(Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
(watch here: http://youtu.be/4mi1eJTncdo)
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
There are many among us this morning that have been asked to lead at some point in their lives. Whether in school, the workplace, church, friendships, or with family, situations have arisen that required some type of decision-making and someone needed to step up to the plate and make those decisions. They were situations that demanded either hard decisions or unusual decisions. Otherwise everyone would have already made them. Situations that create leaders are difficult ones, demanding sacrifice and ingenuity and not everyone is willing or able to rise to such challenges. Only a few people will embrace challenging situations and overcome them through grit and perseverance. Our congregation has many leaders who made tough decisions so that others didn’t have to make them.
Like our congregation, the Bible also has a number of people who were asked to lead in challenging situations. Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, and David were but a few who were asked of to lead God’s people. God asked all of them to make difficult decisions that those around them didn’t want to make. Most of them didn’t think they were qualified to make the decisions. They complained and offered up excuses for why they shouldn’t be the ones to lead God’s people. But God saw through their grumbling and into their hearts. God saw the leadership qualities that were waiting to be revealed. God saw what they couldn’t see.
In our first reading, we encounter another of God’s chosen leaders. Jonah was like the leaders that were chosen before him. He felt he wasn’t the right person to speak God’s word of judgment to the city of Ninevah. Recall he fled the city and found a ship going to Tarshish. He thought he could simply leave his situation in Ninevah and hoped God would find a different person to speak His words of judgment. God didn’t let him get away, though, and created a great storm on the seas. The other men on Jonah’s ship realized God was angry with Jonah for fleeing and threw him overboard. A giant fish came and swallowed Jonah for three days and three nights. He prayed and prayed until finally God commanded the fish to spew him out onto dry land. Our reading for today begins when God approached Jonah for the second time and commanded him to speak His word of judgment to the city of Ninevah. This time Jonah does as he was commanded, the people of Ninevah repented, and God withheld his punishment.
God saw into Jonah’s heart and the leadership qualities that were waiting to be revealed. God sees into OUR hearts and can see the leaders among us before we can ever see them. God allows us to be in challenging situations so that our leadership qualities may be revealed. God WANTS us to lead. We may try and avoid our challenging situations just as Jonah did but God eventually finds us and makes leaders of us anyways. We ought to learn from Jonah’s example.
Because leaders make decisions that others are unable to make or don’t want to, this often leaves them terribly lonely. Sure, people are grateful for what leaders do but they don’t understand why or how they’re able to do it. The people of Ninevah likely didn’t know that Jonah was proclaiming God’s judgment because of a deep fear of being swallowed by a large fish again. And even if they did, they probably didn’t understand his fear! No, Jonah’s fear of God and large fish isolated him from those around him. Leaders are by their very nature lonely people. They think and act differently. They’re driven by motivations unknown to most people. People need leaders but don’t necessarily understand them.
No matter how isolated they become, God knows who leaders are and how they get there. God walks with leaders along the way, guiding and protecting them as few people can. Strong leaders are aware of God’s presence in their lives despite feeling isolated from those around them. David was a strong leader because he felt God’s presence in his life. In times of anxiety, he sought out God’s presence. As he sang in today’s psalm, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.” Leaders invariably find themselves in challenging situations. David found himself in a multitude of challenging situations. When he stilled his soul and waited for God to speak to him, he realized how steadfast God is. God alone is the rock and salvation of every leader’s life! God is always there, never-changing, always loving. Leaders need to know this about God. The irony of leading is that it isolates from those being led. David no doubt felt isolated but was able to take comfort in God’s enduring presence. We know this as he sang, “On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.” Leaders have God as their mighty rock and refuge. We ought to learn this from David’s song.
Leaders arise from challenging situations, saying and doing things that few people are able or willing to do. They tend to be lonely people, taking comfort in the steadfast love and presence of God. But does leading always entail being out in front? Must leaders always be ahead of the pack? Can leaders be in the back of the pack? What a contradictory suggestion! Yet, it is exactly the suggestion that Jesus made all throughout his ministry! He continually led from the rear, seeking out weak and displaced people to share his ministry with, and in so doing he radically transformed our understanding of leadership. Jesus lived in the tension between following and leading. He didn’t seek out the spotlight in the way that many leaders do. He sought out injustice and unfairness. He sought out sinful living. He sought these out not to condemn people but rather to help them regain a right relationship with God. Many leaders lead with the wrong intent or motivations. True leaders want to help those they lead and realize this might involve following those they lead.
In our gospel reading for today, we encounter Jesus teaching this very lesson. He invites the first of his disciples to come and follow him. He didn’t invite people who were accustomed to following in the rear of society. He invited fishermen who were leaders in the society at the time. And they were successful fishermen too! James and John have employees under them! Jesus invites them to do something they weren’t accustomed to—to follow. In following him, Jesus’ disciples became greater leaders in their society. In following Jesus, WE become greater leaders in OUR society!! Jesus taught us that truly great leaders are those that follow!
In his book None of These Diseases, S.I. McMillen tells a story of a young woman who wanted to go to college, but her heart sank when she read the question on the application blank that asked, “Are you a leader?” Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, “No,” and returned the application, expecting the worst. To her surprise, she received this letter from the college: “Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower.” Followers DO have an importance, if only to give purpose to leadership, as this tongue-in-cheek story illustrates! You see, without followers leadership has no purpose. Too many leaders and not enough followers is no good for anyone. As the expression goes, too many chiefs and not enough Indians makes for a fine mess indeed.
Jesus taught his disciples the importance of following right at the outset with their call to discipleship. Jesus wants each of us to follow him as well. He wants us to live humble yet intentional lives. He wants us to interact fairly with each other. He wants us to value and respect each other. He wants us to love each other. To lead as Jesus leads is actually to follow. Jesus supports and encourages. Jesus builds up and enriches. We are to follow Jesus’ lead in our daily lives. Our lives will be transformed if we but do that simple act. Jesus transforms the lives of his followers and sets us free from all our worries.
I’m reminded of how on a wall near the main entrance to the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, is a portrait with the following inscription: “James Butler Bonham–no picture of him exists. This portrait is of his nephew, Major James Bonham, deceased, who greatly resembled his uncle. It is placed here by the family that people may know the appearance of the man who died for freedom.” No literal portrait of Jesus exists either. But the likeness of the Son who makes us free can be seen in the lives of His true followers. Let Jesus lead your life and watch how he’ll transform it. Jesus didn’t call his disciples to lead but to follow. Likewise, WE are called to follow.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.