Servant Leadership

Scripture: Psalm 23:5a – You prepare a table before me…

(With reference to Luke 22:24-27; also Exodus 16 and John 13:1-17)


Title: Servant Leadership



  • Introduction
  • You prepare a table
  • Jesus, the servant leader
  • Conclusion




During the week I learned something (it sometimes happens when I’m not paying attention) – I learned what a meme is


The technical definition of a meme is: an image, or a video, or a piece of text, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.


The technical definition doesn’t really help you much though

  • It will make more sense if I show you some examples. This is a meme…


Here we have a picture of Albert Einstein poking his tongue out, with the text:

  • “It’s not rocket surgery”
  • As well as being a meme this is also a mixed metaphor
  • It combines two sayings: “It’s not rocket science” with “It’s not brain surgery”
  • Both sayings mean the same thing: that it’s not difficult
  • But when you combine them it doesn’t sound right – it sounds funny


Here’s another mixed metaphor meme

  • (Not all meme’s are mixed metaphors, but these ones are – bear with me, it will become clear shortly)
  • “You’ve made your cake, now lie in it”
  • Seems to combine, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it”, with “You can’t have your cake and eat it to”
  • Both sayings have to do with living with the consequences of our choices

One more…

  • “You know what they say; people in glass houses sink ships”
  • Combines, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”, with, “Loose lips sink ships”
  • The common thread here is: Take care with what you say


Today we continue our series on Psalm 23

  • The message of Psalm 23 as a whole is: the Lord is my security.
  • God looks after me like a shepherd looks after a sheep.


So far we have covered the first four verses…


The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

He leads me beside still waters

He restores my soul

He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil

For you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me


You prepare a table:

Today we begin verse 5…


You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.


I’ve underlined the first part (You prepare a table before me…) because that’s what we will be focusing on today

  • But I wanted to show you the whole verse to give the context


What we notice with this verse is that David changes the metaphor

  • Up till the end of verse 4 the metaphor is a shepherding one – with the Lord caring for David like a shepherd caring for a sheep
  • But now (in verse 5) the metaphor changes abruptly to that of a host and his guest – clearly sheep don’t eat at tables or drink out of cups


The sudden change of metaphor makes it seem to us (the reader) like David is mixing his metaphors, but to be fair David is simply using a different metaphor to reinforce the same point:

  • God looks after me well – like a good shepherd, like a generous host


Focusing on the first part there: You prepare a table before me…

  • ­The main point I want to draw out with this phrase is that the Lord, who is a leader, serves David
  • The Lord God is a servant leader, in other words


That the Lord is David’s leader is apparent from the shepherding metaphor

  • After all, that is what a shepherd does – they lead their flock to still waters and green pastures
  • That the Lord is a leader who serves is less obvious and requires some explanation


In our culture, when we hear ‘You prepare a table before me…’ we tend to think of setting the table

  • Putting out the plates and cutlery and glasses and so on
  • But in the ancient near eastern culture of David’s time, preparing a table meant actually preparing the food – killing the beast and cooking it


Cooking food was traditionally one of the domestic duties carried out by women or servants [1]

  • And yet here we have David saying that the Lord God Almighty has prepared a meal for me
  • The image of God carrying out women’s work and servants’ duties is quite striking in its original context
  • But the impact is lost on us because we live in a society where it is quite normal for men to cook
  • What’s more we don’t have servants in quite the same way they did in David’s time


Nevertheless, this idea of the Lord serving David a meal says something quite profound about God

  • As well as being highly exalted (above the heavens), the Lord is also downwardly mobile
  • God is not above getting his hands dirty
  • He is secure enough in himself that he doesn’t need to order people around in order to feel important
  • He doesn’t need his own car park or a private jet
  • He doesn’t need red carpet or applause
  • In fact he doesn’t need anything like that
  • God turns our concept of greatness on its head
  • The Lord does not exercise leadership for his own benefit
  • The Lord leads for our benefit, for our well-being
  • He is a servant-leader


One of the tasks of servant leadership is to prepare

  • Here we have a picture of a toilet surrounded by rolls and rolls of toilet paper – with the words:
  • “Disaster preparation – it’s not all just guns and ammo”


To prepare means to make ready beforehand


So when you prepare for an exam you are making yourself ready before the exam

  • Or when the All Blacks prepare for a test they are making themselves ready before the game
  • Or when you prepare for guests to come over you are making the meal and indeed the house ready before the guests arrive


Most of the work is in the preparation

  • A dinner party might last 4 or 5 hours but it takes the whole day for the host to clean the house, buy the drinks and cook the food in time for the guests’ arrival
  • The exam might be 3 hours long but you’ve probably been studying half the year to be ready with what you need to know
  • A rugby test is only 80 minutes but the individuals on the team have been training for years, honing their skills and improving their fitness
  • Most of the work is in the preparation


You may have heard the story of a young boy in Africa who gave his teacher a birthday present.

