Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Life Against Death

Chris LandonSermon

Arbor House is a community of Northgate Free Methodist Church in Batavia, NY

Quentin Tarantino is rumored to be working on a Star Trek movie. When I heard that, it struck me as odd. Of all the directors that could make a decent Star Trek movie, his name does not immediately come to mind. I think that he has made some great movies, and is an iconic director who has his own style (usually involving a copious amount of blood). But when I think about Star Trek there seems to be significant differences between the feel of that series and a Tarantino movie. I’m not a trekkie, so maybe I have missed something along the way. But I think that when he makes one, it is going to seem different when set alongside all of the other Star Trek movies. Esther is the Tarantino Star Trek movie of the Bible. And that analogy actually works in more than one way. The book of Esther is pretty violent. Certainly not the most violent book in the Bible, but it wouldn’t make a PG movie.

The primary reason for the analogy, is that the book of Esther is quite unlike all of the other books of the Bible. It is different primarily for what it lacks. Scholar Johanna van Wijk-Bos said,1

“The book of Esther is not ‘religious’ in the traditional sense. It makes no reference to God. There is no mention of religious institutions such as the temple. Or of assemblies for liturgical purposes, or of texts such as the Torah. Even prayer is not mentioned, not even when a fast is called, an event traditionally accompanied by prayer.”
Johanna van Wijk-Bos

All of the typical themes of biblical narratives are absent from the book of Esther. That is, at least the themes that readily come to mind when we think of the religious themes that set the Bible apart among other literature. Prayer, God, Covenant, Temple, Torah – all absent.

“Esther … features death as a major player. Death stalks the festivities from beginning to end.”Johanna van Wijk-Bos

But van Wijk-Bos highlights a prominent theme in the book of Esther. It is also a common theme throughout scripture that is not often examined, primarily because it is depressing. She says, “Esther … features death as a major player. Death stalks the festivities from beginning to end.”2 Death is almost a character in the story of Esther; it stalks the characters and hides behind all of their actions as one of the primary motivators. Death is the means of the scheme of Haman, the fear of death is what motivates Mordecai, and it is what threatens the Jewish people.

Death is objectified in the comically large gallows that Haman builds for Mordecai. It is almost as if death is a character in the narrative; acting, speaking through the characters, moving in the dark in the background. It makes me think of Job and how death seemed to follow him – the death of all of those who were with him, family, servants, and animals. There have been times in my life where it felt as though death, personified followed me. My senior year of high school and freshman year at Roberts, my father died, as well as my grandmother and a close friend. It felt as though death followed me wherever I went. Everywhere I went there it was. But we know that death is not a being out there acting, even though it sometimes feels like it. Death is an ever-present reality of human life. It’s just a matter of how aware of it we are. And we also know that death is not a wholly negative thing; it often marks the end of pain, or is the natural conclusion of life. But from our perspective, it is understandably perceived as negative. We suffer an irreplaceable loss, and we mourn and lament it.

As we think and talk about death, the death that we are most commonly referring to is a physical death. We think of relatives or friends that have died. But physical death is not the only death that we find in scripture. The Biblical story portrays physical death, and life that is like death – a living death. Several stories illustrate this difference: the garden, Israel, and the exile.

In the garden story, we have the first two humans and they are placed in the garden of Eden. The one prohibition that they are given is that they are not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They can eat anything else that is in the garden, but not from that tree. The reason that God gives them for why they are to not eat from the tree is that “on the day that you eat from it, you will surely die.” Under penalty of death they are to not eat from the tree. Naturally, in the course of the story they eat from the tree, but they don’t drop dead. God had told them that they very day that they eat from it they would die. And it isn’t just “you’ll die” God is emphatic that they will surely die. But yet they continue living. Was God not completely truthful? Or is there something else going on? They may not have dropped dead the second the fruit passed their lips, but life surely changed. The ground was cursed, there were consequences for each of them, and they were banished from the garden. The goodness of life in the garden ended. Life had become like death. Life became a struggle with a separation between humanity and God. In the very next story, death intensifies and Cain kills Abel.

In the Joseph story, after the brothers sell Joseph into slavery they go to their father and convince him that Joseph had been killed by an animal. In Genesis 37 we read what happens when the brothers tell their father this story. “All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Did Israel mean that in that moment he was going to go down to the realm of the dead, Sheol, to be with his son? Was he going to die from the weight of the grief? Was he going to kill himself? Or had the loss of his beloved son made it seem as though being among the dead would be a comfort? His life was a living death, where Sheol would be a comfort.

“No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.”Genesis 37

The last story is the exile. Moses warns the people when they are on the border of the promised land that they need to keep the covenant that YHWH had made with the people. They are to worship and serve YHWH alone. Moses goes to great lengths to reinforce this point. He tells them that if they remain faithful, then things will go well for them in the land and they will flourish. If they go astray and chase after other gods and they don’t keep the commandments that YHWH had given them, then there are going to be consequences. Their land will be destroyed and they will be conquered. In the end, Moses summarizes their choice as between life and death. But we know how that story goes too, the people consistently serve other gods and they are conquered by Babylon. Not all of the people are killed in the invasion – many are taken as slaves back to Babylon. They continue to live, but it is a shell of their former lives. Many of their family members have been killed, their land is destroyed, their identity as a people is shattered. Their lives are both plagued by death and have become like death. They choose the path of death, and it was a path where their lives became characterized by death.

I think that this dual understanding of death is important, first because it illustrates the reality of so many people who suffer each day, and second, because it can give us a way to understand the death that is such a prominent theme in the book of Esther.

