Esther and the Other: Where is God in All This?

The Book of Esther is an oddity in the canon. In fact, arguments have been made for centuries, among both Jewish and Christian scholars, for removing it from the Bible altogether. Why? Simply because it does not mention God once. In fact, Esther is the only book of the Bible that never once mentions God. The argument could be made for the Song of Solomon, but since that’s poetry, everyone kind of figures God is the one being addressed, and considers it theological love poetry. But Esther? Nowhere in the whole Book of Esther is God’s name mentioned. Nowhere does anyone pray, or refer to God, or the history of salvation, or the covenant, or, well, anything theological. Instead, Esther is a book about living as a minority among people who wish you harm. Esther is a book about remaining faithful to who you are, when you surrounded by temptations to be someone else. And I think it is a deeply theological book that never mentions God, because Esther is a book about how absent God sometimes feels when we are faced with the difficult decisions, the harsh realities, the violence and the brutality of life. The Book of Esther never mentions God once, and that in itself is a powerful statement about our experience of God in our own lives.

In fact, Esther is a very Advent sort of book, and it fits this Advent season. While most of the world is already diving headlong into Christmas, we Christians come to church specifically to remind ourselves that it is not Christmas yet, not yet, not yet. So we read passages that remind us that the main thing that we know is that we don’t know. We don’t know when, we don’t know how, we don’t even know approximately where. We don’t know any of the specifics about this expected arrival. All we know is to expect it. And for some reason, we have decided, as a capital-C Church, as an entire faith tradition, that this idea of waiting in expectation, this pregnant pause in the otherwise hustle and bustle life, is important enough for us to spend an entire month, 1/12 of our worship time, just waiting.

But it’s not the only time we wonder when God will show up. Or question where God is.

Where was God when the people of Israel were being driven into exile and dispersed across the world?

Where was God when Jerusalem fell?

Where was God when Esther was forced into sexual slavery in the harem of the king?

Where was God when Ebola began to spread in Liberia and Sierra Leone?

Where was God when ISIS moved into the power vacuum in Iraq and Syria?

Where was God when Michael Brown lay dead on the pavement for 4 1/2 hours?

When Eric Garner was struggling for breath?

When Ferguson was burning?

Where was God when race became a death sentence and rape became a right of passage in our universities?

Where was God when the diagnosis came?

When your spouse, your parent, your friend, your child, was sick, or dying?

When the phone rang in the middle of the night?

When the money ran out?

When the love ran sour?

When you just couldn’t face another day?

Where was God?

This is the question that the Book of Esther asks. A diaspora people, spread across the world, unable to worship their God in their homeland anymore. Where was God? Only in the Temple in Jerusalem? Only in the Holy of Holies, where only the priests can go? Where is God? Only in a book, or a building, or on a distant cloud up in the sky?

We take a month out of every year to practice Advent, to practice waiting, to make our worship about waiting. Because we live these Advent questions every day.

But we wait, knowing the answer. We wait in the already-but-not-yet of an answer given and a promise made. It is not the answer we demand. It is not God arriving on fire and storm, bringing down vengeance on the world, wielding armies and ruling by force. Instead the answer comes in a manger, in a stable, in a vulnerable and fragile baby. Not in a mighty Temple on the mountaintop, but in the tent and tabernacle of a human life.

Where was God? The answer is always and every time, God is here. Emmanuel. God is here, God is with us. The problem is that we have a hard time seeing it, because God is so often here, looking at us out of the eyes of another person, a person who is different from us, someone who needs our compassion and our love, someone who needs God’s kindness and justice. No matter where you stand, God is always calling you to stand just across the way, to stand with the Other. God was with Esther and every other victim of human trafficking, calling us to come across the boundary and stand with them. God was with the Jews in exile, in every part of the world. God is with the people of west Africa, with the sick and the dying, inviting us to stand with them as they seek wholeness and wellness. God struggled to breathe alongside Eric Garner, and God lay in the street with Michael Brown. God was with the people of Ferguson as their city burned, and God was crying out in the streets as the people lamented. God is with the police officers who protect and serve, and with the people who call for accountability.

