Lenten Series: “Having Our Minds Transformed Into the Mind of Christ”, Sermon #5–Humility
Humility: Moving Up by Coming Down
By Kristen Rae Nelson
Millard Community Covenant Church—April 2, 2017
Philippians 2: 1-11; Luke 14: 7-24, 18: 9-14
When I was on internship, my mentor had a little tune that he would hum to me when he sensed my “head” getting too big. He would come up beside me nonchalantly and start to sing, “Nobody wants to play rhythm guitar with Jesus—everybody wants to be the lead singer in the band”. Later on, he worked on yet another song, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way…”
Today, we’re talking about humility—that wonderful virtue that none of us is very good at. While this world teaches us that our lives need to be in an “upward pull”, focusing on getting rewards and accolades, the Gospel teaches us something very different. In fact, the Gospel is radically against the philosophy of “upward mobility”, isn’t it? Jesus teaches that real freedom, true joy, can only be found not striving to get “up”, but rather through “down-ward” mobility. And in fact, Jesus Himself—the Word of God—came “down” to us, living among us as a servant. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us”. The way of Jesus is the “down-ward” way—it’s the way of humility.
Humility—being humble—isn’t exactly popular in this day and age. But if we’re truly following Christ, if we’re truly allowing the Holy Spirit to transform our minds into minds like Christ’s, then humility comes with the territory. So, let’s take a look first at what Paul says humility looks like.
In Philippians 2, Paul teaches the early Christians about humility by saying, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interest of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
So Paul, here, gives us two negatives and two positives—things to not do, and things to do when it comes to humility. Humble people…(1) Aren’t selfish (Philippians 2:3). They “do nothing out of selfish ambition”, and they’re not self-centered; (2) Don’t try to impress others (Philippians 2:3). They do nothing out of “vain conceit”, and they don’t seek glory for themselves; (3) They’re always thinking of other people as better than themselves (Philippians 2:3), and they see great value in others; (4) And they’re not only looking out for their own interests, needs, and wants, but are concerned for other’s needs, wants, and interests too (Philippians 2:4).
So for Paul, being humble means to move away from focusing on our “self”, to focusing on “others”. It means to take the “down-ward” way—the Jesus way—not the way that will “lift us up”, and show us off. Being humble doesn’t mean that we think badly of ourselves—it means that we don’t think of ourselves at all…we’re too busy thinking of others!
This way of humility was modeled to us and taught to us by Jesus. Jesus actually spoke a lot about being humble, because it’s such an important part of having the mind-set of Christ. In Luke 14 and Luke 18, Jesus tells two different parables that deal with humility.
The first parable—in Luke 14—was based off of observations Jesus had made. Jesus noticed a common behavior among the guests at different dinners that He attended, and it bothered Him. These guests would come into the home, and sit down at the best seat at the table—the head of the table, the one that was clearly meant for an honored guest or the head of the household. They could be “Joe Shmo” off the street, and it didn’t matter—they each thought so incredibly highly of themselves that they believed they deserved the very best place, the “gold standard” treatment. So Jesus told a parable saying that you shouldn’t do this—that you shouldn’t take the place of honor—because it’s very likely that a more distinguished person than you will have been invited. And when they come and find you in their seat, you’re gonna have to get up—and go to the very back of the room. Ooo…embarrasing.
I’m reminded of an eerily similar situation that happened just recently at the Oscars. I don’t normally watch awards shows, because the self-congratulations of multi-millionaires isn’t something that I really am interested in. But the dresses were so pretty and there was nothing else on, and I soon found myself sucked-in, and watching to the very end. In order to boost ratings, the biggest awards of the night—“Best Actor”, “Best Actress”, and “Best Movie” were kept until the very end.
As the very last award was being announced—“Best Movie”—everyone in the room held their breath. And then, it was announced as “La, La, Land”. The cast, directors, crew-men, people who bought donuts—everyone who had any hand in making the movie traipsed up on stage, ready to make their 30-minute speech thanking “Grandma, their Dog, and their 8th grade English teacher”. The director stepped up to the mic, and began to droll on. And then the excitement began…
Turns out that there was a mix-up, and the wrong movie was announced. “La, La, Land”—with its hundred cast members standing on stage with proud, “Of course we won” smiles—was not the winner. A movie called “Moonlight” was the winner. You could almost see the pride draining from their faces as the reality sunk in. Ooo…embarrassing. This is what Jesus was talking about…
So if we’re not supposed to step up and take the best prize, the most important spot, how, pray tell, are we supposed to act? Take the worst spot in the room—the farthest-away seat, the one by the kitchen or the bathroom or placed right next to the speakers. You know which one—the seat everyone else doesn’t want to take. You take it not because you think, “Oh, I’m an awful human being and I don’t deserve anything more.” No! You take it because you want the rest of the guests to be comfortable, and if you’re in that seat, they don’t have to be. Jesus teaches that if you act in humility, it will be rewarded with honor. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11).
