A king who loves to party - Esther 1:1-22

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 6th April 2008.

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Do you ever question whether the God you read about in the Bible is the same God you experience in your day to day existence? I think many Western Christians struggle with the invisibility of God.

They read dramatic accounts of God’s involvement in human affairs in books like Exodus. They are captivated by the power display of Almighty God. He sends plagues, he parts a sea and he rescues over a million people from brutal captivity in a foreign land.

I don’t know how you respond when you read accounts like this but my first reaction is normally to say something like this, “Wow, what a powerful God is this. He can do anything he wants. Nothing can stop him working out his good purposes for his people.” But then I usually end up thinking, “It’s just not what I experience day to day.” I don’t walk along the Marina and witness the parting of the Humber! Do you?

And so it is only natural to wonder if the God we read about in the pages of the Bible is the same God we experience in our day to day existence.

I’m become convinced recently that the book of Esther is a wonderful book for Christians who struggle with the invisibility of God.

There are only two books in the whole Bible which do not mention the name of God. One is the Song of Songs and the other is the book of Esther.

10 chapters of action packed story. Page after page of gripping adventure. There is surprise, there is sex, there is violence, there is humour and there is even an assassination plot – but not once do we hear the name of God.

And the joy of the book of Esther is that although God seems to be completely absent he is, in fact, involved in every detail.

His way of working is certainly very different from the high-impact miracles we read about in the book of Exodus but the God we encounter in the book of Esther is the same God who is still working out his purposes for the human race.

What is the answer for Christians who struggle with the invisibility of God? How should we respond when the miracles of past generations are not replicated in our churches today? Should we automatically assume that God really wants to act in this way and would do so if only his people would live more holy lives? Well no. Because the evidence of Scripture says that God does act in different ways at different times. He is always working his purposes out but he has different ways of achieving his desired results.

If you are someone here this morning who struggles with the invisibility of God. If you are someone who wakes up in the morning and wonders where God is and what he is doing then the book of Esther is for you.

We need to get our expectations right. We are promised in Scripture that God is always active in his world. He is always interacting with the creatures he has made. Big question is “How?”

At this stage in human history what experience can we expect from Almighty God? Is God working as in Exodus or as we see in the book of Esther?

Do you see how important it is to know the answer to this question?  If we keep on expecting God to work in an Exodus way when in fact he has chosen to work in an Esther way then we will frequently be in a state of disappointment and discouragement. We need to get our expectations right.

I’m fairly convinced that right now God is working in the same way as described in the book of Esther. He is still working out his purposes. He is still interacting with the world he has created. But right now he seems to be employing the same behind the scenes strategy that we read about in the book of Esther. This is what I want to show you over the next few weeks.

Today we begin in chapter 1 and this is where we are introduced to a king who loves to party. Look at what we are told in verse 1. “This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush. At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.”

How long did this party last? Verse 4, “For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty. When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest, who were in the citadel of Susa.”

King Xerxes was a real King. Esther may be a dramatic story but it is an adventure book from the chronicles of history, not from the imagination of an ancient story-teller. Xerxes came to the Persian throne in about 486BC and the events we read about in the book of Esther begin in the third year of his reign.

Secular history tells us that Xerxes was physically strong and extremely tall and yet his leadership qualities fell far below the standard set by his father Darius and his grandfather Cyrus the great. It will become very obvious that the Bible agrees with the findings of secular historians.
Xerxes may have been physically domineering but he was severely lacking in many other qualities.

We are not told why Xerxes decided to throw his two parties in the third year of his reign but they must have been very impressive occasions. Put together they would have lasted for more than six months.

And look at who was there. First of all, party number 1. The guest list is recorded for us in verse 3. “In the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were.”

What did they do? “For a full 180 days King Xerxes displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty.”

I don’t know if you have ever seen those programmes where celebrities take you round their house and show you where they live. Why do they do it? They want to show you have successful they have become. They want you to covet their lifestyle and heap praise on their achievements. Well, Xerxes wanted to do this. You can just imagine him pointing out all the buildings and possessions he had accumulated and inherited over the years.

