Who are you listening to?

(The following is a transcript of Steve Carter’s message Who Are You Listening To?, part one of the series Where’s God in All of This? The video is also available to you.) 

Today we begin a brand new series called “Where’s God in All of This?” It comes because, when you flip through the ten chapters of the book of Esther, there’s this strange omission. God’s name is not mentioned. And I think, for some of us, in our lives, there have been seasons where God has felt so near, so close, you can almost feel the impression or hear His voice guiding your steps. But if you’re like me, there’s been moments, there’s been times, when you know cognitively He is here, but maybe you just have struggled to discern, what is He inviting you into?

What I want to do is I want to walk us through, leading up to Easter, this book of Esther. Because I think when you dive into this book, you will see that God is at work. You might not see His name, but God is at work. And today, I want to talk about the importance of having people in your life who can help you discern where God is and what God is up to.

In the first two chapters of Esther, you are going to find that there is one person who surrounds himself with a certain inner circle, a certain team, that doesn’t give him the best advice. And another person who God brings around some incredible, wise, influential people to help guide in each step this woman takes.

Now, I think for me, I love the Scriptures. I love diving deep into the Scriptures. But I think sometimes, when you just choose a book like Esther to teach out of, you kind of wonder, Where does Esther fit in the entire biblical narrative? So, if you’re even wondering where Esther is, just go to Psalms, make a left, pass the book of Job, and there’s Esther. But where does it fit in God’s grand story?

Let me take you back to a king. His name is Cyrus the great. This is what he looked like. Cyrus is known as one of the greatest, most influential leaders the world has ever known. He was a Persian king. And he ends up coming to Babylon in October of 539 B.C., and the Hebrew people are in exile. See, God had given them a reason, a purpose, had given them influence, had rescued them from slaves, taken them to Jerusalem, and they were the most powerful and influential nation. But here was the thing: They neglected God’s word. They were not a city on a hill. They were not a light into the nations. They did what they wanted to do. And because of that, Jerusalem was seized by the Babylonians, and the Hebrew people were taken, and they were slaves.

And during this time, the Hebrew people cried out. “By the rivers of Babylon, we cried and we wept as we remembered Zion.” Some of you just think that’s Bob Marley song—that is Scripture. And they begin to cry out and sing this out. The prophets begin to write. And some of them forecast and foreshadow that, one day, there is going to be a leader by the name of Cyrus. You can read this in Isaiah 44 and Isaiah 45. God says that Cyrus will be the Lord’s shepherd, and he will set the Hebrew people free, and they’ll go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and rebuild the temple.

In Isaiah 45, it says that Cyrus is the Lord’s anointed. “Anointed” in Hebrew is where we get the word “messiah.” And he is going to be this anointed one to set the Hebrew people free. And so, 539 B.C., the Hebrew people are in Babylon, and Cyrus the Great—and the entire Persian Empire—is coming to take down Babylon. And the Babylonians surrender. Because they’ve heard about this king.

See, this king was different than every other king, who would just rape and pillage and kill. This king, when he took a city, would actually empower the culture, bring people from that culture onto his cabinet, and continue to learn from that land and those people. Cyrus is coming. Josephus, this Jewish historian, says that these Hebrew people bring the scrolls from Isaiah and go, “Hey, hey. Look at this. Read this.”

And as he begins to read it, he is amazed and in shock and says, “How many of you are here?”

And they say, “Oh, there’s hundreds of thousands.”

“Well, if you want to return back to Jerusalem, I will finance the entire thing. You are free to go.”

And so the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about the Hebrew people’s return to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall, rebuild the city, rebuild the temple. But a whole bunch of people said, “Is God really in that? Is God really inviting us to go back to Jerusalem?” Some people had learned how to live in exile. They liked their schools. They had kids. They liked the club sports that their kids were a part of. They’re like, “I think we’re going to stay here.” And so Esther is about the people who are living in exile and wondering, Is God still with us? Is God still here? Does God still see me? If I’m here, should I be over there, in Jerusalem? We stayed put.

