Follow the Leader

By Rev. Heidi L. Barham |  November 5, 2017

Read Matthew 23:1 – 12 (RSV)
As a child, I remember playing the game, Follow the Leader.  The rules are fairly simple, although, there could be some variations of how people play the game.  But basically, a leader or “head of the line” is chosen, then the players all line up behind the leader.
The leader then moves around and all the followers have to mimic the leader’s actions. Any players who fail to follow or do what the leader does are out of the game. When only one person other than the leader remains, that player becomes the leader, and the game begins again with all the players joining the line again.
But as I think about what it means to follow the leader, I am reminded of something my dad likes to say.  If an alien came to earth and encountered a human walking a dog, seeing the dog out front on the leash and the human trailing behind picking up after the dog… which one would they think is the leader?
Anyway, as we look at our text for the morning, perhaps it will shed some light on following the leader and just what leader we should be following.
Looking at the New Testament lesson, we find Jesus speaking to a crowd along with His disciples.  He is offering them words of good counsel as it relates to following the teachers of the law, also known as the scribes, as well as the Pharisees, who were one of the groups of religious leaders in their day.
Reading from the Message Paraphrase, Jesus tells them:
“The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.  4-7 “Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’  8-10 “Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.  11-12 “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”
I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound like these are the types of leaders that we should be looking to follow.
So, what are the marks of a good leader?  How should we define leadership, particularly as it relates to the church, the body of believers?
Well, I did what a lot of people do when trying to find the answers to life’s challenging questions.  I looked on the Internet and found a story that I want to share with you as it relates to leadership.
It is credited to a man named Stuart Briscoe and comes from a book entitled, Everyday Discipleship for Ordinary People.  The story goes like this:
“One of my young colleagues was officiating at the funeral of a war veteran. The dead man’s military friends wished to have a part in the service at the funeral home, so they requested the pastor to lead them down to the casket, stand with them for a solemn moment of remembrance, and then lead them out through the side door. This he proceeded to do, but unfortunately the effect was somewhat marred when he picked the wrong door. The result was that they marched with military precision into a broom closet, in full view of the mourners, and had to beat a hasty retreat covered with confusion.  This true story illustrates a cardinal rule or two. First, if you’re going to lead, make sure you know where you’re going. Second, if you’re going to follow, make sure that you are following someone who knows what he is doing!”
“If you’re going to lead, make sure you know where you’re going. And, if you’re going to follow, make sure that you are following someone who knows what he is doing!”
And as we look at this text, it is clear that Jesus was letting the gathered crowd know that these so-called religious “leaders” would ultimately lead them down the wrong path and were not the type of leaders that they should be following.
And if we examine the text further, it is important to note that Jesus was not denouncing their teachings but was actually denouncing the teachers.  And that is because the teachers, these religious leaders, were less concerned about being holy than they were with looking holy. 
They were focused more on being honored than with honoring God.  It would seem that their love for their position was greater than their loyalty to God and that they were more concerned with serving themselves than with serving God and the people of God.
So what lessons in leadership can we glean from this text? 
There are several that I came across in looking at this idea of leadership but I want to share with you a few of the characteristics of good leaders, Christian leaders, servant leaders that I found.1
First, Christian leaders should be certain that their goal is to serve God and others, not to receive the title or honor that comes with leadership.
Second, leaders should not use their position for their own advantage or comfort. No task should be “beneath” them--although there are some tasks that may be delegated. They should not ask others to do what they are unwilling to do themselves.
Third, true leaders will seek to distinguish their own preferences from the will and welfare of the group as a whole.
Fourth, generally speaking, the position should seek the leader; not the other way around.  There may be some situations in which persons may apply or volunteer for leadership positions. Nevertheless, when someone strongly desires a particular responsibility, his or her motivation should be carefully examined.
And fifth, leaders must learn to see others as valuable to the Lord and know that we are ALL equal in His sight.  The Lord does not honor the positions that people may hold.  Instead, He honors the position of one’s heart. 
And what greater example of this type of leadership can we find than Jesus? 
Let’s look back at these characteristics of a good leader:
First, Christian leaders should be certain that their goal is to serve God and others, not to receive the title or honor that comes with leadership.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus surrendered His desire to that of His Father.  In Luke 22:42 we read, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
And in Philippians 2:6 – 7, we read, “Who,[meaning Jesus] being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
That alone is proof positive that Jesus’ desire was to serve God, not to get caught up in positions or titles.  His goal was to do what brings glory to God.
In John 15, Jesus told His disciples, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
Like Jesus, Christian leaders should be certain that their goal is to serve God and others and that God would get the glory.
Which brings us to the second characteristic, leaders should not use their position for their own advantage or comfort.
When two of Jesus’ disciples asked Him for positions of honor in His kingdom, Jesus told them, “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And if anyone had a right to come to be served, it was certainly Jesus. But He never used His position for His own advantage or comfort.
Which dovetails with the third characteristic, true leaders will seek to distinguish their own preferences from the will and welfare of the group as a whole.
Jesus gave His life for each and every one of us.  Second Corinthians 5 says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
I can only imagine that given the choice, any of us would have said, “No way, I’m not doing that for those people.  They will never get it right.  They will always want to go their own way…”
But that was not the case with Jesus.  I heard it said like this not too long ago, “Jesus became sin, without ever sinning, so that we could be made righteous without ever getting it right.”
Let that sink in for a moment.  He became sin, without ever sinning, so we could be made right without ever getting it right…
Now the fourth characteristic of a good leader says that the position should seek the leader.
When it comes to Jesus being the ultimate servant leader, He came into that position not by campaigning or submitting His resume.  There were no elections held, no interviews conducted. 
No, Jesus came into that position because there was no one else who could have done what needed to be done.  There was no one else who could fulfill all of the prophecies and become our Savior because no one else had what it takes to be the Messiah.
When Jesus asked the disciple, Peter, who He believed Him to be, Peter replied, ‘“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’  [and] Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.’” (Matt. 16:16-17)
Only Jesus could fill the position of true leadership as the Messiah, our Lord and Savior.  There was and is no amount of lobbying, campaigning or any other human effort that would allow anyone other than Jesus to fulfill that most sacred position.
And that brings us to the last characteristic of a good leader which says leaders must learn to see others as valuable to the Lord and know that we are all equal in His sight.
Jesus does not look at us as lowly peons or minions.  He does not see us as simple servants to do His bidding. 
On the contrary, if we look at John 15, we read, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
And as if it were not enough to know that Jesus calls us friends, He lets us know that we can do great works just as He has done.  Just listen to what He said in John 14:12, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Jesus calls us His friends.  He says that we will do even greater works than those that He did while He was on earth.
And lest there be any doubt about whether or not we are equal in the sight of the Lord, the Apostle Paul said it like this in Romans 8 (16-17):
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.  Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
Now I said all of this to say, that if we are going to FOLLOW THE LEADER, we need to be sure we are following not just a good leader, but the best leader there is. 
And in spite of what others may try to have you believe, there is no greater leader that we can follow than Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Savior.
And if you have a desire to follow THAT leader, then won’t you stand to your feet and join in singing our Hymn of Discipleship: He Leadeth Me #545.
1 Millard J. Erickson, The Standard, May, 1982 as cited at