Sunday’s sermon: Ultimate Power?


Text used – Esther 3

  • Continue with Esther’s story this week – funny little fictionally historical book in the OT
    • Been introduced to a whole host of characters at this point
      • King Ahasuerus – Persian king
      • Queen Vashti – banished after refusing to follow the king’s order
      • Palace eunuchs – special servants of the court who play a large role in day to day management and administration
      • Esther – Jewish girl (hiding her “family background and race”[1]) who so impressed eunuchs and King Ahasuerus that she becomes new queen
      • Mordecai – Esther’s cousin (like a father to Esther after her parents’ death)
    • Introduce final crucial character in today’s reading: Haman
      • Now, because this book of Esther is such a melodramatic book, I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but hear a soundtrack in my head as we read through this story.
        • Beginning feast/party scene = upbeat dance music pumping → fast-paced, solid rhythm
        • Vashti chooses to refuse king’s rude and degrading summons = suspense music → high string instruments and a dissonant sound (one that grates on your ears in all the right ways)
        • King Ahasuerus’ anger and Vashti’s banishment = loud, dramatic, explosive music → drums, deep and reverberating brass
        • Esther’s entrance = soft, light, melodic → flutes and mellow orchestra (think Disney princess or Peter’s theme from “Peter and the Wolf”)
        • Today’s part of the soundtrack – Haman’s entrance = villain music → ominous, forceful, minor key
      • You see, Haman is indeed our villain in this story. Every epic tale has to have a villain, an antagonist, someone who creates the conflict around which the story revolves. Enter Haman, Hammedatha the Agagite’s son.
        • Recently been promoted to position as one of the king’s closest advisors
          • Position that came with much power and public prestige – things that Haman obviously coveted and treasured
          • And there’s that overarching theme again. We talked about it in the first week and a little bit last week: POWER. Who has power? How is that power used? What kind of power is it really? Where does the ultimate power truly lie?
  • Today’s part of the story opens with the beginning of one of the major conflicts in the book of Esther: a clash between Haman and Mordecai. – text: All the royal workers at the King’s Gate would kneel and bow facedown to Haman because the king had so ordered. But Mordecai didn’t kneel or bow down. So the royal workers at the King’s Gate said to Mordecai, “Why don’t you obey the king’s order?” Day after day they questioned him, but he paid no attention to them. So they let Haman know about it just to see whether or not Mordecai’s words would hold true. (He had told them that he was a Jew.) When Haman himself saw that Mordecai didn’t kneel or bow down to him, he became very angry.[2]
    • Conflict = Haman’s thirst for power vs. Mordecai’s faith
      • Age-old story
        • England: Henry VIII, drunk on his infatuation with his mistress (Anne Boleyn) and the power of being the king, created his own church (Church of England) when Roman Catholic Church refused to grant him an annulment with his 1st wife, Catherine of Aragon → Power … versus faith.
        • More recent e.g. – emergence of “Confessing Church” during WWII[3] → Many of the Christians in Germany leading up to and during WWII belong to either the German Evangelical Church (Protestant) or the Roman Catholic Church, both of which could be called complacent in the face of Nazism at best, though many members of both churches – clergy and laypeople alike – openly supported the Nazi regime and ideology. But in the face of this growing movement of hate rose the Confessing Church, a church of resistance. “Its founding document, the Barmen Confession of Faith, declared that the church’s allegiance was to God and scripture, not a worldly Führer.”
          • Confession Church = persecuted to the point of eventually being driven underground
          • Most famous leaders: Martin Niemöller (spent 7 yrs. in concentration camp for his criticism of Hitler) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (executed for his role in conspiracy to overthrow Nazi regime) → Power … versus faith.
      • I’m sure we could come up with more examples, friends, but the point is that the clash between faith and ruling powers is not a new story, nor is it an anomalous one. → today’s Scripture reading – by order of the king, all are supposed to be bowing down to Haman but Mordecai refuses to do so
        • God to Moses on Mt. Sinai: I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me. Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the LORD your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.[4]
    • And not unlike King Henry VIII or Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, when Haman’s power is openly challenged, he reacts in a truly volatile and sweeping way. He tries to prove through the excessive exercise of his power that he is not one to be trifled with. – text: When Haman himself saw that Mordecai didn’t kneel or bow down to him, he became very angry. But he decided not to kill only Mordecai, for people had told him Mordecai’s race. Instead, he planned to wipe out all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.[5]
  • And so what does Haman do? Once again, as has become the pattern even this early on in the book of Esther, the easily-manipulated power of King Ahasuerus comes into play.
    • When it comes to villains, Haman = sneakiest, most dangerous kind
