In a moment I’m going to ask you to think of a person, I don’t want you to think too hard, but just the first person who comes to mind. This isn’t a trick question, but as I want to know the first person I’m not going to give you long to think. Could you all think of a famous scientist or astronaut from history?
How many of you thought of a male scientist or astronaut? How many of you thought of a female?
It’s slowly being shown that many, many, of the discoveries that have previously been attributed to men have actually come about solely by the research conducted by women, or taken part in collaboration with women and the women have since been written out of the story. I guess the most common example is Watson and Crick gaining a Nobel Prize for discovering DNA whilst Rosalind Franklin who was instrumental in the research was omitted. But there is also Cheng Shien Wu whose male colleagues received a Nobel Prize for her work in nuclear physics, Ida Tacke’s work on chemical elements was ignored until two other men later made the same discoveries and took the recognition. Thomas Morgan took a Nobel Prize for work carried out by Nettie Stevens into chromosomes. Possibly the worst example was that of the husband and wife microbiologist team Esther and Joshua Lederberg where Joshua was quite happy to singularly receive a Nobel Prize for their joint work. There’s even been a film made recently about the contribution mad e by not just female, but black female, mathematicians to the work of NASA that had previously been glossed over. I could continue but I’m sure you get the picture.
So the question is, why is it important here and now in St Mark’s church that all these women have been written out of history? Well it is actually because it makes our Old Testament story this morning all the more extraordinary! Here is the story of a woman in a patriarchal society that shows that it was the woman, Esther who saved the day. This must be a really important story to have survived. And whilst we might think, ah, but Esther was in the bible, and that’s where all the stories about God are written down, well Esther is a bit of an anomaly. The book of Esther doesn’t really mention God. In fact it doesn’t mention God at all. Not even once. And yet, this story about Esther is seen to be so important that it has been recorded for thousands of years, unlike so many other stories about women, who have been written out of history.
So the book of Esther is a bit of an oddity. It is written about a time in Israelite history when it seemed that the promises that God had made had appeared to have not been fulfilled, and many of the Israelites would have been asking “Where is God?” “Why does God allow us to suffer?” Questions that are still as relevant today. “Why does God sometimes seem so distant when I pray?” “Why doesn’t he reveal himself more clearly and let me know his will in a way that is easy for me to recognise and understand?” “Where is God when everything in my life seems to be going wrong?”
The story of Esther is set at a time after the Israelites have been carried away into exile, and takes place in Persia, so the Jews living there could easily be asking all of the above questions about why their God has appeared to have abandoned them. And, if he is the God who lives in Jerusalem, is he even God, here in Persia? Does he even care about them anymore?
And somehow, without even mentioning God by name, this story of Esther somehow manages to grapple with these questions and provide an answer to them. It says in the book of Romans “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” and that comes through loud and clear in this story, as God-incidence after God-incidence occurs, without ever being directly attributed to God.
So, whilst I would encourage you all to go home and read the story of Esther in full, a plot of twists and intrigue contained within 10 short chapters, here is the outline of the story of Esther to whet your appetite.
Once their lived a rich king of Persia. To show off his wealth he held a banquet for all the nobles and governors of the provinces for 180 days, and then he extended the invitation to everybody nobles and commoners alike for the final 7 days. At the same time his queen, Queen Vashti held a banquet for the women. On the 7th day the king ordered his queen to be brought before him to show off her beauty to the crowds. But, she refused to come. The king was not just angry, he was fuming. He consulted with his wise men and took their counsel, and the queen was banished for showing such contempt to him, and for setting a bad example that other women might decide to follow.
Eventually, after his rage had finally subsided the king decided that he needed a wife after all. So his advisors sought to find him a new one. Now there lived in the region a Jew called Mordecai, from the tribe of Benjamin whose ancestor had been carried away to Babylon many years before. Mordecai had brought up his niece Esther after her parents had died. When Mordecai heard the king’s edict that all the young women should gather so that they could be taken to the king for him to make his choice of wife, he warned Esther never to let on about her Jewish heritage. For a year the girls were pampered and Mordecai kept an eye on Esther as he walked around the outside of the courts. Then the time came for the girls to be brought before the king. The king fell in love with Esther and he made her his queen.
Now Mordecai was still keeping an eye on Esther and he sat each day by the gate of the courts. I guess he became a part of the furniture as he overheard a conversation between two of the kings eunuchs as they conspired to kill their king. So Mordecai warned Queen Esther, who in turn warned the king. He had the men killed and wrote about the event in the chronicles of his reign. And then the king promptly forgot about it.
