Leading Is Serving (Micah 3:1-4)

Then I said:

“Listen, leaders of Jacob, leaders of Israel:
    Don’t you know anything of justice?
Haters of good, lovers of evil:
    Isn’t justice in your job description?
But you skin my people alive.
    You rip the meat off their bones.
You break up the bones, chop the meat,
    and throw it in a pot for cannibal stew.”

The time’s coming, though, when these same leaders
    will cry out for help to God, but he won’t listen.
He’ll turn his face the other way
    because of their history of evil. (The Message)

The prophet Micah wasn’t speaking to the general population; he was specifically addressing leaders. Those in authority – whether religious, political, educational, or corporate – can be sometimes rather hard on the people they lead. Yet, most things rise or fall because of leadership, and not because of the people being led.

It’s one thing to be a Pastor and preach an angry sermon; a politician who spins the truth for their own advantage; a teacher who one day berates the students; or a boss who uncharitably chastises an employee; and it’s quite another thing for these behaviors to be habitual. A daily dose of leaders who view people as dumb sheep to fleece are eventually in for big trouble… from God!

Most leaders ascended to their position because they know what’s up and how to go about their business. They know the difference between right and wrong. But instead of viewing themselves as servants to the people, some leaders believe the people ought to be serving them. This sort of attitude comes out in snarky phrases, such as:

  • “If these idiots would only listen to me, and do what I tell them, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
  • “How many times do I have to repeat myself!?”
  • “Excuses, excuses. That’s all I hear. They’re nothing but a bunch of lazy ungrateful people!”
  • “Leave your problems at home where they belong. We don’t talk about that stuff here!”
  • “What makes you think you can talk to me that way!?”
  • “It’s out of my hands. Not my responsibility.”
  • “It wasn’t like this in my generation. These young people just don’t want to do anything that’s hard. Back in my day I had to….”

The real problem, however, are the leaders themselves; they haven’t gotten out their own way to let the justice of God flow powerfully in them and through them to the benefit of everyone.

Having a leader who is attentive to basic human kindness, generous with words, and concerned for all under their authority is like a kiss on the lips. But a leader who only thinks of themselves is like a bad dream that won’t go away.

A society cannot survive without justice, that is, a concern for the common good of all persons – and coupled with systemic practices which reinforce that basic conviction. Some leaders have good hearts but bad organizational systems. Other leaders administrate well but have a hard time relating to people. We need both for justice to occur.

Once leaders get in a groove of justice, society flourishes. Yet, leaders need to be continually vigilant; their leadership can easily devolve into struggles to obtain and maintain power so that they can feel important and in control of things.

The Old Testament prophets, like Micah, used imaginative metaphors to make their case that injustice needed to be done away with. And they nearly always laid the burden of change on leaders. Leadership is meant to make things right, not wrong, and to help a group of people become better, not worse.

Justice is in every leader’s job description. It’s written on both the conscience and the heart in permanent marker.

When things go sideways, godly leaders first look at themselves, rather than reflexively blaming others. Typically, there is plenty of guilt to go around; yet the leader needs to bear the onus of the problem and begin addressing it by first looking within themselves.

It’s a leader’s responsibility to ensure that justice and freedom are established – and that there are no obstacles to all the people living successfully. Leaders are to be learners so that they may do good and create systems of good for everyone.

Stop doing wrong
    and learn to live right.
See that justice is done.
Defend widows and orphans
    and help the oppressed. (Isaiah 1:16-17, CEV)

Those who held authority in Micah’s day had gotten drunk on power and privilege; they openly used their authority to consume the poor and needy. Rather than empowering the underprivileged, the leaders snatched what little autonomy and resources the people possessed.

The good news is that there is a greater power operative in the universe than earthly leaders. A hard life caused by insensitive leadership will eventually give way to the Lord’s gracious and benevolent reign over all the earth.

Until that time comes, we are to grow as leaders by seeking to be true and genuine servants.

Politicians are to pursue public service without prejudice and with a keen eye toward all classes of people;

Educators are to commit themselves to ensuring that learning happens with a variety of approaches, all pillowed with loving support;

Employers are to provide whatever is needed to make their employees successful at their jobs, including a safe and caring environment;

Religious leaders are to offer spiritual care and not spiritual judgment to all within their bounds of responsibility.