So Cyrus’ grandson was a man by the name of Xerxes the Great. And he’s very different from Cyrus. He’s a megalomaniac. He’s good looking. He wants to acquire more wealth, more influence. And Persia is like the most powerful nation in the world. And they only have one rival. It is Greece—the Athenians. And so Xerxes, to kick off Esther, chapter 1, we find out that he’s in the third year of his reign. The third year of his reign. And he calls all of the leaders—the military leaders, the princes, the nobles—from all of the provinces that he oversees, and it goes from India to Ethiopia, up to modern-day Pakistan. It’s this whole area. And he calls them in because they are going to strategically plan the next time they try to take down Greece. And look what it says in chapter 1 verse 4: “For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty.”

So this is what he does. For 180 days, he kind of strategically plans and he starts showcasing all of the stuff that he has. All of the gold. All of the wine. All of his power. And he’s trying to tell all of these provinces and all of these military leaders, “If you ride with me, you will be taken care of.”

Now, one historian, Herodotus, says that Xerxes stands up, and he delivers this word: “I may punish the Athenians for what they have done to the Persians and to my father. You saw that Darius, my father, was minded to make an expedition against these men. But he is dead, and it was not granted him to punish them; and I, on his and all the Persians’ behalf, will never rest till I have taken and burnt Athens. ...As for you, this is how you should best please me: when I declare the time for your coming, every one of you must appear, and with a good will; and whoever comes with his army best equipped shall receive from me such gifts as are reckoned most precious among us.” He’s saying to all of these military leaders, “If you come, some of this could be yours. So be ready.”

After six months of strategic planning and drinking and showcasing his wealth, look what the Scriptures say, verse 5: “When these days were over, the king gave a banquet”—and “banquet” in Hebrew, in Esther, is really connected to the word “drinking party”—“lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa.” So this citadel of Susa is the capital city of the Persian empire. So now he’s not just dealing with all these military leaders and princes and nobles and influential people; now, every person, from the least to the greatest, in the capital city, is able to come, and they will be able to drink whatever they want. And Xerxes brings out the best wine, the best golden goblets; and for seven days, they are completely inebriated. It is an open bar of epic proportions. And they are drinking and drinking and drinking. And all of a sudden, Xerxes has this thought: What’s the one thing that I could do that would make all of these men in this room envious of my power? To see how great I am? And he thinks, What if I have my wife, Queen Vashti, just come out wearing only a crown on her head?

So Xerxes, drunk, thinks to himself, I think this is a good idea. He calls seven eunuchs—and if you don’t know what a eunuch is, just ask the person next to you, hopefully they can explain—and he says, “I want you to do this. Go get my wife.” And look what the Scriptures say. Verse 11: “to bring before him Queen Vashti,”—which is Hebrew for sweetheart—“wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.” Verse 12: “But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.”

Now, you just gotta put yourself in this situation. He has made this spectacle: “You guys ready for the final part of the show? I’m now gonna bring my wife, the most beautiful woman in the land. And she’s going to walk out just wearing her crown. So get ready, guys.”

And she’s like, “Uh uh. Not doing it.”

And he’s burning with anger. Because he’s now publicly shamed. And here’s what you have to understand: in this culture, Vashti was strong. Vashti was brave. Vashti said, “I do not want to walk into a room with a whole bunch of men who have been drinking for seven straight days to be grabbed and groped. I am a queen. You are going to treat me like one.” Strong! And to this day, Queen Vashti, she’s celebrated. Because she’s like one of the first women to ever stand up and say, “Not going to do it. I’m not playing your game.”

Now, in this culture, though, the king is like, “What do I do?” Now, this is a very important thing. When you don’t get your way, where do you go? And what ends up happening is Xerxes calls together his inner circle. Look what it says, verse 13: “Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king—Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan,”—If you don’t know how to say it, just say it quickly and with authority; everyone will believe you—“the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.”

