Wild living; a pop star royal; feminist icons; intrigue and spin doctors by the bucketful; ethnic cleansing; a beauty parade for political expediency; executions left right and centre. No, it’s not a satirical comment on New Labour (nor on any Government I know alive or nearly dead). Nor, is it a commercial for life beyond graduation. It's not a Soap Opera, though I must say that, taken as a whole (which is what usually happens), it would make a great plot line for a particularly colourful episode. It’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d expect from a respectable Cambridge College.
Into this chaos came a young woman who would change the course of history forever. Whether you use the name her own people gave her or the one she was forced to adopt after her marriage, there is no doubt that the girl who became Miss Persia 478 BC at a still point of the turning world, came for such a time as this.
The Old Testament records how, even in the 5th Century BC, an unassuming girl could have a significant impact on the life not just of a family but of a nation. Alone amongst all the books of the bible the book of Esther (or, to give her her Hebrew name Hadassah), surprisingly has no explicit reference to God. Yet, this strange and bizarre omission simply serves to heighten the fact that throughout this everyday story of palace people, like in all of life, it is the hand of God that directs and controls all the seemingly insignificant "coincidences".
Esther chapter 4 verse 14 is a turning point: not just in one person's life but ultimately in the life of a nation. It is a point of challenge and, implicitly, also of change and correction. Here is that point in life that many people come to dread: it is the point of no return - where we have to put our integrity, our talents, our abilities and our future on the line, for the greater good. To take the step we may fear to take because we prefer to count the cost and weigh the options not to step out into the unknown. It is a step that is necessary all the same.
In this we share a common bond with Queen Esther for she is challenged to use her position and influence and to take a stand for her beliefs on behalf of her people:
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this.”
This evening we are here to renew acquaintances and friendships, to listen to the narrative of lives separated by time and by distance. We will be rubbing shoulders, sharing a table and conversation with many like ourselves - movers, shakers and those who have wiggled around a bit since graduation. All of us have had these Esther like turning points and challenges in our careers and, in our personal lives. We are also here, in Chapel to give thanks for those who, like Lady Frances the founder of this college and the many benefactors since (including the alumni), have made this college what it is today. We’re here to thank and to praise God. We have all come to position for such a time as this.
For such a time as this. The thread of God’s providence and provision runs through the life of Esther and of her people. Their past, their future, their present is inextricably knotted with the Will, Sovereignty and Grace of God in ways reminiscent of T S Eliot’s words which begin Burnt Norton
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Time we are told by the hymn writer flows like an ever flowing stream. We can measure it; manage it, watch it pass, look forward to it but not control it. Faith and history alike prove to us that, in every period and in every circumstance, God inspires the right people to take the correct course of action, sometimes without their knowledge. Who is to say what prompted a woman in a high position at a very colourful court to found a college in memory of her family? How can we measure on a human level, the commitment of those who down the years, have drawn deep from personal wells of talent and wealth to enable this college to grow and develop?
They came, they gave, for such a time as this, whatever that time was - and is. It is right then to remember, as our reading from Ecclesiasticus challenges us to consider, those who have gone before us. In the Old Testament this theme of remembrance - far more than a two dimensional memorial - is repeated again and again. Did not Joshua leave the stones behind to mark the historical crossing of the Jordan? Were God’s own people to forget his laws? No, they were to be living memorials themselves of what had been and what now was.
On a personal level we can all look back and, with the 20:20 Vision of hindsight, see the turning points where we have been the right person in the right place for such a time as this. Like Esther and our predecessors in this college we have been prepared for a task that we are expected to complete - this being for the greater good of others and not ourselves. From the Christian perspective this is essentially the practical outworking of the gift of Grace.
Time can so easily run away from us: you’ll be glad to know that even Baptist Ministers have to finish! In the continuing witness of our lives there is no time to waste, none to lose if we are to avoid the trap that my old school band Pink Floyd once wrote about:
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun
Time can so easily pass us by and if would be tragic if we, unlike so many who have gone before, have failed to grasp the importance of the past but have also failed to grasp the immanence of the present whilst looking to the future. It may not be our duty but it is certainly our calling.
There is always a right time and always a right person: you and I have often been that. It’s fitting then to close our thanksgiving and reflections with one last thought. We have been considering our position, our influence and our action. We’ve looked at how one girl’s readiness to stand up and be counted made a difference to her world and to her people. Taking her as a type or as a picture and we look into the New Testament where we again find an account of right time: right person: right action: right result. In Romans 5: 6 we read these words:
You see, just at the right time when we were still powerless Christ died for the ungodly.
Unlike ours, God’s timing, like His providence is spot on. No small errors like the Quartz watch on your wrist with its 3 second +/- variations in 1000 years: God is totally precise in intention and in delivery.
Just at the right time God sent a Saviour – not this time a girl – but His Son. Just at the right time Jesus died and rose again. Just at the right time, always at the right time for needy humanity. His example will always be the right one for us and his attitude in self giving love, without counting the cost in the face of darkness and hatred, injustice and pain, will always remain the challenge for us to follow and more importantly the life for us to embrace.
Unlike my time which has now passed away, our gratitude for all the good things we have received, the greatest of all being life itself, should never do so. Let us resolve to take the example of Christ into our hearts and into our future so that when our time comes we will be the ones for such a time as this.