Sunday’s sermon: The Remembrance of Christmas Past

Text used – Esther 4:1-17

  • Last week, we reacquainted ourselves with Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas character Ebenezer Scrooge and talked about the power of hope even when we think that hope cannot be found. This week, we move forward in our Advent journey together and in our journey through Scrooge’s tale together by encountering the Ghost of Christmas Past and considering this idea of the past – and of making peace with the past – through what might be an unexpected Scriptural lens: the story of Esther.
    • Reminder of the basics of Esther’s story
      • King Ahashuerus = King of Persia → ruled a huge swath of land – “from India to Cush – one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all[1],” according to Scripture
        • Basically the entire Middle East (minus the Arabian Peninsula, or modern day Saudi Arabia and all the small surrounding countries there) as well as Turkey, Greece, and much of southeastern Europe including parts of Italy and Austria → This is a HUGE area, folx!
      • At the culmination of a week-long drunken party with all his officials, Ahashuerus calls his beautiful queen, Vashti, to come display her beauty before all the assembled guests (the male guests, of course, because the women had their own party) → implication: she was supposed to come completely unclothed → not surprisingly, Vashti refuses the king’s request and is subsequently banished from the kingdom forevermore
      • King Ahashuerus seeks out a new queen → chooses Esther, unaware of the fact that Esther is a Jew
      • Meanwhile Haman, one of the king’s main advisors, is plotting to get rid of all the Jews – to completely wipe them out! – because they refused to bow down and worship the king and his officials → particularly offended by Esther’s cousin and guardian, Mordecai
      • Mordecai learns of Haman’s plot and turns to his cousin, Esther, the new queen for help = today’s passage → And truly, there is no mistaking the gravity of this situation in Esther. – text: When Mordecai learned what had been done, he tore his clothes, dressed in mourning clothes, and put ashes on his head. Then he went out into the heart of the city and cried out loudly and bitterly.[2]
        • “When Mordecai learned what had been done” … What had been done? – just prior to today’s text: Fast runners were to take the order to all the provinces of the king (all 127 provinces, remember). The order commanded people to wipe out, kill, and destroy all the Jews, both young and old, even women and little children. This was to happen on a single day – the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month of Adar). They were also to seize their property. A copy of the order was to become law in each province and to be posted in public for all peoples to read. The people were to be ready for this day to do as the order commanded. Driven by the king’s order the runners left Susa just as the law became public in the fortified part of Susa. While the king and Haman sat down to have a drink, the city of Susa was in total shock.[3] → Certainly explains Mordecai’s reaction, doesn’t it? Even more so when we remember that it was because of his own refusal to bow down to Haman that drew the vain and hateful official’s attention and wrath upon the Jews to begin with.
    • Today’s passage = Mordecai reversing his previous instruction to Esther that she keep her Jewish identity a secret → Now, in the face of this dire and desperate threat, Mordecai is imploring Esther to use the power of her position and the truth of her heritage to save the lives of all the Jews from India to Cush. But Esther is afraid.
      • Afraid of the king’s seemingly fickle anger
      • Afraid for her own personal safety
      • Afraid because of the precedent sent by the king’s actions in the past → banishing Vashti for refusing him … for making him look like a fool → What would he do to a new queen to interrupted his business when she wasn’t called?
  • That place where the past affects the actions of the present = where our Scripture story and Scrooge’s story intersect this morning → While Esther hovers in that place of uncertainty – will she let her feelings from the past inhibit her actions in the present – we turn to the example of one who most definitely let the hurts of the past inhibit his entire being: Ebenezer Scrooge.
    • Ghost of Christmas Past first takes Scrooge to his childhood where Scrooge is reminded of how solitary and lonely his childhood is
    • Next stop = spirit takes Scrooge to his youth
      • Apprenticeship with Fezziwig in a counting house as unlike Scrooge’s own as can be
        • Fezziwig is kind, jovial, and generous
        • Roaring fire warms the entire room
        • Fezziwig dismisses his apprentices early on Christmas Eve with holiday blessings → dismisses them to a lavish Christmas party hosted by Fezziwig himself and his wife
      • Scene in which Scrooge’s fiancé Bell breaks their engagement, pointing out how Scrooge’s greed has consumed everything in him, leaving no room for love or for her
        • [read from Stave Two]: 

          “Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”

          “Have I ever sought release?”

          “In words? No. Never.”

