Those Who Lead
“Those Who Lead”
September 13, 2015 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Do we really want leaders? I have half a dozen or more books on the topic of leadership on a shelf in my library and I pretty much detest them all, from Warren Bennis’ classic Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge to a volume entitled The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham. Yet they keep writing them. Authors keep telling us there is a “leadership crisis” in our time and they have the solution for raising up good leaders, whether it’s in business, politics or the church.
Long ago in his inaugural address as holder of the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis noted that the modern world has changed its terminology in regard to those in power. We call them “leaders” rather than “rulers.” He believed that change was significant. The idea of a “ruler” is someone following and enforcing a rule given to them. In the west it was understood that the rule was a natural law, given to us by God in creation. It was hoped a ruler would enforce that law justly and diligently, obey it himself or herself, and be merciful at times.
Leaders, on the other hand, are understood to be people of vision, initiative and charisma. We talk of leaders “casting a vision” for where we will go. The whole notion is that we will follow something the leaders or perhaps leaders and people together create for themselves. We wish for leaders who can dream up nice goals and inspire us to achieve them. It doesn’t matter too much if leaders obey the rules or behave justly or even mercifully, as long as they get us where we want to go.
Micah the prophet worked with the old concept, the biblical concept of a ruler rather than a leader. He spoke God’s judgment on the rulers of Israel because they failed to obey the rule of God’s law and they had no compassion or mercy for God’s people.
Last week we ended with God’s promise at the end of chapter 2 to gather in the remnant of Israel “like sheep in a fold,” and to “break out” before them as their king to lead them home. But now Micah is turning back to the current rulers of those people, who are not shepherds but ranchers, who regard the sheep of God’s flock as mere meat for their own tables.
Verse 1 calls them “the heads of Jacob” and “the rulers of Israel.” Jacob and Israel are the same person. It’s just two ways to rhetorically name the same group, the ones who are in charge of the Lord’s people in Jerusalem, in Judah. Micah begins with what C. S. Lewis said used to be expected of rulers, “Should you not know justice?”
When is the last time you asked whether a candidate for office was a just person? We ask if he or she is smart, whether his viewpoints line up with ours, whether she has good plans for foreign policy or for creating jobs, whether the person knows details about the great issues of our time. But maybe it’s time to ask with Micah not whether the people for whom we vote are good leaders, but whether they know justice.
The rulers of Micah’s time and nation did not know justice. He painted them in verses 2 and 3 as cannibals, cooking up a pot of human stew filled with the flesh and bones of the people whom they were supposed to be serving, for whom they were supposed to be administering justice. Instead those rulers were metaphorically eating them alive by exploiting them and taking away what little they had.
You see this very thing happening in Syria where leaders of countless factions are driving people from their homes and in Europe where politicians dither about whether and how to help those people as they flee for their lives.
With verse 4 we can begin to make a connection with our Gospel lesson this morning. Simon Peter was a leader among the disciples. He was part of the inner circle of three closest to Jesus. He was blessed as we heard from Mark 8:29 with deep and profound insight regarding his Master, that Jesus is the Messiah. Yet at the crucial juncture of hearing what the Messiah really was about, the message of the Cross and resurrection, Peter failed and Jesus wanted him out of His face, behind His back.
The rulers, judges, prophets and priests of Israel may have known the Lord, may have had some genuine insights. But when they failed to grasp the heart of God’s message, God’s love and care for everyone, even the poor, God would “hide his face from them.” “Then they will cry out to the Lord, but he will not answer them…”
That’s a message for every modern day leader who makes a display of faith in God. You can quote the Bible, hold all the prayer breakfasts you like, but if your heart is against the love and grace of God for all people, especially for the people who need it most, then God is not listening. God is not answering.
Micah turns in verse 5 especially to the prophets. The prophets of Israel were not just the twenty or so individuals whose names we read in the Old Testament. Starting during the time of the first king of Israel we see organized groups of prophets. They are a guild, a union of professional seers who give advice and counsel to both kings and ordinary people. And the prophets whose names we know, like Elijah and Jeremiah and Micah, were often in conflict with their union, speaking a true word from God over against messages the other prophets were just inventing.
So verse 5 says that all the other prophets besides Micah are leading God’s people astray. As Micah said in chapter 2, they are preaching the messages people want to hear, like a promise of peace. And as he says about all the rulers of Israel in verse 11, they are doing it for a price. If the people can keep the prophet well-fed, they get that peaceful sermon, but for those who put nothing into the mouths of the prophets, the message is not so kind and gentle.
The judgment on those prophets who preach peace for a price is verses 6 and 7. The sun will go down on them. The seers, to quote Emily Dickenson, will be in a place where they can “not see to see.” It’s not the failure of physical sight Micah is talking about when he says they will be “without vision,” “without revelation.” He means that the seers who should have seen God’s truth for Israel will no longer have access to that truth. God will no longer show them anything, no longer give them any messages to speak, no longer, as verse 4 already said, answer them. They will be “disgraced” says verse 7.
I wonder if that’s not where a lot of Christian prophets and preachers are right now. We’ve been given this wonderful access to God’s Word, to the blessed good news of Jesus Christ shining out of the pages of the Bible. Yet we are constantly tempted to get the real substance of our sermons and our counsel and our blogs and our books from other sources like psychology or politics or economics or… leadership theory.
So we instead of calling you to follow Jesus to the Cross, we’re like Peter. We try to substitute some other message, like how to have a successful career or how to discipline your children or how to vote or how to be happy. But preaching like that is just preaching what people want to hear, maybe for a price. We set aside the Bible for something more soothing and entertaining. And Micah and Jesus say, “Get behind me, Satan.”
Micah claimed the source of his own message in verse 8, “as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might,” as he declared to those rulers their sins. He has a message which really does come from the Lord, which really is the Word of God.
