A few years ago, late-night comedian Steven Colbert had a series titled “Better Know a District.” It ran for years and in each segment, it highlighted a Congressional voting district, explaining some of the elements that residents of that district are proud of, and why they might be unique.
One of the messages that I got out of the series was this: seemingly ordinary people and places are actually quite extraordinary. Take a closer look, and you will see some amazing people doing some amazing things.
Last summer, the worship team asked what it would look like to apply that principle to our shared study of Scripture. What about some of the more “ordinary” people of the Bible? I mean, we spend a lot of time talking about Moses and Elijah. In the Gospels, we obviously spend a lot of time talking about Peter and, of course, Jesus. But there is something to be said for taking a closer look at some of the “ordinary” people and stories of Scripture. Because most of us are never going to be the next Elijah. We are never going to be the next Peter, upon which Christ will build the church. But we might be the next Lydia. The next Matthias.
Or the next Esther. I open the series with one who is perhaps the best example in Scripture of this “ordinary become extraordinary” concept. Esther was about as ordinary as one could be. In her world, she was fairly marginalized for a lot of reasons. Her world was the land of Persia, following the Exile. A quick history lesson for those who may not know. The Israelites, the covenant people of God, were defeated by a superior military force, the Babylonians, and they were exiled from their home and land and taken to live in Babylon. After a few generations, the Babylonians were in turn defeated by a superior military force, the Persians, and the Israelites, still exiled, found themselves at the mercy of the Persian monarchy, Persian military, and the overwhelming force of Persian culture.
The average Jew, then, had a difficult choice to make. Living as a stranger in a strange land, would she or he welcome assimilation into Persian culture, and dress like the Persians, talk like the Persians, act like the Persians, and (most relevantly) worship like the Persians? Or would she or he stay true to the covenant faith and cultural practice of the Jews? This is a theme throughout much of the Hebrew Scriptures, because much of it was written or edited in the years where the Israelites were struggling with that question. Daniel has to answer that question. Ezra and Nehemiah deal with the relationship of the People of God with the Persian government. And Esther is a story that takes place squarely in the middle of this world and this conundrum.
The main characters are relatively few. There is the Persian king, Ahasuerus, who is powerful, but basically pretty clueless. Then there is Haman, his advisor. He has less power than the king, but not by his choice. He is a power-hungry, conniving, deceitful, cunning man whose first priority is himself and his second is getting rid of anyone who does not agree with him about his first priority. He is a bully who is at heart a coward. Incredibly insecure, he is someone who needs people to like him and needs to force them to tell him so if they won’t do it themselves. As the story unfolds, Haman notices that there is this man named Mordecai who does not properly bow to him in a way befitting his authority and his own puffed up view of himself. As we find out more about Mordecai, we discover that he is one of these Jews living in exile in Persia. And, being one of the Jews who chose faithfulness to the covenant with God over assimilation to the Persian ways, wasn’t about to bow down to a human being and disobey God’s commandment against worshipping idols. Haman, all about taking care of priority number one, is incensed by this, and so begins the major storyline of the book. It is a power struggle between Haman, convinced that Mordecai will worship him or die if he doesn’t, and Mordecai, convinced that his number one priority is following the commandments of God even when it endangers his own life. And if you think the story is starting to sound like an episode of Game of Thrones, you are probably right.
The fourth main character is the biggie: Esther. Again, Esther finds herself on the edge of society for a lot of reasons, about as powerless as one can be. One, she is a Jewish alien. She and all of her people are minority outsiders and considered weak by the majority Persians. Two, she is a woman. Her power is mostly limited to what she can do for the men that she comes into contact with. Three, she is an orphan. In a time and culture where the right family means significant power and the wrong family means less power, no family means no power. As an orphan female Jew in the middle of Persia, she is the least likely heroine that the story could have.
But, Esther is not without gifts. First, she has a benevolent cousin who takes her in and raises her as a daughter – our hero Mordecai. Second, she is charming and charismatic. And third, she is beautiful. Now, these are no minor gifts. Mordecai basically saves her life by taking her in. And as for her beauty and charm, well, that becomes important as the story continues.
