Before we get started today, I have to apologise to you all and correct something I got wrong in the Second Episode of this series:
In that sermon, when Mordecai was introduced, I said that the building permits for the temple and the city of Jerusalem had been revoked about 60 years before the Book of Esther, and that the temple was still unfinished.
This was incorrect: the temple had actually been finished just a few years before King Xerxes took the throne; however, the permits for the city walls were still jammed up in the Persian court system. So the temple, with its priests and its system of sacrifices, had been fully operational for about 20 years at the beginning of the Book of Esther. But still it seems that most of the Jews in the Persian empire were reluctant to return to Jerusalem if it meant living in a city without protective walls.
I just wanted to correct my mistake there, and point out that this fact actually increases the weight of Mordecai’s disobedience in that episode. With the temple complete, and worship restored, he was really obligated as a father to move his family back to Jerusalem so they could experience true worship for the first time in their lives.
Last week, on “Echoes of a Far-Off Country”:
Mordecai: “I just saved King Xerxes from assassination! — so why did he promote Haman my ancestral enemy to be Prime Minister instead of me? It must be God’s will for me to stand up against this injustice!”
Haman: “Oh, you mean we are actually ancestral enemies? Thank you for that information, Mordecai! Now I know just what I need to do to Make Persia Great Again. Everybody, listen: eleven months from now you are all going to act in a little movie that I like to call The Purge, where for one day only you will be allowed to murder your Jewish neighbors and steal all their stuff.”
Mordecai: “Oh, I am such a fool! If only I had swallowed my pride and obeyed God and just moved back to Jerusalem when he told me too! Now I have lost Esther and I have condemned my whole nation to death!”
And now we have the theme music, with footage from the show: Xerxes speeching, men fighting, girls running around terrified, that iconic shot of a man impaled on the top of a very tall pole, and: “skip intro”, *click-click* —
 In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
Now, some people have said, “Why are they wasting their time doing that? Why don’t they just run away? They have eleven months to go, after all!”
Two responses to that: first, as any refugee can tell you, running away from the place your family has called home for generations is a terrible grief. Second, there is nowhere to run: Persia rules the entire known world. Telling the Jews to just move away deeper into Africa or Europe or Asia would be like someone telling us to move to Antarctica.
Meanwhile, if you recall from last week, Mordecai has been doing the same thing as everyone else: wailing through the city of Susa in sackcloth and ashes, but unable to go back to work, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter the dewan bandaraya — perhaps for obvious reasons, they had a dress-code even in those days.
Nevertheless, word of Mordecai’s strange behaviour finally gets around to Esther, and she is in great distress.
But not because the Jewish people are have been condemned to genocide, she does not know that yet. All she knows is that Mordecai is acting in a publically embarrassing way, which is very out of character for him.
As we have seen over the last few episodes, Mordecai’s personal philosophy is: “Fit in as much as possible. Do not make a fuss.” And this is how he raised Esther to be. That is why, now, when Esther finds out that he is making a huge, public fuss, she is very alarmed.
So she sends clothes for him to put on, so he can come into the palace and maybe meet with her and tell her what is bothering him.
But he does not accept them.
He does not want to have a private meeting, he wants to have a public meeting!
Weirder and weirder!
So  then Esther summoned Hathak, one of the king’s eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why.  So Hathak went out to Mordecai, and they meet in public, in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate. And Mordecai tells him everything, including the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay. He also gives Hathak a printout of the edict to show to Esther and explain it to her. Mordecai has carefully gathered all this evidence because he needs to persuade Esther that this situation is serious. And the reaon he needs to persuade Esther of this is because Mordecai is about to command her to do something very dangerous: go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead for her people.
And Esther’s reply confirms just how dangerous this is:  “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.”
And this deadly law is confirmed by other ancient sources: no one was allowed to just walk into the king’s throne room except for the seven wise men we met in the pilot episode. Everyone else — even the queen — had to submit an application through the courts and then wait for the king’s summons. In addition, archaeologists have uncovered a carved portrait of King Xerxes seated on his throne with his scepter in his hand, surrounded by court officials — including a soldier holding an axe.