You and I have Scripture. As another Covenant pastor and I will teach next month at our Leadership (there’s that word again) Matrix in Salem, we believe that the Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit in writers like Micah. It is “God’s Word and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct.” If we want good leaders, or perhaps good rulers, then they must be people who follow that perfect rule given to us in the Bible.
But how are we to interpret the Bible? How are we to sort out all the different directions a leader can take us while still claiming to be doing what the Bible says? That’s a hard question. The first part of the answer is to learn and know what the Bible actually says. For one thing, it doesn’t promise an easy or peaceful life. As we heard today in Mark 8:34, Jesus promised a cross for everyone who follows Him, promised salvation to those who lose their lives for His sake. How often do we get even that fundamental message from Jesus wrong, just like those prophets who preached peace in Micah’s time?
The second part of interpreting the Bible so as to hear what it really says is to humble ourselves to the guidance and rule of the Holy Spirit down through the ages. You can’t just read the Scriptures disconnected from what the Spirit has taught the people of God throughout history. God is the same, the Spirit is the same, for all time. If you think you’ve found some new and unrecognized teaching in the Bible, whether it’s a code disclosing a schedule for the end times or an innovation in morality, that new teaching is almost certainly false. You’re reading what you want to hear rather than what God is saying.
Look at Micah’s warning to all sorts of leaders there in 8th century Israel. Verse 9 addresses them again with that dual label of “rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel,” then goes on and into verse 10 describing them as those “who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!”
Like I prefaced my sermon last week, it’s hard to preach these texts from Micah without contemporary examples, so my goal is, maybe a little like Micah, to step on as many toes as possible. First, with regard to justice, we seem to be building our nation partly on an unjust system of incarceration. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, a higher percentage of our population in prison than any nation on earth. In 2013, while were just 4.4 percent of the world’s population, we housed 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. And about 56 percent of those prisoners are African American or Latino, while they are only 30 percent of our country’s population. That sounds like injustice to me.
But verse 10 also warns against those who “build Zion with blood…” We continue to develop a society in which population is partly controlled by abortions, by the deaths of about a million babies every year. Recent scandalous video footage revealed leaders of Planned Parenthood talking literally in the way Micah talked metaphorically in verses 2 and 3, about chopping up infants for their organs.
Blood and injustice are no way to build a nation, neither then nor now. And verse 11 warns rulers, judges, priests and prophets against the thing which is at the heart of so much of our evil. Judgments are rendered for a bribe, priests teach for a price, and prophets give their messages for money. Private for-profit prisons are now a 3.3 billion dollar industry in America. In the videos of Planned Parenthood conversations we learned that, though sale of fetal tissues is illegal, they receive $30 to $100 for each “specimen” they deliver. Politicians receive campaign donations and profit by backing either or both the industry of injustice and the industry of blood. Planned Parenthood has long been a political force and private prisons are now one of the biggest lobbies in America, spending about 45 million dollars to influence legislation on their behalf.
But please don’t go away thinking this message is about political action, whether on the left or the right. It’s about being people who are not the sort of people Micah pictures at the end of verse 11, people who say, “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” As history demonstrated in Micah’s time and over and over since, that was a foolish thing for the people of Israel to say and it’s a foolish thing for Christians to say. Did we not hear what Jesus said to us today about taking up a cross?
God is with us, but He is with us on a Cross. That’s how our Lord came to us and that’s how we come to Him, by joining in His suffering, not by carving out some safe and secure place in this world through profit on injustice and the blood of the innocent.
Micah concluded his sermon against the leaders, against rulers, judges, priests and prophets, with God’s final judgment on the whole place where they live. The mountain of Zion on which their city is built will be plowed level, and all the buildings of Jerusalem will become ruins. The mountain upon which homes were built, upon which was built God’s own house the Temple, would become just another hill covered with trees, “a wooded height.” That prophecy came true about 115 years later, when Babylon knocked down all those buildings. It happened again in 70 A.D. as Jesus predicted.
Some of you might want me to speculate on whether that kind of judgment applies to our own nation. I’ll say what I always say. America is not Israel, even though some of our founders liked to think of it that way. It’s very sketchy to apply what the Bible says about Israel, whether good or bad, to our own country, whether it’s America or Russia or Syria or Sweden.
What the Bible does suggest is that those who follow Jesus Christ are the new Israel, the people of God forever and eternally, including Jews and Gentiles, slaves in totalitarian states and free citizens of democratic countries, middle-aged white males and young black females. Whatever we may think about the state of our nation, we know that the Bible’s warnings and promises apply to us as Christians united across the borders of all nations.
Micah’s most important word for us today is a negative one, to be the opposite of the people against whom he’s preaching in this chapter. Let us be people who forsake killing and injustice as the way to prosper and be secure. Let us not be people who make money our primary motivation nor support those leaders for whom it is. Instead, let us be people who learn to lead like Jesus did, by serving and suffering for it sometimes. That may mean making a sacrifice to contribute to Syrian refugees, or giving up time to teach a child about Jesus, or learning to patiently and faithfully carry some burden of pain.
Honestly, I find it scary to be church leader in these times. There seem to be an awful lot of ways to get it wrong, to say something foolish, to alienate people, to lose one’s focus on the Lord. But when I read Micah I realize it’s always been that way. And James said it to us too today, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
I find it scary, but also exhilarating. To stand in the company of Micah and Isaiah and James, to follow in the Cross-bound footsteps of Jesus, to teach what they taught is a great adventure. Jesus calls us to it, to teach our community, to teach our nation, to teach our world about His rule, about His true and good leadership. May you and I learn to be leaders from the one true and good and only ruler of the world, Christ our Lord.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 “De Descriptione Temporum” in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 8.