Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Esther Week 1 - Longing for a better king

Here is a summary of the first sermon in our Esther series.  Feel free to listen back to the sermon online and/or use this summary to help with your own study as you read Esther Chapter 1.  There are some reflection questions at the bottom.

The King's Pride
The stunning story of Esther begins in the Persian city of Susa in around 483BC.  The first character we are introduced to in this story is King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) who reigned over the vast Persian Empire from 486-465BC.  And as the storyteller begins with Ahasuerus hosting a 6 month long celebration of his reign and the giving of lavish feast we can tell that we are supposed to be drawn to the majesty of this king.

Now on the surface it seems like this feast is the gracious and generous act of a kind and merciful king. That he would provide a time of celebration and festivities for his people… But in reality the king had less than generous intentions for this feast. Verse 3, “The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendour and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days.” The lavish act of kindness was actually a lavish act of pride! The feast was not about generosity and kindness but about the riches of his royal glory and the splendour and pomp of his greatness. He wanted people from all over his kingdom to come to him, bow down at his feet and marvel at his splendour! He wanted everyone to partake in his feast and bath in his luxury so they would puff up his ego and stroke his pride.

The Problem with Pride
But pride is it more addictive than any drug… and the more you feed off it the more addictive it becomes… the more you crave the feeling of having your ego stroked!  And King Ahasuerus spent 180 days feeding his pride.  But in verse 10 when Ahasuerus was nearing the end of his 6 month season of self-indulgence and his heart was merry with wine… he pushed the envelope one step too far.

He decides he has one last possession to show off to the world and so calls for his favoured wife, Queen Vashti, to come "before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at." (v11) Now many scholars believe that the king intended Vashti to come wearing only her crown... that she might be paraded naked to demonstrate the king's ability to have whatever he desired. But Vashti was not going to be treated like just another one of the king’s possessions that he could show off.  And so for the first time in 180 days somebody says “no” to the king.

The king's addiction to himself meant that when one small thing didn't go his way all the pomp and ceremony of the last 6 months meant nothing… its value was now tarnished by this one disobedient woman. So in the space of 3 verses Ahasuerus goes from having a heart merry with wine to having a heart that burns with rage. And so he makes a binding declaration against Vashti banishing her from the king’s harem, stripping her title and basically publicly disgracing her.

King Ahasuerus had an idol… and that idol was himself… and he was so addicted to himself that anyone who threatened to take away his grip on power, even if it was his favourite queen, would have to be sacrificed on the altar of his pride! 

We Can be Just as Proud 
It is easy to see the happenings in the palace and think that this kind of pride is only a problem for the rich and famous... for people who have too much money and spare time; it is the kind of story you expect to see paparazzi pictures of on TMZ. But if we are to be honest pride is at the root of so much of how we think and act:
  • We carefully chose which photos get posted of us on Facebook to protect our image 
  • We never admit fault and always look to pass the blame 
  • We cringe when other people are praised or receive accolades instead of us 
  • We crave compliments and recognition
Our pride is just as hungry as Ahasuerus’… we just don’t have the means to make it happen.  And like it did with Ahasuerus it has the potential to cause us to use the people around us, even the people we love, as a means to stroke our egos and puff up our pride.
  • Parents who have pushed their children to succeed just so they can brag to their friends 
  • Workers who have betrayed co-workers by speaking poorly of them to management just to better their own chances of getting a promotion 
All too often we secretly view the other people around us as servants of our pride!

Longing for a Better King
But Esther chapter 1 gives us no answers to our pride problem!  The chapter rounds out with the king still seething over Vashti's defiance... still proud as ever.  In a way the storyteller is simply saying is, "Welcome to Susa.  Welcome to the reign of the pathetically proud King Ahasuerus." And as the scene for this story is set a huge hole forms in our hearts. Because we know what it is like to have a pathetic, self-serving king reign over us:
  • We have trusted our bosses with our energy and effort and they have used us for their own gain
  • We have trusted our leaders with our vote and they have used us for their election victory and then screwed us over
  • We have trusted lovers with our heart and they have used it for their own pleasure
  • And even when we trusted ourselves we just let ourselves down
Seeing the pride of Ahasuerus makes us long for a better king than Ahasuerus and all the other kings we have ever known... And in Jesus Christ we find that King!
  • A king who did not need to summon people to come and bask in His glory but left His glory in Heaven to come and find people who were lost & broken 
  • A king who did not demonstrate his power through lavish luxuries but by embracing a life of a suffering 
  • A king who did not exploit women to puff up his pride but one who esteemed, valued and restored women; even women of the lowest reputation 
  • A king who did not inflict shame on others to preserve his honour but one who was dishonoured and shamed in our place 
  • A king who did not cut off and banish the ones he loved when he felt betrayed but one who was prepared to be cut off himself for those he loved despite their betrayal 
If you have seen the abhorred pride of King Ahasuerus and your heart longs for a king who will not let you down. If you have seen the pride of your own heart and know you need to be rescued from yourself.  Then can I appeal to you to reach out for Jesus... the only humble King you can trust with your life.

