15th Sunday after Pentecost September 25, A+D 2011Matthew 21:23-27, Philippians 2:1-18
On such a happy day as the annual German Meal, we might prefer to consider uplifting subjects, perhaps faith, or hope, or love. But our readings drive us to humility. The Lord lifts up the humble. Christ Jesus humbled Himself, making Himself nothing. And Paul tells us to have the mind of Christ, that is Paul tells us to be humble. We prefer to talk about faith, hope and love, but humility is the first necessary trait for Christians, because humble is what we truly are, and even more because, humility is essential to Jesus, to His identity, to His work, to His life.
Jesus didn’t need to be humble. He knew it wasn’t robbery, that it wasn’t improper for Him to declare Himself equal with God, because He was. And is. All glory, laud and honor, to the Man, Jesus. And Jesus did affirm His Godly authority, various times, including the many “I AM” statements of the Gospels, which led the Jews to want to stone Him for blasphemy, for applying God’s personal Name to Himself. Jesus also showed His Godly power over the creation through many miracles, and accepted the praise and worship of people around Him, who through these miracles recognized He was the Lord God come down from heaven. For Jesus to present Himself as God was no robbery, no proud theft of Godly status. He is God.
But He is very selective in revealing this truth, often demurring, as in His debate with the Chief Priests and Elders this morning. Any student of the Old Testament prophecies of the Christ knows who Jesus has to be, unless all His work and ministry were fraudulent, unless all those clean-skinned lepers and suddenly walking cripples had been faking it all along. Who else but God could perform miracles. Who else but God could know the hidden thoughts and feelings in the hearts of men? Who else but God could preach with perfect authority? But the Chief Priests and Elders refuse to acknowledge Jesus, instead trying to trap Him in His words. So, for a moment at least, Jesus is more cagey than humble.
The setting is the first Holy Week, just days before Good Friday. Jesus has accepted the praises of the crowds at His Palm Sunday entrance to Jerusalem, and has driven the moneychangers out of the Temple. The Chief Priests and Elders want to know where Jesus gets off doing these things, who He thinks He is, where His authority comes from, hoping that Jesus will proudly and publicly claim His authority from God the Father, and so give them a clear reason to arrest Him.
But it wasn’t quite time for that, so Jesus turns the tables. “Tell you what,” He says, “You fellas tell me where John the Baptist got his authority to preach and baptize, and then I’ll tell you where I get mine.” The Priests and Elders don’t want to give John credit for being a real, called-by-God prophet, but they are also afraid to deny this, because the crowds love the martyred John, and might riot if the Priests and Elders were to deny his call was from God. So they punt, replying, “We don’t know,” and Jesus in turn declines to answer. Pretty clever, pretty cagey on the part of our Lord, not prideful, yet not exactly humble. But, in the many times Jesus through His words and actions did make clear His divine authority and power, He always did so in a humble way.
His great miracles were never in service of Himself, but always for others. His words glorified His Father in heaven, not Jesus of Nazareth. His efforts were always toward revealing truth, not winning popularity contests. Jesus humbled Himself, constantly, and so, as the Christ is humble, so also Christians are humble. Humility is a necessary character trait for those who follow Jesus.
But humility is a problem for you, isn’t it? It is for me. As Trinity congregation collectively tries to put her best foot forward today, serving the community with food and fleischkuechle and friendliness, we are particularly tempted to reject humility, because our brats are outstanding. But it’s not just today, being humble is a constant problem for all of us, every day. Now, we stick in the mud liturgical Lutherans should be ahead of the game a bit, since we quite regularly confess our sinfulness and need for salvation in crystal clear words of humility: I a poor miserable sinner, confess unto You… We have sinned against You in thought, word and deed, … and we justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment. Pretty humble words. And it is a wonderful thing that we regularly confess our sins and our sinfulness this way, since we are sinners. Most of all, it is wonderful to confess our sins because God is gracious to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Still, humility comes hard, especially today, living as we do in a proudly self-infatuated world.
