Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Greatness of Humility

Texts:    Exodus 32:7-14     Matthew 18:1-10

    IT'S GREAT TO BE GREAT.  ABOUT ten years ago BBC television in the UK and PBS here in America produced several programs, all testing the question, "How well could modern people cope if they had to go back in time and live as their ancestors did?"  Ordinary people were selected to live for months in an historically-authentic, isolated environment where the only modern things were the film cameras.  Barring emergencies, the participants had to survive with only the tools, clothes, diet, and social relations used by the people of the long-ago time.  

    Recently I found these programs posted on YouTube, and I started watching a series called Edwardian Manor House.  But before I'd even gotten through the first episode, I couldn't help but feel upset.  As a 21st century American I found it hard to stomach the idea of everyone being kept strictly in their place and the people at the bottom having to be humble whether they wanted to be or not.  On the BBC website they interviewed the participants after the filming was over, and as you can imagine, those who'd been the "servants" were glad to get back to the freedom of 21st century Britain.  But the family who got to act as the family of an Edwardian baronet?  Not surprisingly, most of them wished they could have stayed in 1905 forever.  After all, it's great to be great.

    In our reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the disciples come to Jesus "at that time" and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  At what time?  Well, at the end of chapter 17 the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter on the street in Capernaum and asked whether Jesus paid it.  Peter said Jesus did, but when he came into the house where Jesus was, our Lord spoke first and taught him that by rights, He and His disciples didn't have to pay.  After all, they were sons of the kingdom, sons of God the heavenly King, and in those days, kings never collected taxes from their own families.

    So here are the disciples, and Jesus has just included them as sons of the kingdom of heaven.  Well!  It was also the custom, even up to a century or two ago, for kings to give the best jobs in the kingdom to members of their families.  So the disciples are thinking, "Hey, we're sons of the kingdom: Jesus must have some really high positions waiting for us when He comes into His own.  But who's going to be His prime minister?  Who will be the greatest?"  If you were one of them, wouldn't you want to know?

    In response, Jesus gives them a visual parable.  He calls in a little child and has the boy stand where they all could see him.  And he says, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

    It's popular these days for us to impose our modern view of children on this episode and miss what Jesus is saying.  We're all guilty of it, including me.  We say, "Oh, Jesus is saying we have to be innocent like a little child."  But a 1st century Jew, especially a Jew who was also the Son of God, would never imply that children were born innocent.  All of us are born in trespasses and sins, all of us stand guilty before God.  And in case you don't believe me, watch a two-year-old having a temper tantrum.  Or we say, "Children don't care about position and advancement."  Oh really?  Just observe a toddler who's been supplanted by a new brother or sister, and you'll see just how heedless of position kids are.  (Not hardly!)  Or we think Jesus is referring to how teachable children are.  Well, I substitute teach, and some kids take in knowledge readily, but a lot of them rebel and don't want to hear about it.  And absolutely, Jesus doesn't expect any one of us to go around talking ourselves down and talking about being "A worthless worm."  What normal child ever did that?  No, Jesus was telling His disciples and us that in the kingdom of heaven; that is, in the sight of God in His church, we must take a position like that of an insignificant little child.

    Maybe if you come from an old-school family where children were seen and not heard, you might be able to conceive of the radical upheaval this statement of Jesus must have produced.  It was like telling the lady of the house to take the role of the scullery maid, or the master of the house to do the job of the slave who washed everyone's feet.  Children, especially little children, simply had no say or authority in 1st century Jewish society.  In a great household even the adult slaves bossed them around.  And Jesus says we must humble ourselves to that extent, if we want to be great in the kingdom of heaven.

    And not only do we have to be humble like little children to have any greatness in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says we have to change-- to deny ourselves-- and become like children even to enter God's kingdom in the first place.

    We can fight against it all we want, but it's true:  We cannot believe in Jesus for salvation until we admit that we have nothing to offer God in return for His mercy, there's nothing in us that could attract God's favor; that as we are in our sins, to God we are obligations and not assets.  As with children, we have to realize that everything we have from our heavenly Father is a gift that we did not and could not earn.  We are helpless in our sins, we can't even be properly humble! until Jesus Christ reaches down to us in love and adopts us and makes us great in Him.

    This need for childlike humility applies to all believers, to the disciples, to you, to me.  But what about those who actually are children?  Does Jesus just use the kid as an illustration then send him away?  Can we?  No!   In verse 5 He goes on to say, "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me."

