humble

Taking the Lower Place

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By Linda Rex

September 1, 2019, Proper 17—A while back my ministry team and I were invited to attend the 150th anniversary banquet of the Stones River Missionary Baptist Association from whom we rent our church building. My outreach ministry leader, Pat Brazier, and I attended this event as a gesture of gratitude and goodwill toward the association and its members.

As we entered the building, I was hoping we could find a table at the back which would not be conspicuous. I tend to be shy at large gatherings like this, especially if I don’t know anyone—I describe myself as an extroverted introvert. I prefer to hide rather than open myself up when there are a lot of people around me in a room whom I don’t know.

On this occasion, though, I could not have my wish of anonymity. Even though we were the only people there of white skin, the harmony of God’s Spirit made us one with these brothers and sisters in Christ. Pat and I were escorted to the front of the room to a special table reserved for guest pastors. We ended up seated across from Tennessee Senator Brenda Gilmore and two other pastors and their wives. It was a wonderful, inspiring experience for Pat and me.

During the event, I learned a lot of things I did not know about this group of fellow believers and their journey with Jesus. And I learned some things about myself as well. I experienced what it meant to be faced with challenges to my beliefs, preferences, and opinions. Whatever hidden prejudices I have, they were also brought a little closer to the light, as such encounters often expose those things we try, consciously or unconsciously, to keep in the dark.

Our interactions with other human beings are the place where the Holy Spirit does its greatest work, bringing us face to face with others and by doing so bringing us face to face with ourselves and Jesus. It is in relationship with others that the Spirit works to transform hearts and minds, specifically in teaching us about the Father’s love for us in Christ expressed in our love for one another. We are broken human beings, often due to significant relationships which have demonstrated to us and taught us everything but God’s love. Our way of doing things is often the exact opposite to the way God does things, and our broken world with its broken people clearly shows the result of trying to do it our way instead of his.

One of the greatest struggles as human beings sometimes is this whole question of self-exaltation and humility. We live in metropolitan Nashville, a place where musicians and singers come when they want to make their mark in the music world. Often I talk with people who tell me they moved to Nashville from somewhere else in America and when I ask why they moved here, they tell me they wanted to get a job in the music industry and maybe even to be a star. Almost every one of these people is not working in the music industry today but in some other job entirely unrelated to it.

Were they wrong in coming to Nashville and seeking to make their mark? I doubt very much that any of these people were seeking self-exaltation. I’m more inclined to believe most of them were seeking self-expression, to obtain some personal significance, worth, and value through their music. I imagine they wanted to do what they loved and make a living at it. The real world often stands in the way of people being able to achieve their dreams in this way.

The issue, I believe, is not in the desire to take one’s talent, abilities, and gifts and use them to their fullest expression. In God’s kingdom life, we receive all of these things as gifts from God and pour them back out to him in gratitude and in the service of others. We are meant to shine with the glory God has given us as his adopted children and if that includes our musical gift, then it is meant to be fully expressed as God guides and provides us with the opportunities.

The problem seems to be more in what our motive is and why we do what we do. Christian musicians and pastors can very easily care more about their popularity, prosperity, and getting noticed than how they go about being a follower of Jesus Christ. Even while they are up in front of the audience talking about Jesus and his ways, they may be drawing their worth and value from the applause and approval of others rather than resting confidently in the grace and love of their Abba. We are broken human beings—we do these things, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

In Jesus Christ we see exemplified the epitome of humility. The One who was the Word, who had all power, glory, and honor, set the privileges of his divinity temporarily aside to take on our humanity. He who lived in inapproachable light joined us in our darkness, in the tiniest cells in Mary’s womb, so that we could be lifted up from our abasement and drawn up into the Triune life and love.

Jesus told his followers that when they were invited to a banquet, they were not to take the prominent seats, but to sit in the lower places and to allow themselves to be moved up by the host. Jesus did not seek his own exaltation, but sought the exaltation of humanity. When challenged in the wilderness by Satan, he rejected his offer to give him ultimate human power and rule. He refused to stop identifying with us as broken human beings and serving us by offering his life for us in our place and on our behalf.

There is no place low enough that Jesus was not willing to enter. Even though the most shameful death for someone in Christ’s day was to be crucified, Jesus intentionally walked toward the cross throughout his ministry. It was not beneath him to enter the realm of the dead nor to become sin for us. His whole purpose was in lifting us up, not in promoting himself.

