Last week, on “Echoes of a Far-Off Country”:
Mordecai: “How can I save my people from Haman’s law of genocide when I am not allowed to repeal Haman’s law…? I know! I will write a new law that is the exact opposite of Haman’s law, giving my people permission to defend themselves if attacked.”
The rest of the nations in the Persian empire: “Huh. That actually sounds like the kind of human right we would like to have! Let’s join the Jews!”
And then we see various cuts of violent action: men fighting in the streets, ten bodies impaled on poles, and then shots of the Jewish people celebrating and rejoicing throughout the empire. Some are in the capital city itself, but other shots are obviously in places like Pakistan, Arabia, Ethiopia, Turkey.
And then the theme music plays like it usually does, and we “skip intro” like we usually do, and now the last episode of this limited series opens on Mordecai, wearing royal garments of blue and white and purple, surrounded by hundreds of lawyers and scribes — all the apparatus of empire — and they are recording the events of this whole Book of Esther, the back-story behind everything that just happened, so that this history can be sent out to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far.
And there are three main reasons Mordecai is doing this: first, he wants to make sure the Jewish people have a written record for why they are celebrating; that way they will be informed instead of ignorant. Second, he wants to make sure the Jewish people repeat this celebration every year; that way they will remember instead of forgetting. Third, he wants to make sure the Jewish people all celebrate in the same way; that way they will be united instead of divided. So:
He tells them to celebrate annually on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar. Because this is the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, this is the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. And then he tells them how they are to observe these days: as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
 So the Jews agreed to continue the celebration they had begun, doing what Mordecai had written to them. Mordecai’s instructions for how to celebrate this holiday made sense to them.
Because — a brief review now — Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them and had cast the pur (that is, the lot, the dice) for their ruin and destruction. But it didn’t work out! The evil scheme Haman had devised against the Jews came back onto his own head, and he and his sons were impaled on poles instead.  (Therefore these days were called Purim, from the word pur.)
In short: because Haman rolled some dice, the Jews agreed with Mordecai that this holiday should be named “Dice”. And they agreed that the best way to celebrate the holiday of “Dice” would be by giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
But now we have to ask: what is the connection between Haman rolling dice and the Jews giving presents to each other? That dice-rolling bit, way back in Episode 3, was a really small part of the story — why has it become the focus of the whole holiday now?
Well, there is actually some word-play going on here. It is a joke, actually.
Allow me to explain:
The Persian word “pur” — dice — translates into “lot” in Hebrew and in English. But in Hebrew, and in English, the word “lot” has more than one meaning.
For instance, we might say, “I cast lots to decide where to worship,” meaning “dice”. We can also say, “We are worshiping today in a shoplot,” meaning “a piece of property”, a “portion” of land. And we can say, “I am not content with my lot in life,” meaning “my position” or “my destiny”. And Hebrew has the same three possible meanings for the word “lot”.
Now, those three possible meanings — dice, or portion, or destiny — do not sound very related to each other…but actually they are.
See, almost 1000 years before Esther’s time, a man named Joshua led God’s people into their promised homeland. First, they cleansed the land of false worship by conducting a special kind of holy war limited by a special set of rules — and we talked about all that last week, so if you missed it please go back and listen.
But then, after Joshua’s people finished their holy war, Joshua then cast lots in order to divide the land up into lots and then assign all the different families to their particular lot of land. And this is why, for instance, in Psalm 16, David says this: “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.”
For the ancient Jews, these meanings were all untertwined. There was a deep historical and theological connection between “casting lots” and “portions” of property and a person’s “destiny” in life. 1000 years before the Book of Esther, a godly Prime Minister named Joshua “cast the pur“ and through that action God gave his people a future, a destiny, a place on this earth. Well, now, an evil Prime Minister named Haman also “cast the pur“ — and through that action God gave his people a continued future, a continued destiny, a continued place on this earth! So:
When Mordecai writes and says, “Let’s call this holiday ‘Purim’,” this is meant to be an ironic joke: when Haman “cast the pur“ he thought he was giving the destiny of the Jewish people over to his gods, when actually he was giving them back to their God.
And then, in verse 22, when when Mordecai writes and says, “Let’s celebrate Haman casting lots by giving presents of food to one another,” this is meant to be another ironic joke. Because what Mordecai literally writes here is this: “Let’s celebrate by giving ‘lots‘ of food to one another.”
