True Glory in Humility

I speak to you in the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
    proclaim his salvation day after day.

 Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous deeds among all peoples.Spirit.  Amen.

Since the beginning, people have looked up at the night sky and marvelled.

From time immemorial, every culture, every race, every people, language, tribe, and nation has looked at the universe around them and have come to the conclusion that there is a great Creator behind it all;

they look at the stars in the heavens or the might of a river breaking up; they look at the invisible power of love and anger, of desire and revenge, and, across history, every people come to the evident conclusion that there are great forces at work, far beyond our comprehension or control.

And, as Christians, this should not surprise us.

As we prayed tonight, all of creation declares God’s glory.   The heavens proclaim the glory of God: though they use no speech and have no words, all of creation proclaims the fundamental, universal truth that God is great, that He is worthy of worship.

We Strive for Glory

But, human nature being what it is, it’s also true that, from the beginning, rather than acknowledge God’s greatness, every people, language, and nation have set out to harness it, to lay claim to it for themselves. 

Throughout history, we see the greatness of God declared in creation itself, we see the mighty power of God at work in the world, and rather than bow down in worship, we try to puff ourselves up.

We build towers to reach up to heaven.

We place altars on the high mountains of the world.

We build sacred circles beside the mighty waterfalls, hoping some of that power will rub off on us.

From the beginning, humanity has seen and experienced the greatness of God, and our response, all too often, has been the struggle to make ourselves look great, too.  We see God’s greatness, and behind so much of human history lies the statement: “look at me, God.  Look at the name I’ve made for myself, I’m great too.”

And that’s why Christmas is so very different.

I don’t know if you’ve stopped to think about it, but the message of Christmas is a total reversal of everything human history would have us expect.  This night, if we let it, and the this baby in a manger, if we let him, flips everything on its’ head.

Humanity looked up at the vastness of the night sky or the strong forces of nature, and, all too often, came to the conclusion that glory comes from might.  Glory comes from making a name for yourself, from not being dependent on anyone, from winning the affection of others, and looking out for #1.

…And then we face the reality of Christmas.

God is great, he fulfilled the longings of a nation and the words of countless prophets, but he didn’t come as a mighty warrior.

He didn’t come in a great show of power guaranteed to win our adoration.

No.  Christmas proclaims the glory of humility. 

The earth-shattering, mind-blowing proclamation of this night is that true glory doesn’t depend on the adoration of others or a tight grasp on power.  True glory – the Glory of God – is such that God Himself can become weak, helpless, defenseless, taking on the fullness of humility, without feeling threatened. 

The proclamation of this night is that glory isn’t earned, and certainly not by puffing yourself up to make yourself appear worthy. 

The message of Jesus is that, if you want to share in the glory of God, learn the way of humility.  And if you want to learn that way, Jesus says, “come and follow me.”

A Glorious Invitation

Now I know there are all sorts of reasons why each of you have come here tonight. 

Some are here as an act of worship that they’ve been preparing for over the 4 weeks of the Advent season.  Some are here because it is a link to an important family tradition and brings to life many dear memories.

Some of you aren’t sure why you’re here: you, like all of humanity before you, feel drawn to acknowledge that universal and self-evident truth that ‘there must be more than this’, but maybe you’re just starting to grapple with what that means.

And, then lets be honest, some of you were dragged here – chances are it was your wife or your mother who said “come on, we’re going”, and you knew better than to put up a fight.

But however or whyever you’re here, I want you to hear that completely unexpected, perhaps even ridiculous-sounding message of this night: true glory isn’t found in puffing yourself up, in being independent, in bearing your own load, in keeping your head down and minding your own business, in piling up a few good deeds along the way. 

No, as you, like those shepherds long ago, like our ancestors in every nation, look up and marvel at the wonder of Creation, maybe not yet knowing who God, the Creator is, hear the message of the babe in the manger: true glory is found in humility.

