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Servanthood: The Essence of Leadership

The Scripture Readings

  • Old Testament – Proverbs 31: 10-31
  • Epistle – James 3:13-18
  • Gospel – Mark 9:30-37
  • Meditation: If you want to be truly great, then the direction you must go is down. You must descend into greatness. At the heart of this paradox is still another paradox: Greatness is not a measure of self-will, but rather self-abandonment. The more you lose, the more you gain. – Bill Hybels (Descending into Greatness)

    Today, I’d like to focus on the gospel lesson from Mark, in particular the last half of verse 35, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” And I want to explore what it means to be a leader – and why Jesus’ disciples were so interested in being the greatest.

    It is natural for most people to want to be the greatest or to be the center of attention. We don’t sit around and argue about who is the worst, do we? There’s no “Bottom 25″  in college football, there’s a “Top 25!” If you’re not in the top 25, nobody is even talking about you. It’s almost like you don’t matter. In our society, as in the society the disciples lived in, being the greatest is all that matters to most people. Being the greatest means you are a leader. And being a leader means you have influence and power. These things were just as important in Jesus’ day as they are today.

    Now obviously Jesus was the leader of the twelve disciples. He had great influence and limitless power. But who was the greatest of the twelve? The gospels say the disciples spent a lot of time talking and even arguing about which of them was the greatest. We could talk and even argue about it still today, but rather than dragging the disciples into the mud, instead, let’s try figuring out who was the greatest baseball player who ever lived.

    So who was the greatest baseball player? Babe Ruth? Ted Williams? Maybe Cal Ripken Jr.? What about Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds – anybody thinking of them? Why not? Here’s a little baseball history lesson: Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927 and his record stood for 34 years. Roger Maris came along in 1961 and hit 61 home runs, a record that stood for 37 years when Mark McGwire smashed it by hitting 70 in one year. His record stood for about three years when it was broken by Barry Bonds. But when I asked who was the greatest, I’m sure more of you were thinking about Babe Ruth than were thinking about Barry Bonds just now. I think the reason why is because of steroids. Bonds and McGwire are suspected of bypassing the hard work necessary to become the greatest and for this reason, their records will forever be tainted. Hard work is important if you want to be considered a great leader.

    Hard work is the main theme of our Old Testament reading from Proverbs today; the list of what makes an excellent wife. I learned something interesting about this passage last week. In the original Hebrew, each of the 22 verses we read begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. This order has been lost in translation to English, but it really was an alphabetical poem that was probably written this way to help people memorize it. Psalm 119 is written in a similar way as are about three or four other psalms.

    What really strikes me about these verses is the repetition of action verbs. Do you remember them? “She does, she looks, she brings, she rises, she gives, she makes.” That’s a lot of hard work. Something that I think a lot of wives can identify with. And did you notice how many times “hands” were mentioned? Verse 19 “She stretches out her hands to the distaff, And her hands grasp the spindle.” Verse 20 “She extends her hand to the poor, And she stretches out her hands to the needy.” Again, it paints a picture of hard work, and Hard Work is the first thing that is necessary if you want to be a leader.

    If we had a contest at Mt. Zwingli to determine who works the hardest around here, it would be a pretty stiff competition. If any of you worked at the last Swiss steak dinner, you know what I’m talking about. There’s no shortage of hard work at our dinners.

    After the last one, I went home and, as it happens, I was working on this portion of my message. I started thinking about what motivates people to come out and work so hard at these dinners. I thought about it for a long time and came up with some action verbs of my own thinking about all the people cooking, setting, serving, clearing, scraping and washing and why in the world they would give up a beautiful, cool September evening to sweat and strain and not get paid for it. Everyone working there certainly had something more enjoyable that they could have been doing.

    I finally realized that even though everyone worked so hard for no money, they didn’t do it for no reward. In other words, they came together to work hard because it is very rewarding. Nobody is getting a paycheck at these dinners, but everyone who worked went home a little bit richer. Deep down, I think we all know that hard work is good for us. We go home tired and with sore muscles, but what we’ll talk about a month from now isn’t how tired we were, or even how good the food was – and it was good. What we’ll talk about with each other is the conversations we had and the laughs we shared. The hard work turns out to be not such a burden.

    In the epistle lesson from James, we find an example of the next traits that are necessary to become a great leader. Wisdom and Humility. Let’s start out with Verse 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” Show his works in the meekness of wisdom. That’s an odd combination of words, I think. Wisdom is meek. What does it mean to be meek or humble?

    A lot of times when I’m trying to understand something new or different, I think of the exact opposite thing, and learn first what it isn’t. Humility is one of those things that is easier to describe it’s opposite than to describe it.

    A couple years ago I worked with a man who was the most supremely confident person I’ve ever known. There wasn’t any subject you could bring up and know more than he did about it. He was a self-proclaimed expert on just about everything, and he wasn’t too timid to tell you so. The antithesis of humility. Of course, he was a salesman.

    He and I were in a car together and I told him I was having trouble with a lesson I was preparing for Bible School. In true fashion, he said, “What’s it about? I can tell you the best way to teach it.” I told him the focus of the lesson was Humility. He replied, “Oh! Humility. That’s easy.”

    Then he paused and opened his mouth to speak, then closed it and paused again. He appeared to be deep in thought.

