Yesterday’s message …
- Began with one of the most enduring images from Davis family lore;
- Celebrated the ways that the literary choices and narrative technique of Esther’s author make all the difference in the meaning of the passage;
- Included another teaching moment from Dr. Michael Brown;
- Resulted in a church-wide fast for today, July 30;
- Led to this bottom line: When you stop pretending, you’ll start becoming.
I’m not gonna lie: I was kind of precious as a little kid. Here I am at my most precious, my for sure cutest:
When I was about five, the Adam West / Burt Ward campy Batman came on, and I was hooked. So my mom made me the cape and mask you see – she actually had to stop MID-CAPE from making me a Superman cape because of the Batman phenomenon – and when I finally got it, it was a treasure. I spent my life pretending to be Batman … and the cast you see there is because I broke my arm chasing pretend criminals over a chain link fence. I was so much all Batman all the time that my mom had to establish a rule: I couldn’t put the cape & mask on until 3 p.m. because I had to be Talbot for at least a portion of each day. That’s the way it is with pretending!
Some of you were the same. If you’re older than me, perhaps you were the Lone Ranger for a time. If you’re younger than me, maybe you were a Power Ranger or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. (By the way, I also went through a face of pretending I was Julius Erving though for some reason that wasn’t very convincing.) But there’s something about the mask, about the adaptation of another persona, another identity, that many of us find irresistible. Hey – it’s why so many of you 10 years ago played Guitar Hero! Pretending.
Of course, all this pretending and all these masks takes on a slightly more ominous tone, especially if you’re over 12 and really should have outgrown that phase by now. Some of you, when it comes to work or sports or competition, you pretend you don’t really care because it’s easier to pretend you don’t care than to admit you DO … but that your effort at what you DO care about landed at failure anyway. It’s the ultimate defense. Others of you pretend to be OK when you’re not – your friends and family want you to be over that death or to move beyond that divorce or to pull yourself out of that depression – and so you put on the face and act as if everything is just fine, thank you very much. And inside you’re dying. And then I bet that a few of you pretend that the life you’ve settled for is the one you really want. You’ve been fooled into thinking that Drinking You or Stoner You or Gambler You is the real you when it’s not. It’s a phony. The real you, the DESIGNED you, is something altogether different that we’ll get into shortly.
And then I know that a handful of you have pretended to be single when you’re not (and you can’t believe I just said that) … and that particular masquerade played out to all kinds of destructive, disastrous consequences. Pretending (Clapton?) and there’s a lot of it going on, even here, even now.
This whole notion of pretending, of a façade, of putting up a front, is, well, FRONT and center of where we are going today in Esther 4. Now: by way of review, the year is 483 BC and the setting is Persia (modern day Iran). In Persia, there is still a smattering of scattered Jews. A large chunk of them had returned to Israel when King Darius let them return home (imagine the irony: Iran does Israel a NATIONAL FAVOR!). This is really an IN BETWEEN time in Jewish history … after a series of defeats, following a terrible exile, and discovering what it means to be Jewish in a land that does not recognize your God. In a land where, in spite of Darius’ favor, there are still a great many enemies to that ragtag group of people who dare to claim that a) there is only ONE GOD and b) that ONE GOD has chosen this ONE PEOPLE GROUP as his. It’s a pagan, secular, vicious culture, which may well explain why the anonymous author of Esther keeps God’s name on the DL here.
And at the end of last week’s episode, we say our Jewish Enemy #1, Haman had manipulated King Xerxes into ordering the extermination of all Jews in the Kingdom. All of them. Haman has taken a personal grudge against a Jew named Mordecai and turned into genocide against the whole race and nation. And it seems as though the only hope is Esther – ironically, she ALSO has a Jewish name “Hadassah” but is going by her Persian, pagan, PRETEND! name Esther! – who is now a queen in Xerxes’ court. And given that she goes by Esther & not Hadassah, guess how she survives and thrives in Xerxes’ world? By pretending to be a Gentile, a pagan who worship dozens of gods & goddesses. No one but Mordecai knows her secret – and unlike my mother, Mordecai doesn’t make Esther become Hadassah at 3 p.m. every day!
So look at 4:1-3:
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. 2 But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it. 3 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.
You know what I love about that? Mordecai and the rest of the Jews are not pretending! My people are going to be exterminated in 11 months, my grudge with Haman started it, and I am going public with my grief! It’s like I tell so many people both before and after funerals – grief is good. It’s natural. Jesus did NOT say blessed are the strong. He said blessed are those who mourn. A funeral is a public space where we give permission to people to grieve and grieve well. To NOT pretend that all is well when it ain’t. Now look at 4:4:
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.
This is so great. Esther – who at this stage is the lucky pretender! – thinks all he needs is a new wardrobe to spice up that dreadful sackcloth. Apparently oblivious to the deeper meaning behind what he is wearing and doing. Oblivious to Mordecai’s deeper need to become real and raw. Which is why he refuses the swag and instead starts a conversation.
