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Scandalous Grace – The Story of Esther

This post include the sermon  text for the message I preached on March 1, 2015 at a meeting of the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, VA.

Due to damage related to frozen pipes, we meet in the fellowship hall of the Monument Heights Baptist Church.  For that reason, there is no video or audio of this sermon.

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Lenten Sermon Series: “White Washing the Gospel”

Sermon Title: Scandalous Grace

Scripture Reading: Esther 2:8-9

Sermon Text: The Book of Esther

 

When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. She pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem.

 

Why do we whitewash the Gospel?

 

Let me explain what I mean.  We have a tendency to describe the characters in biblical stories as being more courageous, bold, and valiant than the Bible itself portrays them.  When we read the biblical text, however, we see that those whom we call  “champions of the faith” were actually quite broken, filled with many faults, failures, and foibles.

 

So, what we do is whitewash the people upon whom God’s grace does its work.  We paint them as heroes.  We make them larger than life.  We perceived them to unique, exceptional, and extraordinary.  The effect is that the gospel becomes whitewashed of the sin and dirt that are a necessary part of its picture, because it is that very sin and dirt from which we all need to be redeemed.

That’s what makes God’s grace so scandalous.  God’s grace is an affront to our sense of moralism.  Samuel Williamson writes about this, saying that our infatuations with moralism actually suffocates the wonders of God’s amazing grace. Williamson, who is founder of a ministry titled “Beliefs of the Heart,” writes:

 

God goes after the prostitute, tax collectors, lepers, and sinners.  Why?  Because they know they need him.  It is the self-righteous Pharisees, posing in their own moral goodness, who reject him.[i]

 

What I like about the Bible is that it is honest, and brutally so, about the errors, mistakes, sins, letdowns, and moral failings of its stars and heroes. Abraham was an idol worshipper.

 

Moses was a murderer.

 

Joseph was a narcissist.

 

David was an adulterer (and that was just for starters).

 

The Bible is filled with stories of people whom we lift up as heroes of the faith, yet the text reveals them as broken, failed, and terribly sinful. Unfortunately, a large percentage of our sermons, Sunday School lessons, and scripture studies are often not accurate in their representations of these biblical characters.

 

For example there is Esther. I know that I am treading on dangerous ground to be critical of Esther. She’s the patron saint of many. She is almost universally beloved.

 

Still, let’s forge ahead and be honest: Esther was hardly a paragon of virtue. She used her sexual wiles to seduce and manipulate. We’d tend not accept that sort of behavior in polite company. But that’s exactly what Esther did – and far too often she is given a pass. Or we excuse her behavior saying that she was just doing the best she could in a male dominated culture. That said, Esther’s story should inspire us to explore a broader issues than simply her duplicity or innocence.   The question asked by Samuel Williamson, in his book, “Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids” in this: “Why do we read the Bible with a built in bias for its heroes to have innate goodness?”[ii] We do that with most of our biblical heroes. We certainly do that with Esther. We paint pictures of her as being as pure as the wind driven snow (maybe not the best analogy after the weather over the last two weeks).

 

The church throughout its history, however, has not always been as kind to Esther. When early scholars translated the Book of Esther from Hebrew to Greek, they added words and images to “improve” her character. They added a line that said “she never violated kosher law and abhorred the bed of the gentile.” That detail is actually not found in the ancient Hebrew texts.

For the first seven hundred years of the Christian church, no one ever wrote a commentary on Esther, choosing not to deal with the uncomfortable nature of her story. The reformer Martin Luther condemned the book and wished it was not included in the biblical because it includes (as Luther said) “too many heathen unnaturalities.”[iii]

 

The modern church, however, has been far less honest about Esther’s shortcomings. We’ve dressed her up, put her on a pedestal, justified her behavior, and made her look much more noble than the Bible actually portrays her. Our sermons and Sunday School lessons paint Esther as being naturally, innately good. Why do we do that?

 

I suggest that the reason might be that we fail to fully understand and accept the reality of the sin and evil that is often a part of our own lives. When that happens – when we missed the reality of our own brokenness – we also end up missing out on the wonder and reality of God’s grace.

 

So, we hold in very high esteem people like Esther and other biblical heroes. We do that because we believe God works through inherently good people.[iv] People as we assume ourselves to be.

