Hopeful Leadership

Isaiah 11: 1–10

An Advent election! What fun! And how good of them to synchronise the campaign with our Old Testament reading for the second Sunday in Advent! Meanwhile, leaflets are piling up on our doormats. Television schedules are stuffed with election debates. Posters are appearing on notice-boards and in peoples’ windows. Suddenly, politicians appear to be interested in listening to us. Not taking any notice, necessarily; but wanting to give us the impression that our concerns matter to them, because our votes certainly do. And the message? That we must ‘focus on the issues that matter to people’. That ‘this isn’t about personalities’. That ‘our policies are what people will vote for; and our policies are fair. Our plans are realistic. Our sums add up. Our vision can become real, if you will vote for us’.
It’s all nonsense, of course. We don’t vote for a policy. We don’t elect a manifesto. Because, whilst I agree with their plans for renewable energy, for instance; I think their policies on education are barmy. Whilst I’m heartily in favour of what the manifesto says about job creation, the ideas it proposes on benefits are iniquitous. And so on. No party can hope to put forward a manifesto of policies to encompass all of our common life, yet all of which will commend themselves to any individual voter. How do we tell which policies they will pursue, once they are in office? How might we know which plans they will prioritise, once they see the state of the country’s finances? How shall we predict which promises they will keep, once some new problem surfaces?
The media know this, of course. So whilst the politicians try to steer us towards their policies, the media concentrate on the personalities. Who made a gaff five years ago that can be summoned up to haunt them again? Who was tricked into slipping off message on the Today programme this morning? Whose private life doesn’t match up to their public rhetoric? Because the questions we are all really asking are questions such as, ‘can I trust this man or woman? Do they possess an integrity that I can respect? When a crisis erupts – as it certainly will – can I have faith that they will do the right thing? When they tread the world stage, will they appear credible, or foolish?’ They always tell us that we are voting for plans and policies. But we all know that we’re choosing a leader.
And some would say that the best way to nurture a trust-worthy leader of wisdom and integrity is to lock them up for twenty-seven years. Do you remember the television pictures of the queues, on the day that post-apartheid South Africa went to the polls? People stood in lines, for hour after hour after hour, as the sun blazed down. This was a day few had really believed would ever dawn; and they revelled in it. They voted, not for the policies that the ANC was proposing, not for its economic plan. They voted for hope, and a future. They voted for what Nelson Mandela had endured, for the courage he had shown and for all that he symbolised. They voted for the man who, from a prison cell, had become the father of their nation. His long walk to freedom is finished now: he died six years ago. But Nelson Mandela was a leader in whom his people put their faith.
Isaiah promises his people a leader, amidst the threats and fears that they face: ‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.’ Will you put your faith in such a leader?
Those who wish to lead us, whatever they say about policies, are also very careful to judge whom they are seen with, and what sort of image they present. They want to appear decisive, yet fair; strong and determined, yet flexible and open; intelligent and incisive, yet witty and human; confident, but possessing the common touch.
The leader of whom Isaiah speaks will embody much more unusual qualities. He’s not promising to cut taxes. He’s not proposing to curb immigration, or recruit thousands more staff for the NHS, nor any of the policies that politicians propound. In the vision of society that Isaiah lays before us, ‘the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them’. No votes to be had for such a leader as this, surely? This is a dreamer’s tale.
But just dream, for a moment. What if? What if there were to be a leader of integrity, a leader whom we could trust to act properly, justly, fairly. ‘Dream’, says Isaiah: ‘With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall banish wickedness. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins’. Imagine.
Isaiah lives and prophecies eight centuries before the birth of Jesus. For forty years he speaks of God to his people, all the while overshadowed by the threat from the North: the warrior Empire of Assyria. In the year that King Uzziah died, he says, Isaiah sees the Lord, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe fills the Temple, and the doors shake at the sound of his voice. Isaiah gives us a vision of God who is not some local tribal deity of man’s feeble imagination. Isaiah glimpses the glory of the God of the Nations, God of the Universe. Yet who concerns himself with human affairs. And out of this dream, this revelation, Isaiah looks forward: beyond invasion and subjection, beyond fear and political expediency, to a time of peace and justice, and to a leader like no other.
Isaiah’s dream will not come about for eight hundred years. However, we look back from beyond the dawning of that hope and the birth of that leader. Two thousand years on, we follow him still. Not because of his policies. Not because of his manifesto. Because of who he is. The leader who concerns himself: with the death of a child, and a family’s grief. With the rumbling stomachs of the thousands who come out to hear him, and the fears of those around him as storm tosses their boat. With the outcast and the despised, the disregarded and the unworthy. The leader who can see, not only the sinfulness of the woman who washes his feet with her tears, but also the repentance and the love that well up in her. The one who can cut through the posturing of the pharisees, and recognise the simple faith of a foreign soldier.
The leader who bids us be real, rather than promising simple fixes or blaming others for our mistakes. Yet the leader who understands our concerns and sorrows, who accepts what we are, rather than demanding what we should be. The leader who gives his life for us on the cross, yet rises to new life, to offer us hope for all time. The leader who inspires us still. Amen.
© Jon Russell 2019