I’m late again. It’s hard to post sermons right after church when you don’t get home for another two days. So, here is this past Sunday’s sermon, late enough that everyone is probably already looking to next Sunday’s sermon. Does that mean this is retro?
Saint Paul, writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, instructs us to walk in humility. The Gospel reading records the words of our Lord which encourage the same thing. Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. Humility is a godly trait. The world sees little value in it. Even in the church – in times of trouble we used to have readings for a “Day of humiliation and prayer”, but it has now been changed to “day of supplication and prayer”. Supplication is a type of prayer, so the new title doesn’t really make sense. Why the change? Why switch from a perfectly good title that made sense to one that is less clear and makes less sense? First, because we don’t know what humiliation is. It doesn’t mean embarrassed. If you trip and spill a whole folder of papers on the floor, that isn’t humiliating. It’s embarrassing. To humiliate is something you do to yourself – it is showing humility in the presence of one greater than yourself. Bowing before the king. And that’s the real problem we have today. We don’t want to admit that anyone can be greater than we are. We live in a world filled with radical equality. Everyone is equal in all things. Certainly, under the law, it’s godly to treat people equally. All those endowed by their creator with life should receive equal treatment under the law. But equal treatment does not mean equal outcome. We have jobs that pay differently, we have houses that are different, we have families that are different. We aren’t all the same. The CEO is greater than the Vice President of Production. The parent is greater than the child. The teacher is greater than the student. The world can not accept the reality that there are differences. The world is caught up, not in humility, but in self esteem. Self-esteem is just a more subtle variant of pride. The world celebrates pride these days. But there is no room for pride in the life of a Christian. It is a sin. So what does it mean to be prideful? And what does it mean to have proper Christian humility? Our Gospel reading helps us to understand the difference between pride and humility – between worldliness and godliness.
The Pharisees are proud of their ability to keep the Sabbath. They are so good at it, that it gets in the way of loving their neighbor. They think Jesus couldn’t possibly heal the man on the Sabbath – it is forbidden. Of course, they couldn’t heal the man any day of the week. It’s a god-power to heal. Jesus has that power. They don’t. But even if they could heal him, they wouldn’t do it on the Sabbath. They are so good at keeping the law – and so proud of how well they keep the law, that they can no longer love their neighbor. This sort of pride – the sort that wants us to be able to do something for God. To earn his favor, to deserve eternal life, to make our works have merit before him – that sort of pride leads to legalism. I can keep the law so well that I now judge you as less worthy of receiving the love and mercy of God. That’s what the Pharisees were really saying. Their pride got in the way of love. In order to keep their man made laws, they broke the everlasting Law of God.
Their reliance on the law to save themselves actually condemns them. That is where pride leads – condemnation. It is a sinful inability to humbly come before God and seek his grace and mercy, and to show true love to our neighbor. Jesus shows this in his simple question. Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath. By any technical definition, healing is work, and you can’t work on the Sabbath. But questions about the law are better as academic exercise than as a means for watching a man suffer. Jesus sees someone with dropsy – he’s all puffed up with water. The man needs help. And Jesus question about whether it is lawful to help him show the Pharisees what their law really is – an excuse for sinful pride.
Jesus then tells them not to pick the best places when they go somewhere to eat. It seems unconnected to his previous comment about helping someone, but again, Jesus is pointing out their pride. If you go to a big dinner, are you up at the front or squeezed into one of the back tables? If you are good enough friends, or if you are an important enough person, then you get the good spot. The less important people get placed farther away. In every family, there is a moment when you get to move from the kiddie table to the adult table. For a 5 year old, sitting at the kiddie table is no problem. But if you are a teenager and still exiled to eat with the children, it reinforces your low standing in the family. There are too many other big people for you to move up. When you can finally move to sit with the adults – that means you have arrived. You aren’t just a kid anymore. It’s not the table itself, it’s the same table you eat at every night when it’s just immediate family. But to sit there with the extended family, it means you are no longer little, small, insignificant.
How much of our lives and efforts are wasted trying, in one way or another, to sit at the big table. To get the next step up in honor, to receive kudos and plaudits from those around us, and worst of all, to please God with your fine works so that you can finally know you’ve arrived, finally know that he likes you, that your works are acceptable to him.
