I would like to begin with two things: First, to give credit where credit is due, the main ideas in this morning’s message come from a sermon preached by John Ortberg on the story of Esther, and I am thankful for John’s insights. Second, I would like to begin by playing “Name that Tune.” Ready? Click here. Do you know the name of that song? It is called The Imperial March and it is also known as Darth Vader’s Theme Song. It first appeared in the original Star Wars movie in 1977. If you get to know my family, you might notice affinity towards Star Wars. For example, we have a cat named Yoda, and a hamster named Chewie. And we are just hoping that Yoda eat hamster not he does.
I came to know and love Star Wars through the first three episodes, which are now known as Episode 4, 5 and 6. My children got to know Star Wars through the later episodes, which are known as Episode 1, 2 and 3. Here is a poster from Episode 1. If you look closely at this image, you will see that it foreshadows the main theme underlying theme of Episode 1, 2 and 3 which is the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. In Episode 1 we have this sweet little boy who is gifted at pod racing and who is destined, because of the high concentration of midi-chlorians in his blood, to become a Jedi Knight. And by the end of Episode 3, he becomes a Dark Lord of the Sith. This fictional character is one person, but he has within himself, both good and desirable qualities and the epitome of evil.
So let’s have a little fun with this. As we enter into the story of Esther today, from time to time I will pause and ask you if a certain person is functioning like Anakin, which means that they are living out the more noble qualities of humanity, or like Darth Vader, which means that they are acting in accordance with the less desirable traits of humankind. Ok? Let’s begin.
And to begin the story of Esther, we need to get the back story. In 587 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon, the Jerusalem temple was destroyed and most of the population was taken into exile in Babylon. Forty-nine years later, in 538 BC, the Persian, Cyrus the Great, captured Babylon and gave permission for the Judeans to return home. However, many Jews stayed in Babylon and some served in important positions in government. They were a very significant minority in parts of what was not the Persian Empire.
Years later, in 486 BC, Cyrus’s grandson, succeeded his father Darius as king of Persian. His name in Greek was Xerxes and in Hebrew was Ahasuerus. Some Bible translations record his name one way while others record it the other way. Herodotus, the father of history, tells us of Xerxes’ unsuccessful campaign against the Spartans and the Athenians, a campaign which resulted in several epic battles, such as the land Battle of Thermopylae and the naval Battle of Salamis. Xerxes’s Greek campaign began in 580 BC, but just before and after that military venture occurred some events that are recorded for us in the Bible in the Book of Esther.
In the third year of his reign, after showing off all of his wealth and prestige for six months, Xerxes put on a seven-day banquet for his government officials and invited guests, all of whom were men. This was essentially a week-long drinking party where wine was liberally offered to everyone by the king, and each man could drink as much as he wanted whenever he wanted. After seven days of free-flowing wine, the king commanded that his wife, Queen Vashti, be brought in for him and his fellow partiers to gaze upon because “she was lovely to look at.”
Now, let’s think about this for a moment. What was the king likely thinking about when he made this invitation? Do you think that Xerxes and the rest of the men were following the noble side of human nature or the dark side? Were they being like Anakin or Vader? They were like Vader. They were following the basest of human cravings. And I don’t know if you have noticed this, but it seems to me that most of the time, when men are functioning according to their Vader self, it is women who get demeaned, and used, and abused, and exploited. And when the men don’t get what they want, they encourage Xerxes to punish Vashti. In Esther, chapter 1 verses 16 to 21, we read,
16 Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ 18 This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.
19 “Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. 20 Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.”
21 The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memukan proposed. (Esther 1:16-21)
So Vashti is deposed as queen and after his return from getting burned in Greece, Xerxes begins to search in earnest for a new queen. He has his officials look all over the Persian Empire for the most beautiful young virgins. Those selected are given a royal makeover that lasts for 12 months and then he would try out each one for a night. The young woman who he liked the most would become his queen, and all the rest would spend the rest of their lives confined to his harem and perhaps never see him again.
The beautiful young niece of one of Xerxes’s government officials is included in this royal beauty contest. Her name is Esther, her uncle is Mordecai and both are Judeans, descendants of those brought into captivity a century before, but they, like many others, are continuing to stay in the land of their exile by choice. Esther wins the king’s favour and is chosen by him to be his new queen.
But Xerxes had as his second-in-command, a man by the name of Haman. Haman was an Amalekite and the Amalekites were long-time enemies of the Jews. You may recall that one of the first battles that the nation of Israel fought after leaving Egypt was against the Amalekites. Haman became angry at Mordecai because he would not bow down to him like the other government officials did. And when Haman found out that Mordecai was a Jew, he made plans to wipe out Mordecai and the rest of the Jewish people in the land. He cast lots (called Pur) to determine that this genocide should happen in the twelfth month. In Esther 3:8-9, the story continues, 8 Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. 9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents[b] of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.” (Esther 3:8-9 TNIV) The amount of silver that Haman was offering to Xerxes would be worth US$286 million today. Haman does not tell Xerxes who the people are and Xerxes does not ask. Xerxes simply gives his permission for the genocide to go ahead and he supports it with his royal authority. Now is Haman acting like Anakin or is he acting like Darth Vader? I think that we can safely say Vader.
