“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
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
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
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
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
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