We all lead other people, whether or not we have the title or position as a leader. Therefore, we all must seek not to be served but to serve others. This is the way of justice and righteousness.

Gracious God and Leader of all: Help us to embrace the challenge and responsibility we have as leaders
to guide us to lead with integrity and common sense. Give us the wisdom to make intelligent decisions; the courage to make tough decisions; and the character to make right decisions. Embolden us to always be welcoming, inclusive, and open because of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Remember the Poor and Needy (Deuteronomy 24:17-25:4)

Harvest in Provence by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.

Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. (New International Version)

In an ideal world, we would all use our common inner sense of justice, fairness, and kindness; we would pay attention to our conscience. Yet, as you and I know all too well, we are far from living in an idyllic setting.

Instead, we live in a fundamentally broken world – complete with injustice, disagreements, disputes, petty squabbles, and blatant insensitivity to others.

It seems we shouldn’t have to be told how to concern ourselves for the common good of all persons; yet that’s exactly what needs to happen. So, the Lord made it plain what the expectations are for meeting societal needs. And it’s already inside of us; we just need to recognize it’s there, tap into it, and obey our better angels.

The Lord expects:

  • No favoritism, cronyism, and isolationism. Immigrants, foreigners, and folks different from us are to be treated with equal justice and sensitivity. Cliques which are hawkish about keeping certain persons out of their group is mostly selfish and sometimes mean-spirited; and it’s always a sort of discrimination which God expects us to avoid.
  • Attention to the poor among us. In the ancient world, and still is some parts of our world today, when the crops are harvested, the needy would tag behind the harvesters in order to pick up what was left behind. Basic human kindness tells us that not only do we let them do this, but we also purposely leave a bit for them to get for themselves and their families. In our modern era, practices of exorbitant interest and unfair housing need to be replaced with concern for the less fortunate. Wealth is meant to be shared, not hoarded. To not do so is to steal from the poor.
  • Punishments which fit the crime. Inequitable societies are rife with kangaroo courts and unjust laws which favor a particular group of persons. It’s humiliating for a minority prisoner to serve a much longer sentence than a person who is in the majority of society… and we wonder why some folks are so angry sometimes. Good grief.
  • Inclusion. Concern for the common good of society doesn’t exclude folks we don’t like or don’t understand. The reason we are not to “muzzle an ox while its treading out the grain” is that they’re doing a job and they don’t need any hindrances to their work. Placing restrictions or extra rules on one group over another just because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or class is sinfully exclusionary.

The bottom line is that God cares about persons trapped in poverty. 

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor.” The range of meanings includes those who are poor because of laziness, those born into poverty, those who are poor because of inhuman oppression or slavery, simple beggars, and the pious humble poor – who have no choice but to put their trust in God because of their grinding poverty.

The Law was quite clear about how to treat the poor:

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, NRSV) 

The mistreatment, exploitation, and just plain inattention to the poor and needy were a chief reason God sent the prophets to Israel: 

Listen to me, you who walk on helpless people,
    you who are trying to destroy the poor people of this country, saying,
“When will the New Moon festival be over
    so we can sell grain?
When will the Sabbath be over
    so we can bring out wheat to sell?
We can charge them more
    and give them less,
    and we can change the scales to cheat the people.

We will buy poor people for silver,
    and needy people for the price of a pair of sandals.
    We will even sell the wheat that was swept up from the floor.”

The Lord has sworn by his name, the Pride of Jacob, “I will never forget everything that these people did. (Amos 8:4-7, NCV) 

The major theme of Deuteronomy is remembering. Don’t ever forget where you came from so that the memory of your past helps shape what kind of person you are in the present.

We must be reminded that it is the poor in spirit who enter the kingdom of heaven, not the proud spirit who forgets the poor. 

The humble person offers grace to people who cannot offer her something in return. It’s one thing to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs. But it’s an altogether different thing to show mercy, regardless of whether they can pay you back. 

