God of mercy and grace, when our way is darkened by our worldly attitudes, may your Word be like a lamp for our feet and a light for our path, that we may do justice, love kindness and humbly walk with you, our God. Amen.
THEME VERSE FOR TODAY 1 Peter 5:5b, ESV
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another,
for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
OLD TESTAMENT READING Isaiah 40:25-26, NCV
5 God, the Holy One, says, “Can you compare me to anyone?
Is anyone equal to me?”
26 Look up to the skies.
Who created all these stars?
He leads out the army of heaven one by one
and calls all the stars by name.
Because he is strong and powerful,
not one of them is missing.
NEW TESTAMENT READING Matthew 23:1-12, NLT
23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.
5 “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. 6 And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. 7 They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’
8 “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. 9 And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your Father. 10 And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be a servant. 12 But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
SERMON Grace To Be Humble
Have you ever noticed that if you get a little too full of yourself, think too much of your own status, authority, or accomplishments, God finds it pretty easy to knock you down a few pegs? I'm well aware of that! For some of us pride versus low self esteem is like a pendulum that keeps swinging between the extremes. But if I change that image to a an old fashioned see saw style scale, God is working toward balancing us somewhere in the middle range. God is the fulcrum trying to help us find balance.
One of the key points I see in the Bible is that God will lift up the lowly and put down the exalted. It is said of people, even of nature, or perhaps also a symbol of God's plan for us.
- Psalm 75:7, "God is the judge; He brings one low, and lifts up another."
- Isaiah 40:4, "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain."
- Matthew 23:12, "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
- Luke 1:52, "He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly."
- James 4:10, "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up."
As you could probably tell from our gospel lesson, God doesn't have much patience with human pride. There is good reason it's listed as one of the seven deadly sins. Pride leads us to all kinds of inappropriate attitudes and behaviors. Paul wrote to the Philippians, " In whatever you do, don’t let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves," (Phil. 2:3) and to the Romans, "Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us." (Rom. 12:3) Paul who had to wrestle with his own arrogance in the beginning, had grown to appreciate the appropriateness of a humble attitude of surrender to God.
Pride can lead us to put others down, just to make ourselves look good. I think a lot of the prejudices in this world are based on pride, whether they are related to gender, race, age, economics, geography, position or anything else. We would accomplish far more if we could see each other as equals and give up this heirarchical nonsense, but I know from my own struggles that is easier said than done. I am as guilty as anyone else of claiming my authority based on position or education. That is the work of our human sinful nature. God sees all of us as highly valuable. I like Paul Young's way of expressing it in his books. God is "especially fond" of you. It feels good, right? The thing is, God is "especially fond" of every one. (This is expressed various places in Paul Young's The Shack and included in Eve as well) God values each one of us as God created us. God doesn't love any one of us more than any other one of us, so why do we put some people on pedestals or write other people off? That is our sin.
Max Lucado tells a couple of great stories in his chapter on "Grace for the Humble," one from modern life and the other from the Old Testament.
First, consider a man who appeared to have everything from possessions to influence. He had a penthouse in New York and homes on Long Island, Palm Beach, and in France. He had a yacht, a private jet, and multiple cars. His wife had the wardrobe, accessories and interior decor to go with it all. His guest lists included names we would recognize. You might also recognize his name for the story of his downfall. Bernie Madoff's exalted lifestyle and ego were brought down low as his 20 year financial scam was revealed. Now he resides in a Federal Correction Complex known by his prison number rather than by name. We could blame his crime on the humiliations he suffered as a youth, but he could have chosen honest means to put his financial expertise to work for him. Lucado suggests he was addicted to adulation, to being looked up to by others. But his human pride became his downfall. (paraphrased from Lucado's Unshakeable Hope , pages 59-60)
In the story of Daniel in the Old Testament we find another figure addicted to being praised by those around him, so much so that he had a statue built in his own likeness and expected others to bow down and worship this large idol. Daniel 3 sets up the scene:
King Nebuchadnezzar had a gold statue made, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and he had it set up in the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. 2 Then the king gave orders for all his officials to come together—the princes, governors, lieutenant governors, commissioners, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the other officials of the provinces. They were to attend the dedication of the statue which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 3 When all these officials gathered for the dedication and stood in front of the statue, 4 a herald announced in a loud voice, “People of all nations, races, and languages! 5 You will hear the sound of the trumpets, followed by the playing of oboes, lyres, zithers, and harps; and then all the other instruments will join in. As soon as the music starts, you are to bow down and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Anyone who does not bow down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” (Daniel 3:1-6)
Perhaps you know what happened next. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, young friends of Daniel's whose names had been changed to suit the Babylonians, refused to bow down to the statue. They would only worship the One True God. They were thrown into that burning fiery furnace, but a fourth presence was seen in the fire with them, and they stepped out unharmed. After this Nebuchadnezzar praised their God.
