19th Sunday After Pentecost, October 15, 2006
Hebrews 4:12-16 [ESV Text from biblegateway.com]
12For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 14Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
A TIME FOR SACRIFICE: THE SACRIFICE OF PRIDE
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Having conducted two funerals since last Sunday, I have had to think much this week about both the really important things in life and the very last things. As I said Saturday morning at a graveside funeral, Genesis 11 comes to mind whenever someone dies. There, in one of my very favorite stories, God reminds us that all of our attempts to make a name for ourselves are really not very impressive in the great scheme of things. All of the things we have accumulated pass to others – who may or may not use those things the way that we would have wanted. All fame is fleeting. In fifteen years to twenty years, the next generation will consider today’s famous person as really no different than someone from ancient history.
So when we focus on this life, on the accumulation of honors and goods, on making our unique mark on this world, we need to remember that we’re deluding ourselves if we think that thereby we’re making ourselves immortal. Psalm 90 says it well today: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (v. 12). We are dust and to dust we shall return.
RESIGNATION AND FATALISM
In a recent news commentary on National Public Radio, the reporter talked about that reserve of dread that people have since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. This week when a small plane crashed into a swank Upper East Side apartment tower in Manhattan, it was, as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, déjà vu all over again. Debris falling from above, flames and smoke, people running, screaming, and crying! But, of course, no one can live long in constant fear. The story fades. People grow comfortable again until the next time. It is hard not to become resigned and rather fatalistic in the wake of such things. It’s a dangerous world.
As any newly grieving person can tell us, how quickly everyone forgets that your world has been shattered when death becomes personal. As I have said before, people say really stupid things like “You can find someone else” or “You can have another child” or “You can live again.” All of which may be true, but it is really unhelpful and really quite cruel in a banal sort of way. Love is the only thing helpful: taking the time to listen and showing that you remember how things are in simple and thoughtful ways.
But approaching life with a sense of resignation or a fatalistic worldview is, in reality, retreating from God’s gift of this life. The kind of pride that refuses help from those that genuinely care is as self-deceiving as the accumulation of things or the building of a resume. Martin Luther reminds us that everyone is a beggar before God. We do well not to curl up in a corner with our pride as a vain and sullen companion. God wants more for us than that, and He has surrounded us with many angels – seen and unseen.
THE PIOUS RICH MAN
I have known some pious rich people in congregations along the way. Many times they were more generous than their middle class sisters and brothers, many of whom resented their success. Invariably it is those of us from the middle class that struggle to let go of God’s money. Is it that we are often afraid that money is scarce – that we won’t get everything we want if we give much away? The Lord Jesus’ words about the problem of wealth apply to us middle class Christians, too. Compared to most of the people in the world, we are fabulously wealthy.
Yet, we must also note that the pious rich often give easily because being generous really doesn’t change their lifestyle. They rarely give until it inconveniences them – most still have the same houses, cars, clothes, trips, and comfort. But, there is also a self-delusion that comes with being generous. Those that are generous have difficulty giving up the illusion of control. When tragedy comes, invariably it shocks the pious rich, because suddenly there is nothing they can do to make things better.
To the pious rich man, the Lord Jesus says the obvious. As long as any of us thinks that our lives and our things are in our control, we cannot possibly be His disciples. This is what the poor Christian always understands – life is fragile, things are for sharing. God gives, and God takes away. There is no security but God. Until we abandon ourselves to God’s mercy and God’s care, we are still trying to be in control. Until we follow Jesus in pouring out our lives in humble service, we are clinging to foolish pride – to call it what it is, the notion that we are in the place of God!
The Lord Jesus says: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23, 25). Some Christians like to say that the eye of the needle was a small gate in Jerusalem’s walls that a camel could only go through on his knees. Hence, they say, a rich man can only get into the kingdom by being humble. Better not to give such simple explanations that take away the shock of the Lord Jesus’ words. Better to remember it is a miracle for anyone to be saved!
THE LIVING WORD OF GOD
As we noted last week, God’s Son Jesus is the Living Word of God from all eternity. He is the one about whom the Hebrews writer speaks when he says: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (4:12-13).
Whatever pride that exists in us is an obstacle between God and us, a stumbling block to life as a child of God. The preacher whose ego is fed by compliments and whose success is a testimony to his (or her) rare gifts is a fool. The academic theologian who takes pride in the clever use of words and in her or his skill at manipulating Scripture is a fool. The actor or rock star whose fame is parlayed into a platform for extending favorite causes is a fool.
The strutting lawyer on TV, the CEO with his best-seller, the talented and dysfunctional superstar athlete, the bleached blond talking head, the pompous trash-spreading politician – all of them are fools. All of us are fools if we think our lives are not presently laid bare by the Word of God. All of us are fools if we think our lives will not finally be laid bare by the Word of God and found wanting!
“Pride goeth before a fall” – says the old aphorism. The Lord Jesus says that pride will cause anyone – even you and me – to fall short of the kingdom of God.
THE SACRIFICIAL WORD OF GOD
What we cannot manage on our own, Christ Jesus does for us. St. Paul quotes this early Christian hymn in Philippians 2: “ 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The Hebrews writer reminds us this is why we can approach God’s throne of grace with boldness – despite our repeated foolishness – despite the pride that would leave us outside the kingdom of God forever.
God’s Son Jesus, the Living Word, became human like us and was tested in every way like us. But He did not sin like us. He was completely obedient to His Father for us, even unto death for us. He died for fools like you and me. He died to show us what we don’t deserve – mercy – the very thing we often withhold from others. When we are baptized into His death and resurrection, He claims us beggars as His own through no effort or merit of our own. Amazingly, He calls us His brothers and sisters.
Sadly, we often refuse to receive what He wants us to have, and so we have to come face to face with the foolishness of our pride. This can even happen to congregations that are full of themselves. We see it again and again: neither pious individuals nor pious corporate entities are beyond the foolishness of pride. The Word of God – Jesus – lays us bare, holding each of us responsible as individuals, and showing us what has finally become of all our striving and all our pride.
When we have been humbled, when we have come with contrite hearts, when we have admitted that there is no other helper and no other security, then, at last, we are ready to receive what God has always wanted us to have – Himself.
THE DAILY SACRIFICE OF PRAISE
Worship is the center of the Christian life. Here Christ Himself comes to separate us from our pride and comes to give us the love and mercy we need but do not deserve.
Here, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ Himself feeds us with His own life in bread and wine, fills us with His presence, and gives us power to become what He declares us to be in Holy Baptism – the children of God.
Worship is meant to transform us as the Holy Spirit literally calls us out of our selfish selves. Worship is meant to claim us for the kingdom of God, so that – whether we are rich or poor or in-between – we sell the old life, give ourselves away, and follow Jesus. The question is, as we learn in the Crossways Bible Study, not how much we will give to God, but how much we will keep for ourselves. Only a fool thinks that he or she is not going to give everything away eventually!
When we leave this place today, our lives will intersect with vapid and silly shadow people clogging up the malls, slurring their way through bars and restaurants, chattering through movies, and chasing after the latest fads and the next pretty face. All of it and all of them so much dust in the wind.
But you have been with Christ Jesus today, and He is going from here with you. Like Him, sacrifice your foolish pride, and, like Him, give your lives away in service!
© Samuel D. Zumwalt
[An mp3 version may be accessed by clicking on the icon at the top right “This Week’s Message” page at www.stmatthewsch.org]