Friday, December 04, 2009

The Perfect Leader

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

As we enter a new liturgical year, with the beginning of Advent, how appropriate that the Old Testament reading should be about the perfect leader, because - before the year is out - we shall be thinking a lot about what it takes to lead a modern nation state out of economic crisis and through the uncharted waters of global warming.

The prophecy was first spoken in the context of impending disaster. The days were surely coming when the Kingdom of Judah would be crushed like a bug, and the Prophet Jeremiah had been warning about this for a long time. He had even been put in prison for spreading defeatism and being unpatriotic. Now is the time to say, 'I told you so!' But instead the register of the prophecies changes just at this point and the prevailing tone of despair at the climate of corruption and faithlessness surrounding the nation is replaced by a new note of hope and expectancy. All manner of things will be well after all!

Actually, these may not be words spoken by Jeremiah himself, because they are missing from some of the manuscripts. But they are words inspired by Jeremiah, and - even in translation - they have a power and elegance which is in itself uplifting. 'The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.'

What exactly is the promise to the house of Israel and the house of Judah? The young shepherd David summed it up when he went out to meet the giant Goliath in single combat. The promise is that the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel and that the Lord saves his people without sword or spear. The promise was also set out, in a bit more detail, by the Prophet Ahijah, when he met the future king of Israel, Jeroboam, on the road leading from Jerusalem. Ahijah told him, '"The Lord says, 'If you will listen to all that I command , walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you and will build you an enduring house.'" So there you have the two versions of the promise - the short version from David, the man of action, and the version with the small print attached, from the Prophet Ahijah, who was obviously working in the insurance industry at the time.

But, of course, David and Jeroboam did not always do what was right in the Lord's sight, and their kingdoms eventually fell. Jeremiah was there to witness the last days of the independent kingdom of Judah, just before its annihilation. But the promise that is made here is that a righteous branch will eventually spring up from the royal line of David - someone who really will live up to the small print in the contract, and who will execute justice and righteousness. In those days, when Judah is finally identified with what is right in God's sight, the nation will be saved and her citizens will live in safety.

So, when we're reading the election manifestos, and listening to the speeches and observing the posturing of our political leaders, we need to ask ourselves, 'Are these the kind of leaders who are going to do what is just and righteous? Are they going to protect the poor, are they going to do something decisive to tackle global warming, are they going to act with honesty and integrity?' Nothing else matters, because this is the only route map to living in safety.

Of course, no political leader is going to entirely live up to the ideal. Politics is a dirty business. Even in the best of times it involves compromise and horse trading, which is why Christians traditionally see the ultimate fulfilment of the prophecy in the life and reign of the Lord Jesus.

Jesus himself seems to have been looking forward to a time of disaster and turmoil which would be ended by the arrival of God's anointed leader whose true power and great glory would eclipse the politicians and put the world to rights. The signs of the times which he predicted sound awfully like the storms and confusion which we hear about all of the time in the news.

They're also a fairly close match to the dreadful end predicted in the film 2012 when - if I've got this right - a galactic alignment of planets causes the neutrinos in the sun to mutate, giving rise to all sorts of special effects. 2012 was inspired, if that's the right word, by a Mayan prophecy rather than the words of Jesus, and it doesn't end with a just and righteous ruler coming in a cloud to restore peace and tranquility.

Tempting as it is to try to correlate Jesus' prophecy to precise events in our own time, and so create a timetable for the end of the world, the fact is that Luke was already introducing a note of vagueness into these sayings when he edited his sources. We have simply got to be alert at all times, like the townspeople waiting for a once in a thousand year flood event, praying that we may have the strength to escape calamity when it befalls.

The advice to stand upright and hold our heads high when disaster threatens could seem a bit like encouraging us to sing, 'Always look on the bright side of life' or to keep a stiff upper lip when all around are losing theirs. But I think in fact it's a challenge to be like Jeremiah and his followers, to look beyond the bleak and gloomy headlines of today and work tirelessly for a new era when justice and righteous will finally hold sway all across the world and we will all be able - as a result - to live in safety.

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