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A Beauty's Story

Sermon passage: (Esther 2:1-23) Spoken on: January 18, 2010
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Elder Lui Yook Cing
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Esther

Tags: Esther, 以斯帖记

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About Elder Lui Yook Cing: Elder Lui was a pastor in Jubilee Church and served in a mission organisation. She is a church elder now who continues to serve in Jubilee Church in various ministries.

Sermon on Esther 2:1-23

China has four beauties – Xi Shi, Zhao Jun, Diao Chan and Gui Fei. Israel’s history also has her beauties and their stories – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Esther. The book of Esther has all the ingredients of a good tale – exotic palace, beautiful heroine, suspense and happy ending.

Nevertheless I used to be quite annoyed with story, especially when I reach chapter 2. I find Esther outrageously compliant. It appears she attained her status not by meritocracy but by looks and undeserved favoritism. She wasn’t forthright about her identity as if she was ashamed of her humble background. Mordecai was a tell-tale who tipped off the king about the assassination. I thought the Jews were supposed to heroically revolt against the hostile Persian regime!? Instead Mordecai and Esther protected a womanizer ruler.

1. Harem Politics – Esther bids favor
Esther’s people were descendents of a defeated nation, now scattered throughout the Persian empire. Though not explicitly persecuted, they were not particularly well-liked, just tolerated. After a few generations, some Jews hid their identity to dissociate from social prejudice and stereotype. As Asians we can relate to that. With globalization there has been massive numbers of Asians relocating to other places, mainly for economic reasons. We all face the dilemma of trying to fit in. On one hand we desires to remain true to our original cultural and racial practices. At the same time we want to fully integrate into the new community. We see Esther readily dropping her Hewbrew name Hadassa for a Persian name, signaling a willingness to adopt new ways of life.

Three years have passed since the Persian empire lost her Queen. The king has been publicly humiliated by his wife’s disobedience. Now he wants to find someone better than Queen Vashti. Surely beauty and virginity alone were not what the king and his male-dominance empire look for. They want a girl who is inexperienced in every way, who embodies total submission, who will never challenge authorities. None of the beauties were asked whether they wish to love the king. They are to give up their personal aspirations to serve a stranger holds power over their destiny. And he has unpredictable moods. If she doesn’t succeed to please him in one fateful night, the poor girl will spend the rest of her life in rejection and loneliness, in the palace harem. This is some kind of institutionalized rape. Add to this misery, the palace is filled with other scheming men each advancing his own agenda.

We are not told much about Esther. The only significant description her beauty – great figure and lovely features. Whether she was pious or deceptively ambitious, we do not know. Beauty ushers her into the king’s harem. Beauty – as with all other desirable God-given talents and skills – is both an asset and liability for the person who possesses it. It depends on how we make use of these gifts.
As we read further, we discover that beauty was not what made Esther stood out. There was something else. She had this uncanny ability to please people, win over their favor, including the enemy’s! In the Talmud, Rabbi Judah compares Esther to a sculpture – in which a thousand people may look at, each person seething something that he personally admires. Upon arrival at the harem, Esther immediately gained the favor of the chief eunuch (2:9), then everyone else she met (2:11). Finally even the king was taken in. Surely it can’t be the beauty factor alone. How else would you explain the attraction by eunuchs and envious beauties? Perhaps it has to something to do with Esther’s submissiveness. In hostile environment where power struggle is intense, non-compliance won’t go down well with those in power. Instead, a non-threatening stance appeals to competitors. By retreating, Esther actually advanced her own cause.

But perhaps Esther wasn’t totally naïve or passive. One incident reveals her skillfulness and subtlety in winning favor. 2:15ff When Esther was given the chance to ask for anything to bring to the king, she “asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch advised.” Was she really a woman with no mind and will of her own? Maybe, maybe not. As it happens, she succeeded in convincing others that she has only their best interests at heart. Ultimately, this quality advanced her to become the Queen. She is now potentially powerful.

