God Is In The Place You Find Yourself
July 1st, 2018 sermon
By John Ulrich, Senior Pastor
Esther 1 and 2
Are life’s happenings by chance or only a cause and effect of obedience or sin? Our new series, Hidden, is a study of the books of Esther and Proverbs showing us how God is in the everyday moments of life regardless where that is! From this piece of Esther’s story, we can affirm, God loves us and cares for us… always.
It seems God is hidden in the story of Esther, but upon a closer look, we see God is not absent, but putting the pieces in place for the rescue and deliverance of his people. During King Xerxes council of war feast, he summons his wife, Vashti, to parade at his command, she refused, and thus is removed as queen. To save face for the King, his “wise” council proposes a solution that allows Esther, a Jew (although unknown at this time), to be selected from a harem of beautiful women as the new Queen. Meanwhile, Mordecai, who was Esther’s older cousin and guardian, employed at the Palace’s Gate, overhears an assassination attempt against King Xerxes’ life. Naturally, Mordecai tells Esther, who tells her husband, the king, so the plot is thwarted, and well, Mordecai goes down into the king’s history books as a good guy.
Even though there is no mention of God’s name in the context of Esther, He is not hidden, but in the details throughout. Here’s what her story says about our story today.
I. God cares for his people.
Esther and Mordecai were Jews who lived in the Gentile-powered territory of Persia. In this wicked place, they likely wondered: “does God still care for us?” It’s to this case and point, Esther’s story demonstrates that no matter where God’s people are, no matter what is going on in their lives, He cares about them. Jews continue to celebrate her story at the annual feast of Purim to remember God’s rescue and deliverance of his people. Esther was read in concentration camps to remember God was there in all circumstances. As for Esther and for us, we can trust we are known to Him.
II. God cares even when we don’t care for him.
Esther and Mordecai don’t seem to be individuals who acknowledge a need for God. Unlike Daniel in a similar situation, there’s no testament of faith, no prayer. They shouldn’t even be in Persia, but back in Israel rebuilding their homeland as Israel’s exile ended during the former King Cyrus’ reign. And, yet, here they are. Their disobedience, again, speaks to God’s message of unconditional love. We can never do anything to cause God to love us more, nor anything for him to love us less. God occupies the space where we find ourselves — aware of him or not.
III. God works through the strangest of circumstances.
The book of Esther is a story about God’s rescue of his people. A rescue that required a lot of circumstances — both good and bad — to bring about this story of deliverance. Just as he carefully scripted Esther’s story, He is scripting yours. That means, regardless of the circumstances in which you find yourself, self-imposed or otherwise, God is involved.
- How has God moved in unseen or unusual ways in your life? How might he be moving now?
- As our stories intertwine with others’ stories, we all become part of God’s bigger story. Who might you be encouraging as Hegai, the Eunuch, encouraged and supported Esther?
- As Christians, we are to speak God’s words to encourage each other. What words of life do you go to when circumstances cause doubt in his sovereign grace?
So the story of the book of Esther starts in about 483 BC during the rule of a great and powerful Persian Emperor who was called in Hebrew “Ahasuerus.” I think that name sounds like something you say when you sneeze. (Get ready for some awesome names in Esther!) That’s how you say his name in Hebrew. He was probably known better by the Greek pronunciation of his name: Xerxes. You may have heard of Xerxes. Xerxes was a world-famous King. He was the one who attacked Greece in the Battle of Thermopylae. That’s a battle where a handful of Spartans were said to have held off thousands upon thousands of Persian soldiers. The movie “300” is about that battle. So if you’ve seen “300,” Xerxes is that King.
