First Reading Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm Response Psalm 124
Second Reading James 5:13-20
Gospel Reading Mark 9:38-50
Sermon “With God: There is no such thing as coincidence”
An old saying, puts it this way: “A coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.” Scripture is full of such incidents if we care to look for them. Take the story of Joseph for instance, a spoiled brat if there ever was one, so despised by his brothers that they had decided to kill him, when a merchant caravan traveling to Egypt happened along and they sold him off to slavery instead. Events proceeded to put him in place to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and be made prime minister of all of Egypt, just in time to preserve his family from famine and provide a place for them to grow into a great nation. Lucky chance that he was in the right place at the right time? No, it was the providence of God.
Some four hundred year later, we could consider the story of Moses. His mother hid him in the reeds of the Nile to escape Pharaoh’s threat against Hebrew male infants. He just happened to be found by none other than Pharaoh’s own daughter, and so he was raised in Pharaoh’s house, nursed and cared for by his own mother. Later he would be called by God to lead the nation to freedom in the promised land. Was it random chance that he was so prepared for leadership? No. of course not. We could go on and on speaking of God’s providence, preparing the way and lovingly leading his people whether they understood or not.
Sometimes God has been visible in a mighty way, wondrous miracles where the lame leap for joy, the blind can suddenly see, the dead are raised or fire flashes from heaven, but much more often, he is subtle and unseen. Particularly where faith is weak or even absent, God works still, but in a different way to accomplish his purposes.
The historical situation of Our story this morning is interesting in itself and speaks of the mighty power of God’s providence – that is God moving in the background using nations and people to accomplish his will, even if they do not realize it at the time. The story of Esther takes place late in the Exile of the nation of Israel, years before the Kingdom of Babylon, under Nebuchadnezzar had conquered the nation of Judah and carried most of the citizens away to exile and captivity as foretold by the prophets because of their disobedience and Idolatry. After many years, Babylon had in turn been conquered by the Persians. Under King Cyrus, some of the Jews had already returned to the land of Israel with Zerubbabal, but most had stayed where they had lived for over 70 years. Later more would return under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, but still many never went back at all.
Even though they had not rushed back to their homeland at the first opportunity, God still cared for them – this is the time of Esther. The Persian empire was at its zenith, occupying land from India to Ethiopia and even threatening Greece. God is never explicitly mentioned in the book of Esther. God does not speak or act in any visible way the story. There are no burning bushes; no parting of the sea. And yet, by the end of the book, God’s people are saved and their enemies are defeated.
One of the important points that Esther teaches is the wonderful faithfulness of God. If God was so faithful and merciful to Israel, even there in a foreign land, even after they had the opportunity to go back home and did not, then surely God will be gracious to us no matter where our life has taken us. Many times in our lives we will find ourselves outside of the will of God, but never outside of his love. There is good reason to be reminded of ourselves in this story. We too will often be able to see God’s hand only in the rearview mirror, after the events have gone by, but it is never too late to say thank you by the way.
Recall just how Esther’s people were saved. Those Jews living in the Persian empire were not saved through some direct miraculous intervention, but rather, they were saved through the wisdom and courage of Esther and Mordecai AND the providential hand of God. Remember what Mordecai said to Esther when he asked her to go to the King on behalf of her people? “Who knows? he said, “Perhaps you have come to your royal position for just such a time as this”. Well there were certainly a lot a special circumstances in this story weren’t there. Mordecai just happened to overhear those two villains plotting to kill the king. The king just happened to have trouble falling asleep on that critical night and the scribe just happened to open the record to that unrecognized good deed. And of course, The natural beauty of Esther happened to be just what the king wanted in his new queen. All of this however, was merely putting the pieces in place. Esther still had to have the courage to face the king uninvited and reveal that she too was a Jewess in order for the salvation of the the Jews in Persia to be accomplished.
Courage is often required to follow God’s call. One example might be the courage to stand your ground and be recognized as different, not like everybody else. Remember Mordecai bravely refused to bow to Haman. The book of Esther doesn’t explain very well, but the Jews would not bow down to either man or graven image. That devotion was reserved for God alone. So, like Daniel before him, he refused to take the easy way out and just give Haman a little bow. So what about us? Do we trust the providence of God to put us in the right place at the right time so that we can be of service in his kingdom? Do we trust in his goodness and righteousness enough to live lives that are distinctive and recognizably different from the sick and broken world that we live in.
It is very tempting to crave certainty. If only God would make it plain and obvious! Everyday life would be so much simpler. A burning bush every now and then would be great to set us on the right path. But instead we usually live in Esther’s world. Big, powerful, scary and confusing – torn between the call of the world around us and obedience to the word of God and the still, quiet voice of the Spirit within. The call of the world is really very seductive – like that voice that Haman seemed so fond of listening too – ego, power, riches, fame – these were the things that drove him and ruined him as well. The call of God may occasionally ring load and clear, but most of the time, we could almost say God is subtle to a fault. And yet, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we may be able to discern where God is acting in our lives.
Frederick Buechner (an author and Presbyterian minister) has written at length about discerning God’s presence in the everyday events of one’s life. He says:
“The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak … He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys … ‘Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”
So that is our challenge this and every week, to seek and to listen and to study so that we can recognize God when he is moving in our lives. Let us also pray for the courage and the wisdom to act according to his will, knowing that there will be times when he has brought us to just this place, for just this moment.
Praise be to God who does all things well.