Courage in a complicated world: A message on Esther
The Hollywood Director who doesn't show himself
By Bob Mendelsohn
Given at North Beach Baptist Church
8 October 2017
[The church in Perth’s northern suburbs asked me to give a talk, an overview on the Book of Esther. They also gave the message a title, “Courage in a Complicated World.”]
Good evening. Thank you Brad [pastor of the evening congregation] for the kind invitation. It's always good to be back in Perth, and here at North Beach, to be with you to share with you from the Older Testament book of Esther. Hopefully by what we discuss today, you will learn some valuable lessons for your life and your relationship with God, that will last long after the last BOO is shouted at the name of the villain of our story, Haman.
I’ve been given the assignment of Opening Batsman for your next Bible talk series. And I appreciate that opportunity. Some of you will be quite familiar with the story of the biblical book of Esther. For others, this might be first time you will consider the book, which we call a megillah in Hebrew, meaning a 'scroll'. Or maybe this is even more of an outculture experience, as some of you have never really considered the Bible as relevant for yourself. Let me rehearse therefore a bit of the story, in Shakespeare or Hollywood storyboard style. This then, the story of the Hollywood Director who hides himself.
Act I: All's Quiet
First, the situation, what we might title "All's quiet on the Shushan Front." This is Act I. You might expect the narrator's voice saying, "Once upon a time…"The book introduces the characters one at a time, in classic progression. And I will introduce them to you as well. First, King Xerxes, later named Ahasuerus, rules a vast Persian Empire, which was much larger than modern Iran, the kingdom that now speaks Farsi or Persian. 127 provinces composed Xerxes's realm from India to Ethiopia. And if we wanted we could end right there with "…and they all lived happily ever after… The End." This is often the fanciful thinking of the non-literate, the dream of the well wishers. No real story starts and ends so quickly. There must of necessity be conflict and resolution or we simply have a dull half hour of a bit of characters intersecting.
Peter Kreeft is one of my favorite authors and apologists. He argues this point well in his 1985 book "Making Sense out of Suffering." He asks us to think about a story which has no conflict, with nice characters and nice people living nicely together compared to a story with troubles and suffering. He says a story needs conflict to keep a child's interest. And I quote:
"Author: Which fairy tales would you write?
Reader: The second one of course; the one with all the crazy stuff in it.
Author: The suffering , you mean?
Reader: It makes a better story, yes." (page 82)
Act II: Trouble Arises
Sure enough, then, we have Act II. Trouble Arises. As in the old silent movies of Hollywood, the evil Simon Legree appears to collect the unpayable rent. First there is trouble in the king's palace. Seems Ahaseurus' wife named Vashti refuses one of those royal edicts; she won't show her face to the king. Whatever it was, it's not a good idea to go against the boss, in those days for sure. Even if you are the queen, you still will be punished. Vashti gets booted from the palace, and the word gets out that a contest is on to find a replacement. How will they find the replacement? By conducting a beauty contest. Not a bad thing to include in a movie, eh? And maybe Aussie Jennifer Hawkins might have a go.
After some milk baths, our new heroine for whom the book is named, Esther wins, gets the gold medal, and becomes Queen. Of course some know her by her Hebrew name Hadassah, which means 'myrtle' and the myrtle leaf is the shape of her very beautiful eyes.
We are also introduced to the evil villain, wearing all black, even with a black cape, and his name in this movie is Haman. He is a descendant of the famous movie bad guy Amalek, who starred in the earlier movie by the same Director. That movie featured Moses and the travelling former slaves, the Jewish people in the wilderness. But we digress.
One more crucial character you have to know is named Mordecai. He is a cousin or uncle of Esther, and will play a crucial role several times in the show. He's as central as Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream who always seems to have the right word, sometimes even to fix his own mistakes!
So we had Trouble in the Palace, and as Act II ends, we have Trouble also in the Land. Why? Seems that Haman has figured out how to be a villain of major consideration. He was a Fifth Century BCE Hitler, who thought the Jewish people were a marked people, worthy of extermination and ruin. He proposed his final solution and King Ahasuerus accepted it. Oy. The Director of our movie zooms in on the sneer, on the snidely confident laughter of Haman, and we are left with a cold chill up our spine.
Act III: Plan B
Even though Esther is the queen, something that should guarantee her personal safety, as Act 3 begins, we find her cousin Mordecai coming by for a visit. Not a friendly chat, but a powerful soliloquy of possibility and confidence. He tells her in no uncertain terms that the Jews need a Plan B. So Esther and Mordecai strategize; they work it out. You see, both Mordecai and Esther would be killed if the plot unfolded as Haman desired. We get the feeling that the Director wants both characters to survive at least for a while.
So, their plan is to call a fast. Ta'anit Esther, it's called in modern Judaism, the Fast of Esther. They invite all the Jews of Shushan to fast. After those 3 days, Esther was going to go to the king and ask for this last edict to be overturned. Not too hard, but obviously one plan that takes a lot of chutzpah to carry out.