The book of Esther starts just before that battle in 383 BC, when Xerxes held a gigantic feast. The purpose of the feast was actually more than just to feast. The feast was actually a council of war. Xerxes was a planning the campaign that would include the battle of Thermopylae. The wealth of the feast was mind-blowing. Xerxes needed time to recruit and consolidate all his military assets – his generals, his armies, his allies. So he held a feast that lasted half a year! Persia had vast resources. When Alexander the Great entered Susa, he found 1,200 tons of gold and silver bullion and 270 tons of gold coins. This wealth was on full display in this decadent feast. The purpose was war. The wealth was mind-blowing and the wine? Well, the situation with the wine in this feast was a little strange. The supply was ample, of course. This was the final seven days of the feast, the grand finale that included the whole city, so the alcohol was flowing. But Esther tells us that the policy was this: Drink whatever you want. Drink as much as you want, and get as drunk as you want.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the reason that this was the policy at this Council of War is that the Persians had an unusual idea about how to draw up important plans. They believed, as many ancient cultures did, that intoxication, having too much to drink, actually put them in touch with the Spiritual world (spirits!). So Herodotus tells us their policy was to make their plans while they were drunk and then confirm them when they were sober. He also tells us that if they happened to think of a plan while they were sober, they would immediately get drunk to confirm it.
This was the state they were in at the end of this feast. While they were in this state, Xerxes made a bad decision! On a drunken whim, he decided to show off his trophy wife. He called for Vashti, his beautiful wife who was holding a feast for the women in another part of the Palace, to come so that he could show everyone that he was not only rich he also had a hot wife.
Now we don’t know Vashti’s situation. Some historians actually think she was pregnant with Xerxes, Jr. but whatever Vashti’s situation was, this drunken demand did not sit well with her. She said “no.”
When Vashti refused to come, Xerxes was furious! He needed to convince his people, his commanders, and his allies, that he could successfully command his troops in an extended military campaign in a distant country AND HE COULDN’T EVEN COMMAND HIS WIFE!!! She had made him lose face at the crucial moment in his career. So he called a meeting of his “wise men” and asked them what he should do. These were his most trusted advisors. They were the only people in the Kingdom who were able to come and go in the King’s presence without his express invitation. Even his wife wasn’t allowed to do that.
So they were close to the King. Oh, and they were apparently a little bit sexist. Because rather than helping the King patch up his marriage or helping him see the stupidity of the demand he had made to Vashti, a guy named Memucan spoke and put all the blame on Vashti. He said that she had wounded not only the King and the Wise men but every man in the Kingdom by her refusal to come at the King’s whim. And Memucan suggested they draft a proclamation that said four things:
- Vashti could never go in to the King’s presence again.
- That her place as queen should be given to someone better than her.
- That every man in the kingdom should be master of his house.
- That in multi-cultural homes, where the husband and wife spoke different languages (and there would have been a lot of these in the Kingdom because of all the relocated, conquered people groups) that in those homes the children should speak the language of the Father, not the mother.
That’s what Memucan and the King’s advisor’s proposed. The King went for it. He sent out the proclamation literally by pony express. He declared every man master of his house, and he deposed Vashti.
Some time later when his anger had cooled down a little bit, Xerxes started asking himself how he was actually going to go about finding a new queen. This time his young men, not the wise men, came up with the idea. It was a typical “young man” kind of idea. They said “Why not hold a giant beauty contest? Go and gather the most beautiful girls in the kingdom. Put them all in a harem. Give the King a night with them one at a time and let him pick the one he wants.”
In Ancient Persian, this custom was called “yeBaqshu.” You may recognize it. It’s the root word for our English term “The Bachelor.” Just kidding! (yeBaqshu is Hebrew.) But that is pretty much what it was – a season, a full contact season, of the Bachelor. So just about the time that Xerxes got ready to head to Thermopylae, they started rounding up all the beautiful girls. They put them in the Harem. They gave them 12 months of beauty treatments. Then the girls got ready one by one to spend a night with the King.
Now in the midst of this craziness we meet the main characters of our story: Mordecai, a Jew who was probably employed at the Palace of Xerxes and whose name was derived from the Babylonian Storm god “Marduk” and his younger cousin, Hadassah who he had taken under his wing and raised as a daughter when her parents died. Hadassah means “myrtle,” like the flowering bush in Hebrew. We know her better by her Persian name “Esther” which actually comes from the goddess “Ishtar.”
