SERMON #1 from Gathering Week: “Humility”

Here is the first of my two graded sermons from Gathering Week. We were to prepare 10-12 minute sermons, which is why this is so short. I preach next on Friday. Expect the next one then. Blessings!

Matthew 23:1-12

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Humility

I think the scribes and Pharisees get a bad rap—not altogether undeserved—but bad, nonetheless. Unlike historically bad guys—Ted Bundy, Adolph Hitler, John Wilkes Booth—the people Jesus is talking to didn’t do those obvious, evil things. The heading in my Wesley Study Bible claims this passage is about Jesus denouncing the scribes and Pharisees. With good reason, he infers that their grand religiosity is nothing but a show—window dressing. He says as much when he pokes fun at the size of their phylacteries. However, ask yourself this question: does Jesus do anything other than describe their actions? I would argue that he does not. What does he say? He says they advocate for things they themselves are unwilling to do. He says they have elaborate clothing. He says they like to have the best seats. He says they like to be called wonderful nicknames. He even says that his followers should follow their teachings. If anything, it is a cautionary tale. Like I said, the scribes and Pharisees get a bad rap. The exhortations Jesus makes are to his followers.

For reference, let’s look at a timeline. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to the palm branches and rejoicing, teaches throughout the city and experiences the passion. This teaching happens between the rejoicing and the crucifying. We all have those biblical lessons we rank in order of importance for us. I place the things Jesus says in this timeframe a little higher than some of his other teachings. It’s almost as if he is saying—just one more thing before I go. Like a mother yelling back at her teenage children as she leaves, “remember kids: no parties.”

Jesus knows the scribes and Pharisees are going to do what they do—they have been doing it ever since he got to Jerusalem. Why, then, would Jesus pile onto his followers—knowing that he would soon be gone? One might think he would try to make it easier on them. Certainly, he wasn’t making a convincing case for them to stay on after he was gone—at least we don’t think so. We think that because we often confuse God’s economy with our own. Don’t wear fancy clothing. Don’t search out the best place for yourself. Don’t look to people to address you as someone of grand importance. If you want to be first in my book, you will be last in everyone else’s. You want to be great, try being humble. I’ll put it this way for any comic book geeks: to be Superman, you must be Clark Kent.

Let’s look at the typical scribe or Pharisee Jesus is describing, and update that person for today. They preach a good sermon, but you can tell that there is something wrong. While they preach, they wear the crispest, cleanest and most elaborate robe you have ever seen—complete with a gold service cross hanging around the neck. When they do some sort of good—visit someone in need—they make sure everyone knows it. They love to park in the best spot and go first in line at the carry-in. Finally, they insist everyone call them by their achieved title—the Reverend Doctor James Bottomtooth. Have we ever encountered anyone like this?

That example gets to the heart of Jesus’ message to the crowds that day. He is exhorting his followers to live a different life. He calls all of us to live a life completely different than we are trained to desire. He isn’t berating the scribes and Pharisees—that time will come—he is urging his followers to live their lives with a sense of humility. That sense of humility should come from a realization that there is God, and there is us.

Let’s ponder that. There is God here, there and everywhere. God created the universe and everything in it. So, for our purposes, let’s envision God to be the great deity floating out in space. It’s the space he created. God set the moon and stars in motion and put the earth on its axis. The planets align according to God’s will and the stars shine by God’s design. The untold numbers of galaxies beyond our best scientist’s ability to behold are God’s to control. That is God. Then, there’s us. I forgot no less than five items which were essential for my trip here this week. When it comes to God and us, there is no comparison.

So, what does God think of us? God loves us and cares for us. God looks at us all the same. That is where we go wrong. We make distinctions God just doesn’t make. That’s hard for us to accept sometimes, but it’s true. We look at a white-collar criminal and murderer and decide that one is less guilty. We make distinctions because it helps to make ourselves feel better. We make distinctions because we can mentally put ourselves over-and-above anyone we wish—and vice verse. That’s why Jesus’ words in vv. 11-12 are so foreign to us—and yet so comforting to us. “The greatest…[is]…your servant…all who humble themselves will be exalted.” God makes no distinctions. God loves us just the same.

The prophet Micah, in the midst of telling the Israelites of impending divine justice, explains what it is God wants. Numerous options are discussed. In an Old Testament context, these suggestions don’t sound to strange to us. Burnt offerings. Calves. Oil. Rams. A person’s firstborn. He settles on what he argues is what God has already told the people God requires of us; the doing of justice, the loving of kindness and walking humbly with God. There’s that word, again, humble. God desires us to be humble. God desires us to realize who he is and what he has done for us. It is not only humility in the midst of others, but in the midst of God. So, let us walk humbly with God.

In the movie Cool Runnings, the Jamaican bobsled team does fantastically well for being from a country where there is never any snow. They become pretty successful and are on the verge of running their sled right onto the medals podium at the winter Olympics. However, towards the end of their last run down the track—on the verge of taking home a medal—their bobsled fails and they crash. They now have no chance at Olympic glory. Do they give up? No. They pick up their sled and carry it to the finish—to the wild celebrations of the international crowd.

The world tells us we need to be this great or achieve this much success. Jesus says that greatness doesn’t come from how much you have or how great you can do the things you have been gifted to do. He says that greatness comes from the realization that we are not. Greatness comes when we realize how great God is. And thanks be to God for that. AMEN.

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