A sermon on Leadership in the book of Proverbs by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 1 July 2018.
Is there a crisis in leadership? Do we even know what real leadership is? Sometimes a politician will make a decision that is unpopular, but they will stand firm for what they think is right and they will say that this is leadership. But at other times they will completely change their mind and do what is popular, and we will be told again that this is leadership.
The reason they can do this is because we don’t know what we really want. Because sometimes we say, what this country needs or what this council needs or what this church needs is strong leadership. Someone who knows their own mind. Someone who won’t back down. Only to discover that what we really want is someone who will do what we want and will always do what we say.
Maybe there is a crisis in leadership. What does it mean to be a leader? Who are the real leaders in our families, in our communities, in our country, in our world? How do they show their leadership? Is it by what they say? Or is it by what they do? What kind of leader is the best kind? A consensus man like Bob Hawke? A presidential style like John Howard? A bully like Donald Trump? Or a figurehead like Queen Elizabeth?
Perhaps you imagine that I should know the answer to all these questions? Am I not a leader in our church community? Have I not been called to make decisions that affect the lives of other people? Have I not the power, the authority to make those decisions effective? But then I’m not sure if I want to be a leader? In fact, I’m quite sure that I’d much rather be invisible, just working in the background as part of the furniture. You know, as long as everyone does what I say and no one disagrees with any of my decisions. Maybe there is a crisis in leadership after all.
Fortunately for us, it is we who have the crisis in leadership and not God, and the book of Proverbs sheds the light of wisdom on all our questions. Firstly, we learn that leaders are under the authority of God. Secondly, we learn that leaders need the people who are under their authority. Thirdly, we learn that the service that leaders provide is justice. And fourthly we learn that the essential ingredient of leadership is wisdom.
So firstly, leaders are under the authority of God. Proverbs chapter 21 says,
The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord. He directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.
The leader that the book of Proverbs is most familiar with is the king. The king is the head of the three branches of government. The first is the executive branch. The king is the decision maker. He decides when his armies march to war. He decides when his ambassadors ask for peace. He sets the taxes and what they should be spent on.
The second is the legislative branch. The king is the law maker. He decides what behaviour is right and wrong. He determines what the punishment for wrong should be.
And third is the judicial branch. The king is the bringer of justice. Wrongdoers are brought before him and he decides whether they are innocent or guilty.
These three powers that we in our democracy separate into the different arms of government -the prime minister and his cabinet, the parliament and the judiciary – are concentrated in a monarchy in the office of the king. He has the authority to make decisions and the power to make them effective.
And yet even the king is not a law unto himself. The king cannot do just whatever he wants. Because he is the servant of God who is the king of kings. The book of Proverbs makes it clear that the Lord is the ultimate authority in the world. Chapter 16 verse 1 says,
To man belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue.
Verse 9 of the same chapter says,
In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.
Chapter 19 says,
Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
The Lord is king. His will prevails. His word is law. There is no higher court to appeal against his justice. There is no senate chamber to scrutinise and criticise his decisions. And the mightiest king who rules over the most powerful empire in the world is only his humble servant. No king, no ruler, no leader can do just whatever they want. Instead, for every decision they make they will give an account before the throne of God in heaven.
Firstly, leaders are under the authority of God. Just as the queen herself acknowledges that she is under the rule of Christ.
Secondly, leaders need the people who are under their authority. The key passage here comes from Proverbs chapter 14.
A large population is a king’s glory, but without subjects a prince is ruined.
When the leaders of the world get together at their G7 or G20 or G198 meetings there are probably many different ways they measure who is the most successful. Who has the biggest palace. Who has the most medals on his chest. Who has the longest stretch limo. But there is only one true measure for success. It is the people he rules. Their number. Their health. Their wealth. Their welfare. The king who mistreats his people, who steals their belongings, who destroys their homes, who enslaves their children, who takes their lives or drives them away, the king whose country has a population of zero is the ruler of nothing. He may have billions of money in Swiss bank accounts. He may have the fastest jets and the most tanks. He may have the most feared security forces in all the world, but if his people are not well and happy he has failed. He has nothing and he has achieved nothing.
The people do not exist for him. He exists for them. They may do what he says. His decisions may affect their lives for good or ill. But he is more their servant, than they are his. As Proverbs chapter 28 says,
A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.
This means that leaders may think they can do whatever they want. They many imagine that having authority is no use at all if they can’t do whatever they want. But leaders who harm the people under their authority are only hurting themselves.