Mordecai instructs his young ward. He tells her, "Who knows? Perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" This was a new thought to Esther, and after due consideration, she replied with that famous line shown often in the trailer of this movie. The Queen replies, "If I perish, I perish" This trailer has been shown for generations now, and will continue long after this comes out on Blue Ray 3D DVD. This moment gives us the title to tonight’s talk: Courage in a Complicated World.
Esther knows the best way to a man's signet ring is through his stomach, so she has a pair of banquets. Plan B is executed to perfection. The Banquet takes place exposing the Axis of Haman's evil. Jewish survival is assured, and the madman is hanged on a gallows, standing on a platform higher than one built for any Grand Final medal ceremony.
Act IV: They lived happily ever after
It all comes out in the end, just like things always do in Hollywood, right? The good guys win and the bad guys get theirs as Haman dies on the gallows built for others and all 10 of Haman's sons die, and we leave the theater singing the theme song and eating ice cream bars. But is that what this movie is all about?
Problems at hand
Let's talk about some of the problems of the script, that is, the book of Esther in the Bible. First problem: there is no actual mention of God by name. That's right, it is a Jewish book written about a Jewish problem and an answer given apparently from heaven, God Himself, though, is not mentioned even once. Shocking, no?
Problem two, here is a whole community of Jews living a long way from Israel, when the way was opened up decades earlier in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah for all Jews to return from captivity in Babylon. And according to Jewish tradition, they should have moved back. So we have this problem of renegade disobedient Jews living among Gentiles, and dealing with the commensurate sociological problems of interrelationships.
Other problems…the Law, the Torah is not mentioned, nor is animal sacrifice. Also, the Newer Testament does not quote even once from the book of Esther. Although fasting is spoken of and done, there is no mention of prayers. Finally, they did not find any fragments of this book in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is no big megillah.
Or is it? I think it is fascinating that the name of God is not mentioned. But perhaps I need to remember our movie image. The Director stamps the whole project with scene changes and zooms. He makes actors move close or directs their movements across the stage of our view. But during the movie, we never see the Director. After the movie is over, and Hollywood rewards its own in the Academy Awards, then we meet him personally. And perhaps that's the way to think of the Almighty in this case.
Who else but God could have organized the beauty contest? And that the Jewish girl would be so well placed at just the right time? And that Mordecai, whose good deed done to the king in the prequel, before our movie began, is rewarded for it while we watch this movie? Esther is God's story marked by God's deliverance in God's timing with God's signature… all without His name visibly made manifest. Can you imagine?
Some Messianic Jews might have some trouble with the lack of mention of the Law or Shabbat in the text. Some Israeli Jewish believers in Jesus might remove this book from their canon if they really could. Why? Jews who have a chance to live in the Land are living outside it. "What a shanda! And no wonder there is trouble," they would say.
But I allege that God pervades, he is all through the book and all through the Jewish holiday of Purim. That holiday is mentioned 5 times in Esther chapter 9. Purim is known as a festive time, sort of a Jewish Halloween, where people dress up in costumes and give away candy and food baskets to others. Shalach manot is a substantial part of the holiday for adults. Of course, so is getting drunk. But that's another story that I'll let others address.
What about this 'name made manifest' idea? I remember an incident some years ago. I was over visiting two ladies who were confessed atheists. They invited me to lunch and before the meal, there was great discussion about prayer. They didn't want to pray and they didn't want me to pray. Then they changed their minds and offered me to pray if I felt it necessary for my enjoyment of their meal they provided. All the while, I remained fairly quiet, eavesdropping as if I were removed from the situation, although we were all at the same table. After about 5 minutes of this, they said, 'ok, go ahead and pray if you must.' I answered, "We've already prayed. Prayer is to acknowledge God over you and with you, and with all this lively discussion, I believe God is well acknowledged." You can bet these ladies were quite frustrated.
Let me draw some conclusions from our Esther story today for me personally and hopefully for you as well and answer some of those problems as well.
1) The people of God, even in Israel, can get excited about God being everywhere doing His thing. He does save His people, even those who are rebellious or reluctant, living outside the Land. In other words, His grace is not conditional on my previous compliance, but on His mercy and love.
2) God is not always showing His name, though He is always working. Remember Yeshua healed people and would tell them, "Go and tell no one." There is timing to revelation and God does it perfectly here. And God does it perfectly with you and me. How surprising it was for me to meet Messiah in the person and the surprising name of Yeshua. I'd been raised an Orthodox Jew in Kansas City, and all of a sudden, I was seeing the name of Jesus as fulfillment of the Bible prophecies, Jesus: the one whom I'd never respected even from afar.
3) There is a time to risk. Or as the title of tonight’s message says, “Courage in a Complicated World.” Esther went to the king without an appointment or an invitation and that was risky. Mordecai went to the king turning in some treasonous men, and this was risky not knowing whether the king would understand and if the Persian Mafia might not take Mordecai down for dobbing in two of their own. I love the Hallmark greeting card which said, "Let us love, let us risk, let us lay down our lives for one another…. You go first." Risk is never convenient; it is immeasurably difficult, but if you go through with it, you will be the better. "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Where is God calling you? Will you risk relationships to go there?