Now, here’s what I need you to know: These seven, they were all the same. They had special access and influence to Xerxes and the king. They could show up unannounced, uninvited, and give their perspective. They had been given a seat in his inner circle. And so the Scriptures say that Memukan goes to Xerxes and goes, “Uh, we got a problem. Because your wife said no to you, this is bad news for all of us men. If your wife said no, that means my wife can say no. And his wife can say no. And his wife can say no. So you gotta tell the women no.” And Xerxes stands up and makes a royal decree: That every woman must respect and say yes to whatever their husbands decree. Really, really wrong. Really, really destructive. Not the best advice. But it makes me ask a simple question: Who are you listening to? When you are in a very difficult situation or scenario, who do you bring into your inner circle to give guidance and counsel as to what is the best next right step to take? For many of us, we have some “yes” people—they all look the same. They’re more about I gotta stay close to this person.

I met with a CEO this week. We shared a meal together. I asked him, I said, “Tell me about your inner circle. How do you know if someone is worthy enough to have a seat at your table?”

He goes, “I want them to be transparent. They need to be honest. They need to be human. They need to be vulnerable. I need to know that they’re going to ask me the difficult question about my marriage, about my leadership, about my faith.”

And I said, “How do you know?”

He goes, “I have a little trick. I can tell if someone is for me by this simple little test.”

I was like, “What is it?”

“I sit down with someone who I suspect could be in my inner circle, and I tell the worst joke possible. And if that person laughs, then I just know that they see power, and all they want to do is sit at my seat. But if they don’t laugh, I’m like, I like this person. They might have a chance to be invited in.

Who are you listening to? I think there are so many times where we’re trying to need people to kind of help us discern what’s God inviting us into? And if you don’t have the right people, you might be led one degree, two degrees, five degrees, ten degrees off biblical north. And if you find yourself doing that, it’s not only going to lead you into destructive patterns but to every person that you influence. You think the potential of if Xerxes had a different inner circle? What that could’ve meant for women in the ancient Near East? But he had a whole bunch of men who were more afraid of losing their power and trying to keep in good standing with Xerxes, that it held back the female narrative. Tragic. But yet God was up to something. Let’s keep reading.

It says this in chapter 2 verse 1: “Later when King Xerxes’ fury had subsided, he remembered Vashti”—she’s no longer a queen, it’s just Vashti—“and what she had done and what he had decreed about her.” There’s a very fascinating word in that first verse. It’s just the word “later.” Remember, chapter 1 happens in the third year of Xerxes’ reign. Chapter 2 happens in the seventh year. So there’s this four-year gap. And Xerxes is still remembering Vashti and the decree that he made.

So it leaves scholars to ask the question: “What happened during those four years?” Let me tell you. During those four years, these seven told Xerxes, “It’s time. Let’s go after Athens.” And so he doubled down, called all of those provinces, and he went after them. And he was humiliated. He lost the majority of his wealth and his pride and his influence. And so he stumbles home after listening to this inner circle, distraught. Remembering Vashti. He had it all, except somebody who would tell him the truth, and the one person who would, and she said no, she was rejected. And so he’s just sitting there, remembering her.

And the king’s attendants see Xerxes, they see how down and sad he is, and they go, “Woah, woah, we got an idea. You need a new queen. It’s been four years. What if we do this? What if we do a search throughout your entire empire? We’ll bring all of the beautiful virgins, and it will be this pageant of beauty, and you can choose who your bride, who the next queen, will be.” And Xerxes goes, “Okay.”

