Sunday, November 21, 2010

True Leadership

Jeremiah 23.1-6
Colossians 1.11-20
Luke 23.33-43

Most years we try to spend a few days in the Lake District. Wherever you walk you can often see a flock of sheep grazing in the fields against a stunning backdrop of beautiful hills. It’s a picture of peace and tranquility. However, on one visit, travelling between Keswick and Ambleside, we met a flock of sheep on the move, sharing the main road with the cars, which is much more dangerous. They were being driven along the road by a thoroughly modern shepherd, riding his quad bike, but ahead of the flock went a tractor with its hazard warning lights flashing to warn approaching traffic to slow down. Here was a case of sheep being cared for by their shepherds - albeit in a very Twenty-First Century way.

What if a sheep got separated from the flock and was all alone on the mountainside? Today sheep hefted on the fells are generally pretty safe, but in the old days they might have fallen prey to wolves, which is why the shepherd might have needed to go to find them if they were scattered by a predator.

I wanted to tell you a story about a wolf attacking the sheep, but I could only think of the story the Three Little Pigs, though it could just as easily be retold as the story of the Three Little Sheep, couldn’t it?

Of course, the story behind the Three Little Pigs is a very old one and, in fact, this morning’s Bible reading from Jeremiah is a grown-up version of the same story, only with two differences. As we noted, Jeremiah’s story is about sheep, not pigs. But that’s only a small or superficial difference. It doesn’t really alter the way the story works. The other difference is much more shocking, for in Jeremiah’s version it is the shepherd who is trying to harm the sheep.

Normally, when we tell the story of the sheep being attacked and scattered, it is a wolf, or a lion or a bear who is attacking them. And it’s the shepherd - the leader of the flock - who tries to keep them safe, like the person driving the tractor down the road in the Lake District, with the hazard warning lights flashing to warn on-coming traffic to slow down and keep the sheep safe. But in Jeremiah’s story it is the shepherds who are killing and scattering the sheep. They were supposed to protect the sheep, but instead the leaders were chasing them away. And, like the wolf in the Three Little Pigs, who gets boiled alive at the end of the story, Jeremiah warns the shepherds of Israel that they will get their comeuppance. They will pay for their crimes!

Of course, Jeremiah’s story is a parable. He isn’t talking about real sheep and ordinary shepherds. He’s taking about the people of Israel and their leaders.

We’re living in hard times, and the story has a warning in it for anyone who is a leader or a manager. Perhaps Lord Young, who is a member of the Jewish faith himself, should have paid more attention to Jeremiah’s message because he got into dreadful trouble last week for appearing not to care enough about the plight of ordinary people.

Lord Young is the son of a successful businessman but I think his father must have been the sort of person who expected his children to stand on their own two feet, because Lord Young actually studied for his law degree in his spare time, while working as a clerk in a firm of solicitors. So he’s the kind of person who is used to working very hard, and counting his blessings, and not complaining, and that’s what he thinks the rest of us should do. But whether or not we agree with him about that, when there are so many people struggling to make ends meet his comments seemed insensitive, even to people who would normally support him, and he’s been forced to resign from his unpaid job as Enterprise Champion for the government.

The lesson which Jeremiah wants to get across is that people who are leaders should take great care what they do and say - whether we’re leaders who work for the government, or leaders of companies, or managers, or ordinary team leaders and supervisors, or even parents and grandparents, or uncles and aunts. The job of a good leader, says Jeremiah, is to support and encourage the weak and the faint hearted, and to make sure that everyone is given a fair chance to succeed. Sometimes leaders have to talk tough, but generally they have to lead by showing that they care and by inspiring their people to do better.

But as well as giving a warning to those of us who are leaders in our every day lives, Jeremiah also gives us a promise for the future. He says that God himself has promised to choose better leaders for the people, ones who will take care of them like real shepherds so that they will never be frightened again. And he goes further, he says that one day God will appoint an honest king who will be wise and just, and who will bring real peace and lasting safety to God’s people.

