James 4:1-8 November 25, 2018
Philippians chapter 2 is a hymn from the early church, extolling Jesus Christ. We hear that t Jesus humbled himself and became obedient, even to death on the cross. He humbled himself.
He humbled himself.
Humility was not a virtue in the ancient world, just as it is not a virtue in our day and time. Those who get ahead in our society are the arrogant, the proud, the pushy. Interesting isn’t it that we worship a man who was selfless, who put the needs of others before himself.
For a moment think with me how influential the life of Jesus Christ has been upon human history.
Consider the lives that he has mastered, the deeds he has inspired. Consider the institutions that owe their founding impetus to him.
Consider the power of his name as it has been sounded in hospitals, at cemetery grave sites, in prison cells, in services of marriage and baptism.
Consider the affects of his presence–on the weak to make them strong, on the proud to make them humble, on the greedy to make them generous, on the evil to make them good, on the upright to make them loving.
Give him the test of absence. Imagine the poverty of a world without Him; without carols to herald His Nativity, without the impact of his life and the impress of his words, a world bereft of His cross and unsupported by the hope that issues from his resurrection.
We see in the life of Jesus Christ the highest and best which anyone can achieve. And in seeing him, we aspire to rise a bit higher.
In the book of James we read that “God opposes the self
important, “but gives grace to the humble.”
I saw on a bumper sticker “It’s hard to be humble when you are as
great as I am,” Humility–It’s one of those Biblical words that comes at us sideways. What do I mean by that?
For openers, it is the admission that we are creatures and not God. It is the acknowledgment that for all our efforts and ingenuity we cannot control our lives or the lives of our loved ones. It is the recognition that when all is said and done, very little we have said and done shapes and controls who we are, where we are, and what has been the course of our lives to this day
I was the first member of the Swicegood family in our part of
North Carolina to go to college. My forebears were farmers and mill-
workers. I got to college because of a generous scholarship from some
dedicated Methodist people in North Carolina. I got a scholarship to go
to seminary, and after that, was admitted into the doctoral program at
Princeton Seminary. To add to all that I was born to loving parents,
grew up in a country with freedom of opportunity, was the recipient of
the best health care in the world. All mine.
And you know what? None of it was earned, and none deserved.
I’ve often asked myself, “Why was I born where I was born and
not a Palestinian child or an American Indian child or an immigrant child?” I don’t know. All I do know on this Thanksgiving week
that when I look back over the years of my life, I know it isn’t my might
or power or wealth which has brought me to this day. It is the hand of a
gracious God, a God who has been work in my life in times of hardship
and joy, in times of trial and testing, at work in the strange and
unpredictable evens that have proven in time to be severe blessings.
Humility is never a virtue that any of us can claim to possess. It is
instead a sensitivity that we can only struggle to sustain against pride
and complacency, a sensitivity to the reality that we are not in control.
That admission keeps us open to our vulnerabilities. And I believe we
relate better to each other, and certainly to God, through our
vulnerabilities than our strength. Our strengths tend to wall us out from
others. Our vulnerabilities can let others in. So humility opens us up to
trust, to trust others and God.
But trust in God doesn’t imply that God exists to meet our desires,
that God’s entire focus is to help us be successful, wealthy and wise.
Not that at all. I stumbled across a little piece the other day titled,
“God’s Total Quality Control Questionnaire.” Here’s a bit of it.
God would like to thank you for your patronage. In order to better
meet your needs, SHE asks that you take a few moments to answer the
following questions. How did you find out about your deity?
Newspaper, Bible, television, Dead Sea Scrolls, My Mama Done tol’
me. Which model deity did you acquire? Jehovah, Jesus, Krishna,
Zeus, Earth Mother? Please indicate any problems you have with God?
Not omnipotent. Makes mistakes. Permits bad things to happen to
good people. Permits good things to happen to bad people. Are you
currently using any other source of inspiration in addition to God?
Tarot, Lottery, Astrology, Television, Fortune Cookies, Dr. Phil?
Well, this isn’t God. God is not at our disposal. We do not
understand God’s ways. We stand under God’s ways. Trust in God is
no guarantee of a safe and easy way through this world. But trust in
God is to understand that grace is at the heart of the universe.
To know God’s grace is to know that we can look reality square in
the face, see its tragic and sad edges, and yet feel in our heart of hearts
that it’s good to be alive on God’s good earth. Grace is the power to see
life very clearly, admit that it is sometimes all wrong, and still know that
somehow, in the center of your life, “It is all right.” This is why we call
it amazing grace.
One of the most poignant testimonies to the importance of trust in
the face of our fragility is that of the writer, Morris West, whose best
known novel is The Shoes of the Fisherman. West had a double by-
pass when he was 72. “After my surgery,” he says, “the sense of
psychic and physical frailty lasted for a long time. That was the rough
side of the experience. The other side was the daily sense of newness, of
preciousness. Every hour of every day was a bonus. Your prize people.
You understand that they can be as fragile and fearful as you have been.
You don’t quarrel anymore. You don’t grasp at things because, after all,
the Creator didn’t close his hand but let you sit quietly, like a butterfly,
on His palm.”
Fourteen years ago almost to this day his day our first grandchild hovered between life and death in Childrens Hospital in Utrecht. He had contacted a strep infection at birth and thankfully, a nurse noticed he wasn’t breathing properly. He was whisked off to the neo natal ICU unit. One of the great features of that hospital is that they have a camera pointed at the little infants who are in neo natal intensive care. You get a log in number and password and you can watch the infant from your own computer in our case 5,500 miles away. I would put my hands on my computer monitor and pray for little Liam. I know it’s corny, but that’s what I did, and if I could have graded my life for his, I would not have hesitated for a second. On November 9, 2018 he celebrated his 14th birthday with some boy and girl friends. He is healthy, and happy, and smart (You know where those smart genes come from don’t you?)
That experience was the most stressful experience of my life, much harder in some ways than when my dad died at the age of 53. You expect to bury your parents, but not your children or grandchildren. I hope I never look at Liam again without thinking, “A miracle. A certified miracle”
So on this Sunday after Thanksgiving I am grateful, and humbled. Grateful for God’s healing power and goodness. Humbled by the love and prayers that sent our way by hundreds of friends some 14 years ago. Humbled and grateful for an exquisite grandeurs of this November Sunday, for the gifts of health, and framily and friendship, and not the least humbled and grateful of being pastor of being a pastor in our small but mighty church.