Emmanuel Lutheran Church
Menominee - Michigan
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2016
Grace and Peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A pastor was asked to speak for a certain charitable organization. After the meeting the program chairman handed the pastor a check. “Oh, I couldn’t take this,” the pastor said with some embarrassment. “I appreciate the honor of being asked to speak. You have better uses for this money. You apply it to one of those uses.” The program chairman asked, “Well, do you mind if we put it into our Special Fund?” The pastor replied, “Of course not. What is the Special Fund for?” The chairman answered, “It’s so we can get a better speaker next year.”
I’m a whole lot like this pastor in that the Good Lord finds ways to humble me as well: daily. Every day I am reminded in some way, shape, or form that as much as I think that I am a well-oiled link in a bigger chain, that I am more often than not a kink in that same chain, often bringing the wheels of progression to a screeching halt. I am daily humbled in my physical capacities, in my mental and social capacities, and especially in my spiritual capacities.
In fact, spiritually, I know what my expectations for myself are as a Christian. I know what other’s expectations are for me. I know what God expects from me. And on all three fronts I fail. In fact, on each level, I fail miserably, often burning out like a shooting star.
And, unfortunately, it often takes me getting to this point, this point of realizing that I’m not going to meet or exceed anyone’s expectations, that I finally drop to my knees and hand it over to God and say I just can’t do it. You know, God, you gave me a simple job and I messed it up. You’ve equipped me with everything that I need to do your work and instead I choose to lay aside your tools and to trust my own. You’ve surrounded me with good and faithful people who are capable of carrying incredible and large loads, but instead I put what little bit I can carry on my back and leave most of the work behind. Every day I succeed in making a mess of what you’ve so wonderfully and graciously given me, simply because I choose to ignore the gift of humility that you have put upon me.
And humility is a gift, and graciously receiving that gift is where I want to start, Lord. I want to start with humility, not eventually have to succumb to it.
And, admittedly, that’s really not easy to do in this day and age. We’re used to getting our egos stroked. In fact, we love getting our egos stroked. Competition of many degrees requires now the distribution of participation trophies and medals. If you watch a football game on television, at the conclusion of every play you will witness exaggerated celebrations, not necessarily on very good plays, but even on the most routine plays. If you are in the Facebook world, you will look and see how many people “like” your posts, often treating it as an affirmation of your beliefs or interests. We live in the age of “selfies;” where we make ourselves the center of the moment that is captured on camera. Our culture and society tells us that everything we say and do needs to be affirmed by our families and friends, neighbors and strangers alike. Instead of humble joy, we often latch onto the power of recognition; or at least our perception of it.
Winston Churchill, known for his quick wit and wickedly sarcastic sense of humor, was once asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?” “It’s quite flattering,” replied Sir Winston. “But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”
That’s in line with what Jesus teaches us today. We’re used to starting at the top, or expecting to start out at the top, and then doing whatever we have to do to stay there; but Jesus tells us that we need to start someplace else, that we need to start in the most humbling way before him possible. Because when we assume humility, when we choose to start at the bottom as servant to God and neighbor, we gain a different perspective of who we truly are called to be as Christians.
Because to identify as Christian, to identity with the cross, is all about humility. As I just stated a few minutes ago, we live in a world that is very much about glory, winning, and self-righteousness. The cross is anything but. The cross is about weakness. The cross is about powerlessness. The cross is about the Son of God completely giving up His deity and completely assuming His full humanity and dying in that humanity, dying just like every one of us will as well.
The cross in and of itself is nothing more than two crossbeams which held a lifeless bag of bones who had been whipped, crowned with thorns and driven through with a spear. And this dead body was taken from this cross, wrapped up in a garment and placed in a tomb where the body would begin to rot. In fact, the body that was brought down from this cross was to be perfumed by the women who came to the tomb three days later because this body, if not already giving off a stench, would soon be doing so. This cross, which we wear on our necklaces, tattoo on our shoulders, adorn our Christmas trees with, receive our blessing in the shape of, and worship, is the ultimate symbol of weakness.
The cross is weak because it didn’t have the power to contain that lifeless body to the grave, because when those women showed up at the tomb three days later, Jesus was no longer taking up residence in it. He was alive and lives yet. What happened on that cross did not have the permanent effect that it was expected to have, namely, to hold the crucified and very dead body of Jesus Christ.
It didn’t work and Jesus was alive and the reason that Jesus was alive was because of the power of God to overcome all that has power, at least as how we define power; all that assumes power, which really cannot be transferred without it being given; and all that we grant power to, power which we really don’t hold, power that will one day dissipate. Jesus was alive because he humbled himself before the cross, for the purpose of glorifying God through the promise of new life, not because he was endowed with power to defeat it, which in his humanity he would not be able to do. And in our sinful, human state, we won’t either.
So we as Christians turn to the cross, but not to find power in it. We are called to humble ourselves before the cross, before this symbol of ultimate weakness, all for the purpose of glorifying God who will not be contained by the cross, and in that humility, we are reminded that we will not be contained by it either.
Today is a special day here at Emmanuel where we give thanks for the wonder and power of music in the church, and on this day I think that it’s appropriate to repeat what J.S. Bach said of music in relation to God’s glory; “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hub-bub.”
He then backed up his words by heading his compositions with: “J.J.” “Jesus Juva” which means “Jesus help me,” and ending them with “S.D.G.” “Soli Dei gratia” which means “To God alone the praise.”
The only power that you and I will ever experience is the power of God’s glory as shown us in the resurrection, and the only way we will ever truly experience it is through accepting the truth that we don’t deserve it. It’s not about us. It’s never about us. It’s all about God and God’s redeeming love. And knowing that we don’t deserve to experience God’s glory we prostrate ourselves before the throne and we humbly ask, and graciously receive, God’s forgiveness and eternal love.
May you and I assume the same humility that J.S. Bach assumed in his music, that the tax collector assumed in the parable, and that Jesus assumed in going to the cross for the sins of the whole world. For it is in seeking humility that we are truly exalted, basking in the Glory of the Father, for all eternity. Amen.