Now, what this will feel like and sound like is The Bachelor. But it’s nothing like The Bachelor. Cause here’s what The Bachelor is: Someone makes a tape, they audition, they show up, they choose. They choose to go on a show. They choose to go public in their desire to be in this relationship. But for the four hundred virgins that find themselves in this pageant, they did not have a choice. Fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-year-olds. Beautiful, stunning women. And people would find them, abduct them, and take them. This is Esther. And imagine Esther—sweet, strong—being taken from her family. And I imagine for her, she’s wondering, Where’s God in all of this? God, what are You doing in all of this? This is tragic, this is traumatic, I didn’t ask for this, please. What are You up to?

I want you to feel it. Because if you can’t feel it, you can’t see it, then you’re gonna miss it and just kinda see it as like, Oh, this is just like what happens on TV. It wasn’t. It was human, and it was broken. Let’s go to verse 7 and continue on. I want you to see some of the characters who show up in Esther’s story. Verse 7: “Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah,”—that’s like the Hebrew name for Esther, it means “myrtle.”—whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.” Verse 8: “When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa”—the capital city—“and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. She pleased him and won his favor.” This is not a sexual reference. But her countenance. Her strength. The way she communicated. Who she was pleased him. “Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem.”

So right there, you’re beginning to see God’s providence. The people that God is bringing into Esther’s story to really help and shape and guide. And God does this in your story. God brings people into your life, if you’re open, who want to help you take that next step in your faith. And so we learned about Mordecai, this cousin who basically adopts Esther. And we learned about Hegai, who was also a eunuch; he was in charge of all of the virgins in this pageant. But for some apparent reason, he had this connection with Esther. She had won favor in his eyes. And he gives her seven female attendants. And these female attendants, they knew the king. They knew the royal family. They knew what he liked. And so, all of a sudden, God’s like working behind the scenes.

Continues on, verse 10: “Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.” Can you just imagine Mordecai? Just showing up, every morning: “Hey, how’s it going? How you doing? Don’t be scared. I’m here. Hey, hey, hey, don’t tell them that you’re Jewish. It might not be good for you. Just, just stay trusting. I think God’s in this. Hegai, I hear he’s a good guy. Keep listening to him. They moved you to that room? Oh my goodness! God must be doing something. He’s giving you influence. He gave you seven?”—Seven, that’s like a great Jewish number, it’s like completion—“He gave you seven amazing attendants? Oh. Just stay focused. I think God’s in this.”

And you begin to see how God is at work. And then it continues on, and it says this, verse 12: “Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh”—yes, please—“and six with perfumes and cosmetics.” Now, I don’t know if some of you are like, “Twelve months? That sounds awesome.” When I first moved here, someone told me about this resort in Wisconsin. Kohler resort. They told me and they sold me on it because they said, “Oh, it’s got the best cheese curds on the planet.” And I’m like, “Deal. Done.”

I go online, find a great deal. I show up with my wife, we’re driving in, we kinda go through this little area, get our bags out. As I’m walking through the door, a guy opens the door and says, “Welcome to Kohler. May all your desires come true.” I was like, “Oh, uh, okay. Alright... may it be to you also.” I walk in and, all of a sudden, I see twelve men and women in white robes. And I’m like, Oh no. I don’t know what kind of resort is in Wisconsin, but brothel is not where I want to be. So I walked up to like the attendant who is checking us in and I said, “Hey, what is this place?”

“Oh, it is a resort. We’re here to take care of you.”

I’m like, “What, what do you mean?”

“You seem a little tense.”

“I’m a little nervous right now. I came here for cheese curds.”

“We have treatments to help you.”

I said, “Well, what kind of treatments do you have?”

“Our first treatment, it’s called ‘All Things Scotland.’”

“‘All Things Scotland’? What is that?”

“Oh, it’s where we get seaweed from the Atlantic Ocean. We bring it over. We wrap you in seaweed. And then we allow the seaweed and salt to hydrate your skin. And then we massage you.”

I was like, “Um, I want cheese curds.”

“Oh, you might like this one: ‘When the world gives you lemons...’”

I was like, “What?”

