Sermon 06-22-14: “He Who Humbles Himself”

June 30, 2014

Wedding Receptions

This sermon explores the nature of Christ-like love—especially its demand for humility. “What if we woke up every morning with this thought in our minds and our hearts: ‘I don’t deserve any of this, Lord. I don’t deserve this gift of life—of love, of family, of friends. I don’t deserve the financial and material gifts you give me. I certainly don’t deserve your love and grace and mercy. I know I was “bought with a price”—the infinite price of your Son Jesus, dying on the cross.’ ‘O to grace how great a debtor!’ I can’t begin to pay you back!’ What if we woke up praying a prayer like that and then spent time in God’s Word each day reminding ourselves of that truth!” 

I also applied this lesson to Vacation Bible school, for which our church had been busily preparing.

Sermon Text: Luke 14:1-14

No video this week: instead you get to hear the sermon in old-fashioned audio! Click on the play button below or right-click on this text to download a separate .mp3 file.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

People of my generation got some sad news a couple of weeks ago: Ann B. Davis, the woman we know and love as Alice on The Brady Bunch, the live-in maid, the cook, the dispenser of Yoda-like wisdom, died at age 88. Those of us who grew up on The Brady Bunch loved Alice. We all wanted an Alice in our lives, right? At least some of us were blessed to know someone like Alice.

alice01

Did you know that in 1976, a couple of years after the show went off the air, Ann B., as she was affectionately called, came to know Jesus in a personal way, as her Savior and Lord? She had a conversion experience. In an interview in the early-’90s she joked to People magazine, “I was born-again. It happens…even to Episcopalians.” And although she participated in occasional Brady reunions over the years, she mostly retired from show business and acting and devoted the rest of her life to serving the Lord—offering her testimony at churches all over the country, working in homeless shelters, teaching in church schools, and always worshiping and serving through her local church.

ann_b_davisHer pastor said that when she first volunteered for the homeless shelter, she insisted on doing something “away from the spotlight.” So for years that meant doing laundry for homeless people—surely one of the most humble acts of service imaginable.

But she would always happily sign an autograph for any fan who wanted one—on one condition: she would only sign her autograph on church bulletins. That way, she figured, she at least encouraged people to go to church!

Isn’t that awesome?

How many of us, if we were in Ann B.’s shoes, would make that same decision? To leave behind the spotlight, the fame, the recognition, the praise, the money, not to mention all the good stuff that money can buy—to leave it all behind because, well, we found something even better? The love of our Lord Jesus Christ. I suspect most of us don’t want to have to choose. We want to serve the Lord, by all means…but not at the expense of all these other things that our heart desires. Not at the expense of everything else that we want to do and accomplish in life.

But today’s scripture teaches us that we should be more like Ann B.!

Jesus is invited to a dinner party thrown by a wealthy, prominent member of society—a leading Pharisee, we’re told. A religious leader. And he’s invited all of his powerful and influential friends. And Luke tells us that they’re watching Jesus carefully. They’re testing him. They’ve likely heard the disturbing rumor that Jesus has done the unthinkable and healed someone on the Sabbath—which they believe is against God’s law. They want to see if he’s really doing that. Because if he is, well…he can’t be a member of their club. So someone in their party likely brings to Jesus a man with a disease that most Bible translations call dropsy. We would call this edema today—the body retains water and swells up.

So the man’s obviously sick. It’s the Sabbath. “Let’s see would Jesus will do?” If he doesn’t heal the man, he’ll earn the praise, respect, and friendship of these powerful and important people. If he heals the man, well, he’ll have made some powerful and important enemies. Jesus was fully human. There’s no reason to think that he didn’t feel the temptation to make himself look good in front of these people. He could have rationalized it and by telling himself, “Well, this man with dropsy will be around tomorrow, when it’s not the Sabbath. I’ll heal him then.” So he still could have healed the man, just not right then. And if he hadn’t healed the man right then, he could have gained some friends and supporters, who could have then backed his ministry financially.

I heard on the news just this morning that Pope Francis was preaching in a part of Italy where the Mafia wields great power and influence. He told the people there that if you’re associated with the mob, you’re automatically excommunicated. Isn’t that awesome? What courage! What integrity! I’m sure a lot of these mobsters give a lot of money to the Catholic Church. I’m sure they have powerful and important friends—clergy people—in the church who will not be happy with the Pope. And Francis just does the right thing anyway! I love it!