And in that, we see that familiar, life-changing first step of the gospel truth: to finally give up all our striving and struggling and pretending and mask-wearing, and to admit that we are powerless.  To admit that, even if I do my best, I can’t add a single breath to the span of my life, I can’t hold back the forces of nature, I can’t guarantee that my children will continue on the path that is right: to end the denial, and, as we see the great power of God revealed around us, to acknowledge our need for help.

God could have come as the rightful king, but he came helpless and homeless.  

True glory is not threatened by riches, and cuts through appearances. 

The angels appeared in the glittering sky and announced not to the rich, but to shepherds, that the Son of God had come, and more glorious still, that he wasn’t far off, but was in their very neighbourhood, ready to meet poor, ragged, weary guys like them.

Men, hear that message here tonight: glory is not found in independence, in keeping everything to yourself, in not letting anyone share your load, in trying not to be a bother while you try to find your own way.  No, the good news of Jesus is that glory is found in admitting the need for help, in learning to follow; in learning to be an apprentice of Jesus, the Master.

Ladies, hear the message of the prophet: you don’t need to be weighed down by darkness as you try to hold it all together; daughters trying to hold together broken generations, trying to keep the family together and keep up appearances, all while losing yourself in the process.  No, “on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned”.  Jesus comes to offer a light yoke and an easy burden, and peace that passes understanding, but nothing changes until something changes: it requires that first step, ending that denial, and turning to God for help.

Maybe you know why you’re here tonight. 

Or maybe you’re one of those, like those shepherds, and like every people, language, tribe, and nation in history, marvelling at the greatness of God and wondering where you fit.   

In either case, hear this: I bring you good news of great joy.  To you is born the saviour, the wonderful counsellor, the prince of peace.  But he’s not far off; he’s not far away.  You don’t need to build a tower or puff yourself up.  No, the great message of this night is that Christ the Lord will come and meet you where you are, that His power is made perfect in weakness, and that He offers for you to share in that glory…

…but only if we’re willing to admit that true glory comes through humility.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.   

“We have sinned” — sin, slavery, and individualism.

…that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.  Romans 6:6

What does it mean to be enslaved to something?

In a week filled with talk of racial injustice, of the long-term effects of oppression and calls to re-evaluate how we understand our history, it’s important that we step back from hot-button commentaries on statues or Aunt Jemima pancake syrup and think for a moment on the bigger issues that are under the surface.  This is important not because of politics – really, I think the last thing we need is a politically-motivated church; it’s important because our job, you and me together, is to be Christ’s voice of hope and forgiveness and mercy right here, close to home.  How can any of us offer hope, or reach out in mercy, or even attempt to guide our children’s understanding of the world around them, if our understanding is built on nothing more than the talking heads on TV, and whatever article happens to have the most likes, shares, or angry faces online.

Big problems require big solutions.  And in a world set on quick and easy solutions, we’re not going to find any lasting answers unless we step back and think before we speak, or comment, or like and share.

Slaves to Sin?

Freedom from oppression is one of the key themes of God’s work from Genesis to Revelation.  And, as much as it may make us uncomfortable, slavery is a key idea in St. Paul’s message of the Gospel; the language is familiar: we are slaves to sin. And this message really has two goals: that we would understand the world’s predicament, and, from there, we would understand the sort of freedom offered to us by Jesus.

But if we step back from the noise of current events, we’ll find one of our issues, even for preachers and clergy, is that we love to talk before we’ve listened.  The Apostle Paul says we were slaves to sin.  But before we can make any sense of that, we have to first stop and make sure we understand what is really meant by those key words: sin, and slaves.

Sin: it’s bigger than you.

We live in a world that is entirely built around the individual: my hopes, my dreams, my freedom, my work, my earnings, my responsibility, my rights.  And, as we’ve built this world all about me, we’ve come to define sin the same way: the individual things I’ve done and choices I’ve made that have directly hurt someone else.  It’s a definition of sin that protects me: I can sleep easy at night because I haven’t murdered anyone, I haven’t actually had an affair with anyone, so it’s all good.  I don’t need a saviour today; I have nothing to confess, because I haven’t purposefully hurt another individual today.

