For weeks we have been talking about the warnings that the ancient Hebrews received from God. If they continued to act as though they didn't want a relationship with God, regardless of what they said, eventually they would get what they wanted. And they did. First the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and the southern kingdom of Judah was invaded, Jerusalem was sacked, the temple was demolished and the best and brightest were taken into Exile in Babylon. Years later, some of them returned to Judah, but not all of them. Some of them made a new life for themselves in Babylon, which God had invited them to do. The story of Esther takes place more than one hundred years after the Exile. The Jews in this story are not people longing to go home. They are descendants of immigrants, citizens who are nonetheless still recognized as "different." They are working out the complexity of living as the people of God in a foreign land. They are involved in all levels of commerce and government, but they are still vulnerable. Esther the main character becomes queen by winning a beauty pageant, although no one knows she is a Jew. Her guardian Mordecai is a low-level palace official who is loyal to the king. His rival is an official named Haman who is so bent on destroying Mordecai that Haman pays the king to issue an edict saying that on a certain day of the year, all non-Jews are allowed to kill their Jewish neighbors and steal their property. Our reading this morning picks up with Mordecai's reaction.
Scripture Reading from Esther 4
Narrator: When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it.
In every province to which the edict and order of the king came,
there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
When Esther’s eunuchs and female attendants came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. Then Esther summoned Hathak, one of the king’s eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why.
So Hathak went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate. Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him, including the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict for their annihilation, which had been published in Susa, to show to Esther and explain it to her, and he told him to instruct her to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people. Hathak went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther instructed Hathak to say to Mordecai,
Esther: “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”
Narrator: When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer:
Mordecai: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 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 your royal position for such a time as this?”
Narrator: Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai:
Esther: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
Narrator: So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Who here knows what FOMO is? It's an acronym that means Fear Of Missing Out. F - O - M - O. It's the anxious feeling that can arise when you suspect something better, more exciting, more interesting, is happening somewhere else. This word was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013 and although social media has certainly made this worse (now I have digital proof that other people are cooler than I am), this is not a new phenomenon.
I used to know a girl who would never make definite plans with me and my friends. We would invite her over for game night or out for dinner and she would always hedge her bets, tell us maybe, or say she didn't know what she was doing yet. Well, if she made plans with us then she WOULD know what she was doing. It finally became clear that she didn't want to commit to me and my friends in case she got a better invitation from cooler people. FOMO - Fear of missing out.
I have had conversations with people who are about to retire or have just retired and they wonder if they will have anything to contribute anymore, if anyone will want their opinion, if they will still matter when they stop working. FOMO - Fear of missing out.
I have friends, both men and women who take the time to stay home and parent their very young children. But that means that they get very little adult conversation during the day and that their career advancement is on hold. And although they love their kids and don't really regret the decision, they are afraid they won't ever get as far as they want to go. FOMO - fear of missing out.
FOMO holds us back from fully living by making us ask What if? questions. What if there's someone better for me out there? What if I could make more money at this other job? What if my kids aren't happy with this change?
FOMO is fueled by comparison and discontent. My sister makes more money than I do. My friends have taken their kids to Disney World twice already. My neighbor is still able to drive himself around. My coworker is more attractive. That blogger has such a pretty house and makes it look so easy. FOMO makes us ask, "What's wrong with me?"
My friends, on this second week of Advent, I suggest to you that FOMO is the opposite of peace. If we are going to experience peace in our lives and in our world, we are going to have to face and conquer our fear of missing out.
Peace is a small word with a huge range of meanings. It is used almost 400 times in the Bible. In Old Testament Hebrew the word is "shalom," which means: safety, security, flourishing, wellbeing, prosperity, and especially WHOLENESS. In the New Testament Greek, the word is "eirene," which comes from a root word that means to tie something together into a whole.
When we have peace, we are whole, all things are joined together as they should be. When we have peace, we have no sense of scarcity, we lack nothing. When we have peace, we are not afraid that we are missing out on something better than what we have. We do not feel fractured or pulled in different directions. When we have peace, we are focused. And now you can ask me the question that a good sermon should address, "Yes, but how?" How do we experience peace? Advent teaches us how.
Remember Advent is about waiting. Not waiting with whining and eye-rolling and self-pity. And not waiting with tapping feet and constant time checking and annoyance. Advent is waiting calmly in a posture of hope, peace, joy and love. Those are not just four nice words about the baby Jesus. They are a process that leads us to spiritual maturity.
