Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
When you're in leadership it is tempting to think your job is to get the people to the Promised Land. But that's actually God's job. Your job is to bear their burdens while they're in the wilderness. Craig Barnes
After several years at the church the stress of his job was overwhelming. That included the pressure of writing a sermon and preparing a bulletin every week. It included all the regular activities that are part of a church as well as the unexpected calls – hospital visits and funerals. On top of that is the struggle of leading the church in a culture that is rapidly changing. What it means to be and do church today is very different from what it was fifty years ago.
All of the pressure led this second-career pastor to the conclusion that he couldn’t take it anymore. He left the pastorate to return to his earlier, “less stressful” job. He was an air traffic controller! In case you haven’t heard before, being an air traffic controller is considered one of the highest stress jobs.
As Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai, and then through the wilderness, he experienced that same type of stress. The wilderness is a dangerous place. If you make a mistake out there it could mean life or death. When some of the Israelites started complaining it was even more overwhelming. I didn’t have Chris read the whole passage in Numbers 11. The verses I left out talk about the rabble, the riff-raff, a small group of trouble makers who complained because they didn’t like the manna that God miraculously provided.
They wanted steak, fresh strawberries, bread sticks from Olive Garden and French pastries for dessert, just like they used to have back in Egypt. They were slaves in Egypt so it’s unlikely that they ever had any of those foods, but that is what they wanted in the wilderness.
The pressure of leading the Israelites and dealing with all their complaints became so overwhelming for Moses that he cried out to God. “God, this isn’t fair. You created this people and led us out of Egypt. But why did you give me the job of leading them? It’s too much. I can’t take it. I’ve had enough. Kill me if you want, but get me out of this mess.”
Notice how God responded. He told Moses to gather seventy elders. God put his Spirit on these men so that they can help Moses. Together they will help carry the burden of the people. They will share in the leadership of God’s people.
In the New Testament God uses the same concept to lead the church. Peter wrote this letter to Christians, to the church in various settings throughout the area we now call Turkey. They are people who are struggling to live faithfully in the culture that surrounds them. They live under the rule of Rome and Caesar, but they loyal to Jesus and to his kingdom.
In our passage Peter calls himself an elder. We know from the gospels that he was Jesus’ closest friend, the leader of the Apostles. He was the leader of the church. Notice that even though he calls himself an elder, he also calls the other people elders. Peter exhorts them to help him lead the church.
This morning we are ordaining and installing both elders and deacons. These are the officers of the church. They work with the pastor and with the staff, Treva and Mark, to lead this church into the future that God wants. Between our passage from Numbers and Peter’s letter I’d like to share with you four ideas about what it means to lead the church. There are at least four different ways that we carry out this task faithfully. I know that not everyone here is being ordained and installed. At some point in the future you may be elected as an elder or a deacon so might want to file these ideas for the time when you are an elder or a deacon. Others of you may never serve as elders or deacons, but I hope you’ll see that these ideas have something to say to all of us.
First, part of helping lead the church is bearing the burden. The burden was too much for Moses to carry by himself. There were six hundred thousand men, plus women and children. No one could lead that type of a group alone. God told Moses that these seventy elders will help “bear the burden of the people” (Numbers 11:17). The Hebrew word for “bearing” is “nasa.” It means to lift something or carry it. The word for “burden” is the word used to describe the load that a donkey or a camel might carry. The Hebrew word is “massa.” It’s fun to say – “nasa massa!” However, carrying the burden isn’t fun, especially by yourself.
Imagine a four hundred pound boulder up here. We need to move this boulder, but I doubt that anyone here would be able to pick it up. There might be a few people who might be able to tip it up and gradually roll it. However, if everyone here carried 3-4 pounds we could pick it up and move it wherever we wanted. When we share the burden the job becomes very manageable.
Part of being and elder and a deacon is helping to carry the burden of the church. Fifty years ago it was much easier to be the church. Back in the 1940s and 1950s any church could thrive. I haven’t looked at the statistics of Sharon church, but my guess would be that it was during those years that the membership of this church grew rapidly. All that a church needed to do was open its doors and develop some sort of program. People would come to your church. That does not work anymore. There are too many other options in our world. People don’t feel a need to be part of a church. Leading the church today is much more challenging, but when we do it together, when we all work together to bear the burden, the church can not only survive, but even thrive.
The second description of being and elder or a deacon comes from Peter, when calls the elders to “tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight” (1 Peter 5:2). The image shepherds and sheep is very common in the Bible. Psalm 23 – the Lord is my shepherd. Psalm 100 – we are God’s sheep. Moses and David, the two great heroes of the Old Testament were shepherds. I like the way Sheila Walsh talks about Moses’ experience.
After Moses killed the Egyptian who was abusing a slave, he ran away and spent 40 years working with sheep. Forty years is a long time....By the way, doesn't it seem to be the perfect training ground for Moses? Forty years with dumb, stubborn sheep and then forty more with the children of Israel! I think I'd take the sheep.
The job of being a pastor, an elder or a deacon, is to care for the sheep. We are to be like shepherds. However, notice that we are not the chief shepherd. Jesus is the chief shepherd. He described himself as the Good Shepherd. It is his flock. He owns it. He leads it. Those of us who are pastors, elders or deacons lead the church under Jesus’ authority. As Peter said, we are to lead the church “as God would have you do it” (1 Peter 5:2). We are the assistant shepherds, or as I like to think of us – we are the sheep dogs who take our orders from the chief shepherd.
I hope no one is offended by being called a sheep dog. If you are, you need to pay attention to the next idea that we find in our passage from 1 Peter. In verses 1-4 Peter addresses the elders, the leaders of the church who were probably older men. In verse 5 he makes a comment for those who are younger, who haven’t yet reached that stage of being an elder. “In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders.” But notice what he says next. “All of you must clothe yourselves with humility with one another.” Peter goes on to say, to everyone, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6a).
Humility is sometimes misunderstood and forgotten as healthy characteristic of a leader. Humility is not the opposite of confidence. It isn’t beating ourselves up because we are terrible people. Humility isn’t thinking less of ourselves. It is thinking of ourselves less. Humility means that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It is recognizing that the church doesn’t depend on me and my abilities. Whenever I start to worry about the church or feel bad about my ability to lead the church, I try to remind myself that this church doesn’t depend on me. We all have our part but the future of the church is in God’s hands.
That leads to the fourth thought about leading the church, though this one is again a comment for all of us. We are called pray and trust in God. In verse 7 Peter invites us to “Cast all our anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” What are the fears that wake you up at night? What are the anxieties that keep you from enjoying life? The word anxiety comes from a root word that means to strangle or to choke. What is it in your life that chokes life and joy out of you? Peter invites us to put all of that onto God. God loves you and wants the best for you, so give your worries to God.
Peter goes on to say that “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). What an amazing promise. God puts us back together when we are broken. God gives us the strength and stability we need to become the people and the church God wants us to be. God promises to do that for us because he is a God of grace. As pastor, as elders and deacons, as members of this church or simply as children of God, we are invited to give all our worries to God and trust that God will lead us into the future he wants for us.
Those of you who are part of this church, whether you’ve been here your whole life or only four to five times, all of you want this church to become the place that God wants it to be, a place where we can worship, grow in our faith, be loved by God’s people and share that love with the world. Part of that will depend on the elders and deacons serving in a way that is faithful and obedient to God. That includes helping bear the burden of the church and the pastor, shepherding the members of this church, serving with humility and trusting in God, the God whose grace fills us with love and calls us to work.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.