Longing for Leadership

The subject of leadership increased in importance during the late 20thcentury. In the aftermath of Watergate, the Vietnam War, and many national scandals and failures, hundreds of books have been written on leadership. In the church, the scandals of the recent past and the decline of many congregations resulted in hundreds of books on church leadership. Today, every year there are more books written on leadership than any leader could possibly read! Did we just discover a new interest or is there something wrong with our society that we are so focused on leadership!

Some people are born leaders. Others struggle. Many times, the best leaders are people who have labored in obscurity for a long time, failed, and finally become the leader they are capable of being. Abraham Lincoln is an interesting case in point. During his life, he was not respected as a leader. He was not handsome. He had a high-pitched, annoying voice. He had a habit of telling jokes during cabinet meetings that many cabinet officers found offensive. He was vacillating a good bit of the time. His life involved a lot of failure.

A common list of the failures of Abraham Lincoln contains the following:

  • 1831 – Lost his job
  • 1832 – Defeated in run for Illinois State Legislature
  • 1833 – Failed in business
  • 1836 – Had nervous breakdown
  • 1838 – Defeated in run for Illinois House Speaker
  • 1843 – Defeated in run for nomination for U.S. Congress
  • 1846 – Elected to Congress (success) but a bid for reelection
  • 1849 – Rejected for land officer position
  • 1854 – Defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1856 – Defeated in run for nomination for Vice President
  • 1858 – Again defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1860 – Elected President (success) [1]

When Lincoln died, Edwin Stanton looked down at has body and said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” His commitment to the Union, freeing of the slaves, his willingness to suffer for the nation, and gentleness with people had made of him the greatest of our national leaders.

A Prophetic Longing

Our theme for Advent this year is, “Longing for What’s Next.” This morning, our meditation is on the theme, “Longing for Leadership.”  Our text is from the prophet Isaiah. The early church valued Isaiah because it contains a foreshadowing of the birth, character, ministry, and sacrificial death of Jesus the Messiah. As the early church read Isaiah, it saw in Jesus the fulfillment of the promise God had made to David that he would never fail to have an heir on the throne of Israel (9:7; 11:10). Let’s read together God’s word from Isiah 11, verse 1-6:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
     and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them
(Isaiah 11:1-6).

Let us Pray: Eternal God, King of Heaven, Lord of Hosts: Come to us this morning by the power of your Holy Spirit that we may understand the kind of leadership that pleases you and become such leaders in our families, businesses, schools, clubs, friendships, and other places we minister your grace. In Jesus Name, Amen.

The Leader We Long For

 The Prophet Isaiah lived in the times of two of the best kings of Israel and two of the worst. The prophesies of the historical Isaiah covers the period from the reign of King Uzziah (791-740 B.C.), the reign of King Jotham (750-732 B.C.), King Ahaz (736-716 B.C.), and King Hezekiah (725-687 B.C.). Uzziah and Hezekiah were good kings, but Ahaz and Jotham were not. Isaiah 11 was probably written sometime during the disappointing reign of Ahaz. [2] The prophet was understandably concerned about the future of his nation and about the quality of its leadership. Even Uzziah and Hezekiah, as good as they were, were not perfect leaders. They made mistakes.

As Isaiah thought and prayed about the situation, God revealed that what was needed was not better leaders of the kind that Israel had already had, but a new and different kind of leader. Such leadership would be Spirit-filled, loving and caring for people, wise, knowledgeable about the world and about the ways of God, insightful about the motives of people and the potential of situations, just, and righteous. Here are just a few of the Messianic descriptions of Godly leadership Isaiah contains:

  • The Messiah will be a wonderful counselor, a Mighty God, a Prince of Peace, an Eternal King, whose kingdom will not end (9:6-7).
  • The Messiah will be filled with the Holy Spirit, respect and fear God, delight in God, and have supernatural, Godly insight and wisdom (11:2-8).
  • The Messiah will be just and righteous to an extraordinary degree (32:1).
  • The Messiah will be a liberator, who will free God’s people from captivity (41:2-4).
  • The Messiah will be the Servant of the LORD, filled with God’s love and gentleness, he will not even break a reed without cause and will patiently bring about God’s kingdom of peace (42:14).
  • The Messiah will be the suffering servant of God who will liberate people from the burden of their sin and spiritual brokenness (53:4-6).

From the time of Isaiahforward, the people of Israel longed for that new kind of leadership. Over time, the vision of Isaiah and other prophets resulted in a hope for a Spirit-filled leader the prophets called, the “Messiah,” or “The Anointed One.” [3] By the time of Jesus, this hope was fully worked out in the minds of most Jews. Unfortunately, the way they worked it out was not correct. They made of the Messiah just another King David, only more moral and without some of David’s most serious shortcomings. They lost the fact that this king was so unusual that his leadership could not be contained in any single human being. Only the Son of God could be such a leader.

Over the years, I have come to realize that too often pastors, church professionals, Sessions, and church members want church leaders who model the leadership style of their favorite leaders in business, government, the military, and other areas. The problem is that secular leaders always disappoint, and church leaders, who are just like secular leaders but nicer, are bound to disappoint us as well.

Alternatively, we want leaders who are wise. Sometimes the church can exalt a leader who demonstrates a kind of otherworldly foolishness. I was visiting this week about a nationally recognized leader who goes around giving advice to young people that is, frankly, silly. At fifteen, a young person may celebrate that advice. Years later that same young person will leave the Christian Faith on the theory that Christianity is foolish and supports foolishness. Christian leaders need to demonstrate a wisdom that is greater than human wisdom, not a wisdom that is, in fact, silliness.

