Bad Leaders and Good Leaders

The very notion of leadership has become a public parody, a cartoon, a crazy dream that strangely Orwellian and Black Adder together.

It seems as though among leadership of every kind and level, there is crisis, mismanagement, incompetence, and division. Whether we are talking about Australian politics or international politics, managing boards of major corporations, sporting clubs and yes even Churches, not even twitter can hashtag all the latest fiascos and failings. 

Of course, there are always criticisms, wingers, and dissenters, no matter who is leading. Even when leaders are performing their duties with excellence, grumblers are never far away.

At yet, corruption, bias, and abuses of power are very real and when it happens people are understandably upset, and they lose confidence in their leaders.

At the moment I’m preparing for Sunday’s sermon. We are currently preaching through the book of Jeremiah, and this week our reading is chapter 23, and it’s all about leadership: good leaders and bad leaders.

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I should note, this blog post is not about the current state of affairs in Australian politics.  It is about a form of leadership that is more significant, namely that of Christian or Church leadership. The original context of Jeremiah chapter 23 is of God addressing the leadership of Judah (which included the King, the priests, and the prophets); the equivalent for us today is the church.

Characteristics of a good leader

“Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.

In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.

“So then, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ Then they will live in their own land.” (Jeremiah 23:1-9)

Two metaphors are used, the Shepherd and the King.

Like a Shepherd:

  • a good leader tends (feeding and protecting those under his care)
  • he gathers (brings them together)
  • he calms fears and terror

Like a righteous King:

  • he will act wisely
  • he will act with justice
  • he will act with righteousness

It is important to note that God identifies himself as the Shepherd, and the King (the righteous branch) is the promised Messiah. The point is, the Lord will accomplish what his leaders have failed to achieve. He will redeem his people from the mess created by failed leaders.

Seven Centuries following this Divine pronouncement,  a preacher from Galilee arose, and announced, “I am the good shepherd”. But the phrase, “I am”, he was adopting the holy name of the Lord for himself. By exclaiming “I am the good shepherd”, Jesus was identifying himself as the God of Jeremiah 23:3, in contrast to the generations of bad shepherds who had gone before him and who were prevalent during his own public ministry.

What is most remarkable, is the extent to which the Good Shepherd would go in order to save and bring lost sheep: he would lay down his life for his sheep. This Shepherd leader loves his sheep so much, that he would give his life to save them. Jesus is providing us with much more than a model of leadership, for his sacrificial death is unique is salvific power and design, and yet he also signals a pattern that is to be followed by those who would serve as leaders under his rule.

In Jeremiah 23:4, God also speaks of other shepherds who will work under him. “I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.” While the salvific focus is on God himself and his leadership role, he intimates that he will raise up shepherds to work under him” (v.4).

1 Peter 5 interprets Jeremiah 23 (and similar Old Testament passages) by speaking of the Chief Shepherd (the Lord Jesus) and Elders of a local Church,

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away”. (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Characteristics of a bad leader:

The leaders in question are Judah’s king, the priests, and the prophets. Rather than faithfully administering their responsibilities under God, according to his covenantal word:

i. They create their own ‘truth’

“I did not send these prophets,
yet they have run with their message;
I did not speak to them,
yet they have prophesied.” (verse 21)

“This is what the Lord Almighty says:

“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you;
they fill you with false hopes.
They speak visions from their own minds,
not from the mouth of the Lord.

They keep saying to those who despise me,
‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’
And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts
they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’ (vv.16-17)

 Like Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in the film Wag the Dog, the prophets have raised a green screen and laid over an unreal picture of reality. The prophets have fabricated an alternate reality: times of peace and prosperity, with images of green fields and cool streams, sandy beaches, city cafes, captivating moods and suggestions of a beautiful life to come.

ii. They make promises that they can never keep

“They keep saying to those who despise me,

    ‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’

And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts

    they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’” (v.17)

iii. They falsely attribute their words to God

“I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds?” (vv.25-26)

“I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ (vv.30-31)

iv. They are motivated by evil

“And among the prophets of Jerusalem
I have seen something horrible:
They commit adultery and live a lie.
They strengthen the hands of evildoers,
so that not one of them turns from their wickedness.
They are all like Sodom to me;
the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah.” (v.14)

This religious industry of ‘new’ Divine words was tied to a moral agenda that was being promoted by Judah’s leaders. God connects their words with the concept of adultery and he likens them to the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. In other words, they form their religious ideas and Divine words based on their moral vision. The reference to Sodom and Gomorrah is telling. Sodom and Gomorrah were the famous twin towns destroyed by God in Genesis chapter 19, as a result of the townsmen wanting to have sex with the men whom Lot was protecting. It is therefore likely that the prophets’ message was an 8th Century version of the sexual revolution.

According to God, the prophets were speaking new words because God’s words restrain sin and they want to live out sin. If the Bible doesn’t give me adequate justification to pursue immorality, let’s make up new words and say that they are from God.

v. They are responsible for division and destruction

The outcome is scattering, misery, and social and spiritual carnage.  As God exclaims, “They do not benefit these people in the least” (v.32).

 

Right expectations

Should we expect more of our political leaders? Politics in the age of social media has yet to deliver on the kind of stability, integrity, and unifying vision that some predicted would occur. There may be some principles worth reflecting upon for leaders in general, but like I said at the outset, Jeremiah ch.23 is not speaking to the question of modern civic and political leadership, but to those who assume or are recognised as leaders of Churches. The kind of leader God affirms, is one who chooses God’s ways over popular cultural movements, who is okay with being unoriginal and uninventive in his words, and who brings unity not division among God’s people.

