A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
[Readings: Esther 3:8 – 4:14; Mark 9:14-29]
May the words of my mouth and meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I confess I don’t know enough about the sacred writings of other faiths; but apart from the expected injunctions such as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, or the instructive historical narratives, one characteristic of the Bible that has always had an impact on me is the power of conversation as a means of conveying great spiritual truths. You will readily recall many such conversations. Most of them are between God and people; consider key lines from some of these:
God took Abraham outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars … so shall your offspring be.’ [Genesis 15:5]
‘What shall I tell the Israelites’ asked Moses; God said, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say.’ [Exodus 3:13-14]
Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? [Acts 9:4]
There are also the many conversations recorded in the gospels that the Son of God not only had with the disciples but also with ordinary people whom he encountered –such as the woman at the well. [John 4:1-42] or with Martha and Mary [Luke 10:35-42]
Then there are recorded conversations between individuals which have a place in Scripture because of their special significance in helping us better understand the Divine will. The conversation in the middle of the night between the young Samuel and the dyspeptic priest Eli comes to mind. [1 Samuel 3]
Tonight’s readings contain two conversations, one of the latter type and one between an ordinary person and the Son of God.
From the Book of Esther, there is the famous dialogue between Mordechai and Esther which contains this oft-quoted line:
Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this. [4:14]
This counsel from Mordechai to Esther came after he had warned her:
For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter. [4:14]
Then from the Gospel of Mark, we have this famous line:
I believe, help my unbelief. [9:24]
While this story of healing also appears in the gospels of Matthew [17:14-23] and Luke [9:37-45], it is only in Mark that we hear something of the conversation between Jesus and the father of the boy. The father who had uttered these troubled words of believing had brought his child, who suffered chronic seizures, to Jesus in the hope of possible healing. Jesus had asked the boy’s father for some information about the child’s condition to which the father had responded and then added:
If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us. [9:22]
Though politely not included in Matthew and Luke’s versions, Mark reports that Jesus had then snapped back at the father:
If you are able! [9:23]
Before calming and adding:
All things can be done for the one who believes. [9:23]
It was in his reaction to being chided that the stressed father, speaking one imagines with head bowed, had then said the words:
I believe, help my unbelief.
I’ll return to that dialogue in a moment; but first let me explore the conversation between Mordechai and Esther. It comes from one of the only two biblical books named after a woman; a book which, in its original version,  also has the unusual distinction amongst biblical texts of being the only one not to mention God, nor of having any call to prayer contained within it. Furthermore, it also has its own Jewish annual festival directly connected with it – Purim. Our Christian understanding of the book tends to stop at the Mordechai-Esther conversation and the immediate aftermath of the salvation of God’s people; it is very significant that we then tend to glide right over chapter nine which has represented a great challenge for many in Judaism. The bloody vengeance enacted against the malefactor Haman and all his supporters reported in that chapter has troubled many Jews as being antithetical to the concept of God’s call to mercy. Indeed, Rabbi Shoshana Kaminski, of Beit Shalom Synagogue, said as much on my radio program on 26 July 2020  saying that the book ‘shouldn’t be taken seriously’. Her comment was not so much because of the amoral actions and reactions in the opening chapters of Esther but because ‘by the end of the book seventy-five thousand people are dead’ and that the book has been interpreted by some as ‘an invitation to Holy War’ by Jews against their enemies. Shoshana’s conclusion was that in order to deflect from this distinctly non-Judaic purpose, ‘it is important that we treat it with merriment instead’.
But to return to Mordechai and Esther’s conversation, he faced the challenge of convincing his stepdaughter to confront the doubts she had as to what she should do. While not naming God, Mordechai chose to confront Esther’s doubt by letting her know that there was a power much greater than either of them and that the choice for her was not to doubt nor dispute that power but to decide whether to be guided by it. Handel in his opera Esther actually puts it more pointedly than Scripture when Mordechai sings:
Dread not, righteous queen, the danger,
Love will pacify his anger;
Fear is due to God alone.
