Toorak Uniting Church

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Joshua 3: 7 – 17   1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13   Matthew 23: 1 – 12
Rev. Robert McUtchen
2 November 2008

Todays readings deal with leadership.
Joshua 3: 7 – 17 Joshua, successor to Moses, appointed by God, leads the Hebrews into Canaan.
1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13 St Paul writes to the Thessalonians about their receiving the word of God, which you heard from us, but accepted it “as the word of God ”. Leadership is offered in word and example, but there is free acceptance, rather than coercion.
Matthew 23: 1 – 12 Jesus makes a spirited criticism of the pharisees and scribes. It is easy to overlook his opening words – “practise and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do”. As leaders they are to be heard and obeyed. At the end of his criticism he reminds his hearers that his way is different – one should eschew leadership as an office or objective, but rather adopt the role of servant, one who is humble.

Leadership is a vexed issue. Part of human nature yearns for strong decisive leadership; part of human nature rejects leadership because it is variously wrong, misguided or hypocritical. Criticism of leaders did not start with Jesus. From the beginning the bible is skeptical of human leadership, particularly Kings, who were the leader of choice in Old Testament times.

Leadership of God’s chosen people was initially theocratic – that is, by God, or those commissioned to lead in God’s name, who brought the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to the promised land in Canaan, as we heard today. Later they saw how other nations were governed by Kings, and demanded of Samuel – one of Gods appointed judges, that they be given a king. Human leadership is contrasted with the loving care of God’s leading. 1 Sam 8 v 9 sums up God’s response – "listen to them, but give them strict warnings and explain how their kings will treat them. They will…. make soldiers of your sons, your Sons and daughters will work for the king, not for you; he will take your best land, servants, cattle and make them work for him; he will take a tenth of your flocks, you will become his slaves…and when he does…don’t come complaining to me."
Yet God in his love allowed it. Among the kings were faithful, great and sometimes flawed leaders. God continued to give leadership to his people, trying in spite of their weakness, willfulness or disobedience to help them to find a good and safe life as he desired for them.

Criticism continues in the Gospels, but here Jesus criticizes teachers and Pharisees. Jewish life was and is guided by the Law – Torah, backed up a body of written work Talmud which tries to make relevant the law to all parts of life. Jews understand Torah as an undeserved gift of God which transforms and completes life. Teachers and Pharisees taught and helped people to fully access the benefits of life under the law…..Jesus criticized not what they taught, but that their own living was inconsistent, hypocritical.

So through Hebrew scripture and gospel leadership is a constant theme that leaders can be wrong or weak. Yet God depends on human leadership to make effective some of his desires.
In my undergrad days I was a tram driver. Bert was an inspector who regularly rode with us to monitor our driving. Inspectors wore green uniforms and were generally respected and listened to. He usually drove part of each trip and broke every rule in the book. One day a group of drivers reminded him of his numerous rule infringements – exit one red faced inspector with parting shot – "Do as I say…..NOT DO AS I DO.."

Leadership and how we as Australians deal with it is a serious topic. I suggest there is an underlying assumption anyone who leads must be of impeccable ethical standards. Les Carlyon observed of diggers in France in WW1 – the men who became leaders in the Army late in the war were often those who had survived and often been promoted from among the ranks. They were recognized as bravest and most skilled at their craft. Their leadership was almost conferred by their peers and accepted accordingly.

I wonder if we have a similar expectation of our leaders today. The USA and the world are focused on leadership as they approach the election of a President, in whom are caught up the aspirations and fears of the world. Any footy team captain, business leader, politician or church leader bears similar expectations. To set right all that is not right, give new directions, wise leadership and guidance in trouble, inspire and assert right values…, we do not ask much. And when they do try and lead we are ready to criticize. Leadership as Jesus expresses it, and St Paul later shows, is not quite how we see it in the 21st century.

Jesus describes leadership as being akin to servant hood. The greatest must be your servant. Whoever humbles himself will be made great. This expression of servanthood was manifest in Jesus own behaviour and example – taking towel and bowl to wash feet, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah as the suffering servant who would die on the cross. Contrast that with modern leaders and their accessories – minders, secretaries, status. Yet that model has been followed with wonderful outcomes

This is the life we are called to follow – to be servant to others, to humble ourselves and drop all pretension to status or position.

And this leads us to St Paul and the Thessalonians. Leadership is about deferring to God in all things - Paul is grateful that they heard and accepted the message he brought as God’s message, and not from human beings. Which is almost a calling back to the Moses and the Judges of the Old Testament.

Before the Israelites took Kings, their leader was God, who used ordinary men and women to be his agents. They claimed little for themselves, but were the sometimes unwilling agents through whom God’s word was mediated.

Leadership in our paradigm is seen to have several characteristics:

Let us ask God to help us as we strive to follow Jesus way, and be agents through whom God exercises leadership in the world we live in. Amen.

© Rev. Robert McUtchen, 2008

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