It was a seriously risky business to approach the king without an invitation. And the problem is:
“Thirty days have passed” since Esther was called to go to the king.
Now, before we go on, we are going to pause and notice something: Mordecai is not the only one who has suddenly decided to change his behaviour. So has Esther.
Until now, Mordecai’s general philosophy was, “Don’t make a fuss. Hide your true identity.” But in the face of this sudden crisis, he makes a fuss! He even insists on meeting Esther’s servant in public! and insists that she now join him in suddenly revealing their true identity.
In the same way, until now Esther’s general philosophy has been, “Submit! Do whatever your husband or father says.” But for the first time here she speaks up and objects to Mordecai’s instructions.
And this is quite a natural response. I suspect most of us would protest a little bit if we were ordered to do something almost guaranteed to kill us. Besides, what would be the point of risking death trying to undo what cannot be undone? Remember, Persian laws cannot be repealed! The moment Haman used the king’s ring to seal the edict of genocide, he sealed the fate of the Jewish people. Mordecai tells Esther to plead with King Xerxes for mercy, but Xerxes is bound by his own law: he is not allowed to show mercy!
But  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?”
And Mordecai’s little speech here has proven very difficult to interpret. Are these words meant to be a statement of faith? or despair? Is Mordecai trying to encourage Esther? or threaten her? For more than 2000 years, readers have been asking these questions, so we had better do the same.
Let’s go line by line.
First Mordecai says, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.” Everyone now knows that Mordecai is a Jew — but no one knows Esther is related to him…except Mordecai. Which suggests that the only way Esther could get caught up in this genocide is if Mordecai exposes her true identity. In fact, this could be why he insisted on meeting Esther’s servant in public: so that people would begin to wonder what is going on and perhaps begin to put two and two together…
Now that sounds like a threat, doesn’t it?
But then Mordecai says, “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. This sounds like a statement of faith and hope! followed by another threat.
But some Hebrew scholars have noticed that this “statement of faith” is really more like a question, as in, “If you keep quiet, from where else will relief and deliverance arise?” A cry of despair, really: “Help me, Esther binti Mordecai. You’re my only hope.”
And this interpretation, if correct, would transform the second part from a threat into a plea for Esther to think about more than just her own personal safety. Even if Esther’s true identity is never exposed, her father’s family — Mordecai and all her other relatives — will be killed.
Which means that, even if Esther lives to 100 and dies peacefully in her bed, really she died on the day her father’s family died. Her body might live to be 100, but her soul would die on the day the Jewish nation died. Because without the Jewish nation, there will be no more sacrifices for sin at the temple in Jerusalem. Without any more sacrifices for sin, there will be no eternal life for Esther or for any of her people ever again.
So that does not sound like a threat, does it!
Then Mordecai finishes with, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Which definitely sounds like despair, the same question this series has been asking since the pilot episode: “Who knows if someone is actually in charge here?” Or…could this question actually be a kind of despairing statement of faith? a hope against hope that there might be some kind of divine plan operating behind the scenes? So:
Is Mordecai threatening Esther, or encouraging her? Is he despairing, or is he hopeful? Does he have faith in God, or not?
Once again, the writer of this book does not tell us exactly how to interpret these words and actions. It seems like, once again, we are simply supposed to conclude that…it’s complicated. Mordecai is using every tactic he’s got to persuade Esther to act. Some of his words do seem a bit manipulative; some of them do seem to point to a deeper spiritual truth…but how can we judge him for this weakness? Don’t we often speak and act just like Mordecai when we get into a crisis, swinging helplessly between faith and fear?
 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.”
Now, this is an unusually severe fast. God’s law only required one day — 12 hours — of fasting a year: on the Day of Atonement, the day when the High Priest performs the sacrifices that forgive all the people’s sins for the whole year.
But now Esther is asking for a three day fast: 72 hours without eating or drinking!
