How Humble are WE?
28th August 2016
Christ Church, Stannington
Readings: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15,16
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Most of the Parables Jesus told were analogies or allegories, leaving the listener to figure out what it meant for them. He would sometimes take His disciples aside later to explain things to them in simpler language. In contrast to this, in our Gospel Reading this morning, Jesus gives two examples of how we should conduct ourselves with regard to others. These parables were direct; He really wanted those present to get it. He was tactful and described a marriage feast, which the one He was attending wasn’t. The first example actually originated in The Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 25:6, 7). To show how important humility should be to Christians, the Bible mentions that all-important quality, faith, 104 times. But has 106 stories about humility. So how have we arrived at our current level of humility?
I was born just before World War II and by the time that was over, (the war, not my birth) there’d been a ‘Seismic Shift’ in the attitudes of the ordinary people of this country. Before the war, most people knew their place and how to behave in the presence of their ‘betters’. I can remember my Dad telling me about the time when, outside the entrance to the steelworks, there would be a line of men waiting. As the foreman strutted past in his bowler hat, the men would tip their caps and say, “Good morning sir, will you be hiring anyone for work today?” Can you imagine that happening today in this country? Having said that, I can’t imagine my Dad tipping his hat to anyone except a lady.
As I was growing up, especially when I attended High Storrs Grammar School at the posh end of the city, it was instilled in me by my parents that no one was my better. I learned whilst I was there that though someone might be able to run faster than I could, should he be at the other end of a wicket, I’d have a pretty reasonable chance of flattening his stumps with my bowling. Hussain Bolt might be able to leave her standing in a race but I’d sooner have him throwing a javelin at me than Jessica Ennis having a go. Swings and roundabouts.
And so it went on through my life. In the army, no one salutes an Officer. They salute the Queen’s Commission that put the pips or crowns on his or her epaulets. I never lorded it over my own men. We each had a job to do. If I gave an order, I expected it to be carried out not because I was their boss but because it was my responsibility for getting the job done.
Even in the church, no one is better than the next person, because we each have our different ministries to fulfil the various tasks needed to keep the Church going and to play our part in the expansion of God’s Kingdom. So we make sure that our actions don’t give anyone the idea that we’re kowtowing to them.
Then we read what Paul wrote to the Philippians. “Don't do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble toward one another, always considering others better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3 GNB). Well, the first part is fine isn’t it? We should never boast except in the Lord, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1Corinthians 1:31 NIV) and of course he got that from the Book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 9:24 NIV). But what about the second part of Paul’s directive? We have to be humble and consider others better than ourselves? Human beings in general are a pretty arrogant lot. Humility certainly isn’t one of our strongest natural traits. So for many, or even for most, this will be one of the hardest things we have to accept about ourselves as followers of Jesus and where it means we should be aiming. So where do we start?
Well, first of all we could look at how humble we are before our God. Some have reached the stage where He’s God All-Matey instead of God Almighty. The Jews used to lie prostrate before God as a sign of their reverence and awe. Of course when things weren’t going their way, as when Moses had been up on Mount Sinai for longer than they’d wanted, they soon got Aaron to make them a golden calf and worshipped that instead. People can be so fickle. I’ve seen on TV that when a football team is doing well, their fans actually bow down to them. Again, that can quickly turn to derision when things aren’t going so well. But at least they’re prepared to show their feelings in a way that’s understood to be a demonstration of their reverence for what is, in effect, their god.
Do we do that? No? Why might that be then? Is it because He reached down and showed His love for us? Did that make us His equal? No! It did not! He’s the most powerful being in the universe He created, with capabilities far beyond our imagination or understanding. How often do we sing, “At the Name of Jesus, every knee will bow” or “I fall down on my knees”? I’ve said in the past, for Liturgy, Hymns and Worship songs, “If we don’t mean it, we shouldn’t say it and we shouldn’t sing it, or we’ll be lying to God.” Anyone eager to do that? When the day comes that everyone has to bow down to Jesus, and it will, I want to be doing that because He deserves it and I’ve grown really happy about doing it. That’s better than being made to do it, as so many will, because they can’t understand why they should. If there were a footballer with a millionth of His capabilities, fans would be lining up to kiss his feet. But no, because He’s shown us his tender side, many have lost their awe of Him and don’t show Him the respect He deserves. So, that’s one place we could start in our search for our long-lost humility. For an example, we could read about how, in order to show them what humility was, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples (John 13:2-10). The prophet asked, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV). Can we – walk humbly with our God?
But it’s not only about how we are with God, it’s also about how we are with others. A few weeks ago, I talked about the sheep and the goats standing in front of Jesus on the Day of Judgement. Those who’d been kind to others Jesus welcomed and sent them into Paradise. Those who’d shown no compassion for their fellow men He sent away to the other place. “Just a minute,” one might say. “I thought it was our faith in Jesus that gave us eternal life.” Well, of course it is but how do we know we have faith? James answers that question better than most. He said to fellow believers, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17 NIV). I believe that to be true. Our actions prove to us and others that the faith we have is real. It doesn’t hurt anyone to have a reality check now and then.
