Sermon based on Esther 2:1-18
It’s maybe exactly how we imagine powerful people act. They’re in control and have all the power, so they can do whatever they want. If the king wants a beauty contest casting from all over the kingdom to bring in young virgins, there seems to be nothing the common folk can do about it. That’s what we’re hearing about in the first lesson. King Xerxes is not a great guy. But he’s a powerful guy. Previously he’d shown off his wealth with extravagant parties. Plenty of guests and all the food, wine, and decorations that go with a party by the king. The reason for the beauty contest and a new queen is because he abused the former one. He got drunk, called her to come out and put on a show for his guests, basically act the part of trophy wife. She refused and well, you don’t refuse the king.
So the king took the advice of his attendants. “The young men who served as attendants to the king said, search for good looking, young virgins for the king. The young woman who pleases the king should be queen.” These young virgins received beauty treatments for one whole year. Every day as the oil and perfumes were applied the message was reinforced, you’re not good enough. All of this was in preparation for a one night audition for the king. One night to show the king a sexual good time. Of the many many girls who participated, many many would go on to a life in the harem. The harem of a king was a depressing place where ‘no longer virgin’ girls lived out their lives without husbands, without children, without a life.
Into this comes a young girl named Esther. She’s the orphan cousin of Mordecai. “Mordecai adopted her as his daughter.” Mordecai and Esther were Jews. But once Esther was in the protocol of beauty treatments, Mordecai instructed her not to tell anyone she was a Jew. This meant she couldn’t avoid the certain foods prohibited to Jews. She doesn’t protest beauty treatments unnecessary for someone so young. And she doesn’t try to take a stand against the beauty contest. Mordecai doesn’t seem to try and stop it either. He doesn’t fight against the people hauling his daughter away. He doesn’t try to keep her hidden away. He doesn’t try and mask her beauty so no one even thinks to pick Esther for the beauty contest.
Maybe worst of all, none of it had to happen. Mordecai didn’t have to be living in Susa in the Persian kingdom. Jews living in Persia after the exile a couple generations earlier were given the option to go back to Jerusalem. Many of Mordecai’s fellow countrymen had gone back. The Persian king wasn’t forcing this latest generation to stay. So Mordecai could have packed up himself and Esther and his belongings and gotten away from it all. He didn’t. What caused him to stay the Bible doesn’t say. But it was his decisions, these circumstances at play in the kingdom, all swirling together into this ambiguous mess.
In the “Me Too” era, with women’s rights a big topic, and people facing more decisions than ever before, this kind of lesson probably isn’t what you thought you’d get from the Bible. This book is tucked away before the books of Job and Psalms, two books with so much to say about life, struggle, and how to get through it. Instead the book of Esther has the lead character participating in a cruel and unusual contest with sexual abuse. She’s denied her rights as she’s prepped to sleep with the king in order to be selected queen. And her adopted father is partially responsible after he made a couple key decisions in the wrong way and things got messy. God isn’t even mentioned by name. No heroes who know what to do and do it. Not one is perfect. Mordecai is worried, maybe fearful he’s subjected his daughter to terrible treatment. Esther is the victim, a young girl being taken advantage of. The king is disturbed. The whole story isn’t perfect by any stretch. So why is this book in the Bible? With that much moral ambiguity, when we’re looking for neat and tidy answers, where can we find moral clarity? Where can we find an answer to the ambiguous?
I submit the book of Esther is exactly what you and I need. The superhero story, the white hat cowboy saving the day is fine. We admire the Lone Ranger, the Avengers. Except we can’t be them. Our lives are not filled with clean cut situations with easy to discern right or wrong answers. We’re not heroes living each day in perfection, making the right decision at the right time, always leading to the right outcome. There’s ambiguity to life. The people in the book of Esther are just like you and me.
Mordecai didn’t know his decision to stay in Susa would result in Esther being taken away. Or that her beauty would attract the wrong attention, and she’d end up with the king in a perverse twist gratifying the king’s sexual urges. Mordecai just did what he thought was best in the moment. Just the same as when we make decisions. We never think they’ll lead anywhere bad. We take that job, we get our kids involved in that activity, we enroll at that school. Except the job can mean a new neighborhood. Could be rough, neighbors might be difficult. That activity might lead to popularity, which pulls kids away from studies, which leads to bad grades, low SAT scores. Or they might get injured, which leads to rehab, and lingering long term ailments. That particular college might have a looser structure which can lead to a lifestyle not known before with exposure to things never considered. Or a higher salaried job after graduation, but long hours, no time for family or friends and ultimately loneliness. Life isn’t done either. Each choice, every decision, affects tomorrow, the next day, the next year. We don’t know. What might have been right in the moment could quickly spiral out of control.
We end up the victim at times. Like Esther, we’re in situations we didn’t see coming, that are happening to us and we can’t stop them. The language use is terrible around us, used by others, but we’re tempted to join. We’re in places we shouldn’t be. Decisions by us and by friends get us into events and doing things we don’t want to. But we’re doing them anyway. Life is messy. The world around us is messy. There are moral ambiguities at work, home, and school. Some not so ambiguous circumstances too, but ones that still happen to us. What can we do? Does God have answers to the ambiguous?
He sure does. “The king loved Esther more than he loved all the other women. She won his favor and approval more than all the other virgins did.” Out of all the girls King Xerxes slept with over the course of the beauty contest, and the number was sadly huge, he picked Esther. Why her? God isn’t mentioned, but God is there. Even in the moral ambiguity of a harem of virgins being prepared for the king to take advantage of, God is there with Esther. She stands out, not because “she was shapely and good looking.” God caused her to stand out. God was right there with Esther. God sticks with those in morally awkward and compromising situations. There for the present and for what he planned in the future.
In the middle of your morally compromised life, with your buckets of sins, and bad decisions of the past and present, God is right there with you. He knows what you’ve done to get yourself in those situations. Not all of them happened to you. You brought some on yourself. God is still with you. Sticks with you. And God knows the situations that happened because of the decisions you made. He knows the times you worried he would punish you for a bad decision. God doesn’t leave you. He still guides you. Guides your decisions to jobs good for you, allowing you to provide for your family, which use your abilities. God provides you with activities to give depth to life and challenge. He brings you through injuries and ailments. And God is right there with you at the school with the loose morals. Right there with you in life, with all its choices and challenges, all its affects of today and the future.
Life is all moral ambiguity and compromising situations. Bigger than all that is your God, your Savior. No longer does God see you as a sum total of moral dilemmas and hard choices. You’re not dirty or compromised to him anymore. You were sinful. But now you’re clean. There’s nothing ambiguous about God making you clean. It happens in Jesus. In him was one who lived among the moral ambiguity, saw life’s choices and immorality, knew the messiness. But avoided it all. None stuck to Jesus. He didn’t get dirty. Lived perfectly and avoided all uncleanness. Jesus was unambiguously uncompromisingly perfect for you.
God sees you for what you are in Christ. God comes to you with his grace. He overcomes the times you’ve been ambiguous, faced it and wondered if God could stick with you anyway. He does. He has. And in Christ, God answers the ambiguous.