Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pentecost Seventeen
Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:10
Mark 9:30-37

Who is wise and understanding among you? let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom.

What does it mean to be humble? This is something that I ponder on a regular basis. As an artist and writer, I have to find a way to promote my work. How will people know that they can read my words or buy my paintings if I don’t tell them? And yet, I have a hard time promoting myself. I recently made cards to leave out during a craft festival that included the addresses of my Facebook pages, but I was not comfortable doing it. Would people think I was being too conceited? Shouldn’t I be more humble? But is that humility? Is it humble to wait for people to discover your gifts so that you don’t appear to be selling yourself? This is what I ponder.

There is something to be said about trusting that God will use you in ways that take advantage of the gifts you have been given, but does He really want us to sit around and wait until someone else invites us to share those gifts. When we were moving from England to Arkansas, I was asked to give a sermon at our church, testifying to God’s grace in my life. It was the first time I was ever asked to preach. The sermon had a great impact on the congregation and too many people asked, “Why didn’t we know you could do that?” We all lost the chance to benefit from my gifts because of my so-called humility. How many other times have I failed to do what God is calling me to do because I have been unwilling to tell people I can do it?

I think there is a fine line. Too many people approach promotion of themselves in a way that diminishes others. Unfortunately, we see that in political campaigns all the time. Instead of advancing their own gifts and agendas, politicians at every level of government and from every ideological perspective do whatever they can to put down their opponents. Even in this there is a fine line: where do you draw it. How do you run for political office and sell yourself while remaining humble?

James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you? let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom.” We often misunderstand the word “meekness” to mean weak, but the reality is that meekness is the humble understanding that you are not the greatest. Greatness does not come to those who force or manipulate others into making them great. True greatness comes to those who do what they are called to do in a way that glorifies God, and He will glorify them for their faith. Humility is trusting that God will accomplish His work through us as we go about life doing what we can do. That might mean we have to step out in faith and ‘sell ourselves’ so that others will know what we can do.

Now, the disciples were thinking like politicians on that road through Galilee. They were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. In other versions of this story, some of the disciples insisted on being Jesus’ right hand and left hand men. They wanted to be part of the ruling party and felt they deserved it. They saw themselves as better than the others and thought Jesus should appoint them to the positions of power and authority. Jesus had another way.

Isn’t it funny how children are never shy about telling people what they can do? A three year old who has recently learned the alphabet song has no problem walking up to complete strangers and singing. A five year old who managed her first cartwheel at gymnastics class will perform at every opportunity. A seven year old who has received an A+ on his spelling test will gladly hang it on the refrigerator. Children don’t worry about what others will think; they simply share their talents and they are overjoyed if it makes someone happy.

Children have faith. They approach life from the point of view that if they can do something they should because it might just make life better for someone else. Surely that lady at the grocery store needs to hear the alphabet song! She might not know what letter comes after “p”! And mother’s friends will benefit greatly from seeing a cartwheel on the front lawn at church. How they will benefit doesn’t matter to the child, but surely the world will be a better place because of it!

Jesus knew what they were talking about on the road through Galilee. They were not willing to admit their conversation because they knew that somehow they were getting it all wrong. After all, their master Jesus was talking about suffering and persecution while they were looking forward to being rulers. Though they heard what He said, they didn’t understand and they were not willing to admit their ignorance. They didn’t trust in Jesus; and then they proved that they put their trust in themselves.

So, Jesus showed them the other way. He lifted a little child onto His lap and told them they should believe in His words the way a child does, without fear or worry or anxiety. They should just act in faith, doing what it is they’ve been gifted to do while trusting that God will make it work to His glory. Children aren’t afraid to hold someone’s hand when they are crying. Children don’t worry about whether or not they have the right words, they speak from their hearts. Children talk about Jesus and God and love and peace and hope in a way that we no longer understand because we have lost our innocence. Children trust and believe because they don’t have to be the best or the first or the greatest. Jesus reminded the twelve that they do not need to be the best or the first or the greatest, they simply need to believe. That’s the kind of humility Jesus is looking for in our lives.

James tells us, “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and he shall exalt you.” We don’t have to try to be the best or first or greatest, we just live in faith and do what God is calling us to do and He will raise us up. Do we stop believing when we don’t win that election or sell our stuff? Of course not, because if we do then we were exhibiting a false humility. The truly humble has faith that God is working even when it does not seem like He is. A loss at the polls might mean that there is something more important to be accomplished elsewhere. I might have a bad day at a festival, but that doesn’t mean that no one has seen or liked my work. I might not know for days or weeks or even months, but someday someone from that day might just call and say, “I saw your painting, is it still for sale?”

It might not always be easy. I don’t really like to attend craft festivals because every vendor is desperate to win the shoppers’ money. Some vendors are very bold, calling for customers to see them even to the point of stealing them from others. I lost a number of people who were ready to enter my booth area to look around but they were distracted by a neighboring vendor. By the time he was done with them, they had forgotten all about me or they didn’t have time.

Politicians understand the dangers. Those who do try to run a clean campaign are often maligned by the opposition and end up losing despite their humble campaign. But all who live and walk in humble faith will see God’s hand in their life. It might not lead to a sale or a position of power, but they will be blessed by God’s grace. Their life might be as Jeremiah’s, on like a lamb led to slaughter, but God does bring vengeance for His faithful in His time and way. He hears. He knows. And He acts for the sake of those who humbly live in faith.

The humble is he who prays with the psalmist a prayer of trust and faith. “Behold, God is my helper: The Lord is of them that uphold my soul.” David was experiencing tough times, like Jeremiah, persecution and threats from people who were close to him. David was hiding among the Ziphites, which means he must have trusted them to protect him, but they were traitors. David was betrayed, but he was able to lift his voice to God, crying out for salvation from his enemies. In the psalm he sings, “Save me, O God, by thy name.”

The psalm begins with a cry for help, then a confession of trust in God, and finishes with a vow to offer thanksgiving and praise. David is confident that God will save him from his enemies. He comforts himself in the knowledge that God is faithful to His promises. His life was far from perfect. As a matter of fact, Saul continues to chase after David long after He makes the pleas in this psalm. He had several opportunities to take Saul’s life into his own hands, but David continued to trust in God. The words of thanksgiving, “For he hath delivered me out of all trouble; And mine eye hath seen my desire upon mine enemies” would not be fulfilled until later, but he praised God in advance, humbly anticipating God’s vengeance for his sake. He wasn’t worried about the outcome; he knew God would do what God would do.

That’s what it means to be wise like a child and humble in this world, trusting God even when it seems like God is not accomplishing what we hope He will do. The disciples thought Jesus would end up on a throne and they wanted to be right up there at the top with Him. Jesus knew that His journey would take Him in another direction. He was not sent to be king on earth but to be King of kings. That meant walking in faith, doing what God intended without question or worry or fear. It was not going to be easy, but it was necessary for God’s plan to be complete. He had to die so that He could live forever. He had to die so we can live forever.

I know that I need not worry about what people will think when I tell people about my gifts and my work as long as I continue to do it for the sake of God’s kingdom not to bring someone else down. Sharing God’s grace will benefit others, but trying to be the greatest will never glorify God. James reminds us why we fail to receive the answers we desire to our prayers, “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and covet, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war; ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend it in your pleasures.” The humble Christian is a servant whose gifts are not used to become the greatest, but who walks and works in faith that God will accomplish His good work in our lives.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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