Tag Archives: Hebrew Bible

Esther: Fate? Luck? A Story for Our Time – Esther 4:12-17, Romans 14:7-10, and John 14:25-27

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 17, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

Esther 4:12-17 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

Romans 14:7-10 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

John 14:25-27 [Jesus said to his disciples]  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

[sermon begins]

I went to a play called “Sweet and Lucky” about a month ago.[1]  Not your usual play in which you walk into a theater, sit down, and watch the actors on a stage.  “Sweet and Lucky” guides the audience in small groups, out of sequence from each other, across many rooms and sets as it tackles the idea of memory and how it works.

A relevant aside, I just found out last week that the show’s New York director, Zach Morris, is a confirmed son of the Augustana congregation. I mean that in the ritual sense.  Years ago, he affirmed his baptism in the rite of Confirmation here. His mother Maggie and sister Katelynn continue to worship here regularly.  Maggie handed me an article last Sunday about the play.  Funny how things happen like that and a connection can be seen only in hindsight.

And that takes us back to the play and why it may be at least loosely relevant to the sermon today.  At one point, an actor asked me if I believe in luck.  I said, “No.” She then asked if I believe in fate.  I said, “No…I think there’s an option that we aren’t able to understand.”  Just her luck that she got to talk with me, eh?  But her questions are onto something.  We are meaning-making beings.  Things need to mean something. If they don’t mean something, we’re stymied.  If they mean something terrifying, we’re still stymied.  We throw everything we can at situations to find some kind of answer to feel better about them. Whether it’s luck, fate, karma, God’s will, free will, or something else I can’t think of at the moment. Things happen and we start asking “why?” We want answers.  We are answer mongers and meaning makers.  When things happen, either we find answers or we make them up.

This reasoning out the “why” is the surface appeal of the Book of Esther.  Esther is an orphan 500 years before Jesus.  Not just any orphan, she’s descended a few generations from the Jewish people who were rounded up in Jerusalem and carted off into Persia by the king of Babylon. Esther is adopted by her cousin Mordecai and raised as his own daughter.[2]

Through a series of circumstances, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia, married to King Ahasuerus.[3]  She remains a Jew but this secret is kept from even the king himself.  Then comes Haman, second in power only to the king.  Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman so Haman plots to murder Mordecai, and I quote the Bible story here, “by giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews…”[4]

Mordecai catches wind of Haman’s orders to kill the Jews. What follows are a number of servant delivered messages between Mordecai and Esther.[5]  Mordecai challenges Esther to save her people. Esther argues back that the king could have her put to death if she shows up uninvited.  And then comes Mordecai’s message back to her, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews…Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Even Mordecai is looking for an answer to the “why” question while he’s looking for an answer to help his people.  The way he asks Esther to help implies that it is either her fate or God’s will or some combination of the two.  In the end, she resolves to help even through it could mean her death and she says, “…if I perish, I perish.”[6]

Esther’s story is cleaned up quite a bit for the G-rated worship musical the kids are preaching through this morning’s 10:30 worship. To get the full story takes reading this Bible book laced with dark humor and questionable outcomes. While reading, it’s engaging to wonder about your own life as reflected in Esther’s self-sacrificial courage, Mordecai’s righteous determination, Haman’s fearful self-preservation, and King Ahasuerus’ detached ignorance.

Esther’s story is meaningful and relevant to the current moment in the world. She begins in the royal court, a place of comfort tainted by episodic fear and indifference. Rattled by Mordecai’s truth, her acceptance of risking death has a self-sacrificial purpose – neither fatalistic nor nihilistic. She listens to him, formulates a dubious plan, and goes into action on behalf of her people.  And the parts of the story you just heard happen in only four short chapters with a little over half the book to go.

Mark George, my Hebrew Bible professor was asked why the stories in these earliest writings are the ones that remain.  Dr. George resisted pious or academic answers.  He said with high intensity, “Because they’re GOOD stories!”  He might have even had a fist in the air when he said it.  There was that much emphasis.  “Because they’re GOOD stories!”

They’re good partly because the stories they tell are about complicated people. Trusty Noah?  Read what happens after the flood when he builds a vineyard and makes wine.[7]  Faithful Abraham?  Lied about Sarah being his sister to save his own skin not once but twice![8] Biblical heroes are often as flawed as they are faithful.  That makes for good story.