    Did you get that?  Jesus Christ the Son of God identifies with the child, the low, the insignificant, the humble.  This was not just cheap talk from our divine Master.  In Philippians chapter 2 we see how He put His words to work.  There it says that He was

    . . . in very nature God, [but he]
               did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
    but made himself nothing,
          taking the very nature of a servant,
           being made in human likeness.
    And being found in appearance as a man,
           he humbled himself
       and became obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

    "Even death on a cross."  When we receive a little child in His name we welcome our crucified and risen Lord, and when we welcome our crucified and risen Lord, His humility for us should remind us to welcome and look out not only for young children, but for all who are the humblest of the humble and the lowest of the low, the little ones of His kingdom.  Because it's not about us anymore.  It's about Jesus Christ and each other in Him.  If you and I will focus on seeing and honoring Him in one another, Jesus knows that will go a long way towards keeping us from hurting and harming one another.

    For our Lord knows what's in us.  He knows that even in His church it's hard for us to keep on finding our greatness in Christian humility.  It's difficult to keep on weighing our actions and words in light of the good or bad effect they might have on  the little ones of the body, whether they're children in years or those who are young in the faith.  Even in God's congregation there will be people and actions that put stumbling blocks in the way of the humble. 

    The phrase in verse 6 that the New International Version translates "cause . . . to sin" is the Greek word σκανδαλίση [skandaliseh]-- the word we get  "scandalize" from-- and it literally means to trip someone up by putting a stumbling block in their way.  To quote R. T. France, one of my teachers in theological college, "One can be ‘tripped up' as much by a disparaging attitude, a lack of concern and pastoral care, or a refusal to forgive, as by a ‘temptation to sin.'" The ultimate evil in "scandalizing" a fellow-member would be that it turned him or her away from Christ and His salvation, or at least to made his or her Christian journey a trial rather than a joy.

    But what can we say?  All of us do or say insensitive or unhelpful things to one another out of sheer carelessness, and here Jesus says that anyone who trips up the young and humble in the church may as well have a humongous millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.  How can we avoid such sin and its condemnation?

    We must return to what Jesus has already said: Whoever wants to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven must humble himself and become like a little child.  When we're looking out for others' welfare we'll have a lot less time to be asserting ourselves and putting stumbling blocks in each others' way!

    And it isn't like we can watch out for the spiritual welfare of children and new converts, but go ahead and hurt and harm those who are older or who have been believers longer.  Jesus shows us in verse 7 that He wants us to be careful for all the members of the church.  In this fallen world it's inevitable, Jesus says, that skandalon-- stumbling blocks-- should come, but woe to the one through whom they come!  The way of the world must not be the way of the Church of Jesus Christ.  No, we who are His disciples should be so anxious for our mutual growth in Christ that if our hand or foot causes us or anyone else to stumble-- same word skandalizei again-- we should cut it off.

     Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, but does that mean we can disregard what He says?  No.  He intends to convince us of how deeply we must humble and deny ourselves for His sake and for the sake of our salvation.  There's nothing more important on earth than to persevere in faith in Jesus Christ and at last through Him to attain to the resurrection of the dead.  So if there's anything in your life, any sin, any habit, any ungodly relationship that harms others and separates you from Him, end it, cut it off.  If there is any attitude in you or me, any way of thinking or being that says, "I'm the greatest, I'm going to do things my way, and God and everybody else had better just give me room," end it, cut it off.  Even if you had to go through eternity maimed, that would be better than to depart from the way of Christ and go into the fires of hell with your self-image and pride intact.

    So does humbling ourselves means exercising no power or authority at all?  The story of Moses disproves that idea.  In Numbers 12:3 it says, "Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth."  We see Moses' humility in our reading from Exodus 32.  When the Israelites sinned by making and worshipping the golden calf, God offered to destroy them and make of Moses a great nation, a replacement chosen people.  But in his humility Moses sought the Lord's mercy for the Israelites.  He admitted their sin and appealed to the Lord's promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Moses was the leader of the Israelites, but he claimed nothing for himself.  Rather, he sought the good of the people, even in the depth of their sin.

    Whether we have major responsibilities in the church or simply faithfully attend, Jesus calls you and me to carry out our duties for the good of one another and to the glory of God.  As Paul writes, again in Philippians 2, we should "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves."  In the end, if all of us strive to outdo one another in humility, encouragement, tender-heartedness, and love, none of us should ever have cause to complain that we're being oppressed or that others in the church are lording it over us. 

    And if we ever should think that Jesus doesn't understand how difficult being humble can be, let us look again to the cross where He died to take the penalty for our sins.  When Jesus calls us to find our greatness in humility, He is calling us to find our greatness in Him, the One who came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." It's great to be great, and in the kingdom of heaven, true greatness is found only in the humility of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom by all wisdom, honor, and glory.  Amen.

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