2. Background politics – Mordecai bids favor
There is another interesting character in this story – Mordecai. He too is quietly bidding favor, though not immediately successful. Again we know nothing much about Mordecai, apart that he is a Jew. This makes him no different from the virgins in the harem. He is equally defenseless and vulnerable as them before the mighty Persian powers. When the state demands beautiful girls, he lets Esther be taken, despite foreseeing a life of misery and degradation ahead for the girl. We will never fully understand the reasons for his actions. Perhaps he couldn’t see any better alternatives for the situation at hand.

But we can tell that that Mordecai did not resign pessimistically to his lot in life. We find him actively involved in state affairs. 2:19, by the time of Esther’s coronation, Mordecai was in the habit of “sitting in the king’s gate”. This is the place where people who wish to meet the king gather. All kinds of people hang around there, hoping for a lucky break to gain a hearing with the king. It is a place of politicking, lobbying and networking. Mordecai has intentionally placed himself in a strategic place to gather useful intelligence. Sure enough, he got wind about an assassination coup involving the king’s bodyguards. Mordecai tips off Esther, who then informs the king. As a result, the king’s rule was preserved.
Surely this is not without risks. In such unpredictable and aggressive political games, which side you are seen to stand with ultimately determines your survival and destiny. If the coup had succeeded, Mordecai would go down with the deposed king. Why then did Mordecai support king Ahasuerus? Very likely, the way Mordecai sees it, the current king is still the lesser evil compared to those that might replace him, knowing who those conspirators were. At least king Ahasuerus did not oppress the Jewish community. Mordecai had to stick his neck out to take a stand. Non-committed and ‘don’t care’ attitudes won’t do. Even as he does so, he does not know for certain that something would come out of his actions. Indeed, the king promptly forgot about him and there was no immediate reward. Still, Mordecai continues to make his presence felt in the king’s courtyard day and night. He maintains contact with Esther and gives her counsel. For the moment, the only wise thing to do appears to be to support those in power, whilst continually accumulating some measure of favor from them. This may eventually tip the scale and come in useful when the time and necessity arises.

3. Which master? Whose favor?
I became increasingly less annoyed as I try to understand the characters’ predicament. I have since realized that many things in life are not always straightforward. Even what we normally take for granted as good or bad, right or wrong.

Mordecai and Esther did what seemed appropriate and best in their understanding. On the surface both were serving the Persian king. One offered her body; the other offered his intelligence service. They gave him what he needed in return for his attention. In truth, Mordecai’s master was himself. He had his own agenda that probably involves protecting his immediate family. Esther, on the other hand, was devotedly loyal to Mordecai. She was indebted to him for taking care of him.

If you have watched the recent movie “Bodyguards and Assassins” there was a character in the story that exhibited same quality of devoted loyalty. This is a simple rickshaw man (portrayed by Nicholas Tse). He didn’t understand the profound ideals of his masters, what higher ambitions and motivations they harbor. His was doggedly focused on ensuring the safety and welfare of his master’s family. In that movie, the rickshaw man ultimately sacrificed his life to save to save his master’s son. In doing so, unknowingly, he actually served a higher worthy cause.

Esther obeys all that Mordecai say to protect his interests. In the harem, she obeys the chief eunuch to help him succeed in his task. In the palace, she obeys the king to protect his status of husband and king. Esther has incredible capacity to obey others, but sadly not all her masters have her best interests at heart. At this juncture, I don’t find any of the characters truly admirable. Yet this is a story that the characters develop with time and life events. Circumstances will soon demand that they go beyond self-preservation. They will realize that their welfare cannot be aloofly detached from the real needs of their people. They will be tested and stretched to discover their true potential in faith, courage and wisdom. There is a greater purpose to live for, a worthier master they should serve. Here we see the major difference between serving a human or divine master: human masters make us work for them; but God works in and through his servants and transform them inside out. Eventually Esther and Mordecai will learn that all their talents, cleverness and painstaking planning may avail to nothing if they never seek and possess God’s favor in all their endeavors.