Brothers and sisters, may we all strive to be people with that kind of integrity! Authentic people. Transparent people. No matter the cost! I promise I am striving to be the same person outside of the pulpit that I am in the pulpit! I long to be a person about whom you can say, “What you see is what you get.” I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it, and I’m making progress by God’s grace.

Well, if Jesus was tempted in this way, he doesn’t give into it. Instead, he does the right thing and heals the man. And he says something profound: “If one of your own children—or, heck, even one of your own oxen—fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to rescue him or it?”—the implication being, “Why wouldn’t you do the same for someone else who needs rescuing—or healing, or saving?”

And of course Jesus knows the answer to that question: The reason that these Pharisees would gladly rescue their child or their ox from a well on the Sabbath but wouldn’t rescue a man from a terrible disease on the Sabbath is really simple: they don’t love this man nearly as much as they love their own children, or even their own animals!

neko

Speaking of which, I’ve heard about pet owners who spend very large amounts of money on expensive surgery to save the lives of their dogs or cats. I’m not judging them…they have the money to spend. They obviously just love their pets that much. But sometimes I look at my poor dog, Neko, and I say to her, “You just better not get sick!”

But the point is, if we love someone—or somethingenough, we will move heaven and earth to save them. We’ll devote the time we need to devote. We’ll spend the money we need to spend. We do these things because these people, or these things, are our top priority. If given a choice between investing our time, treasure, and talent into saving the lives of people we truly love, or investing it in something else, we don’t give it a second thought. Life-saving surgery for your child? Do it! But don’t you want to know what it will cost? I don’t care. Do it! If it costs everything, it’s worth it. There’s nothing more important—even if it means all my money, all my possessions, all my time, all my energy, all my talent—there’s nothing more important than saving this person’s life.

In so many words, Jesus is telling these powerful and important religious authorities, “You don’t love people enough. Because your own actions make it clear that if someone is important enough to you, you’ll do whatever you can to help them. Why wouldn’t you help this man? Why do you think I shouldn’t help this man? How can you claim to understand God’s law if you’ve misunderstood the most important part of that law: to love your neighbor as you love yourself?”

So, let’s apply this scripture to our church. There are approximately 35,000 living within a five-mile radius of this church. According to very recent population surveys, fewer than 20 percent attend church regularly. That’s low, even relative to other parts of the metro Atlanta area. So today, as on nearly every other Sunday, about eighty percent of the people around us—about 28,000 people—stay at home or choose to do something other than attend church. 28,000 people who rarely if ever darken the door of a church. 28,000 people who rarely if ever hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. 28,000 people, many of whom are children and don’t have a choice in the matter! They’re growing up without Jesus, and Satan has got to love that! And don’t imagine that Satan won’t do whatever he can to prevent our church from reaching those children!

My point is, it’s safe to say that a large percentage of these people are lost and in need of the saving grace of God, made available through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So my question is, how much do we love lost people?

Jesus is challenging us to love them like we love our own children. And how do we love our children? Sacrificially. We gladly sacrifice for them. But this kind of costly love, Jesus says, ought to characterize the way we love everyone! Sacrificially. Without worrying about what we get in return!

We’re not good at this! Let’s face it! We often love in order to get something in return—to be paid back. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points out that there are those very religious people who like to stand in the synagogue and on the street corners and pray out loud—so that they can be seen and heard by others? What does he say about them? They have received their reward. The same with almsgiving. When they give to the needy, they sound a trumpet—so that others will notice how generous they are. They also have “received their reward.” So it looks like they love God when they pray these beautiful, heartfelt prayers, and it looks like they love their neighbors when they give all this money to the poor, but they’re really loving themselves: they’re feeding their own ego with the praise and adoration of other people. They’re not sacrificing anything; they’re getting something in return. They’re getting paid back.

And that’s why there’s this jostling for position among the dinner guests in verse 7. The table would have been in the shape of a “U,” with the host of the dinner seated at the base of the U. The closer you were to the host, the more important you were. And back then, dinner parties were “open to the public”—not that everyone was invited to the table, but the doors of the house would be open. People in the village could come and go, and see who was there and where they were sitting. So if you were sitting in a seat of honor near the host, well, you were broadcasting to the world how important you were. So maybe you were famous in the community for your charitable giving. Maybe your were considered especially holy or righteous. Maybe you performed some important service for the host giving the dinner. One way that you were “paid back” for these acts of service was by sitting at a place of honor at the table.