But then again we should also remember that Xerxes was the ruler over a massive empire. Before the Second World War it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. The same could almost be said of the Persian Empire until King Xerxes. He ruled most of the known world in the 5th century BC. His throne extended from India to modern day Ethiopia. He was a man of great power and strength. However, like so many military leaders of his position there is felt the need to demonstrate this power to other people. It must never be taken for granted. It must be seen with the eyes.

Russia and China do this frequently. The parades of military hardware. To dazzle the eyes of the enemies and to strengthen the courage of the faithful.

It seems this was also one of the purposes of Xerxes first party. We’re told in verse 3 that all the important military leaders were there. What an opportunity to strengthen their resolve for the future conflicts Xerxes would command them to lead.

That was party number 1. Then straight away he decided to have another one. We can see the guest list for party number 2 in verse 5. This time all the people from the list to the greatest , who were in the citidel of Susa were invited to feast with the King.

Susa was roughly 150 miles east of Babylon and the citadel of Susa was an enclosed area of the city, specially fortified to protect the King. All sorts of people would have lived here and King Xerxes invited them all to the most impressive party they would have ever attended.
 
Let’s be clear! This was not a McDonalds Happy Meal celebration!

Listen to how the venue is described. Verse 6, “The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones.”

And we’re told, verse 7, that “wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink in his own way, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.”

I don’t know if you have been invited to many impressive parties in your life but these ones described in chapter 1 are supposed to take our breath away.

The people, the palace, the pillars, the provisions and even the pavement is supposed to stop us in our tracks and make us contemplate the person who stands at the centre of all these things.

What are we to make of King Xerxes? What are we to make of this ancient individual who rules a vast kingdom, who lives in a palatial palace and who can host a dinner party that lasts for over 6 months? Initially we are supposed to be impressed. Here is a guy who seems to have made it.

I don’t know how you rate success but in many ways Xerxes had a very impressive CV.

Job? Ruler of 127 provinces that stretch from India to Ethiopia.

Address? Pretty much anywhere I want but I have many grand palaces with all the amenities I desire.

Hobbies? I’m a king who likes to party and if you have ever been invited to one of them you’ll know why no one ever says they have to stay in and paint their toe-nails.

We are supposed to be dazzled by the opulence and the grandeur of this man. In many ways he is very impressive but in the end we are supposed to laugh at him and all that he symbolises. 

This guy was all style but he had no substance.

He may have been able to dazzle but he had no discernment in the things that matter most of all.

Look at what we are told in verse 9. “Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of king Xerxes.”

Nothing usual here. It was a regular custom for the Persian queens to hold separate parties for the Persian women.

However, it’s what we read next that really begins to show the cracks in the Persian government.

Verse 10, “On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him…to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and the nobles, for she was lovely to look at.”

Some commentators have suggested that King Xerxes wanted his Queen to arrive wearing only her crown but I think that is reading into the text something which isn’t actually there. Instead, we are to imagine the Queen entering the room dressed in her finest clothes, the royal crown on top of a very beautiful and magnificently dressed woman.

Here, if you like, was the final trophy was Xerxes to display how wonderful he was.

What would you expect to happen next? Remember the Queen has just been summoned by the most powerful man of his generation. Surely the next verse should read, “So Queen Vashti quickly ran to her wardrobe, put on her best frock, put on a bit of blusher and made her way hastily to the King’s throne room to display her beauty for all to see.”

But actually it’s not what happened at all. Verse 12, “But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.”

There is something important here about the ability to deny the wishes of anyone as long as you are prepared to face the consequences for your action. This will be crucial next week as we think about the participation of Esther in the King’s x-rated beauty contest.

But for now let’s focus on the ridiculous response from the Persian government to this snub from the King’s wife.

Verse 13, “Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king” and he asked them what must be done to Queen Vashti as a result of her insubordination?

And their response? Well, it’s not exactly wise advice. You could say it was like trying to fight mosquitoes by launching heat seeking missiles. Words like ‘overkill’ and ‘over-reaction’ come to mind.

Listen to what one of the wise men says. A man called Memucan spoke up and said confidently, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, but not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of the provinces of King Xerxes. 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.
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.’”

What’s the solution? Verse 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. Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.”

We’re told in verse 21 that the king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memucan proposed. He sent dispatches to all parts of this kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language, proclaiming in each people’s tongue that every man should be ruler in his own household.”

