A prominent New Testament scholar jokes about the man who wrote a book titled, Humility and How I Achieved It. Of course, a truly humble person would never be so wrapped up in themselves as to identify themselves as exemplifying humility.
And yet, for the Christian, cultivating humility is both central to our faith in Christ and reflective of Christ living in us because, despite being God, Jesus was always humble.
Hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, the prophet Zechariah, wrote of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly [or humble] and riding on a donkey...” [Zecharaiah 9:9]
And, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote in Philippians: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…” [Philippians 2:5-7]
Jesus humbled Himself, making Himself our servant, going to the cross to bear the condemnation for sin we deserve, then rising from death to open God’s eternity to all who repent of sin and believe in Christ.
It was humility that set Jesus free from allowing the certain horrors of the cross to keep Him from fulfilling His mission of saving the human race.
Humility can set us free to be the people God made us to be.
C.S. Lewis once observed that humility isn’t thinking less of ourselves, it’s thinking of ourselves less.
In true humility, there’s true freedom. When we follow Jesus Christ and know that we have God’s forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit guaranteeing us God’s presence with us now and in eternity with God, we’re set free from operating out of the pathetic human desire to be our own gods. Since we know that God is already looking out for us, eternally, we don’t need to “look out for number one.” We’re set free to live out of God’s love and truth revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus.
The call to humility is a common thread running through the seemingly disconnected set of sayings from Jesus that make up today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 17:1-10.
Unlike the parables of Jesus that have absorbed our attention over the past few weeks, which were addressed to people who followed Him and people who didn't, Jesus’ words in today’s lesson are spoken only to His disciples, followers of Jesus like you and me. Jesus is telling us how we disciples should live each day. Let’s take a look at what Jesus has to tell us this morning, starting at verse 1.
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.’
“[Jesus goes on] “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
I once spoke with a man who told me that he couldn’t put any symbol of His Christian faith--like a fish or a cross or a bumper sticker saying something like, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven”--on His car for fear that if he cut someone off in traffic or engaged in a fit of road rage or failed to forgive someone who had wronged him, people would think less of Christianity. “That’s too much pressure,” he told me.
I appreciated his honesty. It’s not easy being a Christian. As Christians, we know that we’re sinners saved by grace through faith in Christ, not because we’re such great and holy people. (I know that I’m not.) Sin still lives in us and a big part of the Christian life involves daily enlisting God’s power to overcome our sin. “Daily repentance and renewal” is what Martin Luther called it.
Because we know how unchristian we can be in our thoughts and actions, we might well think, “Who am I, an ordinary, garden variety sinner, to represent Jesus Christ to the world? Who am I, someone who muddles along in life, sometimes with only the tiniest wisp of a faith, to be, in the words of 2 Corinthians, an ambassador for Christ?” The truth is, it probably only makes sense to Jesus that we should be His representatives in the world.
And if we find fulfilling that role daunting, so did Jesus’ first disciples. After hearing Jesus say that if they led others into sin and away from God, it would be better to be deep sixed with a millstone around their necks and that, if they were going to bear His name, they needed to forgive those who apologized to them without keeping score, they reacted as maybe we react. Verse 5: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”
The disciples thought that they could be better Christians if they had bigger faith. We're inclined to think that too.
But Jesus’ response to the apostles shows us that the size of our faith should never prevent us from faithfully seeking to do His will. Verse 6: “[Jesus] replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”
We can do the big things that Jesus commands of us as individual Christians and as a Church, whether our faith is large or small. We can love God. We can love our neighbor. We can make disciples. We can forgive those who have hurt us. We can share the good news of new life for all who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus. We can reach up, reach in, and reach out.
We can do all of that with just a little faith in a great, big, omnipotent, omniscient, compassionate, loving God.
With a little faith in a big God--no matter our age, our training, our gender--we can do the will of God and bring God’s kingdom to the people in our lives. It all begins with the humble recognition that God is God and that, by God's grace, we are His people.
When I first came to faith in Christ, I was hesitant about sharing Him with others, especially my old school friends and classmates. In my imagination, I could see them rejecting the message of Christ coming from me because they remembered what a big-mouthed, overbearing loser I was.
Through the years, I’ve prayed for the opportunity to share Christ with the people with whom I grew up and I’ve asked God to get my brain off of me, onto Him and onto others.
In recent years, I’ve had the chance to share Christ with many members of my graduating class. And when we had our most recent reunion, after we’d all gotten our food and sat at our tables, one of my classmates approached me and asked, “Mark, would you say grace for us? I think it would be a really good thing to do.”
There’s no way self-absorbed Mark ever would have been asked to do that. When we let God set us free from worrying about how little we are and trust in how much He can do, God can use us for His good purposes. A little faith in a big God can accomplish a lot!
This is why Jesus commends humility. “Get out of the way and let me work through you,” Jesus is saying.
Christians know that our single mission in life--the mission of the Church of making disciples--is only accomplished when we recognize that it’s about God and not about us!
That, I think is why Jesus wraps up this section on humility in the way that He does, starting at verse 7: “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
Listen: Every disciple of Jesus Christ lives in the daily assurance that by God’s grace through our faith in Christ, we are saved from sin and death and are living in an eternal relationship with God. It doesn’t get any better than that! But there are no personal bragging rights in that. Christians aren’t better than other people, just freer than other people, more alive than other people, because of what Christ has done and our faith in Him. With Paul, we can say: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” [2 Corinthians 11:30] Like Paul, we know that when we are weak, the strength of Christ empowers us and is visible to others. God’s power is perfected in our weakness, our humility. [2 Corinthians 12:10]
And when we strive to live out of our faith in Christ, to trust in Him and heed the Bible’s commands, weak though we are, we do it only in the power of God.
Once, I singled out a person at a church I served as pastor for having undertaken some particular act of service. The congregation applauded. But after worship, the person told me, “I appreciated your words. But don’t ever do that again. Whatever good I do comes from the Lord and He’s the one who deserves the applause.” I didn’t entirely agree with that person: Holding up faithful examples to others can help the faith of us all. But I appreciated the humble reliance on Christ and the fact that she refused to take credit for what she knew God had done through her.
James writes in the New Testament: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” [James 4:10]
Peter says something similar: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” [1 Peter 5:6]
Humble reliance on Christ is essential to being a faithful disciple.
Jesus tells us that “with God all things are possible” [Matthew 19:26]. The fact is, there is no limit to what impossible things God can do through those who lose themselves in Christ’s grace and make themselves His servants.
May Christ teach us humility. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was shared during worship earlier today.]