Bench Ready

Third in a 6-week series titled “Prime Time.”
Delivered March 2, 2003 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Theme: Like a back-up quarterback we must be ready to enter the game when the opportunity presents itself.

Sermon Text:
Esther 1:12-19
and Ester 2:15-20

A friend of mine this past week sent me an email slide show called “the secrets of a happy life.” I hope you will enjoy it and find it as instructive as I did. So let’s take a look at some of the slides on secrets to a happy life, ok? (Begins showing slides on the screen)

Go and have fun in the meadows. There is a sheep dog leap sheeping. What is the next one? Avoid bad habits. I hope you can see that. Avoid bad habits. Here is another secret to a happy life, always listen to good advice. Okay. And another, here is always be alert, and then wait, perhaps what you are looking for will find you. Can you see that? A guy in a deer stand with his object of his hunting above him. Okay. And another one, always be ready for any surprises in life. You never know what is going to happen. A couple more, I think. Always look where you are going. Be determined in achieving your goals. I think that is my favorite right there. And don’t let the situation confuse you, okay? Don’t stop your curiosity, always be curious and always comb your hair. Got to have that one in there. I’m not going to go back Dave, don’t worry about those.

The one with the monkey in the glasses and the deer stand, and even the guy with his head in the toilet, you know these slides lend themselves to something in our series of preparing for prime time. Let me re-orient you. About five weeks ago a well-known celebrity came and told us that we were weak and flabby, okay. And we needed to get in shape. Four weeks ago, I shared a sermon called “Improvising in Life” and I said, you know we have to find meaning in this interim time, this extended interim time. There is meaning in it and no steps or missed steps are irreversible. Three weeks ago, I spoke about the importance of spiritual preparation using John the Baptizer as an example and asked for you, to challenge you to the commitment, to prepare kind of thing. Two weeks ago, we got snowed out, which was a divine message on preparation. Make sure you have a snow shovel and all the other stuff. Be prepared. And then last week, I addressed the theme of following Christ as a constant focal point of life to make sure that the preparations, we are always preparing with the highest value in mind.

Today the emphasis is on the necessity of preparation because we never know, we never know whenGod will call on us to be part of his purpose and His plan in a way beyond what we can figure. That is what the story about Esther is today. And I want to ask you to turn to it. Esther is a little bit before Psalms, before Job, Psalms is in the middle, Job is before Psalms. Esther is before Job. We are going to look at two separate passages. One from Chapter 1, verses 12-19 and then the second is from Chapter 2, 15-20 and as you listen to these passages, they are not just two passages, they are two contrast of two types of women who responded to the same stimuli in two different ways. So listen carefully to Esther, Chapter 1, verses 12-19.

“But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger. Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in the matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king. (All those guys in verse 14), the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.” Verse 15. “According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.” Then Memucan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king, but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. ZThere will be no end of disrespect and discord. Therefore, if it pleases the King, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Alsolet the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she.”

Now swinging over to Chapter 2, in Verse 15, you know this is like God’s bachelorette, like Joe Millionaire gone a little bit screwy. The queen didn’t come when she was called, now she has gotten the boot and they are looking for somebody to replace her and so they have this royal beauty contest and Esther chose an instrument of God in Verse 15.

“When the turn came for Esther(the girl Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his Uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other that what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her. She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, the seventh year of his reign. Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he sat a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with loyal liberality. When the virgins were assembled the second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. But Esther had kept secret, her family background and nationality(She was Jewish) just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up.”

This fascinating story speaks to our need to be prepared for God’s opportune moments. Like a coach tapping Esther, like a coach tapping a benched quarterback and saying, you’re in. That is what God did to Esther. You’re in, this is your chance. And I think of Tom Brady who was on the bench for the New England Patriots and then within the space of a couple of months, he is leading his team to the Super Bowl just two years ago. I think of other remarkable kinds of things like that. Somebody mentioned to me after the second service had I read the book “Leadership” by Rudolph Guilianni. I had only skimmed through part of it, but one of the things that was emphasized there was that if he had not been engaged in the preparation that he had been engaged with in leadership and training, when September 11 hit he would have crumbled, but he said that God had prepared him, like he felt that God was preparing him for that crisis. There are many, many other examples like that and Esther is one of them.

