I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, who opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Amen.
Friends, our subject for today is the peculiar virtue of humility – one that has its roots in the Bible. Repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testaments, the people of God are told to be humble – humble before God, first and foremost, and also before other people, which involves regarding others as better, the fulfillment of their needs as more important than your own. We heard both of these aspects of humility in our reading today from 1 Peter.
That second aspect of humility, being humble before other people, made the Christian faith very strange in the ancient Roman world, where it was generally considered a good thing to exalt oneself. Nowadays it’s generally agreed that it’s good to be humble (as opposed to arrogant), but I’m afraid we’ve lost the original and truly biblical grounding of the term.
For many today, to be humble is to have a kind of ho-hum, aw-shucks, lowly view of oneself. ‘I’m no good.’ But the problem with this self-deprecating attitude is that it’s often self-indulgent and all-consuming. And if that’s the case, it’s also a problem because it denies your God-given gifts. Other people regard themselves to be humble - and are proud of this (though they may not admit it) – which, of course, negates the very humility they claim to have.
So what then is true humility? What does it really mean to be humble?
The meaning of the root word in English is very helpful here: humility and humbleness come from the word ‘humus’ meaning ‘of the earth, from the ground.’ This connects with the biblical root of the idea. In the creation story from Genesis ch. 2, we read that the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Gen 2:7 ESV). And then one chapter later, after Adam and Eve had turned away from God, their maker and the source of their breath, than man is told: now that you die you [will] return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19 ESV)
So humility means to acknowledge that you have a Maker: you’re not self-made, you were made by God; it also means to acknowledge that God made you from the same stuff as the rest of creation (and this has clear implications for our care of the environment); and it also means to acknowledge that your breath, which keeps you alive, comes from God, meaning that you are dependent at every moment of your life on God who sustains you.
By the way, thank you to those who joined us virtually on Friday for the funeral of David Jackson, of blessed memory. As I said in my message, David planned the entire service himself; and one of the prayers he particularly requested was the closing commendation which echoes these verses from Genesis:
‘We are mortal, formed of the earth and to earth we shall return. For so did God ordain when He created us, saying: ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!’
David was a man of the earth – and by that I mean not just that he was created like the rest of us, but that he lived out humanity’s original vocation as an agriculturalist and gardener. Throughout his life, David had his hands in the soil planting seeds, so he had an intimate connection to creation; He understood our dependence on the earth and ultimately on God the Creator and Sustainer. As a man of the earth, David lived the Christian story of death and resurrection – and he died firmly rooted in that hope. And I suspect this was the source of David’s own exemplary humility.
David would have enjoyed the new summer issue of our St. James newsletter which is now posted online; and thank you to Diane our editor for all her work on it. As you’ll see, it features photos of your gardens; and I also want to thank those who submitted those beautiful images. Here’s a little preview of my own article:
As I’ve said before, one of the blessings of this pandemic is that we all have more time to work on our gardens, so they’ve never looked better.
And as you continue to tend to your lawns, gardens and fields throughout the summer, the Church calendar reminds you to do the same for your heart and your life. This Trinity season of the Church year is all about our spiritual growth to become the people God wants us to be – that is, thriving and fruitful branches grafted onto Jesus Christ the true vine (John 15:1).
The Sunday Bible readings throughout this season are selected and arranged to facilitate this growth. So over the past two week, the first two Sundays after Trinity, we were encouraged to be rooted and grounded in the God who is love (Eph. 3:17). Our roots go down ever deeper into God as we actively love God and our neighbour (1 John 4:7-21; 3:13-24).
This Sunday – and the six Sundays following - are for pruning. If we take an honest, humble look at ourselves, we’ll see that there are many things in our hearts and lives that prevent us from loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves. This are misdirected growths that hinder the blossoming, fruitfulness and vitality of the plant. They must be pruned from our hearts so that we may thrive. And the first and foremost of these is pride, the very opposite of humility, our theme and virtue of the day.