So in the midst of all this hulabaloo Esther was chosen to be on The Bachelor, because apparently Esther was fine! She had a beautiful figure, and she was lovely to look at. So she got put in the Harem. She really must have been quite something, because not only did she make it into the Harem but she also caught the attention of Hegai, the Eunuch who was in charge of the Harem. He, for reasons that are not fully explained, decided to favor Esther greatly. He started her beauty treatments right away. He provided her with seven girls to serve her, and he put her in the best place in the Harem. They developed a friendship, and they must have conspired together. When it was her turn to be with the King, she didn’t ask for clothing and jewelry that she thought would impress the King. She let Hegai pick it out for her.
He must have chosen well, because Xerxes not only remembered her name and called for her again but out of all the girls he chose Esther to be his queen. I don’t know if he gave her a rose or not, but he did give her a giant feast and a royal crown. He gave everybody a giant tax cut in Esther’s name just so they would like her. Esther became the queen of Persia!
But there’s one more piece from the beginning of the story of Esther that we need to know today. Some time after Esther was appointed queen, Mordecai was at the palace. He probably worked there, so he was there at what was called “the Palace gate.” Actually, archaeologists tell us it was a big building built into the gate where much of the palace business was conducted. Anyway, Mordecai was there one day when he heard two of Xerxes’ trusted servants who were angry at some decision he had made plotting to assassinate him. Mordecai went straight to Esther and told her what he had heard. Esther told the King what Mordecai had said, and the King found out that it was true. The two servants were impaled on giant stakes outside the palace, and Queen Esther’s husband, Xerxes, was rescued by Mordecai.
So that’s the story of Esther 1-2. Vashti is deposed. Esther becomes queen. Mordecai saves the King. But what on earth does this little piece of Esther’s story mean to you and me? What is God saying to his people here? What do we need to know, or feel, or do as a result of this story?
That’s not an easy question to answer, because Esther is a very puzzling book of the Bible. It’s an unusual book. There are a lot of things that are puzzling about this book that we don’t have time to go into, but the most puzzling thing about Esther by far is a question that scholars have been asking literally for centuries, and it’s this: Where is God? Where is God in the book of Esther? That’s a strange question to ask of a book of the Bible, isn’t it? I mean the Bible is a book about God, by God. So God should be easy to find. But it’s a real question for the book of Esther. There’s no mention in Esther of anything related to God. No mention of the Commandments that God gave Israel. There’s no mention of sacrifices or of the temple, no direct mention of prayer. In fact in Esther, there is no mention of God, no mention of his covenant name, not even any mention of the general Hebrew word for deity.
It cries out for it! There are spots in the book where we want to say to Mordecai or to Esther or to the writer “State your faith! Pray to God. Talk about God. At least acknowledge him.” But his name is absent for ten chapters. He’s never mentioned. By contrast, Ephesians, which is only six chapters long, mentions God in one form or another 144 times. But not Esther. In fact, if you took the word “Jews” out of Esther and replaced it with some other ethnic group, there would be no reason to think this should be part of the Bible. Because of that, some Christians have not thought that it should be part of the Bible. There have always been Christians that looked at Esther with a skeptical eye. Martin Luther called himself an enemy of Esther and said that it had too many “heathen unnaturalities.” God is hidden in Esther. But listen, that’s not a mistake. That’s not an oversight. That’s not grounds for dismissal from the Bible. That’s actually the point of Esther and the point of this series.
There are times when God is hidden. There are times when his name is not written in capital letters on every page of the script of our lives. There are times when we can’t see God, because we’ve been ignoring him. There are times when we look for God and can’t seem to find him. Everybody goes through times like that.
The book of Esther was written to teach God’s people that he’s there even when his name isn’t mentioned, even when we don’t see him directly. He’s the hidden God, and he’s writing your story whether you see him or not.
So what do we learn about this hidden God from Esther 1-2? Well, today we are looking at the part where God puts the pieces of this story in place. What we learn, as we see these pieces laid out, is that God is in the place you find yourself. The place you find yourself is not an accident of happenstance. It’s not random. It’s not meaningless. God is in it. Notice three things from the story:
God Cares for His People
Esther and Mordecai were Jews who were part of what is called “the exile.” Esther is almost the last thing written in the Old Testament. By the time this story comes along, Israel had been overthrown by truly wicked Gentile (non-Jewish) nations and exiled, scattered all over the region. This was something that God had warned Israel about again and again: “If you don’t stop doing evil, you’re going to suffer military defeat and be scattered among the nations.”