The kingdom value of true humility as exemplified in Jesus is countercultural. It opposes everything our culture and society work toward. It stands in stark opposition to any leader who promotes himself as being a messiah or savior to his people or someone to be revered. It resists the human pull to self-promotion, arrogance, and pride which often afflicts those in the public eye.

To follow this value of humility is to open up oneself to crucifixion, to being negated, harmed or destroyed. And yet, when we seek the way of true humility, we find that our relationships begin to be healed, our life moves away from darkness into greater and greater light. Leaders who are truly humble and seek to serve those under them rather than manipulate, control, or manage them create a healthier community which more closely resembles God’s kingdom life.

But being humble exacts a price. The price we must pay to be truly humble is to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his sufferings. In this life we may never experience our exaltation, but we can trust in the exaltation of Jesus. We will be exalted in his presence as the adopted children of Abba, fully glorified and reigning with him forever—this is our hope and expectation as we walk in humility before him. In the meantime, our challenge is to live counterculturally in in a world which venerates self-exaltation, self-promotion, and self-interest, by participating with Jesus in his true humility.

Thank you, Jesus, for demonstrating so wonderfully the grace of true humility. Abba, please grow this in us by your Spirit, enabling us to participate fully in your humble nature. Give our human leaders hearts and minds which are truly humble. If they are stubbornly resistant to your humility, may you take them through the consuming fire of your love and grace that they may learn humble servants. We are grateful that you are the true Lord of all and have included us in your life and love in and through Jesus. Amen.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11 NASB

A Citizen’s Prayer

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by Linda Rex

One of the concerns I have as I watch the political debate and the community of faith’s response to it is the constant appeal to Christians in this nation to work through prayer and righteous living to make America great again. There is a subtle message beneath all of this rhetoric which says that somehow we are a special nation, the Israel of God, the chosen people, and if we just repent and turn back to God, everything will all be better. What I’m hearing is, all of this upheaval is just because America has turned away from God, so if all the Christians in America would humble themselves and pray, God will fix everything.

The main text used to defend this position of calling the nation (or the Christians in the nation) to prayer is 2 Chronicles 7:14: “[If] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (NASB) I have some real concerns about the way this scripture is being used to promote what are, in my opinion, some very nationalistic agendas. I also believe the way it is presented forces us back upon ourselves as the means of getting God to change our circumstances and to remove the consequences of our choices.

The desire to have America great again I assume must be because we want to live freely and abundantly in this nation we call home. It would indeed be a good thing to be able to practice our faith and to enjoy our freedoms without fear or oppression—and for the most part, we’ve been able to do that in this country. But there are forces at work which are making it more and more difficult for us to do this in this country, and that is what drives this need to ensure our domestic felicity, so that our “happy home” will continue to be just that.

Whenever I hear the statement “Make America great again”, I cringe because I am reminded of how post-WWI Germany sought to make Germany great again. This was the cry of the Nazi’s which enabled them to gain political power, and enabled them to promote many of their agendas which otherwise may have been rejected by the German populace. Sadly, the German church at that time also got caught up in this nationalistic momentum to the point they gave the leadership of their church to Hitler himself, and began to promote his faith rather than the truths of the faiths as established by the early church. It was this battle Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to fight by remaining in Germany when he could have stayed safely in America.

The point is, we need to get rid of our nationalistic focus and turn back to Jesus Christ as being the central “Who” of this whole matter. Looking at this particular passage honestly, through sound exegesis, would help us to do that if we were willing. So let’s begin by reading the passage in the context in which it was originally written:

“Then the LORD appeared to Solomon at night and said to him, ‘I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a house of sacrifice. ‘If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayer offered in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that My name may be there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually.’” (2 Chronicles 7:12–16 NASB)

The first thing we see is this was a statement God made to King Solomon after his prayer at the dedication of the temple he built in Jerusalem. God was explaining he had chosen the temple as a place for sacrifices to be offered to him just as Solomon had asked him to. The Lord would hear and answer the prayers of his people Israel when they would humbly seek his face in prayer and turn away from evil. The God, whose Name is Father, Son and Spirit, placed his name upon that house and affirmed his eyes and heart would be there as well.