It also makes for something more than a good story.  It means that we have a shot at seeing our particular iteration of flawed and faithful in the pages of the Good Book.

Esther is no exception to Dr. George’s “GOOD story” category.  In the face of Haman’s treachery and King Ahasuerus’ indifference, Esther is challenged to save her Jewish people, putting her life at risk to do so.  But the reality is that while we aspire to Esther, we’re regularly caught in moves that smack of King Ahasuerus’ ignorance or Haman’s power grab.  Comparing Esther’s self-sacrificial resolve to Christ’s self-sacrifice may get us a little further.  Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is good for this comparison.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death on the cross is the inevitable outcome to his life-giving ministry.  Inevitable because the life he offers is one of mercy, freedom, and peace which is perceived as a threat by the people around him.  In his death no hand is raised against the people God so loves. Rather, Jesus is resolved to see it through. Resolve that ends in self-sacrifice on a cross.

Jesus’ resolute self-sacrifice means that Christians are neither nihilists nor fatalists.  Nihilists argue that life is meaningless. Fatalists argue that life is determined by an impersonal fate.  Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans reflect a Christian’s take on life – “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

Paul’s words are a confession of faith.  Not a faith that protects us against the struggles of life and death.  Rather, a faith that confesses Jesus’ resolve to make redemption and healing known even from the most difficult situation.[9]  And still we may not see the redemption and healing except for time passing and hindsight, if we get to see it at all.

The readings today from Esther, Romans, and John, offer slightly different perspectives on fear, death, and peace.  In John, Jesus promises peace as the One whose ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross is purposeful rather than nihilistic – gathering us around the tree of the cross, transforming death into life as well as our self-preservation and indifference into action for the sake of the world God so loves.


[1] Zach Morris. Sweet and Lucky, a collaboration between Third Rail Projects and Denver Center for Performing Arts Off-Center.

[2] Esther 2:7

[3] Esther, chapters 1 and 2

[4] Esther, chapter 3. Direct quote is from verse 13.

[5] Esther, chapter 4

[6] Esther 4:16

[7] Genesis 9:20-27

[8] See Genesis chapters 12 and 20.

[9] David Lose. “Faith, Forgiveness, and 9-11.”  Dear Working Preacher… September 4, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1595

An Ash Wednesday sermon from the Hebrew Bible in Isaiah 58:1-12

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday from the Hebrew Bible in Isaiah 58:1-12

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 18, 2015


[sermon begins after the Bible reading from Isaiah]

Isaiah 58:1-12 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

[sermon begins]

In the Bible reading this past Sunday, Jesus’ disciples asked each other the question, “What could this rising from the dead mean?”[1]  They asked this amongst themselves after Jesus told them that he was going to be killed and that he was going to rise again.  The question for us today on Ash Wednesday, and for the next 40 days of Lent, isn’t so much about rising from the dead – although certainly the end of the story is reassuring.  We will get to the resurrection soon enough in the Easter season.  The question for us today on Ash Wednesday, and for the next 40 days of Lent, is much more about the first part of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about him being killed.  The question for us becomes, “What could this Jesus dying on a cross mean?”  Lent opens up space and time to ask that question.  Ash Wednesday is a moment when we begin to ask it in earnest.

Rabbi Harold Kushner talks about the desire to be taken seriously and how that plays out in our lives.  He writes, “We want to be judged because to be judged is to be taken seriously, and not to be judged is to be ignored…But at the same time we are afraid of being judged and found flawed, less than perfect, because our minds translate ‘imperfect’ to mean ‘unacceptable, not worth loving’.”[2]

The language of judgment has fallen out of favor.  You might read in an article or hear someone say, “I’m just describing that situation for now without putting a judgment on it.”  Or, after you get done telling someone about something you’ve done, the person listening to you might say, “Just sit with it for a while without judging it.”  These are often wise words that create some room around a volatile situation, ramping it down a notch or two so that necessary decisions can be made or so that a relationship might be salvaged.

However, being brought back around to something you have done or are still doing that hurts other people or yourself is exactly the kind of judgment that’s about being taken seriously.  Not taken seriously by just anyone, but taken seriously by God.  So that when you encounter sin from which you finally can’t escape, there is the hope of being taken seriously by God.

