I had the opportunity to do some supply preaching on Sunday. Here is what I shared.
Humility Precedes Holiness
November 3, 2019
Recently a New York Times columnist asked a social psychologist a question over breakfast. “What is the most constructive contribution,” he asked between bites, “that Christians could make to American public life?” In other words, what is the one characteristic of Jesus followers that would have the biggest positive impact on our culture? How might you answer that? What Christian value or principle or behavior would most improve your workplace or school or your time in the check-out line or on the freeway?
The social psychologist is an atheist “who finds much to admire in religion.” What is the most important thing Christians can offer? His answer was one word: humility.
This friendly atheist may understand Jesus better than do most American Christians. Many of our co-religionists would have much different responses. These days many Christians seem to think that following Jesus is about power, privilege, and prosperity. Apparently they haven’t read Luke 6 recently.
I have a brief thought to leave with you today. Humility precedes holiness.
We Lutherans get very nervous about holiness. Just a week ago we remembered Luther’s Reformation Revolution. Justified by grace through faith–that’s the Lutheran brand. And this is not our own accomplishment. This right relationship is God’s gift through Jesus by the Spirit’s power. So talking about holiness sounds like a step back into the chains of salvation by works.
Humility precedes holiness. Humility is not humiliation. Humility is not thinking less of yourself. Rather, humility is thinking of your self less. Humiliation is done to me. Humility is a choice I make.
Holiness is not perfection in prayer. Holiness is not purity in morals. Holiness is not limited to Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu. Holiness is our answer to God’s call to be ourselves. Holiness is what it means to be fully and finally human as God made us to be.
Humility precedes holiness. Martin Buber shares the story of Rabbi Zusya in his book, Tales of the Hasidim. Rabbi Zusya died and stood before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”
So that’s what God means by humility. Strive always to be all that God created you to be. God has created us in God’s image and likeness. You and I are made to be like God. If we want to know what that looks like, we can take our cues from Jesus. In Luke 6, we get a picture of full humanity.
But first, let’s look a bit closer at Jesus. I think about how Paul describes Jesus in Philippians, chapter two, verse eight. Paul writes that Christ Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.” This is the gospel in a nutshell. God becomes like us so that we can be like God. Jesus’ humility precedes our holiness. When God raises Jesus, God exalts us and all of Creation.
Humility means being what God made you. Holiness means being like God. Now we come to the bottom like in Luke 6. “Be merciful,” Jesus tell us, “just as your Father is merciful.”
That’s what it means to be like God. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful. First, that means that God is merciful. God is slow to anger, forgiving, steadfastly loving. So every person I meet is a recipient of that mercy. God’s mercy isn’t limited by my preferences and priorities. My enemies are not God’s enemies. I don’t get to determine who’s on God’s Naughty List.
Be merciful just as your Father is merciful. Second, this is a description and a destiny, not a demand. Merciful is what we’re made to be. We see that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The more we live in mercy, the more fully human we become.
Be merciful just as your Father is merciful. We are made and called to be like God. We see in Jesus how that works. We are most fully human when we are merciful in the same way that God is merciful. God is merciful with no need for repayment, with no self-interest, with no self-justification, with no self-defense. So now we come back to the specifics of Luke 6.
For example, loving enemies is central to Luke’s gospel. We get a big dose of that today. But think further. In Luke we get the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We get the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We get the conversion of Zacchaeus. In Luke you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an enemy. And what does Jesus do? He forgives them. He embraces them. He sits down to dinner with them. He even makes a hated Samaritan the hero in one of our favorite stories.
Much of the time I wish that God had higher standards. Then I remember some words in Romans five, verses six through eleven. While we were weak, ungodly, enemies God–Christ died for us. For me! I’m pretty happy God doesn’t have high standards when it comes to me. Can I want less for anyone else?
Yet, Jesus’ words get little traction among American Christians. Some say they don’t want “some meek and mild leader or somebody who’s going to turn the other cheek.” Instead, some American Christians want someone who is the meanest, toughest guy we can find to protect us. I’m all in favor of competent and firm and just leaders. But I do think that Luke 6 has not yet been removed from the Christian Bible. It seems that God is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” It’s hard to be like God, But that’s our calling.
Humility precedes holiness. And there’s no holiness without wholeness. Now we finally, get to the blessings and woes in the first section of the text. It’s not that being rich, full and happy are bad things. It’s not that being poor, hungry, and sad are good things. But it IS bad if I can be rich, full and happy while other children of God are poor, hungry and sad. The author and equal justice advocate, Bryan Stevenson, puts it this way. “There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
Scripture puts it in similar ways. “If one member suffers,” Paul writes in First Corinthians twelve, verse twenty-six, “all suffer together with it. If one member is honored,” he continues, “all rejoice together with it.” The writer of John’s first letter is even more direct. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods,” the writer asks, “and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help.”
Poverty, hunger and sadness are not good. But in such states we may be more open to our need and desire for God. Being rich, full and happy may blind us to our desire for God and our need for wholeness.
A few weeks ago the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus made precisely that point. The great chasm that wealth created followed the rich man to his doom.
The other day I heard the CEO of Paypal describe how entry level workers at his company struggled to make ends meet on their wages. I’m in no position to judge that executive. He seemed sincerely concerned. But I do know his reported earnings in 2018 totalled not quite thirty-eight million dollars. This economic chasm has become the norm in our economy. I don’t think it has God’s blessing.
Humility precedes holiness. I am honored to be part of a church that gets this. We give ourselves and our stuff to the poor, the hungry and the sad. We advocate for criminal justice and climate change. We welcome all people in the name of Jesus by the power of the Spirit. We put ourselves aside so others can be blessed. We pray to be merciful as our Father is merciful.
Every day I start over on that journey in prayer. I am challenged and comforted by the words of Martin Luther. “This life is therefore not righteousness but growth in righteousness,” Luther writes, “not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise.” May the Holy Spirit strengthen us for the struggle! Let’s pray…
Pastor Lowell Hennigs