Will you be part of it?

Esther 4

31 July 2011

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


It has to be said that Esther is a cracking good story. It would have been nice to have read more of it. I read it to the girls on holiday last month, two chapters at a time, and we had a cliff-hanger ending everyday: they were begging me to read on.

It's a story very familiar to modern day Jews. The book has a clear purpose which is to explain the origin of the festival of Purim, which Jews still celebrate. Apparently the children are issued with rattles which they use to drown out the name of evil Haman whenever it appears.

Purim is not one of the festivals prescribed in the books of Moses—it originates with the story of Esther in 473 BC. But the festival is still celebrated today because its theme is that God saves his people, a theme that has become desperately important to Jews over the centuries.

But, actually, this is the same theme as that of the whole Old Testament. The common thread that runs from start to end is this: God saves his people. So Esther is a great place to end the run we've been doing through the whole Old Testament.

God first began to gather a people of his own right back with Abraham, about 2000 years before Christ. Over a few generations, the people of God grew to a family of 70 - and God saved them from famine through Joseph in Egypt. His brothers had intended to do evil against him, but God had used it for good: to save his people.

Centuries later, through Moses, God saved his people from oppression in Egypt. Now they numbered 600,000 men, perhaps a couple of million in all. He brought them into the promised land, and Joshua, whose name means "salvation", saved them time and again in battle. There followed a long dark period where the people drifted away from God and were pressed on all sides by their enemies. But, a dozen times, God raised up judges to save his people.

Eventually, under God's hand, the people achieved security and prosperity. David became king; Solomon built the temple and God's people were secure in the land.

But this period of security didn't last long. Within a few years God's people were divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered and carried off into exile by the Assyrians. Eventually, even the southern kingdom of Judah was carried into exile by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was invaded and God's temple was destroyed. And all this was the result of God's judgement against their disobedience. What had become of God's people?

But even in exile, God's people found him faithful. Despite the upheavals, God preserved a faithful remnant. So we read about Daniel, for example, living faithfully in Babylon.

Eventually, a few dribs and drabs returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild the temple. Which we heard about in Ezra and Nehemiah and Haggai. God had preserved his people: despite their sin, despite their weakness and disobedience and downright rebellion, there is a continuous thread of the faithfulness of God that runs from start to end. God saves his people.

Which brings us finally to Esther, a millennium and a half after Abraham. This is set even after Haggai and the return to Jerusalem. And it is set a long way from Jerusalem, in Susa, which is in modern day Iran.

Esther, and her uncle Mordecai, and a large number of other Jews have been assimilated into the immense Persian empire that extended from North Africa right across to India, spanning 127 provinces. And the big question of the book of Esther is, "will God save his people?". Will God save these people, scattered across a foreign empire?

At the point where we join the story, Esther, the Jew has become queen, the wife of King Xerxes. You can read about the extraordinary way this came about in chapters one and two. But Esther hasn't yet revealed her race to the king.

Meanwhile, evil Haman has taken against the Jews because Esther's uncle, Mordecai, refuses to bow down to him. Haman has persuaded the king to let him issue an edict that all Jews throughout the empire will be slaughtered on a certain day. And here we have the cliff-hanger: Will God save his people?

Now, finally, we get to the text, and I want to focus in on the most famous verses in the book of Esther, chapter 4 verses 12-14.

When Esther's words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: "Do not think that because you are in the king's house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?"ref

I've got two headings: one a statement, one a question. First the statement: God is at work, saving his people.

God is at work, saving his people

Famously, the book of Esther does not mention God by name. Not once.

Does this matter? Well, if you see a painting by, say, Monet or Picasso, you don't need to look for the signature at the bottom or the plaque on the wall, do you? You know straight away whose work it is. In the same way, God's distinctive brushstrokes are all over this story.

Mordecai alludes to this in his words to Esther. Have a look at verse 14, For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another placeref. Mordecai knows his God: the God who is at work, saving his people.

And in many other ways we see God at work in this story. When Haman casts the lot to determine the day when the Jews should be annihilated, it comes up nearly a year ahead, giving time for Mordecai and Esther to put a counter-plan in place. A bit of luck? Proverbs 16:33, The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.ref

One crucial night, the king finds that he can't sleep. By an extraordinary "coincidence" the reading matter he orders contains the story of how Mordecai once saved his life. By another "coincidence" Haman happened to show up just at that moment, and his downfall begins.

Later, the king "happens" to walk in just as Haman is throwing himself on Esther to beg for his life—an act that actually costs him his life.

