Philippians 3:17-20 – Follow a Good Example

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. (New International Version)

Who do you imitate? What examples do you follow? How are you influenced by others?

Good Examples Are Virtuous

Because we are social creatures, we mimic and then pass on things we learn from others. So, it’s imperative we learn from people who demonstrate the values and ideals we aspire to possess ourselves.

In the people we listen to, either virtually or in person, as well as the authors we read, we are to live according to an example of virtue, sacrifice, and commitment.

We must imitate those Christian leaders who have a proven character in persevering in faith in the face of pain and suffering and have done it with great humility.

This does not necessarily mean we emulate those who eruditely speak the Word of God, have superior gifts and abilities, and enjoy success in ministry. It does mean, however, we ought to imitate, and have as mentors, those persons who imitate Christ.

We can leave behind and ignore those who are self-promoting peacocks, concerned with pursuing admiration and praise. Let’s, instead, mimic those who have proved themselves in hardship.

A Christian leader who has not undergone fiery trials and been purged of sinful pride are more easily seduced by their own importance. However, leaders who have seen their share of hard circumstances, pain, and suffering, and have come through it loving God and serving others out of grace and humility, are leaders worth imitating. They will likely serve well as good models of faith and ministry.

Good Examples Are In Community

Please notice there is more in today’s New Testament lesson than individually following a good example; we are to join with others in doing so. Community is needed for proper spiritual mimicking to take place.

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

Ephesians 5:1-2, MSG

This is why the Apostle Paul wrote a letter telling Titus to ensure that he was being an example within the church community – and why he gave detailed instructions on virtue to make sure the older saints of God were teaching and mentoring the younger generations with a good example to show them. (Titus 1:5, 2:1-4, 3:1-2)

Following an example doesn’t take place in isolation. Like a duckling, we need to be with other ducklings following Mama Duck. Otherwise, we are at risk of getting lost and losing our faith, maybe even our lives.

Be a Good Example

It is also good to consider the kind of example we ourselves are displaying for others. In all our words and behaviors, whether we recognize it or not, we are modeling what is genuinely important to us. And sometimes what we do not say, or choose not to do, says as much or more about our character, beliefs, and ethics.

Our character is revealed in the way we treat people. How we treat those who cannot give something back to us tells more about our character than how we treat people we think are important.

People who are honest, kind, and fair – only when there’s something to gain – shouldn’t be confused with people of real character who demonstrate virtuous qualities habitually, under every circumstance. Individuals and groups of people are never to be handled as things or mechanisms to get what we want and achieve our goals.

Character is also revealed in the way we deal with the pressures and temptations which come our way. If we are one way whenever situations are going well, and then another way when things go sideways, it reveals something of our inner self.

Doing the right thing, whether someone is watching, or not, is always a hallmark of a good example.

It takes a lot of confidence in our way of life to say to another, like the Apostle Paul did, “follow my example.” If we have learned with humility and curiosity the words and ways of Jesus, and lovingly put them into practice, then we can be emboldened to mentor others in the faith and demonstrate for them what laboring for justice, righteousness, holiness, and godliness looks like in this fallen world.

Good Examples Together

More than ever, we need a cadre of solidly committed folks who have been mentored well in the ways of grace to serve as a beacon of light in the darkness of this world’s besetting sins of structural racism, hedonistic consumerism, discriminatory ageism, oppressive patriarchalism, biased hierarchism, disparity classism, religious anarchism, and a hundred other “isms” which keep people from flourishing in this life as God intended.

It is vital we learn from and emulate others who have a proven track record of promoting the common good of all persons. And it is equally important we become part of the ranks of those who are good examples of citizens in God’s benevolent and ethical kingdom.

Lord God, help me as your disciple to follow you in every thought, word, and deed. Give me a heart of faith and obedience so that I will live with confidence in the example and in the way of Jesus. Enable me to recognize your good and perfect will, even when it may seem nonsensical to me. I want to follow you all the days of my life. Please give me the strength to do so in the strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 Timothy 3:1-9 – Be, Not Just Do

Photo by Krivec Ales on Pexels.com

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. (New International Version)

For the Church everywhere, Jesus Christ is to form and inform everything we do – including leadership.

This is why character formation is at the core of being an elder and a deacon in Christ’s Church – because the elder’s ministry of oversight, shepherding, and discernment of God’s will comes from the inner resources of knowing Christ; and a deacon’s ministry of outreach and service comes from a close walk of faith with Jesus, who desires to work through those individuals. 

