Monday, September 02, 2013

Humility: Standing Upside Down with Jesus

[This was shared during both worship services with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on September 1.]

Luke 14:1, 7-14

In Acts 17:6, people in the first-century city of Thessalonica had an interesting reaction to the apostle Paul and his team, who had come to proclaim the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and trust in the crucified and risen Jesus as their God.

They said: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also...”

These people who have been turning the world upside down...!

Paul and Silas, representing Jesus Christ in their teaching and preaching, were seen as radicals who upset the normal human way of thinking about living. Christians were seen as offering and living a radically different way of life than either the Jews or Gentiles of the mid- and late-first century had ever experienced. And it frightened people.

Unfortunately, Christians of today aren’t frightening people in the way Paul and Silas and party frightened people in Thessalonica back in the first century.

In fact, depending on which “wing” of the contemporary Church to which people belong, today’s Christians are turning very little of the world upside down.

Right wing Christians, at least in the United States, seem to speak not so much for surrender and submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as they do for a red-white-and-blue Jesus Who affirms them in their materialism, their self-styled decency, and their hatred for change.

Left wing, or so-called mainline, Christians tell a population resistant to submission to Christ that Jesus is just a man, the Bible is just a book, that Jesus didn’t mean it when He called Himself “the Way...the Truth...the Life,” and that only a narrow-minded bigot would accept as gospel-truth Jesus‘ claim that “no one comes to [God] the Father except through Me.”

Neither of these wings of Christianity are “turning the world upside down.” They’re just trying to fit in with a world that the Bible makes clear will one day be destroyed to make way for God’s new creation.

The Jesus preached by so many churches today is one who endorses people in their own predispositions, sins, and habits of thought, whether liberal, conservative, whatever. This version of Jesus isn’t turning anyone’s world upside down. He’s the cruise director on the HMS Titanic, keeping everybody comfortable in their own self-centered world views and self-satisfied living as every human being hurtles toward the judgment we all will and must face.

“Wait a minute!” you might say. “Jesus is the Friend of sinners. Paul and Silas may have been zealot hot-heads who went off on illogical tangents of Christian idealism. But Jesus wouldn’t want to turn our worlds upside down. He doesn’t want to change me, just comfort me.”

Listen: It is precisely because Jesus is the friend of sinners that He wants to change us.

He wants to make us feel uncomfortable in living life in the selfish, self-centered ways that represent our default positions as people born in sin.

Until we feel uncomfortable in our sins--until we are dissatisfied with the fact that we are idol-worshipers, thieves, gossips, adulterers, dishonorers of our parents--until we understand that we commit these sins because we are sinners who cannot help ourselves, we will never understand our need of the help that Jesus has come to give to us.

We will never see how desperately we need Christ to free us to choose to walk away from sin and toward being actual human beings until we’re uncomfortable enough to let Christ change us.

Until we’re uncomfortable with our own sin, our Christianity will be a going-through-the-motions religion and not an eternity-changing relationship with God.

The only way Jesus can ever bring us comfort is if, day by day, moment by moment, we remain open to letting Him change us, transform us.

The gifts of salvation and new, eternal life with God are free for all who believe in Jesus. But to believe in Jesus--the real Jesus--will turn our worlds upside down! Our treasured ways of thinking must be crucified, daily, in our repentance and confession, and in God’s forgiveness, given in Christ. The habits we dismiss as being simply the way we are, must be put on the cross, so that the new people God is making of us in Christ can rise!

Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, came to turn our worlds upside down!

Just how topsy turvy the new world--the kingdom of God--that Jesus lived, died, and rose to give us truly is, can be seen in today’s Gospel lesson.

It finds Jesus, on a sabbath day, at a banquet in the home of a Pharisee. In chapter 14, Jesus tells three parables. Two of them are in our lesson. But I want to focus on just the first one this morning. It’s set in verses 7 to 11. Let’s a take a look:
So Jesus told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them:  "When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, 'Give place to this man,' and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, 'Friend, go up higher.' Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
First century Judea in which Jesus lived, died, and rose was as an honor/shame culture. What people thought of you could be a life and death matter. People had feuds or worse over matters of honor. And your status played out in every aspect of daily life.

