(Esther 4: 6-14)
As I mentioned before the children and I told the story of Esther, today through Wednesday our Jewish neighbors are celebrating the holiday of Purim.[1a] “Purim is a joyous holiday that affirms and celebrates Jewish survival and continuity throughout history. The main communal celebration involves a public reading—usually in the synagogue—of the Book of Esther, which tells the story of the holiday… [and] The reading is typically a rowdy affair, punctuated by booing and noise-making when Haman’s name is read aloud.”[1b] Today, just down the street, Temple Beth El is hosting “A Very Frozen Purim” where the story of Esther is being told through the music of Disney’s Frozen movies. Temple Israel, across the street is using the movie Aladdin as their theme, which is appropriate since Haman plays the same manipulative role over the king as Jafar in Aladdin. Then after these dual celebrations, all are invited to a Purim carnival hosted by the JCC, where everyone is encouraged to come in costume and enjoy games and food. By the way…just in case you are tempted to duck out of worship and join in the merriment south on Providence, please remember our own celebration after worship at the BBQ and auction supporting Trinity’s youth group.
I share these events, because when studying the book of Esther, it’s important to remember how significant this story is for our Jewish neighbors—it defines one of their main holidays. Although we—and they—read it today in a playful way, the book of Esther presents some painful realities in the history of Israel. This story speaks to Israel’s time in exile in Persia in the 6th century BCE and all of the uncertainty and fear that came with it. Communities were torn apart, the Israelites lost the center of their identity when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and they were in constant fear of how foreign nations would treat them and their loved ones. In the story, Mordecai is trying to be loyal to his God and is consequently punished for it. Then, when he doesn’t bow down to Haman, his actions endanger all of his people. Furthermore, take note of what this story says about a woman’s life during this time. Vashti is exiled for not performing suggestively for the king and his guests, poor women are rounded up and taken from their families to serve the king’s desires, and then Esther was most likely only one of the women that the king had a relationship with—remember, she couldn’t go in his room without an invitation. The story of Esther reminds us of a very dark time for the Israelites, one of many throughout history.
So why do our Jewish neighbors celebrate Purim in such a raucous way? Why all the frivolity and games? The cheeky refrain for many in the Jewish community is that their holidays have a common theme: “They tried to kill us, they didn’t, let’s eat.” But the holiday of Purim, explained more fully by rabbi Jonathan Sacks, reveals that “The joy, the merrymaking, the food, the drink, the whole carnival atmosphere, are there to allow us to live with the risks of being a Jew – in the past, and tragically in the present also – without being terrified, traumatized or intimidated… we must never let ourselves be intimidated – and the Jewish way to avoid this is to increase our joy. The people that can know the full darkness of history and yet rejoice is a people whose spirit no power on earth can ever break.”
When I asked my friend Tehilah, an educator at a large synagogue up in Brooklyn, she said that being silly in Purim is a way to celebrate being alive. Purim may seem like a holiday of irreverence, but it’s really about joy. There’s joy in making one another laugh, there’s joy in sharing a meal together with raucous entertainment, there’s joy in dressing up in costumes. What looks to us like silliness is actually a survival mechanism for some. “The significance of Purim lies not so much in how it began, but in what it has become: a thankful and joyous affirmation of Jewish survival.”Consequently, it should come as no surprise then, that children are usually the ones who lead the celebration of Purim. They know better than those of us how to find and share joy, not to mention be silly. By the way, my friend, Tehilah, wore a unicorn costume up and down the streets New York during her celebration last week. J
Hold on to that silly image for a minute, we’ll come back to it. If you remember, last Sunday Steve began our sermon series for Lent, Connecting with God. Tied in with our ConnectTPC theme for 2020, in Lent we are exploring what it means to connect with God. God is at the foundation of everything around us and everything we are. But how “connected” do we feel to this God in our daily living? Do we wonder if God cares? Are there times when we question whether or not God even exists? Our sermons during Lent and on Easter will focus on moments in the Bible where people connect to God in a variety of ways. Steve began this theme last week with the story of God speaking to Moses in the burning bush, a powerful reminder of God’s presence and invitation to each of us to follow him. Moses’ journey with God reminds us that God does indeed call us by name and can surprise us with the miraculous.