    Then he finally said, “Well, you gotta…”


    “The thing is, you should…”


    “Look, just tell the kids…”

    <really long pause>

    “You know… What is humility anyway?”

    This response, coming from him, didn’t surprise me at all.

    I told him that it was about being humble, modest and submissive. He looked at me like I was speaking Klingon, Then he said, “Ha… I don’t know anything about that!”

    “No kidding…” I thought.

    The point I’m getting at is that for most all of us, being humble, being a servant isn’t something that is usually pursued. Just like we don’t talk about the last place team, we don’t talk much about the most humble among us. But this quality of meekness, of gentleness is the root of wisdom. You can’t be a good leader without wisdom. So I’m saying that to be a good leader, you have to first be humble. To be a good leader, you have to first be a good follower. If you want to give orders, you have to know how to take orders.

    Which brings us to our gospel lesson from Mark 9 where Jesus directly addresses the issue of servanthood. The verses in the Bible that are most interesting to me are the ones where Jesus’ disciples just don’t get it. And that happens a lot throughout the gospel. It makes me feel not quite so bad when I don’t understand something I read in the Bible. But really, it’s no wonder that they didn’t understand.

    At the point in time in which today’s gospel reading takes place, Jesus has been traveling around Galilee and surrounding areas doing some amazing things. All along, the twelve disciples have been tagging along and presumably helping and even taking part in some miracles. Jesus has made the blind to see, healed the lame, cleansed lepers, calmed stormy seas and even brought a girl back from the dead. His disciples are probably feeling pretty good too, I would imagine. They’ve hitched their wagon to a pretty powerful man. They may have been thinking that soon Jesus will go into Jerusalem, take over and rule as messiah.

    Earlier in the 9th chapter of Mark, Peter, James and John had just witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration and come face-to-face with Moses and Elijah, but they’ve been told not to talk about it. Is it any wonder that Peter called him the Christ in last week’s gospel reading?

    Then Jesus comes along and says in verse 31, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him;” and it says that the disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about and they were afraid to ask Him. So what do they do? They change the subject! They talk about something pleasant.

    Maybe they talked about what they were going to be doing when they were living in Jerusalem and the Romans were driven out of Israel by Jesus. Since Jesus is the Christ, the messiah, then obviously the question in everyone’s mind is “Who among us is the greatest?” Who’s going to be sitting at the right hand of the throne? They even got into an argument about it. The bible doesn’t just say they were discussing it, it says that they were arguing.

    I talked with Pastor Keith about this a couple weeks ago and he told me that the disciples were being disobedient when they argued about this. It wasn’t just annoying to Jesus to know they were arguing, it was an act of betrayal on the part of the disciples. But he doesn’t say anything to them along the road while they were arguing. He waits until they arrive at their destination.

    This alone is a great lesson for Christian parents. It’s not always a good idea smack your kids in the grocery store when they’re acting up. Sometimes it’s better to wait until you get home and then, like Jesus, actually teach them a lesson about their misbehavior.

    So what does Jesus do? Listen to verse 35, “…He called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.'”

    I imagine that this is the last thing that the disciples wanted to hear. Nobody wants to be a servant! Servants are practically invisible! In the time the disciples lived, the only thing lower than a servant was a child. Jesus knew this, so the next thing He did was put a child in their midst and said in verse 37, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.”

    I said before that Jesus was the leader of the disciples and that is true, but think of him for a moment as the ultimate servant. Think of all he gave up just to become a man. Christian author Gene Wilkes wrote in his book, Jesus on Leadership, “For Jesus, the model of leadership was servanthood. He was never self-serving. He led first as a servant to his Father in heaven, who gave him his mission. If we take a… look at Jesus’ life, we see that everything he did was in service to this mission.”

    So why am I going on and on about leadership? Well, I’m not just trying to inspire you to chair a committee at Mt. Zwingli and start coming to consistory (but if you are inspired to do that, see me after church). The reason is because we are all leaders, especially when we walk out the doors of this church. That is when showing the traits of leadership is most important. Because that is when we are able to win people over to Christ. And that, that, is the reason we are called as Christians. To proclaim the Gospel to all the world.

    When you work hard at a job for little or no apparent reward, you are a leader of Christ’s church. When you exhibit gentleness, humility or wisdom, you are a leader of Christ’s church. When you purposely don’t position yourself to be the first or the most ambitious, you are a leader of Christ’s church. When you don’t get involved in arguments about who is the greatest, you are a leader of Christ’s church. When you welcome the most insignificant and lowly person you meet, you are a leader of Christ’s church.

    I’d like to close with another reading from the Bible. Philippians 2:5-8 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

    Will all the leaders of Christ’s church please join me in prayer?

    Heavenly father, in Jesus’ name we pray to you to inspire us to become great leaders. Help us to know that we don’t have to be a leader the way our society thinks we should be. But rather, we need to do as your son Jesus did when he dwelt with us. Please, send your Holy Spirit to help us have humble hearts, grant us wisdom, and the strength to work hard, and give us the spirit of servanthood so we can do the work you lead us to. Amen.

    (c) 2006-2009 David J. Miller

    This sermon was presented on September 24, 2006 at Mt. Zwingli Church in Wadsworth, Ohio.