Church leaders are to be the light of Jesus to their congregations. It is a high calling. The Apostle Paul gave to the Church seven requirements of Christian morality and seven requirements of a daily walk for leaders. Together, these fourteen requirements are the basis for Christian leaders so that the responsibility of the Church’s mission might be kept on track of bringing people to Jesus and bringing those who know Jesus to know him better.

The first set of seven requirements have to do with the morals of the person. A church leader is to:

1) Be trustworthy. Have a good reputation in both the church and the world

2) Be devoted in the marriage relationship (This doesn’t mean that a church leader must be married, because then even Jesus wouldn’t qualify as a church leader!)

3) Be clear-minded, even-keeled, and consistent

4) Be self-controlled (and not controlling others)

5) Be brave, possessing moral courage, through speaking truth with grace and not being a complainer

6) Be a friend of strangers through practicing hospitality

7) Be an able teacher, gently and carefully instructing others in a way that builds them up and does not tear them down 

The second set of seven requirements have to do with the ethical conduct of the person in everyday life. A church leader is to: 

1) Be sober and not a drunkard, conducting oneself in all moderation

2) Be respectable and not given to anger outbursts and constantly carrying a chip on their shoulder about something

3) Be gentle with everyone and in all situations

4) Be cordial and foster healthy relations, and not always picking a fight about something

5) Be generous and not thinking about the all-mighty dollar in every decision

6) Be caring in the family and give rules with relationship, so as to curb rebellion in a child

7) Be mature and not a novice in the faith so that those outside the church can see there is something wonderfully different about the way things are handled and done among those who profess Jesus Christ.

In addition to this, we have seven related requirements for deacons: 

1) Be dignified in every kind of relation, a person worthy of respect

2) Be sincere and not double-tongued, saying one thing to one person and something different to another

3) Be moderate in all things, especially when it comes to drink

4) Be benevolent and altruistic, and not greedy for either stuff or attention

5) Be holy and pure, keeping very close to faith in Christ with a good heart

6) Be a servant who is able to handle attention without falling apart

7) Be faithful, keeping promises and vows, especially in marriage and with family

God calls and sets apart individuals for service so that the Divine presence might be manifested among the people. Jesus Christ wants the church to be built up through faithful service. Notice what today’s New Testament lesson does not say about church leaders:

  • Be a listener to complaints.

Do everything without complaining or arguing (Philippians 2:14, ERV)

  • Be a representative of the people. Nowhere in Scripture do we find church leaders are supposed to operate like an American form of democracy. Instead of being representatives of the people to do their will, church leaders are rather representatives of God to the people so that God’s will is done in all things. 

Guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. (Acts 20:28, NLT)

  • Be ingenious. Church leaders are not called to be the smartest, most creative, and best idea people in the room. They are to be servants, leading others in prayer, outreach, and acts of mercy.

I have a special concern for you church leaders. I know what it’s like to be a leader, in on Christ’s sufferings as well as the coming glory. Here’s my concern: that you care for God’s flock with all the diligence of a shepherd. Not because you have to, but because you want to please God. Not calculating what you can get out of it but acting spontaneously. Not bossily telling others what to do, but tenderly showing them the way. (1 Peter 5:1-3, MSG)

These requirements of Holy Scripture are not just for leaders; they are to be sought after by every member of God’s holy Church. We are all together to aspire to the highest of ideals of Christ in the way we operate in the church and in the world. 

Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another (Romans 13:8). Godly leaders help us to maintain that biblical mandate.

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21, NIV)

Judges 5:1-11 – A Woman in the Middle

Illustration of Deborah in “Woman in Sacred History” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1888

On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this song:

Praise the Lord!
    The Israelites were determined to fight;
    the people gladly volunteered.
Listen, you kings!
    Pay attention, you rulers!
I will sing and play music
    to Israel’s God, the Lord.
Lord, when you left the mountains of Seir,
    when you came out of the region of Edom,
    the earth shook, and rain fell from the sky.
    Yes, water poured down from the clouds.
The mountains quaked before the Lord of Sinai,
    before the Lord, the God of Israel.

