Heroes Of Faith 2 - Risky Business message by Guest Speaker Alex Costanzo. For more information, visit cornerstone-sf.org
This past summer, my family went through a lot. What these guys provided for me was beyond words beyond measure. My name is Ike Kwon. I am the chief operating officer here at the California Academy of Sciences. Two years ago, I was appointed by the mayor to become a public utilities commissioner. In talking it over with my wife Riya, she was okay with it as long as I joined a small group. She wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t become unaccountable or that guy who is so busy, but not grounded in anything. As a man working in the city, we all tend to be so focused and so busy. I didn’t know I needed the fellowship until I was in it. I’m not a hugger. I wasn’t looking for a small group where we were going to do any sort of or a lot of hugging.
I joined a small group for accountability and for spiritual growth. I was shocked by how wonderful these guys were as brothers and dear friends. I can’t describe what an untold source of strength this has been for me because I joined a small group. I thought I’m going to become a commissioner, that’s a lot of responsibility. I realized that my role here at work was about to expand three months after that. Of course, I wouldn’t have predicted that I would’ve lost my father this past summer. All the things in life that are unpredictable, the brothers of my small group were there for me in such a powerful way. Knowing that they were praying for me and hearing their encouragements made all the difference for me to be there for my family.
This summer was probably one of the hardest trials I’ve experienced as an adult. These guys were here for me. These men of faith, my brothers, and my small group were my heroes of faith. You guys are my heroes. We do hug now at the start of every small group. I’m used to that now. Hug? All right. There you go.
Good morning. I’m going to share more stories about Ike later. It’s going to be fun. It’s great to be here this morning. I can’t believe August is almost over. August is a very special month for my family because Michael and I were married in August. All three of our sons were born in August believe it or not. Two of them have the same exact birthday, three years apart. The boys aren’t very excited about sharing their birthday, but the rest of us think it’s pretty cool. I celebrated my birthday this past week as well. So it’s a big month for us. Thank you, I turned 39 for the ninth time. Funny how that works. You can do the math. Guess what I got for my birthday? I threw my back out. It’s so much fun getting old, isn’t it?
I’m going to share from the book of Esther this morning. It’s somewhat ironic that I get to share about Esther because here’s a little-known fact about myself. My first name is actually Esther. Esther Alexandra is my name. I switched to Alex when I went to college because growing up, I wasn’t all that excited about my first name, unfortunately. It was kind of old-fashioned. It wasn’t a hip name and the kids used to make fun of it. They used to call me Esther Polyester. Frankly, I didn’t really like the biblical reference because Esther was this beautiful and brave woman and I never felt beautiful and brave. It’s a lot to live up to.
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate her story. It turns out that she’s a lot more relatable to all of us than I initially thought. So I’m very excited to share. First, I want to give you a little bit of background about the book of Esther. It’s in the old Testament. It takes place during the Persian empire, about the fifth century BC. It’s been over 100 years since the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and took the captive Jews back to Babylon. The Persians have since conquered the Babylonians and granted permission for the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Not all of them went back since many of them had grown roots in the area and built lives for themselves and their families. This story is about a Jewish community in the Royal city of Susa, which is now part of modern-day Iran.
The other thing to note about this book is that it’s the only one in the entire Bible that makes no mention of God, not one word. Which I think is a clever technique by the author because it invites us to watch for how God works behind the scenes. I’m going to attempt to summarize the whole entire book of Esther in five minutes. In the interest of time, I’m going to have to skip over a lot of juicy details and little subplots. If you’ve never read the book, I encourage you to go back and read it. It’s quite an entertaining story. It’s full of twists and turns in the plot with ironic reversals and some very interesting characters. I think it’s better than any Jason Bourne movie out there. So definitely check it out.
Once upon a time, the king of Persia gets really mad at his queen. So he banishes her. They decide to find a new queen. They decide to have a beauty contest. Bet you didn’t know that the first season of The Bachelor happened in the Persian Empire. Now enter Mordecai. Mordecai is Jewish and represents the Jews in Susa. He’s a minor government official. He has a niece named Esther. Esther is an orphan. He takes her in and raises her. She also happens to be quite beautiful. Mordecai takes her to the palace and enters her into the contest. He warns her, “Don’t tell anyone that you’re Jewish,” and she obeys. This is how the beauty contest works. Each girl spends a year undergoing beauty treatments, which in my opinion is probably a euphemism for pain. Then she gets one night with the king.
