God in the Details

Esther 1-2
Fox Valley Presbyterian Church

During July, those of us working our way through the Year of the Bible together will find ourselves reading Esther. It’s a great story. Many of us know bits and piece, or maybe the Sunday School version of the story. But, many of us also find that it’s one of the stories we’re forgetting as we have less and less time to dig deeply into the Bible.

There is a fine line between preaching and story-telling. And the beginnings of Judaism and Christianity aren’t really from doctrine and philosophy: both traditions are rooted in story.

So, for the next month, we’d like to ask you to straddle that line between preaching and story with us. 5 weeks, 4 preachers, 10 chapters, 2 chapters a week, 5 great sermons. A good story. Part of God’s story, and part of our story.

I’d encourage everyone to jump on board with this preaching project, and read Esther this month. And, to start that encouragement, I won’t be reading the text for today, Esther chapters 1-2. I hope you’ll go home an do that.

But I will tell you the story:

It’s been several generations since Jerusalem fell to foreign invaders, since the two Jewish kingdoms fell apart. Like other small nations, the Jews have been shuffled around under whichever conquering empire is currently in power, evicted from their land, transported to the cities of the emperors, and now they find themselves ruled over by the Persian emperor Ahasuerus or Xerxes.

We’ll go with Xerxes, since it’s easier to pronounce.

Xerxes is emperor over an impossibly large kingdom, and to show how impossibly powerful he is, he throws the party to end all parties. 6 months of feasting, laying out the best tableware, linens, wall hangings, food, entertainment. Everyone who’s anyone is there. Xerxes is so powerful, apparently, that he can afford to bring in the leaders of the empire for a six month feast, and not worry too much about who is minding the state. He has things under control.

On the last night of the season of partying, after as much drinking as anyone could want, after Xerxes has paraded every possible luxury in front of his guests, he thinks of one final thing that might impress them: his wife, Vashti. He was a man with everything, including the most beautiful wife imaginable. She was the crowning glory of his trophies. So he sent for her, off throwing her own party to impress the women.

But the party came grinding to a halt. Because Xerxes, who was so powerful that he could party for 6 months straight and still have an empire to go back to, Xerxes, who controlled 127 provinces, he could not control his own wife. She refused, flat-out to come.

Xerxes was so thrown by this that he could barely think what to do. Never did he face the prospect of someone who would not obey his wishes and whims. And, on consultation with his best advisors, he found that this was no small thing, that his wife wouldn’t obey. No, they said, it affects the whole kingdom. It needs immediate attention.

And so, Xerxes party came crashing to a halt as he scrambled to issue decrees across the whole kingdom reminding everyone, from the nobles and officials down to the potters and sheepherders that each man was in charge of his household.

And later, his servants gave him this idea: to make sure everyone was clear, why not hold a contest? Round up the most beautiful girls from the empire, bring them in, give them the best in beauty treatments, a full year’s worth, and then find one who pleased the king the most, and make her queen instead of Vashti. The ones who are left can be added to the King’s concubines.

So, into this strange, ancient version of “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire,” enters Esther, a Jewish girl. Esther, an orphan, was raised by her cousin Mordecai. He’s an official of the government in Susa, himself a clever man. And when beautiful Esther is rounded up and brought to palace, Mordecai reminds her to keeps her Jewish heritage a secret.

Now, Esther is not just another pretty face, though. She’s clever, crafty, even. She makes friends with the eunuchs who care for the girls, and chaperone them through the process. And she plies them for information: the best beauty treatments, the best diet, what the king likes and dislikes. And after a  year, Esther, beautiful as ever, and clever enough to know it, wins the king over and becomes the queen. And Xerxes, surprise surprise, throws another party to celebrate his new trophy.

Now, Mordecai and Esther both know that her new position could be useful, and one day, an opportunity arises. Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate Xerxes. And, rather than going through the slow wheels of government red-tape, he’s able to let the king know almost directly, by telling Esther. And Esther, wisely gives Mordecai credit.

In a simpler plot line, this would be the point where Xerxes would thank Mordecai lavishly, reward him, and they’d all love happily ever after. But Xerxes simply catches the would-be-assassins, hangs them, and lets it go at that. No party, no great thanks to Mordecai.

And so that’s where we begin with Esther. The stage is set for everything that is to come.

It’s an odd story for a Bible book: full of kings and queens, royal excess, marital bickering, beauty pageants, eunuchs, drinking, feasting, gallows, and assassination plots. It sounds more like the impossibly packed plot-line of a summer blockbuster movie than a tale for a children’s Bible.

Not to mention, it’s the only book of the Bible that doesn’t mention God once. At all.

So, how is this book, but more specifically, these first two chapters, how is it that this is not just a good story, but something that will preach?

I was at a conference once when a speaker, a Biblical scholar, mentioned that one of the most incredible things about the Judeo-Christian God was not just the sheer power, the omnipresence, omnipotence but that combined with those things, that this God is a God who cares about the little things of our daily lives. He said, “Anyone who has ever prayed to God for a parking space understands this.” You could immediately tell who in the audience lived in a city apartment with no reserved spot and who had a driveway. Those blessed with a driveway grinned. Those who lived at the whims of street parking winced and laughed, and looked at each other with recognition. We knew what it was like to come home, exhausted, at 7:30pm and realize that there were no spaces in 10 block radius.

Now, I’ve always been one to scoff a little when I hear about people praying for God’s guidance as they stand in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. I simply don’t believe that God has your life planned out to the point that your choice between Cheerios and Chex is a matter of obeying divine will.

And yet, what we read in Esther is the story of a God who cares about details. Go back and read these chapters on your own, and you’ll see they are rich with details: about the banquet, about the names of the King’s advisors, about the names of the eunuchs, the specifics of beauty treatments, and the arrangements on the harem.

This is a God who cares so much about the details that through some divine mixture of humans decision, and spirit-led inspiration, this strange book with no mention of God whatsoever made it into the collection of stories about God and God’s people.

If we came to this story with no ideas about what come next, these details might seem insignificant. Some of them might even seem incompatible to our values as a faith community. For instance, how often would we find ourselves, in this community, praising female beauty as a virtue, as something that might eventually be used by God?

But this is how the story is set: God cares about the details, and like Esther, we are called to be attentive and open to the details, the circumstance, and the opportunities in our lives. We do not know where and how God’s hand will appear. And so we can only assume that God’s hand is ever present with us, and that we must be attentive to the nudge of that hand, to what God would have us do in the times and situations where we are placed.

Our life with God is not limited to what we do here: it is not limited to the grace of the waters of baptism, the nourishment of word and sacrament, the embrace of God’s gathered community. No, what is so remarkable is that God is not limited to what happens here. God is present, God is invested, as we look for parking, select the cereal, prepare for the King, and live in the time and place where we find ourselves.

May God give us the ability to look and to listen for his presence in the details.