Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday: Jesus' Call to Humility

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church earlier today.]

Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11
Today, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, I want to talk with you about humility. Both our Gospel lesson from Matthew and our second lesson, written by the apostle Paul to the Christian church in the Greek city of Philippi, underscore that Jesus accomplished His mission of saving all who believe in Him from sin and death through His humble submission to the will of God the Father.

In recounting Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday when crowds hailed Jesus as a conquering king, our Gospel lesson remembers the Old Testament prophecy of Zechariah:
Tell the daughter of Zion, "Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey… 
Prophetic fulfillment or not, it may have been at this moment of seeming triumph that some in the crowd began to suspect that Jesus hadn’t come to be the sort of king for whom they were looking.

The people didn’t expect Jesus to be a humble Savior Who submitted to death on a cross as the ultimate and only atoning sacrifice for sin. They wanted Jesus to be a conquering king who fulfilled their expectations of Him,  destroying their Roman conquerors, lining their pockets with money, and making their lives easy.

You can imagine why, within a few days’ time, disappointed and angry that Jesus wasn’t the king they wanted Him to be, many in this same crowd who hailed Jesus as king would, by Thursday, call for His execution.

They wanted Jesus to exhibit humility, alright: a humble submission to their wants and whims and not to God the Father Whose intention it was (and is) to offer us much more than ease in this world.

He offers instead, an eternity of life with Him. And that eternity with God begins in this life, where God refashions us, sometimes in ways that bring us pain and humiliation, into the people God wills us to be, the people we were made to be.

Jesus was humble before the Father and so not only fulfilled His mission of dying and rising for us, but also reclaimed His rightful place as King of all creation, as your King and my King.

Look at the hymn to Jesus Paul quotes in our second lesson. You can find it on our Celebrate insert. Paul writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
Just as Jesus, Who never knew sin, had to humbly submit to the will of the Father in order to claim new, everlasting life for all who believe in Him, we who are sinners must humbly submit to God so that our old sinful selves can be crucified day by day and God can give us the life Christ has won for us.

That entails submission to Jesus Christ and His Word, the Bible, as the final authority over our lives.

It also means confessing our sins and humbly seeking and accepting His forgiveness.

And it means submitting to the death of the arrogant presumption we all inherited from Adam and Eve, that we can turn our backs on God's will and “be like God.”

The apostle Peter, who knew a thing or two about repenting for his sins and swallowing his pride, writes in 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you in due time.”

Jesus’ plan for those who follow Him is that, with Him, we will rule over creation for all eternity. But that will only happen when we humble ourselves, surrendering to Christ and Christ alone.

Now, please look at the very first verse of our processional Gospel, Matthew 21:1-11. That verse establishes this theme of humility. Look at what it says:
When they [that is, Jesus and His disciples] had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage [a town close to Jerusalem], at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples… 
Then Jesus gives instructions on how they’re to prepare for their celebration of the Passover.

The other day while preparing for this sermon, I noticed something in that first verse that I’d never seen before: The two disciples Jesus sent aren’t named.

Think about that! These two disciples are sent on one of the most important missions in human history and Matthew doesn’t see fit to give us their names. They aren't given any credit.

You already know why: Because who Jesus sent wasn’t important; Who sent them—Jesus—was everything.

Paul once quoted a Greek poet who said that in God "we live and move and have our being.” Those who simply walk in the good actions God has prepared for them beforehand to be their way of life don’t need credit.

All the credit and the glory go to God. Those who humbly trust in Christ have the simple and awesome privilege of living as God made human beings to live, imperfectly now and fully in eternity! “Have this mind you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes. Be humble as your King is humble.

The question which all this talk of humble submission to Christ lays before me anyway, is, “How humble am I willing to be for Christ?” How low am I willing to go in order to place myself completely under Jesus' Lordship?

Two weeks ago, I recounted the true story of Pastor Jim Cymbala’s encounter with a homeless man after worship on an Easter Sunday and how Cymbala’s revulsion melted and he was able to share the Savior Jesus with this man who desperately wanted Him.

During worship, right after I delivered that sermon, I prayed silently, telling God, “I try to share Jesus with people in my ministry all the time. But unlike the other people in this sanctuary, who don't have  credentials, titles, or clerical collars standing as walls between them and other people, I don’t always have the opportunity to share Jesus personally with others. Please give me that privilege, Lord.”

As I told the church council this past Tuesday, "Be careful what you pray for." Within minutes of my offering that prayer, a member of this congregation told me about someone who needed to hear about Jesus. On the following Monday, I got a call from a member telling me about someone else who needed the same thing. I went to both of those people, in absolute awe of the ways in which God answers our humble prayers. Later that week, I was able to share the Good News of Jesus with the family and friends of that second person when I was asked to preside at her funeral.

In the face of these answered prayers, all I could do was thank God and express my awe of His greatness and of His willingness to allow an imperfect sinner like me to play some small role in bringing Jesus to others. It was amazing!

Be in awe of God. But, please, do not be impressed with me! You see, this past week, I fell off the humility wagon.

Another phone call. Another person from outside of the congregation in need. But this time, like the priest and levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, I was preoccupied with my own agenda, bothered by this inconvenient interruption. I was curt with the person who made the request for help. “I can’t do everything,” I said. But, of course, God hadn’t asked me to do everything. He asked me to do just one thing…and that one thing was something I had actually asked Him to send my way!

Now, I can be thick-skulled. It can take me awhile to figure things out…or as Ann might put it, it takes some time before God’s two-by-four penetrates my consciousness. But yesterday, as I kneeled by my bed for my daily devotional and prayer time, I found it hard to pray. I sensed God telling me, “Don’t even think of praying right now. You have business to attend to.”

I remembered Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.“ I realized that I couldn’t offer my praise (or my requests) to God until I had done what I could to set things right with this person I had wronged.

So, I rummaged through my trash (that's humbling) until I found the discarded paper on which was written the telephone number of the person with whom I felt I’d been so short. I called. There was no answer. But thankfully, there was an answering machine on the other end of the line. I mentioned who I was and apologized for my wrong.

I don’t know if they’ve gotten the message yet. But I can tell you that I sensed a wall between God and me had been torn down. I was actually able to pray. I was able to come into God’s presence with joy once again. Remember what Peter wrote: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you in due time.”

We can’t manufacture humility. We can’t resolve to be humble. Humility is a gift we may not always want, but which truly is a gift. God will give us humility only as we submit to Jesus Christ, asking the Father and the Holy Spirit to give us the same humble spirit that caused Jesus to willingly ride a donkey into Jerusalem, knowing full well what horrors lay ahead of Him in the next few days.

As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, pray that God will fill you with the humble spirit of Jesus.

If you pray that prayer, there will be times, I suspect, when you too will fall off the humility wagon.

But it is the humble, those who willingly lay their whole lives under the authority of the God made known in Jesus Christ, who experience oneness with God.

They know the exhilaration of being part of God’s holy plans and work in the world.

They have the privilege of seeing what happens as they fulfill the great commandment to love God and neighbor and the great commission to make disciples in their neighborhood and in the world.

And it’s those who humbly surrender to Jesus Christ, believing in Him, who can look forward to a day when they will be exalted and hear those words of Jesus, which, as I’ve told you before, I long to hear more than any others: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave…enter into the joy of your master.”

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