Sermon: Why is Esther in the Bible?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
26th of September 2021

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

As a congregation that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, we do not spend a lot of time with Queen Esther, and sadly we never hear the story of Queen Vashti read out in church. Today is the only Sunday in the three-year cycle that we hear a reading from the Book of Esther, and that reading is only eleven verses long. This may be because Esther is such a puzzling and problematic book, one that raises all sorts of questions. Esther offers neither neat morals for the preacher to expound, nor moral examples for hearers to follow, and today’s ‘Reflection’ is very much an exploration without conclusion.

The Book of Esther makes no mention of God, or of the Law, the covenant between the Lord and Moses, prayer, or any of the dietary restrictions that distinguish Jews from the rest of the world. The early Jewish translators were so worried by all these gaps that when they translated the book from Hebrew into Greek they added prayers into the Greek version. Commentators think that Esther was written in the fourth century BCE, and would have been translated into Greek, with the religious additions, in the second or first century BCE, but it did not officially become part of the Jewish canon until the third century CE. The Western Church decided that it was part of the Christian canon in the fourth century and the Eastern Church finally agreed in the eighth century. Esther puzzled Jews and Christians for centuries.

The Book of Esther is a comedy, a farce. It begins with a drunken king, Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire, ‘one hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia’, who holds a seven-day feast, and on the seventh day demands, while ‘merry with wine’, that his wife, Queen Vashti, display her beauty before the party of drunken men. When Vashti understandably says ‘no’ the sages who know the law warn the king that she has put not only the king’s authority, but the authority of every man in the kingdom at risk: ‘For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands’. (Esther 1:17)  For the sake of poor husbands everywhere, the king puts the disobedient Vashti aside.

The king then has all the beautiful young virgins in the land gathered into his harem. Among these is the book’s acknowledged heroine, Esther, a Jewish orphan who has been raised by her cousin, Mordecai. As a woman she is at the mercy of the decisions of men: her guardian-cousin; the eunuch in charge of concubines; the king himself. Esther spends a year in the harem, winning the favour of the eunuch who provides her with the best cosmetic treatments. When she attends Ahasuerus, Esther also wins his favour and becomes queen. On Mordecai’s orders Esther had not told anyone that they are cousins or that she is Jewish. Thus when the king’s highest official, Haman, decides to punish all Mordecai’s people because Mordecai refuses to bow to him, he does not know that he is also targeting the queen.

Haman’s argument is the anti-Semitic rhetoric that has been heard again and again throughout history: ‘There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.’ (Esther 3:8) The Jews are not like us; they should be destroyed. We have heard similar rhetoric in Australia about Muslims ever since 9/11, although rather than demanding their destruction people usually demand their deportation, and the current pandemic has led to a resurgence in anti-Semitism as people have become isolated and afraid and have spent more time online. The Book of Esther has continuing relevance.

The king agrees, and Haman writes an edict giving orders to the governors and officials of every province in the empire to destroy all Jews on one day, Haman deciding on the date by casting a lot, or Pur, hence the name Purim. After this, we’re told: ‘The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.’ (Esther 3:15)

Mordecai sends word to Esther, asking her to intervene with the king. Esther knows that she risks death by doing this, but she bravely imitates Vashti. Vashti refused to appear before the king when he commanded; Esther appears before him without being commanded. The king forgives her bad behaviour, and Esther asks that he and Haman come to a banquet she has prepared. They agree, and at that banquet Esther asks them to return the next day for a second one. Again, they agree, and Haman leaves the first banquet ‘happy and in good spirits’. But when leaving he sees Mordecai and when Mordecai again refuses to bow to him Haman is so enraged that on advice of his wife Zeresh and all his friends he has some gallows fifty cubits high made, on which he plans to later hang Mordecai.

On the second day Haman and the king again attend Esther’s banquet and this time when the king tells her that he will grant her any request, even up to half of his kingdom, Esther says:

‘If I have won your favour, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’ Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’ Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ (Esther 7:3-6)

The infuriated king grants her request and punishes Haman by hanging him on the gallows that Haman himself had built.

But the edict has been made, the Persians have been told that they can kill all the Jews, and that cannot be revoked. So rather than rescinding it, the king allows Esther to make another edict, by which the Jews are permitted to defend themselves against any armed force attacking them. Ultimately, the Jews kill more than 75,000 people throughout the king’s provinces. To celebrate this slaughter of their enemies, Mordecai writes to the Jews telling them to keep these days as a holiday. And so, the Feast of Purim is born..

