Women Of The Old Testament: Braving The Inner Court

Steve Lindsley
(Esther 4:10-5:3)

As best as I can recall, I’ve known all of three Esthers in my life.  One was on the swim team I used to coach in Mount Airy – she was a great butterflyer.  Another sat next to me in 7th grade math and always helped with the problems I didn’t understand (which meant she had to help me a lot).  The third was this sweet old lady who lived a few houses down from my apartment in Richmond when I was in seminary.  She made excellent oatmeal cookies.

And that’s it.  Esther, as it turns out, is an uncommon name, which seems appropriate given the uncommon story of Esther in our scripture today.  We’re looking at her story because we’re in the middle of our July sermon series, Women of the Old Testament.  Back when Grace kicked this series off a few weeks ago, she described it as “stories of women in the Bible whose voices, whose lives, whose presence in the biblical narrative shape the lives of those around them.”  I would add that they shape our lives as well, in ways that we may not readily recognize.

The book of Esther in the Old Testament has all the components of a great story – romance, drama, betrayal, deception, justice.  I used to tell my Old Testament students that the book of Esther reads like a soap opera, albeit a good one.  To try and do justice to the whole story in one sermon seems a little foolhardy, but here’s the skinny: God’s people are under Persian rule at the time, and a plan has been set in motion by some in the king’s court that, if carried out, would result in the extermination of every Jewish person in the kingdom.

And here’s the real intrigue of it all: the king himself is not aware of these plans.  Totally oblivious.  Nor is he aware that his beloved wife – Esther – happens to be Jewish herself.  And what does this mean for Esther?  Well, she cannot just go and tell the king.  Because no one – and I mean no one – can appear in the king’s inner court unannounced.  Not even his beloved queen.  So serious was this particular bit of protocol that breaking it could result in losing your life.  They weren’t messing around.

So the stakes are pretty high for Esther at this point in the story: either risk going in the inner court uninvited and never coming out, or keep her mouth shut and witness the impending carnage of her people.

Not a great choice, is it?  Either way your life is in danger.  Either way you stand to lose a lot.

I wonder this morning if you have ever found yourself having to brave the inner court?  Maybe not with stakes as high as this – I hope not.  But have you ever faced a decision that carried some amount of weight with it, some significance; some crossroads where you intuitively knew that either way would have a profound impact, not just on your life but the lives of others?  Tell me – what thing do you consider as you weigh the choice you’ll make – your well-being?  The well-being of others?  The potential risks and rewards?  The truth?  What?

We don’t really get much insight into why Esther decided to do what she did, but she spells out her decision pretty clearly: Go get all the Jews in Susa together, she tells cousin Mordecai.  Don’t eat or drink for three days. I and my maids will fast with you. If you do this, I’ll go to the king, even though it’s forbidden. If I die, I die.  Wow!

Three days later there she is, decked out in her Sunday best, standing at the entrance to the inner court.  We have no idea what that entrance looked like, but we can bet it was something fabulous – an awning, a large curtain, something which separated in stark fashion everything outside from what was inside.  Which is the whole point.  She is about to enter a place from which she may not return.

Esther breathes in deep and steps forward; and on the other side is greeted by the horrified looks of the court attendants.  They glare at Esther as if she is a dead woman walking, which she very well may be.

That is, until the king sees her and extends to her his royal scepter – a kingly way of saying, “hey, we’re cool.”

He is curious, though, as to why his queen has risked her life to come to the inner court, so he asks Esther what she wants.  And Esther, rather than spill it all right there, instead invites him to a special dinner, along with one of his highest court hands whom she knows has instigated the insidious plot against her people.  And it is there at that meal where she speaks the truth to the king and tells him all that’s happening around him, exposing the injustice.   And in the end, as with any good story, the bad guys lose, the good guys win, and Esther is hailed as a hero.

It’s an amazing story about an amazing woman who took a huge risk, even when it wasn’t convenient to do so, even when it could have cost her her life.  This sort of thing is not uncommon in the Bible, is it?   Moses tells Pharaoh to let God’s people go, Amos rails on the rich landowners to stop preying on the poor, Nathan calls King David’s sin out with that infamous line, “YOU are the man!”  The difference here, of course, is that Esther is a woman, living in a male-centric society where the female voice carried little power or influence.  Except here it does – precisely because Esther chooses to do something no woman or man would normally be inclined to do: to brave the inner court.

The inner court.  More than the setting for a Bible story, more than a backdrop for a powerful scene.  The inner court is a living reality for us, as it was for Esther.  The inner court is that place where the veil is lifted, where truth is revealed, where injustice is called out, where God’s good word is finally made good, as scandalous as that goodness may be.

And that’s why conventional wisdom says that it takes brave people to go in there, because it is impossible for anyone to enter into the inner court and come out unchanged.  Things will be different once that threshold is crossed; and oftentimes that in and of itself is enough of a deterrent to keep folks on the outside looking in.