Let’s face it, race is a problem in this country. And it will continue to be a problem as long as we look at each other across the divide. When 91% of white people in America don’t have a single African-American friend, 91%!, how do we think we’re going to understand the experience of other people? How do we think we’re going to experience the kind of justice that God calls us to, justice that consists of kindness and compassion and relationship?

But race is not the only place we experience that divide. And I’m not even talking about the so-called issues, like gender and sexuality and religious affiliation. You know that divide first-hand. It spans the distance between us and the people we love. It builds walls to protect us from grief and pain, and it prevents us from truly knowing and loving one another. It grows with illness or addiction or distractedness or just time. But that divide surrounds us all.

And Every time, God is just across the way, calling us into relationship, calling us into mercy (remember that Hebrew word hesed?), calling us to cross the boundaries and stand with the Other.

It is not an easy call. Esther balked at it. Mordecai asked her to stand with her people, to plead for mercy from the king, and she was afraid. She was going to have to risk something, maybe even her life, to take a stand. Yes, she wanted mercy and justice, but at what cost? Yes, we want God to come down, to prove God’s presence, to bring justice (but on our terms, please), and to pass judgment (but preferably on someone else). But at what cost will we look to God’s justice, God’s judgment? What are we willing to give up for God’s kingdom to reign, here, among us?

This is what Mordecai demands of Esther, in what is generally believed to be the one and only oblique reference to God in this entire book. “If you keep silent, relief and deliverance will arise from another quarter.” In other words, “If you don’t act, God will still be here, God will still bring us through. But you, you will be on the wrong side of history.” Silence is violence. Not to speak out against injustice is to condone it.

We long for God to make everything right. We wonder where God is in the darkest times of our lives. And in the meantime, God is right in front of us, looking at us through the eyes of the other, and inviting us to cross the boundaries, to tear down the walls, to walk in God’s ways. Calling us to action, to speech, to repentance for our own ignorance and complicity.

And knowing how hard this is for us; knowing how we just can’t get there, no matter how we try; knowing that we will always be afraid to take the risk, afraid of failing, afraid of looking ignorant or broken or just plain wrong; afraid afraid afraid; God shows us the path. God comes into the world to be among us, as a vulnerable, fragile, breakable human being, as Jesus Christ, born in a stable, laid in a manger, living as one of us. And dying as one of us, broken and beaten falsely accused, unarmed, and hanging on a cross. This is where we find God, in Christ on the cross. And this cross becomes our path. It forms the bridge between us and everything that we do not understand. It lays down over the barbed wire and the moats and spans the gaps and scales the walls that we build to protect ourselves. Because of the cross, we cannot hide behind our own comfort, our own fear, or our own sense of entitlement or righteousness. The cross is where we find God, because God was put there by human fear, entitlement, and righteousness. It strips us bear and insists that we cannot use God as an excuse not to act, not to speak, not to insist on change.

The Book of Esther forces the question: Where is God? Where do we find God, when the world seems to be going crazy around us?

And the cross of Christ answers. God is with us. Emmanuel. And in case you were still not sure, the Holy Spirit drew you to the waters of baptism, and made you a part of the Body of Christ, so that when you see another, an Other, in pain, grieving, oppressed, crying out, you might recognize that Other as a part of yourself. And if that were not enough, if you still can’t get there, you have been given this Table, where every week you are invited to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, to take God’s very body into yourself, where it becomes a part of you. Where it frees you from whatever was holding you back, from your fear and your worry. So that you can freely cross that boundary, and meet whoever is on the other side, and meeting them, meet Christ again. Recognize the Christ who stands in front of you, who looks at you out of the eyes of the Other, who calls you to live God’s hesed, to share God’s love, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.

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