So here are Esther and Mordecai alone in Susa, far, far away from God’s country. They are at the very center of Gentile power, seemingly out of sight and out of mind for God. They had to be wondering what every Jew in the exile was wondering: “Does God still care for us? Is he still watching over us the way he did in the days of Abraham of Moses of David? Is he still in our lives?” So God shares this story to demonstrate the fact that no matter where God’s people are, no matter what is going on in their lives, He cares about them.
This is a fact that Jews all around the world celebrate every year in the feast of Purim. They gather at the synagogue. They give each other gifts. They eat special food and wear costumes of Esther, Mordecai, Xerxes and Haman. They read Esther out loud. Every time Haman’s name is mentioned, they boo and stamp their feet and yell “Cursed by Haman. Blessed be Mordecai and Esther.” In some synagogues, they drink a lot of wine in celebration. It’s a joyous time of year for them some people call it Jewish Mardi Gras. They celebrate, because they recognize that God cares for his people.
But even when times are not joyous, the message of Esther holds true. God still cares for his people. For that very reason, the book of Esther was read in the concentration camps where the Nazis held the Jews in World War II. The Nazis had strictly forbidden any text any reading of the book of Esther in these concentration camps, because they knew this was a message about God’s care and deliverance for the Jewish people. Jewish inmates in Auschwitz, in Dakau, in Treblinka gathered quietly they took turns writing what they could remember of the book of Esther on scraps of paper. On the day of Purim, they read it in whispers to one another to remind each other that God cares for his people no matter what circumstances they find themselves in.
Can I tell you something this morning? God cares for you. No matter where you’re at, no matter what you’re going through, even if you seem to be all alone in a godless place, God cares for you. He loves you. Maybe, just like in this book, God seems to be missing. You’re thinking “Where are you right now? Why don’t you seem to be part of my story? Why do I feel like I’m on my own?” He’s still there. He still cares for you. He sees your loss. He sees your pain. He sees what you give up in order to do what’s right and serve him. He sees your sadness, your loneliness, the struggles in your marriage, and he cares.
I spoke to a wonderful Christian lady this week about the struggle she had in the last years of her mother’s life, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She talked about how hard that really was, how that no one could really know what a toll that took on her, how heartbreaking it was to watch her mother’s personality completely change from the loving person she knew. She said the last words her mother spoke to her were: “If I could get hold of you, I would kill you with my bare hands”. Obviously, that wasn’t her mom. She talked about how heartbreaking that was and how alone she felt as she went through that. It felt like her mom had left her. I think, at times, it felt like God had left her. But she said she realizes now that God cares. that he was there for her, even when she couldn’t see it. That’s the first thing these chapters teach us: God cares for his people.
God Cares Even When We Don’t Care For Him
This, in many ways, is the point of the book of Esther. Many people look at the beginning of Esther, and because it doesn’t mention God, they don’t know quite what to do with it. We’re not sure what to focus on. What are we supposed to learn from this? What does the writer actually want us to take away from it? Does the writer want us to focus on Vashti’s refusal to come before Xerxes? Probably not. The writer doesn’t actually tell us if she was good or bad. Do he want us to focus on the King’s horrible treatment of women as a bad example, because he does treat women horribly? He treats his wife as an object. He holds a beauty contest to replace he. He sleeps with a different girl every night. It’s horrible.
But again, the writer doesn’t seem to make this the focus of the passage. We need to know this, because we need to know what Esther is up against here. She’s up against a King with absolute power, a King who can call a 180 day feast, a King who can throw his wife away, a King who can seize any girl in the Kingdom he wants for himself. We need to know that’s what Esther is up against here. But even with that, that doesn’t seem to be what the writer wants us to focus on. I don’t think that’s it.
