Jackson Lashier ~ Advent, Esther, & the Absence of God
These texts for a Sunday of Advent, taken from the Narrative Lectionary, seem like odd choices for the season of Advent (Esther 4:1-17, Matthew 5:13-16). They contain no prophecies about the coming king that we have come to expect during this time of waiting. Rather, the book of Esther is a narrative set in the period of the Jewish exile, where God’s chosen people are subjects of a foreign king. This king, Ahasuerus of Persia, is described in the first chapter as a typical Ancient Near Eastern king, displaying the “great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty” (1:4). He views his wife, Vashti, as part of this great wealth, a thing for him to enjoy. So when she refuses to obey his misogynist commands to be paraded before his friends, he dismisses her, and orders all the virgins of the land to come before him so he could handpick her replacement, a sort of ancient version of The Bachelor.
One of these virgins is a Jewish exile named Esther, a young woman who was raised by her cousin Mordecai. The text says that “the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he made her queen” (2:17). Her Jewish identity, however, is unknown to the king for certainly he would not have knowingly made a Jew his queen. After all, the Persians looked down on the Jews; they felt that they were dirty and no better than slaves. Indeed, as the narrative continues, we learn that one of the king’s advisors, Haman, wants to kill all the Jews in the land simply because Mordecai had refused to bow down to him. King Ahasuerus agreed to this plan.
This leads to today’s text, where Mordecai informs Esther of Haman’s plot and begs her to do something about it:
Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law– all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 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 just such a time as this.” (4:10-14).
At first, Esther is hesitant to act. Who wouldn’t be? This is clearly a volatile king. He dismissed his former queen because she disobeyed him. He agreed to mass genocide because his servant Haman was offended with one Jew. And apparently, he kills anyone who comes to him without being summoned. This is a man you treaded lightly around, that is, if you wanted to save your life. But Mordecai’s words ring in her head: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” As the story continues, Esther somehow gets the courage to act, and goes before the king, winning his favor. At a banquets he prepares for him and Haman, Ahasuerus is so pleased with Esther that he grants her any request she wants. She asks that her people be spared and when the king learns she is Jewish and that Haman is the one plotting to kill them, he hangs him on the gallows that had been prepared for Jews. Esther’s faithful act saves her people, an act still celebrated every year by Jews at the festival of Purim.
As good as the story of Esther is, however, it presents us with a problem: God is absent. Unlike other Old Testament stories, where we read of God appearing to Abraham or working behind the scenes to foil the plans of the Pharaoh, the story of Esther never mentions God. There is no account of God’s efforts to stop Haman’s plans of genocide. There is no description of God appearing to Esther to strengthen her for her ordeal. Rather, the characters in Esther appear to be acting on their own. God, it seems, is absent.
And here, then, lies the key to understanding Esther as an Advent story. For God’s absence is a reality that faced those in exile, and it is a reality that faces us today. For although Christ came and set all things right through his life, death, and resurrection, we find ourselves waiting again for his return with the fullness of the kingdom.
And if we are honest, this waiting period is not all candles and lights. More often it means we still experience the harsh realities of this life: injustice, struggles with sin, the gut wrenching experience of death. When we pray, we often wonder whether God hears. When we try to follow God’s will, we often feel left in the dark as to what God’s will is. We’re like Mordecai, whose famous line, “perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this” is qualified by the somewhat lesser known question,“Who knows?”
Though our everyday experience is probably not too dissimilar from these Jewish exiles, however, there is an important difference to the quality of our waiting, namely, the victory has already been won, the contest is no longer in doubt. Our Gospel tells us that Jesus defeated sin and evil with his life and death on the cross, and that in his resurrection, Jesus even defeated death. This means, then, that we wait not as those who do not know what is going to happen. We wait with the confidence of the children of God. And the great sign of this hope, that which sustains us in the meantime, is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
This leads us to our second text of the day, Matthew 5:13-16, where Jesus tells the people, “You are the light of the world.” He is talking about the Church, the community of people that would be set up in the meantime, in the waiting period between the advents of Jesus. “The light of the world” is a startling title for this group of disciples. In his ministry, Jesus uses that phrase of only one other person, himself (John 8:12). This means that the presence of God, during this period of waiting, exists in the Church.
Practically speaking, this means that we need to be the presence of God for one another. This works every time an injustice occurs and the Church rises to make it right. And it happens every time a person experiences tragedy or death and is surrounded by the community of faith. So that in the times where God might seem most absent, he becomes present through his people, the Body of Christ.
Ultimately, then, the knowledge we have of God’s victory helps us to think differently about those times where we thought God was absent. In the midst of suffering, it can certainly feel God is absent. But when we look back at those times from a later point in life, we often see where God actually was present, where he was moving, even though we did not feel him.
And so it is with the story of Esther. God is not mentioned in the story, but when we read it from the standpoint of the cross and resurrection, we see the hand of God everywhere; how else would a Jewish exile come to be queen? Mordecai didn’t feel it at the time; the best he could say was, “who knows?” But from our stand point, we know. We know that God was never absent, even in exile. As the Psalmist writes, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8).
So in our time of waiting this Advent Season, let us remember with the confidence of the children of God, that the victory has already been won, that we do not hope for something of which we are not sure will happen. Rather, let us wait expectantly on our Lord and in the meantime, let us shine his light to one another and to the world, so that God’s abiding presence will always be known. Amen.
Featured image courtesy Laura Nyhuis via Unsplash.