Even in a Place Like That - Esther 1


Dan Stockum - Apr 7, 2024

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Esther, chapter one. We can often make the mistake when we see corruption, when we see abuse of power, when we see greed, when we see systems and structures of sin, when we look at situations where there is so much wrong, so much broken, we think this will never be right. This sin seems to be part of the institution. It's too entrenched. Even if there is some kind of accountability structure.

There's nobles and wise men. But that has also failed. We see that just the whole thing makes us want to throw our hands up and walk away. And when we see circumstances like that, we can make the mistake that God has also thrown his hands up in frustration and walked away. We can think that even God has abandoned the, the scene.

Or if he hasn't abandoned the scene, we can make the mistake that if he's here, he must have lost control. He must not be able to do anything about all of this, just like we're unable to do anything about it. I mean, we might sing, he's got the whole world in his hands. He's got the whole world in his hands. We might sing that, we might sign off on that doctrine.

But then we look around and it sure seems like there are some situations very not in his hands. There are some places that are so dark that we might begin to believe even God can't be at work in the midst of that. We might have those thoughts sometimes, but that would be a mistake. Scripture gives us instances, stories, historical counts of terribly corrupt, twisted, dark corners of the world. And then scripture shows that even in those places, God has not abandoned the scene.

We're getting a new sermon series today which will take us all the way to summer studying the book of Esther in the Old Testament. I'll give you some background on the book before we jump into chapter one. The setting is the capital city of Susa in the powerful kingdom of Persia. At the time, fifth century BC, Persia was the world leader in might, strength and wealth. A couple of generations before the Book of Esther, Persia, under King Cyrus, conquered the previous world power, Babylon.

Cyrus raided Babylon's treasuries, absorbed its peoples and lands, but then, curiously, Cyrus frees various people who had been taken captive by Babylon, including Israelites. They were able to return to Israel if they desired, and many of them chose to do so, but not all of them. Some communities of Israelites stuck around Persia under Cyrus. People in Esther's family who will show up later in the story, they stayed in Persia instead of going back to Israel. And of course, like all decisions, there were pluses and minuses to staying.

Sticking around probably provided a more stable life. In some ways, Susa was the richest city in the world. But it was less stable in other ways because after Cyrus, the line of succession of persian kings gets muddy. There was infighting, coups, multiple attempts to take the throne, backroom deals. But eventually, a man named Darius rises to power.

And once Darius wins out over his internal rivals, he turns outward and expands the empire even further. Darius conquered even more territories than Cyrus had before him. He enriched Susa even more. He was the unquestioned supreme ruler over the largest territory in the world. No one had authority to tell Darius no.

And like typical kings of the day, Darius had many wives. He had many children with those many wives. In fact, he had a harem of women to fulfill whatever he desired. His women, possessive pronoun, intentionally used his women, couldn't say no to him either. With one of those women, he had a son named Xerxes.

And by the time of the book of Esther, Darius has passed away. Xerxes now rules the empire. His greek name is Xerxes. His persian name is Ahasuerus. Depending on which version of the Bible you're reading, you may refer to him as Ahasuerus or Xerxes.

Xerxes, of course, grew up as the son of the king of the richest empire in the world. He would have been denied nothing, he would have worked for nothing. And then, when his father dies, Xerxes is handed control of this massive persian empire without really lifting a finger. So, not surprisingly, Xerxes seems to have a bit of a God complex. Xerxes would later carve into the side of a mountain, which is still there today.

The inscription Xerxes, the great king, the king of kings, king of all peoples, kings to the far end of the earth, son of Darius carved it into a mountain. That's thinking a lot of yourself. When Xerxes went with his troops to the battlefield, he did not fight alongside of them. Instead, servants would carry Xerxes on his throne with their hands and backs and shoulders, and they would carry him on his throne to a place where he could sit and overlook all the fighting. And his throne has rules which will show up later in the book of Esther.

If anyone touched his throne without permission, they were executed. If anyone even got too close, close to his throne without permission, executed. Because only Xerxes was worthy to have the status of the throat. Further, Xerxes, like persian kings before him, was so sure that everything he ever spoke was so true and so inerrant and so infallible that any law he ever decreed could not be changed. The idea was, if the king had said it, it was perfect the first time, so it would always be perfect.

It would never need to change. If one of the king's decrees needed to be changed later on, it would indicate what the king said in the first place wasn't infallible. But because the king speaks as the word of God, everything he says is perfect and will never need to be changed. That's a bit of a God complex. Further at the opening of Book of Esther, Xerxes is near the peak of his imperialistic conquest.