Of course, at the moment, because we live in a democracy it’s us - the people - who appoint our own leaders. So we’re responsible for working with God to make God’s promise come true in Wakefield, where we live, and in Britain. But, as Christians, we’re also promised that a king is coming to lead us who we really can depend on, because he will be honest, wise and just. And that king will be born in a stable at Christmas, and his name will not just be ‘The Lord Gives Justice’, it will also be Jesus.

St Paul’s letter to the Colossians makes some colossal claims about Jesus.

First of all Paul tells us that Jesus has released us from the human predicament. Elsewhere, in his letter to the Church in Rome, he explains what that means. Human beings are generally full of good intentions but we almost inevitably screw things up. In Jesus, however, our release is secured. We’re given the power to do better and we’re forgiven for the mess we’ve made of our own lives and the lives of other people.

However, that’s just the start for Paul’s claims about Jesus get bigger and bigger. Echoing John’s Gospel - or is it the other way round, because Paul was probably writing first - he says that Jesus, the baby in the manger, the man on the cross, is the image of the invisible God and that in Jesus all things throughout the universe were created. This is a truly astounding claim. It means that in Jesus we see the essence of what it means to be God, the truth about God, crystallised in human form. And what that encounter reveals is that God is self-giving love.

But Paul hasn’t finished yet. He quotes a hymn about Jesus which says that all things throughout the universe are held together in him. It’s almost as if Paul is claiming that Jesus is the answer to all the questions posed by quantum physics. What holds the universe together? What holds atoms together? Well, all things are held together - held in creative tension - through the God who is revealed in Jesus. I don’t think, actually, that the hymn is meant to be a scientific statement. But it’s a poetic statement about the significance of Jesus. He is at the heart of all existence.

And still quoting the hymn, Paul continues his paean of praise. Jesus is the first human being to return from the dead, the guarantee that all of us will live beyond death. He is supreme over all things. In him all the fullness of God chose to dwell. And through Jesus, God is reconciling all things to himself and making peace with creation. Superlative is piled upon superlative - until the moment when we reach the shocking conclusion of the hymn.

Similar things have been said about other people - about emperors and pharaohs, gurus and spiritual leaders. But only the Christian faith has come up with the astonishing claim that all of this has been achieved and brought to fulfilment in the shedding of the leader’s blood on a cross.

And so we turn to our Gospel reading, where we’re reminded immediately that Jesus is suffering a criminal’s fate. We’re reminded, also, of what Paul has said about forgiveness being available in Jesus. Although they’re not in the original version of Luke’s Passion narrative, the words of Stephen at his execution are here attributed to Jesus, ‘Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.’

In a moment of supreme irony, the onlookers misunderstand completely the true meaning of what it is to be God’s anointed leader, his Chosen One or Messiah. It doesn’t mean saving yourself from suffering but, as Luke’s mentor Paul emphasised in his letter to the Christians at Colossi, it means submitting yourself to suffering and allowing your blood to be shed.

There are important echoes here of the Old Testament lesson which we considered in our first service this morning, where Jeremiah explains that the true meaning of leadership is not to bully and lecture other people but to inspire, and comfort, and encourage them, and - supremely - to lead them by example. Thus, despite all the jeering and the mockery which surrounded Jesus death, those who truly understand its meaning can see that he really was the King of the Jews. And not only that, but the King promised by Jeremiah, who will bring lasting peace based on real justice.

And here is the second irony. The man whom Jeremiah had said would be called The Giver of Justice is himself treated so unjustly. As one of the criminals recognises, Jesus has done nothing wrong and yet he pays the same price that common criminals paid at the time for their misdeeds.

Finally, then, we come to that wonderful promise with which our reading, and this year’s journey through St Luke’s Gospel, concludes. ‘Amen I say to: today you will be with me in Paradise.’ Anyone who truly puts their trust in Jesus can know that his promise is for them.

