often do you think God delivers us from danger we never even knew about? How often do you think God remains vigilant while we sleep, while we are unaware?

God works when we are not looking and before we even know we need him. God’s hand is so powerfully at work that by the end of the day, even the pagan Zeresh and Haman’s friends can see that the God of Israel will defend his people.

Well, Haman had a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. Haman thought he was heading to the palace to bring about Mordecai’s destruction, but instead brought about his own humiliation and ultimately destruction. He had to led Mordecai through the streets on horseback proclaiming before him, Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.

Part of what makes the scene so funny is that we are in on the joke and no one else in the story is until it is too late. Part of what makes this so funny is the surprise and joy of dramatic reversal of events.

The story started out with Haman looking good, Haman seeming in control, with Haman plotting Mordecai’s death, but it ends with Haman humiliated and Mordecai elevated to a place of honor.

It is a dramatic reversal of expectations. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Isn’t that the story of the cross? Is that not how God works?

The Cross was the point where the devil thought he had won his victory – Jesus condemned, the Son of God hung on a tree, humiliated and left to die. God’s champion, God himself come in the flesh had been vanquished. The prince of this world had won. But then, up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes. What the devil thought was his victory was in fact his downfall. Where it appeared that death and sin and evil had won was the very place where God in Christ vanquished death, defeated, sin, and reconciled all things to God.

In one night, before he even knew he needed saving, God brought about a dramatic reversal and rescued Mordecai from certain death and humiliated Haman. On a Friday afternoon long ago and three days later at an empty tomb, before we even knew we needed saving, God brought about a dramatic reversal and rescued the human race from certain death and vanquished the devil. By faith in Christ, we experience the joy of that work for us.

Sometimes it is good to laugh with the Bible. Laughter is an expression of joy and what could be more joyful than the good news. What could be more joyful than God rescuing his people, even you, even me, even us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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