Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
A member of another congregation once wrote a song from the perspective of Esther, in this part of her story, and titled the song: “Hide Myself Away.” Simultaneously “honored and disgraced,” as she is taken away into the king’s palace to compete in the surreal beauty pageant that will determine the next queen. Then hidden away behind the palace walls, undergoing a year of beauty treatments in preparation for her one night with the king. Knowing the king will keep possession of all the losing candidates as well as the winner, we don’t imagine for a minute that any of this was her choice. And you can understand why Uncle Mordecai would be worried about her. You may have noticed our reading ended with him pacing around anxiously outside the palace, hoping for new of how she was doing. Notice, too, that Esther is asked to keep secret the very things most precious to her family and her faith – “Don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish, sweetheart. It’s not safe.” Even answering to a different name now – Hadassah is what her mom and dad called her, before they died; Esther is actually a Persian name. But interestingly, when that Persian name is written out in Hebrew characters as it is on our bulletin cover today, it seems to mean “I will conceal” or “I will hide.”I find it perfectly believable that having been hidden away by so many others, Hadassah would want to hide herself away, in her own way, on her own terms.
Our second text this morning covers the portion of the book of Esther in which God is hidden away. If you peek at your bulletin, you’ll notice that our second lesson stretches from chapter 1 verse 1 to chapter 10 verse 3, in other words the entire length of the book. (Don’t worry, we’re not going to read it now. I’ll let you do that on your own.) But it’s important to know that God is so hidden in the book of Esther as not to appear at all. Not once. And yet we believe: This too is the word of the Lord.
In most biblical books God is at least one of the central characters, if not the central character. Here in the book of Esther, God is never mentioned. No burning bushes or smoking mountaintops or anything with equivalent visual drama, no “thus does the Lord require of you” legal talk, no “thus says the Lord” prophetic speeches. And for that matter, no one appears to talk toGod either – no prayers are said, no sacrifices are offered, we don’t catch a glimpse of God’s people at worship. When it comes right down to it, there’s nothing overtly religious in this book. If you find that surprising, or even a little disappointing, you’re in good company. There was a lot of debate about whether or not Esther should even be included in the Bible, and in the Greek version of the Old Testament—our Bibles follow the Hebrew version—but in the Greek version of Esther, whole chapters of religious stuff were actually inserted into the story, apparently to make up for this deficit.
On the other hand, it’s perhaps equally likely that you would not come away from the Hebrew version of Esther wondering where God is. Because there seem to be divine fingerprints all over the place. Strangely serendipitous timing. Oddly helpful coincidences. Things that ought not to have worked out as well for Esther and her people as they finally did. Why, for instance, is Esther advanced to the best place in the king’s harem? (2:9) Why doesthe king love her more than all the other women, as we’re told several verses later? (2:17) Why is sheallowed to enter the royal throne room uninvited (this comes in chapter 5), when anyone else would have been put to death for doing so? A lot of people in this story just happen to be in the right place at the right time, or just happen to be in the right frame of mind to allow things to work out well for the Jewish people. So it’s easy enough to see God at work in this story even without any direct mention of God. God is there, it seems, hidden away just behind the scenes, just between the lines.
Now I realize God’s being hidden in this way may simply be a feature of the story as it is told. But since it is also a feature of my own story, I have to say it really appeals to me.
Let me explain what I mean—I do not mean things always fall into place as neatly for me as they do for Esther. There’s a fantastic element in this story that’s a little hard to match in real life. But like Esther I do have to make my way through life without the benefit of booming heavenly voices offering up to the minute directions. Without the benefit of dazzling pyrotechnics to assure me of God’s presence in the immediate vicinity. And when as a Christian believer I ask myself the famous question “what would Jesus do?” he’s not sitting there in my pastors’ study, dusty feet resting on my desk. I have to rely on what I read in the pages of Scripture, trying my best toadaptwhat he did then to what I think he’d do now.
Does any of that mean God isn’t present in my life, or at work in the world around me? Not at all! What it does mean is that I may need to read my life more closely at times to notice God there, between the lines. To see God “when through the woods and forest glades I wander,” as we sang earlier this morning, or to catch a glimpse of God in the faces or in the words of people around me.
It also means some days it will be harder than others for us to remember that God really is standing there, behind the scenes, or just off stage. This divine‘incognito’, if you will, can be a little trying.
At least we know we’re in good company. In the book of Psalms alone we find dozens of examples of believers crying out to God: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) “How long, O Lord? … How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) Easy as it is for us to long for the good old “Bible days” of voices from heaven, we know God’s hiddenness is nothing new. Women and men of faith have always had their doubts. When a big decision looms ahead, or when we’re dealing with something really difficult: “Why isn’t it obvious that you’re with me in this, God? I sure could use a sign.” And surely we can wonder about God’s presence in our trouble-filled world: “Where areyou, God?” “Show yourself!”
What interests me about biblicalquestioners is that they keep directing those questions to God. Think about that for a minute - they keep asking “where are you?” precisely to the hidden God they can’t locate at the moment. Even when accusing God of being absent, they assume God hearstheir accusations. They continue the conversation, in other words, even when it feels, sometimes, like God isn’t there.
And more often than not, those same psalms that begin with talk of God hiding his face conclude in the confidence that God has been there all along. These writers findthe God they seek. And so wefind in the book of Psalms some of the most powerful affirmations in Scripture of God’s steady, steadfast presence: “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear. . . [for] the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46:1-2, 11)
I once asked a Bible study group: if you were to write a version of the book of Esther in which God’s participation was more overt, more obvious, how would you do that? What role would God play? Interestingly, though, many in the group responded as I had – “I kind of like the story the way it is.” “It offers a helpful balance to all of those Bible stories in which God does charge onto the scene in a big, dramatic way.” “It seems more like real life.” So I’ll be interested to learn how helpful or unhelpful the rest of you find this element of the book.
Some days it willbe harder than others to believe God is there, hidden away just behind the scenes, just off stage, yet we affirm God is close enough to whisper a little prompt, perhaps just a word or two of the next line of the script, in our ears.
Some days it will be harder than others to believe God is at work on every single page of our lives. When we can’t find the bold print in which we wish God’s presence were spelled out, we’d do well to look for those divine fingerprints hidden between the lines.
 Timothy K. Beal, The Book of Hiding: Gender, Ethnicity, Annihilation, and Esther(London: Routledge Press, 1997), p. 2.