In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
    in the days of Jael,
caravans no longer went through the land,
    and travelers used the back roads.
The towns of Israel stood abandoned, Deborah;
    they stood empty until you came,
    came like a mother for Israel.
Then there was war in the land
    when the Israelites chose new gods.
Of the forty thousand men in Israel,
    did anyone carry shield or spear?
My heart is with the commanders of Israel,
    with the people who gladly volunteered.
    Praise the Lord!
Tell of it, you that ride on white donkeys,
    sitting on saddles,
    and you that must walk wherever you go.
Listen! The noisy crowds around the wells
    are telling of the Lord’s victories,
    the victories of Israel’s people!

Then the Lord’s people marched down from their cities. (Good News Translation)

In the Middle

At the center of the celebration – of Israel’s victory over their oppressors – was a woman.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is a classic Hebrew poem and song of celebration. Yet, there is something a bit different with this poem. The structure of Hebrew poetry points to the middle of the poem as the central idea and focus, with verses before pointing forward to it, and the verses after pointing back to it.

In many poems, God is at the center. The poet’s aim is typically to highlight the Lord as the ballast or resolution to some situation. But today’s poem has Deborah, a woman, smack in the middle. Israel was in a bad way, that is, until Deborah became the leader and judge in Israel. And this was no weird aberration.

Women in the Middle

Women are central to Holy Scripture. God called the people of Israel and labored to shape them into a community built on love, mercy, and justice, reflecting God’s image. Through the Israelites, God continued the work begun in creation, commanding them to love God and serve their neighbors–the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the alien. Women and men, together, served God in Israel.

The women filled their primary roles in Israel as wives, mothers, and grandmothers. In bearing and caring for children, they patterned their lives on the life of the One who in the beginning labored to bring forth the world, and who later brought forth the nation of Israel and patiently taught it to walk.

Whenever freedom and liberation were needed, women played a central role. The Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah trusted God and refused to obey Pharaoh’s orders. When instructed by Pharaoh to kill the male children, but to let the daughters live, these daughters of Israel preserved the lives of all the newborn. They risked their own lives in order to serve God’s purpose in setting the Israelites free from their slavery in Egypt. (Exodus 1:6-22)

Women were at the heart of hospitality, loving the stranger, as God instructed all the people to do. God empowered the widow of Zarephath to offer lodging and food to the prophet Elijah. Her ministry came at a critical time for Elijah, and this poor widow placed herself and her child at risk by offering her only morsel of food to the prophet. Through her acts of service, the widow advanced God’s work in the world and was sustained by God because of her ministry. (1 Kings 17:7-16)

Miriam and Huldah were prophets, revealing God’s will to the people. (Exodus 15:1-21; 2 Kings 22:11-20). And, along with them, Deborah was both a prophet and a judge, the leader of all the people. She gave wisdom, discernment, and justice to Israel. Deborah even had her hand in the military affairs of the nation. She directed Barak, the general, in a battle against the Canaanites. Although men usually filled such roles, God uses whomever God wants to use in accomplishing the divine will here on this earth, as it is always done in heaven.

God in the Middle

God is the Lord of the past, present, and future. God reigns over both the old and the new, utilizing each for good purposes in the world. In other words, God is not boxed-in. The Lord didn’t start wringing his hands in heaven saying, “Oh, my, I can’t find a man for the job. I guess I’ll have to use a woman!” No, instead, a woman was the Lord’s first and only choice for each situation in which females were used to accomplish God’s will. The Lord is not a victim of circumstances. Rather, God is sovereign and reigns supreme over all situations.

Let’s keep in mind that God is not limited to using men. In fact, God is always doing a new thing in the world. Women and men, equally created in the image and likeness of God, are equally able to be partners with God in the never-ending work of bringing life and redemption to all. Women fulfilling roles of ministry and leadership are not exceptions to God’s order and purpose in creation. Instead, they illustrate God’s true intent for women and men in the world.

We need to hear the stories of women’s leadership and service in Israel as testimony to God’s intent that women and men should be co-laborers with God in God’s work. The Lord isn’t laboring in this world with one hand tied between his back. He is using both hands, both men and women, to establish a benevolent rule and ethical reign.

So, loose the bonds and let the women serve!

Soli Deo Gloria

Numbers 27:12-23 – Humble Leadership

Moses Blesses Joshua by Marc Chagall, 1966

One day the Lord said to Moses, “Climb one of the mountains east of the river and look out over the land I have given the people of Israel. After you have seen it, you will die like your brother, Aaron, for you both rebelled against my instructions in the wilderness of Zin. When the people of Israel rebelled, you failed to demonstrate my holiness to them at the waters.” (These are the waters of Meribah at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.)