As well as how we are with our God and others, it’s also about how we are in ourselves. What kind of impression do we give to those around us? As possibly the highest point we could aim for, I quote from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had,” (Romans 15:5 NIV). Paul was of course speaking of the way we appear to our brothers and sisters in Christ, so let’s start with that. Perhaps a quite well-known story on that is of the young curate going to preach to a congregation for the first time. He’d prepared, in his opinion, a most wonderful sermon that would have people on the edge of their seats. When the time came for his big moment, he bounded up the steps to the pulpit and opened out his notes. He began to read but only a squeak came from his mouth. He noisily cleared his throat and tried again. This time he could only manage a barely audible croak. Deflated and in total humility, he closed his notes and with eyes fixed on his feet descended the steps and took his seat. The vicar went up and gave the sermon instead. After the service the curate, almost in tears, said to the vicar, “Why couldn’t I speak when I was in the pulpit?” The vicar said simply, “Had you gone up the steps with the same attitude as you came down, you’d have come down with the same attitude as you went up.” An excellent lesson in humility. We should all use any skill given by the Lord to serve and build up others, never ourselves (1Peter 4:10). And of course, that goes for any ministry, because no ministry is higher than any other in God’s eyes.
If we think about the spiritual gifts mentioned by Paul like teaching, administration, healing, prophecy, knowledge, charity and humility, what is it that makes humility stand out from all the others? Well, we don’t all have money to give away. Not everyone has the time and opportunities for working directly for Christ. We don’t all have gifts of speech and knowledge for preaching and teaching. We’re not all good managers or administrators. We can’t all heal but everyone can demonstrate their commitment to Christ by their humility. If we can do nothing else, we can strive to be humble. Humility is a grace within the reach of every true Christian. And we of course should never try to make ourselves appear above the thoughts, ideas and actions of others. God and God alone chooses who should be exalted and who should not. And He never does that without a purpose.
So, where to start? The first thing we need to get into our heads is that being humble doesn’t mean degrading ourselves in front of others. The first story in our Gospel Reading says otherwise. Although there were no place cards in those days, it was up to the host to decide where people should sit. The fact that someone may have the humility to choose a seat away from the more honoured places everyone else is picking out for themselves, may well be the instrument by which he is elevated above them, whilst they may be humiliated, not by their own choice, but by being made to take a place less eminent.
In our culture, the presumption of going for the best places would be considered rude (though probably not by everyone these days).The people Jesus was talking to, who tried to look important weren’t bad people. It’s just how things were in their society. We can recall that even the mother of James and John asked Jesus if her sons could sit on either side of Him in His kingdom (Matthew 20:21). The moral of the story is in our Gospel Reading, which says, “For those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great.” (Vs 11).
Not that the lesson about personal humility was the only thing those guests learned during their time with Jesus. When He’d finished advising the guests about not thinking themselves to be more important than others, He then turned His attention to the people who host such occasions and their reasons for inviting the people they wanted to be their gatherings. At this one, there would be other Pharisees who would look up to the host as one of their leaders. There would be others of equal prominence. The whole idea was to show what an important man he was. Even though He would be considered socially inferior to the other guests, Jesus had probably been invited because by now he was a well-known figure and would add to the prestige of the host. Like politicians inviting celebrities to their parties. But this important Pharisee and his friends would also be curious about what Jesus had to say. But He ended up trying to teach kingdom ideas to curious, devout, but self-important, hardnosed leaders. He couldn't break through their long-established, unrelenting outer crust of beliefs except by shock tactics. I don't expect any of them forgot the dinner discussions that day!
Again the thrust was about moving away from self-importance and towards thinking more of others. Such festivities shouldn’t be held to promote one’s own standing in society. As the host proved himself to be so important, it would naturally be that he would be invited to other such occasions and, in this circle, would become more and more eminent and influential. But Jesus told them that the invitations shouldn’t be sent to those who could and would invite this host to attend their own idea of self-aggrandisement but to those who couldn’t possibly return the favour by asking him back. So to whom should they be sent? To the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind etc. As we saw in our Gospel Reading, if he chose to do this, although he’d never be repaid during his time on earth, the repayment would be made on the day “good people rise from death” (Vs 14a).
None of this means that we can’t throw a party for our friends and family. That would take a great deal of enjoyment out of our lives. What it does mean is that we should also remember those who will probably never be able to hold such an occasion and give them the benefit of our hospitality and generosity and our reward will be waiting for us in heaven. Our God is the most wonderful and generous giver there is, so we can only imagine what waits for us. But we shouldn’t look on our charity to others as some kind of insurance policy that will be paid out when we die. The whole idea of what Jesus is saying is that we should change our character and actually want and even feel a need to be gentle with those we meet in our daily lives and open-handed to those less fortunate than ourselves. Just like those present at this celebration in the company of Jesus, we should perhaps go away and think on how we should react to his guidance on this very important facet of our lives.