In a much more mundane example, I remember the time that I was first asked to jump into the varsity basketball game, before I even knew I had the opportunity. I was on the bench, I was the last guy on the bench, you kind of sat in terms of how good you were, so I was the last guy on the bench and the coach was so disgusted with all the starters on one particular game, he yelled to the last five guys, “you guys get in there”. I was so not ready that I couldn’t get my sweats off. And I was like trying to get them off and stumbling over them at the same time and finally I got in the game. I never felt a bigger adrenaline takeover in my whole life. I was in no way prepared. I remember one time I got the ball down inside, and I must have hit it a foot above the box that’s behind the basket and I was just right there. It bounced off and went over to the other side and a bunch of guys were on the bench laughing at me. Three minutes in the game and I felt like a deer in the headlights, like totally unprepared. That’s the way I think it was that Vashti was because in Chapter 1 of Verse 12, she is called to come before the king, to show up and she doesn’t do it. Maybe she was tired of being the king’s toy. Maybe she was tired of all the other women in the harem. Maybe she just wasn’t prepared, but whatever the reason she didn’t show up and there is a lesson here. When God calls us to show up, do we come? Are we proud to be his partner in public? Are we willing to respond to his request to be associated with Him and to be known as his partner? Or do we refuse to respond? Well Esther was just the opposite. When Esther had her opportunity, she didn’t rely just on the circumstances, and it just wasn’t so she would be queen of the land, she was called by God not just to be queen, but to be in a situation where God would use her in a very powerful way, because it was through her that all of her people were saved. All the Jewish people in the land were saved. And that is why that God touched her and there is a lesson here too. That God wants to bless you, but it’s not just about you. God wants to bless you, but it is not just about you.

One of the concerns I have with the book, “The Prayer of Jabez” and I know I am on thin ice here but it is so popular. One of the concerns I have about that as good as some of the things in it are is that is just has an over focus on self-interest, even in the name of blessing others. And surely Esther was blessed, but she was called to put her life on the line in her being blessed for other people.

So let me share with you what I believe is the key element of Esther’s preparedness and more than likely one of the main reasons that God chose her and here it is. Esther had a teachable spirit and was willing to learn from those that God placed in her life. So the lesson, take the initiative to learn. You know Chapter 2, Verse 15 says this, that when she came and was being coached by one of the eunuchs that she asked for nothing other than what he suggested that she ask for. She took his advice. Remember the monkey with the glasses, she listened to good advice. And then in Chapter 2, Verse 20, it says that she continued to follow Mordecai, her uncle’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up. She was a person who was subject to the people that God had placed in her life for a very important reason. You know other verses are like this in a general sense. There is a verse from Ephesians, Chapter 5 and it says, “Be very careful then how you live, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity.” And then also in Psalms 32, Verse 8 and 9. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go. I will counsel you and watch over you.” Now look at Verse 9, “Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding, but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.” Do you see what the scripture is trying to say? Don’t be a non-learner. Don’t be resistant to learning and to teaching. And from all this we see that the principal that learning just won’t be handed to us. Nobody is going to hand you learning. You have to go after it.

Do you remember the TV commercial; maybe some of you have seen it. There is this panhandler on a bench and this young kid comes by and the panhandler sticks out his cup asking for a handout. And I think the panhandler said something like, “What are you up to kid?” And he says, “I just dropped out of school” and he says, “You just dropped out of school?” And he says, “Yeah” and the next scene is you see the panhandler give the kid the cup. It’s a kind of service ad of saying how important education is, but it is not far from the truth. It’s that we have to go after education. We have to go after what God wants us to learn. How many lives are wasted and how many opportunities are missed even though there is learning all around us, but we just don’t take advantage of it. I think about schoolteachers in this regard. A schoolteacher’s greatest day is when they meet a hungry learner. It’s like when they have somebody who is like a dry sponge and they just want to pour into their life. In a similar kind of way, we can be dropouts from our spiritual education. You know really, seriously one of the dangers of growing as a Christian, not a danger but it’s a blessing, but one of the things that could happen is that we can get to a certain place in our Christian walk and then all of sudden think that we really have sort of arrived. And you know we kind of got this stuff down. You know somebody was remarking how good some of the adult Sunday school classes were here and in the same breath they said, but boy I wish there were more folks to take them in, they are so good.