Obviously, the book of Esther is not a work of history. One of its purposes seems to be to explain why the Jews celebrate Purim, which was probably originally a Persian or Babylonian holiday and was known for its frivolity. But its other messages are open to debate. What exactly is this story meant to be telling us?

Mosaic picture of a woman with a sceptre in her hand

Mosaic of Esther from the Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem

The characters in the story are not meant to be taken seriously. The king is a buffoon; the villain, Haman, is an idiot, unaware that his new queen is related to Mordecai, despite all the messages that go between Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai precipitates the crisis because he refuses to bow to Haman. In the Greek additions to the story this refusal is given a noble reason; Mordecai says that it was because he did not want to put the glory of man before the glory of God. But in the original no reason is given. Mordecai is just rude. Esther is a more positive character, who saves her people, but she seems to have had no objections to becoming part of the Persian king’s harem, and she does not follow any Jewish religious rites while there. Esther and Mordecai save their people by becoming part of the dominant culture, Esther as queen, Mordecai dressed in ‘royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purple’, and then turning the tables on their enemies in an act of violent revenge. This is not a story of Jews remaining notably Jewish in exile, as the Prophet Daniel did. None of these characters is a reliable role models. Why are they part of our Scripture?

One commentator, Timothy Beal, writes of this book:

What kind of Scripture is this? God hiding and a royal buffoon filling the space of divine retreat, no sign of religion or religious practice, no sacred space, Mount Sinai lost behind smoke and ashes, the law of the Father illegible: what does this have to do with anything we commonly assume to be “biblical”? Everything. But not as an affirmation of those assumptions.[1]

Another commentator, Michael Fox, agrees that ‘the book of Esther is doing something unprecedented, and its theological message should not be assimilated to the expected ones’.[2] Esther is a puzzling and problematic book, and we should not try to force it into a shape the suits the rest of the biblical canon.

One of the things that we learn from reading the Book of Esther, a message particularly relevant in this time of pandemic, is that there are times when God does not appear to be present and when things do not make sense. Today’s psalm praises God because ‘if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive,’ (Psalm 124:2-3) but there are times when the trap is not broken, and we are caught like prey in the teeth of our enemies. Perhaps the Jews know this better than anyone. How can any sense be made of purges and pogroms, of the expelling of all the Jews from England in the thirteenth century by Edward the First or of the Holocaust, the Shoah, of the twentieth century? Esther is a comedy, but it is also an example of survival literature, and ‘one of the strongest themes in the literature of survival is that pain is senseless; that a suffering so vast is without value as suffering’.[3] We take pain seriously when we do not seek to explain it away by saying that it is not as bad as it seems, or seek to make premature sense of it by saying that we deserve it or that we have learned something from it.

Most of scripture talks of a God who is present and who cares for God’s people; ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’. (Psalm 124:8) The Book of Esther is a counter-narrative to that. Life is complicated, and while our religion and our scriptures can provide us with some explanations, there are times when our questions remain unanswered. The Book of Esther tells us that this lack of certainty is part of our religious heritage too.

We began our worship with a version of Psalm 124, which gave thanks to the Lord for saving his people, and with Martin Luther’s strong assertion that though our foes may cause us distress, even kill us, we will remain victorious because we are citizens of the kingdom of God. We will end the service by singing the affirmation that: ‘All my hope on God is founded; all my trust he will renew, through all change and chance he guides me, only good and only true’. The wealth of our tradition is seen in the way the psalm, these hymns, and the reading of the Book of Esther as survival literature challenge and confront each other. Life is infinitely complex, and our faith recognizes that. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Richard Treloar, Esther and the End of ‘Final Solutions’ (2008), p. 153.

[2] Quoted in Richard Treloar, Esther and the End of ‘Final Solutions’ (2008), p. 239.

[3] Terence Des Pres quoted in Treloar, p. 121.