We all tend to operate apart from God. We develop our own unique way of achieving things by ourselves. Some people depend on their intellectual abilities and powers of persuasion, others on their determination and hard work. Some rely own their charm and personality; others on pleasing people and being popular. There are as many sources of human strength as there are individuals. It is important that we become aware of the ways in which we are tempted to act independently of God, and ask for discernment about the sources of our own natural strength. Eventually Esther and Mordecai will learn that all their talents, cleverness and painstaking planning may avail to nothing if they never seek and possess God’s favor in all their endeavors.

Seasons of Soul – Responding to the Divine Gardener
Esther is a story, not a sermon. I cannot give you point-by-point applications. But I am sure we can identify with some of the predicaments they faced. As I refrain from judging Mordecai and Esther’s actions prematurely, I am also learning to withhold presumptuous condemnations on others. We all go through different seasons of our spiritual journey. If we fail to discern and understand how God works at any given season of our souls, we may be confused by what is happening or not happening in our lives. Read poem: For my soul there is a season by Barbara Parson. Elaborate about how God may work differently in response to in various “seasons” of our souls. All this for the purpose of ensuring consistent and enduring fruitfulness in our lives.)

Spring: period of beginnings, promise, rapid growth. E.g. new initiatives, ministries, status etc. Full of hope and enthusiasm. If unattended, may grow wild.
Summer: time where growth enters maturity. But also a time of hardships and trials: heat, drought, attacks by “enemies” e.g. parasites, weeds. Left uncared plant may wither. Nevertheless, hardships are needed for plant to mature.
Autumn: time of harvest and celebration; our fruits reflect how we have farmed the past year. Faithful diligent work yields abundant harvest. If we have neglected our responsibilities, harvest will be small and of low quality.
Winter: time of rest. Looks like nothing is happening; no busyness of “work”. But in truth this period critical for plant to store up nourishment in preparation for another season of fruitfulness.

For my soul there is a season:
A time for renewal.
For passion;
For quick and sudden growth;
For budding and blossoming.
Then God must tame my wildness,
Lest strength be expended
With the passing of spring.
For my soul there is a season:
A time of fullness;
Of beauty;
Establishing and affirming;
The promise of all good things.
But of danger too,
From the enemy’s attack
To spoil and destroy
All that summer brings.
For my soul there is a season:
A time for fruitfulness;
Full bodied;
Ripening and bountiful;
Harvesting and rejoicing.
When hope becomes experience.
God’s blessing is poured out
And the rich fruits of autumn
Are gathered in.
For my soul there is a season:
A time of bleak darkness:
Cold winter.
When life fills with sadness
And all hope lies dying.
But do not fear
The silence of winter.
For it does not speak of death,
Only of waiting.

The cycle of seasons repeat: same tasks and happenings. It is not about producing a good harvest once, but of repeating it year on year. The farmer desires that his vineyard enjoys succeeding years of fruitfulness. Likewise, God’s work in our lives in an ongoing process. The passage of time will see a growing spiritual maturity in us as we respond cooperatively to His working within and outside of us.

I am reminded of Jesus’ words: “I am the vine, you are the branches. And my father is the gardener.” We delight in Jesus’ affirmation “my father is the gardener.” There is strength and security in the knowledge that our heavenly father, the divine gardener, is always present and actively involved in each season of our souls. He protects, he cares and disciplines to draw out the best in us, in order to bring our lives to maturity and abundant fruitfulness. This is the ultimate goal of His tireless hard work, the reason for his endless patience. This is so for Mordecai and Esther. This is so for us. Let us pray.
Tony Horsfall, A Fruitful Life – Abiding in Christ as seen in John 15 (BRF, Singapore 2006).