Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, January 8, 2017
Taken from Isaiah 42: 1-9
This sermon title today, “Good Groupthink”, is an oxymoron; it is self-contradictory. It’s like saying, “healthy disease”, or “bitter sugar”.
“Groupthink” entered the academic lexicon back in 1972. A research psychologist named Irving Janis published his book entitled, Victims of Groupthink. Janis studied significant military campaigns of the 20th century that went terribly wrong for the United States.
Janis’s question was this: how could key military and political leaders with all their experience and resources make such poor strategic judgements? Their decisions cost our nation in huge losses of life and material resources.1 Groupthink was the term he used to describe the problem.
Janis described a range of behaviors that make up groupthink. Leaders ceased to value individual creativity among their advisors. Unquestioning affirmation of the leader’s preferences was expected before the start of any discussion. Differences of opinion were suppressed. Protecting the group from outside critique became paramount.
Members of the group dismissed out-of-hand any information which contradicted their assumptions, no matter how reliable the information might be. Loyalty to the group’s plans was valued above all else, even if the original strategy proved unrealistic.
Other researchers found groupthink to present in any organization, whether governmental, military, civic, religious. In religion organizations, the most extreme examples would be cults. Less extreme examples might be churches with highly autocratic pastors or self-perpetuating boards or councils. Churches built around the personality of a founding pastor might realize only in hindsight after the pastor has retired or died just how much they’ve operated on these dynamics of groupthink. The church has no good decision-making practices to help their congregation continue to thrive.
So, how do we as followers of Christ, in this organization called University Baptist Church, how do we find our cohesive identity as a church without falling into the trap of groupthink?
We, as with any church, would seem especially vulnerable to the downfall of groupthink. The Scripture teaches that we are to function as “the body of Christ”. We are to have the unity of a single body; we are to highly value cohesiveness above, because as the Bible cautions us, the body is more than a mere collection of parts; we are members in service of the whole, each member functioning for the overall health and purpose of the body, the church. (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:12-31)
Well, the answer seems simple enough. The Bible tells us that we are the body of Christ, with Christ himself as the head” (Colossians 1:18). Just listen to what the Head says and all will be fine. Simple, right? Let’s just listen to what Jesus says to do and go do that.
I just love to hear coaches in their pre-game interviews. “Coach, tell us, what’s your strategy going into tonight’s game?” “Well,” says coach, “we’ve got to be consistent in moving the ball down the field; we’ve got to overcome their defense; we’ve got to work our strengths; we’ve got to play smart; ultimately, we’ve got to get that ball across the line more than the other team.”
In other words, the best strategy for winning is to win. Why didn’t we think of that? The best strategy for listening to Jesus to listen to Jesus. Brilliant strategy. How do we do that?
Our Scriptures today suggest an approach so we can avoid the trap of religious groupthink. If we can avoid religious groupthink and instead think well together as a group, or what I’m calling ‘good group think’, then we can act better as the body of Christ.
Here’s my suggestion. We have a better shot at thinking well together about ourselves as the body of Christ, in this time, in this town, if we observe how Jesus himself understood his own life on this earth in the place and the time which our Scriptures describe about Jesus. Such as our two Scripture readings this morning.
It’s a happy coincidence in how our Scripture readings happen to lay out in our worship bulletin. It was God working through Alba; I didn’t have anything to do with it.
First, we have our Gospel reading where Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. What do the final verses describe? Jesus comes up from under the water, the Spirit of God visibly descends upon Jesus, a voice is heard from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love—with him I am well pleased.”
Then immediately, we read from the prophet Isaiah where God speaks, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him….”
Those two readings fit, like hand in glove, don’t they?
1) Matthew: “this is my Son”; Isaiah: “here is my servant.”
2) Matthew: “my Son, whom I love”; Isaiah: “my servant, whom I uphold.”
3) Matthew: “with him I am well pleased”; Isaiah: “my chosen one in whom I delight”;
4) Matthew: “the Spirit of God descended and alighted upon him”; Isaiah: “I will put my Spirit upon him.”
What’s going on here?
John and those who would become Jesus’ followers witness these unique experiences that happen at his baptism. They watch the contours of Jesus’ ministry unfold. And then it dawns on them: they’re watching a set of prophecies of Isaiah now being lived out before them.
Some 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah prophesied about someone called the Servant of God. Our reading this morning is the first of the four prophecies commonly called the Servant Songs of Isaiah. They’re recorded in chapters 42 through 53 of the Book of Isaiah. (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12).
Now, the curious thing about these four Servant Songs is this: while Isaiah never names the Servant, one gets the distinct impression that at times Isaiah is speaking of specific individual and at times he is describing the entire nation of Israel. So, which is it, Isaiah? Are you talking about one person, the singular Servant of God, or are you speaking of the entire nation of God’s chosen people as though they were a single Servant of God? It’s both, of course.
Think of an hourglass: wide at the top, containing all the sand, then narrowing done to a tiny opening through which all the sand must pass, as the sand then enters the lower part of the hourglass that opens up and broadens in perfect symmetry to the top part of the hourglass. That’s what Isaiah’s Servant prophecies are like.
Isaiah’s prophecies of this one, the Servant of God, describe God’s vision for the nation Israel. The whole enterprise of God’s covenant with Abraham was to bless all the families of humanity through this single family of Abraham. (Genesis 12:1-3)
The context in which Isaiah describes God in this first Servant Song is as God, Creator of all. He describes God in verse 5,
“Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread forth the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it and [life] to those
who walk in it”
God the Creator is concerned for all of humanity.
