Sermon: The Courage of Esther

This sermon is the first in a three-part series. The series is a worship resource for the RCA’s We Are Speaking movement, a call to the church to no longer remain silent about harassment, abuse, and sexual violence.

This sermon was prepared and written by Jason Fulkerson, pastor of Niskayuna Reformed Church in Niskayuna, New York. The sermon was heavily influenced by Preaching the Women of the Old Testament by Rev. Dr. Lynn Japinga. It was originally preached on September 2, 2018.

Scripture: Esther 4:1-17

In a land far away lived a king who ruled over a great empire. His kingdom was vast, he had power beyond measure, and he had a beautiful queen. But one day, the queen, Vashti, refused to listen to the king’s demands. Upset by the audacity of his queen, the king asked his advisors what he should do. They were concerned that if word of this got out among the people, all wives in the kingdom would rebel against their husbands. Something had to be done. Vashti was removed from her royal place. But who would be the new queen? How would they find someone suitable? A beauty pageant, of course. All the most beautiful women from the region were brought to the palace so that a suitable queen could be selected, one who found favor in the eyes of the king. One such woman stood out above the rest; her name was Esther. An orphan with Jewish heritage, she was raised mainly by her cousin Mordecai, who advised Esther to keep her Jewish heritage a secret, for he did not know how the king would react. Esther became queen and served the king well. With Mordecai’s help, she even alerted the king to an assassination attempt on his life.

But all was not well in the kingdom, for a vile man named Haman, the king’s right-hand man, came to dislike Mordecai. In his displeasure, Haman devised a plan to rid the kingdom of all Mordecai’s people, the Jewish people. The king was not an attentive person, which gave Haman freedom to do as he saw fit. A decree went out into the land to rid the kingdom of all the Jewish people. Distraught about this news, Mordecai approached Esther to see if she would approach the king. Fearing the worst about this request, she wasn’t sure what to do. Nevertheless, she executed a plan to save her people from destruction.

The story of Esther in the Old Testament easily matches up with the story arcs of modern movies. A heroine comes from an unlikely place to help her people avoid the destructive plotting of a heartless and self-obsessed villain. One of the most memorable phrases from this story comes from Mordecai. “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this,” he said to Esther. This could be true for any one of us. Replace “royal dignity” with something else: perhaps you have come to be the pastor of this church for such a time as this. Perhaps you have come to this job, this city, this family, this friend, this ministry position, for such a time as this. Even though the book of Esther never mentions God explicitly, there is the sense that an unseen force is at work. This would have been an important point for the Jewish community hearing this story. It was a reminder that, even though they were spread out and overrun by stronger empires, God cared for them and used people in various ways to help protect them. Utter destruction would be avoided.

But there is much more to Esther’s story than that one point of calling. Esther is the unlikely heroine because of her heritage and because she is a woman. The setting of this story is one enveloped in patriarchy. Look at what happens when Queen Vashti ignores the demands of the king. She is removed from her throne. The king’s advisors were worried that all women in the kingdom would also defy their husbands and that chaos would ensue. Then, what is the solution to finding a new queen? A beauty pageant. Although, this was much more than what we think of as a beauty pageant. The “more” would not be appropriate to describe. Against this backdrop, Esther’s actions flip everything on its head. Esther acts shrewdly and wisely as she attempts to save her people. She approaches the situation by first fasting and praying, evidence that she has been raised as a faithful Jew. She is bold and determined to approach the king. Esther’s ultimate importance in this story is not her beauty, but her courage.

Esther is put in a dire situation: confronting the king could mean losing her life, but not confronting the king could mean the destruction of her family and her people. Esther had to stick her neck out; she made a bold move, especially knowing what happened to Queen Vashti, her dethroned predecessor. She risked her life, her royal position, her comfort, her riches, and her lavish life in the palace. She risked it all for a greater purpose. Her final words before she approached the king were, “If I perish, I perish.”

That message should not be lost on any of us. Perhaps you were put in your current position so that you would be the one to say what needed to be said, to stand up for someone else, to fight against injustice, or to thwart a plan of evil. Commenting on this story, Hope College religion professor Lynn Japinga writes, “We are all called to find creative ways to speak the truth to power, to fight against injustice, and to make a difference.” While it is true for each one of us, Esther’s example especially draws my attention to the women in recent years who have fought against harassment and abuse and fought for equality. Most, if not all, have stuck their necks out, risking their livelihoods, their jobs, their privacy, their friends, and their families in order to speak against injustice. These women have worked to ensure that we all know harassment and abuse are never okay, that treating women as objects is never okay, and that treating women as second-class citizens is unacceptable.

This is especially pertinent to me as a Christian and as a pastor. Many people have used the Bible to further the oppression of women in a multitude of ways. From my viewpoint, treating women as “less than” in the name of Christianity is a gross misunderstanding of the biblical witness. We don’t have a problem with women serving, but we can still do more. Preaching the stories of women like Esther, Mary, Tamar, Rahab, Lydia, Phoebe, and many more is a way that we can listen to the larger biblical witness. This aligns with the She Is Called campaign within the Reformed Church in America. Its guiding principle is to raise up the ways in which RCA women are living out their callings today. She Is Called also honors the legacy they follow and looks forward to the ways women will continue to lead us. This is an important campaign for us to engage. I will speak more to this as this sermon series continues.

The Bible says that we are all God’s children. We are all the body of Christ. This is further expressed in our celebration of the sacraments. We all come to the font; we are all baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We all come to the same table, eat the same meal, commune with the same Christ. So, if we are all one body, we cannot say to another that they are less than, that they are not needed. In the weeks ahead, let us be encouraged and challenged by the stories of women called by God. For who knows, we may have come to our places in life for such a time as this.