Humble Leadership (Numbers 11:24-30)

So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.

However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” Then Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp. (New International Version)

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Jesus (Matthew 5:5)

My dad was on the local schoolboard for many years when I was a kid. I remember him telling me that he could predict was the Superintendent of Schools was going to do. Dad would introduce a motion (an idea or action to take) knowing that it would be struck down by the Superintendent, who then would introduce the same motion months later as if it were his own idea.

We all have likely had the experience of other people taking credit for our work, or at least spinning a situation to make it appear like the person was more responsible or in charge of something good than they actually were. After all, most of us want to look good in the eyes of others. So, leaders sometimes (most of the time?) reinterpret and bend situations to make their leadership shine, especially when it isn’t shining at all.

But Moses was a different sort of leader. He is described in Holy Scripture as “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3, NIV)

Today’s Old Testament lesson illustrates for us what humility and meekness truly look like. And the leadership of Moses had an authentic shine to it which resulted from being close to God. (Exodus 34:29-34; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18)

What is a meek and humble leader?

In a world enamored with issues of power and authority, Moses was a counter-cultural leader who understood his position and embodied the true nature of service to both God and people.

Humility acknowledges that the leader is not the one who is truly in charge. Ultimately, God is, and not any of us. The Holy Spirit is totally sovereign and acts in whatever way the Lord wills. The Spirit will not be stereotyped, nor can anyone really discern or predict what the Spirit will do or not do.

For sure, a life of prayer, faith, and holiness are necessary for the Christian life. Yet, we must not therefore assume that our spiritual disciplines somehow guarantee particular outcomes. It’s plain arrogance to suppose that somehow we can maneuver or manipulate God for our own purposes – which is why we need to cultivate a life of humility and meekness.

The reply of Moses to Joshua’s concern about the Spirit being manifested in an unexpected way illustrates a gentle and generous spirit of heart. Far from silencing the two men prophesying apart from the others, Moses instead longed for such a blessing to be extended to all the people.

Good and godly leaders are such because their sole passion is to honor and glorify the Lord. For them, it doesn’t really matter whether they’re personally involved in the great and spiritual thing happening, or not. That’s humility, my friends.

If there’s a distinction between humility and meekness, it is this: The humble person is self-aware enough to know they can only do anything by the hand of God operating within them; and the meek person is socially aware enough to understand that, in their lowliness, they are unable to look down on anyone else. Therefore, pride, arrogance, and hubris are nowhere to be found.

To have divine validation is all that’s needed for the godly leader; and when one is content with what they need and want most, there’s no need for human accolades and constant attention.

Far too often, we equate meek with weak. If someone is meek, some folks wrongly reason they must be a washrag, or overly introverted, and maybe not taking proper initiative in life. Of all the leadership qualities we may aspire to, I doubt that meekness would make any leader’s top ten list of desired character traits.

Why would I want to be meek?

Jesus, an unquestioned leader, described himself as meek. Yet, many English translations steer clear of the word. For example, “Come to me,” the New International Version of the Bible says, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Only the King James Version translates the word as “meek,” instead of “gentle.”

What does it mean to be meek?

“Meek” is a word used in other ancient Greek literature for breaking a horse. It’s the change from being a wild stallion who wants to go his own way, to a broken horse who is able to be guided and used, allowing others on his back without bucking.

At the crucifixion, Jesus was naked, exposed, and vulnerable to the idle curiosity of the crowd and the vulgar frivolity of the soldiers who were having a party around his suffering. “If you are the king of the Jews,”they taunted,“save yourself.” (Luke 23:35-36)

The extraordinary thing is there was no spirit of revenge with Jesus. Christ did not curse his tormentors, but instead prayed, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)

What characterizes a meek person?

  • The meek have a desire to put other’s interests ahead of their own, because they know it is not all about them. They practice healthy rhythms of giving and receiving with others, without prejudice or favoritism.
  • The meek are more concerned with edifying and building up their brothers and sisters than justifying themselves. They don’t care who gets the credit. And they receive criticism well.
  • The meek are truly egalitarian and do all things with equity and inclusion. They make no distinctions between rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, intelligent and cognitive deficits, black and white, gay and straight, Democrat and Republican, or insider and outsider. In the meek person’s mind, every person is created in the image of God and therefore deserves respect, attention, and justice.