So this is the connection: Haman cast “lots” to destroy the Jews, but he was destroyed instead. So, to celebrate, the Jews send “lots” of food to one another. And this is their annual reminder that God rules over the destiny of all peoples, he controls even the smallest events — right down to a pagan Prime Minister rolling dice in his attempt to destroy God’s people.
That is why everyone agreed that this holiday should be called called Purim.
Mordecai continues his writing:  These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family, and in every province and in every city. And these days of Purim should never fail to be celebrated by the Jews—nor should the memory of these days die out among their descendants.
But now, this next part is very unusual:  So Queen Esther, daughter of Abihail, along with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter concerning Purim.
So Queen Esther commissioned a second mass mailing to support and confirm the authority of the first mass mailing that Mordecai sent out?
This is not just very unusual, this is absolutely unique in all of scripture! Never before in scripture — or after — is there any record of a woman using her authority to confirm the words of a man.
What does this mean?
Well, remember what we discovered last week: Esther and Mordecai are not just acting as private citizens, these are the Queen and the King over God’s people in exile.
But how they came to their positions as Queen and King was…very unorthodox.
Before the exile, the kings of Israel were confirmed and anointed and crowned by God’s prophets or priests, and that is how the Jewish people could know who was their true, legitimate king.
But Esther and Mordecai were confirmed in their positions by a pagan king! Which means that — technically — the Jewish people do not have to listen when Esther and Mordecai decide to add on this new festival of Purim. The Jews could respond and say, “Hey! Who do you think you are — Moses, adding on to God’s ancient law?! Sure, you are both descended from King Saul, you are ‘royalty’, but you are not priests or prophets, you cannot just add extra festivals to our official calendar like this!”
That is why Esther and Mordecai are working together here, as two legal witnesses — which is the minimum requirement according to Moses’ law — to confirm what happened, and to confirm what it means: that God is still watching over his people, even in exile, even when they are being disobedient!
And if God is still watching over his people, isn’t that a godly reason to celebrate? Of course the Jews should have a new holiday! They should probably fill the calendar with holidays, so that they can remember and celebrate every day how God is at work among them in even the smallest things!
 And Mordecai sent letters to all the Jews in the 127 provinces of Xerxes’ kingdom—words of goodwill and assurance—  to establish these days of Purim at their designated times, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had decreed for them, and as they had established for themselves and their descendants in regard to their times of fasting and lamentation.  Esther’s decree confirmed these regulations about Purim, and it was written down in the records.
And now, as the screen fades to black, the closing music begins to play, but instead of the credits rolling, we get one of those title crawls that always appear after the end of a “based on true events” kind of story: those white words on a black background that tell us what happened to some of the main characters during the years that followed.
And the closing words go like this:  King Xerxes imposed tribute throughout the empire, to its distant shores.
Okay. So Xerxes raised taxes. Why is that interesting?
Because, way back in the Second Episode, after Xerxes swiped right and Esther won The Bachelor: Persia — Season 1 — Xerxes proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces.
What kind of holiday? The original language makes it clear that this was a tax holiday: Xerxes was so happy with his new toy that he lowered taxes all over his empire! And apparently those taxes remained low for a number of years.
And some modern economists would tell us that this lower tax rate would have turbo-charged the economy, that it would have resulted in a burst of prosperity for everyone, encouraging innovation and investment and greater productivity everywhere.
Well, this is telling us that eventually, Xerxes’ greed got the best of him: he looked out across his empire and thought, “Oo! Free money!” So he raised taxes. He started strangling the goose that was laying the golden eggs; he started chopping down the tree to make dishes for the fruit.
And other writers from this time confirm this: Xerxes bankrupted his empire trying to pay for several expensive wars and some especially massive building projects — all of them bigger than his father’s building projects.
This is the point the writer is making: Xerxes has learned nothing. He is still just as insecure and self-centered and unwise he was in the Pilot Episode. Ether’s reign as queen improved matters for a little while, but the changes did not last. In the end, Xerxes is still a bad king.
And history tells us that he personally came to a bad end: about nine years after these events, Xerxes was assassinated, in his bedroom, by a conspiracy that probably involved his oldest son.
Altogether, Xerxes ruled for 21 years, and died at the age of 53.