We haven’t really gotten over this. Every school playground has its pecking order, for example. And we build monuments and give awards to millionaires who may otherwise be stinkers but decided to give a chunk of money to the local college or community charity. In the meantime, we may ignore the everyday sacrifice made by the old widow who serves her neighbors and friends.

But Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and that those who humble themselves will be exalted. So, he tells us, don't take places of honor. Be willing to take the lower place in any pecking order; you might get invited to a place of honor.

Now, don’t misunderstand what Jesus is saying here. I’ve heard motivational speakers say things like: “Be willing to serve others; you might gain a better place in the world from it.” "Scratch other people's backs so that they'll scratch yours." Folks, that is the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying in our Gospel lesson.

Jesus is not telling us to play the humble card so that we can manipulate others into giving us what we want in this world, like a better seat at the banquet, or tickets on the 50-yard line at Ohio Stadium, or a cushy job, or an inheritance.

This is a parable. And all of Jesus’ parables are about the kingdom of God, the reign of God.

Where God rules, things are different than under the dog-eat-dog rules of sinful human beings. In the kingdom of God, all who have been saved from sin and death by faith in Jesus Christ alone, already have a preferred place at the table, every single one.

You don’t need to scheme or cheat to get it.

You don’t have to work hard to attain it.

You don’t have to have been born into the right circumstances.

And you don’t have to take places of honor when you know the greatest honor imaginable has already been paid you: the King of all creation died and rose for you.

All you do is admit that you're a sinner in need of saving, trust your life to Jesus, and fall into His gracious, saving arms.

That’s it.

We are exalted when, sinners though we are, we accept Jesus’ invitation to His banquet--to the kingdom of God and are made eternally clean, eternally children of God!

This means that arrogance is neither a necessity nor an option in the kingdom of God.

Each of us who stands each day in humility before God acknowledging our sin and our need of the forgiveness that Christ died and rose to give us, cannot pretend to be anything other than what we are, garden variety sinners turned into saints, holy ones, of God, solely by grace through faith in Christ.

This is how upside down Jesus’ kingdom is! In every other kingdom of the world, the honors go to those who have pushed and elbowed their ways to the top. In the kingdom of God, the honors go to those who trust in Christ, who let Christ call them and lead them and work through them.

And every one who trusts in Christ wears a crown.

All who believe in Christ are seated in God’s banquet hall!

The ultimate arrogance, of course, is for human beings to think we don’t need God.

Or, in another guise of faithlessness, to think we only need God for the things we can't handle ourselves.

Or, in another, to believe that Christ is optional for salvation.

Or, in another, that we haven’t sinned badly enough to lose our place in the kingdom of God.

Or, in yet another, to think that God’s Word is whatever we decide it is.

Friends, that all these ways of thinking, some of them having currency in the Church today, represent the way of the world, not of God.

They're all part of the easy way: the way of using people, sometimes pushing them out of the way, other times playing to the crowd to win their votes, their confidence, their money, their respect, all the while losing our own eternal souls.

Jesus once said: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The way of humility and servanthood over arrogance, of submission to Jesus Christ and the holy Word of God, is the narrow way, the harder way to take in this world.

It’s the way that glorifies God for the simple privilege of being part of His family and never presuming to be better than anyone else...just forgiven, just made right with God by grace through faith in Christ. This is the way of life with God!

People who trust in Christ as their God and King know that no matter what situation into which they walk--banquets or ICUs, corporate negotiations or church meetings, worship services or firing squads, into death itself, they walk with Jesus! 

As they trust in Christ, they are already being exalted by God.

They have been called by name, marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit for all eternity.

Their worlds have been turned upside down and they don’t need to follow the dying world.

They know that every earthly banquet hall will one day be destroyed, every worldly honor will be forgotten, every bank account and stock portfolio will go to someone else, all of it finally burned up in the final conflagration that will engulf this old, dying planet.

But salvation--the privilege, the honor, of being made a child of God by the precious blood of Jesus shed on the cross and by His resurrection from the dead--cannot and will not be taken from the one who sticks with Jesus.

But he who endures to the end shall be saved,” Jesus says. Those who endure in faith in Jesus will have their lives turned right-side-up even in this world and they will stand with their Savior forever.

Keep following Jesus and no one else!

Stand under the authority of God’s Word and none other!

It will turn your world upside down and make you whole, now and forever. Amen

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