And sad as it is to say, the church is no stranger to standing on the outside looking in.  Just consider a few ways that the church as a whole has stood pat:        

We’ve stood at the entrance to the inner court and watched as a series of restrictive laws and mass deportations culminated in the slaughter of 6 million Jews in mid-20th century Germany.  We’ve stood there, even though we worship a Messiah who embodied love for all people and hate for no one. We’ve stood at the entrance to the inner court as rock stars and movie celebrities hold various fundraising efforts to combat world hunger.  We’ve stood there, even though we follow a man who once sat among thousands of hungry on the countryside and commanded his disciples to give them something to eat.

We’ve stood at the entrance to the inner court and watched every kind of person and organization around us take up the charge for equal rights, regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or zip code.  We’ve stood there, even though our savior was a man who conversed with all kinds of people, who told parables of grace for the most unlikely, who never once excluded a person from community.

We’ve done far too much standing and not enough stepping into as the church, I am afraid.  And I worry that the church will not being brave enough to act when the voice and clout of the church could otherwise be a powerful force in molding policy and influencing public opinion on the truths we hold sacrosanct: that we do justice, that we love kindness, and that we walk humbly with God.  I worry that, when it matters most, the church will simply not be brave enough to be the church.

And that’s exactly why some say we need more Esthers.  Those special people who are bolder and braver than the rest of us, ever-willing to take risks and step into the unknown.  That is why some long for strong leaders, people to go ahead of the rest of us and do the hard work, so we can then follow their lead and make our way into the inner courts once the threshold has been crossed.

Some will say this is what the church needs today, that we need more Esthers.

But I am not so sure about that.   

Some of you will recall David LaMotte, our Montreat speaker this past fall; and something he brought up frequently in his keynotes about dispelling the myth of the “hero narrative.”  The hero narrative, David says, is the widely-accepted idea that “things change when someone extraordinary encounters a moment of crisis and does something dramatic.”  The key words there being “someone extraordinary” and “something dramatic.”  This notion that in order to bring about real change, in order to do something that really matters, it takes a special kind of person doing something profound. 

In other words, someone who is not us doing something we could never do.

So our role in the hero narrative can be reduced to two simple steps: one, wait for a crisis to happen; and then two, wait for a hero to show up.  And as David is fond of saying, in that scenario you rarely get to Step 3 because you’re still waiting for Step 2, waiting for the hero.[1]

Here’s the thing: more times than not, we the church have stood at the entrance to the inner court and waited for Esther to show up.  Waited for her so she can take that first step, cross the breach; and when she does that and we see that she’s okay, then and only then do we step inside.  

And maybe that’s the problem right there, don’t you think?  Maybe we should not be waiting for Esther.  Maybe what we need to do is finally start seeing that Esther is not some hero coming to save the day for us, but that Esther is in fact already here, because Esther is us.

Us!  We are Esther!  We don’t need to wait for someone extraordinary to do something dramatic because neither of those is required here.  It strikes me that Esther, as amazing a woman as she was, was more like you and me than we may think.  Esther was a queen, yes, but she was not of royal lineage – literally plucked out of the crowd for the gig.  Esther was certainly brave, but it wasn’t like she possessed some “bravery” superpower, like Wonder Woman blocks bullets with her bracelets or Hermione knows just the right spell to cast. 

Perhaps, then, being special like Esther is simply being who we already are, with all that God has already given us.  Maybe that’s all there is to it, and we just don’t know it yet.

We don’t know yet that we are Esther, called to brave the inner courts of our lives, seeking transformation, being bold in our living.  Loving people who are hard to love, rising above the poisoned, spirit-killing partisan divide and discord of our day.  Approaching every movement with heart-felt gratitude, inhaling love and exhaling grace.

We don’t know yet that we are Esther as a church, responding to God’s call by being brave when we need to.  I think about us here at Trinity Presbyterian; some of the inner court moments we’ve had in our past, some we have coming in our near future.  They require of us a kind of bravery that God requires of all God’s children – to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.  This bravery is not without risks, not without challenges.  But it does not require too much of us, because we, Esther, are already enough, we are more than enough as we stand at our inner court, waiting to step inside.

So be brave, Trinity Presbyterian.  Be brave.  With all that God has given you, with decisions and choices you have yet to make, step faithfully and confidently into God’s inner court knowing that you are enough, you are more than enough, you are always enough.

Be brave, people of God.  Be bold in the way you live, speak the truth in love, love with no hesitation or regret.  Not because you are a hero, not because you are “someone extraordinary” doing “something dramatic.” No – be brave because you are you, and you are living life as it is, and that in and of itself is miraculous.

Be brave.  Not just for yourself, not just for Trinity, but for a community and world in need of the witness of a family of faith committed to taking risks when needed, not afraid of failure, refusing to live in fear.

Be brave.  Step inside.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] David LaMotte, Worldchanging 101: Challenging the Myth of Powerlessness (2014 Dryad Publishing), 70-71.