This month, John takes us to a Bible hero, Jeremiah, whose honest story he prays will bring us some hope, perspective, strength, and encouragement during these uneasy times.View Transcript
John Stumbo message #93—A Pastoral Word on Leadership
May 2021 [12:59]
Hey, leader. Have you ever felt gut punched? One Bible hero did and honestly tells us his story. I pray that it will bring us some hope, perspective, strength, encouragement today. Thanks for joining me.
Thank you, Alliance family. These have been some good months. Council registration is strong . . . looking forward to participating with you in person and those who are online. And because of strong giving over the winter and spring, we’ve been able to fully restore the four months of pro-rata salary reductions to our staff and our international workers. So all of those salaries have been fully restored, and we thank you for allowing us to do that.
Today, I want to bring a pastoral word on leadership. This has not been an easy time for many leaders, and I want to talk about that today. Trust is at an all-time low, while opinions on more subjects than ever are at an all-time high. And people have more ways to express those opinions than ever. We have people that we’ve loved and led for years; it feels like they have turned on us as leaders—some of you have told me that. One pastor told me that he has members of his church who are struggling to love each other because of their political views. Maybe you can relate to that. And many have mentioned to me that, “I don’t even know who is in our church anymore. After we begin to meet publicly, I don’t know who’s coming back.” And so, these are interesting days to be a leader. Now, maybe some of you haven’t had any of those experiences. Maybe some of you have been rolling along well. If so, fantastic, but this may be the moment of our career or our calling when leadership is the most challenged and the most needed. Much is being dismantled around us. With what materials are we going to rebuild?
Today, I want to take us to what I would refer to as a friend of mine, Jeremiah. The letter he wrote has had profound impact in my life in the last decade. And I’m intrigued to find in his writings that he uses four times this little word that in English class we referred to as an interjection, a singular word that carries strong emotion—kind of an immediate response—and we have a number of them in English. And Jeremiah’s is the word that we might use when we get punched in the gut. “Ah!” It’s this guttural reaction that comes out of our windpipe without much articulation to it. In some of the English translations they use the word, “alas,” which takes just too long to say when you have just been hit in the gut. But in the NIV and other translations, it’s just the word, “ah.”
I’m starting in Jeremiah chapter 1, and we’re going to look at four different passages where he uses this same response. Jeremiah 1:4: “The word of the LORD came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’”
And what is Jeremiah’s immediate response to this call of God upon his life? “‘Ah, Sovereign LORD, I don’t know how to speak; I’m only a child.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I’m only a child.” You must go to everyone I send to you and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the LORD.”
And when God promises He’s going to rescue us, we know it’s going to be a difficult calling. But I’m intrigued by Jeremiah’s response. This is a powerful call of God that He knows and has appointed Jeremiah, even before he was born. Even before he was known to any person on earth, he was known to God in heaven and had an assignment. And Jeremiah is not very excited about that as he receives that assignment. This is the gut punch of leadership . . . when you feel like you’re in over your head, when you’re being asked to do more than you’re capable of doing, when you start giving back to God all the reasons that you’re unqualified. You start telling Him your age, “I’m too young, I’m too old” . . . You start telling Him all the things that you can’t do— “I’ve got the wrong skill set.” “I’ve got the wrong team.” “I’ve got the wrong gifts.” “I’m not suited.”
Well, Jeremiah needs to learn that rather than telling God all that he can’t do, he needs to sit down and listen to what God is going to do through him. But I would argue this is a common and expected response from those of us, especially when times change so quickly and cultures seem to shift so rapidly around us, to get this “I can’t do this, I’m not qualified for this” gut punch.
The second use of that word in Jeremiah is chapter four. I’m going to start in verse seven: “A lion has come out of his thicket; a destroyer of nations has set out. He has left his place to lay waste your land. Your towns will lie in ruin without inhabitant.” (We know that God has been warning them that the Babylonians are going come down from the north.) “So put on sackcloth, lament and wail, for the fierce anger of the LORD has not turned away from us.”