First, hope. Hope is not wishful thinking or the desire that something good might happen. Hope is not IF. Hope is WHEN. One of my favorite theologians says that Christian hope is "the expectation of a good future that is awakened through God's promise and supported by trust in God." Last week Sam said that hope is the bold proclamation that THIS will not be how it ends. Hope is a deliberate choice to trust that as Dr King said, "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Creation is on a trajectory towards goodness and restoration with each one of us and all of us having a role to play.
Once we are grounded in hope, we begin to experience peace or God's wholeness. When we trust that we have a role to play in God's restoration of all things, we gain a perspective larger than our current circumstances. Everything we experience becomes an opportunity for redemption. When we thoroughly follow in Christ's steps, we cannot fail. There is no such thing as our life going "off track," not because God wants bad things to happen to us, but because God is able to use any bad thing that happens to us. When we walk by faith, there is no missing out because we trust that no matter where we are, God can use us. We lack nothing. We are whole. We are at peace.
Which brings us to Esther. She's got a pretty good thing going for her. She's beautiful and lives in a palace and holds the title of queen. But suddenly all that is threatened. If anyone finds out she's a Jew, she will be destroyed along with her people. And if no one finds out she's a Jew, she will watch her people be slaughtered. Then her cousin Mordecai asks her to take the huge risk of going to king to ask for mercy. If she succeeds, she saves herself and her people from destruction. If she fails, she will be killed. Those are some pretty high stakes. We can imagine ourselves in that situation. "This is awful! Why is this happening to me? How did my life suddenly get so out of control? Where is God?"
And yet, that is not Esther's response. She agrees to take the risk, to put her own life on the line in service to a greater need. Esther is grounded in hope. According to Mordecai, even if she refuses to do go to the king, the Jews will be delivered some other way. She has hope that her people will survive.
Her peace is built on that hope. She has no fear of missing out. She doesn't suspect that she would be better off somewhere else. Esther knows that she is exactly where she is supposed to be. Mordecai reminds her that she may have been lead to her royal position for exactly this moment.
And so she acts. She gathers her courage and her community around her through fasting and prayer and then she goes to the king. Her deep inner peace allowed her to do what she knew was right. She knew that she was whole, that she lacked nothing, that she was being true to her best self, that her actions were in line with her values. She thoroughly followed God's path, realizing that it might lead directly through difficulty. In the midst of danger and uncertainty, she looked for an opportunity for God to do good. She accepted the invitation to be part of something larger than herself, even if it cost her life. She realized that death would not be the worst thing to happen to her.
And, spoiler alert, Esther succeeded. The king welcomed her and she eventually convinced him to save her people from destruction. Esther saw a fairly quick resolution to her situation. But we don't always get that. And at this happy happy time of the year, we remember that some of us are still waiting to see how God might redeem our situations.
This is why we practice Advent, why we practice waiting with hope, peace, joy and love. God is writing a very long story and sometimes the answer to our prayers is, "Wait. I'm not done yet." The invitation is to ground ourselves in the hope of God's plan for restoration, and then find peace as we trust that we are already whole, even while we are still waiting. No matter what we are experiencing, we are not missing out. There is nowhere else that we are supposed to be. We may be challenged to live in the mystery of suffering, and we don't know for how long. But that's why Advent is not an indefinite season. Advent has an end, and at the end is Jesus, the one who came to accompany us in our suffering, to be our companion in confusion. Unto us a child is born, and he is the Prince of Peace. Amen.
This morning we begin a six-week series on the book of Romans. Perhaps no book in the whole Bible has been as influential and as controversial as Romans. And the same goes for its author, the Apostle Paul. Most people either love him or hate him. Guess what? As always, black and white answers are too easy. First of all the apostle Paul was a human being just like all of us. He is not just one thing. He has strengths and he has flaws. His theology, especially his expectation of Christ's return, evolves throughout his writing. He was a deeply religious and observant Jewish man, and a flame-throwing reformer. He wrote at least seven books of the New Testament, and as many as six more were written in his name by people who learned from him. Romans is one of his latest letters and there's a few important things to keep in mind as we study it. The first one is that at this point, nobody had heard of Christianity, including Paul.