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Sermon: Avril preaches to herself

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
19th of September, 2021

James 3:1-4:3, 7-8a

This morning we hear an extract from the Letter attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, and addressed to ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,’ – the Jewish diaspora throughout the Roman Empire. We first hear of James in the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, when people are scoffing at the idea of Jesus being anyone special. ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?’ (Matt 13:55, also Mark 6:3) There are few references to James in the rest of the New Testament. Paul refers to him in his first letter to the Corinthians and in his letter to the Galatians. He is also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter is released from prison by an angel and goes to the house of one of Jesus’ followers. Peter then says: ‘Tell this to James and to the believers’. (Acts 12:17) When Paul and Barnabas inform the Jerusalem church about their ministry to the Gentiles it is James who decides how these new Gentile followers of Jesus need to live. (Acts 15:19-20) Despite only being mentioned these few times, James is obviously a person of importance in the Jerusalem church. Continue reading

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Sermon: Choose to believe – at the core of the cosmos is love

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
12th of September 2021

Psalm 19

I hope that one of the things you are doing to stay sane during this apparently never-ending lockdown is reading the Psalms. If not, this is your encouragement to do so. The Psalter is a gift. Most of the Bible is made up of writings that we consider to be words from God (although as good Uniting Church members we are of course aware that the Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible). The Book of Psalms is different. The psalms are prayers, offerings of humans to God. We sing them or pray them in worship or alone, offering them as our words to God. In times like this sixth lockdown, whether we want to praise God for the beauty of Spring, or yell at God for the frustrations and fears of isolation, the psalms offer us words to use. But today I want us to instead listen to a psalm as God’s words to us; to treat it like any other part of Scripture, as a poem through which we hear God talking to us. Continue reading

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Sermon: Not just those like us

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 5th of September, 2021

James 2:1-10 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

If you have been following the news over the past few weeks you will have seen what has been happening in Afghanistan as the United States of America and its allies have withdrawn and the Taliban has taken over. The scenes at the airport as desperate Afghans tried to get on evacuation flights were awful even before an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed more than 170 people. Australians have been trying desperately to get family out of Afghanistan; defence force veterans have been trying to get colleagues and their families to safety; and the saddest stories are perhaps those of the Hazara refugees who fled Afghanistan and arrived in Australia by boat, who are unable to even try to help their families to come to Australia because of the limitations on temporary protection visas. As one of them said, ‘I am human first of all. Why does it matter how I got here?’

Australia has seen similar scenes before, and in the past we were more helpful. This week, on his final day as Governor of South Australia, Hieu Van Le said:

Looking at the television news in the last few weeks and seeing the situation in Kabul in Afghanistan brings back so many sad memories to us. We relate it back to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. I was there. I have a deep, strong feeling of what the people there are going through, so I wish the world will look into this with a very generous and receptive view. They need help, and we need to provide them with whatever help that we can. Continue reading

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Sermon: Counting our blessings

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 29th of August, 2021

Song of Songs 2:8-13

Last week’s Reflection talked about the long history of lament in Judaism and Christianity, and said that if our response to the sixth lockdown was anger and despair then the heritage of our faith tells us that kicking and screaming and blaming God for God’s absence is a faithful response. That is still true. But I feel that as your minister I am compelled to balance a Reflection about anger and sadness with one about hope and joy. If you are not in a place where being encouraged to ‘count your blessings’ is helpful, then please ignore what I am saying today and return to last week’s Reflection. The Book of Lamentations moves from lament to praise and back to lament again, and we will all be in different places in that cycle.

Because Christianity was born in the northern hemisphere the liturgical year does not fit with Australia’s seasons. We celebrate new life at Easter in the autumn, and the coming of the Light in the darkness at midsummer rather than midwinter. But this week it is we who are in the right season and Christians in the northern hemisphere will be out of step. For us, when the first reading tells us ‘now the winter is past … The flowers appear on the earth’ we can look all around us and see that it is true. The lectionary gives Christians only this one reading from the Song of Songs over the entire three years, and we hear it in Spring. Continue reading

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Sermon: Blaming God

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 22nd of August, 2021

Lamentations 3:1-6, 19-26, 31-33
Psalm 130

On Thursday Melbourne had been in lockdown for two hundred days. Luckily for us those two hundred days did not all happen in the one lockdown, or I am not sure we could have coped, but it was still a difficult milestone. It did not help that 57 new cases were announced on the same day, even though most of the people infected had already been in isolation. This year, thank God, we are not seeing the hundreds of deaths from covid19 that we saw last year. Most of the deaths in 2020 were of people living in residential aged care, and in 2021 most aged care residents seem to have been vaccinated. Every day, as we get Victoria’s numbers, I look at the 0 deaths in gratitude and relief. But in some ways this sixth lockdown is harder than the second. Last year there were no vaccines; lockdowns were the only way of controlling covid19 that we had. When announcements about vaccinations were made at the beginning of this year the projection was that 70% of us would be fully vaccinated by now. The reality is that about a quarter of us are fully vaccinated. So Lockdown Six is causing huge frustration simply because we did not expect to still need lockdowns in the second half of 2021. Continue reading