An important thing to remember is that God never gives a church or society better leaders than they want and deserve. Leaders reflect the society that creates them. If we want impossible things from our leaders, then we will get leaders who promise impossible things. This is true in business, in government, and in the church as well.

The Unexpected Leader We Receive

We should yearn for better leadership. At the same time, we have to realize that no human being is capable of satisfying our deepest longings. Even the most Spirit-filled leaders, even the most caring leaders, even the wisest leaders make mistakes. If we get into our minds the idea that our leaders will not be fallen, limited human beings, who make mistakes and fall short just like we do, we will always be disappointed. More importantly, we will make foolish decisions about our leaders seeking for a perfection that no one can possibly achieve.

In the end, we will not make real progress in Christian leadership unless and until the transcendent example of Christ forms in our hearts an ideal for which we strive. The leadership we long for can only be found, and our longing satisfied, in Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Only Immanuel, God with us, could possibly fulfill the human desire for better leadership. Because of this, we need to remember our human leaders are not Jesus.

The last few election years have been times of tension and conflict. I wonder sometimes if we don’t put too much importance our elections. In fact, I wonder if our focus on politics is an indication of a lack of trust in God and a foolish hope for a kind of leader that does not and cannot exist in fallen, sinful, human history.  During the 2016 election, I wrote the following mediation:

One thing most of us long for is a world in which we have better, wiser, more ethical, godlier, and more caring leadership. This longing for better leaders cannot be completely fulfilled except by Christ. All human leaders fail. All human leaders fall short of our expectations. All human leaders are like us: they are flawed, finite human beings. Therefore, we can come to expect too much from them. Only God can give us the leadership we desire in the depths of our hearts. Only Christ can give us the self-giving, servant leadership for which our spirits made in the image of God long. Only the Spirit can help us come closer to being such leaders.

Christians can and should be in the forefront of demanding and seeking good leadership from ourselves and those who lead us. One strength of faith is that it provides an unchanging and humanly unreachable moral goal in all our striving, including our striving to be good leaders. This strength can become a weakness unless it is coupled with grace. [4]

This is an important time. Our church is about to elect a new pastor. The success or failure of our church will depend to a certain degree upon that person. On the other hand, we can expect too much. Our new pastor will be a human being. He will have strengths and weaknesses. He will have good days and bad days. He will make good decisions and not-so-good decisions. That is the way of human leadership. There are no perfect human leaders. Only Jesus is the perfect leader. The rest of us are fallen and flawed.

The Session has dedicated next week to prayer and fasting. There are going to be opportunities each day for you to come to the church and pray for the decision we will make next week. Please take some time to pray or fast in some way, giving up something for the week as we pray for our new pastor. In addition, please take the time to come to the church and pray in the prayer room. How can we pray?

  • First, we can pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and our new pastor in a mighty way (see, Isaiah 41:2-4).
  • Second, we can pray that we and our new pastor will be filled with the love of God, and will be a selfless, servants to those around us (Isaiah 53).
  • Third, we can pray that we and our new pastor will have that hidden wisdom of which the Apostle Paul speaks (1 Corinthians 2:6-8). We can pray that he and we will be able to see beneath the surface to the true causes of things and situations (Isaiah 3-4).

Conclusion

This morning is Communion Sunday at Bay Presbyterian Church. Communion is a reminder that, when the Messiah came, he was so much different than what everyone expected that his own people rejected him. He was submitted to God and did not always please people. He was filled with a kind and unusual wisdom that did always give people what they wanted. He emptied himself of pride and self-seeking and demanded that both he and those who followed him take up a cross.

It’s at the cross, and at the table of the One who went to the cross for our sins that we see revealed the deepest and most important kind of leadership for which we long—the leadership of the Living God at work in human hearts. Crucified on a cross, Jesus looked to be a weak and defeated leader. But it wasn’t weakness that kept Him on the cross, it was strength– and a kind of leadership the world had never seen before.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The internet is filled with such lists. While the listing of the failures of Lincoln may be overdone, the reality is that he experienced failure. See https://www.school-for-champions.com/history/lincoln_failures.htm#.W8tj6BNKiGgfor one such list. Lincoln’s leadership was not recognized during his life. Only at his death, was his true greatness recognized, especially by the elites of his day.

[2] See, Gary V. Smith, “Isaiah 1-39” in The New American Commentary(Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2007), 233ff. Most likely this section is related to the time period of Isaiah 7:14 (“A virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son”). The reign of Ahaz had been disappointing to the prophet and many other religious Jews. In such times, there is a longing for wholesome, renewing leadership.

[3] The Hebrew term “Messiah” is “Christ” in Greek. In English, the translation for Christ is “Anointed One.”

[4] The philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi in his book, Science, Faith and Societyspeaks of the frequent moral inversion of the modern world, especially in socialistic societies. The moral ideal of Christianity cut free from a recognition of human sinfulness, creates in modern (and even more alarmingly, postmodern) people a rejection of present human society and a desire for a perfect society cut free from a realization of human limitations. This enables such people to commit horrible injustices in the search for a perfect society, as has been experienced in Russia, China, Cambodia, Germany, and other places. See, Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society: A Searching Examination of Scientific Inquiry. 2nd ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946).

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