This whole conversation took place within the covenant relationship of God with his people Israel. This was a reaffirmation of that covenant in which God included this house of worship in his relationship with Israel out of his gracious love toward them. Nowhere in this conversation do we read anything about the nation of America—it did not exist back then, nor was it included at that particular moment in this conversation. The whole discussion was with regard to God’s covenant relationship with his chosen people, Israel, and his desire to love them and to receive their worship and prayer.

When we read the continuing story of God’s children Israel, we find they did not honor their part of their covenant with God, and in time even Solomon’s temple was overrun and destroyed. They did not have the heart and will to love and obey God. They did not humble themselves, repent and pray, or the destruction of the nation would have been delayed as it was in the time of King Hezekiah and King Josiah, who led God’s people into a place of repentance and renewal. Instead, Israel and Judah ended up losing everything God had given them in his gracious love.

This passage, we’ve seen, was a conversation God was having with the king of the nation of Israel with regards to a temple which was eventually destroyed and replaced with another one many years later. Some exiles made their way back, thanks to the Persian king Cyrus, and the temple and the city wall of Jerusalem were rebuilt. In time, a baby was born in Bethlehem, who was the true Son of God and would fulfill in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, all the promises made to Israel, for he stood in their place.

Jesus Christ came as the Israel of God, the Son of God, Abba’s Word, who was both God and man. We see Jesus, who had no sin, repenting and being baptized for his people Israel, and for us, and we see him sharing in Israel’s wilderness wanderings by facing the evil one during forty days of fasting in the wilderness of Judea. Jesus lived the life of obedience, humility and prayer Israel was called to live, but never was able to. In his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus fulfilled all of the covenant God had made with Israel—he did what they never were able to do.

Ultimately, we see Jesus after his resurrection, standing in the presence of God as high priest of Israel and of all humanity, bearing in his being the names of all people before Abba in the Spirit, being the One who is truly humble who prays in the Spirit and in truth for each and every person in our place and on our behalf. It is Jesus’ prayer which Abba hears and answers, and each and every prayer we give is caught up in Christ’s prayers and made acceptable to the Father.

In this same Christ, the barriers between human beings were and are torn down. We learn in Acts the early church had to face the reality God did not distinguish between Jews and Gentiles when it came to having a relationship with God or each other. All nationalism was thrown out the window and replaced with the reality we are all a part of the body of Christ by the Spirit. All were included in God’s grace when it was given, and all are called to faith in Christ and offered eternal life—knowing Abba and his Son whom he sent.

The life we live, no matter our race, ethnicity, nation, tribe and tongue, is bound up in Christ and is held in him in God. Whatever good deeds we do, whatever repentance we may muster up, all comes first from God through Christ in the Spirit. It is Christ’s prayers and intercession which will bring about change in America.

But Christ is concerned about a whole lot more than just this nation. He is concerned about all of humanity. And he is a whole lot more concerned about our spiritual transformation and the furtherance of his kingdom than he is about whether or not America is the most prosperous, paradise on earth. This world is passing away. But our relationship with God, whatever it is, transcends this physical world and will last beyond it. And this is what God wants us to invest our effort, time and energy in.

Abba has work he is doing through Christ in this world. He’s sent Christ on a mission of reconciliation with God and man to be worked out into every part of life by the Spirit. We can participate in this through our humility, repentance and prayer—but apart from Christ and the work of the Spirit, our humility, repentance and prayer is worthless. It’s just a bunch of hot air and will not change a thing, except to make us exhausted, and to fill us with disappointment when things don’t go as we expect.

In a nation obsessed with nationalism and power of the state, the apostle Paul instructed his people to pray for their leaders so they could live and preach the gospel in peace. He also reminded them their loyalty was to God first, and not to the nation. We are citizens of heaven, he said. These are words we can take to heart today, because we also are citizens of the kingdom of God, and are seeking a peaceful environment in which to preach and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But we need to see this as our participation in what Jesus Christ is doing in the world today as we share in his mission of reconciliation. It is his work as our intercessor and high priest which will make the difference in the world today. It is his Spirit who calls us back to him, to repentance and faith. It is Abba who pours into us and our world a different heart and mind. We share in the work of the Trinity as God brings about healing and change. In my mind, this is the heart of this passage, and how we should read and apply it today.

“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:1–4 NASB

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.” Philippians 3:20–21 NASB