The most influential

As the millennium came to a close in 1999 Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, was at the top of many lists as the most influential person of the past 1000 years. Gutenberg’s hometown of Mainz, Germany has an excellent museum that tells about Gutenberg, his invention and the history of printing. The Luther tour group I was a part of visited there in 2017.

Our guide at the museum attempted to give us biographical information about Gutenberg, but it wasn’t easy. It took her almost 10 minutes to basically tell us, “Nobody knows much about him.” The inventor of the machine used to print books didn’t write anything about himself, and nobody else wrote much about him, at least not anything that was preserved.

Gutenberg doesn’t fit with our modern culture that is obsessed with self-promotion. A lot of people in our world are famous, but they haven’t done much to improve the lives of other people. Gutenberg stands out in contrast. It appears he didn’t do much to promote himself. He isn’t famous in the modern sense. We don’t know what he liked to eat for lunch or any other minute detail of his life, the way some people know all about modern celebrities. He was influential more than famous.

The influence of Gutenberg’s invention was immense. The first book it was used to print was the Bible. Soon many people, for the first time in their life, were able to hold a Bible in their hand and read it.

The timing of Gutenberg’s invention was just right for another man who was the other contender for the title of most influential person of the millennium: Martin Luther. Gutenberg’s press was ready for commercial use in 1450. In 1517 Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. These bold assertions of ways in which the church had strayed from Scripture were soon printed and widely distributed, and the Protestant Reformation began. The printing press was a crucial tool, effectively used by the Reformers.

The most influential one of the past millennium, and every millennium, was not Gutenberg or Luther, but the Lord. He gave Gutenberg wisdom to invent the printing press so Luther could use it and the Church could be brought back to the great truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Jesus alone. God used relative nobodies like Gutenberg and Luther. He directed their steps and caused things to happen at just the right time. “I am the Lord, your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea” (Isaiah 48:17-18). We look at history and we see God doing great things. Sometimes His influence isn’t recognized, but He is always at work, directing the path of history. We give thanks that the great God of history is graciously willing to direct our lives today.

Humble leadership

Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain who led his country to victory over Hitler and Nazi Germany in World War 2, was maybe the greatest leader of the 20th century. In World War 1, however, he suffered a failure that looked like it would doom any chance for greatness.

Churchill was a 40-year-old rising star in British politics and in a position of leadership in the Royal Navy. He proposed a bold invasion during World War 1 that became a tragic disaster. Others contributed to the failure, but Churchill became the scapegoat. He lamented to a friend, “I am finished!” The debacle haunted him for decades. But when he became prime minister 25 years later he noted that, “All my past life has been a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” That included his humiliating failure.

The greatest leader of the 19th century was probably Abraham Lincoln. He recognized the evil of slavery and the importance of maintaining the Union. His words and vision of “a new birth of freedom” and a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” inspired people then and ever since.

Before being elected president Lincoln suffered a number of humbling defeats in politics as well as in business and his personal life. He also endured humiliating comments about many aspects of his life, including his looks. Nathaniel Hawthorne called him, “The ugliest man I ever put my eyes on.” When somebody accused Lincoln of being “two-faced” his reply was, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”

Lincoln’s humility and strength of character was shown in his ability to take a joke and make fun of himself. We maybe should be suspicious of any leader who can’t laugh at himself.

The greatest leader in the Bible, other than Jesus, is most likely Moses, who led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. For the first 40 years of his life he was raised as a son of the Pharaoh. For the next 40 years, however, he was a murderer on the run and an obscure shepherd in the wilderness. But God called him to go back to Egypt and lead his people. Moses thought he was totally inadequate for the job. “Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? … O Lord, please send someone else to do it'” (Exodus 3:11, 4:13).

The main character trait we are told about Moses, that contributed to him being a great leader, is his humility. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). When his own brother and sister questioned his leadership, we’re not told of him firing back at them. He let God handle it, which He did by humiliating Miriam and Aaron as recorded in Numbers 12.

At times people elevate to leadership those who speak the loudest, give an appearance of confidence, stand up for themselves and knock others down. It’s tempting to get impressed by ones who boast of having impressive abilities and accomplishments. The lesson of history and Scripture encourages us to look for and pray for leaders in our congregations, communities, business and politics, who are humble. We seek after leaders who have endured trials and failures that have shaped them and taught them lessons in humility and compassion. Humility might not be the first thing we look for in a leader, but it might be one of the first things God looks for.

The greatest leader of all – Jesus – amazingly described Himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Our world does not value gentleness and humility, but those who follow Jesus should. While the world often is enamored with people who brag and boast, we give thanks we get to follow Jesus who points to different values and a different way of doing things. We follow the One who promises, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).