Esther is the second story in our journey of Connecting with God. But, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of a well-known fact about the book of Esther…there is absolutely no mention of God in any of the ten chapters of this story. We’re here today to talk about connecting with God using a book of the Bible that doesn’t talk about God. It’s ok to laugh at this… So if God doesn’t specifically show up in Esther, what does this story teach us about connecting with God? Where is God when miracles and burning bushes aren’t so obviously found?
The truth is that during exile would have been just the time for Israel to wonder these very things. No temple, a people scattered in exile, foreign customs all around, new languages, tyrannical rulers. “Where is God?” would have been exactly what Esther, Mordecai, and their people would be asking. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that a story occurring in a time of exile doesn’t mention the name of God. Yet, in the absence of God’s name, God shows up.
A well-known phrase from the book of Esther is “for such a time as this.” The evil and cruel Haman is poised to kill all the Jews and Mordecai is begging Esther to use her position as queen to intercede. Specifically, in chapter 4 Mordecai says to Esther: 13 “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.” “For such a time as this.” Hit with those powerful words, it is at this moment that Esther courageously decides to stand up for her people and intercede with the king.
We may not see God’s actual name in this story, but most scholars would tell you that the story of God in Esther is one of PROVIDENCE. It’s a fancy word but I like to think of it as God acting anonymously; God moving behind the scenes in ways we can’t always identify. Just the other day, as my family and I were driving down Charlotte’s own Providence Road to meet friends, my daughter Hannah Ruth asked from the backseat—“Why are so many things in Charlotte named Providence?” The short answer is because of the historic Providence Presbyterian Church. But, before we could go into the history of Charlotte, my daughter then asked, “What does that word mean, anyway?” My husband responded, “Well, Hannah Ruth, what word do you get when you take the last 3 letters off of Providence?” What word do you get friends? PROVIDE. Providence is God’s way of providing for us, whether or not we remember to give God the credit.
So in Esther, God may not be mentioned by name, but God is certainly providentially active in the story. It’s only by the power of God that Mordecai has the strength to defy Haman. It’s only by the wisdom of God that Mordecai remembers the opportunity that Esther has in her relationship with the king. It’s only by the grace of God that Esther commits to risk her life to plead with the king on behalf of her people. For such a time as this. It’s because of God that Esther defies her fear and saves her people. Esther might be the only book of the Bible where God isn’t mentioned, but this book records one of God’s greatest acts—saving God’s children, against all odds, from certain death.
Back to the joy and frivolity of Purim…when it comes to connecting with God, we have a few things to learn from our Jewish neighbors. After all, they have had much more to fear in this world than us. And what do they do when they hear the story of Esther? They celebrate! As I said before…“The significance of Purim lies not so much in how it began, but in what it has become: a thankful and joyous affirmation of Jewish survival.”
Fear and anxiety seem to be all around us these days. Fear of illness and death, fear of running out of money, fear of our partisan divides, fear of the market crashing, fear that everything is not actually ok. But—in honor of our friends’ Purim celebration over at Temple Beth El—here’s a little wisdom brought to you Queen Elsa, from Disney’s Frozen: “Fear is what can’t be trusted.” This is why our Jewish neighbors lean into frivolity and joy when they hear the story of Esther. In the face of the terribleness of their history, they find joy, celebrate life, laugh, and they focus on spending time together. Because their communal joy—and this joyful celebration in particular—reminds them of God’s promises, God’s goodness, and God’s providence throughout their people’s story. Joy, not fear, is their focus.
It might seem strange to stress joy in this season of Lent—but during these 40 days we at Trinity are exploring how we can connect deeper with God. And sometimes connection takes the form of laughter, silliness, and yes joy. There are certainly moments in our lives when we wonder where God is or when God will show up. If we want to connect with God during these times, we need to learn from our Jewish neighbors who have remained confident that God never leaves God’s children even when faced with tragedy. With all the fearful things that surround us and all of the fear that can creep up within us, a dose of joy might be just what we need this Lent to remind us of God’s presence and God’s love. The story of Esther is the invitation we need to joyfully connect with God.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.