The closing title crawl continues:  And all his acts of power and might, together with a full account of the greatness of Mordecai, whom the king had promoted, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Media and Persia?
So this is an invitation for us to do our own research and confirm these facts. All we have to do is go to the royal library of Persia and check out the original sources!
Unfortunately, that library was destroyed by Alexander the Great when he conquered Persia about 130 years later. Today, we have just a few fragments of those ancient records. Xerxes is mentioned in those fragments, of course. Esther is not mentioned, but that is hardly surprising; only one of Xerxes’ wives is named in all the other sources combined, the rest are ignored.
However, interestingly enough, in 1904, archaeologists uncovered a tablet in one of the Persian capital cities that mentions a very high official in King Xerxes’ court by the name of…Mordecai. Another tablet has also been found in the ruins of Babylon, an invoice for a list of tax payments to a Persian administrator…named Mordecai.
Now, Mordecai was a popular name at the time, so we may never know if the Mordecai mentioned in these tablets is this Mordecai, or if maybe there was more than one high official named Mordecai in Xerxes’ court — maybe that is why everyone was calling him “Mordecai the Jew” by the end: to distinguish him from Mordecai the Pathan, and Mordecai the Arab, and Mordecai the Ethiopian.
But these fragmentary records do confirm that there was at least one high official named Mordecai in the courts of Persia at this time.
And now the title crawl tells us what happened to him:  Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.
And now the music swells, the credits roll, and of course some new dialogues appear on the screen, advertisements for upcoming series. There is one called How to Establish a Church: Paul’s Letter to Titus. That one is “coming next week” as Netflix likes to say. Oo! There is also another one in pre-production called The Exodus, which looks like it might be one of those sprawling historical epics full of brawny men and beautiful women and a soaring soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. That series is slated to be released sometime in March. And we know that if we do not press “stop” now, the previews are going to start playing automatically, so — *click*.
And that is the end of this limited series called Echoes of a Far-Off Country.
But that is not the end of the history of this series. Apparently, after it was completed, the Book of Esther descended into what those in the film industry like to call “Production Hell”.
Studio executives did not like it. The story did not “play” with test audiences. So the executives brought in some other writers to add some exposition. They got Harrison Ford to do a voiceover. They redubbed the whole thing into Greek instead of Hebrew. They re-edited the film to make it look like Mordecai was the real hero instead of Esther; they added some cheap CGI to make the fight scenes more dramatic.
And so, quite naturally, after all that studio interference, the Book of Esther was a flop upon release. People went to see Bel and the Dragon instead — which is a very exciting story, it has an exploding dragon in it, hello! Who would not want to see that instead of some dreary, bloated romance about Xerxes and Esther?
But during the years that followed, the Book of Esther developed a bit of a cult following, an underground fan-base. They were always online, arguing about “the director’s original vision” and all that film-nerd stuff. Some of the fans put together their own bootleg cuts of the series, with all of the studio junk taken out. But no one had an original print so no one knew for sure how close they had gotten to the original. People started campaigning for something they called “the Snyder cut”…?
Eventually the studio relented. They finally re-released the Book of Esther as a Director’s Cut: the original story, in the original Hebrew. And it was a smash hit! Audiences loved it. The Book of Esther became one of the most popular stories in the whole Old Testament, and even today it remains a perennial favourite.
Now, you think I’m joking. But everything I described here is true…except for the Harrison Ford bit.
No, seriously, the reason I called this series Echoes of a Far-Off Country is because, when the Book of Esther first arrived in the Jewish heartland, it sounded like an echo from a faraway country. To audiences in Jerusalem it was like a foreign film about Jews who had some weird adventure somewhere far away, and they just could not connect to the drama of the story.
To be honest, the original test audiences were self-righteous and judgemental. Their attitude was: why should we care about what happened to our Jewish cousins way over there in the east? If they had been obedient — like we were — if they had moved back to Jerusalem when they were supposed to — like we did — then they would never have gotten into trouble in the first place! This is a story that exists only because they were disobedient, and now they want us to believe that a). God is still taking care of them even though they are disobedient? and b). God wants us all to start celebrating their undeserved deliverance with this new festival called Purim? No! That’s stupid! Besides, where are the miracles to confirm that this is what God wants? And where is the name of God, they left that completely out! This is a bad story about bad Jews, and we would rather hear about exploding dragons than this kind of nonsense.
