1 Timothy 3:1-9 – Be, Not Just Do

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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.

Nehemiah 1:1-11 – A Prayer of Solidarity and Confession

These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.

In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said,

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.

“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’

“The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants.O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”

In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer. (New Living Translation)

I believe that nothing of eternal significance happens apart from God. Jesus said it clearly: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV) 

There is simply no substitute for a close relationship with God. The will of God can only be accomplished through the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer is not a passive activity. If done well, prayer takes time, a great deal of effort, and a sense of priority. It is quite possible that biblical praying can be the most challenging, exhausting, laborious, and rewarding thing we do.

Through prayer we can become filled with the Holy Spirit, gain wisdom to make godly decisions, and access spiritual power that can melt the hardest of hearts and change the minds of the most stubborn of people. 

In prayer we have the privilege of expressing our concerns and needs, as well as having God’s agenda revealed to us for what to do. Our personal and communal holiness is in direct proportion to the great task of prayer.

When faced with the reality that his hometown, Jerusalem, was in trouble, Nehemiah, the king’s wine steward, prayed. In prayer he owned the problems Jerusalem faced. He owned it through a prayer that emphasized and reminded God of the covenant with God’s people; he confessed the sins by which Israel violated that covenant; and he held onto the promise that God would lift the curse on the city if the people would only repent.

Nehemiah had a compassionate heart that was attentive to what was going on in his native land. Hearing the tragic news of the city’s condition, he immediately wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed.

Nehemiah was profoundly disturbed by the news that Jerusalem was in trouble. Rather than being preoccupied with himself and his own situation as an exile in Babylon, Nehemiah sought to do something about the security and spiritual health of his people.

In his prayer to God, Nehemiah was genuine, persistent, confident, humble, and submissive to God. He did not distance himself from the sins of the people, but clearly identified with them through a prayer of confession.  That confession was intense, honest, real, and urgent.

Sin always needs to be identified, acknowledged, and pardoned. If it isn’t, there is no hope for things to be different.

There is a season for everything. Hunting seasons may come and go, but it is always open season for prayer.  And Nehemiah’s prayer is a solid biblical model for us to emulate. We have our challenges. Like Nehemiah, let’s own those challenges through prayers which are biblically focused, compassionately offered, and spiritually curious to know and do God’s agenda for the church and the world.

Let us continually have a spirit of prayer to God in everything we say and do – prayerful spirits that above all seeks God’s will and implementing that will through God’s love.

Almighty and gracious God, we lower our heads before you and confess we too often forget that we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you and your incredible mercy. For these things we ask your forgiveness and strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may witness to the love of Christ in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us to closely and tightly in your good strong hands. Build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.