We are to speak and act with mercy to all persons, without prejudice. 

Eventually, an idyllic world will come. Until that time, we are to speed its coming by showing basic human kindness and compassion to the least among us.

Lord God, you give honor to the least, those who are forgotten, overlooked and misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind, misunderstood and undervalued. You came to give a warm welcome to the lost, those who are orphaned, abandoned and destitute. Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries; your voice speaking out love and acceptance; your feet walking beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

A Divine Calling (Jeremiah 1:4-10)

The Prophet Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1960

The Lord gave me this message:

“I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb.
    Before you were born I set you apart
    and appointed you as my prophet to the nations.”

“O Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I can’t speak for you! I’m too young!”

The Lord replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young,’ for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you. I, the Lord, have spoken!” Then the Lord reached out and touched my mouth and said,

“Look, I have put my words in your mouth!

Today I appoint you to stand up
    against nations and kingdoms.
Some you must uproot and tear down,
    destroy and overthrow.
Others you must build up
    and plant.” (New Living Translation)

“Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity.”

St. Paul to St. Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12, NLT)

I write to you, young people,
    because you are strong
    and the word of God abides in you,
        and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2:14, NRSV)

Young Jeremiah had an unusual calling from the Lord. It wasn’t to reach thousands with a life-giving message of hope and encouragement; the call was to declare destruction to an unjust people who believed they were fine, thank you very much.

It was a calling that would have been a huge challenge for the most seasoned of veteran prophets. But God called the young Jeremiah. This was his first crack at being a prophet of the Lord; and it was a doozy of a call!

Yet, when it comes to God’s call, age really means nothing. That’s because the Lord equips whomever the Lord wants to empower. Young or old makes no difference. All that’s needed is a willingness to submit to the voice of divine calling.

And to Jeremiah’s credit, the lengthy prophecy bearing his name in the Bible is a testament to his sense of call and straightforward obedience to it.

There is, and always has been, a divine/human cooperative in the world. God, of course, could do everything without humanity’s assistance. But it’s never been that way. Throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture, the Lord calls and empowers people for service.

On the one hand, this may seem like some strange convergence which, on the surface, is sure to end in some screw-ups and failure. Yet, on the other hand, this cooperation between Creator and creature gives people, at the least, a sense of ownership in the world; and, at the most, a powerful opportunity to bless the world with divine gifts of speaking and service.

Although Jeremiah was called to (mostly) pronounce doom, it’s first and foremost a message of justice. The Lord is concerned for the common good of all persons, not just some. Yahweh is not about to be forever idle whenever certain segments of humanity go rogue and harm their fellow sisters and brothers with unjust ways.

The Prophet Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1968

What’s more, the Lord delights in using people whom society at large might deem less than usable.

Now remember what you were, my friends, when God called you. From the human point of view few of you were wise or powerful or of high social standing. God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful. He chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important. (1 Corinthians 1:26-28, GNT)

If God can use a donkey to communicate a message, then it’s likely that the Lord can enable any person on earth to speak words of justice – no matter if they’re young, uneducated, or underprivileged – and make the older, educated, and privileged look like jack asses. (Numbers 22:22-35)

For Christians everywhere, every believer has been called by God to proclaim the gospel of grace. The Word has come to us in Christ, in the flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is the primary and ultimate revelation of God’s Word to us.

God has also set the Church apart to serve as proclaimers of God’s Word to the nations. The Great Commission and the Great Commandment summarize our call to ministry. (Matthew 22:37-40; 28:19-20)

Yahweh’s intentional purpose was for Jeremiah to proclaim God’s word. That’s also God’s intentional purpose for the Church; the Lord puts God’s words in the church’s mouth. Christians proclaim the Word, which we know most fully and experience most personally in Jesus Christ.

With our words, perspectives, attitudes, relationships, and actions, God’s Word flows through us to the world. As believers, we know that gospel proclamation will accomplish God’s purposes.

We trust that God is empowering us to effectively proclaim God’s words with effectiveness so that all the earth may be renewed and blessed.

