In this season of Advent, this season of preparing ourselves for the arrival of God in the world, we are challenging ourselves to work on our growing edges. The themes of Advent are hope, peace, joy, and love, which are always growing edges for humans, all of us can grow in how we live out those virtues. Last week we considered how we have the freedom to hope anyway when all the evidence says there’s no reason to hope. This week we are going to consider how we can can have peace anyway even in the midst of threats.
Peace is a hugely important idea in the Bible. The Hebrew word for it is “shalom” which we usually translate as “peace” but that doesn’t quite do it justice. Shalom also means prosperity, and reconciliation, and flourishing, and wholeness. God’s intention for the world, the way the world was originally created to be and the way God will one day recreate it to be, is shalom, wholeness, all things as they should be, all things in line with God. That kind of peace, that kind of all-encompassing peace, is well-being in the very midst of threats. Well-being in the very midst of threats.
And we have a great story this morning to help us think about this. The scripture reading today is from the book of Esther, the fourth chapter, page 760 in the Bibles in front of you. Since this is the middle of the story, allow me to recap what has happened up to this point. Esther is a young Jewish woman who lives in the capital city of Persia, which today is southwestern Iran. She is a descendant of people who were taken into exile when the empire of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and conquered the kingdom of Judah. In this story Jewish people have lived in Persia for three or four generations. They are well settled and assimilated. Esther is an orphan who was raised by her uncle, Mordecai, one of the leaders of the Jewish people in Persia.
At this point in time the King of Persia is on the hunt for a new queen. He sends men throughout the realm to literally round up attractive women and bring them to the king’s harem where they undergo a full year of beauty treatments before spending one night with the king. Esther is rounded up, goes through the process, and is chosen as the new queen.
Mordecai insightfully instructs Esther not to reveal who her family is or that she is Jewish. Mordecai doesn’t tell anyone he is related to the new queen, but he does frequent the palace gates to hear news of Esther’s well being. One day he overhears two men plotting to murder the king and he quickly sends word to Esther, who reveals the plot to the king in the name of Mordecai. The plotters are caught and executed, and Mordecai’s name and deed are written in the king’s Book of Chronicles.
In the meantime, the king appoints Haman as Prime Minister and issues a decree that all should bow to him. Mordecai refuses to bow down before Haman. Mordecai’s refusal infuriates Haman. Already driven by his family’s historic hatred of the Jewish people, Haman goes to the King at the beginning of the year with 10,000 silver pieces and asks for permission to destroy the Jews. He presents the issue to the king as a matter of loyalty, saying “There is a certain people, scattered and spread out among the peoples in all the states of your kingdom, their laws are different from other peoples and they do not observe the king’s laws, so it is not worth it for the king to leave them alive.” The king agrees and issues an edict to all 127 provinces saying that at the end of the year, the Jews in all the provinces are to be exterminated by their neighbors and their property kept as plunder.
Upon hearing this vile edict, Mordecai dons sackcloth and ashes. He quickly sends word to Esther that she must go to the king and stop this horrible decree from becoming reality. We pick up the story today in chapter 4 verse 9, again, page 760 in your pew Bibles.
Hathak the messenger went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”
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 your royal position for such a time as this?”
Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
It’s peace week. But the world doesn’t feel very peaceful. And I’m tired. I know you’re tired. It’s really tempting to just sing “Away in a Manger” and say some nice things and go home and pull the blankets over our heads. But alas — we have this story that just won’t let me get away with that.
Esther’s people were under threat. And Mordecai told her that her privilege was not going to protect her. The evil that was coming for her people would eventually come for her too. And once that false sense of security was taken away, Esther chose to face the danger of going to see the king even though he hadn’t asked for her. She could die for that. But Mordecai told her she could die anyway, so why not take a risk that could make a difference?
Friends, the question for us this morning is, “Are we willing to take a risk that could make a difference?” To what extent are we willing to put ourselves on the line? If it’s true that “evil triumphs when good people do nothing” — and I think it is true — then how do we find the courage to do something to resist evil? I’m not talking about resisting evil on Twitter. I’m talking about resisting evil with our bodies.
The urge to self-protect is very strong. It’s natural; all living creatures are wired with mechanisms to keep themselves safe. But the kicker for us is that resisting evil is not a particularly safe activity. Friends, if we are going to participate in God’s plan to heal the world, we are going to have to challenge our natural urge to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
Now I can see some of you bristling right now as I say this. Because “family first” is a white middle-class American value. The idea that I would put myself in harms way when I have a child? Unthinkable. That’s not what a good mother would do. My son needs me. He is my and Sam’s responsibility. The problem is that there are a lot of Sammys for whom no one feels a sense of responsibility, and what about them? My safety and my family’s safety is obviously very important to me, but it’s really not objectively more important than anyone else’s safety.
It’s the easiest thing in the world for us to avoid problems that don’t affect us directly. Even if we see it and know it’s real, unless it touches us, it doesn’t really move us. We might change add a frame to our Facebook profile photo or even give a little money. We may even talk about it. But we don’t DO anything with our physical bodies. I don’t. Because I don’t have to.
But you know what gets me? It’s that poem by Rev. Martin Niemöller who was a German Christian pastor in 1930s and 1940s. He said this:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The thing about evil is that it doesn’t stop. It may not be my problem now, but eventually it probably will be. And even if it’s not ever my problem, don’t I still have a responsibility, not just to my family but to all of humanity? I’m not talking about every time in every situation — I can’t imagine how I would travel to a refugee camp right now — but the story of Esther reminds us that sometimes we are perfectly poised to do something that will make a difference, even though it could cost us something. What if you are exactly what is needed right now? What if putting yourself on the line could make all the difference? Just because it doesn’t feel safe doesn’t mean it’s not still the right thing to do.
Going to stand next to someone who is being bullied is not necessarily safe. Speaking up against racism or sexism or homophobia is not necessarily safe; at the very least you’ll be inviting conflict. Distributing food and supplies at night to folks who are not housed is not particularly safe. Showing up at a protest where violence could happen is not necessarily safe. Moving into a disempowered neighborhood is not necessarily safe – we can’t do that because Sammy wouldn’t go to a “good school!”
But friends, maybe somewhere not safe is exactly where God is calling us to be sometimes because we are exactly the right person for that situation. If we are confident that God has called us there, that God needs us to be there, we will be at peace. We will experience a deep sense of well-being in the very midst of threats. The most peaceful place for us to be is not the place where we feel safest. The most peaceful place for us to be is where we feel needed, where we feel called, led, drawn. It doesn’t have to be safe to be peaceful. If we are doing what God has called us to do, we will experience deep peace, shalom, a sense of well-being in the midst of threats.
Guess how I know? Because in this season we are anticipating the arrival of one who gave up safety to be where he was needed. Jesus is our model for what it means to show up even when it’s going to cost us something. That’s the whole point of the incarnation. God gave up privilege and moved into our neighborhood. God came to be with us in the midst of all that threatens us. Didn’t have to. Could have stayed put. But instead God got into a human body and then put that body on the line to rescue us and heal us and give us victory.
At this table we see Jesus model for us deep peace, a sense of well-being in the midst of threats. Jesus knew that he was exactly what was needed in the situation. That he had come to his position for just such a time as this. For such a people as us. Forsaking safety and comfort and power to become Emmanuel — God with us. Good news of great joy for all people. Which is why we declare that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes — people in every type of body — come from the north, south, east, and west, and gather at Christ’s table, which is big enough for us all.