We’re continuing in our sermon series called, “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life,” where we’re looking at the stories of how some of our biblical ancestors responded to changes in their lives. The first two weeks of the series we’ve looked at two individuals and then a group of people and an individual. Today we’re honing in on just one person: a woman named Esther.
As our text drops us right into the middle of Esther’s story, let me catch us up on what’s happened so far. King Ahasuerus lived in the citadel of Susa where he ruled over a large number of provinces from India to Egypt. One day the king threw a banquet in the palace. He and his party guests were having a grand ol’ time. At one point he called for Queen Vashti to come and join them in order to show the people her beauty, for she was fair to behold, Scripture says (Esther 1:11).When the queen refused to come at the king’s command, the king was outraged. He called on his sages and asked them, according to the law, what was to be done to the queen for not obeying the king’s command. The sages agreed that, if the queen went unpunished and word got out, there would be a rebellion among the people, particularly the women, who might also decide to rebel against their husbands. His officials advised the king to issue a decree that the queen was to banished from the king’s palace and that her royal position was to be given to another woman. The king issued the decree.
Later, young women were brought to him from throughout the region so that the king could select another queen. Scripture says there was a Jew in the citadel of Susa whose name was Mordecai (Esther 2:5). Mordecai brought his cousin Esther to the king’s palace. Esther was an orphan whom Mordecai had adopted after her parents died. When Esther was taken into the palace, Mordecai advised her not to reveal her people or her kindred, for they were Jews living as a minority in a foreign, often pagan land.
Every day Mordecai would walk by the palace gates to learn how Esther was doing.
One day the king promoted Haman to be his top official and commanded that everyone at the king’s gate bow down to Haman. Mordecai refused to bow and worship him. When asked why, Mordecai said because he was a faithful Jew.
Haman was furious that Mordecai wouldn’t bow down to him. Out of revenge, Haman told the king that there were a certain people whose laws were different from those of every other people. These people refused to obey the king’s laws, and, therefore, the king should not tolerate them. Haman said, if it pleased the king, let a decree be issued to destroy the Jews. The king issued the decree.
When Mordecai heard the news, he and his people tore their clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and wept bitterly. Esther’s maids told her about Mordecai, and Esther sent garments for Mordecai to wear. But he wouldn’t accept them. So Esther asked a man named Hathach to go to Mordecai and find out what was going on. Mordecai told Hathach everything that had happened. He gave him a copy of the decree to give to Esther and beg her to ask the king to have mercy on her people.
We pick up the story when Hathach returned to report back to Esther.
Before we get to that, I want to highlight a curious, even controversial detail about the Book of Esther. God is not mentioned anywhere in the book. Some have argued that a book that doesn’t mention God shouldn’t be included in the Bible. Others have argued that, while God isn’t named explicitly, God’s presence is implied in Esther’s story. I believe our text today is one of those places where God’s Spirit and calling are present – in the words of Mordecai. John Calvin, one of the great Reformers of our faith, said we often hear God’s calling in community – through the voice of others. Listen for God’s Word.
Read Esther 4:9-17. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We’re focusing on one phrase of our text today – “for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). It may be one of the most quoted phrases in Scripture. It’s used a lot when talking about God’s providence – how God seems to put us in the right place at the right time. God puts us in a position “for such a time as this.”
It’s an often used phrase because it helps us consider intentionally and prayerfully the positions in which we find ourselves. Not to play devil’s advocate – but to play devil’s advocate – as colleagues and I have sometimes debated, do we use the phrase too much? Don’t get me wrong – I fully believe in God’s providence. I believe that many things are not coincidences, but Godcidences. I also believe there can be just pure coincidences and that to see everything as a “for just such a time as this” moment may sometimes mean we are reading too much into the situation.
When I was in college, the parking lot closest to campus only had about 20 parking spaces. For a campus of 1600 students, that meant it was rare to catch an open spot in that lot. Whenever a friend found a parking spot there, she would say it was a sign God loved her, that that spot was open for just such a time as her car. We’d humor her and say, “Well, maybe so. Or maybe you’re just a little luckier than the rest of us.
There are a lot of Godcidences. There are also some coincidences.
In Esther’s case, it was definitely no coincidence. It seemed like God’s calling, for through her God did save the Jewish people. As Mordecai said, had she kept silent at such a time as this, disaster would have befallen her and all the people. But because God appointed her to her royal position for such a time as this, the people were saved.
Does that mean the takeaway from this passage is that every moment is a “for such a time” as this moment? That every situation is a time not to keep silent, but to speak out? Not necessarily. For then what do we do with passages like Ecclesiastes that say there’s a time to speak and a time to keep silence (Ecclesiastes 3:7)? Or passages like Acts Chapter 1 when the disciples were eager to take action and help Jesus restore his Kingdom, and Jesus said, “Wait. It’s not the time” (Acts 1:7)?
The takeaway from this passage isn’t always to speak out and never to keep silent. There’s a time to speak and a time to keep silent. A time to act and a time wait.
The takeaway from this passage is: How do we know when we’re in a “for such a time as this” moment? And what do we do when we find ourselves in a “for such a time as this” moment?
While I believe that not every moment is a “for just such a time as this” moment, if ever I believed we were in a “for just such a time as this” moment, it’s the moment we’re in right now. It’s this moment we’ve been experiencing during COVID – and it’s this moment we’re about to experience right now as we begin to move into post-pandemic life.
Our officers and staff have been reading The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation by Thom Rainer. In his introduction, Rainer writes, “The pandemic was a wake-up call like none other. The post-quarantine era is an opportunity to make the necessary positive changes to move us forward.” He later talks about how, for some of us, we’d fallen into a rut or gotten off course, and the pandemic has provided an opportunity to make some course corrections.
Rainer’s talking specifically about congregations, but his insights can also apply to us personally. If you’re like me, you’ve learned a lot about yourself this past year. What you value. What’s most important. Your strengths and your growing edges.
When because of the shutdown the list of things we couldn’t do became a lot longer than the list of things we could do, we learned to simplify our lives and appreciate the little things. Before March of last year, my husband and I had a weekly routine of going out to a fun new restaurant every Friday night. I’ve missed restaurants, but not as much as I thought I would. Who would have thought that throwing together leftovers, eating on our back deck, and playing Scrabble could be just as fun? (Especially when I was winning, but that’s another story.)
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. That’s been another positive change that’s come from the pandemic. In not just the absence of activities, but more importantly, the absence of people, we’ve rediscovered our need for human connection. Whereas before we may have taken for granted that we’d see one another, now we’ve had to be intentional in connecting with one another. I’ve heard countless stories of how people have called or texted friends more this past year than any prior year. Not just our pre-COVID friends, but the friends we’ve made during COVID. We said two weeks ago that many of us met our neighbors for the first time during quarantine. In the words of Thom Rainer, “Something wonderfully ironic transpired during the pandemic: Churches became more people-oriented as their freedom to gather people together was taken away.”
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about our becoming more people-oriented has been, not just our getting to know our neighbors, but our getting to know the needs of our neighbors. When schools moved to virtual and we realized that move left vulnerable children who depended on free breakfast and lunch at school, we saw dozens of grassroots efforts to provide food for our students. And, while, yes, the news told stories of “toilet-paper hoarders,” we also heard stories of those offering to share whatever they had to any in need.
Just like we met neighbors we’ve never met before, we saw needs of our neighbors we’d never seen before. I shared back in November a conversation I had with Tony Sundermeier, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. First Atlanta is a very mission-oriented congregation with a food pantry and other services traditionally offered by churches. During the pandemic, they started a new mission – that of providing port-a-potties for those experiencing homelessness. Not just any port-a-potties, but the nice, fancy port-a-potty trailers – those that came with individual stalls and, most importantly, sinks
When I asked Tony about this new mission, Tony said, “Until this pandemic, we never knew our greatest ministry might be to provide a place where people could wash their hands.”
We often assume we know what the needs of our neighbors are. The past year has allowed us to discover what those needs actually are.
More specifically, this past year we saw in new and humbling ways the need for racial justice. The day after the verdict was announced in the George Floyd murder trial, I read a devotional written by a friend of mine Allen Hilton. Allen wrote about how the pandemic has contributed to the long-overdue racial reckoning in our nation. Whereas before many of us have been preoccupied with our own lives, being at home during quarantine allowed us, not just to stop and get to know the needs of our immediate neighbors, but to be more tuned into the news on TV and online, where we saw videos of racial violence and the need for justice across our nation. In Allen’s words, “If a global pandemic, with its confinements and separations, had not produced the odd alchemy of cabin-bound restlessness and diversion-deprived focus, the nation and world might not have stopped long enough to grieve and protest such a death.”
Those are just a few of the many wake-up calls of the pandemic. Those are just a few of the profound gifts we’ve been given this year. That’s why I believe we are in a “for just such as a time as this” moment.
The question is: Now what do we do in response to this moment?
In response to the wake-up call we’ve been given, what are the necessary positive changes we need to make? In response to what we’ve learned about ourselves, what we’ve learned about our neighbors and our neighbors’ needs, now that we’ve discovered in new ways Jesus’ call to love our neighbor, how do we respond? Specifically, when it comes to our congregation, now that we’ve been given the unique gift of being the church outside our building, as we move back into our buildings, God has given us another great gift – the gift of being able to ask: What kind of church do we want to be now?
That leads us to this week’s reflection questions – and even an activity – for us this week.
First, how do we continue to get to know the needs of our neighbors? Again, we often assume we know our neighbors’ needs and how best to meet those needs. We tend to live by the “Field of Dreams” motto: “If you build it, they will come.” If we build a program, people will come. If we just open the doors, people will come.
Someone once said: If the 1950’s ever came back, the church would be ready. Because back then, when people moved to a new town or city, one of the first things they did was find a church. That’s not true anymore, nor is it true that just starting more and more programs will make people come to church. People won’t come to church unless it meets a felt need.
More importantly, Jesus never said, “Tell people to come to church.” He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
One of the most important questions Rainer asks is, “What if instead of assuming we knew the needs of our community, we asked our community how our church could best serve them?”
Just like Esther listened to Mordecai share about the needs of her community, so we need to listen to the needs of our community.
So here’s our first activity. You actually get to choose one of two activities. For you overachievers who want extra credit, you can do both. Option #1: Spend 30 minutes this week listening to your community. Sit in a park or walk around a store with no agenda other than to listen. Don’t bring a book to read. Don’t think, “Well, I need to go grocery shopping, so I’ll just walk around Publix for a half hour and do my shopping at the same time.”
It’s hard to listen well when you’re multi-tasking. I don’t know about you, but when I’m distracted by something else when someone is trying to talk to me, I may think I’ve heard them, but often I find I didn’t really hear them.
Spend half an hour this week somewhere in our community just listening. I’ve done this a few times in ministry, and I guarantee you it will be eye-opening what you hear and the needs you hear.
Second question and activity: As part of our study of this book, our Session has been brainstorming: Who are key leaders we know in our community that we can contact and ask: What needs do you see in our community, and how might Clairmont help meet those needs? I encourage you to do the same. Think of three people you know that you’d feel comfortable contacting and asking what they see as the needs of our community. Then…go and ask them.
After we’ve’ve taken time to listen, pray about those needs. Esther listened to Mordecai share the needs of their people. Before she acted, she called on the people to fast and pray for three days. Why is prayer an important step? Because we can’t be all things to all people. We can’t meet all of these needs. Not every need is a “for such a time as this” moment for us. Prayer helps focus our calling. It helps us discern: What are the needs of our community, and which of those needs has God uniquely equipped us to meet?
Finally, once we’ve listened, once we’ve prayed,…it’s time to act. What’s the point of listening and praying if we’re not going to act on what we’ve heard from our neighbors and from God? In fact, there’s an accountability that comes with listening. When we take the time to listen to people, they trust we will hear them and respond accordingly, right? The same is true of our community: If we take the time to ask people what are the needs of our community and how can Clairmont help meet those needs, our community will likely be grateful we asked. They will also likely expect us to respond.
One of the ways Rainer encourages us to consider how we might meet the needs of our neighbors is through the use of our buildings. We’ve proven this year the church is not a building. As we return to our amazing campus, what’s the highest and best use of our buildings? How can we best use our buildings to meet the needs of our community?
That’s not a new question for us at Clairmont. I asked Nancy Miranda to share with me the story of our Azalea Village Ministry. She told me the beautiful story about how back in 2006 the Session began praying about what God would have us do with those houses instead of sell them. About that time Hurricane Katrina hit, and many families were displaced to cities throughout the South, including Atlanta. Clairmont approached area churches about sponsoring families and housing them in Azalea Village. Later that ministry expanded by partnering with mission agencies, housing refugees, immigrants, missionary families, seminary students, and more. What a beautiful, beautiful story about how Clairmont once asked: What are the needs of our community, and how is God calling us to meet those needs?
That’s not a question we’re called to ask just once, but a question we are called to ask continually. As we listen to our community and as we consider our buildings, what do we think God would have us do with our buildings today? What’s the most creative, craziest, God-sized way we could invite our neighbors to use our property? What are the needs of our community today, and how is God calling us to meet those needs…for just such a time as this?
In closing, let me ask another question that might help us begin to look at Clairmont through our neighbors’ eyes: If Clairmont Presbyterian Church suddenly ceased to exist, would anyone miss us? If tomorrow our community woke up and we were no longer at the corner of Clairmont and North Druid Hills, would the community notice we were gone? Sure, they’d notice our big, beautiful steeple and sanctuary were missing, and there was now an empty lot. But would they notice anything else was missing?
If Clairmont were to disappear tomorrow, is there a need in our community that would no longer be met?
Thanks be to God, Clairmont isn’t going to disappear tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next week or month or year. As we said our very first week, let me say again today: We see a future Clairmont. Jesus sees a future Clairmont. Still, the question of that first week remains our question today: What is Jesus’ Kingdom-oriented future for our congregation?
Graciously Heavenly Father, open our ears to listen to our neighbors this week. Open our hearts to listen to you this week. Jesus, help us to hear your unique calling for us today. Then, Holy Spirit, give us courage to act. Through the strong name of Jesus we pray, Amen.