The king promoted a man named Haman, who became very proud. He insisted that all the kings other servants bow to him. But Mordecai would not bow. The other guards asked him why he would not bow, and he told them that he was a Jew. Haman became infuriated with Mordecai, and on finding out he was a Jew, decided to do away with the entire Jewish nation in their midst. He went to the king and asked the king if he could destroy the Jewish people as they would not keep the kings laws, and he would pay the king 10,000 talents of silver if the king agreed to their slaughter. So the king gave his signet ring to Harman to use as a seal of approval for the decree.
When Mordecai learnt about the decree against not just his own life, but that of all the Jewish nation he tore his clothes and put on sack cloth and wailed as he walked around the city. Queen Esther was distressed when she saw Mordecai and sent her servants to find out what was wrong. Mordecai sent them back to ask Queen Esther to ask if she would go before the king and ask him to change his mind. He told her that maybe this was the reason she had become the queen. Carpe Diem. Seize the Day! Now the queen was only allowed to see the king if he summoned her, if she went into his presence uninvited she was likely to be put to death. If a person came into his presence unannounced, if the king was to lower his golden royal sceptre then the person could speak, but if he didn’t, they would be put to death. Queen Esther hadn’t been summoned before the king for 30 days so had no way of making her request to the king. So she sent a message to Mordecai asking him to gather all the Jews to fast, alongside her and her maids for 3 days and 3 nights.
On the third day she approached the king. Would he lower his golden sceptre? He peered down at his queen, and then dazzled by her beauty, slowly he lowered his sceptre towards her. He asked her to move into his presence and to make her request, he promised that anything she wanted he would give her, up to half his kingdom. Now I’m sure if it were us, we might have jumped straight in “Please king, save the Jews…” but Queen Esther didn’t, she invited him and his henchman Haman to a banquet. Whilst the king was drinking at the banquet he asked Esther again what it was that she wanted. So she replied that she would like to entertain both him and Haman again at another banquet the following night. Haman, was in his element. Here he was being invited yet again as the sole guest with the king to a banquet with the queen. But as he left the building he happened to spot Mordecai, the man who wouldn’t bow to him. His anger burned and he set up a gallows ready to take Mordecai’s life.
That night, one of the many God-incidences in the story happened (you may have noticed a few already), the king couldn’t sleep. So he turned to his dusty tomes, the chronicles of his reign to date. But rather than them sending him to sleep, he found the entry of Mordecai saving his life. He called his servants and asked them what reward had been endowed upon Mordecai for his faithful service. “Nothing” came back the reply. At this point the king heard someone outside the court. It was Haman coming to ask the king for permission to hang Mordecai on the gallows he had set up overnight. So he invited Haman in to ask his advice on his dilemma.
“Haman, what shall be done for the man that the king wishes to honour?”
“Well…” thought Haman. “Who could the king wish to honour more than me?”
“I know,” replied Haman, “Let him wear royal robes that belong to the king, let him ride a horse of the king with a royal crown on his head, let him be paraded around as it is announced that this is the man that the king wants to honour”.
“What a wonderful idea” said the king, “Go and find Mordecai the Jew who sits at my gate and make sure you do all of the above”
Through his gritted teeth, somehow, Haman managed to put the king’s order into action. Before he had to hurry back to the palace for his next banquet with the king and queen. As they were all eating and drinking the king asked Queen Esther yet again what it was that she wanted.
She explained that her people were about to be destroyed. The king had obviously forgotten about his previous royal decree to destroy the Jews, “who is going to do this?” He raged.
“Why this wicked Haman” Esther replied. The king was so angry he had to leave the banquet to get some fresh air. Whilst he was out yet another of those God-incidences occurred. Haman, realising that things weren’t going well with him with the king decided to gain the favour of the queen instead. As he threw himself on the couch where the queen was sitting to beseech her to save his life, the king returned to the room. Seeing Haman and the queen he got completely the wrong idea and assumed that Haman was now assaulting his queen. The king’s servants pointed out that Haman had set up a gallows ready for Mordecai and so Haman’s fate was sealed.
The king overruled Haman’s edict to kill the Jews and Mordecai was honoured, and as we heard in our reading the Jew’s sorrow was turned to joy.
So nowhere in the story is God explicitly mentioned, not even when Mordecai is explaining why he can’t bow down to Haman, not when Mordecai is explaining to Esther that the reason for her becoming queen is becoming clear, not even when all the Jews are saved at the end is God given the praise and worship. And yet, God is so clearly evident in his people’s lives throughout the story. Just there. An ever present help in trouble. Trust in that God to be there with you, through all the twists and turns of life. At the end of each day, look back and see where he has been with you, whether in the beauty of a sunrise, or a stranger’s smile, or a friendly word. And know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.