Now Queen Esther has a dilemma. She needs to talk to Xerxes about the things that Haman has put in motion. But, if she goes to see the king without being summoned she could die, and if she doesn’t go to see the king, her fellow Jews will be slaughtered.
But Esther has in her life someone who loves her enough to tell her the truth. And don’t we all need someone who loves us enough to tell us the truth? Esther’s truth-teller is her uncle Mordecai, who … sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14) The decision Esther must make is either to choose to try to preserve her position and her life, or to choose to risk her life to try to save others.
In his chapel message last Wednesday at Trinity Western University, Dr. N. T. Wright relayed what Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said about courage. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that courage is not rushing into danger with guns ablazing. Courage is deciding each day to put someone else’s safety ahead of your own, so that your character is formed in such a way that you, in a moment of crisis, will act courageously without thinking because it is second nature to you.
We don’t know how much preparation Esther did before she was forced to make her momentous decision. But we do know that she decided to risk her life to try to save others. Was she acting more like Anakin or Vader? She was being like Anakin. She goes to the king without being summoned.
He spares her life by holding out his scepter to her. Esther completely reveals Haman’s plans to the king and Haman is executed. While the law giving people permission to exterminate all the Jews in the land on a certain date cannot be repealed, Xerxes agrees to issue a new law that gives the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies. And “on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them.” (Esther 9:1b)
So what can we learn from the story of Esther? The Anakin and Vader natures that we see exhibited in the story of Esther are lived out by people in the world every day. Psychologists call the self that lives according to the dark side the shadow self. Regarding the shadow self, Carl Jung writes,
Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.
Our shadows are the dark side of our personality. Our shadow can use our giftedness and abilities in harmful ways. And the less aware we are of our shadow, our dark side, the more likely we are of becoming overpowered by our shadow. So it is important for us to become acquainted with our shadow self so that we can live “other” than our shadow self. It is very important for us to know our dark side, that we resist the pull to become Darth Vader.
By way of example, I will share with you the goal of my dark side. My shadow self wants nothing but pleasure and my shadow’s mission is to do whatever feels good. But each of you also has a shadow self with a shadow mission that will pull you off course if you let it. This is what Paul was talking about when he said, 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph.4:22-24) But we cannot do this ourselves. We need help from beyond ourselves.
We see the source of that help in the story of Esther. Even though God is not mentioned at all in this narrative, his fingerprints are all over it, as he conducts the orchestra of events that leads to the salvation of the Jewish people. And in this story, Esther is a Christ figure. That is, she does things in her life-story that are similar to what Jesus Christ has done in the life-story of the world.
For when the time was just right, God sent his Son into the world. And Jesus had no conflict between his true self and his shadow self. He was true through and through. With his entire being, Jesus’ lived out his life mission, which was to win back the world from its shadow self. Even though he was risking his life, Jesus stepped into the throne room of the prince of darkness.
This time, no sceptre was held out to spare his life. Jesus was beaten and whipped and hung on a cross to die. The shadows of darkness enveloped Jesus, but it did not defeat him. Even while suffering excruciating pain, Jesus’ concern was for others: He forgave those who crucified him; he entrusted his mother into the care of his disciple John; and with his last breath, Jesus commended his spirit into the hands of the one who was carrying him throughout his frightening and painful ordeal, his loving Father in heaven. In that moment, Jesus won victory over all the darkness in all of our lives.
On the third day that followed, the bright dawn of that Sunday morning revealed a new reality: Jesus was now king of this world, and a new creation had broken in on the old creation. In this new creation, the dead rise, the blind see and the deaf hear. In this new creation people’s lives radiate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (cf. Gal 5:22-23). In this New Creation there is hope in the face of hopelessness, there is peace in the midst of turmoil, and there is life that nothing, not even death, can take away.
And in this new reality where Jesus is king, everyone has an important role to play and everyone has an important task to carry out. Each and every one of you has been placed by God in a certain position where, at times, you will find yourself facing a critical decision and the ramifications of your decision may reverberate into the lives of many people and throughout time into eternity. And my hope and my prayer is that you will respond to Christ’s love for you each day, in advance of those decisions, by intentionally deciding to put someone else’s eternal welfare ahead of your own temporal welfare. In other words, that you will value someone else entering the kingdom of God more than you will value all that you have in this world. I am praying that you and I will die to ourselves every day so that the life we live is lived by faith in the Son of God who loves us and gave himself for us (cf Gal. 2:20). And then when an opportunity to grow God’s kingdom arises, we will step into it without thinking because it is second nature to us. Amen.
(Shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC, on 21 Nov 2010.)
 1 metric tonnes (1,000 kgs) = 32,157.7 troy ounces. 10,000 talents = 335 metric tonnes = 10772829.5 troy ounces. On 18 Nov 2010, London silver closed at US$26.57/troy oz. Based on today’s prices, the value of the silver that Haman offered to Xerxes was US$286,234,079.