How do I live as a meek person?

Perhaps repentance is in order. It could be that too many people have made much more of themselves than what they truly are. Maybe we have adopted a stance of shaming others, believing that some people need a bit of guilt from a leader in order to change their obnoxious ways.

Moses did not retaliate against the prophesying men or squelch what the Spirit was doing. Non-retaliation happens whenever we understand that we’re flat on our backs before God, and there is no place to look but up. And it also means there is no ability to look down on others. It is to be broken and moldable before God. 

Most importantly for the spiritual person, Moses had regular and extended times of meeting with God. It’s what kept him humble and maintaining a perspective on life that is healthy and helpful.

This day, almighty and holy God, be within and without me, lowly and meek, yet all-powerful. Christ as a light; Christ as a shield; Christ beside me, on my left and my right, I walk with you in humility of heart in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Gentle King (Matthew 21:1-11)

The Triumphal Entry, by He Qi

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (New International Version)

A Humble Leader

Gentle humility and strong leadership are not mutually exclusive concepts. They can and should co-exist together.

Los Angeles County traffic cops receive plenty of complaints about their work. After all, most motorists don’t think they deserve a ticket. Each complaint gets documented and placed in the officer’s personnel file. One officer, however, Deputy Sheriff Elton Simmons, made 25,000 traffic stops over a span of 20 years, without a single complaint on his record.

When his supervisor started looking through Simmons’ file, he was stunned to find plenty of commendations, but not a single complaint. It was so unusual, that a CBS News crew was assigned to follow Simmons in an attempt to learn his secret. They described Deputy Simmons as having a “pitch-perfect mix of authority and diplomacy” without a trace of arrogance or self-righteousness.

Although handing out plenty of tickets, they never came with a guilt trip.  Deputy Simmons described his mentality: “I’m here with you. I won’t look down at you.” 

One driver who got a ticket from Simmons said, “It’s his smile. How could you be mad at that guy?”  “Apparently, you can’t,” concluded the CBS News team. “Time after time, ticket after ticket, we saw Officer Simmons melt away a polar ice cap of preconceptions.”

A Meek Celebrity

As Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last week of his life, he was at the height of his fame. Christ’s teaching and healing ministry touched thousands of people. Jesus was the most famous celebrity to come into town since David captured the city a thousand years before. 

But Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem as a great and mighty warrior who conquered Jerusalem in a military battle. There is coming a time, at the end of the age, when Jesus will take on this role, but that was not his purpose on this occasion. 

Hosanna in the Highest, by Malaysian artist Hanna-Cheriyan Varghese

One of the challenges for people in every era is to properly balance scriptural truth. Many Jews emphasized King David’s victories in battle, and his great political dynasty, and so, tended to overlook that David was also a humble servant. 

King David showed steadfast love and kindness to his subjects and submitted himself to God in such a way that, even with opportunities to seize the kingship from Saul who was trying to take his life, he left vengeance to God alone.

Christ’s triumphal entry portrays Jesus as King, the Son of David, but as a gentle king. He embodied both powerful authority and gentle humility. Jesus wanted the crowd to understand that he was not like most kings – he was a lowly king. 

Jesus as a meek celebrity seemed so odd that many people saw that combination of gentle authority as being wishy-washy. Jesus didn’t fit any of the typical labels that people expected. They wondered, “Is he a Pharisee? Or a Zealot? What’s his position on the Romans?  How is he going to lead us out from under Gentile rule?” There was lots of anxiety and concern over Jesus; the people could not nail down exactly what kind of guy he was.

A Servant Pastor

Over the years, as a Pastor, many people have wanted to label me as something, but have had a hard time doing it. Am I liberal or conservative? liturgical or non-liturgical? open or closed to particular people or groups? e.g. LGBTQ folks, Black Lives Matter, etc.

The problem with all this is that it assumes you cannot be both, as if life is all either/or, instead of both/and. It makes ministry about choosing sides, instead of breaking down barriers.