The Bible reading from Isaiah teases us with our seeming desire for God’s righteous judgment and delighting in drawing near to God.  Then Isaiah flags the ways we play this out as self-serving, losing sight of God in the process.  Isaiah begs the question, “If you’re wondering where God is in your life, is it possible that you’re pursuing the wrong things?”[3]   Ash Wednesday and Lent offer us a time when we’re able to ask this question together, accompanying each other as our flawed priorities and our very selves are marked with ash and called out as flimsy and fragile.

As you and your priorities are marked with ash, consider beginning a Lenten practice that signals a different priority.  Isaiah gives us some things to choose from including letting the oppressed go free… sharing bread with the hungry, cover the naked, not hiding yourself from your own family…removing the yoke from among you by not pointing fingers or speaking evil and meeting the needs of the afflicted.  Other options to add as a Lenten practice could include praying for others at Chapel Prayer here on Mondays mornings or Tuesdays evenings; praying for other people as a link on the Prayer Chain who receive the weekly prayer requests by e-mail; or showing up for the Making Sense of Scripture class on Tuesday mornings or Thursday evenings.  There are many more practices across the Christian tradition that could serve as a reordering of priorities during Lent.

In the meantime, like the flawed people to whom Isaiah is writing, we come together before the God who says, “Here I am.”[4]  In God’s presence there is a holy judgment.  A holy judgment that takes you seriously because you are so worth loving even, and maybe especially, when you least believe you are worth loving.  You are so worth loving that God steps into the mix to show you just how much you are worth loving.  God’s love frees us to ask the question in love, “What could this Jesus dying on a cross mean?”  Let’s spend some time over the next few weeks asking it together.

[1] Mark 9:10 – So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

[2] Harold Kushner.  How Good Do We Have To Be? A New Understanding of Love and Forgiveness. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1996).  http://www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/howgood.html

[3] Matt Skinner on Sermon Brainwave for Ash Wednesday on February 18, 2015 at workingpreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=594

[4] Isaiah 58:9 “…you shall cry for help, and [God] will say, Here I am.”

Luke 3:7-18 “God’s Righteous Wrath Rocks On”

Luke 3:7-18 “God’s Righteous Wrath Rocks On”

December 16, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

Lutheran Church of the Master, Lakewood, CO

Luke 3:7-18   John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


I’m going to skip right over the question about how many of you even knew there was a prophet named Zephaniah and whether or not you knew there is a book in the Bible with his name on it.  Not one of our more commonly referenced prophets, the book is only three chapters long and filled with fierce, angry, wrath of God type stuff.  Somewhere along the way, this God who gets angry fell out of favor and not often discussed.  Because really, who’s in favor of being on the receiving end of anyone’s anger, much less God’s? [1]

So this brings me to a question – one that you could answer easily, unlike the Zephaniah Bible quiz.  Have you ever had someone stand beside you and get angry on your behalf?  You’ve been down and out through no fault of your own or cheated or bullied and someone stands with you railing against the injustice of it all.  Your friend is angry for you and maybe even with you.  Well, this is a small scale way of appreciating the wrath of God message of the prophets – an historic tradition of people who call attention to injustices perpetrated by people against each other and against God.  There is a temptation we need to be careful to avoid as we compare our friend’s righteous anger and God’s righteous anger.  The temptation is that we often view ourselves on the side of God over and against whatever is happening that we may dislike – as opposed to standing apart from God along with everyone else.

I, for one, want a God who gets angry – a God who gets angry about the horror in Newtown, Connecticut rather than being absent or apathetic.  Because a God who died on a cross is there in these crises.  Where else would God be but with those who are suffering and dying at the hands of an evil act?  And now, likewise, with those who are suffering and grieving in its aftermath.  A God who gets angry shows up in defiant compassion and righteous truth.

Zephaniah’s words of hope come at the very end of a two and a half chapter prophetic rant.  And it includes a beautiful promise about God.  Zephaniah says, “He will renew you in his love.” Hear this again, please… “He will renew you in his love.”  How easy would it be view this promise through the soft, filtered light of a dewy, spring morning?  Too easy, if you ask me.   Too quickly, we are inclined to move to a sentimental notion of renewal that leaves the power of God dull and lifeless in our own minds.  And has us saying things like, “I’m not sure I like that Old Testament God.”  Or, “The Old Testament God came out for war and the New Testament God came out for a game of golf.”  In the desire to distance ourselves from the anger, we disconnect God’s story into two distinct pieces rather than appreciating the continuity of  God from the Hebrew Scriptures into the good news of the Gospel.  And sometimes I wonder if we’re not leaving out the better part.

