Sermon: "Changing Times"

Delivered January 14, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Sermon Text: Esther 4:1-17 and John 3:25-30

Would you now turn to Esther, Chapter 4 in your Bibles, page number - this is one of those ones where we really might need a page number, is page 356 in your pew Bible. Esther is a wonderful story of God's providence and power and grace. And if you know the story then you will be able to pick up this particular part of it. During the sermon I'll catch you up on what has happened up to this point in the story, but carefully listen to Chapter 4, we are going to read all of Chapter 4 and let's ask God to open our minds, and to speak God's word through our hearts today.

Lord, we do indeed confess that we when it comes to your Word and spiritual things are blinder than moles as Calvin put it, and unless you open our hearts and minds we will not see the glorious light of your truth. And so we do humbly beseech you to help us understand, not just words on paper, but indeed your Word to our hearts. We ask it in Christ's holy name. Amen.

When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, he put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. But he went only as far as the king's gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it. In every province to which the edict and the order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.

When Esther's maids and eunuchs came and told here about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. Then Esther summoned Hathach, one of the king's eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why.

So Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king's gate. Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him, including the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict for their annihilation, which had been published in Susa, to show to Esther and explain it to her, and he told him to urge her to go into the king's presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people.

Hathach went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, "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 he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the golden scepter to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king."

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 royal position for such a time as this?"

Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: "Go gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat of drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids 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." So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther's instructions.

May God add to us his understanding of this reading of his Holy Word.

It has become a truism in our culture to say that the only constant is change. I would think that just about every person here has either heard those words before or uttered them at some time. The only constant is change. A Greek philosopher commented on that very truth as long ago as twenty-five hundred years, so we know that it's a human situation. Other axioms reflect our reaction to change. The only people who like change are babies with dirty diapers. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? You know the answer to that one. Change. Presbyterians are a little slow to change, a little slow to catch on to jokes too, I see. But, today on the threshold of the 21st century, even change seems so different.

There's just so much more of it, in the work world, in family life, everywhere we go, even in church life change is more than constant, it's just everywhere. And it's anyone's guess where our new technologies will bring us in just a few years. In fact, I was thinking about this and I thought just 25 years ago if I shared these phrases or words with you, would you have any clue as to what I was talking about. Things like cable TV. Put yourself 25 years ago, 30 years ago and just think of these words. Microwave ovens, CD players, fax machines, personal computers, cell phones, video cassettes, we wouldn't understand any of those things. DVD players, some of us don't even understand that now. I had to think when my daughter said "I would like a DVD player for Christmas," I said,"Okay - what ever that is." In a news segment I saw not too long ago, one of the interviewers was talking to some teenagers and said, "Does anyone know what an LP album is?" They said, "What's a LP album?" So, it kind of works in reverse too. There's been so much change that even in our generation when LP albums (long playing albums) with those old diamond head needles, we have just changed so rapidly. Debbie DiNina was talking to a few of us last week and she said, and this is the sentence she used, "This past week Cole just learned how to double-click." If she had said that just maybe ten years ago, someone might have said, "Is he taking tap dancing." Really, I mean to double-click, so the point is that change is so rapid that it affects our vocabulary, everything.

Ogden Nash wrote this poem. He said, "There is one fault I must find with the 20th century and I will put it in a couple of words. Too adventury. What I would like is some nice dull monotony, if anyone's got any." See that's the problem. No ones got any monotony. Change is no longer a single image. It is a collage. It is one thing overlapping another, margin to margin. And even though we have great propensity as humans to adjust to change, it's the rate of change that throws us off. Can you imagine if you took someone from the 1700's and put them into the Silicon Valley? Their head would spin. A century ago, industrial revolution caused Americans to constantly write, and you can document this, of how it was so hard to keep up with all the changes that were going on 120 years ago. And even if the rate of change were to cease tomorrow, we would all have trouble with that because the lack of change would be a change. Right. Changing times - Changing times always provide a challenge. And we have a choice. In these changing times we can see them as opportunity or crisis. But it is quite normal to see the crisis before we see the opportunity.

Moses made a major change when he led his people out of Egypt. He had made the change in his mind. But it took 40 years to get Egypt out of the people. Which is simply to say that reorientation and redefinition takes time, and must take place so that we can embrace a new reality. Do you remember Tevye the poor Jewish dairyman from Fiddler on the Roof? Tevye was caught between the tradition of his people and his more modern daughters. For Tevye times were changing and his daughters with it. All five of them no longer wanted marriages that were made by a matchmaker, a yenta. They didn't want to have any part of that. In one scene, Tevye's daughter, Chava tells him that she has fallen in love with a young Russian soldier who is not Jewish. And he says this, "My daughter - marry outside the faith. If I try to bend that far I will break." Even his town is changing. When a Russian tells him he is no longer wanted even in his own town he says, " On a ________ dear little village, little town of mine."