Meekness and strength, gentleness and authority, humility and leadership, grace and truth, love and anger, are all meant to be together – not compartmentalized in sequestered ghettos of the mind.

Jesus sought to hold kingly authority and divine righteousness together, at the same time, all the time. Christ came into Jerusalem to face the cross and take upon himself the sin of the whole world. He came as a gentle king.

Yet, many people do not want this kind of leader because they think leadership is all about power – taking charge with strong authority, telling people what to do, and controlling every aspect of the realm.  

Jesus, at times, acts like a decisive and absolute authority. He knocks over the tables of the money changers in the temple, curses fig trees, and refuses to answer direct questions. But then he turns around and goes against the people’s expectations of him as a leader by riding on a lowly donkey, inviting tax collectors and prostitutes to join him, going after the lost, and embracing the least persons in society.

A Donkey Lord

Jesus displayed a combination that seemed confusing and wishy-washy to many. Christ is both sovereign lord, and humble servant. Jesus riding on a donkey seemed a strange fusion of authority and humility. 

On the one hand, a donkey was the beast of burden for most working class poor people. Donkeys are ordinary, and not like war horses. Kings didn’t ride into conquered cities on donkeys. But, on the other hand, the donkey is also linked to Messiah’s power and authority.

Rejoice, rejoice, people of Zion!
    Shout for joy, you people of Jerusalem!
    Look, your king is coming to you!
He comes triumphant and victorious,
    but humble and riding on a donkey—
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The Lord says,

“I will remove the war chariots from Israel
    and take the horses from Jerusalem;
    the bows used in battle will be destroyed.
Your king will make peace among the nations;
    he will rule from sea to sea,
    from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:9-10, GNT)

Jesus is the ultimate leader who uses his authority for the benefit of others, to bring peace. Jesus did not use his authority to consolidate power and squish enemies, but instead, gave his life so that others might live. 

Gentle and meek does not mean being a washrag or a limp noodle. Rather, it means to have power under control, e.g. a broke horse; it is power for useful purposes to serve people, not like other kings who were concerned with getting, consolidating, and keeping power, at all costs.

Jesus is the crucified Messiah; the modest leader; the lowly Lord; the God Man. We must hold it all, not emphasizing one aspect above another, so that we have the complete picture of Christ.

A Gracious Royal

Believers and followers of Jesus are royal children of the King. That means we live in the way of Jesus by bestowing grace to others. What does this “look like?”

  • In our families, Christian parents do not merely bark orders at kids, but love and support them by humbly and gently coming alongside and helping. 
  • In our neighborhoods, Christian citizens pray for the welfare of their neighbors, even and especially the ones who we may not like very well.   
  • In our work, Christian workers use their skills and abilities to serve others, transforming what we do from a secular job to a sacred vocation. 
  • In our daily life, Christians scan the horizon to seek people whom we might show God’s kindness, instead of just waiting for something to fall into our laps, if it ever does.

A Talking Donkey

From the Old Testament, we know that donkeys can talk (Numbers 22:21-38). If Christ’s donkey could speak, I imagine him saying: 

“King Jesus, why did you choose a lowly donkey like me to carry you to ride in your parade? Didn’t you have a friend who owned a horse – a spirited royal mount, fit for a king to ride? Why choose me, a small unassuming beast of burden, trained to plow and not to carry kings?”

It is a privilege to be a Christian. Perhaps you will say: 

“King Jesus, why did you choose me, a lowly unimportant person to bear you in my world today? I am poor and unimportant, trained to work, and not to carry kings – let alone the King of kings; and yet, you’ve chosen me to carry you in triumph in this world’s parade. King Jesus, keep me humble, so everyone may say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,’ and not ‘what a great Christian he is.’”

God of all, you gave your only begotten Son to take the form of a servant, and to be obedient, even to death on a cross: give us the same mind that was in Christ Jesus that, sharing in his humility, we may come to be with him in his glory, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Obedience is Better than Sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22-31)

“Tell me,” Samuel said. “Does the Lord really want sacrifices and offerings? No! He doesn’t want your sacrifices. He wants you to obey him. Rebelling against God or disobeying him because you are proud is just as bad as worshiping idols or asking them for advice. You refused to do what God told you, so God has decided that you can no longer be king.”

