What does it look like to lead successfully? Is it numbers? Is it growth? Is it planting another church?
There are a number of perils associated with leadership; pressure, people looking at and up to you, the fear of being the one that screws up, wanting numerical growth, to run a successful mission, to be respected, to lead well, and be approved of by our own, and other, church leaders to name just a few.
Those pressures can lead us to be one person up front, or when leading or with Christians and another in private. That’s what the bible calls hypocrisy, wearing masks, taking on the role of an actor. And that is a tragedy and a recipe for spiritual stagnation at best and shipwreck at worst. So how do we avoid that?
Here’s another question to think about; which matters most in leadership competency, character or capacity?
The bible stresses character above competence, but that character flows out of capacity, not a capacity for workload, but a capacity to grasp, live and lead out of God’s grace. Because it’s our capacity and hunger to understand and know God through the Son by the Spirit that sustains us, keeps us, enables us to love, forgive, risk and not be crushed if and when we fail or are hurt.
In Isaiah 6 we see Isaiah’s commissioning and he’s told that his mission won’t be welcome, that it’ll be risky and be a failure in terms of results. No crowds repenting, no buzz about his ministry, no acclaim, no followers on Twitter and yet God calls him to this risky unpopular ministry. Ask yourself honestly how keen would you be to sign up? The question is what will sustain Isaiah in that ministry? What enables him to keep going? What stops him being crushed or giving up? Because what sustains Isaiah will sustain us.
Isaiah 6 calls us not to look externally but to look at God we serve. To see God in all his holiness, sovereignty and grace because that will enable us to keep going, to risk, to lead, to love even when things are hard.
Seeing God and Receiving Grace
Isaiah’s vision of God comes in a time of pressure; King Uzziah has just died. He’d ruled well; was a brilliant military leader and social innovator and Judah had flourished under his rule. As he died Judah was uncertain about the future especially as Assyria was growing as a threat. But as the human king dies and the future looks so uncertain Isaiah sees a glorious vision of the real King whose reign never ends.
John 12 tells us that Isaiah actually sees God the Son, a pre-incarnate Jesus in his glory. He sees him ruling and reigning on his throne, above all, this is where the real power lies. And just the train of his robe fills the temple, the place which symbolises God’s presence with his people. Just the trailing edge of his glory fills the temple, so great is his majesty glory and splendour.
The glory of God is underlined by the description of the Seraphs who hover above the throne. They are awe inspiring in their own right, their voices shake the temple, but they are just God’s servants. They cover their faces from looking at God’s glory, they cover their feet and call to one another
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
These amazing creatures praise God because he is holy. We misunderstand that word, we think it is cold, dry, and distant, about restrictions and can’t do’s. But it’s not, the word holy means totally set apart, not in terms of being aloof or not wanting relationship – that can’t be right because God is Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, he is a loving relating community and creates us so we can share in his love. Holy means God is totally different from his creatures. Jonathan Edwards wrote “Holiness is more than a mere attribute of God, it is the sum of all his attributes, the outshining of all that God is.”
And how does Isaiah’s react to seeing God in his holiness and glory? “Woe to me!” Ch5 is full of woes on society and its failings but now in God’s presence Isaiah is personally unmasked. In God’s presence there’s no argument, no comparative righteousness just an awful awareness of sin in contrast to God’s holiness. “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the LORD Almighty.”
He highlights his lips because they reveal his heart; we never speak what is not already in our hearts. Do you ever catch yourself saying something and then trying to take it back, saying I didn’t mean that? That’s a lie. We did mean it, it was in our hearts, what we mean is I didn’t mean for you to hear what’s in my heart, what I really think!
But secondly compared to the seraphs knowledge and worship of God his own praise from sinful lips is unfit.
Seeing God, understanding more of who he is always unmask our sin, our fears, our hearts. We pick up our bible and read of God’s character; his love and concern for the poor and find ourselves convicted of our half or hard heartedness. We read of God’s compassion for the lost, a compassion so great that God takes the ultimate risk in Jesus becoming man, living, and dying and it convicts us of our half hearted concern for family and friends or our fear of risk and love of comfort and familiarity. Knowing God convicts us until we stand with Isaiah and cry “Woe is me!”
That’s a right reaction, we should be amazed at who God is and convicted of our sin. Turn to Luke 5:1-11 we see a similar reaction when Peter realises who Jesus is, he drops to his knees and cries “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” Isaiah and Peter are both forced to confront their sin in the face of God’s holiness, you and I as we spend time with God and get to know him better will be forced to confront our sin, to see how its roots are more deeply enmeshed in our hearts than we ever dreamed. Sin separates us from God, and we are helpless to do anything about it. Isaiah doesn’t cry out for salvation, he simply realises and confesses his sin.
But (6-7)God acts by grace, a coal is taken from the altar where the peace and sin offerings were made which atoned for sin, and it atones for Isaiah’s sin. Grace is God’s initiative, God’s love freely given to undeserving sinful people. Isaiah experiences grace just as we do, the altar points to Jesus, the sacrifices which that coal has consumed point to Jesus sacrifice once for all. Grace is all a Holy God’s initiative and is extended to undeserving sinners.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking God’s holiness is the flip side of the God’s love. In Batman Harvey Dent, aka two face, has a normal half to his face and a horribly disfigured other half. He has a coin similarly marked and when making decisions he flips it to see which side of his character will act.