          “In what, then?”

          “In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us,” said the girl, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no!” …

          “You may — the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will — have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen.”

          She left him, and they parted.

    • Final scene = more recent interaction between Bell and her current husband in which she is reminiscing about her former fiancé, Scrooge → her husband’s response: Scrooge is “quite alone in the world”
      • This final scene proves too much for Scrooge. He begs the Ghost of Christmas Past to take him back to his bed, eventually seizing the spirit’s hat himself and shoving it firmly onto the spirit’s head, extinguishing his mystical light and returning Scrooge immediately to his own bed. He is back in the same place … but even after just this first encounter, he is no longer the same person.
    • Rawle’s synopsis: Scrooge comes face to face with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and in doing so, he is reminded of things that have happened to him in the past. These remembrances bring him both joy and pain, but they help remind him of who he was and from where he came.[4] → We are told outright that Scrooge’s greed is one of the main sources of his current, joyless, miserable state. Over and over again, Dickens drives home just how miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is – how he hoards his money and constantly counts his money and places his money at the heart of his whole existence. But through this first visitation, we also get some insight into another element that has frozen Scrooge’s heart: rejection and the loneliness that comes from it.
      • Rejected by his friends
      • Punished by his father for the frivolity of simply being a child → sent away to school and forbidden to return home until many years have passed
      • Ultimately rejected by his fiancé when it became clear that his love and desire money had eclipsed his love and desire for her companionship
      • Time and time again, Scrooge is left alone. And we’ve all been left alone at some point, haven’t we? We know how painful that is. We know how empty loneliness feels. And when that loneliness comes not by our own bidding or our own actions but by the rejection of others, it can be even more painful – painful enough to freeze a heart and turn a soul’s focus entirely to something concrete that can be physically counted and piled high and hoarded … something like money. His past is no excuse for Scrooge’s meanness and spiteful behavior. But it is the beginning of an explanation.
  • In a way, Esther receives her own convicting and persuasive soliloquy similar to the speech that Bell delivers to Scrooge. In her speech, Bell is trying to make Scrooge see the reality of the way things are. We don’t know whether she’s just saying things to make her point or whether she’s actually trying to persuade Scrooge to change – to return to her. But in Esther’s case, things are much clearer.
    • Esther expresses her reluctance to go before the king unbidden because of the past → king’s anger at her unexpected intrusion could mean banishment or even death
    • But in the face of this reluctance, Mordecai does not mince words: Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace. In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.[5] → Mordecai is clearly and boldly calling Esther to action and is also making it just as clear that, if she chooses to let her fear and uncertainty make her decisions and she chooses not to help save her people, salvation will come from some other quarter, but because of her inaction, it will not come for her. In this, Mordecai displays an incredible and unwavering faith in God. The question is will Esther do the same?
      • Ultimately, Esther chooses to act → results in the salvation of all the Jews as well as revealing Haman’s scheming and bringing down punishment for that scheming
  • The fact is inescapable, friends, that we are creatures formed and informed by our pasts. Our pasts cannot be changed, no matter how deeply we wish it. We can go over and over and over past conversations and past actions, thing again and again about what we could have said or what we should have done, but that doesn’t change what has already happened.
    • Rawle: For good or ill, our memories shape who we are, and these memories offer us a default picture of what the world is and our role within it.[6]
    • Question: How will we let that past – those memories – shape us? → Will we let them inspire us? Will we let them give us both wisdom and courage to do better next time? Or will we let them eat away at us, slowly making our hearts bitter, our spirits suspicious, and our minds judgmental? Will we let God open our eyes to the ways in which we are called to do and be in the face of all that is going on around us, or will we let the barbs of the past hold us back and even derail us from the purpose to which we are called?
      • Rawle: We are not called to be perfect so much as we are perfectly suited with a gift through which we respond to God’s grace. Scrooge is beginning to realize how the person he is doesn’t look much like the person he once was. His bitterness has consumed any hint of love or joy he once knew. In a way, he’s been walking down a path not intended for him to tread – he is not living the perfect plan for his life. I am not perfect, and neither are you, but we are perfectly made to follow Christ. → With all our past decisions, our past triumphs, and our past mistakes … still, we are perfectly made to follow Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Est 1:1.

[2] Est 4:1.

[3] Est 3:13-15.

[4] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 50.

[5] Est 4:13-14.

[6] Rawle, 54.