And the conversation is conducted almost exclusively through middlemen and go-betweens. Check it out in 4:6-11:
6 So Hathak went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate. 7 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. 8 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.
9 Hathak went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, 11 “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.”
So: Mordecai needs her to reveal what she’s been concealing, to UNMASK what she’s been masquerading, to stop pretending and become someone altogether different (like Hadassah!) and her first response is … nope. Wouldn’t be prudent. He’ll kill me. He’s losing interest in me anyway. I can’t do this. My life is mine & so is my secret.
Which sets up this incredible turning point in 4:12-14:
12 When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, 13 he 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 your royal position for such a time as this?”
Whoa. It’s like Mordecai is saying, “You keep pretending, Esther, and you will get exposed.” Just like some of you who pretended on your resume or others of when you pretended to be single or even others when you pretended to be sick that day, the masquerade will end, the mask will come off, and painful exposure will be the result. And with Esther, she will die as Hadassah just like all the other Jews. And that other thought there – even if you don’t, deliverance will come from another place – does that mean another person? Other Jews? God himself? The lack of specificity makes you realize he’s driving at God’s sovereignty. God’s moving and deliverance is GONNA happen and Esther, God can work either INSIDE of you or IN SPITE of you. That choice is yours, young lady. Whew.
And faced with this moment of truth, along with the question of all questions – maybe God ARRANGED all this to get you in Xerxes’ court for just this time and just this occasion – look at what Esther does next. For the first time in the book, she begins to own who she is:
15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “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.”
And we’ll get to her instructions here in just a moment but you need to know that linguistically, from the perspective of Esther as a piece of literature, as a narrative, what has just happened is monumental. Up to now, Esther has only been ACTED UPON. She has been the OBJECT of the verbs. She’s been passive. Now, suddenly, for the first time in the story, she ACTS. She is the subject of the verbs. She seizes control. Instead of taking orders from Mordecai she is giving them to him. The author of Esther is practically shouting at the top of his lungs: See! She is in charge of her own life now! Not the victim! The victor! All because she stopped pretending to be a pagan & started becoming who she was all along … Hadassah, the Jew. Thrust into that time and that situation by the great arranging of God.
And in that monumental transformation for passive to active, a change reinforced by the subtlety of the language itself is a promise to you and me: When you stop pretending, you’ll start becoming. Your façade currently obscures God’s design; when you dismantle it, God begins the process of revealing who he has designed you to be all along. Your Esther (pretender) will become Hadassah, the authentic. You’ve been satisfied being decoy you when all along God has wanted to deploy you instead. When you stop pretending, you’ll start becoming.
I know a guy who stopped pretending he had life figured out, stared admitting just how messed up he is, and God started a beautiful process of him becoming leader and mentor. And now he leads a community of similarly messed up men who achieve together a level of sobriety and serenity they never could if they were in isolation. All because one guy stopped putting on a front and discovered God really does have his back. When you stop pretending, you’ll start becoming.
Or even me. A few years ago, I pretended around here. I pretended that our object was to be cool and relevant and trendy. We became church copycat. Guess what? I’m terrible at cool. We stunk. Maybe you could deduce from that that I’m terrible at cool because … I’m not cool. Anyway I may not be cool but OK at bold. So instead of church copycat, we’ve become church inviting all ppl. When you stop pretending, you’ll start becoming.
Here’s the deal. I KNOW someone here is being called into ministry. That’s what you are becoming by God’s grace. Maybe to do what I do; maybe another kind of ministry. And you have been pretending you’re not called. Some of you have been pretending so hard you’re NOT called into ministry that you’re actually in rebellion. Today’s the day my calling out leads to coming home. And coming home means you’re becoming shaped for the call. When you stop pretending, you’ll start becoming.
Others, it’s a different issue. You’ve been pretending more like Esther. You want Jesus only when you NEED Jesus … but most of the time you need to fit in. You’ll sacrifice some of your integrity for that job or for that new guy or new girl. Or sacrifice some of your identity for those friends who aren’t really friends at all. And today that stops cuz the mask comes off. When you stop pretending, you’ll start becoming.
And guys, today’s the day or next week’s the trip where the ring comes back on and you stop pretending your single and you being treating your wife like the royalty she is. If it takes a counselor, a therapist, even a recovery group to help you do it, let that begin today. Don’t settle for less than real; become who you are. When you stop pretending, you’ll start becoming.
In ancient Rome, there was so much stone sculpture around the city that a large group of wannabe sculptors started getting some of the action. Cheap imitations, if you will. Except they weren’t very good and they developed the practice of covering their many mistakes up with wax. Amateur observers and customers couldn’t really see the wax or notice the difference.
But the pros did and they could. So the excellent, non pretender sculptors in ancient Rome developed their own practice. They would mark their statues with the words (AV) sin cera – without wax. And that, Good Shepherd, is where we get the word sincerely. Without wax … not pretending … authentic … sincere. Can I sign you up?