Xerxes never conquered as much as his father, Darius, but he did put down a couple of riots and then he had a campaign into Greece. You may remember the movie 300. It depicts the Persians fighting the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. The persian army vastly outnumbers the 300 Spartans. The Persians look like an endless sea of warriors.

Xerxes is depicted as this foreboding figure, and the Persians defeat the well skilled, well trained Spartans. Thermopylae was the peak of military conquest that Xerxes ever accomplished because pretty much immediately after that, the Persians are defeated in other parts of Greece and they retreat back home, where Xerxes spends the rest of his days working on massive construction projects to his own glory, like the inscription on the side of the mountain that he's king of kings. But in Esther, chapter one, Xerxes greek campaign hasn't happened yet. His win at Thermopylae and subsequent defeats occurred sometime during the Book of Esther, probably in between chapters one and two, because there's a gap of many years there.

But the point is, in chapter one here, Xerxes hasn't been defeated yet, so he has an air of invincibility.

He's never lost, and even his best victory is still out ahead of him. So he's on the uptick. In his mind, he would have no reason not to believe he has unlimited power. He certainly has unquestioned authority in his own kingdom. He seems unstoppable.

He's Xerxes the great. Everything has gone swimmingly easy his entire life. So the question at the opening of the book of Esther is, what will he do with all that power and influence? What is the boy who never needed to work for anything, who was given everything, who watched his dad have many children with many women, watched his dad conscript a harem? What's that kid gonna do when he grows up and takes over the kingdom that was handed to him on a platter.

It's not gonna be good. It's not going to add wholeness and stability to the world. It might mean prosperity for some, but it will mean oppression and abuse for others. So as we jump into chapter one, we will see the darkness of Xerxes kingdom. Where is God?

In a godless, hopeless situation. And finally, the one for whom Xerxes makes us long, the darkness of his kingdom. Where is God in all of this? And the one for whom Xerxes makes us long. So, first, the darkness of Xerxes kingdom, its obscene lavishness, debauchery and ill treatment of women.

Take those one at a time. So first, obscene lavishness. Xerxes could have used his essentially unlimited resources to better the world, to improve the lives of others, to build wholeness and goodness throughout his kingdom. Could have done it, didn't do it. Instead, he uses his resources to throw a party.

And not just any party, a 180 day party, a six month party, half a year party for all the nobles and officials of the land, all of them. Verse three, from his vast empire, all the officials. Hard to say how many people that would have been, but we're told, verse one, there are 127 provinces in his kingdom, so there's several officials from each one of those. Some commentators put the guest list in the thousands. We have never seen a party like this because when all these officials come into the palace, they are shown on purpose the great wealth of Xerxes.

They are given a golden goblet to drink from, and each golden goblet is different than the next. Verse seven, probably so each person could keep track of which Golden Goblet was his. You know, sometimes you go to a party and the host has those red plastic cups with the sharpie sitting next to the stack of cups for you to write your name on your cup so you don't get it mixed up with anybody else's cup. Been to that party? Well, Xerxes did the same thing, except the cup was made out of gold for each person.

How would you like to go to your office party and you leave with an individualized golden goblet that you were handed when you walked in? It's lavish, right? But not only were the cups gold, the couches were gold. Verse six. Xerxes had golden couches.

I can't imagine golden couches are very comfortable. But if you were going for a wow factor, if you're really trying to show off your wealth, if you want people to think you have a silly amount of money, go ahead and decorate with a few golden couches. And that's just the beginning of the palace opulence. Chapter one describes wall hangings, tapestries, floors, pillars. All of it is way over the top.

The most expensive, lavish excess that existed. Xerxes had it. Now, what's the problem with that? If you have it, why not show it off? Right?

The problem is, Xerxes wanted to make much of himself. The problem is verse four. He wanted to display the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty. He was using his wealth arrogantly instead of using it for the benefit of others. And throughout the Bible, the point of having wealth, the reason God has given resources to anyone, is so they can elevate others, not self.

For instance, Ephesians 428. Why are we even supposed to work? Like, why do we have jobs? Why does that exist? Is it to boost our own ego, to make us feel important, to keep us busy?

No. We work Ephesians four so that we have something to give to those in need. That's a consistent message throughout the Bible. But xerxes party is not for others. It's not to give all the leaders in the kingdom a six month vacation.

That's not really the point of it. Instead, his party is a flex.

It's for xerxes to say, I know I'm great, and I want to make sure you know I'm great too. That's why he throws the party. It should serve as a warning for us. I mean, we won't flex as flamboyantly as xerxes, but it's an easy trap to fall into because greed is so slippery and so incremental, it creeps up on us. However much we have, we want just a little more, just a little more than the next guy.

