Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B – Proper 20)
Sept. 20, 2009
Text: Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:10

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you,” writes St. James in our epistle lesson (4:10; ESV). Humility is hard to come by. Especially true humility. Not the false humility that makes a show of being modest, but the kind of humility that really knows and acknowledges the depths of one’s inabilities and weaknesses, of one’s sins. That kind of humility is the humility of repentance. That kind of humility is defined by St. James in this way: “Submit yourselves to God therefore” (v. 7). “Draw near to God” (v. 8). “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (vv. 8-9). Such humility places oneself under God’s authority and confesses the righteousness of His verdict: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He’s talking about me. He’s talking about you. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Confession of sins, repentance, submission to God, these are the marks of humility, the humility to which St. James admonishes us. But the problem is that such humility is foreign to our fallen flesh. Humility is hard to come by because it doesn’t come naturally. It cannot come from within us. True humility comes only from Christ, the humble One, who humbled Himself to take on the form of a servant, to be our Brother, to unite Himself with us sinners in our flesh, to die our death on the cross. Jesus Christ is the only truly humble One. The rest of us are either proud by nature, arrogant, defensive, self-righteous, or, when the hammer of God’s Law has broken us to pieces, we despair, thinking that we must save ourselves by our own works, by our own righteousness, and finding none within ourselves, that we must suffer everlasting death in hell because we could not deliver ourselves. The former attitude is that of brazen pride. The latter is perhaps self-effacing, but a pride nonetheless; a pride that says, “I should have been able to save myself, I had all the tools within me to do so, but I just didn’t do enough,” like the athlete who berates himself after a loss.

Behold the mess that the lack of humility has caused in this fallen world. St. James says that lack of humility causes “jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts” (James 3:14), “quarrels” and “fights,” “coveting” and “murder” (cf. 4:1-2). This happens even among Christians. The disciples in the Gospel lesson serve as a picture of this very thing. The disciples are deep in discussion on the road to Capernaum. Jesus is out of earshot. Of course He knows what they are discussing. You can’t pull a fast one on Jesus. He knows men’s hearts. But the disciples think it’s safe. They are arguing about who is the greatest. They still believe Jesus is here to be an earthly Messiah, to deliver the earthly kingdom of Israel from Roman oppression. They believe Jesus will be an earthly king. They are arguing about who will hold what rank in the new government. Surely Peter will be the King’s chief of staff! But then again, James, John, and even Andrew are major contenders for such a lofty position. John, after all, is the disciple whom Jesus loved! And yet again, maybe the other disciples felt slighted by Jesus’ inner circle. Why should they get all the glory? Perhaps a Thomas or a Philip or a Bartholomew would provide better leadership! Or maybe Matthew, the tax collector, who has experience in governmental affairs, or even (perish the thought) Judas Iscariot, the keeper of the moneybags! He at least deserves to be the high-ranking official at Jesus’ Internal Revenue Service!

All this jockeying for position and prestige leaves the air bitter and contentious. But the disciples are measuring greatness all wrong. It’s time for a lesson in humility. Having reached their destination, Jesus asks them what they were discussing along the way. Again, He knows. He’s looking for a confession. He’s looking for a little humility. And finding none (they kept silent in their shame), He calls the disciples to gather round and He takes a child and puts him in their midst and takes the child in his arms. And He says to His disciples, “You want to be first? I’ll show you how. Be last of all. Stoop down, get on the floor, and serve this little child as if he is your king. That’s how you become first in the Kingdom of heaven.” “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). When you humble yourself in such a way as to put the interests of others above your own, even the interests of those you sinfully consider less than yourself, then you serve not only that person, but Jesus, and in serving Jesus you serve the Father. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (v. 37).

To stoop down and serve a little child is Jesus’ picture of humility. This is the same Lord Jesus who, in the next chapter of Mark, will become indignant with His disciples when they rebuke the mothers and fathers bringing their precious little ones for a blessing. “Let the children come to me; do not hinder the, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (10:14). This is the same Lord Jesus who says, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child,” powerless, helpless, unable to bring anything to the table, unable to earn his position in the kingdom, simply trusting in the King… whoever does not receive the kingdom in this way, “shall not enter it” (v. 15). To stoop down and serve a little child is to serve the “least of these,” to become last. And Jesus says that in being last of all, the disciple becomes first. This is great encouragement as my wife and I gear up for baby number 2. Swimming in dirty diapers and spit-up, up every three hours for another feeding, enduring the colic, jumping at the whim of one so demanding yet utterly helpless… It takes humility. Unfortunately, my wife and I are not the picture of humility. We do it because we love our baby, to be sure, but we also do it because we have to. The truly humble one does it with no mixed motives. The truly humble one does it purely because it is his privilege. The truly humble one does it even when the child isn’t his own. The truly humble one does it even when the child isn’t a child. A Christian is to serve the neighbor in every need, joyfully, gratefully, no matter how inconvenient, no matter how gross, no matter what the circumstances, even if it means the death of him, because that is what love demands. Who of us can do that? We can’t, of course. We are too weak. We are sinful. It doesn’t come naturally to us. It can’t come from inside us at all. How often have we, like the disciples in our text, quibbled and quarreled and fought and insisted on our own way? It happens at work and at school, among our friends and acquaintances, in our families, and even here at church. Repent, beloved. We must confess what God has said of us in His word. There is no one righteous. All have sinned and fall short of His glory. We cannot live up to His righteous standard.

But do not despair. Jesus is the humble One. And He is the humble One in your place. God counts His humility as your own. He stoops down to serve the children of God, in spite of all their childishness. He who is very God of very God becomes flesh. He is born of a woman, born under the Law, that He might redeem those under the Law, those selfish, prideful, arrogant ones who revel in their own self-righteousness as well as those who despair without hope of salvation in Christ Jesus. He has come to redeem you. He who knows no sin becomes sin for you, that you might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). He takes your sin, your selfishness, your pride, your arrogance, your despair, and all that is wicked in you, into Himself, and nails it in His flesh to the cross. Here is true humility: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him” (Mark 9:31). He was “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer. 11:19). But the one who humbles himself before the Lord, him the Lord will exalt (James 4:10). “And when [the Son of Man] is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). Jesus, who is by divine right the very First, willingly becomes Last and Servant of all. And so He is the only One in all of human history who has truly earned the title “First.” “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 is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11). The disciples of Jesus Christ should not argue about who is the greatest. The disciples of Jesus Christ should not insist on their own way. That would mean giving in to the desires of the sinful flesh. Rather, the disciples of Jesus Christ should praise the One who is rightfully greatest, who made Himself nothing for our sakes, and who has thus been exalted by the Father to the right hand of the throne of God. The disciples of Jesus Christ should only insist on His way. In all other matters they should give glory to God, and in love, defer to their neighbor.

In this way, the disciples of Jesus Christ make a beginning of humility in this life, imperfectly mind you, for it must be so while we still walk in this sinful flesh. But that is why we confess our sins. For “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Such humility is a gift of God. It must come from outside of us. It is something only the Holy Spirit can accomplish in us as He creates in us new hearts. And He does accomplish it. Such humility is a gift received by faith. In humility, we trust in Christ, the humble One, the Last who is First. We trust in Him alone. Christ’s own humility is given to us, credited to our account, in Baptism. Thus possessing His perfect humility as our own, we live with humble hearts in repentance and faith toward God, and humble love toward one another. God grant us all such humility. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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