Well, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo.  Listen to him! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?”  John’s words reveal him to be part of the continuity between what happened as described by the prophets of old and what is happening now to the crowds who are swarming out to meet him.[2]  Although, after John’s greeting, I would guess that a few of them were wondering why they made the trip.

But John gives more than accusation and threat.  He says to them, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” It is good to pause here to remember all that is embedded in repentance.  Repentance assumes that God’s mercy is available.  Repentance assumes that God’s grace will come.  Repentance then also assumes our need for both of those things.  What good is repentance if God is not merciful?  What good is repentance if God’s grace is unpredictable and easily or capriciously withheld?

Another way to think about repentance is through this lens of being renewed in God’s love, being revealed in all that we are in the fullness of the good, the bad and the ugly.  The crowd, tax collectors and soldiers ask, “What then should we do?”  The crowd is apparently hanging onto more than they need, the tax collectors are collecting for Rome but lining their own pockets by overcharging, and the soldiers of the time are bullies, extorting money from the people.  In short, John tells them to share, play fair, and be kind.  This is not rocket science.  This is renewal that stands you with your neighbor rather than against them.

We can so easily stand apart from the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, feeling grateful that those aren’t our particular sins.  However, I see us smack in the middle of this crowd wondering why we came in today only to hear John’s words push against us, too.  After all, it’s difficult to fully celebrate the arrival of a savior if you don’t see much need for one from the start.

But then John lobs out a power-filled promise of God’s renewal and I’m left breathing deeply and overflowing with hope:

“16 John answered them all by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

The power of Pentecost is on fire just under the surface of this Advent text.[3]  The Holy Spirit, at work in Mary’s pregnancy, has more in mind than the gentle quiet of a nativity scene.  The Holy Spirit has us in mind, my friends.

John’s proclamation that “the one who is coming…will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit,” is indeed good news.  One of the ways John’s words help us today is by working us toward an understanding of this wild promise.   This begins with the distinction he makes between the wheat and chaff.  I see each of us here today as one of those grains – a grain sitting all warm and cozy within the chaff that surrounds it.  We get used to our chaff.  Some might even argue that we’ve made peace too easily with our chaff, our sinful selves.  But part of the promise is that our repentance, our surrender to the one who has the power to renew us, is that the sin gets called out in truth, gets forgiven and gets worked with.  And once that happens, look out!  This kind of renewal is more than a spa day – it is a salvation day in the here and now.

There are all kinds of ways God’s renewal in God’s love by the power of the Holy Spirit looks in people’s lives.  It can look utterly dramatic on the outside – like the woman with whom I’ve worshiped who killed her lover’s wife and has been incarcerated in Denver Women’s Correctional Facility for the past 20 years.  This woman sits in a Bible Study about the 10 commandments and confesses to breaking all of them.  She has a powerful ministry within the walls, reaching out in faith to other offenders –taking responsibility for her crime and living with the consequence as she sings of Christ’s freedom at Friday evening worship.  Renewal for her is being freed into a new future; one not defined by her past or the perception of those around her or even her location.

God’s renewal in God’s love by the power of the Holy Spirit can also look more subtle.  It can look like people who rage, gossip, gloat, hoard, cheat and bully, in both clever and unaware ways, and those same people walking up to bread and wine, surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s power to renew us in forgiveness and hope.   In short, it looks like people in need of a Savior, people who may or may not see or understand this need, and who celebrate his birth.

We are a people who need a Savior and who, very soon, will celebrate our Savior’s arrival.  Because we do not have a God who uses power to do us harm out of anger.  Rather, we have a God who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came among us in skin and solidarity under star and comes among us now in Word, water, bread and wine – forgiving us and refining us by the power of the same Spirit.  We are prepared to receive our Savior in this Advent time by “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”[4]

Amen and Hallelujah!







[1] Abram Heschel, “The Meaning and Mystery of Wrath” in The Prophets (New York: Harper &Row, 1962), 358-382.

[2] Rolf Jacobson, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[3] Karoline Lewis, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[4] Revelation 1:8