And, even more significant: remember that this is now the 14th day of the first month. This is supposed to be the greatest Jewish feasting day of the whole year. Throughout the Persian empire, Jewish families would be getting ready to butcher a lamb and roast it and eat it together, remembering how God rescued his people from genocide in Egypt 1000 years earlier.
But now Esther the queen is saying: “Tell everyone to cancel the feast and fast for three days instead.” What is she trying to accomplish? What does this time of fasting mean?
Well, the fasting on the Day of Atonement was a fast of repentance. It was a chance for God’s people to pause and realize what a serious thing it is to sin against a holy God, and how wonderful it is that, through the blood of sacrifice, they can be forgiven. That time of fasting and repentance on the Day of Atonement was supposed to end in a time of joy.
But here, in the heart of the Persian empire, far away from the temple in Jerusalem, six months away from the Day of Atonement, Esther is now suddenly aware of her sins, and the sins of her father Mordecai. She was raised to ignore God’s law and pretend that God’s warnings about the consequences for disobedience were not serious. Now the consequences have arrived, and the truth has come crashing in on her: this day of reckoning is not guaranteed at all to end in joy. Why would God — why should God — bother to save the life of a queen or her people who could not be bothered until now to go back home and seek forgiveness for their sins at the temple in Jerusalem?
So Esther cancels the Passover feast, replaces it with the Atonement Day fast, and then extends that single day of fasting to three days. This is a fast of desperation. This is Esther finally acknowledging that God is truly the only hope for her and her people — but really they can have no honest expectation that God will listen to their cries for deliverance. She cancels Passover because it would be a mockery at this point for a disobedient people to celebrate how God saved them from genocide before, and then ask him to do it again. She replaces Passover with three days of fasting because God really has no reason at all to be merciful…but they have no other option except to beg him for mercy.
That is why Esther ends here by saying, “…if I perish, I perish.” These words here, like Mordecai’s words earlier, are a statement of faith and despair. She does believe that God could save her if he wanted to! but she does not really believe he will want to.
 So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.
And this sentence here confirms that the tide has turned in this story. The great reversal has begun. Until now, Mordecai has told Esther what to do, and she has done it. Here, Esther tells Mordecai what to do, and he does it.
So far in the book, we have met a variety of main characters: Xerxes, Mordecai, Esther, Haman. And they have all proven to be insecure, fearful people who are willing to do what they need to do to survive, even if that means breaking God’s law and hurting other people. Until now Mordecai has been the main protagonist — the “good guy” in the story, and we have been waiting for him to come to his senses and repent and turn things around.
But to our surprise, it is Esther who turned out to be the key. Mordecai was not the first to repent. Yes, he was the first in the story to change his behaviour, to weep and wail and make all the external signs of repentance, but his heart was unchanged. We know this because, right up until his last words here, he continues to put his faith in politics and power: he commands his daughter Esther to use her high position to beg a pagan king for mercy, as if Xerxes is actually in control of the Persian empire! — and then, maybe, he tacks on at the end a half-hearted hope that God is maybe involved somehow.
It is Esther who repents. Caught between the consequences of her father’s disobedience and his command that she risk her life to fix what he screwed up! — she chooses a third path: she chooses to beg God for mercy.
This is what true repentance looks like. It is this cry that says, “God, I want to live! but I know I do not deserve to. So if you let me perish, I perish. Either way, I am going to trust you from now on. No more games for me. No more manipulation. No more lies.”
So it is Esther who repented, and it is Mordecai who suddenly submitted to her repentance — a stunning reversal. Who knew that this hyper-submissive young woman would suddenly develop the courage to tell her father what to do! That is why this is called the Book of Esther. She is the hero of this story, not because she learned to use power appropriately, but because she learned to give it up and then lead others to give it up.
And that is why this moment of greatest despair in the book also marks the beginning of true hope.
And now the closing music plays, the credits roll, ”next episode in 4…3…” *click*
And it is time for us to ask how this is relevant to our situation today, and what our practical application should be.