  • It was a beautiful seashell.
  • “Where did you get this?” she asked.
  • The child told her that such shells are found only on a certain faraway beach.
  • The teacher was deeply touched, because she knew that the boy had walked many miles to find the shell.
  • “You shouldn’t have travelled so far just to find a gift for me,” she said.
  • The boy smiled and replied, “The long walk is part of the gift.”


You prepare a table before me, says David

  • You walk a long way for me,
  • You do the hard yards for me,
  • You put the time in behind the scenes where no one sees Lord
  • Solid preparation – it’s what a servant leader does


Last year, when we worked through a sermon series on Moses in the book of Exodus we heard how the Lord prepared a table for the Israelites in the wilderness

  • Yahweh did this by providing manna and quail [2]


Quail are known to migrate across the Sinai Peninsula at certain times of the year

  • They stop to rest on the ground in the evening and would be easy for the people to catch
  • Although quail are naturally occurring, their provision in that situation, was extraordinary – God must have been behind it
  • Because the quail arrive every night for 40 years and they never run out
  • In the ordinary course of events you wouldn’t expect that sort of frequency or quantity


The manna which appeared in the morning was most likely a naturally occurring food source too

  • There is an insect in that part of the world which feeds off the tamarisk tree and it secretes a white yellowy substance which is sweet to eat
  • It is rich in carbohydrates & sugar and it’s still gathered by people living in that area today
  • At night, when it’s cold, the substance congeals, but then, when the sun comes out, it melts in the heat of the day
  • It is a food which normally decays quickly and it attracts ants


Whatever you want to call this stuff it fits the description of manna in Exodus


The provision of manna, in this situation, was extraordinary – God must have been behind it

  • Because the manna is there every morning for 40 years, enough to feed well over 1 million people each day
  • And on Fridays it lasts for two days without going bad
  • In the normal course of events you wouldn’t expect that kind of frequency or quantity – nor would you expect that kind of shelf life

The point I want to make about the manna and the quail is that God prepared these things, in advance, as way of feeding his people

  • God didn’t just lead the people into the wilderness and then think to himself, ‘Oh, that’s right. What am I going to feed them?’
  • No. God was prepared thousands (perhaps millions) of years in advance.
  • At creation he designed quail to be nutritious and easy to catch
  • And he designed them to migrate across the Sinai Peninsula
  • Not only that but he created the Tamarisk tree and the insect that feeds off it to produce the manna
  • The Lord had prepared the table in the wilderness to feed Israel before the Hebrew people even came into being


You prepare a table before me…

  • There is quite a bit of comfort (or strength) to be gained in knowing that God has done his homework – he is prepared
  • It means we don’t have to worry – because where God leads us he provides for us


How then do we see this principle of servant leadership worked out in Jesus’ ministry?


Jesus, the servant leader:

God had been preparing to send Jesus at just the right time since before creation

  • All through the Old Testament we see references to Jesus, the coming Messiah
  • And when Jesus did arrive, he didn’t come with great pomp and ceremony
  • He was born into humble circumstances – a baby in a manger
  • For the first 30 years of his life he lived in obscurity, working as a carpenter
  • And when his ministry did get underway he didn’t serve his own agenda, he served God’s agenda


On the night before he died, Jesus gathered around a table to share the Passover meal with his disciples. He said…

  • “This is my body given for you… This is my blood poured out for you”
  • The message was: ‘I am the table of food prepared for you’
  • ‘I’m giving my life for your salvation’
  • Unfortunately the disciples didn’t get it – at least not straight away


“Leadership – You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means”

  • As it turned out Jesus’ concept of leadership was quite different from the prevailing world view


In Luke’s gospel we read…


An argument broke out among the disciples as to which one of them should be thought of as the greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the pagans have power over their people, and the rulers call themselves ‘Benefactors.’