Thirdly, the service that leaders provide their people is justice. Leaders don’t have to cook their people’s breakfast. They don’t have to drive their people to work. They don’t have to harvest their crops or pick up their children from school. They don’t have to put out their garbage or water their flowers. The great service that leaders provide their people with is justice. Fairness. Right decisions. Good policies. Proverbs chapter 29 verse 4 says,
By justice a king gives a country stability.
Verse 14 of the same chapter says,
If a king judges the poor with fairness, his throne will always be secure.
Justice is the cornerstone of prosperity. Justice creates the environment in which the hard working will be successful and the wicked will be punished. Injustice, on the other hand, is toxic. Like a nest of termites eating their way through a house, injustice undermines the stability of any community. Proverbs chapter 13 says,
A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.
When a leader shows favouritism, when a leader takes bribes, when a leader allows the wicked to prosper, he is sowing the seed of the ruin of the people in his care. So good leaders don’t have to do all the work to be successful, but they do have to create the environment in which hard work is rewarded. They don’t have to interfere in every aspect of the people’s lives. They just need to weed out the wicked, reward the good, care for the poor and defend the powerless. And the people will take care of themselves.
So fourthly, the essential ingredient for leadership is wisdom. Proverbs chapter 8 says,
I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behaviour and perverse speech. Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power. By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth. I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. With me are riches and honour, enduring wealth and prosperity. My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full.
In this passage wisdom itself speaks as if it was a real, live person. To have wisdom is to have knowledge and understanding. Wisdom clarifies what is right and what is wrong. To have wisdom is to hate evil and to fear the Lord. And having wisdom is the key ingredient in leadership. Because wisdom supplies sound judgment to make the right decisions to maintain justice and to encourage prosperity. Wisdom isn’t about being clever and tricky and making people do what you want. Wisdom is about seeking the Lord’s will first. It is about lining up your thinking and behaviour with the Lord’s purpose and making plans accordingly. With wisdom leaders realise that they have a responsibility to God and an obligation to seek the good of those whom their decisions affect and to make their lives better. Wisdom gives us insight into how the world works, the world that God has made. With wisdom leaders can anticipate the consequences of their decisions and actions.
Whether you are a leader in your home or in your neighbourhood or in your business or in your church ministry, you need wisdom. You may have the right to send your children to whatever school you choose. You may have the right to invest your business’s money in a new piece of real estate. You may have the right to tell your staff when they work and what they do. But with this power comes great responsibility to serve the Lord and to make other people’s lives better. And however high you have climbed the greasy pole of leadership, you need to follow the leader who exemplifies all the things we’ve been talking about.
The Lord Jesus Christ, he was a leader. Who said to the paralysed man, “Get up, pick up your mat and go home.” Who said to the evil spirit, “Come out of him.” Who said to the wind and the waves, “Be still” and they obeyed him. If ever there was a man who could have done whatever he wanted it was Jesus. He could have captained a premiership winning football team. He could have been the CEO of a huge multi-national company. He could have owned the banks that all the dictators of the world invest their money in. He could have earned all the medals that Kim Jong Un has given himself. But he never once did just whatever he wanted. His words are wisdom in crystal form. He didn’t just maintain justice, he brought justice to those who could not justify themselves. He doesn’t just make the wicked want to be good, he makes the wicked good by his death on the cross. And by the power of his resurrection he brings a blessing, he brings a prosperity that is beyond a long and happy life, but which reaches into eternity. And at every moment he lined up his will with his Father’s purpose and plan.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.
He didn’t come to sit down and do nothing and have everyone wait on him. He didn’t come to give orders and have everyone else to do the work for him. That’s the pattern of leadership in the world. In this picture it’s not hard to see who the leaders are. It’s certainly not the guy who’s taking the orders, who fetches the food, who pours the drinks, making sure everyone else has what they wants, the one who eats long after everyone else has been fed. It’s certainly not the guy whose head doesn’t even appear in the picture.
But in the kingdom of God there is a different pattern of leadership, that follows the pattern of the king in the kingdom. The one who didn’t come to sit down. The one who came to do the work. Who came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. With his own blood he purchased justice and prosperity and he gives them to the poor and needy. That’s what the king in the kingdom looks like. That’s what leaders in the kingdom should look like.
So I’m not sure if there is a crisis in leadership, because we have a perfectly good leader in our Lord Jesus Christ. The king of kings. The lord of Lords. One whom we can lay down our lives for because he lay down his for us. One who has given us a pattern of leadership as service.
I think that it is much more likely that what we have is a crisis in followship, the ability, the stamina, the courage and the wisdom to follow where someone else has led. Jesus is the king of kings. Jesus is the lord of lords. Our great high priest. The author and perfector of our faith. He is the only leader worth following. The best leaders lead in his example of service, and whoever we are we are called to follow him.