So we don't feel bad about ourselves. We want to have enough so that we feel like we're behind someone else. A little better car, a little better house, a little better tv, a little better vacation. And whenever we feel like we've made it, we look over and see someone with a little more than us. And then we feel inadequate all over again.

Our focus is often, how do I get just a little more for me? How much closer to the top can I get? It's worth looking into our own hearts to see how much of that is in there. It won't feel like greed because we almost never feel greedy. Instead, it will feel like inadequacy.

It will feel like if only I had a little more, then I would be okay. And if that impulse runs unchecked in our hearts, and we have the resources to do it. The end of that road is obscene. Xerxes not only needs to have more than everyone else, he needs everyone to know he has more than everyone else. So one type of darkness in Xerxes Kingdom is this obscene lavishness for his own glory.

Second darkness in his kingdom. Xerxes encourages debauchery. He not only throws a six month party, he throws a six month party with an open bar. Verse seven. The royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king's liberality.

Verse eight. By the king's command, each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man as he wished. So you don't even have to walk up to the open bar. The open bar will walk up to you to fill your personalized golden goblet. For six months, all you can drink.

That's not a pretty picture. Maybe a few of those officials were keeping it together, but no chance all of them were. I'm remembering parties I went to in high school. Confession and spring breaks where people just cut loose, drank with no limit, how people acted, what it smelled like. Have you been there?

You don't need to raise your hand. And those spring breaks were just one week. Those high school parties were just one night. And I can remember, like, even my craziest friends, even the most unhinged of them, would sometimes say, I've overdone it. I need to pull back for a while.

And they would say that after one night or after one week, this was six months, 180 nights. I don't think we could overstate how bad it would have looked. The darkness, the depravity, destruction to yourself, to others, to property. Probably those golden couches are going to need a cleaning. It's bad.

We aren't given many specifics about what happened in that environment, but we are given one third darkness in Xerxes Kingdom. Ill treatment of women, degrading of women. No surprise if there are hundreds, if not thousands of men who are, as the text says, in high spirits from wine, which is a generous way of saying drunk. If there's a huge crowd of men wobbling in their shoes, what are they going to do? I mean, not all of them, of course, but as a group, what will they do?

Degrade women? It's the worst version of a frat house. It's the worst version of spring break debauchery. And it's what happened. It was predictably bad for women.

No wonder the queen, her name is Vashti. Vashti. While the men are having their party, Vashti gets the women out of there. Verse nine. She has her own separate gathering for women, and we don't know everything about her party.

That could have been just as bad as the men. Who knows? But apparently she didn't want women around the men, which tells you something. Xerxes, however, in high spirits, doesn't prefer this total separation from women. So he calls for the queen.

He says, fast day. Get out of here. Parade yourself around in front of all these men. I want to show off how hot you are. Show off?

You belong to me. Vashi sends a message back and says, no. No way I'm going in there and doing that. I will not be an object to be flaunted around in front of a bunch of drunken men. I'll stay right where I am.

Thank you. Which was the right thing for her to say. Of course it was the right thing for her to say. If you're curious, history rewards Vashti later. Not in the book of Esther.

Much later, when her son becomes king, Vashti is honored as the queen mother. Okay. But the immediate response to her refusal to be displayed as an object is Xerxes is enraged. Verse twelve. The boy who had never seen a woman or anyone else tell his dad no.

He cannot fathom Vashti's defiance, so he turns to his entourage. Verse 15, and asks, what are we gonna do about this guy? She can't act this way. She can't disrespect me like this. And all his officials say, you're absolutely right.

She can't do that. Who does she think she is? If she gets away with this, all the women are going to start acting this way.

And then someone says, I have an idea. Let's make a law which can't be revoked, because whatever you say is perfect, king. Let's make a law that says, vashti will never be in your presence again. And women throughout the land must not act this way to their husbands. Xerxes approved.

And so it is done. Vashti is deposed. The decree goes out to strike fear in the hearts of all the women of the kingdom. It's a pretty bleak picture of darkness, of depravity. It's godless.

It's the opposite of godly. And when we think of a situation like that, we ask God, where are you? With all this sickening behavior? Are you even here? We ask, where is God?

In a godless, hopeless situation?

At work. He is at work. One of the points of the book of Esther is that even in a godless, hopeless situation, God is at work. The book of Esther is unique in that God is actually never mentioned in the entire book, not once. 167 verses, zero times.

God is not there, it seems. There's no prophet speaking on behalf of God. There's no angel descending from above, no voice from heaven. No one even prays. We don't even know if anyone believes in God here, or if they're just culturally hebrew.