But apparently they did not want to completely throw away the book, so they tried to fix it. When the Greek empire took Jerusalem away from the Persian empire, Jerusalem’s leadership translated their scriptures into Greek. They also translated the Book of Esther. But the translators added some extra minutes of footage, trying to make it look like Mordecai was this super-religious prophet guy who prays all the time, with Esther as his sidekick. They added exposition to convince the reader that, even without miracles, God really was at work through all the coincidences in the story.
But then the circumstances in Jerusalem began to change. The Greeks turned into terrible tyrants, worse than King Xerxes. Then the Romans came along, and they were even worse than the Greeks! Gradually the Jews who lived in Jerusalem began to realize that they were actually still in exile, even in their own country. And so, gradually, the original Book of Esther began to sound less and less like an irrelevant echo from a far-off country. The people of Jerusalem read the book again and they realized, “Oh. Actually, the exploding dragon story was irrelevant nonsense. But this idea here that God is still taking care of his people even in exile, even in their disobedience: that is actually really good news for us, right now!”
And so the Jews finally accepted that the Book of Esther really is God’s Word for God’s people, even though it does not have any miracles or even the name of God in it. They finally included it in their library of scripture that we now call the Old Testament.
As the underground fan-base would say: Esther became “canon”.
And much later Jewish thinkers realized that accepting the Book of Esther as scripture was an important turning point in the history of the Jewish people: it proved that they had finally grown up, they were finally reaching maturity in their faith.
Before the Book of Esther, the Jewish people were obsessed with signs and wonders, they did not believe God was talking to them unless there was a miracle or a voice from heaven or something, they were always longing for the good old days of Moses and Joshua, and so they were very easily led away from true worship by any wonder-working false prophet who wandered through town.
But after the Book of Esther, the Jewish people finally realized that — ordinarily — God speaks through ordinary circumstances interpreted through his ordinary written Word.
Basically, the Book of Esther taught the Jewish people how to trust in God’s Word for guidance in their everyday lives.
But it also helped to prepare them for the Age of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
A couple of episodes ago we realized that Esther’s symbolic death and resurrection to save her people was a very clear foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection to save his people.
Well, this is where we are supposed to realize that the story of Mordecai’s career as ruler over God’s people was also a foreshadowing of Jesus’ 12 Apostles and their career as rulers over Jesus’ Church.
For instance: Mordecai wrote down how God had saved his people from death through Esther’s work, and then told God’s people how to respond to this good news.
In the same way, Jesus’ Apostles wrote down how God had saved his people from death through Jesus’ work, and then told God’s people how to respond to this good news.
So, even though Mordecai was not a prophet, a priest, or even really a king, God inspired him to create this new festival of Purim — and this set a precedent for things to come, when a collection of 12 men who were not prophets, priests, or kings would find themselves inspired by God to create what we now call the New Testament.
And — as we discussed last week — even the story of the Jewish people as they prepared for the end of Esther’s holy war was a foreshadowing of how we, as Jesus’ Church, have been called to live and preach and draw people in from all the nations while we wait for the end of Jesus’ Holy War. So:
The writer wrote the Book of Esther because he wanted the Jewish people of Jerusalem to accept Purim as a holiday ordained by God. But the divine author — God — who inspired the Book of Esther, also had a larger purpose: he was preparing his Jewish people to accept Jesus, and his Apostles, and his multi-national Church, as the next ordained Phase 2 of his plan to redeem people from every nation on earth. So he made sure the Book of Esther was written down as a template for the coming Age of the Messiah, the age we are living through now.
Which means that the Book of Esther is definitely relevant to us.
And we have already discussed this several times during the series:
How, just like the Jews in the Persian empire, we also live in exile among the nations, ruled by governments that are terrifyingly powerful and hilariously incompetent.
Just like Mordecai, we are often tempted to downplay our identity as God’s people in order to “get along” in this world; and then, like Mordecai, we often try to compensate for our personal disobedience by virtue signalling on some big, impersonal, theoretical issue.
Just like Esther, we often find ourselves led by God — and by our own sins — into a crisis where the only real solution is to die to our sinful desires, and trust God to raise us up again.
Just like the Jews of the Persian empire, we have been given the power to preach God’s judgement and his mercy to our neighbors while we wait for the final Judgement.