I Know That My Redeemer Lives

Job 19.23-27
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 & 13-17

The other day I went for a very minor hospital procedure. But it did involve being on the operating table under a local anaesthetic, watching on a screen, as someone messed with my heart, and feeling my own surprisingly hot blood spilling out on my thigh. The other patients waiting for the same procedure confessed afterwards that they had been worrying about it. One hadn’t slept all night. It’s reassuring in those circumstances to be able to think to oneself, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives and that, at the last, my eyes shall behold him.’

These words are part of Job’s confession of faith, which comes towards the end of a long argument with his friends about the reasons for his misfortune. Job feels there isn’t any good reason why his life has been turned upside down and he even goes so far as to suggest that if God has a plan then it can’t be a very good one because everything he has been made to endure is undeserved.

Basically, the Book of Job concludes that life owes no one a living. Our existence is fragile and it can go wrong or come to an end at any time. This is something that we simply have to be prepared to accept.

And then, second, the Book of Job argues that God does have a plan, but it’s a long term plan. It doesn’t guarantee us happiness - or even freedom from suffering - here and now, but it has the best interests of all creation at its heart.

Finally, the Book of Job also argues that God’s ways are not our ways. The scheme of salvation is so big that inevitably it’s beyond our understanding and we simply don’t know what constraints God is bound by as he brings the plan to completion. However bad things may seem for us at any particular time, overall we can still believe, therefore, that we live in the best of all possible worlds - even if that means suffering and fragility are a necessary and inevitable part of the package.

Ultimately, the Book of Job concludes that God is a sympathetic and caring figure, who is always on our side, a creator who cares deeply about his creation and has invested part of himself in it. But nonetheless God is still only a sympathetic onlooker, someone who has designed a world which sometimes torments us and who can then only feel compassion for us when we suffer.

For Christians, however, God is far more than this - he is someone who is immersed in our world and shares our suffering. If affliction and adversity are inevitable, even in a good world, then God is caught up in their inevitability and is himself a victim of the delicate balance he has created. I think this knowledge enhances the power and beauty of Job’s confession of faith, for we know that it is more profoundly true than the author could have realised.

‘I know that my Redeemer lives,’ says Job. The word ‘redeemer’, which could just as easily be translated ‘vindicator’, refers to a custom in tribal societies where the most powerful or influential member of the clan is responsible for rescuing, or vindicating weaker members when they’re in trouble. In fact, the redeemer has a sacred duty to come to the aid of other clan members. If they’ve lost some of the tribe’s land, for instance, it’s his job to redeem it or buy it back. If they, or members of their family, have been taken prisoner or enslaved, he must pay the ransom to set them free. If their reputation needs defending, or they need someone to testify for them in court, he must speak up for them.

Job is definitely in trouble. He’s the last member of his clan, so there’s no one else to defend him. Even his friends seek to explain away or justify his suffering instead of getting alongside him. But he knows that he has not been abandoned. He still has a redeemer.

Job is not the first Bible character to see God as the ultimate redeemer of the needy. Psalm 78 says that the ancestors of the people of Israel ‘remembered that The Most High God was their redeemer’ when they were wandering in the Wilderness. The Prophet Isaiah had promised the exiles in Babylon that their redeemer was ‘The Holy One of Israel’ and he would send someone to Babylon to break down all the bars that were holding them captive. And the Prophet Jeremiah says in one of his oracles, ‘The people of Israel are oppressed, and so too are the people of Judah: all their captors have held them fast and refused to let them go. But their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of Hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause.’

Job takes this idea just a little further, though. God isn’t just the redeemer of the nations of Israel and Judah. He’s the redeemer of every individual believer who is suffering. And just because nothing seems to be happening at the moment to make things better, that doesn’t mean God is powerless to intervene or dead. It just means that, in the grand scheme of things, our redemption still lies in the future. Job knows that his redeemer lives and at the last God will stand upon the earth and Job will see himself vindicated. In other words, God will be the last power standing when all the other forces at work in our world have been quelled and put in their rightful place.

This may not happen in our lifetime. Job is sure that one day he will see this happen, but by then his skin may have been destroyed. Is he talking about an after-life? If so, it’s quite an unusual idea in the Old Testament, but we can’t be sure because the meaning of the text is obscure. Psalm 103 contains a similar idea. It talks about God redeeming us from death - but probably not after death, only from the risk of dying. So again, Job could be breaking new ground here.

