Delivered at Ames UCC on December 2, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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What is hope? Did you experience it today as we sang for it to rise up in our lives? When we welcomed a new member through baptism into this family of faith? When we laughed during the play? How would you define hope?
I’ve spoken of hope many times in worship, on these first Sundays in Advent when it is our theme, and on many more occasions, but I don’t know that I have ever defined it or ever could.
Hope, like faith and love, defies the rules of language, existing instead somewhere between language and heart and the holy.
In my experience, hope is unpredictable, never arriving on demand. It is unstable in the sense that it is not locked in form, but takes the form needed in a given moment.
Like in the story of Esther.
Esther is nobody.
She’s a young Jewish woman, making her a member of a minority culture and religion. She is being raised by an uncle, Mordecai. Esther has no parents, nor siblings that are mentioned.
As with so many other women in the Bible, and our world today, Esther is vulnerable to the whims and laws of men. When the king demands she come to court as part of his beauty pageant of a bridal search, which is pretty clearly includes a night of sex in the Biblical account, she has no choice.
The Bible does make the scene a little more palatable through many elements of farce and hyperbole: Esther and all of the other contestants spend a year grooming in preparation, for example. Thank you to Amanda for picking up on those comedic elements so well in today’s version.
Esther is chosen to be the new queen, replacing Vashti, who had refused to dance naked for her husband and his buddies. The king does not know that Esther is Jewish because her uncle told her not to reveal it to anyone. Mordecai’s care of Esther extends well beyond food and shelter. As a result, Esther is able to protect her people when an evil man, Haman, gains permission to commit genocide against them for being, in his words, “intolerable.” Esther leverages the king’s affection, and Haman’s ego, to depose Haman and lift up Mordecai in his stead. In doing so, the orders to kill all Jewish people can be reversed.
Esther does not initially jump at this plan. There is risk in her approaching the king at all, let alone with so much at stake. It takes Mordecai reminding Esther that her position in the palace will not shield her from certain death. He continues, saying,
Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this. (4.14b)
Without being a warrior or a prophet or even a man, Esther is the hope her people need.
The hope we prepare for today on this first Sunday of Advent is, of course, through the many stories about Jesus we will study from Christmas through Easter.
It begins with another vulnerable woman under foreign power giving him birth, continues on with his baptism well outside the boundaries of polite society, spiritually and geographically, then his series of sermons to and healings of nobodies and outcasts, his retreat right when he “should” be attacking, and finally his mystery, first witnessed by another woman living beyond the bounds.
But we are also preparing for the hope we may become. We do not receive these stories as an audience uninvolved or powerless pawns. We receive them as a community that knows Haman is to be found in every time and place. He is alive and well in his attacks on people who are Jewish—anti-Semitic hate crimes have surged—and he has found many other people, many other “intolerables” to target for destruction.
We are not waiting for Jesus to come save us. Nor are we waiting for salvation, another slippery term, in an after-life. We are watching to see who might be made for such a time as this. Even if it is ourselves.
WE ARE THE HOPE
I know that you may not believe it, I know that you may not believe you could be enough in the face of so many Hamans and threats, but you are no different than Esther. You are no different than Mary the mother of Jesus or Mary of Magdala.
Just as God was with them from their birth through their death, God is with us. All God needs for the healing of the world is ordinary people who are awake to the extraordinary possibilities in each of our lives.
Who knows? Perhaps you have come to faith to be the hope for just such a time as this.