“Yes.”

“What is that?”

“Oh, we lay you on a table. We take lemons. We squeeze them on your back. And then one of our masseuses begins to hit you and massage you.”

I was like, “No, I just want cheese curds.”

“You, you might like this one. ‘Milwaukee’s finest.’”

I said, “Oh, what’s that? Lather me in cheap beer and have Laverne and Shirley beat me up? Like, what’s this?”

He said, “No, no, no, no. We will dip you in cheese.”

And I was like, “Go on.”

No, it didn’t happen.

So you can just imagine what Esther is going through, right? Twelve months. She has to trust these people. Oh. Add more oil. Add more myrrh. Add more perfume. Twelve months! And then the time comes for her to meet Xerxes. Verse 13: “And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz,”—greatest name in the Scriptures—“the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name. When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her.”

From the least to the greatest. From the seven attendants to Hegai. From Mordecai to Shaashgaz. And Shaashgaz was kind of over all of the concubines. So every woman who entered into this pageant who spent time with the king found themselves being moved to kind of this place to be the king’s concubine. They never get married. And so, when I think about this, I think about all of the ways God was just moving in Esther’s life—behind the scenes. Almost this inner circle, this team that God was providing for her. You had Mordecai—this cousin who adopted her—saying, “Hey, don’t let them know your nationality.” Showing up every morning and every night just going, “How’s it going?”

You had Hegai, this incredible eunuch. And most eunuchs, they were taken from another land. Castrated. They were loyal to the king, and this man had so much power. He said, “I’m going to give you these seven attendants. They’re going to tell you what the king is all about. They’ll help you win favor. You just gotta listen and you gotta trust.”

Even Shaashgaz to say, “Hey, I’m hearing all of this is why this woman wasn’t chosen.” And all of a sudden, I just start to think how Esther had this humility, had this willingness, to really see God providing her some voices. And these voices were diverse. [The king’s] men, they all looked and acted and thought the same. But these? These seven women? They’re Persian. Shaashgaz and Hegai, they’re probably from a different country. And Mordecai is Jewish.

And you begin to think about this. The influence that was happening. The perspective. The fuller mosaic and tapestry that Esther was able to get. I ask you again: Who are you listening to? Who are the people that are speaking into your life? You’ve heard me say this before, friends. The only reason I am who I am and where I am is because of the mentors that God has given me and the community that God has given me.

And there has been times and seasons where I didn’t have an inner circle. I didn’t have people who were able to ask me the difficult questions. Who were able to give me counseling. I’ve had moments where I just had people around me who acted like me, thought like me. And I had a very small view. I had seasons where I had nobody in my life. And I plateaued spiritually. But I have become convinced and deeply committed that I believe that Christianity is not a solo sport. It is a team sport. It is a family. It is a group of people who need each other. You need people who see you—the real you. You need people who know you—the real you. You need people who will comfort you, who will celebrate with you, who will weep with you, who will laugh with you. And I think about my life, there has been moments where, gosh... A friend of mine loses their job. And who shows up? Oh, everyone who’s in that community, and we just stood beside our friend.

There has been moments where someone in my inner circle, their brother-in-law was killed in battle. And who shows up? The inner circle. Just standing. I’ve had moments of deep sadness. And who shows up? Oh, my inner circle. I’ve had moments where there’s been situations and transitions and possibilities thrown before me. And I’m trying to pray to God that I’m just not hearing what I should do. And I bring it before my inner circle. They give me coaching. They help me discern what God is doing. Do you have this in your life?

Ever since the beginning of our church, we called ourselves Willow Creek Community Church. And I think something has happened over the age where, for many of us, we said, “I tried community. I had community once, but then people moved away.” And I think, for many of us, we might look on our phones and say, “Oh, you know what, I got friends I can text.” Or “I’ve got friends on social media.” But do you really have people who are helping you discern what God is up to in your life?