So let’s look at what has been going on so far in the Book of Esther, and then look at what has just changed, and then see if this change is something we can apply to our lives:
So far, in the Book of Esther, we have been watching helplessly as the sins of four insecure main characters have all coalesced into a perfect storm of genocidal destruction. And we cannot help but notice that if even one of these characters had made a more godly choice earlier in the book, God’s people would not now be in the trouble they are in.
Our temptation, then, is to say, “Oh! Well, then, our application is obvious: just make more godly choices, people!”
…now, that is good advice, of course. Certainly do not do the opposite and deliberately make godless choices! But that is not the point the writer has been trying to make. In fact, so far the writer has been making the opposite point: he has been showing us that it is almost impossible for people to just decide on their own to make more godly choices. From the pilot episode onward, Xerxes, Mordecai, Esther, and Haman have proven themselves powerless in the grip of their own insecurities. They all have free will — but they all use that free will to preserve and protect themselves.
So our second temptation, then, is to say, “Oh! Well, then, insecurity is the problem. So our application should be this: just be more secure!”
…now, again: it is true that insecurity is the problem. But when was the last time you were able to just decide to be more secure? It just does not work. In fact, really, we could argue that this is exactly what all four of these main characters have been trying to do, and it is in fact their efforts to “just be more secure” that have caused this perfect storm. We cannot fix our insecurities through outrage, submission, positive thinking, sheer determination, or anything else!
Okay. So “just be more secure” does not work. “Just make more godly choices” does not work. And yet:
When we look at today’s episode, we realize that Esther has somehow discovered a new-found security, and that security has led her to make a more godly choice.
Now, how did she get there without “just deciding” to get there? And how can we get there?
Well, she got there because God led her there. This is ultimately God’s work, not Esther’s.
The writer has been making this point very clear: until now, Esther and every other main character has done everything wrong. For three episodes we have watched them use their free will to dig their way down into disaster.
But today, for the first time, the writer has revealed that there has been another, greater free will at work behind the scenes: God’s free will. And God’s free will is so free, so perfect, that he does not need to use force to accomplish his purposes. He has allowed Xerxes, Mordecai, Esther, and Haman to all act out in disobedience, each one according to their natures and ambitions, all to bring Esther to this particular point of crisis. And the reason God did this is because it was only here, at the deepest, darkest point of her life, that Esther would be forced to finally open her eyes to the desperate reality of her situation, and begin to look around for a single point of light that might lead her back out of the darkness.
And Esther found it. She found that point of light in a promise that God had made to her ancestor Abraham almost 2000 years earlier.
Abraham had also found himself, after years of disobedience and disappointment, on the deepest, darkest night of his life, crying out to God in his frustration. And God had met him there in that terrible valley of despair and told him, “Look up at the sky and count the stars — if you can! So shall your offspring be, and through you all nations on earth will be blessed.”
Basically, in that darkness, Esther finally remembered who she belongs to. After years of lying to herself and the society around her, after years of deliberately forgetting who she really is, she had no choice but to remember. As a descendant of Abraham, she is the inheritor of God’s ancient promise that he will love Abraham’s children and always come to their rescue when they call.
And this is the truth that cured Esther’s insecurity and gave her the courage to finally make the godly choice and cry out to God alone for mercy.
It was God who led Esther — and Esther who led herself — into that narrow dark valley of death in which there were finally no more choices left except to go on in sin or go back to obedience. She had to decide: will she keep on hiding her true identity and definitely die under God’s curse?…or will she repent and reveal who she really is to the world, and perhaps die under God’s blessing? And it was rediscovering who she really is that finally gave Esther the courage to let go of her life and trust it entirely to the God of her ancestors.
That is how Esther got there without “just deciding” to get there.
How can we get there?
By the exact same road. We are no different from these ancient people; our human nature has not changed in the last 2,500 years: we still use our free will to preserve and protect ourselves — and that is discouraging! That truth would lead us into despair! except for this greater truth: God has not changed either. His free will is still infinitely greater than ours, and it is strong enough, free enough, wise enough to take even our most stubbornly sinful patterns and allow them to drive us to a crisis point where we will have no choice but to open our eyes and finally ask the question, “Wait a minute: what if I am the problem here?”
