For a Time Such As This

Scripture: Deuteronomy 31:1-8, Acts 1:1-11

When I saw my niece Mckayla at Christmas, she was about 15 months old; she was a very happy toddler right in the middle of toddlerhood. She hadn’t quite got the handle of words yet, but she is quite precocious, and curious, as many children are at that age.

And being that this was Christmas, she got lots and lots of gifts: clothes, and books, toys, and even a little motorized jeep thing. But none of those things were her favorites.

See, because she’s at that age that, although she still explores things by attempting to put them into her mouth, if they don’t fit, she instead tries to figure them out by touch. 

Because of this, the favorite things she played with were toys that either fit one into the other, like the thing with the star and the circle and the square and you have to get the right peg into the right hole, or even better, those stacking cups.

And if you’re wondering at this point why I’m talking about children’s toys right now instead of our Bible verses, it’s because in each of our Bible stories today, they too are looking at a metaphorical board find the shape board.  The only difference is that they have to first figure out the shape of the hole.

For each of these moments describes the people of God in a time leadership transitions. In our reading from Deuteronomy, the people have finished their 40 years of wandering in the desert.  A generation has indeed come to pass; As one of our readings last week noted, Moses is dying in sight of, but not ever reaching, the promised land of Israel.

For his time and what the people of God needed, Moses was a fantastic leader.  He was respected enough in Egyptian society to be taken seriously at the Egyptian court, and confident- which literally means- with enough faith- to argue with the Pharoah and his advisors and warn them of the wrath of God coming.

He provided a steady hand and moral leadership leading the people when it seemed that the whole world was against him. There are many moments in the Exodus story when a leader with less fortitude would have given up.

Moses also knew when to ask for help. He knew that he wasn’t a priest, so he recruited Aaron to work alongside him, sharing in leadership for the Israelites. But Moses also knew that he would not live forever.  He also knew that where the Israelites were going, to the promised land, they didn’t need another Moses. 

They were going to a rough and cruel world, where conflict was mostly solved by war, and atrocities that we consider cruel and possibly even genocidal were committed regularly. They needed someone who would lead them into war and could settle them into the land: the people needed Joshua. Joshua was not like Moses. 

Joshua was cunning, sending in spies to Jericho; Joshua built new traditions for a people who were no longer in the wilderness, but who were starting to settle down. Joshua was not like Moses.

But once again, the Israelites did not need another Moses.  God knew this, and Moses knew this too. That’s why Moses didn’t seek out someone exactly like him to be the next leader of the Israelites.

Instead, he saw, with God’s help, what Israel would need as they transitioned from wandering in the wilderness to settling down into the land.  They didn’t need a lawgiver, and they didn’t need a king- at least not yet. No, they needed Joshua.

So Moses laid his hands on him, blessed him, and became the leader of the Israelites, leading them into a new age. This change of leadership- not only in person, but in style, played out in an even more dramatic fashion in our second Bible reading, with consequences that we’re still living with.

Our second bible reading is from the book of Acts; Jesus has died and spoiler alert, resurrected, and after that, spent 40 days with his disciples. After the 40 days is up, it’s time for Jesus to go up to heaven. We commonly call this event the ascension. At this point, Jesus knows that things are going to change for his disciples.

Jesus isn’t going to be there in the flesh to guide them as he did before, to teach them in parables, to heal the sick and to correct them as they need it. Whereas having faith and trust in Jesus when Jesus was alive meant going to see a rabbi who healed people, faith and trust in this new era would be different.

He knew that to have this good news of God’s love spread, it should not come through the force of arms; but through the human bearing of witness, empowered by the holy spirit, of the power of God’s grace and love to overcome sin.

Jesus knew that for the faith to spread, they would need not just a different type of leader, but a different sort of leadership. Although they had a dry run of this sort of thing in the sending out of the disciples, they always had Jesus to provide them with direct leadership.

Now, on earth, the apostles and other disciples would have to be the leaders of this new community of faith. Well, not just community of faith.

This call to witness to Jesus Christ was not just a call to build new communities, isolated geographically from one another, composed of people who were all either related to each other or of a similar social or ethnic group.

No, this call to witness called for an entirely new way of life that would cross borders that typically were not crossed in those days. For religion back then was mostly an ethnic thing. If you were Egyptian, you followed the Egyptian Gods; Greek, the Greek Gods, and Israelite, the Jewish God.

There were exceptions to this, of course; Ruth, an ancestor of Jesus, was a convert to Judaism.  And everyone in the Roman Empire, no matter your religion, was forced to participate in the Roman Religion by calling the Roman Emperor “Lord” and “Son of God.”

So Jesus saying that this new way, this new thing, would involve folks not just from his own corner of the world was revolutionary.  No longer would the witness of God be limited to Jewish folks, but would be deliberately spread to non-Jews- Gentiles, the Nations.

And, at least at first, this witness to God would happen not through battle, but through testimony, persuasion, and compassion. This was a new way of leading.  Might would, or should, at least, necessarily make right. The real battlefield would be in the human heart.

To do so would not require a victorious general like Joshua.  It might not, especially given communication technology at the time, require a single organizer to inspire every aspect of life, like Moses. Those weren’t what the people of God needed at the time.

What God and the people of God needed was not even one leader necessarily, but a network of churches and leaders that would be able to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ on their own terms and in their own cultures and contexts.

This is the power of the Holy Spirit, which allows the Gospel to be heard across cultures and throughout the ages, even keeping a common core.

What else but the power of God could make ordinary people like Peter, Thomas, to go out to the ends of the earth; Peter to Rome, Thomas to India, and empower women such as Lydia and Phoebe to be leaders in a Greek society that thought women equal to dogs?

Hold that thought though. We’ll be talking more about what that particular transition looked like, and what it means for us, in a few weeks. Back to the bigger picture: what do these transitions tell us about the nature of leadership in our faith, and in particular, for our church right now in this time of transition?

I believe they tell us that different times and circumstances require different forms and functions for leaders. This church has been blessed with strong pastoral leadership for the past 40 years.

That’s a whole generation.  That’s as long as the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. What the church needs now in pastoral leadership might not be the same as it was 10 years ago, and almost certainly is different from what it was 40 years ago.

Discerning the pastoral leadership needs in this church, through conversation, study, and prayer, is part of the work that the search committee will be doing over the next several months.

I urge you to be honest and forthright in answering their questions.  Although by necessity it is a smaller group that will be doing the writing of the profile and interviewing of the candidates, how they formulate the needs of the congregation will be driven in part by the answers each and every one of you give to their surveys.

My advice for you is to pray faithfully and answer deeply these questions when they are asked of you: who are we right now? What is God calling us to do? What pastoral leadership needs to we have now, not ten or forty years ago?

This discernment is hard work, and will require an extra measure of love and grace on the part of the church. But isn’t everything that’s worth doing?