Then Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Please appoint a new man as leader for the community. Give them someone who will guide them wherever they go and will lead them into battle, so the community of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

The Lord replied, “Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him. Present him to Eleazar the priest before the whole community, and publicly commission him to lead the people. Transfer some of your authority to him so the whole community of Israel will obey him. When direction from the Lord is needed, Joshua will stand before Eleazar the priest, who will use the Urim—one of the sacred lots cast before the Lord—to determine his will. This is how Joshua and the rest of the community of Israel will determine everything they should do.”

So, Moses did as the Lord commanded. He presented Joshua to Eleazar the priest and the whole community. Moses laid his hands on him and commissioned him to lead the people, just as the Lord had commanded through Moses. (New Living Translation)

Moses was one of the most humble persons who ever lived on this earth (Numbers 12:3). Whereas many people are concerned for their legacy at end of life, Moses, instead, had a deep pastoral concern for his fellow Israelites. He didn’t want them without a capable and godly leader. So, in his humility, Moses was willing to obey God, let go of power, and share his authority so that the people would be well-cared for.

“All streams flow to the ocean because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.”

Lao Tzu (Chinese philosopher, 6th century B.C.E.)

I believe humility is the queen of all virtue, especially that of leadership. Yet, humility is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires that we willingly put aside pride, ego, and personal agendas in order to embrace God’s agenda.

Rather than having large statues erected to honor us and our proud accomplishments, or having our names plastered on buildings (and churches!) to recognize our wonderful charity, we really need to orient our energies toward passing the baton to trustworthy people who are capable of faithfully fulfilling the role of servant leader. (2 Timothy 2:2)

Being poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), becoming like a little child (Matthew 18:3), and thinking of others as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) are the cornerstones to becoming open to what God has for us. To be a humble leader means to steadfastly seek God’s will and way in everything. Then, to have the courage in leading others toward God’s direction, despite resistance and opposition from those who want to follow a different path.

Therefore, a leader’s task is to be consumed with seeking God’s direction rather than living purely according to instinct, pragmatic desire, or personal views. We continually need a radical openness to God. So, we must work to develop an ever-deepening awareness of where God is leading us. 

God, in divine mercy, is always up to something good. The Lord has plans for us and for the people we lead.  It’s humility that allows us to listen well to God’s Spirit and gain the direction needed for leadership.

Yet, being open to God is not quite as easy as it sounds. We must recognize that not everyone is open to God.  There are those, maybe even including us, who may be closed to God. 

If our focus is more on creating safety and security or trying to do enough good deeds to be recognized by God and others, or having our institution be what we want it to be, then we have become closed to what God wants.  This comes out in a couple of different ways….

  1. Maintaining tradition, at all costs. Whenever we do everything the way we have always done it, to make us feel safe and secure, then anything that threatens that security angers us. This is where folks practice either fight or flight – they wage either a holy war or just leave. Living with uncertainty and ambiguity is too much for them. But faith is what it takes if we are going to follow God. Like Abraham in the Old Testament, we are called to move and change without always knowing the destination.
  • Getting rid of traditions, at all costs. Sometimes folks who want new or different, desire to create a place of their own making to serve them and their needs. They aren’t really focused on what God is calling them to do. Rather, like Timothy in the New Testament, we are to hold onto the great deposit of doctrine and heritage given to us and not always be looking for the next new thing to turn things around.

So, what to do? Have the humility to ask the question continually and constantly: “What is God’s will?”  We need leadership that is incredibly open to God, allowing decision-making to come from a position of faith, and not fear. This enables us….

  • To let God, flow in and through us, rather than willfully insisting it should be our way or the highway.
  • To practice hope and love, rather than relying on our own strength and desires.
  • To make prayer and discernment the foundation of what we do, always seeking what God wants and then leading others in that direction by inviting them to the same kind of prayerful process.
  • To read our Bibles as if our lives depended on it and pray like there is no tomorrow.

If we have humility and a deep openness to God; a conviction that we are primarily called to follow Jesus Christ; a willingness to let God’s power flow through us; and, a determined readiness to move people lovingly and graciously in God’s direction, then amazing things can happen. 

Let our prayer together be this: I am yours, God, no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be. I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same. Amen.