I had a wonderful lady in a previous congregation. But she had a problem with my preaching. It was not my lack of yelling or the quality of my jokes. It was my theology. Not that she thought I was a heretic. But when I would preach from a passage that said that Christians should act in a certain way, I would interpret it and preach it as Christians needing to act a certain way.
The reason she struggled with this is that she came from a legalistic background, in both church and family, where performance was strictly measured. You needed to earn the love of both God and other people by what you did. She would hear in my message that the only way to be accepted by God was to hit a certain standard. I share this, not to criticize her, but because there may be people here who feel the same way and so I need to make myself clear.
I need to say two things. The Bible does teach us to act and live a certain way. I don’t know how to preach those passages without passing on that message. But I also want you to know that these passages are not about how you get into or stay in God’s family. They are about what it looks like once we are in God’s family.
Having said all that, as much as it is important that we believe in Jesus, we also need to become more like Jesus. When we call ourselves Christians, we are not just saying we have beliefs about Christ, but that we are seeking to follow Christ and following Christ includes attempting to live like him as much as we can.
In the passage we are looking at, we are going to look at a couple of things that Jesus told people to take seriously and how Jesus modelled that life for us.
When we think of the most powerful people in our world, this includes politics, business, entertainment and so on, we might think of a number of characteristics that they have in common. But it is very possible that humility is not at the top. The people that hold the most powerful are assured of their own abilities and are able and willing to promote their strength and influence to all who will listen. This is not something unique to our word. It has been around for as long as there have been human beings.
However, Jesus has a different perspective on how things should be and this includes humility. Jesus illustrates with a story we can all imagine. There you are at a wedding feast and you want to get a good seat. You find something comfortable, something with a good views and most importantly something near the dessert table. You sit down, feeling good about your choice, when someone from the family comes to you and tells you that seat is reserved for someone more important than you. Everyone is watching as red-faced you begin to rise from the table. You are led to a chair in the corner, right next to the washrooms, all embarrassed. The theological term for this is “awkward.”
But then Jesus gives us another scenario. We go to a wedding feast and we decide to look for the most modest seating possible. When we sit down, content with what we have, the family member comes up. They insist that you move up to a better seat, they want you to be more comfortable and have easier access to the desserts. It doesn’t take a theologian to decide which of these two scenarios are preferable.
Being humble is not a way for us to punish ourselves, it is actually a posture that will end up making us happier. I suppose we need to define humility as it confuse everyone. I remember talking to someone in seminary about this. He insisted that it is impossible to have too low of self-esteem. We should think of ourselves as the scum of the earth as that is the only way to glorify God. I disagree. I think unhealthy low self-esteem makes it more difficult to serve God. I like this definition of humility. Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. It is not about putting yourself down but of not dwelling upon how great you are and expecting to be treated accordingly.
Before moving on, we need to see how Jesus lived this out. This is not a matter of Jesus saying do as I say not as I do. Listen to this passage:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
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, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:3-7)
The Bible student in me loves this passage for its clear teaching of the incarnation, of God becoming human in Jesus Christ. But the Christian in me is challenged by Jesus’ humility. Paul shares this teaching not just to give us good theology but also to help shape Christian living. If Jesus was to humble himself to go from being the infinite God to being a finite human being, is there any situation that is too low for us? Paul’s lesson here is clear: Be like Jesus.
I read a lot of books. I wish I could say I remember everything I read but that’s not the case. But I do remember reading a book by an influential pastor. His advice was to be careful who we spend our time with. He suggested that we should only surround ourselves with people who will get us to the next level of whatever we want to achieve. I even said that that you might have friends, who because of your own development, have nothing left to give you and you must leave them behind for more influencers. This teaching stayed with me because it seems to go completely against what Jesus teaches.
In this passage, Jesus stays with the image of the dinner but switches our role from the guest to the host. If we are going to offer a big feast, who are we going to invite? For many people, the natural response would be those who are like us or those who we wish we were like. It would be nice to spend time with those who can give us something, whether quality of conversation or even lending their prestige. Sometimes this called networking, in that we develop relationships with those who may open up opportunities that will benefit us in the future.
But Jesus says don’t do that. Jesus says rather to invite the poor and disabled. This doesn’t mean that we can never share a meal with a friend or a business colleague. Rather Jesus is asking us about our motives. What is the strongest impulse within us? It is to develop relationships to bless ourselves or to bless others?
We can look at this on a number of different levels. Think of this dinner as being the work of the church. Imagine that God appeared to us and offered to send one hundred new people to our congregation who show up every week. Also imagine that God let us pick the type of people that he would send to us. Who would we pick? We might be tempted to choose those who could benefit us a church. Some successful business people would be nice. They could bring both their leadership skills and their wallets. Some people with biblical knowledge and theological training would be good. How about musicians and singers? I would be happy with all of this.
But of that one hundred God was going to send us, how many would we pick that would have developmental or physical disabilities? How many would have mental illness? How many would be in broken relationship and with only enough emotional energy to get up in the morning? How about those in extreme poverty, who not only would not be able give, but would require our financial help? What about the chronically ill and dying?
I’m not asking for all the people with skills and abilities that can benefit the church to leave. I’m only asking us about the kind of relationships we want within our church and in our own lives.
This is about living like Jesus. Jesus did have relationships with religious leaders and wealthy people in his community. But he also had relationships with the tax collectors, prostitutes and the collective group known as the sinners. Even the group of disciples that made up his Twelve, were a mixed bag. Jesus didn’t enter into the relationships based on how they could benefit him. He preferred to be the one blessing in the relationship than the one being blessed.
What does the Christian life look like? What does it mean to be follower of Jesus? A good place to begin is this passage. What was Jesus like? He was humble and he embraced those on the margins. Both of these values are intertwined. They require a strong sense of self and a confidence that doesn’t need to seek affirmation from the outside. These characteristics of Jesus do not mean that Jesus was weak, they mean that he was strong.
Following Jesus means following his example. We may not be as strong as he was or as confident. But as we seek to live the Jesus life, that transformation takes place inside. Seek to be humble. Don’t hate yourself but don’t be full of yourself either. Avoid the temptation of entitlement that you deserve certain honours for you are. Embrace those who have nothing to give you. Don’t surround yourself with those who have something to give to you. Enter into relationships where there are no material benefits and you will find immeasurable spiritual benefits. Be like Jesus.