Set among this power struggle between insecure bully Haman and kind-hearted and faithful Mordecai, there is a search for a new queen for the king. The last queen was thrown out on her ear because she had the guts to actually tell the king what she thought of him – there are some who think that the deposed Queen Vashti is actually the strongest character in the book; her refusal to bow down to the king is most honorable, and perhaps most tragic. But now there is a need for a new queen. Enter the charismatic and gorgeous Esther. The king is taken with her, presents her with the crown, and she becomes queen.
It is a story that Steven Colbert would love! Here is the ordinary becoming extraordinary. The outsider, powerless female orphan who becomes queen. It sounds like a Horatio Alger story, a rags to riches success story. The king has found his diamond in the rough, and now everything will end happily ever after!
But as great as the story sounds, it is all a sham. After all, beauty is fleeting, and as soon as her beauty begins to fade, what do you think that the king will do with her? He got tired of Vashti and sent her packing, and so we have to assume that he is willing to do the same with his next queen. But more than that, Esther has hidden her true self, refusing to acknowledge that she is Jewish before the Persian court. While this might normally be okay, we have to remember that Haman is on the prowl. He has targeted Mordecai and all his Jewish friends who refuse to bow down to his authority. He is building toward a total extermination of the Jewish people, a goal that is chilling in its own right, but even more so given our knowledge of what that looks like given the very real world example of the Holocaust. In a world that still has demagogues threatening to rid ourselves of those who worship differently, Haman’s murderous threats seem much less fictional, do they not? The rags to riches story of Esther is nothing but an empty sham, destined to unravel.
But this is where the true beauty of our heroine Esther begins to shine. In the words of the great philosopher “Uncle Ben” from the Spiderman movies, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Uncle Ben’s sentiment echoes of the words of Mordecai in chapter four: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” And Esther responds with a strength and a beauty that is more than just skin deep. She makes the bold decision to appear before the king without being summoned – a decision that appears all the more bold given Vashti’s poor result to standing up to the king. And then she slowly and methodically sets the stage for the big reveal. She invites him to a dinner party…so that she can invite him to another dinner party…so that she can curry favor with him and make her true intentions known. And in the climax moment of the story, she tells him that she indeed is Jewish and that if the king follows through with Haman’s murderous plan to destroy the Jews, it will mean her death as well. The king is incensed and suddenly defensive of Esther and the Jews.
[Which is, by the way, the method by which we most often move from a place of prejudicial judgment of a people group or faith to a place of grace and understanding. If we can dehumanize “those people” who fit in our narrow stereotypes, we find it much easier to sign their death warrants. But when “those people” actually become people, it is much harder to send them to their death or exile. It was true with the king and Esther. It was true with the Nazis who developed relationships with the Jews. And it is true today.]
The king refuses to sign the death warrant for Mordecai and his people, including Esther, and instead hangs Haman on the gallows intended for Mordecai. The people of God are saved. Esther’s true identity, her true beauty, and her true strength, are revealed. And the moral of the story shines through: ordinary people are indeed capable of the extraordinary, but only if and when they use their gifts faithfully.
Sidnie White Crawford, theologian and scholar of the book of Esther says it this way: “the best anyone can do…is to act within those circumstances in which one finds oneself, and take advantage of those opportunities with an attitude of hope…(and an) openness to the possibility of providence.”
Which brings up an interesting – and final – point that I want to explore about this book. It is a Bible trivia question that might come in handy the next time you are playing Bible trivia on a Friday night: what is the only book of the Bible that does not include any reference to God? The answer is Esther. If you are looking for overt and obvious examples of God speaking to his people, and his people speaking in the name of God, then Esther is not the book for you. If you are looking for miraculous examples of God’s power, for burning bushes and parting seas, then Esther is not the book for you. If you are looking for clear directions for how to live a ritualistic religious life, for instructions on prayer or worship or reading Scripture, then Esther is not the book for you.
But if you are looking for an example of how God moves in and through and among us in subtle yet powerful ways, then open up the pages of the book of Esther. For here is perhaps one of the most striking examples in Scripture of how God doesn’t always hit us over the head to catch our attention. How God is there if we look, inviting us to use our ordinary gifts in extraordinary ways. One of the most meaningful quotations in my walk with Christ has been this one by Christian theologian and writer Frederick Buechner. You may have heard me reference it before. You will probably hear me reference it again:
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
This is the message of Esther. This is the theme of our series. This is the life of faith.
See the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Be the extraordinary that you were created to be. For who knows? Maybe you are here “for such a time as this.”