When it comes Esther’s turn, she has so much favor from the king. He is so smitten with her that he declares her the winner and crowns her the queen of Persia. This is where the plot thickens. Enter Haman. Haman is our villain and second in command in the Persian kingdom. When you see him, you’re supposed to bow down to him to show him honor. Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, is kind of a stubborn guy. He won’t bow down to Haman. In fact, he doesn’t give Haman the time of day. This drives Haman mad. It puts him in a rage. He finds out that Mordecai is Jewish. He decides, “It’s not good enough to just kill Mordecai. I’m going to wipe out his entire race.” That’s what I call an anger management problem.
Haman goes to the king and tricks the king into signing a decree for the annihilation of the Jews. He doesn’t name them by name, but says, “There are these people and they’re different and dangerous. I think they’re a threat. We need to get rid of them.” The king agrees and the decrees go out. When Mordecai and the other Jews hear about the decree, they are distraught and devastated. They go into mourning. In Jewish culture, when mourning, they would put sackcloth on and ashes all over themselves. They would weep and wail on the streets and cause quite a scene. Esther hears the commotion. She gives her servant a set of fresh clothes and she sends them to Mordecai. Mordecai refuses the new clothes but tells her through the servant all about Haman’s plot. He implores her to go to the king, to beg for mercy on behalf of the Jews.
The problem is, it’s illegal to approach the king unless you’ve been summoned. If the king isn’t happy to see you, you could be executed. It had been 30 days since Esther had been summoned by the king. So she wasn’t feeling all that confident that he wanted to see her. Her initial response to her uncle was, “I’m sorry, uncle, I can’t help you. I could die. I’m not doing it.” Let’s take a look at the exchange between Esther and Mordecai at this point in the story. It’s found in Esther 4, we’re going to start with verse 12.
“When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer. “Do not think that because you are in the King’s house, you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place. But you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows, but that you have come to your Royal position for such a time as this.” Warm and fuzzy uncle, right? He’s saying, “Face it, Esther, you’re going to die.” I can’t imagine what was going through her mind.
I think Esther reconsiders and sends this reply to Mordecai. “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, quickly for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. if I perish, I perish.” Esther’s famous words are probably the most famous quote from the entire book in the Bible. She musters up the courage and approaches the king. Imagine her heart thumping as she enters his court. He’s thrilled to see her. She throws a banquet for the king and Haman. She reveals that she’s Jewish and tells the king that someone in his kingdom is plotting to kill her and her people. The furious king demands, “Who is this person?” She drops the bomb and points the finger at the terrified Haman who now knows that it’s game over for him. Haman is ironically executed on the very gallows that he constructed for Mordecai. Mordecai is elevated to Haman’s position and the Jews are saved. The end.
How’d I do? Was that five minutes? It’s a great story. My kids love this story too. Let’s go back to Esther’s dilemma, her defining moment when she’s trying to figure out what to do. Talk about a risky, difficult situation. She’s almost pushed if not shoved outside of her comfort zone. I know that sometimes following God is just not comfortable, is it? I think what Esther’s story shows us is that there are some very challenging aspects of faith. That’s what I want to dig into a little bit in our time together this morning.
The first aspect of faith that I think is very challenging is action. Action. God wants our faith to be action-oriented. Clearly, God’s plan here is to save the Jews. He could have chosen to do that in a number of ways. For some reason, he takes this young girl, puts her smack in the middle of it, and gives her a starring role. I think that on a lot of levels, maybe Esther was just trying to survive. Maybe being on the Persian bachelor was just a way to put food on the table for herself. She seems to want to mind her own business, not make any waves, but God seems to have a different plan for her. He calls her to action. That’s what He does with us as well. He calls us to action.
Let’s take a look at Ephesians 2:10. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There are two principles here. The first is that God wants us to do good works. What are good works? Simply defined as serving others. That’s how I like to think of it. It’s when you put other people’s needs above your own. Jesus came to this earth to serve, not to be served. He ultimately died for us. It’s true that it’s faith in Him alone that saves us and gives us eternal life. Doing good works doesn’t earn our salvation. That’s true. However, in response to what Jesus has done for us, God wants us to live out our faith, serving others. That’s principle number one.
