Tag Archives: Proper 21B

No ‘male and female in Christ Jesus’—Sunday 26, Year B (30 September 2012)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Mark 9.38-50


When we baptise someone here at Centenary Uniting Church, we say the words of this Scripture from Galatians 3:

As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

And we respond:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Today, D was baptised. She is growing up in a time and place when we have a female prime minister, a female governor-general and even—for the first time ever, this weekend!—a female umpire at an Aussie Rules grand final.

She is growing up in a very different world from any girl who grew up in biblical times, whether in the Old or New Testaments. A girl who was born in those times and places had no rights and was very much a second-class citizen.

Of course, there is a ‘glass ceiling’ even today. We have our first female Prime Minister, Governor-General and Aussie Rules umpire. And it’s not that long ago that a woman had to leave work when she married, and couldn’t take a bank loan without the permission of her husband.

And there are still churches that refuse to even consider ordaining women.

But D is still growing up in a very different world from any woman of the Bible. Like Esther, for example.

The Book of Esther is a kind of historical novel (R rated!) set in the time of the Exile. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and deported its best people. The Persians had overrun the Babylonians, and Esther was born in exile almost 500 years BC. She never saw Jerusalem.

The Persian king was Ahasuerus, or Xerxes. This was a time when the king could say Chop off his head and it was done without question. He wasn’t a good man or a nice king.

He was married to Vashti, who was beautiful. At the end of a week-long drunken party with the court officials, the king ordered that Vashti come in to show them her beauty. I think we’re led to understand that she was to leave nothing to the imagination. She refused. Good for her!

Vashti’s refusal had her banned from the king’s company ever again. Was she banished or killed? We don’t know, but the traditional assumption is that she lost her life.

The king needed a new wife. So they went looking for beautiful young virgins to bring to the king’s palace. Esther was one.

It took a year to get these virgins ready to meet the king. They had cosmetic treatments, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes of various kinds.

Finally, Esther ‘went in’ to the king. This wasn’t a beauty pageant! The king was delighted with her and made her queen.

(In case any of you men are wishing you we’re born then, let me say two things: there was only one king. And this king took 500 boys a year from various parts of the empire so they could serve him. As eunuchs.)

Back to Esther. The king didn’t know that Esther was a Jew; her uncle had advised her to keep it a secret.

When a king had real power, there was a lot of intrigue in royal courts. No one’s back was safe. Esther helped to foil a plot against the king, which got her uncle Mordecai noticed; he got in the bad books of Haman, the king’s chief official. When Haman learned that Mordecai was a Jew, he plotted to exterminate all the Jews.

Esther used her wiles at another drunken party to accuse Haman of plotting genocide, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

Esther had saved the day for the Jews.

It reads like the plot of an opera, doesn’t it? Love, revenge, people who aren’t what they seem, and then happily ever after for the people that matter. And of course, it has indeed been made into an opera. Several, in fact.

I’ll bet we’re all glad D wasn’t born back in Esther’s day!

But D hasn’t been born in a perfect time. She enjoys full human rights, which wasn’t even thought of in Esther’s day. But her family had to leave Sri Lanka because of the lack of human rights there. They aren’t in exile, but they are away from the land of their ancestors. So D is a sign for us to be concerned for the rights of others in Sri Lanka, in West Papua and wherever people’s rights to life, health and freedom are restricted.

We want to do that because we know her family, and because we’re decent human beings. But more than that, we want to do it because Christ has made us one. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Asian or European, Sri Lankan or Australian, we are all one in Christ Jesus. We are family.

We may find ourselves in difficult times, as Esther did. We may even have to use some dubious methods for good to prevail, as Esther did. But our guiding light is not what we think is politically achievable, but Jesus himself and his call to us to be true to our baptism by being one in his name, serving one another and the world for which he lived and died and rose again.

In today’s rather strange Gospel passage, Jesus effectively says

Don’t put anything in the way of the little ones who believe in Jesus.

Let’s take our baptismal promises seriously, and be that

loving community in Christ:
nurturing one another in faith,
upholding one another in prayer,
and encouraging one another in service,
until Christ comes.

Welcome to the family, D!


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What the hell is Gehenna?

This is a sermon I wrote for Sunday, but won’t give. We’re baptising a wonderful little girl, so how could I miss the chance to speak about Queen Esther? So here are some thoughts about Gehenna. I’m speculating, but that’s so for anyone who ventures an opinion in this area.

James 5.13-20
Mark 9.38-50


A mother mouse and a baby mouse were scurrying along by the skirting board, when suddenly!—the cat leaps into their path. The mother mouse says, ‘Woof! Woof!’ and the cat runs away.

‘See?’ says the mother mouse to her baby. ‘Now do you see why it’s important to learn a foreign language?’

I don’t want you to learn a whole foreign language today. Just one Hebrew name: Gehenna. What is Gehenna? Gehenna is a place. It’s a Hebrew name that means ‘Hinnom Valley’. Hinnom Valley—Gehenna—was south west of ancient Jerusalem.

Gehenna was the valley where in former days Israelites used do something we can’t really even imagine—it is the place where they engaged in human sacrifice. But even more than that, Gehenna was where they sacrificed their own children to the god Molech by burning them to death with fire. It was a horrific place.

So when Jesus talks about Gehenna, it brings dreadful pictures to the minds of his hearers, pictures they’d rather not be reminded of.

It was about 600 years before Christ that the practice of human sacrifice in Gehenna was ended by the reforming King Josiah. There’s some controversy about this next bit, but it seems that after King Josiah removed pagan altars and stopped the worship of Molech, Gehenna became the Jerusalem town dump. Josiah lived 600 years before Jesus was born, but apparently Gehenna was still a garbage dump where the fires burned night and day and never went out, and where worms ate through rotting flesh without stopping.

Gehenna was a notorious place. It was so horrific that it became a symbol of what we call ‘hell’.

We all have an idea of what hell may be like. Is it a place of eternal separation from God? Is there fire and brimstone? Is it possible to be rescued from hell? Does hell even exist?

The truth is that the pictures we have of hell owe more to Greek mythology and to medieval Christian imaginations than they owe to the Bible. The fire and brimstone, the pitchforked demons, and hell’s everlasting nature are all hard to get from the Bible alone. Continue reading

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