The other day we were having a men’s meeting downstairs and the idea was being floated that some of the guys are organizing a mentoring program, you know older guys mentoring younger guys and generationally and all that, and I walked away from that and I thought you know we could design the greatest mentoring program in the world and it wouldn’t work. You know why? Because mentoring is something that is very self-initiated. If you are going to be a mentoree, its got to be a very self initiated started thing because we can have all the mentors in the world, all the mentors through books, all the mentors through Christian teaching, all the mentors throughout, but if we don’t partner up with them, then it is of no value. Right? That’s what Elisha said to Elijah, “As the Lord lives and surely as you live, I will not leave your side.” Three times he said that and he was so hungry to learn that he received a double blessing even though three times he had to say that.

So Esther had to choose to be part of what God was doing. It wasn’t just going to be handed to her. She was told in the most dramatic point in the story, later on in Chapter 4 who knows if you have not been brought to this royal position for such a time as this and God might be saying today to each one of you, who knows. God has got something very important for you to do and bless others in, but you’ve got to be willing to learn and listen. Esther had been given natural beauty as a gift, but she did not stop there. Vashti had been given natural beauty as a gift. But Esther humbly chose to learn especially from those who God had placed in authority.

Now let me just say something to you guys. I know the high school kids sit over here usually and college, but for younger students I understand how much of a struggle it can be, especially when the people that God has put into your life, your parents may not be the mentors that they could be. Now, I am speaking in this situation probably to people in a minority because the people in this congregation that I know of, parents are intensively passionate about the growth and development of their kids. So, if you turn a deaf ear to your folks and don’t really take advantage of the built in mentors that God has given you, you are kind of acting like a horse or another part of a horse or a mule even though God has put built in mentors right in your life, and if you learn from those built in mentors that God has given you, you are the biggest beneficiary.

Now, I am not just talking to the younger people. No one is too old to have this apply. And I will share an illustration with you. Maybe you saw an article in Friday or Saturday’s paper, I can’t remember which about an encounter at the gate of the Naval Academy. The new superintendent and again, I apologize to the superintendent if this is not true and the Sunpapers has misrepresented the story, but apparently the story goes like this. The superintendent has only been there three or four months, he is a big brass, scrambled egg, admiral kind of guy, he has been all over place and now he is put in charge of the Naval Academy, he has three stars. It is New Year’s Eve and he is dressed in civilian clothes, he has got friends with him. He goes to one of the gates at the Naval Academy and a young marine who can’t be more than 22-years old says, “May I see your ID please?” The admiral starts to get mulish; he gets really upset that he is being, he thinks that he should be recognized by this kid. So he pulls one of these, he goes like that from a distance away and the marine just doing his job says, “Sir, I can’t see that. Would you please step closer.” Well the way it was reported there must have been some kind of unwanted interaction between the two and the marine got reassigned. But here is what it said to me. Here is a guy who is unbelievably educated, unbelievably powerful and all of that could have been avoided if he had just gone up and said, “Thank you for doing a great job.” Thank you for just doing your job in this day of heightened security. But what does he do, he forgets that he, what he thought was that he was the authority, but if he had thought a second he would have seen that the marine was representing a greater authority than him, and that’s the way it can be in church as well.

Did you know that other pastors and seasoned spiritual leaders can get like that? You can be around for a long time, but all of a sudden you find yourself jaywalking through your life and through your ministry. I got news for you, nobody if you get to a certain level is going to come up and ask for your ID spiritually. Nobody. Nobody is going to challenge you if you are a pastor or an elder or if you are a boss in your company or if you are some kind of professional you know real strong folk. Nobody is going to challenge you. Nobody wants to correct you. So the higher that we go, the more that we learn the more freedom that we have, the more responsibility that we have, the more it is incumbent upon us to discipline ourselves because nobody else is going to do it.

And that is why I am challenging each and every one of us to participate in this Lenten journaling, as you are able to do on Wednesday night, but all of that is just a ramp up to 40 Days of Purpose. I believe one of the reasons that God has brought me into this part two of the interim, is to help point the way and to take the point on a spiritual development program no matter where you are on the spectrum of your growth in a very powerful way to unite and mature our lives together. I truly, truly believe and I am not just trying to sell that and so here is the biblical principle. Wisdom is gained by increasing in learning not necessarily having arrived. And look at Proverbs, Chapter 1, Verse 5. It doesn’t say let the stupid listen. It says, let the wise listen and add to their learning. And to let the who, the discerning people who already have a sense of things, listen and get guidance. You see, we never, ever stop. And so that is what the 40 Days is about. It is about helping us to continue to learn. But here is the question. Are we going to be like Vashti or Esther when this opportunity presents itself? See like, Esther will embrace it with eagerness. If we were like Vashti, we will just refuse. If we are like Esther, we will open ourselves up and participate so that we will get a blessing not just for us, but for others that God has placed in our lives around, they will be touched as well if we participate or like Vashti we could say, I am not going to do it because I don’t feel like it. Thirdly, like Esther you can trust those whom God has placed, the guide, the session, the elders or you can be like Vashti and say, been there, done that. I am not going to do it.