But that’s not what scripture means by sin.  That’s an awful individualistic lie.

I wish sin was defined that way, because it lets us off the hook; but it isn’t.  We made that up.

“Sins” aren’t boxes, individual actions, to avoid checking off the list each day.  Sin is an archery term.  It means “missing the mark”.  It’s not about individual things done or left undone; sin isn’t even just about things done on purpose, or things done by yourself.  Sin is what God calls anything that isn’t a bullseye.  This isn’t horseshoes and it isn’t hand grenades: almost living a perfect life is sin.  That’s why scripture can say “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”.  The hasn’t been and there will not be a day I can pat myself on the back and say “I don’t need a saviour today”; there has not been and there will not be a day when I – my decisions, my choices, and the unintended consequences of my actions or my silence in the world around me – haven’t fallen short of the glory of God. 

We are enslaved by sin.

And, lest we slip back into our individualistic view of the world, this “missing the mark” isn’t just about me.  We do not sing “O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the Alex.”  …or the Kristina, or the Ruth, or the Theo.  We did not sing this morning “the sacrificial Lamb who saves the ‘me’ from sin”.

We’re not just talking about the individual things you or I did on purpose to hurt someone else. We’re not even talking about the sins of a group of individuals. 

Sin, falling short of the target, is not just individual, but corporate; God sees sin when our relationships, our politics, our laws, our marketplace, our investments, our pension plans fall short of the glory of God, fall short of God’s will for how we will live in the Kingdom of God.

Sin is – pardon my use of a word you’ve heard in the news – systemic.

A network, a system of which you or I might be the tiniest of insignificant parts, but which, in spite of the progress made, in spite of the work being done, in spite of choosing only the necessary evils that do the least harm, nevertheless misses the bullseye.  Nevertheless it’s sinful: it falls short of the glory of God. 

We have to put aside the old progressive lie that we can pat ourselves on the back as a society, because there has not been and there will not be a day when the Lamb did not have to be slain for the sins of our world. 

We have to acknowledge – foundationally – that, short of the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, our individual and corporate efforts will never be good enough to pay the price of a world that not only falls short, but isn’t even aiming at the target that is the Kingdom of God.

And this is hard for those on all sides of the current debates to hear: but if the sins aren’t just individual, purposeful actions, then the solutions can’t be personal empowerment.  If the focus on me and my rights is part of the problem, then more individuals fighting for more individual rights can never be part of any ultimate or lasting solution.

There will never be a day that me or you haven’t fallen short, and no amount of rights or empowerment can change that.  But that doesn’t take us off the hook.  Rather, that is the hook: we have to follow Jesus.  Every day, every day, I have to acknowledge where I’ve fallen short, and more than that, I have to look at the world around me and acknowledge where we have fallen short. 

Not to talk our way out of it, not to congratulate ourselves for doing better than yesterday, but to look around, acknowledge the mess, and say all we can say: “Lord, have mercy”, and “Lord, let me take up my cross and follow you.”… and then do it.

And that’s where things change: so many of the voices we hear today would either have us excuse ourselves (“I’m not a racist; I’ve always treated people fairly”) or else attempt to carry the entire weight of the world on our own shoulders.

Like an addict in recovery, we cannot escape this system by ourselves; we need a higher power.  The weight of the world would crush us; but if we die to self, die to sin, and cling to Christ’s death and resurrection, we’re not released from the burden, but we find that, sharing our load with him and one another, the yoke is easy, and the burden is light.

Enslaved to sin.

You were slaves to sin, Paul writes.  And if there’s one thing our modern, individualistic minds get wrong about slavery, it’s how all-encompassing it is.

We want to believe that we can make good choices, clean up our act, and be masters of our own destiny.  But that’s this world’s biggest lie.  That would be true, we could make our own bed to lie in, if we were free. But we’re not.

No, it’s not fair. Slavery isn’t fair.

In Genesis, Abraham has two sons.  One born to a free woman, one born to a slave.  One born with an inheritance, and a land, and a name.  The other born of despair and regret, born indebted to another, with no hope to ever inherit, own, or lay claim to anything in the world around him.

Which of those boys are responsible for how they were born?  Neither.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth that St. Paul wants us to hear: In spite of what we tell ourselves or what the world tells us, none of us is that first boy.  All of us are born enslaved to a world of sin.  All of us are born into a system of corporate consequences built up and compounded by every missing of the mark.

And the slave can clean up their master’s house as much as they want, they can give their life to the cleaning up of that house, but as long as they’re enslaved, it can never be theirs, they can never pass it to their children, their work can’t last. We are born enslaved in this world of sin.

Christ came and paid the ransom for the sins of the world.  Christ paid to emancipate you and me from the slavery to the system of sin we were born in to.

But, once we’re free,  once we’re made free in Jesus, then we are responsible for our own decisions, and not just the things we do on purpose, but for all the ways we take part in the system we ourselves were freed from: we find ourselves called to repent, day in and day out, not just for things we’ve done, but for all the ways we’ve dishonoured that ransom paid; for all the ways we’ve been happy to remain slaves, sweeping the floors and polishing the furniture in the household of sin.  Once we learn to accept that we are sinners in need of a saviour, then we no longer need to cling to the worldly structures around us.  Once my identity is rooted in Christ, I can call it like it is, speak the painful truth, and reach out in mercy with the good news that we all need to surrender, lay down our arms, admit our failings, accept the ransom that was paid in exchange for our pride, and then simply follow with the humility of one dependent on the free gift of God.

Difficult Words

Stepping back from the news headlines, these words from scripture are uncomfortable.  They’re difficult because they go against the arguments on all sides; they’re difficult because they confront the lies of individualism, rights, and personal freedom that our world has built upon.

Our task is to confess our faults and humbly follow Christ.

We don’t need to yell, we don’t need to shout, we don’t need to put up signs.  But we do need to be faithful: to first learn the truth of the Gospel, to accept that all of us fall short every day, and then speak that Gospel truth to a world that is confused and divided.  We need to stop before every comment, before every good post that we share, and ask the question: “is this telling the truth that every day, each and every one of us has fallen short of the glory of God, or does it let someone off the hook, or let us pat ourselves on the back as though we don’t need a saviour?”

Because if it isn’t the truth, it’s a lie.  If we’re not for the truth, then we’re against it, and we’ve allowed ourselves to be enslaved by sin.

“Jesus said, “do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 

Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worth of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

What can we say?
Lord have mercy.  Let me take up my cross and follow you.  Amen.

Humble, not Humiliated

Luke 18:9-14

“Humility” is not a very popular concept.

On the one hand, those writing the history books of the future might look back at the past 100 years and declare that this was the century of “equality”, as it became the lens through which we view each modern controversy: from women’s suffrage in 1916, to civil rights movements leading to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as we’ve attempted to deal with issues from land claims and self-government to the decisions to redefine marriage and definitions of the family in Canadian law, with each movement claiming “equality” as its goal.

But, for all the talk of equality, we continue to create new and different ways to distinguish ourselves from our neighbour.  We all do it – and it is so ingrained that it’s almost sub-conscious.  You know, those quick, fleeting thoughts that flash across our minds when we encounter someone who, for whatever reason, we’ve categorized as “other”: it might be that warm flash of pride when we see our shiny new car parked between two old jalopies; it might be that silent “good heavens” when we see someone still in their pyjamas with a couple of unruly kids hanging off their shopping cart at the store; it might be that splash of dopamine, that moment of pleasure that we’ve learned to crave as we check our Facebook again and again to see how many likes that post had – or, depending on our mood, perhaps even clicking to see who has liked it, and who hasn’t.

As a society, we’ve made great strides in the name of “equality”.

But, in a world bent towards corruption by the effects of sin, we simply cannot help ourselves from creating division.

From the start, the chief effects of sin are division and separation.  Separation from the God-given blessings of the land, divisions between parents and children and peoples and nations,
and separation from life in the presence of a holy God, as we choose darkness over light and death over life.

We’ve come a long way from our great-grandparents, whose society built dividing lines based on race or gender; but where one dividing line falls, it seems a new one is built.

Humility is not a very popular concept.

It was Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the 1900s who wrote that, above all else, ‘pride is the chief sin of the religious person’.[1] 

Now, if we’re living our lives as disciples, as apprentices, students of Christ, and our call is to follow where he leads, we’ll find ourselves moving from strength to strength as grow in the imitation of Christ, as we increase in charity and love for each other, as we become able to speak the truth in love, following that narrow path of obedience.

But the problem with this narrow path carved through the mountains alongside the valley of death is that, if you stop to look around, to see where you are compared to the others, if you lose track of the footprints of the one leading the way, you risk losing your footing, and then you fall.

Yes, pride is the chief sin for a religious person, precisely because it only springs up after we’ve avoided the more public, the more visible sins.

No good Christian would boast that you have lied, or committed murder, or dishonoured your parents.  You wouldn’t boast that you sat down and carved a false God, or lost your house and livelihood to addiction. But how easy is it for any one of us to see those sins in another, and suddenly feel that warm rush of sinful pride as we thank – not God, but ourselves – that we aren’t like those people.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

In the Gospel today, we hear the Pharisee saying his prayers: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”.

Now, I hope we all recognize that there’s a problem with this prayer – standing up and telling God how great you are.  But that’s not the lesson for us.

The reality, you see, is that the Pharisee is right

Everything he’s saying is true.  The Pharisee’s concern above all else was keeping the laws of the Old Covenant as strictly and carefully as possible.  By the objective religious standard, he is a better Jew, a more observant God-fearer than thieves, evildoers, adulterers, or tax collectors.  The law required a fast once per year on the Day of Atonement, but he offered God a fast twice each week; the law required that you offer back to God a tenth of your living expenses and farm profits, but he offered back a tenth of every thing he received.

According to the law, according to the cultural and religious expectations of his day, the Pharisee is right.

The problem – and the lesson for us – is that, for as right as he certainly is, the second his “rightness” became a badge of honour that he could show to the world, it loses its value.

Sure, he’s no less right.  But, you know what the scriptures say: if you announce your good works, sure, they’re still good works, but “truly, I tell you, you have received your reward”.[2] 

After resisting the temptations to disobey the law, the Pharisee falls victim to that more sinister, chief sin of pride, which makes all of his obedience and religious progress worthless.  All the effort of following that narrow path becomes worthless if, in your looking around at others in their journey, you lose your footing at fall.

What is Humility?

There’s a lot to think about there.  Pride and humility are big ideas.

Unfortunately, we aren’t helped by what “humility” has come to mean in the way we speak.

We think, before anything else, of “humiliation”, when you’re made to feel ashamed or foolish by an attack on your dignity: that’s not humility, and as sons and daughters of God and members of Christ’s Body, humiliation is the furthest thing from what God wants for us.  After all, we’re made in His image, and he loves us so much, we’re worth so much, that before the foundation of the world He would offer his own son to redeem us.

Humiliation – an attack on your dignity by someone else – is not humility.

Humiliation – feeling humiliated – is an emotion, and a highly negative one at that, the feeling of responding to a public attack by another.

Humility, on the other hand, is not an emotion, but an attitude. 

Where humiliation is reactive, responding to what someone else has done, humility is a direction, a course that we set for ourselves.

Humility – having the quality of humbleness – means that we have become intentionally aware of our status, of our strengths and weaknesses, and our relationships to others.

Too often, we’ve allowed everyday speech – the same speech that, just under the surface, is building walls to divide “us” from “them” – to define “humble” as a polite way of saying “poor”, or as a kind way of saying that someone is weak or passive. 

