Where’s God?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 18B, September 30, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

How can a book that never mentions God’s name end up in the canon of Scripture? That is the question the confronts us in our OT lesson this morning. The book of Esther never once mentions God by name. What are we to make of that and how does it relate to the baptism we will celebrate in a little while? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

The book of Esther is unique in all the Bible because not once in its ten chapters is God’s name mentioned. Despite this curious fact, God is very much present in the lives of his exiled people. We see it in the circumstances of the story which are loaded with “coincidences,” an oxymoron if there ever was one. We see God’s activity in the lives of God’s people and even God’s enemies to bring about their rescue from certain annihilation. Consider these examples. An uppity queen who paves the way for Esther to become Xerxes’ queen. A king’s attendant who takes a special liking to Esther that is crucial to her becoming queen. Esther’s cousin Mordecai who thwarts a plot to kill the king by being at the right place at the right time, but who is a forgotten man in the king’s eyes. A wicked advisor who plots the destruction of God’s people  because of his hatred toward Mordecai and who rapidly becomes a favorite of the king. A restless night of sleep for the king that leads to his remembering Mordecai and ultimately leads to the reversal of fortune for Mordecai and Haman. The courage of Esther who risked her life for her people to expose the wickedness of Haman and his evil scheme to destroy God’s people. No, God’s name is never mentioned in the story but God is everywhere present in the circumstances and lives of his people to bring about their redemption! That is why throughout history the book of Esther has not been read as an isolated event in Jewish history but as symbolizing the final salvation of God’s people at the end of time (the eschaton).

This should be enormously encouraging to us as Christians who labor under God’s good but cursed and often-confusing world. The story of Esther reminds us that there are forces of Evil in this world that God has mysteriously and enigmatically allowed to usurp his rightful reign—but only to a degree. God is still Sovereign and ultimately in charge of his world. Despite appearances to the contrary, sometimes to an almost overwhelming degree, the story of Esther reminds us that God is in charge and is working to free his people from the power of Evil. 

St. Mark tells us essentially the same thing when he talks about casting out demons. His message? The forces of Evil and their human minions are indeed active in God’s world. We are at war and have been since human rebellion got us expelled from paradise. But the evil powers do not have free reign. God is still Sovereign. The evil powers must submit to Jesus and in doing so, God’s people find protection and respite from the havoc they wreak. Most of us do not perceive this war raging on with our human senses, but the war is real nevertheless as we all can attest because we all have experienced Evil in our lives. The story of Esther reminds us that God cares for his people, in part, through human agency, just like God did when he rescued his people through the actions of Esther and Mordecai, just like he does when we give a follower of Christ a cup of water or when we pray for healing for the sick. We want to push back at this claim because it strains against our sense of how the “real world” works. “How can that be,” we ask? “How can my small actions be of any importance to God?” Nowhere does Scripture answer that “how does it all work” question. It just reassures us that our actions do matter and are an important part in this ongoing war with Evil as God and his people fight against its forces. This claim about the importance of human agency should make sense to us, given that God created us in his image to run God’s world on his behalf. Why wouldn’t God work through human agency to help reestablish his kingdom on earth as in heaven? The forces of Evil certainly use human minions to impose their chaos on God’s good world and people! So why wouldn’t God use humans as agents to spread his goodness, love, mercy, and justice? Make no mistake. We don’t bring in the Kingdom. God does. But God calls us to do our part in the war against Evil. That is why it is so important that we order our lives according to God’s laws and God’s ordering of his creation. Otherwise, we help the enemy; and as Jesus himself warned us in our gospel lesson, that will result in God’s fearsome judgment on us. There will be no Evil and evildoers, human or otherwise, in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth (Rev 21.1-8).

This is why we must take seriously the underlying theme of the story of Esther with its proclamation that despite the presence of Evil and evildoers like Haman in God’s world, God works through the circumstances of life, chaotic as those circumstances can be, and through all kinds of people, to bring about salvation for God’s people. Every time we see Evil defeated, every time we see the sick healed, every time we see mercy extended or God’s justice carried out like we see in the story of Esther, we are reminded that these are signs meant to help us believe that God is busy at work rescuing his people from Evil, Sin, and Death. Esther reveals for those with ears to hear that life and death are determined by identification with a people—God’s people Israel in the OT and God’s people Israel reconstituted around Jesus Christ in the NT that includes both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2.14-18). We as God’s people in Christ are therefore called to embrace the promise that in Jesus Christ we are rescued from our sin and folly and ultimately from death itself because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us. The eschatological reality of eternal life for God’s people foreshadowed in the celebration of Purim is fully realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We live because Jesus lives and because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Not even our mortal death can prevent this promise from being fulfilled or separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord (John 14.19, 11.25-26; Romans 8.31-39)! Amen? Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection our destiny has been reversed from death to life, this against all human expectation, and we as Christians find in Christ God’s ultimate promise to protect us from death. Those of us who are God’s people in Christ will be delivered from death and live forever, just as our Lord Jesus was, thanks be to God! 

This means that even in the darkest circumstances of our life when joy is far from our hearts and everything looks dark, just as it did for Esther and her people before she confronted Haman in front of the king, we are assured of our current good standing with God and our final destiny in God’s new world because of the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross. Our sins are forgiven and we are being transformed into new creations by the power of God’s Spirit who lives in us and who makes the presence of our risen Lord a reality for us. That is why we can face even the darkest times with hope as God’s people. We live now and will live forever because Christ lives now and lives forever. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ that we profess. Without it, life is bleak indeed. With it, we have power to overcome the worst the forces of Evil can throw at us because Jesus is Lord and they are not.

In a moment we will baptize Tori into God’s family and into this breathtaking promise. She will receive the Holy Spirit and be made holy and pure to serve her Lord all the days of her life. Her parents will promise on her behalf to raise her in ways that will open the way for Jesus to be alive and present in her. We see none of this directly and we acknowledge we are dealing with a holy and awesome mystery. But we don’t have to “see” the Holy Spirit because like the story of Esther, we trust in the promise that baptism will accomplish what it promises, even when we cannot perceive its invisible reality—after all, that’s why we call it a sacrament—and our faith in the power and presence of the Spirit causes us to say, “Amen.”  Believe and trust in that promise, my beloved. Embrace your identification as a member of God’s people in Jesus Christ and be refreshed by God’s love, mercy, and grace that allows you to have membership in his holy family now and forever. Let it sustain you in your darkest hour and let it change you so that God can always use you as a force for his good in a world that desperately needs all the good it can get. When you do, you will be participating in the Good News of Jesus Christ, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.