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Sermon: God comes to us in bread

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 15th of August, 2021

John 6: 35, 41-51

I am not sure whether you will have noticed this, but something odd happens to the Lectionary in the weeks after Pentecost in Year B. If you have not noticed it before, it is this: suddenly, in the middle of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary leaves the gospel according to Mark behind and spends five weeks reading very slowly through the sixth chapter of John, which is all about bread. There is always a point during August in this Lectionary Year when ministers stare at the readings in exhaustion wondering what more we could possibly say about Jesus and bread. There is a reason that I sneakily took two weeks’ holiday during these John readings, and spent so much time on King David’s soap opera.

This chapter is the closest that John gets to telling us about Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. The gospel according to John has no narrative of the institution of the Eucharist. Rather than showing Jesus on the night of his betrayal inaugurating the new covenant by breaking bread and taking the cup, John shows Jesus tying a towel around his waist and washing his disciples’ feet. But that does not mean that John’s gospel has no Eucharistic references, and the passage from which today’s gospel reading comes is part of them. Continue reading

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Reflection: More of the David Soap Opera – rape, rebellion, death, grief.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
8th of August, 2021

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

During my recent holiday I kept myself amused by reading nine and a half books of the Bible, from the First Book of Samuel to halfway through the Book of Job, because what else was I going to do when most of my holiday coincided with Lockdown Five? Despite being sure that I had read every part of these books before I discovered some new stories. I knew the story of the she-bears who ate the rude children who called the Prophet Elisha ‘baldy’ (2 Kings 2:23-25), but I did not remember the story of King Uzziah getting leprosy because he was angry with the priests, (2 Chronicles 26:18-21), or the story of Governor Nehemiah pulling out the hair of those Jewish men who refused to repudiate their foreign wives and children. (Nehemiah 13:23-25)The Bible is a fascinating and strange collection. Continue reading

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Sermon: Bringing down walls

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
July 18th, 2021

Ephesians 2:11-22

Sometimes there is good news. Every week, as I think about the Bible readings for the coming Sunday, I look back to see what I have said about them in the past. This week I discovered something that hugely pleased me. Twelve years ago, when talking about today’s passage from the Letter to the Ephesians, I mentioned the continuing exclusion of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa from the World Council of Churches because of their support of apartheid in that country. The WCC had not expelled the Dutch Reformed Church; the Church withdrew itself in 1961. In 2009 it still had not returned, and in that very year the executive committee of the World Alliance of Reformed Church declared that it was not ready to readmit the Church to WARC after suspending it in 1982 because the Church had not yet renounced apartheid ‘fully and completely’.

But in June 2016 the Central Committee of the WCC, meeting in Norway, welcomed the Dutch Reformed Church back. Dr Agnes Abuom, a Kenyan Anglican, said that it was ‘a special joy to welcome back to the fellowship the Dutch Reformed Church, one of our founding member churches and now, a generation after the end of apartheid, a partner in building a future of justice for all peoples’; and Dr Gustav Claassen, the general secretary of the Dutch Reformed Church, said that they were, ‘really overwhelmed by the reaction … Our African brothers took special time and effort to share with us their joy’. Sometimes there is good news! Continue reading

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Not really a sermon about Michal

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
11th of July, 2021

1 Samuel 18: 20-29
1 Samuel 19:11-17
1 Samuel 25:43-44
2 Samuel 3:12-16
2 Samuel 6:1-5 12b-23

I keep referring to the story of King David of Judah and Israel as a soap opera, and today I’m going to ignore the lectionary suggestions and instead tell you the story of one of the most interesting characters in this soap opera – Michal the daughter of Saul and wife of David. The lectionary ignores her almost completely, and I suspect this is because the author of the books of Samuel portrays her as a brave and independent woman treated abominably by the great King David. So, of course, I think she needs to be remembered.

Michal was the younger daughter of Saul. Like her brother Jonathan, Michal loved David. We are told this in so many words: ‘Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David’. This is the only time in the entire Bible that we are told that a woman loves a man. We are not, however, told that David loves Michal in return. We have earlier been told that when Saul’s son Jonathan first met David, ‘the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul’. That love seems to have been reciprocated; when Jonathan dies, David laments: ‘I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’. Given the way that David treats the women in his life, that David cares more about the love between he and Jonathan than about the love of women is not really a surprise. Continue reading

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