The Gospel According to Esther
The Gospel According to Esther
In a previous preaching skills article on PreachingToday.com, Hershael York challenged his fellow-preachers to use their whole Bible in their sermon schedule—even those parts of the Old Testament that make us sweat or cringe. Based on 2 Timothy 3:16 ("All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness"), York argues,
Simply put, whatever is in the Word of God has a reason to be there because a sovereign and omniscient Holy Spirit included it for all believers of all cultures and all epochs. Whatever cultural differences or span of time might separate contemporary readers from the text, the promise of the Word is that we can discover something timeless and true in every passage of the Bible. We need not be embarrassed by any part of it.
But of course that doesn't mean it's easy to preach on a tough text. Professor York urges us to ask two key questions about these passages: "What did the story mean in its original context? How does it relate to God's revelation of Himself in Christ Jesus?" Those two questions will guide preachers as they ask, "What is the main point and how does it apply to the lives of my people today?"
In this article, based on Dr. York's PreachingToday.com sermon on Esther, "For Such a Slime as This" he shares some wise advice on how to preach on the overall theme of Esther—which may not be how most of us normally preach on Esther.
The challenge of preaching on Esther
Esther presents so many unique challenges that most preachers avoid Esther altogether. The author never mentions God, no one ever prays, Esther hides her Jewish identity, and spends the night presumably having sex with a pagan king to whom she is not married. The only sermons I've ever heard from Esther come from the fourth chapter in which Mordecai convinces Esther to approach the King to save her people. Some focus on the "for such a time as this," or "if I perish, I perish" phrases.
A preacher has to run toward, not away from, whatever difficulty the text might present. If God's name isn't mentioned and Esther allows her chastity to be compromised, you can't ignore that. I've learned that the difficulty itself might be the very thing the Holy Spirit is highlighting. It's what I call a "zone of turbulence," a deviation from what is expected or a jarring twist that serves as a device to draw attention to the point.
Esther was no Daniel
Esther is a canonical zone of turbulence, an unexpected and unnerving aberration from every other book in the Old Testament. The most obvious contrast to Esther is Daniel. Though both of them are set in the exile and both of them serve in a royal court of a pagan king, the similarity ends there. The way they comport themselves is radically different. Daniel might be a story of a young man who commits his way to the Lord and God honors that faithfulness, but Esther is not that story at all. Esther is a hot mess. She doesn't make a courageous decision to follow the Lord; she makes the only rational choice available to her. She trades certain death for possible death. She turns from no hope to some hope.
The temptation for those who preach Esther is to stuff her into the hero mold even though she does not belong there, to make her seem like Daniel though she is decidedly not. Failing that, some make it about the unseen providence of God working through her courage and faithfulness. The details of the story and its distinction from all other books of the Bible just don't allow for that, though. That view ignores too much that the author includes and, even worse, contradicts much that the author recorded.
The gospel according to Esther
The solution lies in assuming that the biblical author did everything intentionally. He did not accidentally forget to mention God, or prayer, or Scripture. He could have left out the embarrassing details of Esther that would be shameful to any Jewish girl. That's all included for a reason. He intended to make us uncomfortable about Esther. While the story is certainly about Israel's deliverance from death and extinction, it equally reveals the imperfect circumstances and people God uses—often from the shadows.
That is the message of hope and grace. I'd love to be like Daniel, always choosing the right thing regardless of the consequences, but I'm really more like Esther, an imperfect vessel stumbling my way into God's use in spite of myself. As I said in the sermon:
Isn't it true that God never seemed more absent anywhere than at the cross itself? Jesus hanging there, broken and shattered, God's own Son cries out in desperation, questioning why the Father has deserted him, with nowhere else to go but to commend himself into the hands of the God who has let him die. Though God may seem absent, that is where he is most gloriously displayed. I mean, just read God's pattern throughout the Scripture. He is a God who is so great that in his providence he uses a lying Jacob, and a lecherous Judah, a disobedient David, and a dying thief. He takes a murderous religious zealot like Saul of Tarsus and transforms him into a champion of grace, and then pierces his flesh with a thorn.
Sinners are the only people God can work with! The power of the sermon, then, emanates from that tension between what we expect and what actually happens, between what we want Esther to be and what she really is, between the demands of the law and the desperate need of grace. The more the sermon reveals that tension, the more effectively it communicates the point of the text.
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.