Job’s philosophy is a great source of comfort for individuals going through various times of trial, but what has all of this got to do with the Church?

People often say that the Church is the people of God, not the building where they meet. And that’s true. Fundamentally, the Church is a community of believers, whether it’s a local church gathered in one place or the Church Universal, the community of all believers past, present and future, wherever they may be. But church buildings are a witness to God’s enduring love as well. If the Bible is a written record of salvation history, church buildings are an attempt to engrave the message of God’s redeeming love on rock.

All the war memorials in our towns and villages are grasping at the same idea. ‘Their name liveth for ever more,’ they say, not just in the memories of those who knew and loved the soldiers who died but because their names have been engraved on rock forever, with an iron pen.

Last week, because I’m a sucker for all things supposedly historical, I watched an episode of Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett’s historical drama about the building of a cathedral in the early middle ages. It wasn’t very uplifting but there was a moment of truth in it, when the villainous Bishop Waleran, played by Ian McShane, went into the half finished cathedral, the only building of its kind that he could ever have seen in his life. As he gazed up at its vaulted ceilings and wonderful arched windows you could see that he was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of its greatness and splendour. He had spent most of the episode trying to prevent it from being completed, but in that one moment he knew that he was in the wrong, that it was - in fact - an attempt to engrave in rock for ever the message that our Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

You may feel that Methodist churches must inevitably struggle if their aim is to achieve the same vaulting ambition. But it isn’t. Even in a world of competing church denominations a diocese really needs only one cathedral. But nevertheless, in our own neighbourhood, our church buildings and the communities that meet within them and minister to local people from them, are still trying to replicate - in their own small way - that same message, that our Redeemer lives. We are trying to create holy spaces where people can glimpse an alternative way of living with a bigger agenda than the ordinary day-to-day one.

In the chaotic and messy world of medieval civil war which Ken Follett aims to bring to life in his book, that message of God’s bigger agenda to save the human race from destruction would have been just as vital as it is in our own time - threatened as we are now by things like global warming, terrorism and economic recession. Paul was writing at another time of great uncertainty, and some of his readers in Thessalonica thought that the Day of the Lord, when God’s people would finally be vindicated and redeemed, might already have arrived. Paul warns them not to be deceived. Hadn’t the words of Jesus himself, as well as a host of apocalyptic Jewish writings, including the Book of Daniel, made very clear that things would have to get a whole lot worse before God intervened?

A power-crazed world ruler would first have to make a bid for eternal recognition so audacious that it would clearly be designed to eclipse God’s true majesty and put him permanently in the shade. You might think that sounds a bit far-fetched! ‘What mind altering substances must Paul have been using when he wrote these words?’

But actually, there have been plenty of contenders throughout history for the role of the rebellious self-promoting world leader whom Paul seems to be predicting. But none of them has turned out to be powerful enough to rule the whole world and challenge God’s authority. So other people have wondered whether Paul might really have been thinking about an ideology, rather than an individual - something like atheism or secularism - both of which have certainly challenged God’s authority and tried to supplant him.

But, more importantly, Paul says that - instead of trying to predict the future - we ought to concentrate on celebrating the present. The Church community is meant to be the first fruits, or the blueprint if you like, for the future society that God has promised to bring about when he redeems the whole world.

In other words, whereas for Job redemption was a future idea, for us it is both a future and a present reality. We must still expect to face trouble and suffering for the time being, but in Jesus God has already neutralised part of their effect and shown us what the future will be like. In the Church we can not only create an example of what God’s redemption is going to look like, but we can also begin to feel some of its benefits as we’re sanctified by the Spirit, and this assurance should bring us comfort, strength and hope and inspire us to proclaim the good news in every good work that we do and every word that we speak - as God’s people - to those around us.

We know that our Redeemer lives and that at the last he shall stand upon the earth and we shall behold him. So let us always give thanks to God.