July 17, 2022- sermon- Betsy Wooster

Sermon Text...


July 17, 2022 Sermon, Esther                                      Delivered by Pastor Betsy Wooster


Today we turn to the story of Esther in our summer sermon series, which is focused on people whose iconic stories fill the biblical canon. The book of Esther is familiar to some of you and may be completely unknown by others. The story is found in the Hebrew Scriptures in our Old Testament, and it lends itself to dramatic storytelling for all ages. It is recounted at the Jewish festival of Purim each year.


There is a wonderful children’s musical based on Esther, called Malice in the Palace, that emulates these basic themes: Stand up for what is right. Be firm, be brave. Hold tight to what is true.


Esther is an immersive story, that draws people into a dynamic narrative that reveals truths beneath the suspenseful plot. Like Jonah, who we studied two weeks ago, this narrative is a bit more like a parable than the historical narrative that it sounds like as we read it.

So, what is it we’re doing reading this old story? Like many important stories, we don’t know if everything actually happened as it is told, but we know that there are ways in which this story is true. It is certainly true that the Hebrew people have found themselves under threat from stronger powers again and again and again.  The story addresses the fact that the Hebrew nation was constantly threatened and conquered by more powerful empires, from Egypt to Syria to Babylon.


And it is in Babylon that Esther’s narrative begins. We do know that the Hebrew people were taken into exile in Babylon roughly around 587 BCE, following a ten-year war. I invite you into this story, letting its images unfold in your mind’s eye and perhaps imagining what the peril in their lives might look like in our world today. It is a story of a conquered nation where the people are taken as prisoners into a foreign land. Their lives are no longer their own.


The story begins, not with Esther, but with Ahasuerus, king of Persia in the 5th century before Christ, and his queen, Vashti. At the end of a feast that the king has thrown to impress all the men who govern regions of his kingdom, a party with endless wine that has lasted weeks and weeks in the capital, the king sends a message to have Vashti appear before all these men, to be put on display as it were, to impress them. Vashti refuses to come, and she meets with punishment. The king dismisses and abandons Vashti to suffer without home or security. The king then has all the young maidens of the kingdom brought before him, and he chooses Esther to be his new queen. 





Esther’s story concerns the human history of abusive power. The Hebrew people were living in Persia after Jerusalem was destroyed by the kingdom of Babylon and the people taken by force into exile. This background is important to understand Esther’s precarious situation. She becomes queen not by courtship or romance or even by accepting a proposal, but by being rounded up along with virgins from all the realm into the king’s harem and being the one with whom the king became pleased, all the while hiding her identity as a Hebrew.


So now, she is in this position, bound to obey the orders of the king and everyone knew what would happen if she didn’t. The story’s villain is an influential member of the royal court, Haman, who pays the king a sum of money for the privilege of a decree that will allow Haman to kill all of the Hebrew people who live in the kingdom. The story’s heroine is Queen Esther, over whom the king has terrible power. Even so, Esther speaks up about Haman’s planned genocide, identifying herself as a Hebrew, and risks her own safety to secure the safety of her people, in collaboration with her Uncle Mordecai, who is also in exile.


It’s actually a little unusual that Esther is in the scriptures at all. First, there is no reference to God in the entire book. Second, not one New Testament author ever referred to her story. For this reason, it’s inclusion in the scriptures was controversial among early Christians, and even before this, it was controversial within some Jewish quarters. Some in the early Rabbinical tradition did not want this book to be included in the canon. If God isn’t mentioned, then where is God in the story? Today, we consider why it IS included. Listen for the danger Esther is in as she confronts the King, about Haman’s genocidal scheme in chapter 4, verses 10-17:


“10Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai saying, 11‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden sceptre to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.’ 12When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ 15Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ 17Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.”

Esther lifts her voice against Haman, a perpetrator of violence, at great risk to herself because it was the right thing to do. It was Esther’s time. As her uncle Mordecai had said to her: perhaps you have arrived at the place where you are for just such a time as this.

And now let’s listen for Esther’s courage further along in the story, in chapter 7, verses 1-6:


“1So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’ 3Then Queen Esther answered, ‘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. 4For 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.’ 5Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’ 6Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.”  (End of scripture reading.)


“I and my people were taken to be annihilated,” Esther said to the king. Is it any wonder that Esther would be celebrated for her courage, for her resistance, for her pivotal role in saving a vulnerable people who had been at risk time and again? And, what does this say to us?

Esther is remembered for rising to the time when her voice was needed to protect others – not herself - her words actually PUT herself at risk –to protect those who would suffer if things didn’t change.


A part of our journey is to have the wisdom and resources of those who have gone before us, and that includes the scriptures, and that includes the book of Esther. For centuries, people have found that paying attention to this story will illuminate our own lives. As a community, we are seeking to draw our lives more closely to that which is good and meaningful, and we have found that the way of Jesus is a bright and guiding light to what makes life good and full of meaning.

It doesn’t mean that we have all the answers for the complex issues in life. It means that we are on a journey together, that is inspired by and centered on the life of Jesus – not because we have an exclusive claim to all truth, but because we have found the truth that speaks to us through the life of Jesus.




How do we know where God is in our decisions? It requires our discernment. It invites us to study the scriptures and deepen our spiritual lives; it invites us into an active prayer life; it invites us into this church, this community of shared faith, where together we seek the courage to follow in the way of Christ, the way of God. God gives us courage to be honest when it is hard to do so.


God is not mentioned in the book of Esther, but God is in the story. People have found God in those who have remained true when it would have been easier to assimilate and be secure with untruth. Perhaps God is in our choice to show courage, to be honest even where there is risk. Esther’s risk was saving an entire community of people. God willing, we will not face that kind of choice. But we make choices all the time that hold risk, and God is in our courage to be honest and to be brave.


What if courage begins with our own wellbeing? What if learning to recognize God in our personal struggles is necessary before we can have courage more broadly? Personal struggles can manifest in many ways. What if it means something as simple, but also as challenging, as seeking the mental health support that we need? Surely, God is in the courage and honesty of recognizing anxiety, depression, and unsolved pathologies. Surely God is in the courage and honesty of people who say I have an addiction, and I can’t do this on my own. God is in the decision to seek therapy, to see a counselor, to face what is difficult, whatever that may be.


There are many ways to be in exile, and God is in the midst of each unique struggle that we face.

Esther might have played it safe by keeping quiet and covering up the truth about who she was, and about the injustice in the world. Instead, she found courage. God gave her courage. Though there was malice, deception, danger, intrigue and drama, there was something deeper at the center of this story. At the heart of the story lies courage. At the heart of courage, is God.