Word of the Week

Excuses, Excuses: I’m Afraid  Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

As we end our “Excuses, Excuses” sermon series today and thus our discussion on what can hold each of us back from relationship with God—I think we’ve saved one of the most important excuses for last, an excuse that all of us struggle with regularly. And this is it: we are held back from the new horizons, possibilities and dreams that God has for us because we are afraid. We are afraid of the unknown. We are afraid of losing what we had in the past. We are afraid of what we cannot control in the future.

We all know about fear because fear is something that each of us deal with if not every day, regularly.

Albert Hitchcock in fact once said, “Fear isn't so difficult to understand. After all, weren't we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It's just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.”

No matter who or what is the big, bad wolf in your life, this fact unites us: we all have fears that keep us back from God’s best for our lives. We won’t start new relationships because we’re afraid of getting hurt.  We won’t apply for new jobs because we fear we won’t get them. We won’t get out of bed on some days because we fear it won’t be better than the day before.

We fear losing the approval of those we love. We fear being exposed for who we really are. We fear making really big mistakes. We fear loneliness. We fear poverty. We fear fear itself, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said.

In our Old Testament lesson for this morning, we encounter a woman who like us wrestled with fear but courageously preservers—modeling for us a different way of being with our “I’m afraid” excuses.  Esther is this woman’s name. And although her name might sound familiar or at least maybe sometime you’ve seen it in the table of contents of your Bible—few of us really know the story of her life and why this particular tale ended up in the scriptures in the first place.

As the story goes, Esther was a young girl, an orphan of Jewish descent who was taken in by her older cousin Mordecai when her parents died. Her adopted father, Mordecai was a descendant of those who were captured when Jerusalem fell to Babylon (and thus went into exile) about 100 years before.  However, since the Babylonians fell to the Persians, Mordecai, Esther and the other Jewish people are now living under control of this new king, Xerxes.  And life isn’t easy living for the Jews as a member of the religious minority in the primarily secular culture. If life wasn’t bad enough under the Babylonians, now they were controlled by the Persians. And in this environment, we know nothing else about Esther other than what chapter 2 of Esther tells us that she “had a lovely figure and was beautiful.”

But, change is brewing in the nation. Much like the tale we might know from British history—where King Henry VIII gets tired of his first wife and divorces her for no good reason other than he wanted more children from a younger virgin wife, so goes the days of their lives in the Palace in Persia. King Xerxes divorced his wife, Vashti and seeks a new bride. The king makes quite a show out of the affair, welcoming a contest to see what young woman attracts his attention the most.

Mordecai encourages young Esther to participate and also forbids her to tell anyone at the palace her true nationality. Esther was to just blend in, not overly mention that she was of the tribe of Benjamin.  And, as Esther goes through the vetting process, she rises to the occasion, attracts the favor of the King and wins the contest. Soon she’ll be made to be the new Queen!

Meanwhile, Mordecai begins to get into some trouble, especially with Haman, the grand vizier to the king.  Mordecai finds out that two of the men in the king’s court are plotting to kill the king and sends word through now Queen Esther about the plot. The king executes the two men and Haman is furious.  He feels that Mordecai, a common man has superseded his position as right hand man to the king.

The best way I can describe it is this: you ask your supervisor’s boss for something instead of going directly to your supervisor and then your supervisor has a chip on their shoulder forever more about you. But, instead of getting over his attitude—and taking a time out for a reset, Haman takes matters into own hands. We read in chapter 4 that he gathers together a group of people to take not only Mordecai’s life but the lives of his tribe, the Jews.

So, what a quandary Esther and Mordecai find themselves in as they learn about Haman’s plans.

The remnant of Israel left in Persia—the people said long ago to be God’s beloved people—soon are about to face a genocide, unknown to them. The only two folks who know about it are Esther and Mordecai. And the only person who can do something about it is truly Esther, the Queen. So, you think she should just go talk to the King about this, don’t you think? But there’s a catch. Yet, let’s remember what happened to the last queen, Vashti. When the King was angry at her and found out she’d deceived him, Vashti was fired on the spot via a royal decree. Esther had not come this far in life—rising from orphaned girl to life in the palace—to throw it all away right now!

I can imagine there was much fear as Mordecai and Esther began to talk through all of this resting on their shoulders. Something needed to be done, but what if it cost them their lives? What if they couldn’t come up with a plan that worked? What if what they tried to do made the situation worse? What if?

Fear, at this juncture could have easily robbed Esther of her place in history, her moment to shine, and her opportunity to be God’s instrument to protect a group of people in need of someone to watch out for them. Fear could have kept Esther locked into a position of deceit. Fear could have stopped God’s light from shinning forth in this dark situation.

But it didn’t.