I think many of us wish we had that. I think many of us, we’ve experienced our spiritual journeys with Jesus plateauing because we don’t have this. And it’s really, really critical. And I want that. As one of your pastors, I want that for you. I want you to have the people who can look you and grab you by the shoulders and remind you, “You are made in the image of God.” Who will ask you the difficult questions. Who will pray with you. Who will show up when you need it.

And I think in this room today, there is probably three types of people. The first type of people is this: You must assemble your team. You must assemble your starting five. Who are the people in your life who you are giving permission to be there? And you have permission to be there for them.

You know what, every Wednesday, at 11:30 a.m., I get on the phone, and I call my friend Andrew. And we talk. We talk about our families. We pray together. We talk about upcoming messages. Every week. It’s on my schedule. It’s that important.

I think of some of the community groups that I’m a part of. These small groups. We just meet together. We break bread together. We eat together. We confess. We talk. We share our deep desires, our deep fears. We pray together. Beg God with each other.

I think of friends who are just teaching me different things about our world. And we get together once, twice a month. And I look at these friends, these mentors, these smaller groups, these communities. They are people who are helping shape me. Do you have that?

And for some of you, the initiative that you need to take is to assemble your team. And maybe it’s this week where you gotta invite someone to coffee and say, “Hey, you matter to me. And I need your help in taking the next steps in my development as a Christ follower. Can we link arms together? And if you see something in me, call it out. Good, please. And bad. But call it out.” For some of you, you just gotta assemble that.

Some of you families, I know it’s difficult raising kids. There are so many sports and different activities. But please, one of the greatest gifts that you can give your kids is showcasing how much biblical community matters. Those kids see it. And if they see you just isolated, doing it on your own. Oh, man, they think that’s the way you’re supposed to live with Jesus. Show them a better way.

The second thing. I think some of you might need to examine your team. You might need to take a real honest audit of who are the people who are speaking into your life? Are they people who are encouraging you to step more and more into who God made you to be? Or are they just “yes” people? Are they people who are challenging you? Are they people who are helping you grow? Are they people who are running ahead of you? Or are they people who are slowing you down? You gotta take an honest examination. And sometimes that means: Are you slowing other people down? You gotta lean into that.

And then the third one. You gotta refocus your game plan. For some of you, you have a small community, a small group, some people you meet with. But maybe you’re just drinking buddies. Maybe you just go out and you do stuff together. Maybe you go out and have fun. But let’s be really honest. When’s the last time you shared an insecure thought? When’s the last time you shared a struggle in your marriage? When’s the last time you shared a struggle—something you’re carrying? Addiction, or some pain, or some unmet desire? When’s the last time you all prayed together? When’s the last time you felt seen and known?

I was talking with a dear friend of mine who’s, you know, in my inner circle. And he said, “You know what? There was a season in my life where I had a group of people. And every Thursay night, we went out to the bar. And it was fun. And then I’d wake up Friday morning, and I was so lonely. And nobody would’ve thought that, because we were always having fun. But deep down, in my core, I was lonely.”

Maybe for some of you, if you’re in a group, or maybe you have this kind of circle, this team, of people in your life, maybe it takes one of you just to say, “I believe in what we can be. And we need to link arms. We need to pray together. We need to talk about what’s really going on in our lives, and just refocus it.” But if you do this, I can almost guarantee that your spiritual trajectory will just rise so quickly. You will experience God at work. You will be able to discern, and you will find yourself not just wondering, God, where are You in all of this? But, through your community, be able to hear, see, and discern what God is inviting you. When you have other perspectives speaking in, you can almost step back and go, “Wow. Mordecai. Hegai. Shaashgaz. The seven. God was at work. And I’m so glad that they were speaking into my life to help me become everything God desires me to be.”

I want that for you. Do you need to assemble? Do you need to examine? Or do you need to refocus? But please, do not do this on your own. We need each other. Amen?