“I have sinned,” Saul admitted. “I disobeyed both you and the Lord. I was afraid of the army, and I listened to them instead. Please forgive me and come back with me so I can worship the Lord.”

“No!” Samuel replied, “You disobeyed the Lord, and I won’t go back with you. Now the Lord has said that you can’t be king of Israel any longer.”

As Samuel turned to go, Saul grabbed the edge of Samuel’s robe. It tore! Samuel said, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel away from you today, and he will give it to someone who is better than you. Besides, the eternal God of Israel isn’t a human being. He doesn’t tell lies or change his mind.”

Saul said, “I did sin, but please honor me in front of the leaders of the army and the people of Israel. Come back with me, so I can worship the Lord your God.”

Samuel followed Saul back, and Saul worshiped the Lord. (Contemporary English Version)

God had given Saul explicit instructions on how to handle a group of people called the Amalekites (the first nation to attack the Jewish people after the Exodus from Egypt, and viewed as the archetypal enemy of the Jews). Saul obeyed only some of the instructions, but not all of them.

King Saul rationalized his behavior as worship. But God would have none of it. The Lord rejected Saul as king. God wants no monkey business when it comes to obedience. (1 Samuel 15:1-21)

Whenever I come across biblical characters like Saul, I find myself trying to distance from them. Yet, oftentimes, when I take the time to sit a bit with the Scriptures, I realize I can have some of the same propensities as their behavior. In today’s Old Testament lesson, I am like Saul whenever:

  • I say I will do something and then get busy and not do it. I sometimes rationalize my lack of follow through by explaining what good things I was doing with my time instead.
  • I justify a purchase of something I do not really need, but want, with the excuse that I am generous with my money.
  • I slander another person, even though its forbidden by God, with the knucklehead notion that I am protecting and helping others from that person’s evil ways.
  • I keep quiet in the face of a bad situation when I should be speaking up. I dismiss the lack of engagement and involvement with needing to save my energy for people who want it….

I could keep going with this little exercise, but I’m too convicted to keep thinking about it anymore. So, before we get too uppity about saying we are not like Saul and would never be like him, perhaps we ought to sit with the story for a while, being mindful and aware of any unacknowledged disobedience.

Rationalization is the way of sinners.  Repentance is the path of saints.  Which road will you choose today?

Unfortunately, as the story of Saul’s life unfolds, we discover that the encounter with Samuel becomes a typical pattern of behavior in which Saul:

  1. Disobeys or ignores God’s commands
  2. Rationalizes his bad behavior by putting a spiritual spin on it
  3. Is confronted with his sin
  4. “Repents” with crocodile tears
  5. Then goes back to his old ways of doing whatever the heck he wants

It seems that whenever Saul feels threatened, or anxious, or jealous, or stressed, he crumbles into a heap of fear and ends up making boneheaded decisions, hurting people, or becoming complicit in somebody else’s sin.

Don’t be like Saul.

Instead, get to the root of the trouble by addressing your own anxiety.

Focus on What Is Within Your Control

We cannot control other people. Many circumstances are also outside our control. However, we are always in control of ourselves. Learn good self-care, focus on helpful attitudes, and use the adversity before you to strengthen your faith.

The Serenity Prayer is a good reminder in those times when we feel out of control:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Promote a Positive Mindset

Positive attitudes help us widen our perspective on things – and with a broader view of things comes more awareness of choices. Making spiritually and emotionally healthy choices for ourselves builds resilience and fortifies us for difficult situations down the road, without succumbing to old unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Be Humble

False humility looks a lot like what Saul did. But true humility isn’t about trying to save face or suck up to others. It’s about the willingness to ask for what you need and want without manipulation, to serve others without making sure everyone notices. Humility relates to, and empathizes with, others and doesn’t go out of the way to distance from folks on the lower end of society. And humility is always willing to accept the consequences of decisions and actions.

