The text for this sermon is the book of Esther, especially the fourth chapter.
Today, and this week on Wednesday, we discuss courage. To understand courage I want to look at the book of Esther, often overlooked by Lutherans. Luther did not like the book of Esther because he thought it contained too much “heathen naughtiness”. We won’t have time for the entire story, all the naughty details, but I encourage all of you to take the 30 to 45 minutes and read it for yourself.
The setting is the Persian emperor’s court in Susa in the fifth century BCE, when Persia ruled from India to Ethiopia. King Xerxes had gotten rid of his queen because she became a feminist and stood up to him. After she was gone he became lonely and his aides suggested finding a younger woman for a queen, hoping she wouldn’t be quite as headstrong. What older man doesn’t like that idea? He started the interview process, a complicated year long procedure that gathered the most beautiful young women in all of Persia, and prepared them for their “date night” with the King, kind of like The Bachelor on steroids.
Esther won the job. She was a Jewish orphan, probably about 15 or 16. Her Uncle Mordecai who raised her, worked for the government and he advised Esther not to let the King know she was Jewish. Things go well for Esther as the new queen of Persia.
About three or four years pass and a guy named Haman becomes the King’s prime minister. He is kind of an unlikeable arrogant sort. He passes a law that everyone has to bow to him when he walks by. Esther’s uncle, Mordecai refuses. Haman becomes so angry that he decides to not just execute Mordecai, but instead kill all of Mordecai’s people, the Jews, in the entire Persian kingdom. This would wipe out the Jewish people, because Persia controlled everywhere that the people of God lived. The king, easily pliable, goes along with this horrific plan.
Mordecai is understandably upset. His refusal to bow has brought about the possible destruction of his people. He publicly grieves at the gate of the King’s palace. Esther hears of it and tries to calm him down, but he would have none of it. She asks him what is wrong, because she had no idea of the King’s violent plans. Mordecai informs her and additionally as queen, she can do something about it.
Esther at first says no. She gives a couple of good reasons. First, after several years, and many, many concubines later, her husband just isn’t that in to her anymore. She does not have the influence over him she had. She hasn’t even seen him in thirty days. Second, she can’t just walk up to him and strike up a conversation. This is not how it works. No one speaks to the king, not even his queen, unless they are invited to do so. Esther would like to help, but helping would endanger her life, so she passes.
Mordecai tells her, “I know it is dangerous, but God is going to save God’s people with or without you. Which do you want it to be? As queen you are part of God’s plan, but you have to act to live into that plan. Plus, don’t think when the killing starts, someone isn’t going to tell the king that his queen is a Jew, too.”
Esther changes her mind. Esther moves from fear and cautiousness to courageousness. If you were a betting man, you would not bet that this young woman who won her crown because she was beautiful and not forceful like the previous queen could be so brave. Esther decides to align herself with God and God’s plan through prayer and fasting. Esther doesn’t act alone, she asks all Jews to pray and fast with her. Before Esther acts, she forms a plan to achieve her goal, which is God’s goal, saving His people. It is a complicated plan, but it is a plan that works. Esther because of her courage kept the extermination of the Jews from happening in the fifth century BCE.
Courage is a decision we make to do what is right, even if it means having something wrong happen to ourselves. Mordecai convinced her that using her power as queen was the right thing to do. Courage happens when we understand there are things more important than our life, things worth dying for. Esther risked her life when she approached the king uninvited. Courage changes the world when individuals identify with something greater than themselves. Esther identified with her people and God’s chosen people were saved.
Jesus is a study in courage. Because he is the Son of God, we don’t think of it that way. I mean how else would you expect God to act right? If we take his humanity seriously, we see just how courageously he acted. Courageously he said no when evil tempted him in the wilderness to choose an easier path. Courageously he refused to avoid death by torture on the cross at the “show” trial he was given.
Jesus decided to live into the Father’s plan. Jesus could have chosen a less courageous path, just as Esther could, but he remained faithful. Jesus understood there were things more important than our life, things worth dying for. By his courage, Jesus changed the world. Through his suffering he identified with all our suffering and began God’s plan to reconcile creation to God’s love.
Courage is required by us as children of God. God’s plan will work with or without us, but with courage, we can decide to be a part of that plan. Our courageous acts change our world, not just the actions themselves, but their witness, too, of God’s hope for all of us. I know this has been true in my own life.
My dad in the 1980’s worked for a midsized company where he reported to the owner. He filled out an expense report and the next day remembered another expense. He had his secretary retrieve it. When she brought it to him, he saw it had changed significantly, hundreds of dollars had been added and the owner had signed it. The owner was stealing money from the company. He questioned the owner about it. He was told not to worry about it. There were some things that just had to be done “differently”. In the midst of a recession, he quit.
At my friend Dave’s last church he served, he was asked by a prominent member to baptize her grandchild. He met with the parents who told them they didn’t believe in organized religion, weren’t even sure they believed in Jesus, but they wanted the child baptized. Dave explained that in baptism, you are being welcomed into the church of Jesus Christ. Not wanting to be a part of the church, and not believing in Jesus were pretty big obstacles. He refused to baptize the child. The matter was brought to council. They voted that he must baptize the child. Dave still refused. They demanded the associate pastor baptize the child. She refused. The council president baptized the child himself. Dave and the associate left a month later.
For all of its “heathen naughtiness”, Esther is in the bible because it is a very real, human story of how the courage of one person can change this world. Her initial no, rings true to all of us. There are a thousand reasons, good reasons, why we can’t do what we wish we could do. We are often in positions to help someone being abused, stand up for a wrong that no one is naming, act on principles that God honors, but everyone else is ignoring. All of these decisions come at a cost, maybe not our life, but our reputation, our job, or our family.
It is difficult to overcome our own self centeredness and listen to God’s call. Esther’s choice is our choice, either be on the side of God or be on the side that adds to the brokenness of our world. Our difficulty is to find the courage to do what is right in the face of people that wish, this once at least, we would do what is wrong. May Esther’s courage give us the courage to do as God would hope. Amen