Once again, the society that Jesus lived in was different to our society

  • In our culture, community leaders are elected by popular vote
  • We call it democracy
  • It’s not perfect but it’s better than most other systems
  • 2000 years ago, in the Roman Empire, public office was basically purchased by those with money to afford it


As Joel Green notes:

  • “Rather than pay taxes, the wealthy contributed time and money in the service of the cities and towns…
  • Gifts were made at the whim of the givers
  • [This sort of] private ‘benefaction’ was the primary means by which the wealthy were legitimated as those deserving of public office and prestige in the community” [3]


In other words, if you wanted to become a leader in the community (if you wanted to enjoy power, status and the privileges that went with that) then you simply made some donations here and there and as a sign of gratitude you were given some special position in the administration

  • The donations made by these ‘benefactors’ were self-serving
  • Jesus appears to be criticising this kind of self-serving leadership
  • He says to his disciples,



But this is not the way it is with you; rather, the greatest one among you must be like the youngest, and the leader must be like the servant. Who is greater, the one who sits down to eat or the one who serves? The one who sits down, of course. But I am among you as one who serves. [4]


Jesus is the generous host who turns the world’s ideas about greatness upside down and takes the role of a servant

  • In this context, the youngest and the servant had at least one thing in common: they were both powerless – they had to do what they were told
  • They had to obey in other words
  • In Jesus’ book a good leader doesn’t make donations to the community in order to win public applause and get into power
  • A good leader is one who resists the temptations of power in order to obey God

Jesus is the ultimate servant leader

  • He chose to be like the youngest and like the servant,
  • He chose obedience over power


As if that wasn’t enough, John’s gospel tells us, that same night (the eve of his crucifixion) Jesus washed his disciples’ feet [5]

  • Washing feet was the lowest, most menial and humbling task anyone could do in that culture
  • But Jesus did it to make the point: He did not come to be served but serve and give his life as a ransom for many


Now I’m conscious that some of you hold positions of leadership in various capacities in this community or in your places of work

  • And so when you hear me holding up Jesus’ example of obedience and washing feet and being like a servant then it can be irritating
  • I’m mean leadership is hard enough without the pastor putting another burden on you


Let me say: being a servant leader doesn’t mean letting the people in your area of responsibility boss you around

  • The obedience is to God – not to your staff
  • Just as Jesus’ obedience was to God and not to his disciples
  • Listen to your staff by all means, God might speak through them
  • But don’t abdicate responsibility
  • If you are a leader then it’s your job to lead
  • Being a servant leader, in a Christian sense, means obeying God for the well-being of the people in your charge


Of course, obeying God requires us to make time to listen to him

  • To try and hear what he is saying


Let me also acknowledge that leadership can be a lonely journey at times

  • Leaders in a NZ context tend to be lightning rods for people’s complaints, problems and criticism
  • Being the boss is not a glamorous job
  • Some people want to blame the leader whether it’s their fault or not
  • Servant leadership often involves the sacrifice of being misunderstood
  • That’s hard – but you stand in good company
  • Jesus was misunderstood and worse
  • Jesus’ servant leadership – his obedience to God – resulted in the ultimate sacrifice; his death on the cross


Oscar Wilde tells a beautiful story which I think illustrates servant leadership

  • It’s called The Happy Prince
  • I would love to read it all to you – but it’s too long
  • You can google it after the service if you want


The Happy Prince is a (talking) statue gilded all over with leaves of gold,

  • For eyes he has two bright sapphires
  • And a large red ruby glows on his sword-hilt.
  • He was very much admired by the people in the city he watched over


One autumn night a Swallow, migrating to a warmer climate for winter, landed at the feet of the Happy Prince

  • The Swallow learns that the Prince is not happy at all – he is sad because of all the suffering he sees
  • The Prince begs the Swallow not to fly off to Egypt for the winter
  • Instead he asks the wee bird to take the ruby from the hilt of his sword to give to a poor seamstress who has a sick son
  • The Swallow obeys the Prince, staying another day to do as he asks


Then the Prince asks the Swallow to take one of the sapphires from his eyes to give to a starving playwright

  • The Swallow stays longer to do what the Prince asks, even though winter is fast approaching


The Prince is so upset by the poverty he sees in the city that he asks the Swallow to take out his last remaining eye to give to a poor match girl, so that her father won’t beat her

  • Again the Swallow obeys the Prince, although this time she vows to stay with the Prince for he is now blind, having given away both his eyes


Eventually the Prince instructs the loyal Swallow to take all the gold leaves off his body to distribute to those in need

  • When the Swallow has finally finished serving the Prince, she dies from the cold – and this breaks the Prince’s heart


The town mayor takes down the once admired but now plain looking statue of the prince, and hopes to replace it with a statue of himself


Only God recognizes the beautiful sacrifice that the Prince and the Swallow have made


The Prince reminds me of Christ

  • The Swallow is his servant



Two questions to take home with you…

  • How has God prepared a table for you?
  • And, who would God have you prepare a table for?

[1] Kenneth Bailey, ‘The Good Shepherd’, page 55

[2] Exodus 16

[3] Joel B. Green, TNICNT “The Gospel of Luke”, page 768.

[4] Luke 22:24-27

[5] Refer John13:1-17