When the preacher allows the biblical narrative to speak for itself, Scripture begins to take on new meaning. One example of this is the book of Esther. It is common to approach Esther in ways that fit into existing standards of piety. It is tempting to try to find individual virtues in Esther that affirm our presuppositions. What if sermons allowed Esther to speak for itself? What if Esther is intended to expand our ideas about God?
Preaching Esther is a corporate matter. When preaching Esther, it is good to remember that these people were once slaves in Egypt, became refugees in the wilderness, part of loose tribes in the Promised Land, became a monarchy, and then a divided nation. Through all of that, they were the people of God. By the time we get to Esther, they are exiles. First under the Babylonians and then the Persians. And somehow through all this, they remain the plan for all peoples on earth to be blessed.
Esther is about a people in exile. They are not living in the Jewish homeland. Just like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, Esther and Mordecai are surrounded by a people who don’t believe in God. Exile makes one wonder if God is really interested in what is happening when we find ourselves in unfortunate circumstances. Esther reminds us that the people of God only exist because of God’s saving act.
Christians have struggled with how to manage Esther. Martin Luther wished it wasn’t in the bible. John Calvin did not include it among his commentaries. No one in the New Testament quotes or refers to it. However, Jews have not shared these struggles. Esther is read at the Feast of Purim. When Esther is mentioned the crowd might respond “Blessed be Esther!” When Mordecai is mentioned “Long live Mordecai!” It is lively. It is like a Jewish Mardi Gras.
Perhaps it is best known for the times Haman is mentioned. At the mention of his name, listeners will make a racket with graggers and noise making instruments. They will hiss and boo and stomp. They will shout out “Cursed be Haman” and “May the name of the wicked rot.” Perhaps we should follow their lead and enter the narrative. Perhaps we should take seriously what it means to be a people in exile.
The fact we find it where it is, the middle of the Old Testament, suggests it has something to say about God. Yet, in a book where God is never mentioned by name, we might be encouraged to talk about the ways God works behind the scenes. Esther may be for people who wonder if God is actually interested in the present. It prompts the question, “where is God in this text?” Certainly, the Jews in Esther are asking that question.
People are pretty good at noticing things right in front of our face, but is life only what is obvious? Is there anything going on behind the scenes? So, the night before Haman was to ask for Mordecai to be hanged, the king suffered amnesia? So, he asked for palace records to be read? So, he was reminded that Mordecai was never rewarded for saving his life? What is going on here? Is this just a pile of coincidence or could it be that Esther, a book that does not mention the name of God, is pulling us into a story where the main character is actually behind the scenes providing salvation for God’s people?
It is almost as if we read “The king couldn’t sleep that night… wink, wink.”