So this is our first and most general application for today: know for certain that we are not going to figure out how to “just make more godly choices” or “just be more secure”. But God is going to allow every single one of us, at least once in our lives, to fully reap the consequences of our ongoing disobedience. And he is going to allow those consequences to drive us into a valley from which there is no escape except by death or by faith. We will all, at least once in our lives, come to a crisis point where we will face this choice: am I going to die by myself? or am I going to die to myself? Am I going to hold on to this illusion of power until the illusion consumes me? or am I going to give it all up and throw myself fully on the mercy of the God who made me, and trust him to do what is right even if what is right is for him to let me die?
So now, for a more specific application:
Look, if you are here today, and you are not yet a Christian, know this: your disobedience, your rebellion against the God who created you, is driving you into a crisis point, if it has not already. And you will know you have arrived at that point when you find yourself jammed up in a place where every possible way forward involves you choosing which part of yourself you are going to destroy in order to escape — like that mountain-climber from a few years ago who had to cut off his own arm with a pocketknife in order to free himself from the trap he had fallen into. In that moment of darkness your eyes will be opened to life-and-death truths that you have never seen before.
Now, when that crisis comes, you will have two simple choices: you can deliberately close your eyes again, you can continue to blame others, you can continue to curse God for letting this happen, and you will die. Or you can do what Esther did: keep your eyes open and face the truth that God has allowed your disobedience to bring you to such a time as this just so that you can acknowledge your fault, repent of your sins, submit your future to God, and live.
But even as I tell you this, I know that, in your heart, there is still tremendous insecurity and fear. Life has taught you that acknowledging your fault just gets you trampled and torn apart, impaled by other people who are just as guilty as you are. So you have no reason to believe that the Almighty God of the universe will treat you any differently. So I am not up here saying, “Come on, people! Just believe and all will be well!” Because God’s Word tells me that as long as your fear and insecurity remain, you will continue to choose the way that seems to serve you best.
So I am obligated now to offer you the key that will unlock those chains of insecurity and fear. This is the key: you belong to God. He created you. He shaped your body and your mind and your every living moment to bring you to this point where your eyes might be opened and the truth revealed: you are precious, because you were made in the image of the eternal God. Just like Esther, you are the inheritor of God’s ancient promise that he will love Abraham’s children and will always come to their rescue when they call.
“Ah!” you say, “but I am not a child of Abraham. I am not a Jew! That ancient promise does not belong to me!”
And this is where I say: yes, actually, that ancient promise is for you. Listen once again to what God promised Abraham. He said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars — if you can! So shall your offspring be, and through you all nations on earth will be blessed.” This is a promise for people from all nations on earth. Anyone can come and join Abraham’s family and receive this promise. Even during Abraham’s time there were people from other nations who came and joined him and called out to Abraham’s God and were saved — and this is about a million times easier to do today than it was then.
But perhaps you still doubt, you still fear. Perhaps you still want to say, “Yeah, but what assurance do I have that, if I repent and call out, God will hear and show mercy to me as one of his children?”
Let me answer by going back and highlighting how Esther commanded her people to pursue a three day fast. Why did she choose three days instead of two? or four? or forty?
Because there is a three day pattern that is deeply woven into the history of God’s people.
For instance, it took Abraham three days to travel to the mountain where God had asked him to sacrifice his only son Isaac: three days of grief and dread — followed suddenly by joy when Abraham discovered that God would provide his own sacrifice. Two generations later, when Jacob packed up his whole family and escaped from his slavery to Laban, God made sure three days would pass before Laban even knew Jacob was gone. Another generation after that the sons of Jacob were accused of spying in Egypt and thrown into prison for three days…before they were released and allowed to go home and save their families from starvation. Then, after the Exodus, the people of Israel camped at the foot of Mount Sinai for three days before God descended and made them his people. Much later, King Hezekiah of Jerusalem was about to die from an illness when the prophet Isaiah told him that on the third day he would be healed and go up to give thanks in God’s temple. And this is why the prophet Hosea, who lived at the same time as Isaiah and King Hezekiah, called his people to repentance in these words: “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.”