There’s some fascinating movement happening with the verbs in this proverb. Jesus is lifting up situations where we act, and then are acted upon. Listen to this: Jesus said all who “exalt themselves” (that’s an active voice, you’re doing it), “will be humbled” (that’s a passive voice, it’s being done to you). On the flip side, He said that those who “humble themselves” (active voice, you’re doing it), “will be exalted” (that’s a passive voice, it’s being done to you). You choose your actions, but you don’t choose the consequences of those actions. “And Jesus said that the actions and the consequences of those actions move in precisely the opposite direction. Those who exalt themselves, who actively put themselves up, will be humbled; but those who actively humble themselves will ultimately be exalted.” (“Living with the Mind of Christ” by James A. Harnish, p.37)
Jesus talks about this same up-ward movement vs. down-ward movement in Luke 18, where He teaches a parable about two men who went to the temple to pray. One man was an up-right citizen, a keeper of the Law, a guy who followed the rules. He was a Pharisee. When he prayed, he stood up proudly and reminded God how awesome he was. “God, I thank You that I’m not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this [other guy, this] tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)
The other man was as crooked as crooked could be. He was a Tax-Collector, which meant that he was in cahoots with the forces that occupied Jerusalem at the time—the enemy Rome. He forced his own people to give him money that they didn’t have, to go to a government that had forcibly taken over their country. And to make him just a little more bad, he probably skimmed some money off the top, too, to make his life more comfortable than the poor schmucks he was collecting from. But when this guy prayed, he couldn’t even lift his head up to heaven. He beat his chest in grief and cried out in his spirit, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18: 13).
Jesus held up both these men—the one who thought he was perfect, and therefore stood haughtily before God, and the one who was obviously a sinner, and therefore stood in humble contrition before God—and reiterated the point He had just made in chapter 14, with the parable of the guests at the wedding banquet. “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
You see, that Tax Collector was justified because he realized something—he realized that he needed God. He realized that no matter what he had—how much money he had, how much prestige he had, how much power he had, how much “upward mobility” he had—that none of it mattered. “The call for humility is a call for simple realism… Humility is an honest and objective reflection of our real relationship to God. The fact is that we are all dependent. All that we have comes from God—our lives, our salvation, our hope, Christ, [everything!]. God has given all; nothing is our own…” (“Proud to Be Humble”, Ronald Goetz, p. 207) Humility is the simple recognition that says, “God, without You, I’ve got nothing.” That’s what the Pharisee was missing. He was so wrapped-up in how awesome he had “made himself” that he failed to see that everything he had came from God. He missed out on the humility.
Jesus tells one more parable in our texts for today about humility. We find it in Luke 14 again, right after He talked about how to handle preferential seating. “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)
He then continues by telling a story about a man who wanted to throw a huge dinner party, and invited all of his friends. But they were all too busy with “more important things” to come. Insulted and dejected, the man sent his servants into the streets to wrangle-up the poor, and the crippled to fill his banquet hall and eat his scrumptious food. (Luke 14: 15-24) If we assume—rightly so—that this man throwing the party is God, then there’s only two options for us: we’re either the self-impressed guests who had more important things to do, or we’re the people who are dragged in from the alley ways. Jesus is making a point here—no one comes into the kingdom with the attitude that they’ve earned their spot there. The only people who come to the banquet table are those who know they don’t have any business being there! God, our host, brings us in not because we’re good, not because we deserve a spot, but because God is God. And that reality calls us to respond with humility.
So today, as we ponder all these parables of Jesus, we return to the words of Paul as he instructs the early church in not only how to live with each other, but how to live in relationship with Jesus: Don’t be selfish or self-centered. Don’t try to impress others. Don’t do things to seek glory for yourself. Think of others as better thank yourself. See great value in people. Be concerned about other’s needs, wants, and interests. Be humble.
Humility is difficult. We live in a culture, in a world, that tells us to puff ourselves up, to strive for upward mobility. But we have a Savior who modeled for us what it means to live in humility. He lived His live in a “down-ward” movement—coming down to earth to us, humbling Himself as a servant. He humbled Himself so much that He went to the cross, to die for our sins. That’s humility—that He would look to our needs, before He looked to His own. That’s the mind of Christ.
What changes in your life do you need to make today in order to live with Christ’s mindset of humility? What is the Holy Spirit putting on your heart today to deal with, to wrestle with? Living with the mindset of humility means being a gracious guest at the table, and welcoming others there too. I pray that the Holy Spirit will move mightily in our hearts, to transform us into humble servants of Christ. Amen.
(*This sermon series for Lent is adapted from the book, “Living with the Mind of Christ” by James A. Harnish. Many ideas have been used from this helpful book.)