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Leader and Lord

September 21, 2020

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”  Philippians 2:3

An article in the Harvard Business Review begins as follows: “Want to demonstrate that you have what it takes to be an effective leader and have people follow your direction? Be humble!”[1]  The article goes on to explain that if you want to make your organization the best it can be, you need to use your leadership for “something other than self-aggrandizement.”  The author of the article took a page out of God’s playbook, the Bible.  This week’s Scripture lessons teach us that humility is an important quality in a person.  And it is an essential characteristic of a great leader. 

 According to Kierkegaard, our natural inclination is to build our identity around something besides God. [2] This tendency results in spiritual pride—“the illusion that we are competent to run our own lives, achieve our own sense of self-worth and find a purpose big enough to give us meaning in life without God.”[3]  But as Christians, we know that it doesn’t matter what we or anyone else thinks of us; God has already told us that as believers we are his sons and daughters. We can put our own egos aside, because God’s opinion of us is the only opinion that counts. 

Scripture includes many examples of humble leaders– the most obvious of which is Jesus.  When he entered Jerusalem on a donkey a few days before Passover, the people hailed him as the conquering hero they expected as a descendant David, the great warrior who defeated Goliath.  The people didn’t understand that Jesus had come to conquer their sin, not their Roman oppressors.  They didn’t understand that he was the suffering servant leader described by Isaiah: “He was treated harshly, but endured it humbly” (Isaiah 53:7, Good News Translation). Jesus came to die for our sins and we were adopted into the family of God through him. Because of Jesus, we can spend less time worrying about what others think of us because we know that the God of the universe went to bat for us. 

Paul explains the mind-boggling reality of Jesus’ humility and how we should apply his example to our own lives: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant . . .” (Philippians 2:5-7).[4]   It’s hard for our human minds to grasp the concept that God, who created the universe, not only humbled himself to become a mere mortal—but that he never used his powers to his own advantage.  That, in itself, is a powerful argument for his divinity.  None of us could pass that test.

We can identify more with Bruce Nolan, Jim Carrey’s character in the movie Bruce Almighty, who used his newfound powers for personal gain—to wreak revenge on enemies, to acquire material things, and to try to influence others to love him.

We are anxious to exert our knowledge, superiority, and authority over others.  We want them to know that we have special privileges, a higher salary, a superior position, or access to places, people, or power that they lack. 

 But some people in authority don’t lord it over others or draw attention to their superior position—they are just one of the folks.  They are the most effective leaders. They are the ones who coax the most from their people.  Like Jesus.  Jesus started the most significant revolution the world has ever known, yet he remained a humble but strong person to the end.

When the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus into making a blasphemous statement by asking him under whose authority he was acting, Jesus asked them this question: “’John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven or from men?’” (Matthew 21: 23).  They discussed it among themselves and concluded that they couldn’t answer the question because if they said it was from God, they would have to believe him, and if they said that his authority came from men, they would incur the wrath of the people.  So they said, “We don’t know” (v. 27).  Jesus answered: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things”  (Matthew 21: 27).  Jesus’ authority came from who he was.  He didn’t need to hang a shingle listing degrees after his name.  His earthly connections were practically non-existent by choice.  And he didn’t even take the opportunity to tout his superiority over the religious leaders who sought to discredit him.  He simply outsmarted them. 

Another leadership virtue that Jesus taught was responsibility.  Jesus taught that we will each be held responsible for our own actions on the day of judgment (John 12:48).  This was a new concept in Ezekiel’s time. A preacher and a prophet, Ezekiel lived in the 6th century B.C. during the dark days of the Babylonian captivity.  His  congregants believed that they were being punished for the actions of their ancestors, causing them to become fatalistic and irresponsible.  After all, what difference did it make if they would be punished anyway for actions outside of their control?  But Ezekiel taught them that each person is punished for his or her own sins, not for the sins of one’s ancestors:  “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, . . . every living soul belongs to me . . . the soul who sins is the one who will die.”  (Ezekiel 18: 4).  You will not be punished for the sins of your parents or grandparents, but for your own sins.  It was a message of hope, and helped restore personal responsibility.  Not one to shirk responsibility, Jesus bore the burden of every sin of every person who had lived and would live.  He bore our sins so that we may be absolved. 

A leader creates a culture of responsibility when he or she takes responsibility for his or her mistakes.  We all make mistakes, and owning up to them is the sign of a strong and secure leader, just as humility is a sign of a strong leader. 

Even though Ezekiel and Jesus taught that we will each be held responsible for our own actions, Jesus paid the price to remove the burden of our sins.  If we go to him, confess our sins and are truly sorry for them, God will forgive us.  Don’t be like the character in a Father Brown episode who responds “Sorry, Father, I have a train to catch,” when he tells her it is not too late to confess.   Don’t be that person.  There will be another train.  The train ride can wait.  Your confession cannot.  Your confession also links you to Jesus’ example of humility and taking responsibility for your actions.  The God of the Universe not only humbled himself to become a mere mortal, but his love for us is so great, so vast, so incomprehensible, that he went to the cross for you and for me.  Yes, he modeled leadership.  But Jesus was more than a great leader.  He is Lord.  Lord of all.

Prayer: Lord of All, we often forget that your opinion of us is the only one that counts.  Our spiritual pride gets in the way of our relationship with you when we fall into a rut of believing we can fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts with anything but you.  And we always have “a train to catch” when it comes to confessing our sins.  Keep us ever mindful that we are your special children, and that we don’t need affirmation of that fact from anyone but you.  Remind us to spend less time thinking about ourselves, and more time meditating on you.  Give us the grace and strength to focus on others and not on ourselves as we lead others in our homes, churches, workplaces, and communities. In your precious name we pray.  Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan 

[1] John Baldoni, Harvard Business Review, September 15, 2009, “Humility as a Leadership Trait.”

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, New York: Penguin, 1989.

[3] Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, 10Publishing, Leyland, England, 2012.

[4] The Scripture texts for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost are: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25: 1-10; Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18; Matthew 21: 23-27. A substantially different version of this blog was published on this website in September 2017.

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