Sunday, September 3rd's wonderful message “The Beauty Queen Who Faced the Beast” by Rev. Toni Carmer continuing week 20 of a 31 week study of “The Story – The Bible as One Continuous Story of God and His People.”
The Beauty Queen Who Faced the Beast
First United Methodist Church, September 3, 2017
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
Like last week's story about Daniel, this morning's story about Queen Esther is a little different than the ones we've read previously… It's about that period of time when the people of God are living in Babylon, in exile, after having been taken there by King Nebuchadnezzar. Although the book of Esther has not been valued by some because of its lack of explicit reference to God, to worship, to prayer or sacrifice, it seems to me to be an important story of how a faithful remnant of God's people held onto their faith, found courage in their faith, and how they looked out for one another.
This week's reading is found in chapter 20 of the Story, "The Queen of Beauty and Courage" and in the Old Testament Book of Esther. Here is her story:
Long ago, in the city of Susa, in an area known today as Khuzistan in southwestern Iran, there lived a foolish king named Ahasuerus, called Xerxes in the NIV, who ruled over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. On the final night of a week-long party that he had thrown for all his nobles, officials and military leaders—at a banquet where all had been encouraged to drink with no restrictions and were in high spirits from wine—King Xerxes called for his wife to come before his assembled guests wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to all, for she was lovely to look at. But Queen Vashti refused.
Perhaps his request seems a small thing, one she might have easily responded to—even though, at the same time the men were partying together, she was hosting a gathering of the women. Still, if all she had to do was go in, take a bow, smile, do a parade wave and walk back out, not a big deal. But according to Midrash, the rabbinical writings surrounding the story that aren't included in scripture, there was a little more to it than that. Apparently, the King's request was that Queen Vashti appear before the great crowd of drinking men in her royal crown, and nothing else. They tell us that Vashti attempted to appeal to her husband's sense of decency: "If your guests consider me beautiful, they will want me for themselves and kill you so they might have me. If they do not consider me beautiful, you will be humiliated for having presented me." There was some more back and forth between them with the queen finally telling her husband that in her father's court, not even those who had committed crimes were not stripped of their clothes before being punished. But Xerxes wasn't burdened with those concerns on that particular day.
The king spoke to his advisors about his queen's refusal. They responded: "How can a wife refuse to obey her husband? If your wife refuses his Majesty's order, then all of the wives may refuse their husbands, all through the kingdom! Your majesty, you must punish her!"
And so he did. Vashti was to never again enter the king's presence. She would no longer be queen and someone who was "better than she" would take her place. In addition, an edict is sent throughout the land, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household.
After a time, the king becomes lonely and decides to take a new queen. The prettiest girls and women of the 127 provinces are brought before the king, that he might choose one who pleases him. After an extended period of preparation for each of the women, the king chooses the beautiful Esther.
Now, Esther is an orphan, a Jewish woman in the care of her uncle, Mordecai. When Esther is chosen queen, Mordecai stations himself at the palace gates to keep close to her. And while there, Mordecai hears two of the gate-keepers plotting to kill the king. Quickly he informs his niece, who informs the king, letting him know that it was Mordecai who uncovered the plot. The accusations are investigated and found to be true, the conspirators eliminated and the incident documented in the book of Chronicles.
At this time, the king's most trusted advisor is Hamon. He is a wicked man who demands that all bow down to him. The only one who refuses to bow is Esther's uncle Mordecai. "Why do you disobey the order?" Haman asks. "Because I am a Jew," Mordecai explains, "and I kneel only to God."
This makes Haman so angry that he plots to kill all the Jews in all the king's provinces. Haman is described as an Agagite, thought to have been a descendent of King Agog the Amalekite whom God told King Saul to destroy, but he didn't do it. (Remember the story when Saul had been instructed by God to wipe out the Amalekites, but he chose to save the best livestock and spared the king's life and the prophet Samuel wasn't pleased? The story is in 1 Samuel 15). So Haman has this long history with the people of Israel, and now they're in Persia, and he's not very happy about it. They may be in exile from their homeland, but they've settled in the land, many are quite prosperous…thriving… Not all of the citizens of Persia, including Haman, are impressed with these foreigners settling into their land, bringing with them their differences—their religion, their customs, their language.
Haman casts pur, or lots, to determine on what day he will have the Jews put to death. The date chosen is the 13th day of Adar, the 12th month. Then Haman tells the king, "There is a certain people who do not obey your laws. Let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay the king's treasury 10,000 talents of silver." (That was about 2/3 of man's annual wages.) Haman is either a very wealthy man, or knows that he will be able to take a significant amount of plunder in the killing of the Jews.
Xerxes agrees, and word is sent throughout the kingdom that on the 13th of Adar all the Jews are to be slain.
When the Jews learn of their fate, there is weeping and wailing. Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes, and Esther sends one of her attendants out to him to find out what is happening. Mordecai tells the attendant all that has happened, gives her a copy of the edict and instructs Esther to plead with the king on behalf of her people.
Now, in those days, when a queen was summoned she was expected to appear, and she also was not allowed to just go and talk with the king whenever she wanted. She had to wait to be summoned like everyone else. If she appeared to the king without being sent for, she risked her life, because if the king didn't want to see her he could have her killed immediately. But if he held out his scepter to her, he would welcome her presence and listen to her request.