But perhaps you are less familiar with the rest of his story. Nebuchadnezzar remained a man of wealth, authority, influence and pride. Compare this to Bernie Madoff's treasures. Nebuchadnezzar's palace walls "were 320 feet high and 80 feet thick." (Lucado, p. 61) He had the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, built for his wife. He ruled for 43 years and Babylon's population reached "half a million." (Lucado, p. 62) He had it all! But then he had a dream, which he asked Daniel to interpret.
10 These are the visions I saw while I was lying in my bed: I looked, and there in front of me was a tree standing in the middle of the earth. And it was very tall. 11 The tree grew large and strong. The top of the tree touched the sky and could be seen from anywhere on earth. 12 The leaves of the tree were beautiful. It had plenty of good fruit on it, enough food for everyone. The wild animals found shelter under the tree, and the birds lived in its branches. Every animal ate from it.
13 “As I was looking at those things in the vision while lying on my bed, I saw an observer, a holy angel coming down from heaven. 14 He spoke very loudly and said, ‘Cut down the tree and cut off its branches. Strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals under the tree run away, and let the birds in its branches fly away. 15 But leave the stump and its roots in the ground with a band of iron and bronze around it; let it stay in the field with the grass around it.
“‘Let the man become wet with dew, and let him live among the animals and plants of the earth. 16 Let him not think like a human any longer, but let him have the mind of an animal for seven years.
17 “‘The observers gave this command; the holy ones declared the sentence. This is so all people may know that the Most High God rules over every kingdom on earth. God gives those kingdoms to anyone he wants, and he chooses people to rule them who are not proud.’ (From Daniel 4)
24 “This is the meaning of the dream, O king. The Most High God has commanded these things to happen to my master the king: 25 You will be forced away from people to live among the wild animals. People will feed you grass like an ox, and dew from the sky will make you wet. Seven years will pass, and then you will learn this lesson: The Most High God is ruler over every kingdom on earth, and he gives those kingdoms to anyone he chooses.
26 “Since the stump of the tree and its roots were left in the ground, your kingdom will be given back to you when you learn that one in heaven rules your kingdom.
(continued in Daniel 4)
Nebuchadnezzar, still too steeped in pride, refused to change. Daniel's predictions came true.
Lucado's take on these stories: "When the mighty fall, the fall is mighty." (p. 63) and this, "God resists the proud, because the proud resist God." (p. 64)
The contrast between the pride God hates and the humility God loves is this according to Max:
- "The heart of pride never confesses, never repents, never asks for forgiveness"
- "The humble heart is quick to acknowledge the need for God, eager to confess sin, willing to kneel before heaven's mighty hand." (both from p. 64)
That humble heart makes us honest with ourselves, honest with each other and with God. Pride listens to the whispered lies of the deceiver. Proverbs tells us " The Lord detests the proud; they will surely be punished." (Proverbs 16:5), But Isaiah shares this promise: “I am the high and holy God, who lives forever. I live in a high and holy place, but I also live with people who are humble and repentant, so that I can restore their confidence and hope." (Isaiah 57:15)
I loved this joke Lucado shares:
An arrogant man contending with God "looked up into the heavens and declared, 'I can do what you can do! I can create a person out of dust! I understand the systems of life and science!'
"God accepted the offer. 'All right, ... Let's see what you can do.'
"The man reached down and took a handful of dirt. But before the man could go further, God interrupted him. 'I though you said you could do what I did.'
"'Then, ... get your own dirt.'" (Lucado, p. 66)
What the man in his arrogance forgot, was that God not only created Adam from the dirt and dust, God spoke that dirt and dust into being as well!
As Christians, it is important for us both to understand and to live out as our witness, that God is greater than we could ever be on our own. We owe our lives and everything in them to God, not just to our own efforts. We can indeed do great things, but we do so with the resources and skills and inspiration God gives to us. Rather than worship ourselves or expect others to lift us high with honor and praise, let us give all that worship and honor and praise to God, and direct others toward God as well.
Here's the final example from Lucado of a man with a humble God focused attitude. It comes from a conversation Michael W. Smith had with Billy Graham, when Graham was 94. They had talked about funeral eulogies. Graham hoped his name wouldn't be mentioned. Instead he said, "I only hope that the name of the Lord Jesus be lifted up." (Lucado, p. 67) Graham wanted to die the way he had lived, pointing others toward Jesus.
How do you want to be remembered? Maybe that's one good measure of pride versus a humble heart. As I asked myself that question, I realized humility isn't that big a shift in how things are said, but the subtle shift is filled with meaning. Rather than wanting to be remembered for all the things I have done in this life, perhaps I'd rather my eulogy share the many opportunities God has given me. The attitude is a matter of perspective, the angle from which our life is viewed. Is the focus on me? That's pride. Is the focus on God while God lovingly looks on me? That's a humble heart. May God give us each the grace to hold a humble heart.