We might also be tempted to focus on Esther and Mordecai as positive examples and to make that the point of the book: Be like Esther! That’s the way I’ve always heard the book taught. Be like Esther! Esther and Mordecai are the heroes. But listen, the point of the book is NOT to imitate Mordecai and Esther. That’s not the point at all. They are both called by pagan names. They never talk about God. Unlike Daniel, they don’t have any trouble hiding their Jewish identity, which means that they were NOT living the way God told them to live. Esther behaves immorally with a Pagan King. In addition to all this, they were not supposed to be where they were at. If you know Old Testament history, you know that by the time Xerxes ruled Persia the exile was supposed to be over. Xerxes’ Grandfather, Cyrus, had given permission for the Jews to leave Persia and return to their homeland to rebuild the temple. The prophets told them to go. Before the exile, Isaiah prophesied King Cyrus by name and told Israel “When that guy reigns, go back and rebuild.” Isaiah Jeremiah Ezekiel. They had all told the Jews to return to Israel. Those, like Esther and Mordecai, that didn’t do it just made it harder on those who had obeyed. Listen Mordecai and Esther, although they had their good moments, were NOT good examples to be followed. They actually didn’t care much about God.
Again, that’s the point of this book. God cares about his people, not just when they are obeying him, not just when they are where they are supposed to be doing what they are supposed to be doing. He cares about them at all times, even when they don’t care for him. He always cares about his people. Always. That doesn’t mean that our disobedience won’t sometimes land us in difficult circumstances. Sometimes it will. Sometimes there are natural consequences to be faced. Sometimes, God actually disciplines us, to call us back to health and life.
But listen, the equation isn’t just “God loves me when I’m obedient and hates me when I’m not.” Let me say that again: If you think that’s the way it works, that you can somehow behave your way into God’s love and disobey your way out of it, then I’ve got news for you. You’re way off on how sinful you really are. You can never be good enough to earn the love God has given you. You are even further off on how much God loves you. God is so much better than that. His love is so much bigger than that.
The Bible says that nothing can separate God’s people from his love. The Bible says that “Here’s how God shows his love for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Listen if you have ever trusted in Christ, even if it was decades ago, even if there’s a lot of misbehavior and water that’s gone under that bridge, I can promise you something: God loves you. This isn’t about him being mad at you. He’s so much better than that. So if you think your misbehavior has somehow separated you from God’s care, please think again. Maybe it’s time to come back. He loves you. He cares about you.
God cares about his people. God cares about his people, even when they don’t care about him. Now one last point:
God Works Through the Strangest of Circumstances
Listen, the book of Esther is a story about God’s rescue of his people. Chapters 1 & 2 are the part of the story where God puts all the pieces in place. God is putting the pieces where he will need them to rescue his people. God is going to need Esther to be queen. He’s going to need Mordecai to advise Esther and eventually Xerxes. He will need Xerxes to be ready to listen to Esther at the right moment In chapters 1-2, he’s putting all the pieces exactly where he wants them to be.
But notice the circumstances God uses to do that. He uses all sorts of circumstances, some that are good, some that are not so good, some that are downright crazy. He uses the drunken whim of a King. He uses the refusal of a wife to be made a trophy of. He uses the counsel of pagan advisors. He uses a lewd beauty contest and a harem, the last place you would expect God to be at work. He uses a friendship with a Eunuch that gives Esther good advice. He uses Mordecai giving loving advice to his adopted daughter, Esther, and bumbling into the right place at just the right time to save the King. He uses all these things to put the pieces in place for this story of deliverance.
Now here’s what I want you to understand today: God cares about you and, just like in Esther, he’s writing a story, a story that involves you, but a story that is much bigger than you. He has a role that he wants you to play, a place where he wants you to stand. We’ve talked about this in the last three weeks, as we’ve looked at the Armor of God. He’s putting you in place to play your part for the good of his people.
He uses all kinds of circumstances to get you where he needs you to be. Some circumstances in our lives that are obviously good. Some circumstances that seem to be not so good, and some circumstances that just seem crazy.
He uses them all as he works for the good of his people, as he works for your good. He’s at work in our lives, whether we see him or not, whether we are obeying him or not, whether we understand or not. He’s working for our good through the strangest of circumstances, because he cares for his people. He loves you, and he’s active in your life. God is in the place you find yourself.