Follow great Jehovah’s calling,
For thy kindred’s safety failing;
Death is better than a throne.
Dread not …
The deeply devout Handel (who incidentally reduced the jihad of chapter nine to a mere one line in the opera: ‘the Lord our enemy has slain’) saw in that conversation the call to discipleship and sacrifice.
Biblical injunctions have their own way of guiding us in living our faith – such as obeying the Ten Commandments or the seeking to find our place amongst those identified in the Beatitudes; however, biblical conversations also have their role. So, what are we to take from Mordechai and Esther’s discourse? It is exceedingly unlikely that any of us will ever find ourselves placed in as dramatic a circumstance as Esther found herself; but the significance for each of us is to comprehend how our own lives may transcend the purpose of our own individual satisfaction – the call not just to altruism but to a divine purpose. Where may we find wider purpose to our being here than the simple task of surviving? How may we seek to hear the voice of God, calling us to this wider purpose? Esther who doubted God’s power, finally acquiesced; providing an example for us when we feel doubt as to the call of God in our lives.
Now to the second conversation – that of Jesus with the distraught father who had cried out:
I believe, help my unbelief.
In the two hymns we have sung so far this evening [2 and 528] we gave our own voice to this cry through these words:
Scatter all my unbelief [Hymn 2, v3]
Lord if faith is disenchanted,
If our pain persists too long,
Show us that your love is planted
Deeper far than all time’s wrong. [Hymn 528, v1]
The distraught father whom Jesus encountered had suffered through his son’s life to that point that had been ‘deeper far than all time’s wrong’ and so, in his persisting pain, he yearned for faith yet fought doubt at the same time. Does this speak to us?
After the healing of the boy, the disciples had asked Jesus why they had not been able to cure him; to which Jesus answered:
This kind can come out only through prayer. [9:29]
The significance for us from this episode is that it may be that we could more easily understand its relevance for our own lives not by receiving an instruction simply to have faith and thus, in a manner of speaking, spiritually ‘get over’ our difficulties; but via the mode of conversation we may probe the anxieties and doubts of our faith. Conversation may find a curative entry into our doubts which have been fostered by circumstance in a way that just being told to have faith may not. So it was that Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, chose to highlight the background of doubt with which the father struggled, thus making the event more meaningful to all of us.
A short while ago we all said together the Apostles’ Creed; and there we twice said ‘I believe’. Yet, despite these protestations of our faith, we also sang those words I quoted from our two hymns. So, whether we intended to or not, we ourselves have actually in our worship this evening said:
I believe, help my unbelief.
Now, I don’t mean to put words into your mouth; yet, I do ask you to consider, in the quietness of your mind, whether these words of doubting belief found any resonance. It is not that we may doubt the divinity of Christ or his resurrection from the Cross, as Thomas had initially done; it is more that we may fear ourselves not worthy enough to step forward to receive Christ’s grace. Are any of us facing situations where we are praying, but a shadow of doubt seems to loom over that prayer? If so, let us take great comfort from Christ’s final response to the father’s request which had been made with a statement of uncertain faith, when he told the disciples that this type of healing could only come from prayer. The prayer of he who believed and begged for help in his unbelief was answered … ours can be too. That is the message of our readings tonight.
Shortly, we will hear the choir sing Psalm 121 to music composed by our own Anthony Hunt. Listen to the words they sing to the beautiful music, for they will tell us that, while our doubting faith holds our eyes looking to the ground in front of us, we may lift up our eyes and see ‘from where … our help will come’.
 Namely the original Masoretic version; that appearing in the later Septuagint and other apocryphal versions have a divine presence added.
 From the 7:22 minute mark to 12 minutes on Sunday Night With Lynn Arnold – July 26 2020 Pt3 in Sunday Nights with Lynn Arnold – Jul 26 (soundcloud.com)