It is this ancient three day pattern of desperation leading to deliverance that inspired Esther to command a three day fast. She did not know if she would survive, but she knew from history that God had never yet failed to deliver his people on the third day.
And I do not want to spoil the rest of the story for those of you who are not familiar with it, so I will simply say this: Esther did not know it, but by commanding this three day fast she was actually setting the pattern for the most astonishing three day fast of all: about 500 years after this point, a Jewish religious teacher named Jesus of Nazareth was criticized by other Jewish religious teachers because his disciples were enjoying life just a bit too much, they were not fasting enough to really please those other religious teachers. But Jesus told his critics not to worry: soon he would be taken away, and then his disciples would fast.
Sure enough, Jesus was taken away. He was crucified, killed, buried. And for three days his disciples fasted: three days of grief, three days of desperation and despair — followed suddenly by joy when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared in their midst and promised that he would never abandon them ever again.
Friend, if you were wondering what assurance you can have that God will show you mercy as one of his children, those three days of fasting are your answer: we know from history that God has never yet failed to deliver those who cry out to him for help.
This is all a question of identity, really. You were made to be God’s child. Like Esther, you have spent years lying to yourself and to others; you have been deliberately forgetting who you really are, because you believed forgetting would give you freedom and security and control over your destiny. But it has not. Instead, forgetting your true identity has only resulted in fear and insecurity and anxiety and misery. But God’s Word tells us that it does not have to be that way. So listen: one day a God-ordained crisis of your own making will force you to face the truth that you were made to find your true identity in Abraham’s family, in Jesus’ Church. When that day comes, do not turn away from it. Instead, accept your identity as a child of God. Let all your insecurites melt away like mist. Entrust your future to Jesus Christ who died for his people, and pass through death to eternal life.
But what about a more specific application for the rest of us who have already put our faith in Jesus?
Really, this is all a question of identity for us also. All of us have patterns of disobedience in our lives. Sometimes we continue to disobey out of ignorance; sometimes we continue to disobey out of stubborn self-love. In every case, what we are actually doing is deliberately denying our true identity in those areas of our lives, just as Esther and Mordecai did for so many years.
Now, that can be a discouraging truth to face; we all wish we were more obedient children than we are. But the good news is that our Father is still at work among us, allowing us to trap ourselves from time to time so that we are forced to face the consequences of what we have done and repent.
One writer in the New Testament compared this process to a father’s discipline. He said we should actually welcome these moments of crisis as proof that we are God’s children. This was his advice: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Because God is not going to quit. If we harden our hearts in the face of one crisis, God will just press on, allowing our continued disobedience to lead us into an even heavier crisis, until we finally break and cry out to him for help — or leave the faith altogether…which is a very real danger. This is why that New Testament writer expands his advice with these instructions: “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ’Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
So this will be our specific application, to be applied in our local community here: as hardship comes upon each one of us in turn, we are going to first, remind one another of our true identity as God’s children, and then we are going to encourage one another daily to see each crisis as a gift from our Heavenly Father, a discipline designed to open our eyes to our sin’s deceitfulness so that we can repent and live.
In closing, here is our summary: when we, as God’s people, hide our true identity from the world out of fear and insecurity, eventually we forget our true identity, and fall even further into fear and insecurity — until, by God’s grace, the consequences of our sins finally trap us. Then we remember that we have no hope of life apart from our Heavenly Father. It is better, of course, for us to be honest from the beginning. But even if it is too late for us, even if we have already fallen into patterns of deception and disobedience, it is not too late for us. Our Father will continue to pursue us, he will allow us to reap what we have sown until finally we have no choices left but to leave him completely — or turn, and look to the dawn of the third day.