But that’s not the point.  A person who is humble is aware of their status before God.  The word itself comes from a Latin word meaning “of the earth”, as our faith itself tells us that our entire existence depends on God, and as the dirt will one day be sprinkled on the earthly remains of every one of us, we are called to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Confidence in Christ

The Pharisee, proclaiming how much better he is than the others, is certainly not humble.

But, let’s take a moment to hear again the words of St. Paul, the blessed Apostle to the Gentiles, and see if we hear the difference in his speech:

“As for me, I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me…”[3]

Is this a humble speech?  Yes.

St. Paul knows his worth in the eyes of God as a sinner forgiven by grace, even as he awaits his trial in a Roman prison.

Like the Pharisee, St. Paul knows he has done what is required of him, and when he has messed up, he’s asked for forgiveness and started again.  Again, St. Paul, like the Pharisee, has full confidence in the reward that accompanies a life of faith.

The difference, though, is the attitude, the direction of their gaze.

St. Paul, a student and follower of Jesus, followed the narrow path; and now, nearing the end of what he describes as his earthly race, what does he do?  Does he stop and turn around to see how big of a lead he has?  No.  He keeps his eyes firmly fixed on Christ, knowing that, whatever he may face, his worth, his identity is secure as a child of God.

The Pharisee is also running the race of obedience, but instead of keeping his eyes on the prize, he’s focused instead on the others that he thinks he has left in the dust; but no one wins a race by focusing on how much better you are than the others; and the surest way to lose a race is to assume that you’ve already won.

And what about that tax collector?

Well, there’s no question: this man was a sinner.  Tax collectors were those who cooperated with the Roman oppressors, and were authorized to charge as much as they liked and to collect the debt by any means, even violence.  There’s no question, he robbed those in his own community to line his own pockets, and was probably personally responsible for widows losing their homes.

He was certainly universally hated; he had hurt everyone around him.  He came to the temple, but wouldn’t dare even enter, but stood out in the porch with his head down so people wouldn’t recognize him.  And while everyone else was performing the daily rituals of prayer, he bent down and said “God, have mercy on me a sinner”.

…And here’s the scary bit: that criminal – he’s the one who went home in a right relationship with God.

Is Jesus telling us to follow the example of the tax collector?  By no means; Jesus doesn’t condone the sin; and whenever Jesus encounters people in the Gospels he tells them to go and sin no more, making right what they have done wrong.

But it’s a matter of attitude: the tax collector knows where he stands; he knows he needs God’s mercy, and he makes no excuses.  He doesn’t stand there and say, “well at least I didn’t murder someone, or at least I’m not a homeless drunk”.  He needs mercy.  He asked for mercy. And he received mercy.  The Pharisee, as right as he was, didn’t receive anything, for he had already received his reward.

How, then shall we live?

Humility is not a popular concept.  But, it was St. Cyril of Alexandria who said “no true soldier who has seen battle brags that they came out alive while others fell”.[4]

We’re all on this journey.  The temptations may look different, but “there, but by the grace of God, go I”, and the moment we take our eyes off the prize to see how much farther ahead we are than those who are struggling is the moment we fall. 

But, from a place of humility; with the knowledge that we are all God’s children, and with our course set as followers of Christ, everything changes.  When you know who you are, as a forgiven Child of God, the dividing walls are no longer necessary.  When you know where your value lies, puffing ourselves up with pride no longer gains us anything.  When we are honest with ourselves about our own struggles, then we realize the mercy we’ve received, and can extend that grace to a world that is desperately hurting.

For, truly I tell you, all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.  To God be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.

[1] Volume IV.1, 60.2 of Church Dogmatics.  Barth begins by saying the chief sin is “unbelief”, which he explains as the pride of man in believing that we can be god, being our own law-giver, judge, and saviour.

[2] Matthew 6:2

[3] 2 Timothy 4:6-8a

[4] Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke, Homily 120, para.

Featured Image: “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector”, Acrylic on Canvas by Rebecca Brogan.