God's name is not in the book. It looks like he's not there. It looks like he might be totally absent from the situation, especially considering how dark and twisted it is. But scholars agree the absence of God's name or God's voice in Esther is actually a literary technique to emphasize God's presence, God's work, God's orchestration amongst events, even when he's silent, even when no one is talking about him, even in places that don't acknowledge his existence, even if no one believes him in him, in godless places, God is still there. Up to something.

Even in an obscene, drunken man party where women are ill treated, God has not left the scene. Doesn't mean God is okay with any of those behaviors. He certainly isn't. All those sins will be judged for sure. But he hasn't dropped the ball either.

And as we progress through the book of Esther, we will see God. Even though he's not mentioned, we will see him take this message that humans have created and wrap it into his beautiful purposes for the world. One of the lyrics of one of the songs that we sing in here often is all the wreckage of my choices. You have turned to life from ashes. All the wreckage of my choices.

There really is wreckage. We really can make a mess of things, but then God brings them back from the ashes. Have you seen him do that in your life? Have you seen him take terrible blunders and turn them into something beautiful? Doesn't mean it's okay to blunder.

Of course not. But at the same time, it means we can never mess up so bad that it derails what God is doing. For example, we just celebrated good Friday and Easter. We reflected on Jesus crucifixion, which of course, his crucifixion saved all of us that praise God for the crucifixion. Right?

But at the same time, how did his crucifixion come about? Through lies, betrayal, corruption, injustice. None of which is okay. It's all bad. Most pointedly, Satan entered Judas before Judas betrayed Jesus.

Luke 22 three. That's as pure evil as you can get. That's as not okay as you can get. And that betrayal will be judged. Jesus even says, judas, judgment will be so severe, it will be better if Judas was never born.

Matthew 26 24. It's not okay what Judas did. God doesn't make some kind of ends justify the means calculation. It's not that. But what it does show is God is so powerful that he can take even the most pure evil, turn it on its head, and make it accomplish something good.

It means we can't out sin God's redemptive plan. And by the end of Esther, we will see even these terrible events play into what God is up to, just like the crucifixion plays into what God's up to. Anytime evil thinks it has the upper hand, anytime evil thinks it has advanced, it has always only advanced toward its own demise. Always. Evil never wins in the end.

So I don't know what environment you find so dark and hopeless that you believe God could not be at work within it. If your workplace seems godless, if your school seems godless, if you think the highest levels of political leadership right, the backroom deals to corruption, if it looks godless and hopeless. Esther teaches us that God has not abandoned those situations. If he had not abandoned fifth century BC Sousa, as gross as it was, he has not abandoned any corner of our twisted world. And we will eventually find that even the most terrible, inexcusable situations, even the darkest moments of our own lives, God will use those as steps in the journey for what he is building.

He cannot be hindered. He brings redemption to his people. No one, anything, nothing anyone ever does will ever slow him down. God is at work in hopeless, godless places now. Finally, the one for whom Xerxes makes us long, the true king.

When we read of xerxes, something likely protests within us. It may just feel like discomfort or angst, but if we put words to those feelings, those words would say, that's not what a king should be like. Instead of a king using his power and influence to elevate himself, he should use it to elevate others. Instead of a king being on a throne that no one can approach and die if they do, he should be with his people, serve them in some way. Instead of a king being a loose cannon of drunkenness and debauchery, he should goodness and wholeness and stability in the world.

Instead of forcing servants to exalt him, he should exalt others. Instead of mistreating women, he should honor women. Right? We feel that when we read of xerxes in short, when we read of xerxes, we long for Jesus. We long for the king who lowered himself in order to elevate us.

Philippians two we long for the king who doesn't stay on his throne when we're in the battle of our lives, but he comes to fight and win the victory for us. First Corinthians 15 we long for the king who says, come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew eleven who says that we can approach him with confidence, not fear? Hebrews four even if we are children. Matthew eleven.

Who honors women at every turn? John four, John eight Luke seven Matthew nine on and on. Jesus honors women. We long for the king who gave himself for us, that we may be saved. We long for Jesus, and throughout Esther, even though God is never mentioned as we study it, the goodness of Jesus, the truth of Jesus, the need for Jesus will become more and more evident.

I am looking forward to the rest of the series, and I hope you can make it for all the weeks. Let's pray.

Father, we are grateful that you have not abandoned us. No matter how dark our world might look, we are grateful that evil will never win, that you cannot be thwarted, that even the darkest moments, Lord, you can wrap them into something that they never intended to be, but you can take our messes and make them beautiful. So, Lord, it is you that we trust, it is you that we hope for, and it is in Jesus name that we pray. Amen.

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