Tragically we can think like that about God; love is one side of God’s character, holiness the other. People even say that is reflected in the Bible, the OT shows the holy wrathful side of God, the New the loving, gracious side of God. That’s utterly wrong and blasphemous! God’s holiness is all about his love, it flows out of his love. You see that here, God’s holiness is his difference from us and our failings and sin, but it doesn’t make him harsh and judgemental. Because God’s love is also holy just as his holiness is love. It’s not just his perfection that is other than ours it’s his love, you see we love what we find lovely, he loves because he is love and that means he sets his love on the unlovely, the unholy and makes them holy! His holiness makes him welcoming and loving and that’s seen in his provision of grace to undeserving Isaiah, it is seen supremely in Jesus who is terrifyingly holy but who lovingly welcomes, bringing sinners back to God by grace, making atonement for us at the cross, making the unholy holy and the unlovable beloved children.
Seeing the holiness of God will show us more of the depth of his love for us. We mustn’t shy away from reading or exploring God’s holiness because in knowing God we will be more amazed at his grace. It is seeing God’s grace that fuels loving service; that saves us from being crushed by failure or paralysed by fear because it thrills our hearts with his grace.
Grace sustains and liberates us to serve(8-13)
I wonder how you picture(8)? I’ve always pictured Isaiah stood bravely and heroically declaring in a loud voice that he’ll boldly go on this impossible mission, not unlike Captain Kirk boldly going on the Starship Enterprise.
But I’ve realised that’s wrong. Isaiah humbly offers himself to God if God could possibly use him. It can’t be any other way, can it? He’s just seen God in all his glory, he’s heard God speak, he’s in the presence of the awe inspiring Seraphs. He can’t in that company be thinking ‘Yep, I’m the only man for this job, God is lucky to have me’. He’s been humbled and made aware of the sin of his lips, but God has shown him grace so Isaiah humbly offers himself if God can use him.
What is it we need in leaders and as leaders? An awareness of the greatness of God, a sense of wonder at the grace we have received, and a humble desire for God to use us for his glory.
And what a task Isaiah is given(9-13). He’s to preach to people who won’t listen, his preaching will harden their hearts. As he warns people that they have broken the covenant and calls them to covenant faithfulness they won’t listen. It’s not the way he preaches which makes it hard, in fact some people rejected his words because they were too simple. So why will his preaching harden?
Because preaching the truth confronts people with their sin and they react one of two ways, they either respond like Isaiah or they reject it, that rejection acting as part of their judgement as they turn their back on God’s word. In John 8:45 we see the same thing in Jesus ministry. Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees who reject him because they are Abraham’s children, says “Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe in me!” That is an astonishing statement, in ch12 we see these words from Isaiah used to explain why so many reject Jesus. We must expect the same and that will save us from being crushed when people reject the gospel, it’s not a personal rejection.
God’s truth provokes reaction. However there’s a danger in over realising that truth, it can make us callous and hard hearted – serving, leading, sharing the gospel as a duty and not caring for people. Isaiah asks a brilliant question which shows that he has God’s heart (11)“How long, Lord?” The answer is until the exile brings destruction, a destruction so harsh that even when a tenth is left it will be laid waste again. God will judge his people who reject him, his word, his grace, but God still loves and therefore Isaiah still loves.
Leadership burn out is a reality and one of the key factors is lack of response so how on earth does Isaiah keep going in a hard mission field? I think two things sustain him and will sustain us. Because being a Christian is tough, leading is hard.
Firstly Isaiah knew God. He knew God in all his glory, splendour and rule and the joy of having his sins forgiven – he remembered and lived out of his identity – who he had been made in Christ. Whatever he faced, whatever rejection it was not outside of God’s control, and it never mortgaged his experience of grace and challenged his identity. He was not defined by his ministry and its success or how people viewed him he was defined by grace as a child of God.
Secondly he preached aware of judgement and hope. (13b)“But…” If (v9-13a)are judgement here comes the hope “as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” Judgement was not final, that phrase looks back to Abraham and the promises made to his seed, promises God would keep, and to God’s promise in Gen 3:15 about an offspring who would conquer sin. But it also looked forward to the “shoot from the stump of Jesse”(Isaiah 11:1) the Messiah and the kingdom he would bring. God will judge sin but he brings salvation. There will be a day when God will be with his people he has made holy through his Messiah.
Both hope and knowing God will sustain us. As we lead it is knowing God in his holiness and love that will keep us going – we will dry up and shrivel and burn out if we don’t keep refreshing ourselves in who God is and what he has done for us, if we don’t keep mining the depths of grace as we are confronted with the depths of our sin in the face of the holiness of God. And we must remember that God is sovereign even over people’s rejection of the gospel or we will exhaust ourselves trying to do what is God’s work in our own strength.