The second one might be a little bit of a new idea for some of us. God has specific good works in mind for each of us. That means He wants to use you specifically for a specific purpose. It might be something completely different than what He has in mind for the person sitting next to you. God is always working in the background. He’s always orchestrating something. He’s teeing up opportunities for us to be used by Him. I think that there’s no such thing as a coincidence, no such thing. It’s not a coincidence that the queen of Persia is Jewish in the story. It’s not a coincidence that your coworker who’s going through some health issues moved in right across the street from you. It’s not a coincidence that you keep running into the coordinator of the Cornerstone Nursery at Trader Joe’s. By the way, did you know that they keep asking me to serve in the nursery here? You know that if they’re asking a blind girl, they’re pretty desperate. So please serve in the nursery. Shameless plug, I know.
We should be looking for these opportunities to step up. These good works that God has prepared for us in advance. Many of us don’t respond to God’s call to action. A lot of us just aren’t paying attention, for a number of reasons. Maybe we’re trying to survive. There’s not a lot of margin in our lives. Life is so busy and we’re just not paying attention. Maybe some of us are too busy with our own agendas. We’re kind of selfish about it. I’m definitely guilty of this. I want to do what I want to do and I want to serve the way I want to serve. But it might not necessarily be what God wants from me. Maybe some of us don’t feel like we have anything to contribute. This was definitely Esther’s deal. Remember when Mordecai first asked her for help, her initial response was, “What can I do? I’m powerless.” But God tees it up for us. He sets us up for success. All we have to do is step up. He wants to use us where and how we are. It doesn’t matter if we don’t feel ready or if we feel like we’re not perfect. Esther and Mordecai certainly weren’t perfect. If there’s one thing I know about God, it’s that He uses imperfect people all the time for His perfect plan. But it’s our choice. He doesn’t force us. But consider this. He doesn’t need us, but He invites us. He’s God and He invites us.
Mordecai tells Esther, “If you are silent, relief for the Jews will come another way.” Remember that? I think he had faith that God would prevail even if Esther didn’t step up. Let me ask you a question. What do you do when you try to use a pen and it’s out of ink? Don’t overthink it. What do you do? You find another pen. If we don’t step up, God will find someone else to use. But it’s our loss. We’re the ones that miss out on the opportunity to grow. We’re the ones that miss out on experiencing Him. We’re the ones that miss out on the blessing.
Last year, Cornerstone suffered a great and sudden loss. One of our staff members, her name was Elitha. I’m sure many of you knew her. She went home to be with the Lord. Leaving behind her husband, Vincent, and her beautiful infant son, Hosea. We miss her dearly. Elitha was an amazing woman with a big, bold faith. Maybe bigger and bolder than anybody I’ve ever met in my life. She found Jesus here at Cornerstone. She found Cornerstone because a coworker of hers named Tony accepted God’s invitation to share his faith with her over a cup of coffee. He said it was the first time he’d ever shared his faith with anybody. It came out awkward and messy. But when it was done, he invited her to church and the rest is history. Tony believes that if he hadn’t stepped up that day, Elitha would still have found Jesus somehow because she was on a path. But man, he’s so glad he did. What a blessing it was for him to be used by God in Elitha’s life. God calls us to action.
The next thing I want to talk about that Esther’s story highlights is authenticity. Authenticity. God wants us to be the same person, seven days a week, no matter where we go, whether we’re in here or out there. For many of us, identifying as Christ-followers in our workplaces, communities, and to our extended families, is not a big deal. We’re very comfortable with it. That’s great. But for some of us, it’s hard. I want to acknowledge that because it’s not popular to be a Christian in today’s culture, especially in a city like San Francisco. I get it. Esther gets it too, I think because she was in the same boat. The Jews back then were regarded a lot like how Christians are regarded today in our culture. Narrow-minded, kind of strange, maybe even crazy.
She was in hiding, remember? She was on the DL. She didn’t tell anybody she was Jewish. I think that she sent those clothes to Mordecai when he was mourning because she thought he was going to blow her cover. Yet she had to come out of hiding. She had to step boldly into her true identity to save her people. I think that’s what God wants us to do too. He wants us to come out of hiding. How can we make Jesus known if we can’t even identify with knowing Him? I’m not talking about being obnoxious or being in people’s faces with our faith. I am talking about looking for opportunities to reveal elements of our faith naturally to those around us, to be comfortable with that, like what Tony did with Elitha. He saw that she was seeking and he seized the moment.