      • Not physically powerful or intimidating
      • No staggering arsenal of weapons, gadgets, biological agents, etc. (think: all villains from Batman series – all need something extraordinary to combat the Dark Knight)
      • Haman = intellectual villain → smart, manipulative, weaves words and suggestions and devious schemes like a net before he pounces – text: Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “A certain group of people exist in pockets among the other peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of everyone else, and they refuse to obey the king’s laws. There’s no good reason for the king to put up with them any longer. If the king wishes, let a written order be sent out to destroy them, and I will hand over ten thousand kikkars of silver to those in charge of the king’s business. The silver can go into the king’s treasuries.” The king removed his royal ring from his finger and handed it to Haman, Hammedatha the Agagite’s son, enemy of the Jews. The king said to Haman, “Both the money and the people are under your power. Do as you like with them.”[6] → Can’t you just picture this scene? Haman easing up to the king’s side … speaking his despicable plan in low and oily tones … keeping the look on his face as innocent and insipid as possible … feigning great reverence and deference as he played the king like a puppet. “There’s no good reason for the king to put up with them any longer. If the king wishes, let a written order to sent out to destroy them, and I will hand over ten thousand kikkars of silver.” Haman even graciously offers to pay for his evil!
  • And so it is done. King Ahasuerus dismissively gives his nod of approval to Haman’s genocidal plan, the orders are written up, and runners take the notice to all parts of the kingdom, posting them for all to read and see. And Haman, as you can imagine at this point, is quite pleased with himself. – text: While the king and Haman sat down to have a drink, the city of Susa was in total shock.[7] → This whole portion of our story today is about power.
    • Haman’s power
    • King Ahasuerus’ power
    • And God’s power → Yes, even though it is subtly implied, today’s passage is all about God’s power. It is because of his unwavering belief in God’s power that Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman in the first place, and through the hatching of and early implementation stages of his evil plan, Haman is directly challenging God’s power.
      • Summed up more than 2000 years later by Lord John Acton (familiar phrase): Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
      • Weight of recent history behind Haman’s overinflated sense of command → Persian empire = MASSIVE and formidable!
        • Boundaries: covered everything from northwest corner up in Greece down to southeast corner in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over to southwest corner in India and up to the northeast corner in China → MASSIVE area
        • Army both fierce and powerful enough to conquer Egypt, great Babylonian empire, and a number of the Greek city-states → all formidable cultures in and of themselves (not easily conquered)
    • Current context – history threatening to repeat itself → those in positions of power throughout our government – local, state, and national – who are not only seduced by the power that they hold but who are trying, through manipulations and media soundbytes and smear campaigns and back-room deals, to bend the will of the people to their own
      • Personal gain (financial, political)
      • Result: gridlock and disgraceful state of politics today – uncompromising, finger-pointing, and completely ineffectual → politics = swiftly becoming little more than power for power’s sake
    • Reminder: Esther is a book in which not only does God not “show up” (actively intervene in some way), but God isn’t even mentioned – makes this back-and-forth power struggle all the more difficult because it’s implied → However, it is exactly this struggle that also lends a level of credibility and reassurance to the faith side of the book of Esther. Let me ask you this: When you feel like you’re struggling against some sort of power in this world – could be at work, could be at home, could even be within yourself – do you ever turn to God? For strength? For reassurance? For encouragement? For guidance? In this implied power struggle in the book of Esther, we find our own power struggles. We don’t usually have any tangible evidence that God is actively intervening in our own struggles … and yet we believe. We turn to God. We seek out God because we know we cannot do it alone. Friends, that’s faith – putting our trust in the One who is unseen, unheard, unaccounted for … yet the One who’s overwhelming power created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, the One who’s power to heal and love and redeem was incarnate in a humble carpenter from the dead-end town of Nazareth, the One who’s power rushed through the disciples in wind and in flame and in one unifying message in a variety of languages, the One who was and is and is to come, the One who’s power was so all-encompassing that it shattered the finality of death for all time when Jesus rose from the grave and tossed aside his graveclothes. So tell me, friends. Remind me. Reassure me. Who has the ultimate power? Amen.

[1] Est 2:20.

[2] Est 3:2-5.

[3] “The German Churches and the Nazi State” from the Holocaust Encyclopedia via The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum webpage., last updated Jan. 29, 2016, accessed June 26, 2016.

[4] Ex 20:2-6.

[5] Est 3:5-6.

[6] Est 3:8-11.

[7] Est 3:15.