And so on. There are no dramatic miracles in the book—no parting of the Red Sea—yet God is clearly at work, ordering events, causing coincidences, guiding the outcome, using ordinary means.

And, for most of us, this is our experience of God, isn't it? He is at work in our lives, rarely dramatically, but always there, if you have eyes to see. The "chance" encounter. The "timely" event. The "strange" coincidence. As William Temple put it, "When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't".

God may not be named in the book of Esther, but we see his handiwork: God is at work, saving his people.

And we shouldn't miss the fact that God had long before prepared for this moment. Haman's threats have not caught him by surprise. God had started his preparations six years earlier in placing Esther at the heart of the King's palace.

Mordecai seems to realise this, so he challenges Esther: if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?ref

Mordecai challenges Esther: God is at work, saving his people; will you be part of it?

And that's my second heading: a question, will you be part of it?

Will you be part of it?

It has always struck me as extraordinary that God, though always at work and utterly able to accomplish his purposes without us, so often chooses to work through his people. He doesn't need us in any way, yet he invites us to work with him. Does this not amaze you?

So, Mordecai challenges Esther that she is God's person, in God's place, at God's time for God's people.

And he spells out Esther's terrible choice: either do nothing and likely perish when they find out that you yourself are one of the Jews condemned, by law, to death, or do something and perhaps die trying.

God will save his people, Esther, but do you want to be part of it?

Today, God is saving people through the gospel of Jesus Christ. You and I can choose to be part of it or we can choose to stand back. We can align our interests with God's, or we can go our own way.

Can we draw a parallel between Mordecai's words and our own situation? I think we can. God is saving people in huge numbers all over the world: but he's mostly doing it a long way from here, isn't he? By and large, in churches in Britain in recent decades we have chosen the path of silence. We have become so identified with our culture that we have not spoken out, we have not dared to join in God's saving work. God is still saving in other places, but the churches here are by and large perishing.

Esther, too, had become thoroughly part of the Persian culture. Esther was actually her Persian name: she didn't use her Jewish name, Hadassah, any more. She spent a year in the king's harem learning Persian beauty treatments before becoming his queen. She lived isolated from her people. But when it came to the crunch, Mordecai reminded her that she belonged to God's chosen people, and she acted accordingly.

Unless we do the same, then, in fulfilment of Mordecai's words, we will simply die out. God will continue to save people, but he will do it in other places, without us.

How can you and I be part of God's saving work?

Well, Mordecai's question rings in our ears: And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?ref

God has placed each one of us is in a unique position of influence. He has placed each of us in a certain work context; in a particular family; with a certain group of friends; with a unique set of neighbours. Among people he wants to bring to saving knowledge of Jesus. It's a terrifically encouraging thought, isn't it, that God could have a purpose for you in his saving plans, where you are, what you are doing now. He's worked behind the scenes for years to put you in just the right place at just the right time.

Is God today asking you to be part of his work? Is he challenging you to do something something bold, something dangerous to your reputation, or your finances or your security or your relationships?

You have a choice, just as Esther did. You can remain silent; you can put your own interests ahead of God's and go your own way. It won't thwart God's plans: he will continue to save. But it won't do you any good. Your faith will dim; your love will grow cold; your relationship with him will perish, if not die entirely.

Or you can do something! And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? You don't need to be highly religious or an expert in the Bible; Esther certainly wasn't. You just need the eye of faith to spot where God is at work; and the guts to be part of it.

Are you, like Esther, God's person, in God's place, at God's time for God's people?

On hearing Mordecai's reply, Esther gathered the people to fast, and presumably to pray. And then she acted. And, as a result, she was privileged to be right at the centre of God's astonishing work as he acted to save his people.


God is at work, saving his people. Will you be part of it? It's an extraordinary invitation from an extraordinary God. He doesn't need us, but he invites us to work with him.

I can think of no better way to end than with a quote from Charles Spurgeon preaching on this text.

Settle it in your mind that the Lord has called you to the work and then advance without question or fear. Put your hand to the plough, and pause not. Do the work with your might. Do not stand asking how: do it as you can. Do not stand asking when: do it directly! Do not say, "But I am weak": the Lord is strong! Do not say, "But I must devise methods." Do not concoct schemes or tarry to perfect your methods: fling yourself upon the work with all your might. Load your cannon with rough bits of rock or stones from the road if nothing better comes to hand; ram them in with plenty of powder; and apply the fire. When you have nothing else to hurl at the foe, place yourself in the gun. Believe me, no shot will be more effectual than the hurling of your whole being into the conflict. [Spurgeon, sermon 1777]