Microsoft word - 2006-10-01 - for such a time as this - revd philip bradford.doc

'For such a time as this'
Sermon preached on Sunday 1st October 2006, 17th Sunday after
Readings: Esther 7.1-10; 9.20-22

A few years ago a Jewish historian, Deborah Lipstadt, was sued for libel by the English author David Irving for calling him a holocaust denier and right wing extremist. To the surprise of many she successfully defended herself and the trial judge determined that she was right in her assessment of David Irving. Soon after her court victory she attended her local synagogue’s celebration of the feast of Purim and listened to the entire text of Esther being read. When she heard the memorable words from Esther 4.14 – “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” she responded in the light of her recent experience with these words. “It made me think: Who knows if not for this very reason I got the education I got, I got the upbringing I got – maybe we’re all meant to do one something really significant. And some of us do it on the public stage, and some do it by helping a child. Nobody knows of it, nobody sees it, but we’re all meant to do something. And maybe this was the something I was meant to do.” Deborah Lipstadt was not the first to find inspiration from this ancient text. Like the Song of Songs that we considered recently, the Book of Esther defies easy classification and it has had its detractors in both Jewish and Christian communities. It is the only book in the Bible which makes no specific reference to God and it shows little regard for the Torah, and no interest in what is happening in Judah or Jerusalem. None the less it found its way into both the Jewish and Christian Canons of Scripture and I suspect most of us are glad it did, for apart from anything else it’s a great story. The story is set in the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) who ruled from 486 to 465 B.C. While the author is obviously familiar with Persian names and customs, his knowledge of precise historical detail is much less sure and the story is clearly not related as straight history. The tone of the narrative is one of exaggeration, caricature, coincidences, melodrama and some humour. One writer has described it as “burlesque”. Everything happens on a grand scale- the feasts of which there are many seem to go on endlessly, the women selected for the harem of the king are groomed for a whole year before they ever get to see him, the gallows built by Haman are ludicrously high etc. It is a world of excess. Making sense of this wonderful book in one brief sermon is a challenge so let me attempt it by looking at the book using the theme of what one writer (Karol Jackowski) describes as ‘Holy Disobedience’. The narrative contains three moments of disobedience committed by three different characters. The first is Queen Vashti. The story begins with the king holding a great banquet for all his officials and ministers which continues on for 180 days! This is followed by a banquet for all the good citizens of the capital, Susa, which lasts for a week. After a week of serious drinking, the King sends for the beautiful Queen Vashti and commands that she parade herself in front of the inebriated guests wearing the royal crown. Then the unthinkable happens: the queen refuses to obey the order. You don’t need much imagination to understand her refusal- she was not being asked to display her wit and wisdom but to display her body for the entertainment of a crowd of drunken men. None the less it was a courageous act inviting serious consequences. The King realizes that her action is not only humiliating for him but threatens to undermine the social fabric. Women all over the empire will hear of this act of disobedience and be emboldened to rebel against the authority of their husbands. After taking advice from his counselors, Ahasuerus banishes Vashti from his presence forever and proclaims a royal decree throughout the kingdom declaring that “every man should be master in his own house.” (Esther 1.22) In the matter of the role of women sadly the Christian church has often opted for the counsel of the king rather than the courage of Vashti. We have allowed women to accept situations of physical, sexual or emotional abuse out of a isplaced belief that the husband should be master of the house. That is not the teaching of Jesus who declared that Christian communities including Christian households were to be modeled on mutual service where one partner was not to lord it over the other. Nor do I believe was it the teaching of St. Paul who said ‘husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church.’ The second act of holy disobedience is that of Esther’s cousin Mordecai. Mordecai is introduced in the narrative as a Jew whose father had been captured by the Babylonians and carried of to Susa. Mordecai has grown up under the now Persian Empire and appears to be a minor official in the palace. It is through Mordecai that Esther is included in the group of young women being groomed as potential candidates for the role of Queen in place of the deposed Vashti. However, Mordecai plays an even more critical part in the story when he refuses to bow down and pay homage to the king’s favourite official, Haman. When asked why he refuses to bow down, Mordecai gives no explanation, other than the fact that he is Jewish. The narrator does not think it necessary to give further explanation, for every Jewish reader would understand that only God is to be worshipped and no human being has the right to ask that kind of servile obedience and homage. All men are women bear the image of God and it is that which gives us our dignity and worth. Mordecai’s disobedience has dire consequences because the wicked Haman determines to eliminate not only Mordecai but also his entire race from the kingdom. In short he is planning genocide. He tells the king that there is a group of subjects who are scattered throughout his kingdom who do not keep the king’s laws and who should therefore not be tolerated. He persuades the king to give him authority to deal with such people and then issues a decree that on the 13th day of the month of Adar, all Jews, men, women and children are to be killed. Disobedience to ruling authorities is not to be undertaken lightly-consequences can be dire. On the 1st December 1955 when Rosa Parkes, a middle aged AfroAmerican woman refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in the city of Montgomery in the southern states of America, she could have had no idea of the long term effects of her action. Her arrest and fine for this simple act of disobedience was to lead to a 381 day boycott of the Montgomery Bus service led by the then unknown Baptist Pastor, Martin Luther King and the beginnings of the civil rights movement. In our own time we have witnessed the outcome of the Israeli Christian, Mordecai Vanunu’s act of disobedience when he photographed the inside of the Dimona power station to demonstrate that Israel was in possession of nuclear weapons capability. He was imprisoned for 18 years, 12 of them in solitary confinement, alienated from his family and remains a stateless person unable to leave Israel but still given sanctuary by the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. Perhaps that is why Jesus told his would be followers that before they committed themselves to his service they should sit down and weigh up the cost. The third act of disobedience is the action of Esther herself. As soon as Mordecai hears of Haman’s decree he puts on sackcloth and ashes, the Jewish symbol of mourning, and goes to the King’s gate. Esther, the now newly appointed Queen sends messengers to ask the reason for this strange behaviour. Mordecai explains the fate awaiting all Jewish subjects including her and petitions Esther to go to the king and beg for his intervention. Esther replies that there is a slight problem, namely, that there is a law in Persia which decrees that no man or woman may approach the king, unbidden, on pain of death. Mordecai responds by telling her that she has no option for her life is at stake as well and he adds the already quoted words that perhaps you have come to royal dignity “for just such a time as this.” Esther asks Mordecai to gather all the Jews he can find in the city and to fast for three days and three nights on her behalf and only then will she go to the king, adding “and if I perish, I perish.” At the end of the three day self imposed fast, Esther puts on her royal robes and with fear and trembling enters the King’s chamber. To her surprise and great relief the King receives her warmly and asks what he can do for her. Astutely she refrains from making her plea at once and instead invites the King and Haman to a banquet. The banquet continues over two days and the denouement takes place in the passage read this morning. Haman’s plot is uncovered, Mordecai is vindicated and the Jewish people celebrate their deliverance. Although God is not directly addressed in the Book of Esther, it remains a profoundly religious text because it teaches that the only legitimate grounds for disobedience to authority are grounded in our understanding of God and his character. No ruler or leader, religious or secular can command us to do that which is contrary to our conscience shaped by the revealed character of God. The God revealed in our Scriptures hates injustice, oppression and exploitation of the poor or powerless. He calls on us to respect the dignity of all men and women made in his image and to follow the way of the cross which is the way to life. Whenever governments, synods or other authorities disregard these principles we are, I believe, called to holy disobedience and to declare with the Apostle Peter “that we must obey God rather than any human authority.” - Revd Philip Bradford.


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