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True Leadership

Date: Jul. 31, 2016

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Matthew 20:17-28

Key Verse: Matthew 20:26-28

“Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It is election season, again, and this presidential election is going to be a whopper. In one corner is the former First Lady, the former Senator from New York, born in Park Ridge, Illinois. She’s been waiting for eight years for this opportunity: Hillary Clinton. In the other corner, the businessman and real estate developer, the man synonymous with wealth since the ‘80’s, born in New York City. He’s the rookie that came out of nowhere: Donald Trump. This is the year that, we as a nation, choose our leader and with our pool of candidates, all I’ve got to say is, “Lord, have mercy on us.” The candidates leave much to be desired, and I don’t really want to go into critiquing them much. Unfortunately, I do know that the majority of the people in this country are not satisfied with their choices. This however, brings up an interesting thought. What qualities really make a good leader? In my day job, I work as a web developer for Northwestern University, and one of my projects for the past seven years has been a project for the university’s Center for Leadership. One part of the project is creating software for a 360° Assessment. This assessment allows a person to rate themselves according to a series of assets and also for that person to ask six other people to rate them too. The goal is to see what type of leader you are so that you can improve your leadership. There are seven assets: Asking Powerful Questions (asking questions to get to the root issues), Inspiring Others Through Narrative (inspiring people to get them moving), Mobilizing Difference for Performance (recognizing difference is important to perform), Thriving in Collaborative Settings (working with others), Thriving in Hierarchical Settings (working for others), Navigating and Leading Change (dealing with and initiating change), and Overcoming Adversity and Failure (dealing with challenges). With this in mind, let’s do a quick assessment of these two candidates. Asking Powerful Questions: Clinton: I haven’t seen much of this; Trump: He just assumes something is true and goes with it. That’s a “meh” and a “no”. Inspiring Others Through Narrative: Clinton: A lot of people don’t know why she is running; Trump: He inspires through fear. So, that is two no’s. Mobilizing Difference for Performance. Clinton: Some say that she heard Bernie Sander’s message and incorporated some of his ideas, I’ll give it to her; Trump: He doesn’t seem to like different things. That is a “yes” and a “no”. Thriving in Collaborative Settings: I don’t think either work well with others. Thriving in Hierarchical Settings: Both seem to like to bark out orders. Navigating and Leading Change: Clinton is trying to become the first woman President; Trump stands for the status quo. That’s a “yes” and a “no”. Last, Overcoming Adversity and Failure: Both just seem to want to ignore it and move on. So there you have it, scientific proof that neither candidate is all the great. I’m picking on the presidential candidates because they want to lead us, but honestly, I don’t think any of us would fare all that much better in our current state. So, let’s go back to that earlier question: What makes a good leader? These assets are good indicators, but there is something fundamental that makes a good leader, and Jesus shows us what that exactly is today.

But before we dive in to this passage, I did a little research. Did you know that nearly three years ago, on September 1, 2013, Bob gave a message about loving leadership, from the last chapter of Nehemiah? You are welcome to read it and listen to it on our website. That passage had a lot of crazy stuff going on in it. Nehemiah was being very forceful with the people, but Bob proposed that Nehemiah was being a loving leader. Nehemiah loved God and he loved the people. Nehemiah had been away and when he came back, the people were mixed up in all sorts of bad things. Those things were going to lead them to ruin, but Nehemiah loved them and didn’t want to see them get hurt because they were being boneheads. It’s like seeing someone walk out into traffic. You are going to be forceful in saving them. Nehemiah was the same way. He was a loving leader. I see this passage as a kind of follow-up to that one. This passage expands that thought of leadership, and we can get a larger picture of what true leadership looks like.

Our passage starts out while Jesus is out on the road. In the last few passages, Jesus had been talking to his disciples about the kingdom of heaven. Last week, Jesus spoke a parable about workers in a vineyard and showed the landowner’s generosity. He wanted to give everyone who worked for him the same amount of pay, no matter how long they worked for him. It was like everybody getting Christmas bonuses. It was a gift and God’s salvation works in the same way. Today’s passage picks up right afterwards. It starts out, “Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem.” (17) It is very significant to mention that Jesus was going to Jerusalem. This would be the last time that Jesus would be going to Jerusalem. His entire ministry was working towards this last trip to the city. He had told his disciples a number of times already that he would be arrested and die in Jerusalem, and now, the time had come and the most important event in history would arrive in just a few days. Before his arrival, Jesus took his disciples aside and told them once more, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (18-19) There is a lot going on in these verses. So much. Jesus just told his disciples what was going to happen in Jerusalem. I don’t want to go in to a lot of detail about it, right now. I want to circle around and come back to it, but I do want to mention that it is a very dire situation. Jesus was predicting his arrest and death once again. He didn’t beat around the bush about it, but was very, very specific. Handed over to the chief priests and teachers of the law. He would be handed over to the Gentiles to be mocked, flogged and crucified. There is an insane amount of detail about what was going to happen and it is very interesting to see how some of his disciples responded.