Now, I am not trying to manipulate or put any kind of external guilt as a motivation because this will only work if the Spirit motivates us within to participate. In fact, one of the lesson or one of the lines in preparation for the campaign team is as you get real busy, and it is speaking to the pastor, it is speaking to all the team leaders, don’t miss what God wants to say to you in the middle of all your busyness preparing for others, which I though was a great reminder. Because see all of us are on a spectrum. All of us are on some kind of continue. Some of you here are visiting the church. You haven’t been here maybe a week or two and you are on the fringe and are just checking things out. Some of you, are not just visiting the church, you have been attending the church. You’ve come, you have gotten involved, you have gotten to know some people, maybe even you are helping out a little bit. You are attending. And then thirdly, there are people who are, and I would say this is a vast majority who are helping the church. You have become a member. You are trying to find your giftedness. You are trying to help others grow in their faith. You are trying to serve in some capacity. But here is one that I think all of us no matter what category we are in up to this point; all of us could grow in. And that is being a church. That’s being a church. What do I mean by that? I mean to put ourselves in a trusted group of people, to build deeper community, and to be held accountable to lifelong learning. That’s what one of the outcomes of 40 Days of Purpose is about. It’s getting it and reading these journals and talking about it as a group and what God is saying and speaking into our lives with others. So no matter what our level of growth, what our place in relationship to the fellowship, the question is are we continually experiencing the transforming touch of God in our life or are we plateaued. That is the issue that we want to try to address.

So if you will listen to good advice from your interim pastor no matter how long he may be here, and jump in with both feet, you will be blessed. You will be blessed. You will be filled with joy, I guarantee it. And I am not just making this up. I am passing along good advice from other people who have done it. Other congregations have done it and you would not believe the outcome. People have come to know the Lord. People have grown deeper in the Lord. Ministry and service has been remarkable. And even more than that, I am not just passing along the advice of other congregations, I am passing along the Word of Jesus who said, “If you continue in my Word, then truly you are my disciples.”

At the end of 2nd Samuel, just before the chapter that records King David’s death, there is a recounting of mighty warriors, mighty men and it is kind of like a flashback in 2nd Samuel 23 of all of the great exploits of these mighty warriors and there is one accounting in 2nd Samuel 23, maybe you remember it that happened when the Israelites were in siege against the Philistines and King David said this and I quote from the scriptures, “Oh that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem.” He wasn’t asking anybody to do it, he was just thinking out loud. He was probably thirsty and thinking, oh that someone I just wish I could have a drink of water from the gate near Bethlehem. Three guys, three mighty warriors listen, overhear and they cross enemy lines, they risk their own lives and they bring back a glass of water for the king. What did he do with it? He pours it out, which is a way of saying only the Lord is worthy of that kind of sacrifice and that type of adoration. But here is the point; the action of the warriors was motivated simply by the musings of the king. That’s it. There was no command. Nobody is yanking on them to try to get them to do something. Just the musings of the king were motivation enough for them. That’s my prayer. That we will grow into such a depth of spirituality, just the musings of the Spirit, just the musings of the wishes of Jesus are enough to get us to just do whatever it takes. Do whatever it takes and that is what He wants, lifelong disciples. May we do whatever it takes to fulfill His desire.

Let’s pray. Lord, we do pray for the fulfillment of your desire in our lives. Even as we gather around this table we are reminded of not just your musings but the whole purpose of your life, to seek and to save that which was lost. And so we thank you Lord that we have been found by you and we can celebrate your risen presence amongst us. For we pray it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon Notes:

Bench Ready

“Esther had a teachable spirit and was willing to learn from those God placed in her life, THEREFORE TAKE THE INITIATIVE TO LEARN.”

EPH 5:15 Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity…

PS 32:8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.

PS 32:9 Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.

Wisdom is gained by increasing in learning, not necessarily having arrived.

Proverbs 1:5 “let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.”