As Tony was reflecting on his experience with Elitha, he told me he realized that God created all of us to seek Him. All of us, whether we know it or not, can take courage in this fact as we make Jesus known to those around us. It reminds me of this great verse, Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” the apostle Paul says, “I am not ashamed. For it is the power of God who brings salvation to those who believe. First to the Jew, and then to the Gentile.” We don’t have to worry about closing the deal. God closes the deal. We just have to put it out there. God wants us to be authentic. He wants us to come out of hiding. What will it take for you to come out of hiding?
Ike Kwon, you met him earlier in the video. Years ago, he went on a senior leadership retreat at the academy. They were sharing, doing a little icebreaker, and the question was, “When life gets really tough, what keeps you going?” He said people were sharing answers like my kids, my hobbies, my pets, those types of things. But when it came Ike’s turn, he said, he just had to tell the truth. He just put it out there. Jesus Christ, my personal Lord, and savior. There. He just put it out there. It was followed by a long awkward silence. To make it more awkward, somebody said, “Well, that’s nice.” But he was fine with it. He was okay with it. If the chief operating officer at the academy who also happens to be a city commissioner can come out of hiding, I think we can too.
A few days later, his colleague who also was at the retreat, reached out to him. She was so excited. She said, “Ike, I’ve been praying for months for God to show me another believer around here. It’s you. Isn’t that great?” If nothing else, coming out of hiding helps us find each other. Doesn’t it? There’s more of us out there than you might think. Especially in the workplace where we spend so much time, it’s just so great to have safety and security in numbers. An anchor point, a community of believers where we can pray for one another, encourage one another, and witness as a team. God wants us to be authentic.
The last aspect of faith that I want to talk about is ambiguity. Ambiguity. This is probably the most challenging thing. When we follow God, there are times when we need to have a tolerance for a certain level of ambiguity. In our culture today, where it’s all about information, knowledge, and control of that information and knowledge, that’s really very difficult. What I appreciate about the book of Esther is that the text doesn’t say, “Then God told Esther to talk to the king.” It doesn’t say that. Mordecai says, “Who knows that you’ve come to this position for such a time as this.” He doesn’t say, “God told me, or I know for sure.” He says, “Who knows?” He wasn’t sure either. I really relate to that. Sometimes, it’s just not clear what God wants us to do. We like clarity. Sometimes, I wish God would just text me. Wouldn’t that be great? It would save so much time.
I wish there was a button in the Cornerstone app that we could hit and there would be a message from God. Wouldn’t that be great? It would be a great thing to add to the functionality of that app. Unfortunately, we have to do a little work if we want to hear from God. If we want to seek more clarity, it takes a little bit of work. First and foremost, we can pray. We just talk to Him. We say, “Lord, show us where we can serve you.” Or ask for guidance with a particular situation in our life. We can read the Bible. Many times He reveals Himself. He will speak to you through a story or a passage or a Bible verse. We can learn from Esther’s example. We can fast. Fasting isn’t as common today, but it is still a wonderful practice. If you’re trying to hear God, abstaining from food, technology, or anything that poses as a distraction can be very helpful. You can ask others to fast and pray with you. We can seek wise counsel. I hope there’s somebody in your life who is walking with the Lord, who loves you enough that they’ll tell you the truth no matter what. Not just somebody who is going to tell you what you want to hear.
I have a true story for you. Michael and I met in college. We dated for five years and then he bought an engagement ring, unbeknownst to me. Then he broke up with me. He prayed and read his Bible. He really felt like God was saying, “Go back to Alex. I want you to marry her.” He proposed, and here we are 24 years later. It wasn’t the order in which I would’ve preferred things to happen. So God does give us some clarity. Sometimes, even when it’s clear what He wants us to do, it’s rarely clear how it’s going to turn out. Especially when the stakes are high. The stakes are high sometimes. There are risks. There is a potential cost. Fear of the unknown can be so paralyzing. We get stuck. Esther didn’t know if she would live or die. Her battle cry was, “If I perish, I perish.” It’s courageous, but it doesn’t sound that confident to me. “I’ll probably die, but I’ll give it a whirl.” It doesn’t sound confident to me. Esther pushed through those unknowns. I imagine gripping fear and she stepped up anyway. If you’re not feeling confident about the situation, let your confidence in God carry you through. Sometimes faith means acting and trusting God despite the ambiguous circumstances.