The passage continues, “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. ‘What is it you want? he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’’ (20-21) Now Zebedee’s sons are James and John, two of Jesus’ inner circle, and they had a plan. However, somehow, their mother got involved. Maybe James and John asked their mom to talk to Jesus, because a mother’s request might carry more weight. Or maybe, mommy knew about James’ and John’s desire for prominence and she dragged her boys over to Jesus to let him know about their idea. In her mind, her baby boys deserved what they wanted to ask for. Good ole helicopter mom coming on down to help her boys out. Maybe I am only biasing this based on today’s helicopter parents. At any rate, what they wanted to ask originated with James and John, and maybe they asked mom for help or maybe mom dragged her boys over to ask for them. So she asked on their behalf that they would sit at Jesus’ left and right sides when he comes into his kingdom. This is in essence asking to be the number two and number three guys in God’s kingdom. It’s like asking the President to be Vice President and Secretary of State. That’s very presumptuous. Think about this for a second, the Bible says that Jesus sits at the right hand of God. So, if Jesus sits at God’s right hand, that means that God sits at Jesus’ left hand. One of the spots James and John were asking for, was God’s spot. I don’t think they thought their request through.

I think Jesus thought that, too. Let me read, “‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’ ‘We can,’ they answered.” (22) They asked, “We want to sit at your left and right hand.” Jesus answered, “You have no idea what you are asking.” It’s kind of funny, but Jesus also asks, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” What Jesus was asking was, “Can you go through what I am about to go through?” The word “cup” many times signifies wrath and Jesus asked if they could follow exactly what he was about to do. Remember, now, Jesus had very recently told all of the Twelve that he was going to Jerusalem to be arrested, convicted, mocked, flogged and crucified. Jesus was asking if James and John could do the same thing. That’s no small order. That is huge. Could they do what Jesus would do? Could they experience the full wrath of God on a cross? Could they become sin in the eyes of God and be crushed for it: naked, bleeding, dehydrated, ashamed, in pain and unable to breathe? Could they? Their answer was a simple, “We can.” It was just like they were saying, “Sure” or “Yup”. It is so simple, so naïve. They still had no idea what they were trying to get themselves into. They were blinded by their ambition and desire to be better than the other disciples.

Jesus humored them and set them straight, “Jesus said to them, ‘You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.’” (23) Jesus told James and John that they would share in what Jesus would experience. They would suffer for Christ. James would eventually be put to death by the sword. John would live much longer, but that wouldn’t because of a lack of trying. The Roman emperor order that John be put to death by being boiled in oil, but he did not die. He was deep fried for Jesus, but eventually died of old age, living well into his 90’s. They drank from Jesus’ cup. Even though they would share in Jesus’ suffering, Jesus still said that it was not up to him to determine who will sit on his right or left. The Father would determine such things.

When the other ten heard about what James and John were trying to do, they were upset with them. The Bible says that they were indignant. They weren’t just upset; they were upset because they weren’t being treated fairly. Better yet, they were probably upset because they didn’t think to ask Jesus themselves. Jesus sensed their anger and began to tell them, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” (25) Jesus reminded the disciples of how the rulers of the Gentiles lead. The disciples were familiar with Roman rule. The Romans forced their will upon the populace. They show their might through the use of the military. Even though Jesus just said Gentiles, it wasn’t limited to them. The Jewish leaders also used their authority to assert their own will. I mean the whole reason that Jesus will be arrested is because they are flexing their authoritative muscle. This isn’t some new thought. We can go back a thousand years to find a similar sentiment. Before there was any Israelite king, the Jews were led by judges. The last judge was Samuel. Samuel was also a prophet of God. When Samuel was getting old and his sons appeared to be unfit to lead, the people cried out to Samuel for a king to be like all the other nations. Israel had no king because God was their king. By asking Samuel to anoint a king, they were rejecting God as their king. So Samuel told them,

“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.” (1 Samuel 8:11-17)

 Samuel warned the people that a king would make the people slaves to his will as the king would exercise his authority. If you look as Israel’s history, there were so many selfish kings that did not think about the people’s welfare. Israel broke into two nations because Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, listened to his drinking buddies and tried to put his foot down on the neck of the people. The disciples were no different. James and John wanted high positions so that they could boss other people around. They wanted power to exert their own will. They were constantly arguing who was the greatest. They were always jockeying for the best position. Again, it is election time and it honestly feels like the both main candidates are trying to become President to serve their own agenda. They don’t seem to care about the people or the world. They want the position to have the title. They want to make the rules to suit their own desires and force their own agendas.