4) Were it not for God, all the Hamans and the Hitlers and the Herods of the world would have won long ago and destroyed the Jewish people. But God will save His chosen people and defend Israel. What encouragement we can take from that in these troubled times as well. The story is told of Adolph Hitler in a speech he gave in January 1944, he is quoted, "If the Nazis go down to defeat, the Jews will celebrate a "second Purim." Then two years later in 1946 during the Nuremberg Trials, 11 Nazis were quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. Goering committed suicide before he could be hanged. As the 10 Nazis- like Haman's 10 sons- went to their deaths, one of them Julius Streicher, shouted, "Purimfest!" Even they knew God had delivered the Jews. Yes there are many issues related to the Holocaust: guilt, shame, anger, sadness. But atheism is a lousy response to the Holocaust. God has saved us. The Lord is the Mighty Deliverer.
5) The prophecies of the coming Messiah from Moses to Daniel would have been known in part by the people of Esther’s day. I'm not sure how the story perpetuated, but it makes sense to me that Esther as queen affected the Persian folks so well and for so long that just a few centuries later, the stories were still being told. Esther the queen probably told them about the Future King, the Messiah, to come. And it was a group of magi from the East, like from Persia they say, who followed a star to Jerusalem and finally to Bethlehem to meet the "Star that arose out of Jacob and the scepter that would not depart from Israel." (Numbers 24) This once and future king, Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth is the Great Hope of the Jewish people today. We who know Him discover that He is the Director to the movie. He is the secret hidden from the ages past. And His death and resurrection, which is marked by Christians all over the globe each Sunday, was Plan A for God for the redemption of Israel and the nations.
Yes, just as in our movie today, everything seemed quiet at the beginning of human history back at the Beginning of the Bible record. The Garden of Eden was a beautiful and ongoing pleasure village. Then sin entered and God had to work out the buy-back procedures, making treaties along the way until He made a final covenant with all who will trust in Him in the Passion of Messiah. How far were we separate from God? Try to get back to the Garden. It's like sand dunes, and you are in the hole of one. Try to dig out of the dusty sand. Or try to get yourself out of a Joondalup golf course bunker. You will only make the hole larger and your plight deeper. No one else could fix it, not even Bob the Builder. In the same way, although personally, you might have thought everything was fine with you, quiet if you will, trouble started brewing. Perhaps there was trouble at work or with your family or neighbors, troubles in dealing with close friends, or even internal struggles about your own person. Where is Plan B? Where is the way of escape from this trouble? I believe the best way to your answer, to the King of Kings’ signet ring, is through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. You get to trust Him. You get to look to Him to find eternal life and to find answers to your often-unsettled situations.
If you don't yet know this one about whom we speak here, this Jesus, and would like to, then today, right where you are, won't you receive His lordship over you? He is the unnoticed director of all things and wants to help you survive the pains of this life, no matter the cost. He wants to forgive your sins and make you born again to a living hope. If you've never received Jesus as Messiah and Savior, and would like to do so, please pray this prayer in quiet whispers along with me from the honest depths of your heart.
Pray like this, "Lord I'm a sinner and have messed up my life pretty dramatically. You alone can fix it. I cannot. My sins are great and your character is to have mercy. Even on me. Thanks for that. Please forgive my sins and make me born again. I receive Jesus as my Savior and Lord, and ask you to make this real to me. Give me strength to trust you each day. In Jesus's name. Amen."
If you prayed that prayer for the first time today, please see the folks up front here after the service who will advise you about what's next and can assist you in your new journey of faith. How exciting!
Those of you who are believers, I challenge you to continue living a life of risk. Proclaim the name of the One who is ever present. Yeshua our Messiah who is ever working even on behalf of those who don't deserve it. Amen? You may not have to move 16,000 kilometres and 2 hemispheres like I did to preach to the people of Australia. You only have to survive the struggles of traversing the CBD and the GST, but you get to share the Good News message with folks in your offices and in your neighborhoods. You get to make known the Director who is for so many unseen. Maybe this year during the season of Purim which will be as usual a month before Passover, along with sending gift baskets of food to others, you could begin or continue sending gift baskets of the Word of God to those in your sphere of influence? They will thank you one day. It's worth the risk, don't you think?
And that’s the ministry of Jews for Jesus, risk takers who are working in 13 countries and 25 cities worldwide with full time staff even here in Australia. I moved here 19 years ago to found the ministry and it’s been a good innings. And a big thank you to those of you who have been generous in donation to Jews for Jesus. To all of you, would you please fill out that Jews for Jesus involvement card in your bulletin and give it to me at the resource table during supper? I’d appreciate the opportunity to speak to you again and again through our newsletter.
Our teams worldwide are evangelizing as you saw in the opening video in winter in Russia and New York and London. You can pray and I hope you will pray for us. We are out on the streets in Sydney and Bondi, where our book shop is open all week. And where Jewish people drop in every week. Pray for open hearts in the Jewish community. Pray for strength of our bodies to keep on keeping on, no matter the response. Pray for a few more Jewish believers to join us in our work, and we will keep you updated via the newsletter. Thanks again Brad for letting me come.
May God bless us all today, in the name of the Messiah Yeshua, amen.
Sources for Nazi stories: