by Daniel Harrell
It’s nice to be back in familiar, if chilly, environs this morning having spent the past two Sundays preaching in Brooklyn and Miami—in two different Congregational churches both named Plymouth. Talk about a coincidence. And this after just having attended a meeting the week before at the Minneapolis Plymouth Church. We Congregationalists do love our Pilgrims. After my sermon in sunny Miami last Sunday, I was greeted by a number of Minnesotans as well as by a dear 90-year-old woman who grew up in the Brooklyn Plymouth Church back in the 1940s. I remarked how I’d just preached at her church the previous week. And even the same sermon! “What a coincidence!” Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn is also where our previous Senior Minister from Colonial Church, David Fisher, served. And as many of you know David and I worked together in Boston before he came here—Boston which happens to be just north of Plymouth, Massachusetts. While in Brooklyn, I had dinner with a family, the father of whom grew up in New Hampshire. I worked as a youth minister in New Hampshire back in the 1980s. He said he found faith in Jesus at a youth group in a congregational church in Brookline, New Hampshire. That was the youth group I started. He attended it right after I left for Boston. Not only that, but he and his family were planning a vacation to Miami.
Were these coincidences? Random lucks of the draw? Haphazard happenstances? Chance, small world encounters? Or something more mysterious and premeditated? Albert Einstein once quipped that, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
Christians prefer the term “providence,” by which we mean the way God lovingly nudges all things toward his intended ends. Our belief in such benevolence is summed up best in the apostle Paul’s assurance to the Romans, “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” As for anonymity, providence is silent work; its evidence known only by outcomes. Flip through the pages of Scripture and The Lord leaves fingerprints everywhere. You’d expect no less from the Bible. It is a book about God. Interesting, then, that the book of Esther never mentions God. Search every page of this Old Testament adventure and nowhere will you find the name of the Lord. And unlike much of the Old Testament, the Lord saith nary a peep either. This is as silent as God ever gets.
We talking about silence in Scripture this Lent. We began with Ash Wednesday and the role silence serves in fostering obedience to the Lord. To obey in Hebrew derives from the verb to listen—you can only hear once you stop making noise yourself. Last Sunday, Jeff Lindsay spoke from Isaiah on silence as submission to the will of God, an obedience that at times requires great courage, conviction and trust. Danielle Jones preached from Psalm 62 the Sunday before, stressing silence’s capacity for disorienting our souls for the sake of reorienting them back to God.
Silence has long been considered an invaluable and sacred spiritual discipline—especially during Lent. To be still makes space for the Spirit to stir. Silence consents to the Lord’s presence and acknowledges his providential hand. “Be still and know that I am God,” we hear in the Psalms. Silence before God is silence with God, a communion of faith too deep for words.
We’re working in some moments of silence during our Lenten worship—practicing what we preach for a minute here and there. If you’ve ever practiced intentional silence for longer periods of time—as part of our Centering Prayer group here at Colonial for instance—then you know while sitting for a minute in silence can feel like hours, silence for an hour feels like a minute. It’s as if you transcend time once your enter God’s presence. It could make this sermon seem shorter.
For others, silence can feel like a waste of time. Yet from a spiritual perspective, this is what makes silence so significant. Silence is a basic act of faith precisely because you cannot know for certain that anything is to be gained from it. Of course, if nothing else, a moment of silence makes time to mentally run through a neglected to-do list, think about brunch, or rework your March Madness brackets. This is one of the problems with silence: it has a hard time keeping quiet.
Coincidentally, we worship a God who hasn’t always been so quiet either. The Lord speaks from the very beginning of Scripture and shows up loudly throughout. He booms forth in thunder and earthquake, fire and wind. He employs prophets to speak and sing, to rant and rave. God creates and redeems through speech—making the world with words and then saving the world through his word made flesh in Jesus. A noisy God deliberately contrasts with quiet and worthless idols. The true sign of a false god is that it can’t make a sound. The noisy, true Lord invites noisy worship: “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;” sings the Psalmist, “break forth into joyous song and sing praises—with the harp and trumpets and horns. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD.” On Palm Sunday when Jerusalem’s religious leaders tried to squelch the boisterous crowds praising Jesus, he informed them how, “If the people keep quiet, the very stones along the road will cry out with cheers.”
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit made a huge racket, crashing down as fiery tongues, no less, to form the first church. The Spirit inspired his people to more noise than ever. At the Miami church last Sunday, the noise included not only my preaching but all kinds of dancing and singing and clapping—very out of character for Congregationalists. Especially during Lent. It must have something to do with Florida weather and Latin culture.
Jews don’t do Lent of course, but they do do Purim, a holiday commanded by the book of Esther. Every year around this time (this year on March 16), Jewish worshippers gather in synagogues with clamorous noise-makers called groggers in tow to listen to Esther. Every time they hear the name Haman, the antisemitic arch-villain in this book who plotted a massacre of all the Jews in Persia, synagogue worshippers boo and hiss, stomp their feet and rattle their groggers to voice their disdain. Purim means “lottery” and refers to how Haman chose the date on which to commit his genocide. Haman’s plan was thwarted by sound, a bold decision to speak up. Esther is the story of a courageous young beauty pageant winner who managed to marry a pagan Persian king by keeping quiet about her religion, but who in the end saved her people by opening her mouth and telling the truth.
Unlike Jews who read Esther every year, Christians don’t read it much, if ever, probably because God never gets mentioned. The story centers around a young orphaned girl raised by her cousin in ancient Persia. King Xerxes of Persia, looking for a new queen, threw a beauty contest. The Jewish Esther won, surprisingly (and providentially), and was elevated to the throne—good news for her cousin, Mordecai, who scored a plum government job as a result. Mordecai’s position ignited envy and anger from the Persian Lord Haman, a man of Amalekite descent, a tribe of people who’d hated the Jews for centuries. Mordecai didn’t like Haman either for the same reasons, and thus refused to bow to Haman when Haman demanded it. Viewing this affront as just cause, the hateful Haman hatched his plan to not only kill Mordecai but every Jew in Persia (as the Amalekites had tried to do in an earlier age). Given the size of the Persian empire and Israel’s captivity to it, such a mass murder would have succeeded in wiping virtually all the Jews off the planet. Haman got King Xerxes to consent to his evil plot (Xerxes not being the nicest of monarchs himself). Word reached Mordecai here in chapter 4, who reacted by ripping his clothes and donning sackcloth and ashes. He paraded noisily through the streets, wailing a loud and bitter lament.
Esther got wind of her cousin’s loud mourning and inquired as to its reason. Mordecai informed Esther of Haman’s genocidal intents, and charged her to go to the king and beg for her people. Esther demurred, however, on account that anyone who barged in on the king uninvited was immediately executed, including the queen (King Xerxes, again, not being the nicest of monarchs). Mordecai then famously responded to Esther, “Don’t imagine for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will be the only Jew who escapes. If you keep silent at a time such as this, you and your relatives will perish. Relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place” (the closest we ever get to a nod to God in Esther). “Who knows?” Mordecai foreshadowed, “perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Esther was in the right place at the right time. The Lord’s fingerprints were evident. The question is: would she do the right thing and say something? We find ourselves at similar junctures all the time. Tell the uncomfortable truth or save our skin with a lie? Do we confess or cover up? The news is filled lately with cover ups by church bishops who shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish while paying hush money to victims. Infidelity requires all kinds of extramarital taxes to keep secret. Governmental politics as usual customarily obfuscates from this-gate and that-gate, from Benghazi to New Jersey bridges. Nobody tells the whole truth. It’s why we say “so help me God,” because there’s no other way we’d do it. And even that’s no guarantee. In the Bible, the book about God, we have Jacob’s sons secretly selling off their brother Joseph into slavery. King David tried to cover up his adultery by murdering the husband. Peter lied to hide his relationship to Jesus. Judas took a bribe to betray him. And yet, somehow, this was all for good–David was Israel’s great King, Peter the chief of the church, Joseph was able to say to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” No where is this more evident than on the cross that unjustly killed Jesus with help from Judas’ betrayal. Christians view this ancient, vile wooden instrument of cruelty and torture the supreme expression of God’s sacrificial love for the world.
Are good outcomes sufficient salve for the evil that precedes them? This is the perennial rub: “Why would a loving and providential God allow evil to begin with?” The only possible answer hinges on the importance of human freedom, a freedom mandatory if God is to love the world instead of coerce it to do as he wills. From the beginning the Lord gives us choices and chances to do right or do wrong, choosing himself not to treat us as puppets. And then despite all our bad choices, God so loved us anyway still, that he sent his Son to save us. The purpose of providence is not premeditation, but grace and redemption.
I like the analogy of God as a grand master chess-player playing chess with an eight-year-old novice. Whatever move the eight-year-old makes in the complicated game of life, the grand master already knows the outcome. There’s no doubt who will win in the end. The Master’s knowledge does not preempt or prevent human freedom, but takes whatever moves are made and makes them work for his purposes. How else to make sense of the cross? Freedom has always come with great cost. In Lent we take stock of that cost and thank Jesus for his willingness to pay it.
For Esther, the choice was between speaking up to save her people at the risk of her own life, or keeping quiet and try saving herself. She had fellow Jews fast for three days as a kind of prayer (though speaking to God, like speaking of God, never happens overtly in Esther). She then planned two fancy banquets and invited both her husband, the King, and Haman, tricking Haman into thinking he was in her favor too. Buttered up with his defenses down, Esther blew the whistle on Haman, tying his diabolical plot to an attempt on her own life as queen. The enraged King, with poetic justice, ordered the treasonous Haman be hung on the very gallows he built for Mordecai. The King then promoted Mordecai to Haman’s honored position as the king’s right hand man. Mordecai used this authority to save all Jews from further peril, paving the way for Jesus’ own emergence as king of the Jews and Savior of the world.
Esther saves by not staying silent. Providentially in the right place at the right time, she does the right thing, a heroine to all too afraid to speak up. Where did her courage come from? This Bible never says God here, but the outcomes have divine fingerprints everywhere; outcomes the rest of scripture happily confirms: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” The purpose of providence is not premeditation, but grace and redemption. We risk trouble whenever we speak truth to powers that intend to harm or destroy. We risk hate and derision whenever we intervene in conflicts that are none of our business. We risk alienation when we intercede in family problems or complicated relationships, risk exclusion when we step into workplace politics or take a stand in public debate, we risk being ostracized and stereotyped when we speak honestly about our faith or blow the whistle on injustice and sin, we risk humiliation and shame when the sin is our own. It is simpler, and safer, to stay silent. Where do we get the courage to speak up? From Jesus Christ our Lord who rose up from the dead. In him we can face even death because in the end, even death works for God’s good.
Created in the image of God, one thing that sets people apart from other creatures is our capacity for speech. As people redeemed by Jesus, the word made flesh, we use words to help and to heal, to do right and make right. Silence has long been considered an invaluable and sacred spiritual discipline—but silence is not an end in itself. Mother Theresa put it this way: “The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace.” So help us God.