A Divine Humility

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July 8, 2018. Jesus was not accepted as the messiah in his own hometown. Pastor Jim Bennett’s message is about how God’s strength is shown best in weakness and humility, something that may be difficult for us, like the people of Nazareth, to embrace today.


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I wonder if Christ Lutheran Church has ever had a son or a daughter who was raised in the church, and then went on to become an ordained pastor. There’s a story of a new, young minister being introduced to her home congregation for the first time following her ordination to word and sacrament ministry. Her parents were proud. Her pastor was proud. Her Sunday School teachers were proud. Everybody was proud. She was surprised by the long, loud applause when she was introduced. And being young and quick of wit, she responded, “When there is applause at the start of one’s ministry, that’s faith. When there is applause in the middle of one’s ministry, that’s hope. When there’s applause at the end of one’s ministry, that’s charity.”


When Jesus walked into his hometown of Nazareth for the first time after his commissioning in the temple, there was no applause. The people were not proud. They were confused. They reacted with disbelief to his words and deeds saying, “Is this not the carpenter?” They could not believe that Jesus of Nazareth, that small child that they perceived as a bit arrogant for having taught in the temple as a young boy, was there in their midst, was actually the Messiah that all the other surrounding towns were so excited about. The people of Nazareth could not accept Jesus for who or what he was because of their preconceived ideas that they carried with them.


Let me digress just for a moment, if you will. Martin Luther was known for conveying some radical ideas about the gospel. I joined the Lutheran Church as a teenager and I have to confess, being unchurched for many, many years, that at that time, my life could have been a poster child for what inspired Luther’s well-worn phrase where he said, “Sin boldly that grace may abound.”


Now, I’m not trying to compare myself with Jesus. But when I announced ten years later that I was intending to go to seminary to become a pastor, there were some people who, to say the least, had some quizzical looks on their faces. And following my ordination, I remember being invited back to my home congregation to face those proud Sunday School teachers who probably saw me as proof that miracles still exist.


The people of Nazareth in Jesus’ day, and sometimes the people in our own congregations, have some firmly set expectations of what or who they expect pastors and prophets to be. And the church has a right to expect that those who are called to be set apart in this way, to be above reproach, and who are respectful and honorable women and men who preach the Good News, who preach the gospel.


But someone forgot to tell the people of Nazareth that the gospel that Jesus wants us to hear really can come across in two ways. The gospel is intended to comfort the afflicted, but it’s also intended to inflict the comfortable. And I think Jesus in Nazareth did the latter.


You remember that young woman pastor in the story that I started my sermon with, whose congregation was so proud of her? Well, the sermon that she preached that first Sunday after her ordination was one where the message conveyed an advocation for social justice. She was really challenging her congregation to step up and do some amazing things. She was calling her congregation to a higher level of accountability. Some members thought that she was pretty tough on them, but they thought she was young and they were still proud. So they invited her to return, year after year, and the second year when she came back, the very next year she preached the same sermon. Well, they were still proud. They were a little confused but they thought well, she’s young. Maybe she forgot she preached the same sermon the year before.


The next year she returned and she preached the same sermon as the two previous years. At that point they were less proud, and they were a little confused and angry. So the chair of the worship committee was appointed by the church council to take her aside and ask her, “Why is it that you continue to preach that same uncomfortable message year after year?” And she responded, “You know, I grew up in this congregation. And week after week, I heard the gospel that was comfortable to our members. And sometimes we need to hear the gospel that afflicts the comfortable. It sounds like you finally got my message.”


Now, I believe that to be an apocryphal story. But it speaks to our gospel lesson today. Jesus’ message never got through to the people of his hometown. The story suggests that whenever someone comes into our midst, and shows or invites us to think in a radically different way from what we are used to believing or thinking about God, or about God’s love, we feel threatened and our reaction is to judge or disbelieve.


The people of Nazareth had placed their faith in a messiah that turned out to be a carpenter who grew up in their own town, and their belief made it impossible for God’s good works to be done there.


God’s news can guide the work of God’s people. It can be rough going at times. Some might believe that that’s because we really need stronger, more charismatic or powerful leaders who represent God and inspire those who respond to God’s message of the gospel to action. Well, that’s probably the attitude the people of Nazareth had. A God who is strong and all-knowing should have the message proclaimed by those with similar characteristics. Yet there stood Jesus, that humble Carpenter.


In our second lesson today, which was the theme for my children’s sermon, the Apostle Paul tried to explain to the church at Corinth that God’s strength shows through best in weakness. That may seem counterintuitive, but I invite you to think about it: Christ’s human weakness allowed him to die on the cross, and then God turned that weakness into the most powerful message in human history.


There has always been a point of tension between the humanity and divinity of Christ, between his weakness and his strength, and I think that is the same for many of us today. There are those who feel that they need to be in complete control of their lives, who are confident and self-reliant, that there is no room for doubt in their faith. And they have then little need for God. They’re self-made women and men. And all of those characteristics, those traits, can be positive except when they become barriers to growth or barriers to relationship.


I could not help think back to an old Mac Davis song from 1980. You probably have to be over 50 to remember this song. And I do believe he wrote it tongue-in-cheek, but it was titled “Oh Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble When You’re Perfect In Every Way.” You can Google that if you’d like.


But then come those sudden chest pains. The lump in our neck or our breast, maybe a pink slip from work. Or the announcement of a separation or divorce. It stops us in our tracks and it reminds us that we are not gods. But we are mere mortals, frail and vulnerable. Those chinks in our armor are God’s contact points. In our broken, imperfect lives God’s light finds opportunities to show through in those cracks.


Ralph Waldo Emerson is noted to have said, “As no person had ever a point of pride that was not injurious to him or her, so no person had ever a defect that was not in some way made useful to them.” Strong, self-reliant people never had the opportunity to know the power or strength that can be found in weakness. Any human weakness can restore our sense of humility that leaves room for God’s strength.


It brings us into a condition of grace that is open to the light and spirit of God, and I have found that to be true in my own life and in the lives of many of the people to whom I come in contact with in my ministry.


The people of God in Nazareth did not understand that concept that God’s strength is shown best in weakness and humility. And even today it’s difficult in our 21st Century for Americans to embrace it. We admire people who are strong, and given the choice between power and weakness, who would not choose power? We look for signs of God in the strong and powerful, and often overlook God in humble human interactions.


But I wonder if our faith in God encountered in our everyday human condition is not really stronger in faith than that which relies on powerful proof in exceptional situations. Our gospel lesson states that because the people of Nazareth could not accept Jesus he could do no mighty works there. If, like the people of Nazareth, we cannot recognize God’s presence in the most simple of people or situations, and perhaps even in the tragedies of our lives, God will not be able to do God’s Mighty works.


We look back to scripture and see the marvels of God, and have little doubt of the power of God. But the gospel, the Good News of God, wants us to embrace a divine humility found in God’s weakness, God’s death on the cross. The Apostle Paul knew what it was like to carry such weakness in his life. He talked about it as a thorn in his flesh and he prayed several times to “keep me from being afflicted.” But God spoke to him. He said, “I sought the Lord about this that it should leave me. But he said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I am content with weakness, for when I am weak I am strong.”


May God use our weakness to spread the Good News. And may we be open to hearing the Good News that comes in unexpected ways from unexpected people.


But not Mac Davis.




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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jim Bennett