Sunday, September 27, 2009

God Is Not Absent! (Or, how to write a run-on sentence in 35 words or less)

Tons of run-on sentences below, so if you're poor-English-phobic I am not responsible for the convulsions you'll experience. I plan on giving the paragraphs on the Esther narrative in a run-on, hurried fashion, building to the absence of God from the narrative as the climax of the section.

It makes sense in my head... but, then again, I like Linkin Park, what do I know?

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me — that is my petition — and the lives of my people — that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Do you like stories with violence, danger, political intrigue, (dare I say “sex?), strong heroes and surprising plot twists? Stories that take you for a wild ride and leave you with a great ending but wanting more? Then I have a great book you’ve got to read! It’s not too long – in fact, it can be, and often is, read in a single sitting – and I’m betting everyone here already has at least one copy of it: the Book of Esther.

The Lectionary only references Esther one time every cycle, and when it does it’s the excerpts we just read. Now, this is a little frustrating because the Lectionary Elves missed most of the good parts.

The story is set in Persia. The Jews had been carried away to Babylon, and Babylon had been conquered by Persia. As our story begins, the Persian King, Ahasuerus (who was probably also known as Xerxes, a character familiar to anyone who has seen the movie “300”) is having a banquet, and on about the seventh day of drinking and eating and festivities he decides he wants to show off his beautiful wife, Vashti. Now, Vashti wants no part of all these drunk guys watching her dance or whatever, so she refuses, which results in her getting booted out of the palace by royal decree.
All of a sudden, Ahasuerus has no queen, so he decrees that the prettiest girls from all over his huge kingdom be brought in to spend a night with the King, and the one he likes the best will become the queen in Vashti’s place. One of the girls is an exiled Jew named Hadassah, or Esther, an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai. So the time comes for Esther’s turn with the King, and he fancies her, so he picks her to be the Queen. There was a banquet and all that stuff, because these people had a lot of banquets.

Meanwhile, a couple of the palace guards got disgruntled and plotted to kill the King. Mordecai, who sat at the city gate a lot, heard about it and told Queen Esther, who told the King, who uncovered the plot and had the bad guys killed. Or, some of the bad guys, anyway, because right here enters, dunndunnDUNNN, the villain of the story, Haman. He’s the King’s chief official, and everyone is supposed to bow down when he passes, but Mordecai refuses. Now, this enraged Haman, but he was too dignified to kill just one guy, so he decided to get all the Jews killed by tricking the King into making a decree, and by the way once Ahasuerus made a decree it couldn’t be unmade. So the King tells everyone to attack and kill all the Jews, but to wait until on the thirteenth day of the first month.

So Mordecai hears about it and is at the gate every day in sackcloth and ashes wailing and crying, and Esther asks him what the problem is and he tells her all about it and says that she has to talk the King out of it. This is a problem because anyone who goes to the King without being summoned is subject to death, and Ahasuerus hasn’t called Esther for a month. Well Mordecai reminds her that she’s Jewish, too, and if she doesn’t talk to the King she’s dead anyway, you know?

So she decides to do it, and everyone fasts and she comes up with a plan and walks into the court and the King is cool with her being there, so she doesn’t die. He asks her what her desire is, and he’s prepared to offer half his kingdom, but instead of telling him what she wants she asks the King to invite Haman and come to a banquet (because my goodness these people have a lot of banquets). So they’re at the banquet drinking wine and the King asks esther again what she wants, and she says if he and Haman come back tomorrow to another banquet she’ll tell him, and he’s cool with that, because like I said these people have a LOT of banquets. Haman goes home and on his way he sees Mordecai who doesn’t bow to him or act afraid of his power and it so enrages him that he has a gallows built in his yard so he can get the King to hang Mordecai the next day, by golly.
Meanwhile, the King can’t sleep, so he has some of his decrees and records of state read to him, I don’t know why, but the part they read is about Mordecai discovering the assassination plot and saving the King’s bacon, and the King realizes nothing has been done to reward Mordecai, so he calls Haman in and asks him what the best way for the King to honor someone is. Haman thinks the King is talking about him so he goes all-out: “Let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.’” So not only is it Mordecai and not Haman who gets honored, it’s Haman who has to do lead Mordecai through the square on the horse and do all that proclaiming.