What do we expect of our Church leaders? They will certainly fall short because they are as human as the rest of us. They carry weaknesses and they struggle with temptation like all of us, and yet the expectations set for those who oversee churches are appropriately high.

Jeremiah ch.23 reminds us of how perilous it is to entertain new and interesting ideas about God and to use God as justification for our moral proclivities. Whether it is the Roman Catholic crisis coming out of Pennsylvania or with the schism within the Uniting Church of Australia, or royal preachers, prosperity preachers, or theological scholars from the school of Lord Voldemort, it is not difficult to see the harm and division that is created by many modern-day priests and prophets. If our favourite preachers and authors smell like the culture and look like the culture, and are praised by the culture, perhaps it’s time for us to find new preachers and teachers.  Above all, I’m reminded of how much we need the promised Shepherd and King of Jeremiah ch.23.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

12 Lessons from Jeremiah

I am currently preparing for a sermon series at Mentone on the book of Jeremiah. It is a daunting task, not least because of the size of this volume; Jeremiah is the longest book in the entire Bible. More than that, the message that God speaks through his prophet is often distressing and frightening. God’s indictment of Judah and on the nations is terrifying in what it reveals about the human heart. The sheer number of words given over to spell out the charges and judgment can be overwhelming to read.

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Here are 12 things that have struck me as I’ve been meditating on the book Jeremiah:

1. Disobeying or making light of God’s word is dangerous and reckless.

“‘How can you say, “We are wise,

    for we have the law of the Lord,”

when actually the lying pen of the scribes

    has handled it falsely?

 The wise will be put to shame;

    they will be dismayed and trapped.

Since they have rejected the word of the Lord,

    what kind of wisdom do they have?”  (Jer 8:8-9)

Refusing to accept, believe and obey God’s word led to an entire nation being destroyed, its cities made rubble and survivors sent into exile.

2. God not only uses history to achieve his purposes, but he shapes history according to his purposes.

For example, God’s orchestrates Babylon’s rise to regional power and they will become an instrument to punish Judah, and yet Babylon is not exempt from being accountable for their own actions.

 

3. God’s warnings about judgement are also an expression of grace.

Within lengthy passages where God expounds his pronouncements on Judah, we also find words of grace and mercy.

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jer 3:14-15)

God loves to show mercy. God longs for his people to repent and to return to him.

 

4. Social sins (i.e caring for the poor) are integrally connected to spiritual sin (what we think of God and his law).

“But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts;
they have turned aside and gone away.

They do not say to themselves,
‘Let us fear the Lord our God,
who gives autumn and spring rains in season,
who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest.’

Your wrongdoings have kept these away;
your sins have deprived you of good.

“Among my people are the wicked
who lie in wait like men who snare birds
and like those who set traps to catch people.

Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful

    and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.” (5:23-28)

5. Fake repentance is a thing

“In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the Lord.” (3:10)

6. God’s promise of judgement is not merely rhetorical:

God promises:

“I have determined to do this city harm and not good, declares the Lord. It will be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will destroy it with fire.” (21:10)

God acts:

“In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it.” (39:1)

“Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles to take him to Babylon.The Babylonians set fire to the royal palace and the houses of the people and broke down the walls of Jerusalem.” (39:7-8)

 

7. God is serious about his 10 commandments

22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. 24 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward”. (Jer 7:22-24)

 

8. Wrath is often a slow drip rather than a sudden flood

Jeremiah’s public ministry extended for almost 40 years, and there were prophets before him and afterward, who warned God’s people about their sin and who called them to repentance.

During the latter years of Jeremiah’s ministry, 13 years separated Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Judah, and of his final defeat and destruction of Jerusalem.

This gradual unfolding of wrath and periods of ‘relief’ was sometimes interpreted as evidence that Jeremiah was wrong. It was not God who was lying, but Judah’s leaders and prophets,

“The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” (5:2)

 

9. Not every story ends with grace, judgment can be final.

“There at Riblah the king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah.” (Jeremiah 52:10)

 

10. Leaders of God’s people must not twist or ignore God’s word.

The strongest warnings and judgments are directed toward Judah’s teachers and priests, those who claim to speak for God and yet deny him with their words and actions. Churches leaders cannot afford to trivialise, ignore, and remove words of Scripture, simply because they are unpopular or difficult.

“They dress the wound of my people

    as though it were not serious.

“Peace, peace,” they say,

    when there is no peace.

Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?

    No, they have no shame at all;

    they do not even know how to blush.

So they will fall among the fallen;

    they will be brought down when they are punished,

says the Lord.” (8:11-13)

 

11. Divine grace and forgiveness is more astonishing and wonderful than we can ever imagine

“At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”

This is what the Lord says:

“The people who survive the sword
will find favor in the wilderness;
I will come to give rest to Israel.”

The Lord appeared to us in the past,[a] saying:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.

I will build you up again,
and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful.

Again you will plant vineyards
on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
and enjoy their fruit.

There will be a day when watchmen cry out
on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.’”

This is what the Lord says:

“Sing with joy for Jacob;
shout for the foremost of the nations.
Make your praises heard, and say,
‘Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.’

See, I will bring them from the land of the north
and gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the lame,
expectant mothers and women in labor;
a great throng will return.

They will come with weeping;
they will pray as I bring them back.
I will lead them beside streams of water
on a level path where they will not stumble,
because I am Israel’s father,
and Ephraim is my firstborn son.

10 “Hear the word of the Lord, you nations;
proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’

11 For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.” 
(Jer 31:1-11)

 

12. Jesus is the promised redeemer in Jeremiah

“the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.

10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.

12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:6-13)