Esther tells Mordecai she cannot appear before Xerxes. "But you must," Mordecai tells her. "If you do not, ultimately, God's deliverance will arise from another place, but at this time, you and your people will be killed. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this…"
Esther can't help but be afraid. The queen she followed had taken a risk and lost. She might lose her life! She fasts and prays for 3 days, asking Mordecai and all of the people of Israel in Susa to do the same. At last she decides she must go. She approaches the king's throne. He looks up at her. Her heart beats wildly. Then he holds his scepter out to her, and she approaches. "Your majesty," she asks, "would you grant me a great favor?"
She holds her breath.
"Anything you wish, my queen, even if it be to half my kingdom," he replies.
"Would you and your advisor do me the honor of attending a banquet with me?"
"Anything you wish," replies the king.
Haman is quite pleased with himself to be included in the invitation, to have a meal with the king and queen. And not only that, but he is asked to join them again—for a second banquet on the following day! He feels even more important and full of himself. As he passes Mordecai at the gate that day, he is even more angered when Mordecai refuses to bow to him. So he hurries home, and with the encouragement of his wife and friends, erects a pole in his yard where he intends to impale Mordecai on the following day (that was the preferred method of execution in Persia in that day).
Night falls. The king can't sleep. He calls for his book of Chronicles, where the record of his reign is recorded. Perhaps some reading will quiet his mind. In the annals he found mention that Mordecai the Jew had saved him from an assassination plot.
"How did I thank Mordecai," he asks his attendant.
"You didn't. The man was never so honored," he is informed.
"Never honored? Hmmm…Who is about at this hour?"
The attendant spots Haman. "Your advisor, Haman, your Majesty."
"Send him to me."
Haman appears before the king. Xerxes asks, "How would you honor a man who had done a great deed for his king?"
Haman thinks the king means to honor him. "I would outfit him in a royal robe that Your Highness has worn, sit him upon a fine horse that the king has ridden, one with the royal crest placed on its head. Then, I'd have one of your royal princes lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming for all to hear: This is what is done for the man that the king delights to honor!"
"What a great idea," Xerxes says. "Do this for my subject Mordecai!" [don't ya love poetic justice!?]
Haman is mortified (Randy Frazee calls it "morticaied", which I think is pretty fun!), but he doesn't dare tell the king. In the morning he parades Mordecai through the streets. And his anger grows. He returns home just long enough to hear from his wife and friends that it doesn't look like things are going the way they had hoped before the king's eunuch comes to whisk him off for the second banquet. Maybe this will help restore his good mood.
Esther had wanted to tell the king about Haman's evil plot. Yesterday she had tired, but she couldn't find the words. Her mouth went dry and her hands shook. Today she has to do it.
The king asks, "Esther, what is your wish and your request? Even if it be to half the kingdom, it shall be granted."
Esther stands up and takes a deep breath. "Your majesty," she begins, "there is an evil man who wishes to kill me and all my people. Let my life be spared and spare the lives of my people. That is my request."
"Who is this evil one?" thunders Xerxes.
"There," she points. "Your advisor, Haman."
The king is furious. He orders Haman be impaled on the pole built for Mordecai. Haman's property is given to Esther and she appoints Mordecai as its administrator. Mordecai becomes the chief advisor for the king.
As for the edict, it cannot be changed. But a second edict is issued in which the king allows the Jews to fight against anyone who threatens them. On the 13th of Adar, there is fighting and bloodshed throughout the kingdom. Perhaps, too, there are places where people lay down their arms and embrace one another, but of that we do not know.
We do know that on the 14th day of Adar, the Jewish people are still alive, and there is feasting and joy. And to this day the festival of Purim commemorates the foolish of Xerses, the wise Mordecai, the evil Haman, and the beautiful Esther, whose courage helped to save her people.
It's a good story, isn't it? And there are several things that come to my mind that are important for us to consider:
1. The role of women: We've come a long way, baby, and yet…sometimes I'm still disappointed that women's voices aren't always listened to as carefully as men's voices. A presenter at the Willowcreek Leadership summit a couple of weeks ago talked about how a little girl who directs activities of her friends is too often still called bossy, while her little boy counterpart is thought to be a leader in the making. It's something we need to think about as we raise our daughters and our granddaughters.
2. The use of power: King Xerses pronounces 3 decrees in this story, and none are revocable. The second decree, sent forth by Haman on behalf of the king establishing the day when it's a free-for-all for killing and plundering the Jews of Persia is ultimately overridden by an equal counter-decree, that they have the right to fight back and do the same… but…that unbridled power seemed ridiculous. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it… And those who are in power need to think through our words and our actions to be sure what we do will take us to where we want to go.
3. Anti-Semitism, racism, the treatment of refugees, aliens, persons who come to live among us. That's an undercurrent of this whole story, and not an issue that's addressed there, but it certainly is a part of our world and our lives today, and something that we need to think about as Christians. How do we treat one another, how do we care for one another, how do we welcome one another?
4. The need for courage and wisdom, and for good people to be willing to step up, to speak out. Esther didn't have to take the risk of stepping up and speaking to the king. Mordecai had advised her to not share her ethnicity, and no one seemed to know until she told the king in Haman's presence at the second banquet. She could have just stayed quiet; enjoyed her position and power, even as her people would eventually fall victim to the evil plan of Haman. But she took a risk. She stepped out. And she saved her people.
In a lot of ways, Queen Esther was a revolutionary. Revolutionaries don't always carry guns, or signs or lead marches…sometimes they're dressed like a princess, or in the kinds of clothes that you and I wear to work or to school or around the house. Revolutionaries are people who have the courage to do what needs to be done, to say what needs to be said…to step up…to step out…to take a risk… I think that's who we are called to be as disciples of Jesus Christ. I think that's who we're called to be as the church. Together, we can bring transformation in our world. That's the good news. Amen.