So you feel like you’ve earned your place at the table through your good works—and you don’t want someone “beneath you” to steal your place. The most practical thing you can do, Jesus says, is sit at the least important seat. You can only move up from there—and you won’t humiliate yourself in the process.

Practical advice, to be sure. But Jesus’main point isn’t how we conduct ourselves at dinner parties. He’s making a deeper point. Like so many of his parables, he’s making a statement about what God’s grace is all about: We don’t earn our place at the table in the kingdom of God. We’re not entitled to anything. Everything we receive from God is a completely undeserved, unexpected gift.

My family and I were in St. Simons Island for a few days’vacation last week. We got a “clergy discount” from the owner of a condo near the beach. I went running on the beach that first morning—and you can see from this picture just how “spiritual” I am. Because look at me! I’m actually running on water! I asked myself, “What would Jesus do?” And then I did it! It takes a lot of faith! But when I returned from my run, I turned on the shower, only to discover…there was no hot water. I let it run for a long time to make sure, but still no hot water. And I thought to myself, “Well, I almost don’t feel like complaining, because, after all, I got a great deal on the place, and we’re so close to the beach, and it’s otherwise a perfectly nice condo. But no, this isn’t good. I should call. Maybe the owner can send a plumber out.”

As it turns out, my wife came in and said, “Did you try turning the knob the other way?” And sure enough… hot water!

But forget about that! Suppose, before we ever planned this trip, someone came to me and said, “I’m going to give you and your family a lovely, spacious condo near the beautiful white-sand beaches of St. Simons Island for a week. It will be completely free of charge, and the weather will be postcard-perfect. The only thing is, there’s no hot water in the condo. Do you still want the place?” And I’d be like, “Absolutely I do! Who cares about cold showers! I hardly even take showers!” Now suppose, by contrast, you were on your honeymoon, and you expect everything to be perfect because you paid a ton of money to make sure that it would be. How differently would you feel now if the hot water wasn’t working? You’d be indignant. You’d be like, “How dare you give us this place with no hot water! Fix it immediately!”

Now… It’s the exact same place either way. The only thing different is your expectations! With one set of expectations, you’re just delighted to be there; with the other, well…it’s a recipe for bitterness, anger, resentment.

What if we woke up every morning with this thought in our minds and our hearts:“I don’t deserve any of this, Lord. I don’t deserve this gift of life—of love, of family, of friends. I don’t deserve the financial and material gifts you give me. I certainly don’t deserve your love and grace and mercy. I know I was ‘bought with a price’—the infinite price of your Son Jesus, dying on the cross.”[1] “O to grace how great a debtor!” I can’t begin to pay you back!” What if we woke up praying a prayer like that and then spent time in God’s Word each day reminding ourselves of that truth!

If we could do that each day, we’d be happy to sacrifice for others. Like Ann B. Davis, we’d even be happy to exchange our money, our popularity, the praise and adoration of others, for the opportunity to wash the filthy socks of homeless people! Because we know from Matthew 25 that when we serve the least among us—like homeless people—we are actually doing nothing less than serving Jesus himself: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”[2]

And did you know that Jesus served the “least of these” when he loved children. Remember his disciples tried to shoo the children away: “The master’s got more important things to do than play with you kids.” But did Jesus feel that way? Absolutely not! “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”[3]

Speaking of which, I want to say a special word to all the volunteers who have already served and will continue to serve this week in Vacation Bible School. So many of you have already given so much of yourselves to make this event, which begins tonight, a success. I know it can be—at times—difficult, frustrating, thankless, exhausting work. And I don’t blame you if at times you want to pull your hair out! I get it. It can make you wonder, “Why am I doing this? Is it worth it?”

And it doesn’t help that preachers like me have failed you. Because, you see, we have taught you to believe that when you make a commitment to serve in VBS, you are making a commitment to a civic organization known as the Hampton United Methodist Church—like we’re the Kiwanis Club or something.

Brothers and sisters, nothing could be further from the truth!

This work that you are doing this week is among the holiest, most important kingdom work that any of us can ever do! These children, our children, are the least among us—in the eyes of the world. Like Jesus says in verses 12-14, they can’t give us a thing in return. They can’t tithe. They can’t become productive members of this church. So they are the least among us!

Therefore, guess what? When we serve them, we are serving Jesus himself. In a way, these children are nothing less than Jesus in disguise. So we’re going to encounter Jesus Christ in the lives of these children this week. And I look forward to that. Don’t you?

[1] 1 Corinthians 6:20

[2] Matthew 25:40

[3] Matthew 19:14

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