“In that day,” declares the LORD, “the King and the officials will lose heart, the priests will be horrified, and the prophets will be appalled.” All the other leaders are going to be stunned by what’s taking place, but Jeremiah, I’ve given you the word of warning. But here’s Jeremiah’s response: “Then I said, ‘Ah, Sovereign LORD, how completely you have deceived this people and Jerusalem by saying, ‘You will have peace,’ when the sword is at our throats.”
This is the gut punch . . . when you feel called to represent a God who seems confusing to you. Have you ever felt like you received mixed signals from heaven? Jeremiah feels like he’s giving a message right now that nobody else is expecting. The kings, the officials, the priests, the prophets are all going in one direction. And Jeremiah has this other message, but he feels like it’s in a cloak of deception that somehow that he’s not understood or he’s been confused by God in this. Have you ever felt like you have more questions than answers? Jeremiah did, and, interestingly enough, it’s not hidden from us in his private journals. It’s recorded for us in the Word of God. So gut-punch number two for some of us is when we feel like we’re representing a God that we’re personally struggling to follow ourselves.
It seems like some of Jeremiah’s confusion in chapter 4 may be cleared up in chapter 14. I’m going to start reading in verse 10: “This is what the LORD says about this people: ‘They greatly love to wander; they do not restrain their feet. So the LORD does not accept them; He will now remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.’
“Then the LORD said to me, ‘Do not pray for the well-being of this people. Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; although they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague.’ But I said, ‘Ah, Sovereign LORD, the prophets keep telling them, “You will not see the sword or suffer famine. Indeed, I will give you lasting peace in this place.”’” He can quote the sermons of the other prophets. “Then the LORD said to me, ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries, and the delusions of their own minds.’”
See, perhaps part of Jeremiah’s confusion back in chapter four, the feeling that God had deceived the people, was that the false prophets were really the ones deceiving the people, and now he’s getting the gut punch that maybe some of us have felt. It’s the “ah” of being called to bring a message contrary to the trends of our time. You know what everyone else is saying, you know what everyone wants you to say, you know what would be the easiest thing to say, only one problem: You’d be completely untrue to what you believe you’re hearing the Lord say if you said it.
The final use of this word in Jeremiah is in chapter 32. Jeremiah’s prophecies have now unfolded, and Babylon has surrounded the city of Jerusalem. He’s personally in prison, and he gets this word of warning from God that he’s going to be asked to buy a piece of property and he’s supposed to do it. The land is in his hometown, and there’s nothing that devalues a piece of land quite like having a conquering foreign army camping on it right at that moment. But he does what God says and pays 17 shekels of silver and has the deed sealed and signed and stored away as he buys a piece of land. He carries it out, and then he says in chapter 32 verse 17, “‘Ah, Sovereign LORD, you’ve made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.’” And he goes on and tells God how great He is and all that God has done. And he tells God the current events and how the siege ramps are parked around the city and the city is about ready to be taken. “‘But you, O Sovereign LORD, say to me, “Buy the field with silver and have the transaction witnessed.”’”
“God, you’re asking me to pay a high price for my own message. I have to share in the pain of people who’ve ignored what I’ve said.” This is the gut punch of when you’re called to invest more deeply in the cause than seems reasonable . . . when you’re paying a price for the failures of others, failures that you yourself warned about . . . when the price point starts to feel painful. I love Jeremiah’s honesty. I love the fact that he took all of his “ah” moments to the Lord. And I love the fact that he persevered.
In fact, in the final pages of Jeremiah we find him in a place he never wanted to be, down in Egypt, because the people have rebelled one more time. But even from there, he is bringing the word of the Lord to the people.
I said earlier that there’s been somewhat of a dismantling going on in some churches, some ministries. With what materials are we going to rebuild? Honest processing with the Lord and perseverance I trust will be two of those materials, for without faith it’s impossible to please God because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He’s a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. “These people,” Hebrews 11 says, “persevered because they saw Him who is invisible.” And they were looking forward to a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God. So, let’s rebuild with very well-chosen materials. “And therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord for as much as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”