Fast forward to that night’s banquet, and the King asks Esther again what she desires, and she asks for him to spare her life and the life of her people, then she tells him all about the way Haman has duped him into ordering all the Jews killed. The King is really hacked off about this, especially when he finds out about the gallows Haman had built to hang Mordecai on.
Mordecai doesn’t hang there, Haman does. Since the edicts of the king can’t be undone, the Jews are allowed to fight back to protect themselves, which they do, and they are saved from annihilation, and then they establish an annual feast, called Purim, to commemorate Esther and what she did, and everyone lived happily ever after, except I guess Haman.

And all through this story, there is one name that never, ever, even once, gets mentioned. God. No talk of the Creator, no intimation of prayer or of Jewish religious practices, zip, zilch, zero, nada, nothing in the whole book. This has driven people crazy for millennia, so much so that at some point someone wrote extra verses for the Book of Esther that add all the God and religion that anyone could ever want. If you want to read that, just get hold of a Catholic Bible, because it’s part of the Apocrypha.

Sticking just with the original Book of Esther, though, it’s always been kind of a puzzle how something with no mention of God made it into the Scriptural canon. Sure, it’s the explanation for why the Jewish faith has the feast of Purim every spring, but that can’t be the only reason it’s there, is it?

My first position in the Presbyterian Church (USA) was as a youth director at a very small church that, well, had no youth at all when they hired me. I often say that I grew the youth group 500% during my tenure there – Judy may correct my math, but that’s going from zero to five – but when I left, I felt like a complete failure. You see, my whole concept of Christianity was, at the time, informed by nearly two decades in Southern Baptist and Church of God congregations, where the only way someone became a Christian was by walking the aisle and saying a prayer. That never, ever happened with any of the youth, even when I had more than a dozen at a three-day worship seminar thing. Not even one. Ever. Failure.

Then one morning, at a Christian club meeting at a high school, I found out that one of my core youth group members had responded to Christ, had become a Christian, not because of an event or a sermon or anything directly evangelistic that I had done or exposed her to, but because of a small thing I said –no more than a passing comment – while I was busy being a youth director. While I was busy trying to figure out what I was doing wrong so I wouldn’t do it again with this new, bigger youth group, God was and always had been at work in the lives of the young people around me.
I learned that day that God is active and working even when we think we have failed, even when we think that God is absent. I learned that God is never absent.

Sometimes we see God acting in our lives in big, obvious, exciting ways. A loved one recovers. A bill is paid. A job is obtained. A crisis is averted. And in most of Scripture, God acts in big, expansive, obvious ways. The Red Sea is parted. Fire falls from heaven to consume Elijah’s sacrifice. Angels sing. A leper is healed. The five thousand are fed. A tomb is empty. That’s great, and we kind of know how to deal with that, right? Give praise and thanks to God, sing the Doxology, stand in awe, whatever, we know it’s God being God and doing God things. We can deal with that. We can celebrate that.

Sometimes, though, God moves in our lives in ways that seem behind-the-scenes, acting within circumstances and through others to accomplish God’s will. Sometimes we never even know it, and sometimes we only see it after-the-fact. Sometimes all the things that happen to make things work out look coincidental. Sometimes things don’t seem to – well sometimes they really don’t – work out at all. What then? Where is God? What is there to praise or be thankful or even be mindful of God for?
Where is God in the Book of Esther? Was God absent? Is it merely coincidental that Esther pleases the king? Is it coincidental that Mordecai catches wind of the assassination plot? Is it coincidental that Esther does not die when she approaches the King without invitation, and is Haman defeated because the circumstances worked out in Esther and Mordecai’s favor? Were the Jews saved from extermination because a couple of people knew how to work the system? Or was an eternal, sovereign Presence at work behind-the-scenes to bring these events to pass?

God is never absent.

There are times even we Presbyterians, we Frozen Chosen, feel and see and experience God actively at work in our lives. And there are times when, even though we believe, even though we have not abandoned our faith, we feel like God is nowhere to be found – utterly absent.

But God is never absent.

With all its strange customs and ‘way too many banquets, one of the things the Book of Esther offers us in our twenty-first century world is the promise, the assurance that God is here, God is active, even when there is no open evidence of it. The Jewish race was saved from annihilation in Persia not because intelligent people worked a political system to their advantage, but because God worked through intelligent people to bring about the will and purpose of God, and that is something, for Christians, that can happen in our lives every day.

God is never absent.

1 comment:

  1. This is a phenomenal sermon buddy. Really moved me and especially meaningful after I just had my 10 year hs reunion. I realized then for sure that there were some people there that positively shaped me in ways I wouldn't realize until years later. God is never absent.