What does a successful leader look like? In 1960 when I was just 9 years old, my image of a successful leader was John Kennedy. He had it all. He was rich, good looking, Ivy League education, beautiful wife, witty repartee. Was he a successful leader? He cut taxes and he maneuvered our way through the Cuban missile crisis. But his life was cut short. So we’ll never know where he could have led this country.
Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly was a successful leader. Like John Kennedy, he looked like a leader. Dr. King was highly educated, well spoken, courageous. He stirred the nation with his “I Have A Dream” speech on the Washington Mall. And, like Kennedy, King’s life was cut short by an assassin. But his untimely death didn’t cut short his mission. It supercharged the campaign for civil rights in America. And in 1968, when I was just 17, Martin Luther King Jr., was a role model for me demonstrating what a successful leader looked like.
Think of all the successful leaders in history and chances are they are attractive people – people that you might want to emulate. Now take a look at the man that God chose to lead the way for his Son. He chose a guy living out in the wilderness. Kind of hippy-looking with long hair and beard – dressed in rough garb. He lived in the desert on a paleo diet – eating food you would find in the desert: grasshoppers and wild honey. And he seemed to avoid the cities. He ministered in the wilderness in areas near running water. This is not your typical charismatic leader.
Yet this grisly-looking man won the following of 1st century Palestine. He aroused the fear of a king. And he prepared the world to receive the Son of God.
Jesus would say of him, “Of all men born of women, none were greater than John the Baptist.” Like President Kennedy and Dr. King, John the Baptist’s life would be cut short. But he would change the course of history with his message. A message that might be summed up in one word: “Repent.”
Now a lot of people here the word “repent” and it might conjure up images of a shouting country preacher in an evening tent meeting. Let me offer a different image. When you hear the word “repent,” think: Dale Carnegie.
Most of you have heard of him. He was a writer and lecturer. He became known for his bestselling book: How to Win Friends and Influence People. He went on to develop his famous courses on self-improvement and salesmanship.
Dale Carnegie became a household name by giving people useful information for successful living. He essentially told people to repent – to change. Change the way you relate to other people. He promised that if you would follow his advice and change, he could guarantee you a successful life.
The operative word here is “change.” Because that’s what repentance is all about – changing direction. It’s recognizing that a certain behavior, a certain way of life, a certain way of thinking isn’t working for you. So you choose to make a change – to go 180 degrees in the opposite direction. You repent.
And repentance has been a key to the success of people in every walk of life.
One of the most successful entrepreneurs the world has ever known owes his success to repentance. Steve Wozniak invented a personal computer, but it was Steve Jobs who figured out how to market it. Some of you might remember those first computers. You had to type F1 and then certain codes and it was all very mathematical.
But Jobs saw something that would revolutionize computers. Some Xerox engineers had created something called a mouse-driven, graphical-user interface system/ With that system, you don’t type numbers into a computer; you point at pictures and click.
Jobs went right back to his Apple engineers and made them abandon their projects. They would change to this new graphical-user interface system. They created the Macintosh computer and the success of Apple Corporation.
Oh, but then some college drop-out up in Seattle named Bill Gates invented software called Windows. That software turned IBM’s personal computers into computers like the Apple’s Macs. And that’s when IBM cut into Apple’s business. Before you knew it, Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Corporation, was ousted by his own board of directors. What did he do?
Well, he probably got really angry and stomped around a bit. And he could have just spent the rest of his life cursing Bill Gates and sitting on the sidelines of life. He could have kvetched to all his friends (did he have any?) about how unfair life was and that he was robbed!
He didn’t do that. He took stock of his life and saw that what once worked for him wasn’t working anymore. He repented. He changed direction.
Then he returned to Apple Corporation and changed the company. No longer would Apple be a computer company. Now, it would be a consumer electronics company and market all sorts of devices. Things called iPods, iPads, and eventually the iPhone.
And because Steve Jobs chose to repent, Apple became the first trillion dollar company. Repentance was good for business. I often wondered if Bill Gates ever bought any Apple stock.
“Repentance” is also good advice for rock bands. Back in 1964, the West Coast was caught up in the surfing rage. One band capitalized on that rage. With the falsetto harmonies of Brian Wilson and his little band, the Beachboys became the new pop sensation.
But then four English lads appeared on the Ed Sullivan show singing an upbeat song called “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” No falsettos, but two lead singers. These guys captured the rock music market and hung on to it for six years.
How did they last that long? Well, they repented – a lot. They were willing to stop moving in one direction and change to another direction.
They started out with upbeat songs that emulated American pop groups like Buddy Holly and the Everley Brothers. Heck, they even adopted some of Little Richard! But then they met a rather atonal folk singer from Duluth, Minnesota, named Robert Allen Zimmerman. This guy’s music was different. It was more protest than pop.
Six months later, John Lennon began repenting – began changing direction His tones became more nasal and his strum more brittle – like Robert Allen Zimmerman who had changed his name to Bob Dylan.
In 1967, the Haight Ashbury hippie scene was starting to flower – pun intended. And the Beatles were quick to repent again – to change direction. Not just their music, but their look as well.
