For such a time as this
Will you recognize the moment in which you are called upon to exercise your gifts? asks Samuel Wells.
February 2, 2009 | Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached Oct. 1, 2006, in Duke University Chapel in observance of Founders Day.
It takes you by surprise. You get a phone call. Or maybe someone calls round to your house unannounced. You can tell by the tone of voice that this is something different. “Have you got a few moments. Can I talk to you about something?” You say “Yes, of course. Why don’t we sit down?” Your heart misses a beat because you feel the intensity of the moment. And within a few seconds a new reality unfolds. Something deep down in your stomach starts to tell you: “This conversation is going to shape the rest of my life. This news affects me in a different way to the way it affects anyone else.”
That’s what it was like when Esther got a message from her cousin Mordecai. They were living in Susa, one of four capitals in the great Persian Empire. It was 475 years before Christ. A hundred years previously, the Jewish people had been overrun by the Chaldeans and had been taken into exile in Babylon. Fifty years later, Babylon was conquered by the Persians and the Jews were allowed to return home. But some Jews chose to stay where they were. They had discovered something very important. God did not just live in the land of Israel. God was here too. Mordecai and Esther were among those Jews who stayed.
But living as a Jew at the heart of the Persian Empire was a risky business, as the book of Esther makes clear. Straightaway we meet King Xerxes, known as Ahasuerus in this story, and we find the most powerful man in the world to be a reckless, extravagant, and easily manipulated character. This is especially dangerous because when he passes a law, that law cannot be changed, even if it turns out to be a disaster. The king is so absent-minded that even when Mordecai saves his life, he forgets all about it. Not only do the Jews live under an unreliable monarch and an unworkable legislative system, they also have sworn enemies. One is called Haman. Haman and Mordecai despise each other, and when Haman rises to the post of prime minister, Mordecai riles him so much that he manipulates Ahasuerus into issuing a decree that will wipe out all Jews in the Empire. You need to remember that Israel was still part of the Persian Empire at this point. So the king’s decree threatens to eliminate the Jews from history altogether.
There is only one faint hope for the Jews -- one tiny thread holding them up from the abyss. Five years before the passing of this decree, Mordecai’s cousin and adopted daughter Esther, without revealing her ethnic identity, had joined the king’s harem, undergoing a year-long grooming to prepare her for a one-night stand with the king. Ahasuerus liked her so much he made her his queen. Being queen did not give Esther the automatic intimacy with the king one might imagine. The king still kept his harem, and no one got to address the king unless he took their fancy and he waved his golden scepter at them. (The symbolic significance of the golden scepter is something I’m going to leave to your imagination. But let’s just say that the Bible has a broad sense of humor the so-called Moral Majority seldom gives it credit for.) If you approached the king without him waving his golden scepter at you, you would be put to death, even if you were the queen.
So this is the context for Mordecai’s conversation with Esther. Esther, despite being queen, is so isolated that she doesn’t even know that the Jews are due to be exterminated in a few months’ time. Mordecai tells her about the catastrophic decree. He somehow omits to tell her that the decree came about partly because of his mindless stubbornness in angering Haman. But he does say -- “Look, Esther, you’re the only one who can do something about this.” You can feel Esther’s stomach muscles tightening and her breath getting short. She tries to escape: “But don’t you realize that if I approach the king without him waving the scepter at me I’m dead meat?” Mordecai says coolly, “What makes you think you’re going to survive this massacre? Being queen ain’t gonna help you. If you keep silence and do nothing at this moment, God will eventually turn this whole thing around and his chosen people won’t be utterly annihilated. But it’ll be too late for you and me. Maybe this was exactly why you became queen. You thought it was saving yourself, but God thought it was for saving his people. Maybe God put you here for exactly this moment, for just such a time as this.”
And what does Esther do at this decisive moment? She stops denying, stops ignoring, stops making excuses, stops running away. She realizes this needs more than her own strength, so she falls back on the devotional habits of her people and calls on the Jews to fast with her. She resolves that she will face up to her responsibility and go in to the king, great wobbly scepter and all. She recognizes that what she must do must include disclosing her true identity as a Jew. She takes stock of the realities of her situation and says simply, “If I perish, I perish.” She goes to the heart of the empire to save the Jewish people. She becomes Christ.