How are we to respond to all this? We are not to conclude this was the Persian civil service at it’s best. This was the Persian bureaucracy at it’s worst! What a stupid way to deal with a minor irritation at a drunken party! It is a laughable solution to a domestic squabble.

Could not these mighty men do better than this? Could not this generous king lead his empire in a more profitable way? Well, no actually.

He may be able to throw a good party but in so many other areas of life his wisdom was severely limited. He was full of style but empty of substance.

And don’t you find this is so often the way?

The people presented to us as the stars and the successes are often very stupid in the way they relate to other people. Yes, they may dazzle us but we would be foolish to follow their direction.

However, instead of picking on a few individuals let me say something about a culture which dazzles us but which needs to be ridiculed.

Think with me about the cultural air that we breath. We live in a society that routinely elevates the trivial. Whole magazine are devoted to the antics of soap stars and what famous celebrities do in their spare time. We pay incredible amounts of money to men who can kick a ball around apiece of grass. We think King Xerxes was wasteful?

We live in a world which considers the car we drive an extension of who we are and are more impressed by where someone went to school than by what they learned there.

Our culture takes itself incredible seriously. It wants us to dream of six-month long banquets, of a house in the sun, beautifully decorated gardens and then to devote our life to pursuing that drive.

Let’s be honest: It is easy for us to be dazzled and captivated by the empire’s loud and glamorous show. What we need to realise is that it is all a show. It is all style and no substance. It offers us no real wisdom or power to live as we were intended to live.

How do we cope in this sort of world? We must learn to laugh at this world and its values. It is a brilliant form of defence and it may save us from a dangerous assimilation.

We must also learn to laugh at ourselves when we get caught up in its stupid values. What shall it profit a man if he can throw six month long parties and recline on gold couches? How ridiculous are we when we spend so much time and energy pursuing things which ultimately have no significance and cannot help us get better at the things that matter most of all – our relationship with God and our relationships with other people.

How amazing it is to see some Christians plan their TV viewing with military precision and yet randomly open by their bibles throughout the week?

We do it when we become assimilated to the world we inhabit. This happens when we breathe a value system that is far from Christian and which is ultimately harmful to Christian growth. To avoid doing this we must see the world properly and never take it too seriously. I think this is something Esther chapter 1 encourages us to do.

However, when combined with the NT we are encouraged to follow instead another King who loves to party: the Lord Jesus Christ. We discovered in Luke 14 that a future banquet awaits the people of God. He is interested in the good life and his instructions are for the best.

What is normal is not always right and beneficial.

We must trust that his ways are for the best. Particularly when our views clash with the instructions of King Jesus. This is the real test of our faith.

Let’s laugh at the world and follow the lead of another King who loves to party.

The second big lesson we can learn from Esther chapter 1 is to wait and see what God is doing.

God is nowhere to be seen in this chapter. No surprise since his name is never mentioned in the whole book. But we haven’t even met any of his people yet. This doesn’t mean God isn’t working his purposes out.

Why did Vashti throw away her position and refuse to appear before the king? Why did he demand her to come anyway? Who came up with the idea of replacing Vashti with another woman instead of quietly resolving the domestic dispute?  All these events have their human explanations yet all those them were necessary to make way for a process by which Esther will rise to a position where she can use her power and influence to protect God’s people from a powerful enemy. Were these coincidences? No! They are the hand of God at work in an invisible way. This is God using his behind the scenes strategy.

Notice that none of these events would have seemed significant to the Jewish community at the time. A change in Queen? Who cares! Only with the benefit of hindsight is it possible to see all the intricate details of God’s plan working together for the good of his people. He may seem hidden and remote but wait, the end of the story has not yet been told, and who knows how the pieces of the jigsaw will ultimately come together?

God’s work is not all slam-bang action; sometimes it is a quiet working through the daily providences of life. And this is vital for us to remember when we wake up every morning.

Is God absence from his world? No.

Will God bring an Exodus type miracle into my experience today? Probably not.

Does this mean he is not interacting with his world? Of course not.

But it does mean his normal means of achieving his purposes is much quieter and less obvious.

So as we seek day by day to follow our great King Jesus and laugh at the world’s values, let us be patience. Let us wait and see how God is working his purposes out. Let’s pray.

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