For Martin Luther, the question, “Am I acceptable before God” was a real one, and a question that terrified him. Luther thought that, if he was not good enough, if he didn’t keep the law properly, he would go straight to hell. It took him years to re-discover the beautiful Gospel truth – Jesus did the work for you. He emptied himself. He became nothing. He humiliated himself before his heavenly father by becoming obedient unto death, even death on the cross. You can’t earn your salvation. Jesus earned it for you, and he gives it to you freely as a gift.
We are familiar with this Gospel, because we hear it week after week. For Luther, the Gospel was obscured, and he only rediscovered it after years of prayer and struggle as he studied the Word of God.
Today, the idea that somehow God might not accept us is considered a silly one. Self-esteem says, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me. I’m ok, you’re ok.” Most people in America today can not imagine a god that would actually punish those who reject the salvation offered through the death of Jesus. Whatever happens after death, it must be a reward for all your fine works. No problems, no worries. No thought of judgment, no thought of anything but your own self-esteem, and your own accomplishments, and your own self-satisfied person.
The Pharisees were filled with pride because they thought they could earn God’s favor by keeping the law, they thought they could tell how well they were doing by looking around to see where they sat in the pecking order. If that was what Jesus condemned in them, then what will Jesus condemn when he looks at our prideful works? The self-inflating puffed up-ness of the sinner. The self delusion of goodness that fills our sinful minds.
Jesus comes and says, no. The son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus has no pride. No false sense of self worth and entitlement. He lays down his life for you, because you are not able to live your life for him. And when you try to earn the favor of God, it comes out looking like the those Pharisees – making rules that are more about how good you look to God than about actually loving the Lord God, and serving your neighbor. Pride sends you looking inside yourself to find the best spots so you are good enough, instead of humbling yourself to serve others – to follow that path of Jesus to humiliation and death. Pride tells you to demand your rights, instead of submitting in love to God. Jesus gives his life as a ransom for yours. And the sinful nature responds to Jesus sacrifice by saying, OK, I’ll accept the forgiveness, but first let me show you what I can do. Let me show you my fine works, and then if you still aren’t impressed, then maybe I’ll accept this forgiveness from you.
But pride has no place in the kingdom of heaven. You can’t get into heaven by working your way part-way there, and taking Jesus for the rest of it. You can’t work your way to heaven by starting the first few steps, or even the first part of a step, and then having him finish it for you. If you want to get into heaven, if you want to be forgiven your sins, it has to be because like that man with dropsy, you just stood there looking pathetic, and Jesus did it all. That’s how Jesus saves you – all, or none. There is no work or competition on your part to do a little bit here and there to assist the process. You have to let go of your accomplishments, your efforts, your pride that insists that something about you is good enough for God. You must humble yourself so that Jesus can do it all for you. The perfect life, the judgment of death, the suffering and agony, the bloody sweat and passion, the precious death and burial, the resurrection and the ascension. He does it all. And then he gives it to you as a gift. When an infant comes to font, there is no worth in that baby – that is, the baby hasn’t done anything to deserve saving. And yet, God saves the baby through that washing of water and the word, through faith given as a gift by the spirit. The baby does nothing for it’s salvation. And if you want to be saved, you can never add to that in any way. It’s Jesus, start to finish.
The good works you do, taking care of your family, showing love to those around you – they are a result of Jesus work in and for you, not some sort of way that you help with that.
If you want to help with that, then you have to stand with the Pharisees, and make laws about this or that, that end up being nothing more than excuses to judge your neighbor and watch him suffer while you stand idly by saying, I’d like to help you, but it’s the Sabbath. And you watch for the best places, looking to see some sort of evidence that your hard work is paying off, that God really does like you, that you must be saved because of all the blessings he has given you.
But that’s not salvation. That’s worldly success, that’s a law-based life. A life in Christ is a life where you are sick, dying, dead, and Jesus comes to you and fixes it without you doing anything. He takes your sin, even the damnable sin of pride, and he takes it to the cross, and he suffers for your sin and dies for you and that sin dies with him. And you are given life.
But that life is a life in and through Jesus. It’s the only way. It’s never you. It’s him. Jesus only. Amen.