They spent over 700 studio hours producing a new album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This album played was geared to appeal to the evolving hippie culture and was the first major LP to include lyrics. It wasn’t long before breathless teeny boppers and erudite college students were singing about “plasticine porters” and a “girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”
Remember 45’s? those little one-song records with the big hole in the middle? After the Beatles released the Sgt. Pepper album, the music industry stopped releasing 45’s.
The Beatles were leaders in the world of music and entertainment. A big key to their success was repentance – changing direction.
What about politics? Can repentance play a part in successful politics? It did for a politician in Africa. A politician who changed direction, who repented and changed an entire country.
For most of his adult life, Nelson Mandela was a failed Marxist revolutionary. Some have called him the Che Guevara of Africa – a leftist icon. He tried Gandhi’s tactic of nonviolence to abolish apartheid in South Africa.
But after years of confrontations with authorities, he ditched the nonviolence. He went underground to lead a sabotage campaign against the government.. That campaign left him in prison for life for treason.
During the next 18 years that Mandela spent in a maximum security prison, he would repent. Oh he would still work to abolish apartheid. But he would change his strategy.
He started by learning the Afrikaans language that his guards spoke. Then he began negotiations with the apartheid government while still in prison. Together with South Africa’s president, they worked out a plan to end the apartheid After five years of meetings, Mandela was released. He would go on to become South Africa’s first black president elected by the entire country.
If he had not repented or– as he put it – “go off in a new direction” South Africa would have suffered. Repentance was good for Nelson Mandela and good for the government in South Africa.
It brings us back to John the Baptist. John didn’t go into the cities to preach his message. He preached out in the wilderness – in the desert places. Because it’s in the wilderness that we see our need for change. It’s in the wilderness when we turn to God because there is no one else. And it’s in the wilderness that the Lord placed John to preach.
John’s message was pretty simple. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. It wasn’t just a message for the bad people. John preached that message to all – even the religious establishment – the ones who knew Scripture backwards and forwards The ones who followed the law to the letter.
John the Baptist called all to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.. Repent. Because in our natural state we could never fit in to the Kingdom of God. We would be uncomfortable, we would feel out of place.
C.S. Lewis captured that feeling in his book The Great Divorce. The book is about a group of people who have ended up in hell. But a bus has come to take them to heaven. So they all pile on for the trip.
As we get to know these people, we see all the various types. Those who carry grudges. Those who hang on to their unforgiveness. Those who are focused solely on themselves They live in their own world of resentments, of false pride.
But now they’ve all died and carried with them all of their baggage – and they refuse to give them up. They have come to live in hell. Lewis describes Hell as a place where the sky is perpetually overcast and the air is damp.
But now the bus has taken them up to heaven. In heaven, the sun has broken through. Everywhere are joyous people. The gardens are bursting with color and the lawns are lush and green.
The driver pulls up to the edge of the park and opens the door. As the first passenger steps off the bus and on to the lawn, he lets out a scream. You see, in heaven the grass is so real that it doesn’t give way when they step on it. For them, walking on the blades of grass is like walking on blades of steel. In their unrepentant state, they could never be comfortable in heaven. And so they are very eager to get back on that bus and go back to Hell. Heaven is not for them.
The rules of Heaven cut against our natural predispositions. So all of us in our natural state would be uncomfortable in the Kingdom of Heaven. We would need to change course from our natural predisposition.
Did you know that even John the Baptist faced a time when he had to practice what he preached – when he had to repent. It was when Herod threw him in jail. And while he wasted away in that prison, he began to question whether Jesus was indeed the Messiah. After all, why would a Messiah leave him stuck in prison? What did he do wrong? John the Baptist was in his own wilderness of life.
So he sent messengers to Jesus to ask, “What gives? Are you the Messiah or not?” Jesus responded: “Tell John what you see. The blind see, the lame walk and the deaf hear.” Jesus was alluding to Isaiah’s prophecy of the things the Messiah would do when he came. What Jesus left out of that list was – “the prisoners shall be set free.” It was his message to John: No, you will not be released from prison. But take heart, I am the Messiah. And, you well know, the last chapter of this story has not yet been written.
Jesus’ words positioned John to repent of his doubt so that – even in his wilderness even rotting away in Herod’s prison, even as he faced Herod’s sword John the Baptist would not lose hope for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Repent! It’s not a churchy, rallying cry from a tent-meeting preacher. It’s practical advice that has brought success to people in the secular culture. When they saw that that their ways were not working for them, they repented. They changed course. That repentance positioned them for success.
Before God’s people could receive their Messiah, John the Baptist called them to repent. What needs to change before you can receive all that God has for you? What is not working for you in your life?
Is God calling you to change course? Is he calling you to repent by forgive someone? Is he calling you to repent and address that thorn in your flesh? Is he calling you to repent by reaching out for help? Is he calling you to repent by trusting him? Is he calling you to repent by accepting his forgiveness?
Advent is the season of preparation. Advent invites us to assess our course. The Kingdom of Heaven holds the blessings of a Good Father. And in Advent the church reminds us prepare the way for those blessings. We do it when we hear heed the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Repent!