Five years ago, my husband got a job offer here in San Francisco. We were living in Charleston, South Carolina at the time, happy as clams. We had both sets of grandparents living in the same neighborhood as us, i.e. free babysitting. Yet we felt that God was calling us to San Francisco. Michael and I prayed and fasted about it. That’s what we thought He was saying to us. We had some pretty significant financial obstacles. So we were hesitating. I remember my stepmom asked me, “Well, is God calling you?” I said, “I think so.” She said, “Well, then what’s the problem?” I said, “Doesn’t God know how bad the real estate market is right now?” We have all these problems to solve. We’re going to go bankrupt trying to move. She reminded me, “Alex if all the details were worked out, that wouldn’t be faith, would it? That would be logic.”
My husband and I took a deep breath and it felt like stepping off the side of a cliff. He accepted that job offer. That very next morning, we got a cash offer on one of our properties that had been on the market for a year and a half. We closed in a week. One by one, God took care of every obstacle, every detail, and brought us here to San Francisco. When we step up, God steps in. I wish it was the other way around, but it usually isn’t. Psalm 37:5, “Commit your way to the Lord, trust in Him, and He will act.” We step up and then God steps in. But sometimes things don’t work out. At least not the way we want them to work out. There are times in our journey with God where we triumph and there are times when we struggle and we begin to wonder, “Does God see me? Does He care?” “Why did God make you blind?” One of my sons asked me. “So you could get away with playing video games right in front of me,” I said. “I don’t know, buddy. I don’t know why.” It’s easy to be swallowed up by those why questions because sometimes we feel like we can’t get a break.
In 2010, I was diagnosed with cancer. This is when I was living back in Charleston. After treatment, they told me I was cured. Never thought I’d have to think about it again. A year ago it came back. It came back with a vengeance, stage four, no cure, they said. “Experimental treatment is your only hope,” the doctor said. “And oh, by the way, if you find something that works, you’ll be in treatment the rest of your life.” It was a dark time for me, but God was calling me to step up. This time, stepping up looked like this, to simply trust Him no matter how it turns out. To simply trust Him no matter how it turns out. I’m happy to report that for now, it’s turning out okay, pretty darn good actually because the only experimental treatment that I was eligible for in the entire country was not in Charleston or on the East Coast. It was right here in San Francisco. Three miles from my house. What a great and awesome God we worship and serve.
I praise God that I’m beating the odds. Yeah. I’m beating the odds. I’m still here. We’re human. We’re not God. We only see what’s right in front of us. We don’t see that big picture. When God reveals that bigger picture when He shows us His higher purpose and His plan, it is absolutely astounding. Astounding and so humbling. Esther thought she won a beauty contest, but God was setting her up to save her people. I thought I was moving to San Francisco for my husband’s career, but God wanted to sustain my life. There’s still a lot of ambiguity in my life. I don’t know how much longer my current treatment will keep working. I’m going to keep trusting that God’s will is perfect for me. Following Jesus can be a risky business, but the potential return is huge. It’s huge. It’s not because we’re guaranteed happiness, because we’re not. But because we experience God in powerful ways and our faith grows. When our faith grows, so do peace and joy.
As I close, I want to encourage you all to step up. Defining moments come in all shapes and sizes. For some of you, God wants you to accept Jesus. Maybe you’ve been seeking long enough, or maybe when your coworker asks you what you did this weekend, you’re going to tell them for the first time that you went to church. Or like Esther, you need to push through the fear of the unknown and step up to what God is calling you to do. Or maybe like this Esther, stepping up simply means trusting God, no matter what. The band’s going to come up in a minute and we’re going to have a time of giving, but let me close in prayer. Dear Father, God, thank you, Lord for Esther. Thank you for Your Word. For her example of stepping up, give us the courage and confidence to live boldly for you, Lord. Help us to trust you even through the fear and the ambiguousness. Help us to live our lives courageously. Thank you for your unfailing love through your son, Jesus. Amen.