  1. How does the pride of King Ahasuerus make you feel?  Where have you seen or heard of similar abuses of power today, big or small?
  2. Be honest with yourself: in what ways have you noticed pride rearing its ugly head in your own life?
  3. What makes humility such a hard thing for us to truly live out?
  4. How does reflecting on Jesus' life help us put our pride to death?
  5. The humility of Jesus is incredibly attractive and if people could experience it they would be drawn to Him. Is there anything you can do this week that can demonstrate the humility of Jesus to those around you? 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Post-Worthy Fatherhood

I love my girls!  I remember the first time I held our oldest daughter.  Born via emergency c-section, I held her for almost an hour while the doctors finished with my wife in surgery.  She looked up at me with her big blue eyes and I could not imagine a greater feeling of love, protection, joy and hope than what I felt for her in that moment - and I had only just met her!  But when each of her sisters came along my mind was blown again and again as those feelings, that I thought couldn't be surpassed, instantly expanded to include their precious new lives.

Like most dads I am probably just a little bit smitten with my girls!
I am excited by their stories... I am amazed at their achievements... I am heartbroken when they suffer... I am taken by their beauty... and I am constantly astonished that God would be so gracious as to entrust them to me.

But as I engage with social media I sense a disturbing trend that seems to have permeated modern parenting culture... a trend that has the potential to do great damage to parents and children alike... and a trend that I find myself caught in all too easily.

Every dad wants their child to do well.  We want them to hit all of their developmental milestones, to make friends easily, to learn well at school, to enjoy playing sport and to basically succeed at life as a child.  But the world of social media has turned these normal and natural desires into a competition for parenting supremacy.  Yes, it is a wonderful thing to celebrate the growth, development and achievements of our children... but Facebook celebrations have taken this to a whole new level:
  • No longer do I just want my child to enjoy their make believe play... they have to make something spectacular so I can post a picture of their creative genius
  • No longer do I simply want my child to learn to speak... I want them to say the cutest things so I can post our conversations in an entertaining way  
  • No longer do I want my child to do well at school or sport... they need to win something tangible so I can post a picture of them with certificate or trophy in hand
Now you might have purer motives than me when you post stuff like this... maybe you just genuinely want to "share the moment" with friends and family.  But when I searched my heart to find out why I am drawn to post stuff like this I found that often it was more about sharing "me" with the world than sharing my kids.  I can honestly say that I have fallen into the trap of thinking that my kids, and their achievements, are nothing but a reflection on my achievements as a dad... and looking at the constant flow of child related posts on Facebook, I can't help but think  that I am not the only one.

All to easily we seek to use our children to justify our parenting skills... to justify our genetic superiority... to justify our creative ideas... to justify our love for our children.  Basically we can be guilty of using our children to show the world how great a dad we really are.  But the problem is that even if I am the best dad in the social media world... if I used my kids to justify this status I am probably closer to the worst dad in the real world.  There are few thoughts more crushing to a child than the notion that their dad might be using them, their achievements and their relationship with him for his own gain.
  • How long before I start viewing my children's achievements through whether they are post-worthy or not rather than celebrating just for the sake of blessing them?
  • How long before my desire to spend time with my child is more about finding new material to gain likes on Instagram rather than genuinely longing to invest into their life?
  • How long before being a dad is just a means to the end of promoting myself amongst my peer group?
Not only will I crush my children with the thought that they have to measure up to my post-worthy standards... but I will burden my own life with the doubt and fear that I won't measure up either... My fatherhood will live and die by how many "likes" my kids can receive.

But there is one thought that can help me escape this cycle of post-worthy fatherhood... it is the thought that before I am a father I am a son... a son of a heavenly father whose love for me is not conditional on my capacity... my achievements... my looks... or my success.  In fact when David reflected on the father-heart of God in Psalm 103 he said,
"As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him..." 
God knows my fragilities, failures and flaws and yet chooses to lavish His steadfast love on me anyway.  His love for me is not conditional on my achievement but is given with the full knowledge of my averageness... even my below averageness!  A love He proved when He willingly gave of Himself to redeem me from my sin through the sacrifice of His precious Son Jesus.  God my Father did not choose me as His child because He thought my capacity to achieve might get Him more glory... rather He gave of Himself so that I might gain His glorious love.

As I watched my girls run around the park at Little Athletics on Friday night I realised that in all likelihood they probably won't be Olympians... but seeing them run, jump and throw with smiles on their faces... and just be who they are... gave me so much joy.  And God is teaching me that if I like this... I shouldn't really care if anyone else does or not!