How do any of us survive changing times? You know some of us say, "Well, I'm just gonna gut it out, I just take the stoic road." When in fact, any of us if put under enough stress and change start to reach our limits and no longer can gut it out. And so the call today in the face of change, and changes in this congregational life, is not to gut it out, but to God it out. That's the best way to deal with change. Because changing times are God's wake up call to live a life by what God deems important. In the scripture today provides us an example of a woman who set her heart and mind on God in the midst of a terrible life threatening change. A woman who heard God's wake up call and became a physical and spiritual survivor. The story of Esther is a story of God's providence. Care and protection and change in uncertain times. And even though the name of God is not mentioned in all of Esther, God is there, above it all, shaping situations.

Esther lived in Susa.It would be in the middle of Iraq, today. And she lived in the citadel of Susa, which is kind like the acropolis of Susa. Her Hebrew name was Hadasa, which means mertyl. She was a tree, she had strong roots. But her Persian name was Star or Esther. And she was that too, she was a star in God's drama. She was an orphan, her parents died when she was young, and she was adopted by her older first cousin, Mordecai, who had taken her into his home. And so he was not only her uncle, but a true father. She was beautiful. And here is the background, Chapter 1. I'm gonna run through this kinda like the 90 second clip on the TV guide channel. Vashti is the first women's libber. The King, Xerxes calls for her to model herself down the royal runway in full royal attire and she refuses. She says "I'm not gonna be showtime for" well that was a bad move on Vashti's part because she was booted. And so in Chapter 2 we see the story starts to go a national beauty contest. It's Star Search. And all the beautiful young virgins of Susa were to have a year's worth of Mary Kay treatments, which is really true - it's right in there, the word Mary Kay is not used, but in Chapter 2 six months of a certain cosmetic regimen and another six months of another kind of cosmetic regimen and then after that year these women are brought in to interview with the king. And Esther wins the grand prize. She is made Queen.

Her uncle, Mordecai who is some kind of official, we are not real sure, who kind of sits in the gate with all the other officials, says something to Esther. He says, "Now Esther, keep your Judaism a secret for the time being." I don't know whether that's a good idea. So Mordecai finds out about a plot against the king and while he is sitting in the gate a couple of people are going to come and kill the king, and he whispers it into Esther's ear and Esther whispers it into the king's ear, these two traders are caught and hung. And it is entered into the history's books.

Chapter 3, enter the really bad guy. Haman the Agagite. And it's interesting because Mordecai and his kin are descendents of Benjamin. And in first Samuel, there is this whole thing about the tribe of Benjamin and the people of the Amalekites and the King Agag and so Haman is an Agagite, and Mordecai is an Benjamite, which kinda the readers who know all that think boy, oh boy this is getting interesting. And so Haman, unbelievable guy, he's a corporate star, he just rises up the political ladder, he's a pompous fellow though, he wants everybody to bow to him. But old Mordecai won't do it. He's not bowing to anybody but to God, and he's certainly not going to bow to this Agagite. And yet because Haman is so filled with pride and so full of himself he goes into a rage every time he walks by Mordecai and Mordecai doesn't do the politically correct thing. And so he looks at this guy and he says ,"You know this guy is beneath me just to slaughter him, I think I am going to wipe out him and everyone of his people." And so he orders an edict of annihilation and he goes into the king, when the king is feeling pretty good, and he says,"You know there's a certain people around here who don't do what you want them to do, they are not really going with the laws and needs of the Persians. I tell you what how about I give you 10,000 shekels of silver, you give me a decree and we'll just wipe them out." The king says, "Okay, here's my signet ring. Do whatever you want. I don't need the money, but you go ahead." He wanted to bribe the king to kill all the Jews.

And that's where, in Chapter 4, we came into the story. But Esther isn't aware of this edict. In Chapter 4, Mordecai provides her the edict, and says to her, "Listen you go talk to the king and you beg for mercy." Her first response in the midst of this crisis is fear. She says, "You don't understand, Uncle, Papa, if I do that without being called because of security measures, I will be killed. I'm not going into the king's presence without being summoned." That word gets back to Mordecai and then he brings the famous words in Verses 13 and 14, and I will read them again, "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, God will do it some other way. But you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such as time as this." You are where you are Esther for a purpose. God is in control, but we have to do our part. Neither your position or your palace will protect you. You're safe only if you trust God, regardless of the consequences.