Israel’s priests were to teach God’s people of their sacred calling to the nations. Israel’s kings were to lead God’s people in fulfilling their sacred calling to the nations. When priests and kings failed, God sent prophets to challenge these leaders and to challenge God’s people, calling them to repent and to renew their covenant with God.
Despite God’s repeated efforts over centuries upon centuries, Israel refused their calling. Instead, Israel behaved as the nations to whom they were sent: Israel’s kings sought only to sustain the perks and privileges of being in charge; Israel’s priests maintained their positions of power often in a ruthless competition among the families of priests; the people themselves turned their faith into mere formalities that blessed the self-enrichment of the powerful and rationalized the oppression of the powerless.
Israel, over and over, devolved into a nation of groupthinkers, refusing the critique of the prophets. They refused this sacred title: the Servant of God.
What should it have meant for Israel to be this chosen servant whom God upholds and in whom God delights? It should have meant that above all else, they would uphold and delight in God’s justice in their own lives and in their communities and in their nation. Three times in the opening verses of this first Servant Song, Isaiah proclaims God’s justice:
Verse 1, God says, “my servant…he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Verse 3, my servant, never adding to the injuries of the wounded, never dismissing the worthiness of the weak, “[my servant] will faithfully bring forth justice.” Verse 4, “[my servant] will not fail nor be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.”
“The distant lands wait”, proclaims Isaiah at the end of verse 4. For what do they wait? “The distant lands wait” for God’s Servant people to bring God’s justice to them. And, they waited, and they waited, and they waited across the centuries. That was Isaiah’s message: the nations waited, but Israel failed to deliver.
In verse 5, Isaiah depicts God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, scanning the horizon, taking in all that God has made. Isaiah describes this God of justice watching over all the peoples on the earth, to whom God has given breath and life. As God looks outward over all this good work of God’s creative power, God turns to speak to God’s Servant, Israel.
God says in verses 6 and 7: “I have called you…I have called you.
“I have taken you by the hand and preserved you; I have given you as a promise to all these other people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the those who don’t yet see me, to bring out of the prisons of human misery those who sit entrapped by the dark shrouds of human oppression.”
“I have called you,” says God to this Servant people, “I have called you.”
All of that promise gone wanting. All of God’s “covenant to the nations”, as Isaiah calls it, a covenant that God’s justice shall be done for all people, left unfulfilled. Because the Servant people of God would not serve.
They would not let God’s thoughts become their thoughts, they would not let God’s Spirit enliven their spirit. Not valuing God’s justice in their own lives nor in their nation’s life, they had no viable witness of God’s justice to offer among the nations.
Until that day on the shores of the Jordan River some 700 years later. People stood awaiting their turn for John the Baptist to baptize them, this baptism of repentance as John preached it. They watched as one of their own, a young man name Jesus come down from Galilee, as he took his turn to enter the Jordan. They watched the carpenter from Nazareth offer himself into John’s hands.
Then, something most unexpected happened, as Jesus came up out of the water. A movement, as when a dove alights upon a branch. A sound, as though rumbling down from heaven. A blessing and a pronouncement: the Servant has come, God’s Chosen One, in whom God delights, as Isaiah had foretold.
The sands of that broad hourglass that had belonged to God’s people, the children of Abraham, now spilling down into this one narrow bit of humanity, this man from Nazareth.
Followers gathered around Jesus in his life on this earth; believers later received his Good News preached by the Apostles and began living among themselves as Jesus himself lived and taught. As those men and women did that, God’s hourglass began its broadening out again, growing and growing to become once again, not a single Servant, but a Servant people serving with a singular purpose.
That’s who we are. Or, at least, that’s whom God has called us to be as the body of Christ.
How do we escape the traps of religious groupthink? We’re no smarter nor better than those kings and priests and people to whom Isaiah prophesied.
If we are forever trying to insulate ourselves from the Servant call of God that would intrude upon our plans, we fall into groupthink. When we reject whatever God might say that differs from our own narrow assumptions and goals, we lapse into groupthink. As often as we persist always in postponing going with God the Creator, to look abroad on this good earth and to see all the people whom God has placed here, we persist in groupthink.
We ourselves who are called to be bearers of light hide from the light of God’s justice. We hang in the shadows that imprison us. We will not turn loose of our idols and all that enthralls our senses.
We stop up our ears and refuse to hear God’s Servant-commission:
“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.
I have taken you by the hand and preserved you.
I have given you as my promise to the people, a light to the nations.
This becomes groupthink in action instead of acting as the Body of Christ.
The nations wait. The Lord God still calls for a Servant people to serve God by living out God’s justice. How will you and I personally, a believer and a recipient of Christ’s Gospel, answer? How will we, University Baptist Church, answer?
The prophet Isaiah had to give account of himself before God. As Isaiah tells us earlier in chapter 6, verse 8, there came a moment when Isaiah knew he stood before God needing to give answer. Isaiah answered, “Here am I, Lord! Send me.”
Will we shy away from God’s call, or will we glory in the marvel of that call? Will we answer God, as Isaiah did, answer as Jesus did, answer as so many other saints before us have done? Will we answer, “Here am I, Lord! Send me.”