However, Jesus called his disciples to be different. He continued, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (26-28) The echoes exactly what Jesus said in the previous two passages. Two weeks ago, Jesus concluded a thought with, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30) And last week, he ended with, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16) Jesus was talking to his disciples about having humility and a willingness to put yourself in a position that is lower than others. Then, God would elevate them to prominence. If people were to try to lift themselves up, then they would only end up last, but if they sought to be last, then God would lift them up to be first. Here, Jesus expands upon those words as he says, “Whoever want to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever want to be first must be your slave.” This is so topsy-turvy compared to how the world works. In order to be great, you have to be like a servant or slave to those you wish to serve.

It is a foreign thought, but it is also so familiar. Just think about the greatest boss or teacher that you had. They weren’t the type of people who put their boot on your neck and burdened you. Instead, they served you to enable you perform your duties greater that you could on your own. The good leaders protect those they lead from the politics of office life. The good leaders get down in the trenches with the workers. They don’t sit on some high pedestal, looking down on the team. They inspire and encourage so you can be better. We know in our heart what a good leader looks like. They don’t berate people; they work with others. Jesus was reminding the disciples of this fact and he used himself as the example. He said, “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (28)

Jesus is the greatest example of someone who leads by serving. He says that he came to serve by giving his life as a ransom for many. He came to protect us from the power of sin and fires of hell. We were destined to die because there is so much evil in our hearts. Any step away from God that we have taken, is a step towards death. As soon as we decided to not to listen to God, we marked ourselves for death, but Jesus came to undo the death march that we put ourselves on. He saw that we were walking down the path of destruction and said, “No more.” He took that destruction for us and bore death to overcome death. Remember, Jesus predicted his arrest and death at the beginning of this passage. It wouldn’t be a meaningless death. It would be an act of serving us. Jesus would die on the cross to purify us from our sins. Jesus would become sin in order to destroy sin. You see, even though Jesus sacrificed himself for us, he did not stay dead. He came back, and Jesus himself even predicted that and on what day his resurrection would happen.

Let’s take a peek at what type of leader Jesus is. Let’s go back to those leadership assets I talked about earlier. Asking Powerful Questions: Jesus asked many questions to his disciples to get them thinking, like, “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” (Matthew 17:25). Inspiring Others Through Narrative: Jesus often spoke in parables, which are stories to help people understand complex concepts. Mobilizing Difference for Performance: The twelve men who were his core disciples couldn’t have been more different from each other, but the each brought a unique experience to the group. Thriving in Collaborative Settings: Jesus worked well with others and even respected those who sought him harm. Thriving in Hierarchal Settings: Jesus directed his disciples and followed his Father’s direction all the time, he wasn’t demanding or complaining. Navigating and Leading Change: Jesus taught and showed the futility of tradition and culture that did not have God at its center. He sought to change people from sinners to saints and sought for more equality in society. Overcoming Adversity and Failure: Although he never failed, he overcame the greatest adversity, death, by coming back from the dead. He ranks highly on every single asset. The assessment that the assets are a part of are to show you which assets you are strong in so that you can improve them and fill out a team with people who are strong in other aspects, but Jesus is strong in all the assets and doesn’t need anyone else to help him. He is the perfect leader, which makes a lot of sense since he is God and is perfect. Jesus is not the perfect leader simply because he does well in this metric, but he does well in the metric because is the perfect leader, a leader who serves.

Despite the fact that he is the perfect leader, Jesus calls for those who follow him to also be like him. On our own, we keep falling into the rut of being self-serving. Many times, we might serve others, but in the back our minds and in the deepest part of our hearts, it is all about making ourselves look good. We have our own agenda that is independent of an altruistic motive. We don’t care about others; we just care about what is good for ourselves, but Jesus led the way in showing us that we don’t have to be like that. We have to become like slaves in order to be great. Who really wants to be a slave, especially in this country? We strive for freedom, but Jesus says that we should exercise that freedom by serving others. What does that look like? It looks like thinking about others before yourselves, and putting their thoughts and needs above your own. It means not seeking your own agenda that will glorify you. It means getting down and dirty in the trenches.

Jesus called his disciples to lead by serving, just like he did. Jesus wasn’t afraid to be among the people. He was willing to muck around with the lowest of society, to be their friend. He took care of the diseases and destitute. He did everything he could to save people from the fires of hell, including sacrificing himself for their salvation. That is the ultimate example of the servant leader. He didn’t care what it cost him, even his own life. Jesus made sure that there were no more walls and canyons blocking people from eternal life. How about us? Do we ever complain about something being too hard? Jesus never complained about how hard it was to be mocked, flogged and hung on a cross. Do we try to get out of doing things we don’t have the time or ability? Do we ever think that a person is not worth it? Then we miss the point. We have to think that every other person out there is worth more than ourselves. We have to stop thinking about jockeying for position and getting ahead. We need to think of how to serve. Jesus served, and he was assured of his position in his heart. We cannot do it on our own. Jesus led the way and can change us into being leaders of this world, leading people to the way of salvation no matter what the cost to us.

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Key Verse: 7:8b

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