Esther, laid down the excuse of “I’m Afraid.” And, instead she embraced the opportunity to do her part, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to recognize that God had given her this moment in time to be fully herself.  For though we know that while there were apprehensions on Esther’s part, Mordecai encourages her in chapter 4, verse 14 with these famous words, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Do you, get it, Esther? Do you really get it? God has put you in this position for such a time as this!

One of my favorite books is The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom.  It tells the courageous story of Corrie and her sister and father, living in a small town in Holland during the time of World War II, taking the great risk of hiding Jews in their home knowing that these acts could one cost them their own lives.

In describing her upbringing and what brought her to this point in her life of feeling as if such an “I’m not afraid” type of attitude came over her, Corrie tells this story from her childhood:

Corrie, as young child, was upset thinking about her father dying someday. It made her quite upset as it would any child who loved their father very much. As was his habit, he sat down at the edge of her bed to tuck her in.

“Corrie,” he began gently, “when you and I go to Amsterdam – when do I give you your ticket?”

Corrie sniffed a few times feeling overcome with the emotion but gathered up enough courage to answer her father’s question, “Why, just before we get on the train.”

“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t rush ahead of Him. When the time comes…you will look into your heart and find the strength you need – just in time.”

So also was true, I believe of Esther at this juncture. At just the right moment she knew what she had to do.  And, though the word “God” is not mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther, making it the only one of its kind in all of scripture—we clearly see the leading of the divine at work. God is preparing and leading Esther for exactly the role that has already been prepared for her to play in this story.

Look with me at chapter 7. The plan is in motion—Esther seeks the perfect time to speak on behalf her people to the king, throwing a party in his honor. And at this party, look with me at verse 3 to see what Esther says to the king, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people.”

Without backing down, without letting her fear control her, Esther boldly stands up and uses her position to ask for mercy not only for herself but for everyone else whose lives were in danger.  The king grants her request, and the gallows that were originally built by Haman for Mordecai were now used for all those who plotted against the Jewish people, unfairly.

Sigh. What a relief! The king showed Esther favor! All was well.

As we process this story, what I think is most remarkable about Esther is the fact that freedom for her and many others comes in the telling the truth. What? What did this sweet little girl need to tell the truth about?

If we go back earlier in the book, we realize that Esther was not this young woman’s given name. Her real name was Hadassah—a Hebrew word connected to the meaning “darkness.” Esther became her royal name which scholars say is related to the Hebrew verb “to hide.”  Thus, by taking on the name “Esther” she was choosing a life of deceit.  She was hiding her true identity. She was hiding hoping that no one knew where she came from. She was not fully being herself. She was Jewish, a foreigner, not being honest about being an outsider leading the king to believe that she was one of them.

Scholar Amy Oden puts it like this, “Ultimately deliverance comes through claiming Jewish identity. Esther takes a great risk in revealing her true Jewishness, through Mordecai points out that she is sure to die either way. Nevertheless, once reveled, the king responds favorably and the Jewish are saved.”

Ah! The story is making more sense here, isn’t it? Esther is a girl who many of us certainly could understand. For we often don’t tell the truth about who we are either. We make up that we were little league champions when we only got a trophy for being on the team. We make up the fact that we were born to a mother who graduated from Harvard, when she only completed Harvard high school. We make up the fact that our boss gave us a promotion last year when what we really mean by last year was 10 years ago. And we say all of these things out of fear!

But, Esther, changed the course of her life. How? She told her truth. “Hey, everyone, this is who I am. I’m Jewish!” And, God blessed it.

And doesn’t this just cut to the heart of what our fear is really all about. We are aren’t truthful in our words, in our actions or in our intentions because we are afraid if people knew us, if they really knew us then, our lives might radically change. We might not be so highly regarded. We might not win this award. We might not advance in our career. We might never find anyone to love us as we hope someone special would.

But, the witness of Esther and the countless other stories we’ve studied together this fall, encourages us all otherwise. Because what has been the common theme throughout this entire series?  We can lay aside ALL our excuses because to God all of them don’t amount to much. We are loved in our questions. We are loved in issues with organized religion. We are loved in our negative impressions of ourselves. We are loved in all our deficiencies. And today, we are loved in our fears, or even when we’re trying to hide the truth. But, instead, we are invited to come out from behind whatever bush or tree we are hiding behind and come into the light of God’s love for us.

Because we need not use the excuse of “I’m afraid” because we don’t have to fear; we just don’t. Freedom comes in just laying ourselves out for God to use, even in spite of ourselves.

So, my friends, what is the story of your life that you need to tell today? What is the secret that you need to bring forth to the light?

Let us simply not be afraid anymore to tell the truth. Esther wasn’t. And we don’t have to be either.