Grace to you and peace in God, who lifts up the humble and brings the mighty down from their thrones. Amen.
This fall, as we’re traveling together through the Old Testament, you may be feeling like you’re taking a crash course in the History of Israel.
In October we heard stories of Israel’s greatest kings – David and Solomon. Then we heard about the prophet Elijah. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been traveling through a more disorienting time in the history of the Jewish people – the time of the Exile.
You see, Israel and Judah were small nations, surrounded by much larger, more powerful empires. They were little fish in a big sea. And so it wasn’t long before these mighty empires began to threaten the little states of Israel and Judah. Israel, the Northern Kingdom, was the first to fall to the great Assyrian Empire. Next, the Babylonian Empire defeated the Assyrians. The Babylonians conquered Judah, the Southern Kingdom. They took all the people of Judah captive, and brought them to Babylon. The story of Daniel that we heard last week took place during the Babylonian period.
Then along came the Persian Empire, which was even bigger and mightier than the Babylonian Empire, and they conquered lands all the way from Turkey and Egypt to India. The Persian Empire became the largest empire in the known world.
The story that we’re hearing today – the story of Esther – is from the Persian period. During this time, many of the people captured by the Babylonians were still living in exile. Our story today revolves around two of those exiles: a young woman named Esther, and her older cousin, Mordecai.
Now, you may think that the story of Esther seems like an odd story for Advent. But there are some major themes in Esther’s story that also run through the season of Advent. There’s the shadow of tyranny: powerful rulers who use their power to oppress and destroy. There is a young woman called to serve God in a way that brings salvation to others. And there is the theme of reversal: the lifting up of the humble, and the casting down of the mighty.
The story of Esther begins in the courts of the Persian Emperor. The Emperor has just divorced his wife, Queen Vashti, because she had disobeyed one of his commands. And so the search begins for a new queen. It’s kind of like the ancient version of The Bachelorette: young women from across the land are brought to the Emperor’s court. The Emperor will spend one night with each of them, and then he will decide who will be queen. Notice, however, that these young women don’t get much say in all this: maybe that’s a sermon for another time.
Now Esther is a young Jewish woman, living in exile in Persia. She is orphaned at a young age, but her older cousin, Mordecai, took her in and cared for her like a father. Esther is fair and beautiful, and she wins the heart of the Emperor. So the Emperor chooses her to be Queen. But Esther never tells the Emperor that she is a Jew.
Now in the Emperor’s court, there is an evil advisor named Haman. I picture him like Jafar from Aladdin: a sinister man who is always scheming to gain more power. Haman is promoted to a powerful position, and he goes on a power trip: he commands all of the Emperor’s servants to bow down to him. But Mordecai will not bow. (Does this theme of resistance sound familiar? Maybe you remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from last week…) Haman is furious, and he seeks vengeance not only upon Mordecai, but upon all the Jewish people.
So Haman approaches the Emperor, and persuades him to issue a decree, for all the Jews in the Empire to be killed on the thirteenth day of the month. And to be a little more persuasive, Haman offers to pay the Emperor hundreds of tons of silver. The Emperor agrees, and the decree goes forth: every Jewish man, woman, and child living in the Empire would be killed on the thirteenth day of the month.
Haman has engineered a mass genocide. He has chosen the path of tyranny: following other tyrants before him: King Sennacherib of Assyria, who threatened the city of Jerusalem; King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who created the golden statue and threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the furnace of blazing fire. Perhaps he reminds us of tyrants in modern history, who have engineered genocides: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Putin. And perhaps as we call to mind those horrific events in human history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor famine in Ukraine, perhaps we are also reminded of the acts of physical and cultural genocide committed against Indigenous people here in Canada.
We may also remember that the story of Advent and Christmas takes place against the backdrop of tyranny and genocide. King Herod, who hears of the birth of a new king, commands the slaughter of innocent children. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to save the life of their newborn son.
Advent reminds us of the reality of evil in our world. It reminds us of the reality of the forces of darkness that threaten life. Advent reminds us of our very real need for a saviour. Advent hope, peace, love, and joy are like small yet brave candles, daring to shine in the darkness.
Now Queen Esther is naïve to Haman’s evil plot. So Mordecai comes to her and warns her. He asks Esther to intercede with the Emperor, and to plead for the salvation of her people. At first, Esther is frightened: it is against the law to approach the Emperor unbidden, and anyone who comes into his court without his bidding – even his own Queen – may be killed. To go to the Emperor would be to risk her life. But Mordecai says: “Perhaps you have become Queen for just such a time as this.”
Now in the meantime, Haman has become obsessed with his rise to power, and even more obsessed with destroying Mordecai. So he builds a giant gallows – 50 feet tall – in his own front yard, and he makes plans to have Mordecai hung on that gallows.
But remember this theme of reversal: the humble shall be lifted up, and the mighty brought down. As Haman is building his gallows, Esther approaches the Emperor, and she wins his favour. The Emperor promises to grant anything she asks. So she reveals to the Emperor that she is a Jew. She pleads for the Emperor to cancel his decree, and save her people. And because the Emperor has promised that he will give her anything, he honours her request. What’s more, he raises Mordecai to the position of court advisor. And realizing the evil of Haman’s ways, the Emperor commands that he be hung on his own gallows. The mighty has been cast down, and the humble are exalted.
The story of Esther is celebrated every year by Jewish people during the feast of Purim (Poor-EEM). Esther is honoured, as a young woman whom God called to be in a certain place at a certain time, and through whom God worked to deliver God’s people.
And perhaps as Christians, the story of Esther may remind us of another young Jewish woman, a Galilean peasant called by God “for just such a time as this,” so that God might work through her to bring salvation to the world. A young woman whom we honour this Advent season. A young woman named Mary.