Death in the book of Esther takes the form of a royal decree that allowed the people of the nation to kill their jewish neighbors, all across the kingdom on a specific day. Surely it represents physical death that the Jewish people are threatened with, but it is also representative of the suffering that the Jewish people had faced up to this point. Death was the slavery that was their reality, it was the oppression that they faced. Both forms of death can be seen in the decrees. This decree was the brainchild of Haman, the villain of the story. Esther, as a Jew, finds her life to be in danger. She has a choice to either try to hide her ethnicity and hope that this passes over her, or she can confront the king with the death that she and her people are facing. But choosing the latter places her is another situation of life and death. Death seems to have Esther cornered. When faced with this choice, and with some encouragement from Mordecai, Esther chooses to act. She goes before the king, and through a convoluted series of dinner parties, finally reveals her ethnicity and the threat that is laying in wait for her and her people. She does it not just for herself, but also for her people. van Wijk-Bos summarizes Esther’s action this way,3

“Esther has already made a choice for life when she chose to make intercession for her people. Her choice moved her out of a passive, secretive existence that amounted to a kind of death into an active, open, and resistant position, against death and for life.”
Johanna van Wijk-Bos

Esther’s choice sets her on the side of life against death.

Esther’s courage in standing against death only partially resolves the situation that required her to act with courage. “Haman’s demise may guarantee Esther’s safety, but her community is still far from safe. The pogrom will take place as long as the machinery that has been set in motion for it is not stopped. Esther’s work is not yet done.”4 The mastermind of the decree and the primary aggressor against the Jewish people is gone in the death of Haman, but the decree still stands. The motivator maybe gone, but the repercussions of his actions still remain – that is the threat against the Jews. Esther must continue to stand against death. And following Esther’s example, we must continue to stand against death even in light of the cross, or perhaps because of the cross. Jesus’s defeat of death on the cross sets the example for us as a people who are to stand against death. In the same way, Esther’s courage to stand against death – to stand for life – should remind us all about the church’s call to stand for life. The church as representatives of Jesus are representatives of that life, specifically the resurrection life, that he proclaimed and enacted. Joel Green wrote,

“The metaphor of healing [towards life] serves as an invitation to the people of God, not only to be recipients of God’s good gifts of salvation, but also to be agents of healing, to be a community of compassion of restoration.”
Joel Green

We stand against death now in all forms that it takes because we are a community of healing, a community of restoration.

We are prone to see the removal of the evil actor as a removal of the consequences of their actions; that is, the death of Haman as the defeat of death. We collapse the two into one.

We are prone to see the removal of the evil actor as a removal of the consequences of their actions; that is, the death of Haman as the defeat of death. We collapse the two into one. Haman may be dead, but the threat still remains. Just because the slaves were set free does not mean we have adequately dealt with the legacy of racism in America. Just because we gave land to the Native Americans, does not mean we have dealt with the consequences of the genocide. Just because the church has said sexism and sexual harassment are bad, doesn’t mean that we have addressed the enduring consequences of a male dominated power structure. Just because a woman leaves an abusive relationship does not mean the effects of the trauma are healed.

When we stand against death, we have to recognize the ways that death has a long reach. Let us not be too quick to claim that death is overcome because we have done what is easy. We continue to struggle against death because the end is worth it. We do the hard work of fighting for life because we have hope. We catch a glimpse of this hope for life in Rev. 21 and 22.

In chapter 21 John says, Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” John looks ahead to the day when death no longer holds sway over humanity. Where the pain of death will be no more. Where life – specifically life lived in close relationship with God – will become the norm. John goes on in chapter 22 to talk about the tree of life that is in the midst of the new Jerusalem that is for the healing of the nations. And so while we live in the midst of a world that is overcome with death, we look forward to a future where death will no longer reign. We look forward to the reign of Jesus as king in the new heaven and new earth. Where everything functions according to his good rule. Where the powers of death that were defeated on the cross are defeated again and finally in Christ’s return.

We feel the call to stand against death, and we look with expectation and hope at the vision for life. But how do we take that abstract thought of standing in the gap and bring it into practical terms? That means practically that this place, Arbor House, is a place for all people who have felt hurt, who have faced death, and are in need of rest and restoration. We will make no qualifications about who is welcome. All are welcome. All are welcome to come and search for God, to seek rest, healing, and community. And we will be a people who welcome and support those who come. People are hurting, are living in the shadow of death, and the church is to be a place of hope, a place of life; and so that is what we will do.

It also means that we act towards life when we are outside these walls. We help and advocate for the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, the unborn, the addicted, and those caught in a systemic cycle of death. We give of our time to those who others don’t see as worthy. We sit and listen to those who are crying out for help. We walk alongside those who are facing giants who are bigger than they are. We do the little things of caring and acting out of kindness. My Greek teacher tried to give us hope when faced with the daunting task of learning Greek. He said, “Do you know how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” We are not going to have grand victories suddenly and easily. We are not likely to overcome modern day slavery, the whole of domestic violence, racism or sexism. But we can do the small things, with the power of the Holy Spirit, that move us toward that end. We won’t defeat the forces of death in a day, but we can be advocates for life knowing we are moving in that direction.

1van Wijk-Bos, 104
2van Wijk-Bos, 104
3van Wijk-Bos, 137
4van Wijk-Bos, 138

About the Author
Chris Landon

Chris Landon

Chris Landon is the Pastor of Word and Table at Arbor House. He has served at Arbor House since 2016. He is also the Camp Manager of Covenant Acres Campground and Retreat Center. Prior to that he was an Assistant Pastor at Gowanda Free Methodist Church and Youth Pastor at Ransomville Free Methodist Church.