Most High God, you knew each of us before we were ever born. And so, you know us better than we know ourselves. Your divine power is already there, deep within us. As you call forth that power, enable us to respond with submission, obedience, and willingness to speak words of justice, love, and grace to a world in need of hope and betterment, through Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sensing the Divine (Exodus 3:1-5)

The Burning Bush by Yoram Raanan

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (New International Version)

The burning bush is one of those iconic objects and stories in Holy Scripture. Moses had an experience which changed his life, as well as the lives of all the Israelites then and now.

Having spent the first forty years of his life as a darling in the Egyptian court; and then the next forty years far from that life on the backside of the desert with a bunch of sheep; it’s an understatement to say that Moses did not expect or ever envision encountering God in a burning bush. The impossible has no possibility… Or does it?…

The experience of the burning bush fired the five senses of Moses:

  • See. There was the paradoxical sight of seeing fire in a bush that isn’t burning up.
  • Smell. All around there were the smells of sheep, the outdoors, and perhaps, even the lack of smelling burnt wood.
  • Hear. Listening to the voice and call of God from within the bush.
  • Taste. Spiritually and emotionally savoring God’s attentive justice toward the people.
  • Touch. Removing his sandals to feel the grounding of sacred space.

The story also comments on the senses of God, as well. Even though God is Spirit and is worshiped as such, God is alive with divine sensations:

  • See. Observing the approach of Moses, and the misery of the Israelites.
  • Smell. The stench of injustice wafting into God’s nostrils, bringing a strong divine reaction.
  • Hear. Listening to the cries of suffering and oppression amongst the people.
  • Taste. Anticipating the savor of showing mercy, justice, and righteousness.
  • Touch. A profound and holistic touching of Moses so that both he and the Israelites would never be the same again.

Through it all, the close identification between God and the people is expressed. The Lord feels the humiliation and pain of the Israelites – and vows to uproot them from the Egyptian factory farm of slavery and plant them firmly into rich Promised Land soil.

And what God promises to do, God has the authority and power to make good on.

Although experiencing all of this unbelievable sensory encounter, Moses knew it to be an impossible task in freeing so many Israelites from such a powerful Egyptian juggernaut.

After all, the people had their senses aflame, as well; and not in a good way:

  • See. The sight of family being worked to the bone; and cruelly treated.
  • Smell. The constant smell of bricks baking, mixed with the ever-present smell of death.
  • Hear. Listening day after day to the groans of people, just trying to survive under awful conditions.
  • Taste. Every day tasting the desert dust.
  • Touch. Overstimulated with handling tools to the point of hard callouses and dry, cracked, bloody hands.

Hundreds of years of backbreaking bondage to a national force so mighty that nothing can be done about it be broken…. Ah, but God specializes in systems of oppression and miserable people.

It is the Lord’s abilities which conquer the mightiest of foes and can extend mercy to the lowest and the least powerful. The entire Israelite situation was ripe for divine intervention and supernatural wonders to occur.

God will make a way where there seems to be no way. God works in ways which transcend our senses.

  • See. We are blind, but God gives us the gift of sight.
  • Smell. Our nostrils have become accustomed to the smell of death, but God’s aroma of life awakens us to new hope.
  • Hear. We are deaf, but God opens our ears with the sound of justice.
  • Taste. Our taste buds are shot with the gruel of poverty, but God causes our tongues to dance with the zest of mercy.
  • Touch. Our nerve endings are raw from cruel bondage, but God touches us with freedom.

You already intuitively know deep in your spirit that the impossible is possible with God. It’s never a question of God’s ability, but of God’s timing.

God is able and works the impossible in its proper time so that justice and mercy will have their full effect.

God of the impossible: I believe. Help me in my unbelief.

God of mercy: I receive. Help me in my denial.

God of justice: I accept. Help me in my rejection.

God of all time: I endure. Help me in my impatience.

God of All: I submit. Help me in my rebellion.

God of power and of might: I trust. Help me in my distrust.

God of our Lord Jesus Christ: I follow. Help me in my wandering.

God of the nations: Yes, you know that I love you. Yes, Lord, you know I love you. Lord, you know all things, and you know that I love you. So, yes, I will answer your call to go. Help me in my sending. Amen.