As Peter says, Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, ‘For God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ As I said, in the first place, humility means to acknowledge our dependence on God. How do we do that, practically speaking? Mainly through prayer.
The best way to clothe ourselves with humility is to cultivate a life of prayer (and this relates to our collect or prayer of the day which is all about the importance of prayer).
The proud persons thinks they can go it alone. Pride suppresses our desire for honest prayer – it discourages us from communicating with God. So you can see why He would oppose it: pride keeps us from God, who wants to be close to us.
That’s why Peter encourages us to humble ourselves […] by casting all our anxieties on God. To pray honestly and openly; to express our needs to God; to ask Him mercifully to hear us; to ask that His ‘mighty aid’ would defend and comfort us ‘in all dangers and adversities’; to draw near to God and pray in this way is an act of humility – the very opposite of pride.
And we see this contrast between humility and pride play out in today’s gospel reading:
The tax collectors and sinners - who are humbled by their guilt, shame and rejection - draw near to Jesus to hear Him. Meanwhile the proud Pharisees and scribes can only grumble and condemn Jesus and His humble audience.
In response, Jesus tells two parables: the shepherd who seeks and finds his lost sheep; and the woman who seeks diligently sweeps her house to find her lost coin. Jesus uses both of these parables to show how God us out when we’ve gone our own way and how God rejoices when we repent in humility and turn back to Him. So Jesus says these parables are about repentance.
In the Christian life, humility and repentance are very closely related. Repentance is about being humbled and turning back to God in prayer. The first and most basic step in repentance is to humble ourselves and to cast all our anxieties on God, acknowledging that they're to much for us to handle ourselves. Our pride and illusion of self-sufficiency is the first and most basic sin from which we must repent. So that’s the first point: to repent is to humble ourselves before God.
But secondly, in our Gospel, notice that we don’t actually see any active repentance taking place on the part of the lost objects. The sheep and the coin simply get lost. They don’t find themselves and humbly turn back to their owner. No, the shepherd and the woman, respectively, seek them out and find them. The action is all on the part of the one who’s doing the seeking.
As Jesus says, repentance involves being sought out and found by God. And as we learn from Peter, repentance involves turning from pride and prayerfully humbling oneself under the mighty hand of God.
So it seems that there’s something of a two-step cycle to repentance: God does His part - seeking and finding us; and we humans do our part - humbling ourselves and turning back to God. You need both steps, both directions, to complete the cycle.
Friends, the gospel, the good news, is that Jesus Christ accomplishes both of these steps and completes the cycle for us. God the Father sent Jesus, not only to find us, who had gone astray in pride, but He sent Jesus also to humble Himself in our place.
Jesus is the One who ‘humbled Himself under the mighty hand of God, [He] entrusted Himself radically into God’s hand, and endured shame, suffering and death, in order that in Him, we might also humble ourselves and trust God’ (Harink). Our humbling, repentance, our turning back to God, happens in Christ and through Christ.
Jesus initiated this in His life of perfect humility & obedience. He completed it in His death. And now He fulfills it in us through His Resurrection and Ascension. Jesus prays for us at the Father’s right hand in heaven; and He sends upon us His Holy Spirit to clothe us with His humility and to give us a new, hearty desire to pray with a humility that’s full of joy and thanksgiving.
As Peter wrote earlier in his first letter: You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of you souls (1 Pet. 2:25)
Jesus Christ is the Great Shepherd, who was sent to seek and find us who had gone astray in pride and sin. And yet this Great Shepherd humbled Himself completely by becoming the sheep who was lost in our place – lost even to death. Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who sacrificed Himself so that we could never be lost forever. So O that today you would hear His voice (Ps. 95): hear and obey His Word. To do this is to turn from our pride, from self-centeredness, from believing that we can manage our own lives. Be clothed with His His glorious humility. Be sure to cast all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Jesus Christ will make good on His promise to restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you. For that, thanks be to God. Amen.