"THE VALUE OF HUMILITY"
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)
September 1, 2019
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
Proverbs 25:6, 7 (ESV)
Back in college there was a rather egotistical fellow student of mine of whom we used to say: "Ken really is a great guy. If you don’t believe me, just ask him. He’ll tell you all about it!" A number of years ago a guy who I knew back in Baltimore had applied for a position with the FBI as an auto mechanic. After he got the job his new employers informed him that they had spent over six thousand dollars investigating him. Not knowing that these "special agent" types have virtually no sense of humor, my friend responded: "I could have told you how good I am for half that much!" What makes both of these stories so amusing is the fact that self-praise has absolutely no credibility. Worse than that, when you start talking about how good you are, you really start to sound ridiculous.
The text before us this morning indicates that building yourself up can be especially unwise when you do it in the presence of someone who is much greater than you are. You have nothing to boast of if the person to whom are boasting is easily able to put your boast to shame. The example cited in our text is the same one that Jesus used in today's Gospel when He warned about self-exaltation: If a person privileged to be in the king's presence takes that privilege for granted by assuming the highest place among the invited guests, that could very well prove to be an embarrassment for him when the king, in front of the whole assembly, puts him in his proper place. But if he takes the lowest position among those present, he will be honored indeed when, in the presence of all, the king invites him to take a higher and more prestigious place. This morning let's rediscover the value of humility by taking a good look at what is wrong with self-exaltation in the presence of others and especially in the presence of God.
The biggest problem with self-exaltation is that it can exist only at the expense of someone else. Consequently, once we start playing that game, we start hurting people. You see, our selfish nature isn't content to simply have us be thought of as being great; we have to be greater than everyone else. I'm not talking here about various levels of skill and accomplishment, nor am I trying to suggest that there is anything wrong with competition in sports, in academia, or in the workplace. What I'm talking about is when a person thinks or tries to give the impression that he or she is a better person--a superior human being--in comparison to those around him or her. What makes this all the more tragic is that, more often than not, the person who tries to exalt himself does so by tearing down the other person.
Another problem with self-exaltation is a practical and tactical one: Exalting yourself just isn't a very wise thing to do because once the facade is torn down and the truth is exposed--once it is known that you aren't quite as great as you claim to be, then you end up looking even worse than you actually are. Arrogance, deception, and disregard for others are then added to your list of faults. Those who might otherwise have thought fairly well of you are now put into the position of criticizing you, because they know you for what you really are. None of us is perfect. We are all alike sinners. But the one who doesn't think that he is a sinner is so much worse off. So it is with the one who thinks that he is great--greater than anyone else. By his arrogance he shows the whole world just how detached from reality he really is.
This business of self-exaltation becomes infinitely more serious when we are foolish enough to exalt ourselves in the presence of God. When we exalt ourselves in the presence of others, we treat them with distain and offend them. But when we exalt ourselves in the presence of God it is not God that we are hurting; it is ourselves. To exalt oneself in the presence of God is to deprive oneself of everything that God has to offer, because that attitude of self-exaltation appeals to one's own merits rather than to God's grace in Christ as the basis for acceptance. How many times have we heard someone say: "I cannot and will not believe in a God who . . . " and then goes on to cite God's particular offense? A person who says this kind of thing is saying that he, not God, is all-wise--that he, not God, is all-powerful--that he, not God, is all-loving. Such a person is blind to the fact that he is not perfect and therefore has no standing in the presence of the perfect God whose Law demands perfection and who will not accept or tolerate anything less.
Relying on oneself is spiritual suicide because relying on one's own merits automatically rules out trusting in the merits of the only One who is perfect--the only One who can save--and that One is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the God who became Man for sinners. He is the One who placed Himself under the Law even though He Himself was exempt from it because He authored it. He is the One who lived a life of perfect obedience. He is the One who suffered and died under the just wrath of God against human sin. And He is the One who did all of this--and more--in the sinner's place so that offenders like you and me might have forgiveness, acceptance, and hope. All that He did for us is ours through the power of the Holy Spirit, but none of us will have anything at all to do with it as long as we think that we are able do it on our own. That's just how arrogant we are by nature. We will insist on being our own god and our own savior until the Law of God with all its fury tears down our arrogance and our self-sufficient delusion. This is what David calls "a broken spirit" and "a broken and contrite heart" (Psalm 51:17). It is the necessary prerequisite to saving faith, which the Holy Spirit works in our hearts through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, assuring us that everything that we have done is forgiven and that everything that we have failed to do has been done for us by the very Son of God.
God loves us with all His heart and clearly desires the very best for us. We know this especially because of what He has done for us in the life and ministry of His Son Jesus Christ. But we miss out on all of it if we insist on being our own god--our own savior. If left to our own devices we will only destroy ourselves. What a tragedy that is--and what a needless one at that. The Lord Himself has provided us with everything that we need to have the comfort of knowing that we are His beloved children. He has provided for our forgiveness, salvation, and New Life in the death and resurrection of His one and only Son. He has given us His Spirit in Word and Sacrament to create saving faith in our hearts and to cause that faith to survive and grow. This knowledge gives us the confidence that we need to forsake everything else and to rest peacefully, securely, and humbly in His loving arms.
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.