Esther hears these words, she steals herself, she says ,"Let's call for a fast." She asks all the Jews everywhere to fast three days, what does this mean? Turn fully to God. Show intangible ways how much you trust God, and how God is the complete source of dependence in your life, and that God will make things right when we put our trust fully in him. Esther takes a risk. After fasting three days, she dresses up and comes into hallway. The king is probably looking out the window and he turns and sees her, the moment of truth happens. He smiles and says, "Esther come in." She comes in, he holds out the scepter and she touches it. He says,"What is it you want?" She says," I want you and Haman to come to a banquet tomorrow, I going to throw a banquet for you." He goes " Fine, that's an easy request." And so they have a banquet. And Haman, Esther, and the king are having this wonderful feast. Haman walks out of that first days banquet strutting; he says,"Boy of all the people in this kingdom, Esther invited me to dine with her and the king." And so he walks out of this banquet and he sees Mordecai in the gate again and he's feeling so full of himself and Mordecai doesn't bow down to him. He flies into a rage. He goes home and he whines to his wife. He says, "What am I going to do?" She says, "Why don't you build a gallows 70 feet, 50 cubic high, about 70 feet - why don't you build one that high and you hang him on it?" When do you go the next banquet you ask the king? Because at that first banquet when the king asked Esther what did she want from him? She said, "Well tomorrow I want to give you another banquet." And so the wife says, "You go ahead and when you go to the second banquet you tell the king that Mordecai is not politically correct and you want him done in."

While Haman is doing all this scheming that night between the two banquets, the King can't sleep. And so he says, " Bring me the history books." And he opens up to the chapter where Mordecai had exposed the traitors. And he asked his attendant "Has anything been done to this man because he did this thing?" "Nothing, king." He says, "Who's in the court?" Which means, "Who is the officer of the day?" It was just at that moment that Haman in his pompous way burst into the court, made himself officer of the day, and someone says, "Oh Haman is in the court." And the King calls to Haman, "Haman come here" What should the King do - What should be done to the man who wishes to honor? So Haman is thinking to himself "Now who would the king want to honor more than me?" Let's see, I think what you should do is put royal robes on this man, take a horse and put a royal plume on the horses head and dress him out. Put the man on the horse and have one of your nobles lead the horse through the town saying, "This is what is done for the man that the king desires to honor. And the king looked at him and said "Boy that's a great idea." I want you Haman to do that for Mordecai. And so that's what's done and you could imagine the level of humiliation that Haman is going through as he is walking through the town, pulling this horse, shouting "Thus is done for the man whom the king wishes to honor." He goes home and tells his family and they say, "Uh-oh, this is bad." This is a bad omen, and at that very moment the king's attendants come and escort him to the second banquet. The king says to Esther "What do you want me to do for you?" Esther tells the king what the problem is and she says that there is a man in your court that created this vile edict to exterminate me and all my people. The king flys into a rage and says, "Who would do such a thing?" She points the finger and she says, "This vile Haman was the one who made this all up." He's going crazy. He walks out into his garden thinking what am I going to do? He's a royal official - what am I going to do with him?" Haman knows it's getting close to curtains and so he kneels down on the queen's bench and starts to beg. The kKing walks back in and it's verboten to touch the queen's bench and he says, "Will he even molest the queen in my presence?" Hang him. And guess where he is hung? On the gallows that he built for Mordecai.

Changing times, challenging times are not too much for a changeless, eternal, all powerful, providential God. No matter what the new chapter brings in the life of Central church, God is already there. Changing times calls for courage. It calls for faith and a deep trust that God is calling us forward to some greater end in spite of our apprehension. The story ends, I will let you read the rest of the story, it ends well for the Jews, but in spite of our apprehension God is calling us forward. Frank Howard used to be the head coach of my alma mater, Clemson, one of the funniest men that ever was. Once he was asked why Clemson University didn't participate in men's rowing or crew as an inter-collegiate sport? Howard replied, "I won't initiate anything at this school which encourages young men to sit down and look backward." Australia's national coat of arms has two animals on it. One is the emu and one is the kangaroo. You know why those two animals were chosen? Because neither one can go backward. If they do, they will fall. That's why their national motto is "Never backward, always forward." Having said that in calling Central church to changing times doesn't mean it's going to be easy. And so that's why we have to do what Esther did. We have to do what Tevye said. His daughter Hodel get's on a train bound for Siberia to see her fiancee and she says to her father "Papa, God alone knows when we shall see each other again." Tevye say's "Then we will leave it in God's hands." Good counsel anywhere, anytime.

Would you help me conclude this time by grabbing the little worship insert in your bulletin, a little goldenrod insert, and instead of me just praying we are all going to pray. We are going to ask the Lord to help us in this moving into the future. Down at the bottom of the one side, and I say more about the part of the fasting when I give you the charge today, but the prayer for the future, these words are attributed to Sir Francis Drake at the beginning of his exploration of the Western Hemisphere, so would you not just read these words but pray these words with me as I lead you:

Disturb us Lord when we are too well pleased with ourselves. When our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little. When we arrive safely because we have sailed too close to the shore. Disturb, us Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim. Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas when storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push in the future in strength, courage, hope, and love. Amen.

© 2001, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145
www.centralpc.org