And above all, this idea that God is still taking care of his people even in exile is just as good news for us as it was for the people of Jerusalem who first read the Book of Esther, who lived through the Greek and Roman attempted genocides.
So, since this book is relevant to us, we have to ask: how should we respond? What is our closing application for this series?
Well…celebrate is the obvious one. Even though the final Day of Judgement has not arrived, our redemption from death has already been accomplished. Our ultimate salvation is certain. So of course we should celebrate, not just once a year but every week, every day!
But we often fail to do so, don’t we?
Why? Why do we so often fail to celebrate such a great salvation?
Could it be that our salvation does not feel real to us?
Just as the Book of Esther first landed in Jerusalem like an echo from a far-off country, so also God’s promises in his Word so often sound to us like the echo of a voice that stopped speaking a long time ago. We often wonder whether our salvation is real because — let’s be honest — we often wonder whether God is real, why it seems like he is now missing, presumed dead.
In short: we struggle with the silence of God. We raise our voices to heaven, we want to know, “What is my lot in life? Do I have a portion in this world? God, why don’t you do something?”
These are the great questions that flow through the Book of Esther, the questions the Book of Esther was written to answer.
And the answer Esther gives us is that God is not silent, he is always speaking, always acting, always present in the details of his creation, always acting to redeem his people — but we do not naturally have the eyes to see it. Our natural state is like newborn infants who cannot focus on any detail. When we are baby Christians our attention is most easily captured by big, flashy movements: we see a miracle or some amazing spectacle and we say, “Oh, God is speaking to me right now, I can feel it!” But the Book of Esther is teaching us how to grow up, how to see the movements of God even in the small, ordinary details of life, how to hear the voice of God through written scripture and our speaking community, through all the little ways we are faithful to one another in the course of our everyday lives. Even our “new” celebrations — like Christmas, which just passed, like Easter, which is coming up — are meant to be reminders of this truth: that our Father is still taking care of us even while we are here in exile, waiting for the day of our final redemption.
So, brothers and sisters, let’s do this for our application: let us remind one another always of these events that have been recorded for us in scripture. And then let us celebrate our salvation in the exact same way Mordecai commanded his people so long ago: let us treat our lives together as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
Because, as Christians, we have been given a ”lot“ in life: we have been given a destiny and an inheritance, we already own property in the city of God, purchased for us by the blood of our Saviour and King, Jesus Christ. Often this inheritance does not seem real to us. But the more we give “lots” of food to one another and gifts to the poor, the more we remind ourselves of the truth and the more real our salvation will become.
In other words, brothers and sisters, as we celebrate the reality of the salvation that has been accomplished for us in the past, we are actually helping to create the salvation that must come to us in the future.
So let us make sure to celebrate in these ways always!
We are going to close our series now with this summary: the Book of Esther comes to us like an echo from a far-off country, an echo from the ancient past. But contained within that echo is also an echo of the future, an echo of our own far-off country, the better country that we are all longing for.
And we find that echo in the very last verses of the book. The holy war was over. The last battle had been fought. But that was not the end of the story, really it was just the beginning, because — as it says — Mordecai the Jew worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews. That was the “and they lived happily ever after” part of the story.
And this closing happiness is also meant to be a preview of our own destiny. Right now we live in the time of preaching and preparation. But soon the last Day will be upon us, the day of great tribulation and crisis for the Church, the day that will separate out the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. It is then, even as we descend into death for the last time, that our Lord shall descend from heaven and lift us up to resurrection and eternal life. And from that day forward he will begin to rule openly for the good of his people and speak up for the welfare of us all, as he is doing even now.
As another writer has described it in another place: in one sense that day will mark the end of all stories on this earth. But for us it will be only the beginning of the real story. We will find that all our lives in this world and all our adventures have only been the cover and the title page, that we are finally beginning “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
So let us we rise now to receive our benediction from Psalm 16:
Lord, you alone are our portion and our cup; you make our lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for us in pleasant places; surely we have a delightful inheritance. We will praise the Lord, who counsels us; even at night our hearts instruct us. We keep our eyes always on the Lord. With him at our right hand, we will not be shaken.
Therefore our hearts are glad and our tongues rejoice; our bodies also will rest secure, because you will not abandon us to the realm of the dead. And we know this because you did not let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to us the path of life; you will fill us with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
And all God’s people said: Amen!