Humility has never been popular, but I think never more unpopular than in 21st century America. The vast majority of the proclamation you and I hear day after day comes from voices that consider humility a temporary crutch at best, needed only when you’ve messed up big time. A humble face is needed only to smooth over your embarrassments until you’re ready to seize the moment and scramble to the top of the heap again. Think of Tiger Woods. For a decade he appeared to be the perfect combination of skill, determination and pride, dominating his chosen field like no one ever had, his disdain for the mere humans he competed with always seeming to be just below the surface. Millions of people became sports fans of a game that’s hardly a sport, not because golf changed, but because Tiger’s proud domination captivated us, we loved to watch him.
Then came the revelation of the other Tiger, undisciplined, hurtful, perverse. Pride feeds on adulation and fear, both of which Tiger’s fall destroyed, so he checked himself into the Celebrity Recovery Program, complete with the somber news conference, the biting of the lower lip, the display of public humility. Maybe Tiger’s humble show was real. But typically, such staged public humility doesn’t last, but in truth is just a necessary step in a plan to get back on top, to be number one again, proud and victorious.
You and I may, or may not have as frightening a set of weaknesses as Tiger or other big celebrities, but we tend to handle sin and especially public embarrassment for sin in the same way. Humility is not popular. We don’t like it, and the culture doesn’t embrace it, because it doesn’t sell. Nobody’s buying it, nobody really wants it. We like to be proud. We are encouraged to take pride in ourselves, self-esteem being a regular subject in school these days, alongside reading, math and science. And we professing Christians especially like it when our religion puffs us up. The most popular preacher in America, based on Sunday attendance and television ratings, is arguably Joel Osteen. I seriously do not recommend you ever listen to his false teaching, but if you do, you will not hear a message that points out your sin and smallness. No, Osteen’s goal is to build you up, to make you believe in yourself, so that you will feel good and achieve great things, maybe even achieve your best life now, a life you can be proud of. Such faith in yourself may make you a better person in this life, but it will not make you a Christian. For Christians believe in Jesus, for this life, of course, but especially with an eye toward the best life still to come, with God in heaven.
It’s not just Joel Osteen of course. We quite naturally prefer to feed our spirits with anything but God’s truth. This is the primary reason that churches where God’s Law and Gospel are rightly preached aren’t always very popular.
There are dozens of ways for you and I to feed our prideful spirits. We could devote most weekends to sports, whether your kids’ sports, or your hunting, or the NFL. We could devote ourselves to building up a business or fixing up a home, seven days a week, there’s always more work to do. Someone might even devote his pastoral ministry to winning a numbers contest, reaching out in order to feed the ego, instead of to save sinners. The first step in this last plan is to get rid of all that harsh sin and crucifixion talk, which isn’t very seeker friendly.
If we pursue these things, if we make self-fulfillment our religion, we will probably feel pretty good, most of the time, for a while at least. There’s just one problem: you and I and our loved ones will not find forgiveness in a sports arena, or in a successful business, not in a beautiful home, nor even in a glowing church statistical report. When guilt and sin and failure conspire to burst our bubbles, neither the Minnesota Vikings nor the most impressive church attendance growth stats in town have the authority to forgive our sins.
Repent. You don’t need to repent of having fun. You don’t need to repent of trying hard to do well in life. But do repent of making a false god out of your life and your achievements and your pleasure, because that’s a dead end. Literally, a proud life spent seeking the self is a dead end, not just a coffin and a hearse in a few years or decades, but rather an eternal existence spent apart from God and every good thing. For God is the source of every good thing, even the good things we tend to make into idols. That is the greatest irony, that we take good gifts from God and turn them into idols, false gods which cut us off from the true God, both today and forever.
Repent, and have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, and did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, nevertheless made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected one, is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
He humbled Himself, that your sins be forgiven. And they are! Believe in Him. He humbled Himself, that you might share His good Name. And you do, because He put His Name on you in your Baptism. You have been called through Water and the Word into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, called into God’s family through Christ. This is why you are called Christians, Christians who are to be proud of this: that Jesus has humbled Himself, for you, to remove your guilt and your sin. Jesus humbled Himself, so that He can one day lift you up to where He is right now, at God’s right hand in glory. Your humble Savior is there, right now, preparing a place for you. Be proud of Jesus, and rejoice in His humility, Amen.