Rationalizing disobedience never ends well, especially with a God who holds everyone accountable for their words and behaviors. So, let’s all do ourselves a favor, and seek the good, the right, and the just with a spirit of meekness.

Holy God, you expect obedience to clear instructions. I am sorry for all those times I found creative ways to circumvent your teaching. Help me not to avoid your good commands, but to own them with vigor and vitality through Jesus Christ my Lord in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Longing of Christ’s Heart (Matthew 23:37-24:14)

“If Thou Had’st Known” by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (New International Version)

Christ’s cry of love for the city of Jerusalem– the longing to bring the people together and shepherd them with care and compassion – came after a very pointed pronouncement of woes against a distorted religion that was in vogue at the time. Jesus saw the current state of worship, found it to be terribly wanting, gave a scathing rebuke, and saw ahead to its ultimate demise.

Jesus did not just blast the establishment, then humph and walk away disgusted. Instead, he looked with sadness over the city and broke into a tear-filled, heart-wrenching love song for his wayward people. Jesus was both angry and sad because of his deep concern for all people to know the true worship of God and to find their ultimate purpose and meaning in him.

“And Jesus Wept” statue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Any religious fool can rant about the ills of the world, ungodly persons, and defective institutions. However, it takes a person with the heart of Jesus to weep over it all and follow him into suffering on behalf of others so that they might come to the peaceable kingdom of righteousness. 

If our hearts are not unraveled over the sin and injustice of the world, we are in no position to rant about anything. That’s because grace and mercy is the currency of God’s economy. 

Thus, we need to repent like we mean it, pray as if our lives depended on it, and proclaim the good news of Christ as if there is not a tomorrow.

In a results-driven culture, congregations want clear strategy plans for ministry. Yet, a group of people can implement the best of ministries and still not realize their well-laid plans. If Jesus didn’t see what he wanted to happen come to fruition in Jerusalem, then I’m not sure how any of us can always expect success in ministry. We may fail in many ways; but let us not fail to weep over our communities and neighborhoods and long for them to know Christ.

It’s okay that neither every ministry goes as planned nor every person is blessed by what we do. If we find it hard to accept this, and feel out of control, then we want to know the future – how everything is going to shake-out. This is precisely what the disciples wanted to know, since their expectations weren’t realized.

Jesus essentially told them that things were going to get even tougher. Therefore, they need to be ready and persevere through the adversity. And some of that trouble will be downright cataclysmic. Jesus did not give his disciples a seminar on having a successful ministry; he simply told them to endure suffering and focus on proclaiming the gospel.

But for that to happen, we need to accept that we cannot control every variable of ministry and plan for every contingency. The only guarantees we have is that God is with us, and Christ is coming again. That’s it, my friends.

So, instead of control, we must accept our limitations and practice self-control. We can continually monitor our own internal motivations and desires so that they are in constant alignment with the words and ways of Jesus – including a heart of love that weeps over the brokenness and stubbornness of the world. 

Followers of Jesus walk the only true road of Christian discipleship: the path of humility. Out of all the characteristics that Jesus could have described himself, the only two words he ever used were “gentle and humble.” (Matthew 11:29)

Jesus Weeping Over Jerusalem, by Enrique Simonet Lombardo (1866-1927)

Jesus is the perfect example of a leader who always ministered with a complete sense of his divine power, human limitations, and concern for others. Christ never believed he was the reason for his own success, nor thought he was the reason for another’s failure of faith. Instead, Jesus always connected what he was doing to the will of his Father in heaven.

You can only avoid the seduction of arrogant pride when you recognize that you are not God and need the help of others. Truly humble folk dig a hole, throw their ego into it, and pour concrete on top of it. This allows them to listen deeply, give generously, and encourage others liberally.

Standing firm to the end doesn’t come through crafting complicated charts of the end times; it comes through being humble, being grounded in the here-and-now, being attentive to the people around us, and being a guide for the lost. More importantly, it’s what Christ wants us to be.

Loving Lord Jesus, let me have your zeal for God’s house and your heart for lost people! Change my heart, O God, and let it reflect your grace and truth in everything I say and do; through Christ my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit, reign now and forever. Amen.