 

But an forthright appraisal of Esther’s life can become a great benefit for those who are as broken as she. In my life and ministry, I have dealt with at least two dozen women who have been victims of various forms of abuse…many of them at the hands of intimate family members. One young woman told me how her father was distant, abusive, and uncaring. Then there were the moments when he forced himself upon her. So there she was, the play-thing (the victim) of the one man who should have loved her and protected her more than any other. In our conversation, she confessed that in her teenager years she was often so hungry for attention that she would actually would initiate such encounters.

 

Imagine her guilt looking back at those incidents as an adult. These events had taken place more than a decade in her past. For many years she had felt that there was no way God could use a person like her. Then she owned up to her own brokenness. She began to find freedom and release in the abundance of God’s grace. She realized that it was her brokenness, not any sort of inherent strength, that made her useful in the hands of God’s.[v]

 

In one conversations she told me that Esther was one of her favorite stories in the entire Bible. At the time, I did not understand why. Since then I have come to realize that she found hope in Esther’s brokenness because it made her more intimately aware of God’s grace.

 

God does not connect to us and use us because we are born intrinsically good. That’s great news during a season such as Lent. Lent is a time to meditate on our humanity. Lent is a time to recognize our brokenness. Lent is a time to realize that we do not earn, achieve, obtain, or acquire salvation because of our inherent goodness.

 

God’s does not glory in us because of our wisdom, strength, or innate goodness. God’s glory rests in the wonders of his amazing, transforming grace.

 

Esther lived in a time of terrible brutality. Hundreds of girls were taken captive and forced into slavery in the King harem. But the times were also brutal to young men. Each year hundreds of young boys were taken captive, castrated, and forced to serve as eunuchs in the kings court. So times were tough. The times were tough for everyone.

 

So, how did Esther fair during tough times The scripture command that Jews not eat defiled, unclean, non-kosher food. Yet Esther ate all the food provided her. The text tells us that Esther pleased the King more than any of the other women in his harem. It’s pretty obvious what that means, isn’t it?   Further, while the scriptures condemns those who marry Gentiles, Esther marries a gentile king, and eventually crowned Queen.

 

Esther’s predecessor as queen (a gentile like her husband) was exiled for defying her husband the King. Esther did not defy the King (at least not at first), but rather she found favor by not defying his edicts and commands. Only toward the end of the story does she finally stand up and defy the king. In one commentary written by Karen Jobes, I found this amazing insight:

 

“Other than Jesus, even the godliest of people of the Bible were flawed, often confused, outright disobedient, and proud.”[vi]

 

That certainly includes even Esther.

 

So, why do we find that so hard to accept? Why do we want our biblical heroes to be better than they are? Samuel Williamson sheds profound light on this question. He writes:

 

We want our heroes to be better than what we are…because we think we are better than what we really are. We would spend more experiencing God’s transforming grace if we spent more time acknowledging our own failures, just like the Bible does with its heroes.”[vii]

 

That’s the reason why a season like Lent can be so valuable for people like us. It calls us to face up to our own humanity, our brokenness, and our sin. It calls us to acknowledge our own failures…and along the way, it teaches us about divine grace. It teaches us about saving grace, redeeming grace, grace that makes us useful for God’s Kingdom, grace that has come to us from God in Jesus Christ. That’s why we have to be on guard NOT to whitewash the gospel. We can’t wash away all the blemishes and broken places in our lives. The Gospel teaches us that God in Jesus the Christ takes all of the mess of our humanity into himself, then God takes it to the cross, redeeming us there so that God might be glorified not by our innate goodness, but by the Holy Spirit at work in us.
 

[i] Samuel C. Williamson, “Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?  How Moralism Suffocates Grace”  Beliefs of the Heart Press, 2013, page 13.

[ii] Ibid, page14

[iii] Ibid, page 15.

[iv] Obviously, this sermon has been greatly influenced by Samuel Williamson, and this thought is no exception.

[v] My story is very similar to one told by Samuel Williamson.

[vi] Karen Jobes, “Esther, the NIV Application Commentary.” Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 1999.

[vii] Williamson, page 19.

 

Esther (NIV Application Commentary)
by: Karen H. Jobes
publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Religious, published: 1999-10-07
ASIN: 0340745894
EAN: 9780340745892
sales rank: 14885819
price: $49.99 (new)

In the NIV APPLICATION COMMENTARY series, this volume looks at the book of Esther. Read correctly, the lead character of the book is not Esther but God. This Old Testament book is the ideal inspiration for us when we find ourselves in unsought situations, thinking we are unable to succeed as it tells us the thing to do is to trust God.

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