Walking humbly before God and man

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Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 4:1-6  +  Luke 14:1-11

In the Epistle, you heard these words of instruction from the Apostle Paul: I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love. It’s as if St. Paul had just finished reading our Gospel for today, where Jesus both taught and demonstrated that very same thing.

In the Gospel, Jesus was invited to a banquet on the Sabbath. It was the home of a ruler of the Pharisees, and they were watching Him closely, not in lowliness or gentleness, not with longsuffering, not in love. They were watching Him to try to trap Him.

But still, they were watching. They were listening. So He bore with them in love and taught them.

The first lesson came as a man with dropsy came before Jesus. (Dropsy, by the way, is a sickness that causes a person’s body to swell up with extra fluid.) Jesus could have just healed the man, but He wanted the watching Pharisees to watch and to consider the question: Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?

They had been saying “no” to that question for quite a while and condemning Jesus for doing it on other occasions—for healing sick or demon-possessed people on the Sabbath. But when the sick man is standing right in front of them in the house, they suddenly have nothing to say.

They had forgotten what humility and gentleness are. They had abandoned mercy and compassion. They had turned the good Sabbath Law into a loveless, joyless task to be checked off on their religious scorecard. They had made it into a day for them to exalt themselves over others, at least in their own minds, by their strict observance of the command to rest. They were just like their fathers in Isaiah’s day who ignored God’s will that they should help their neighbor and instead pretended to be righteous because they outwardly worshiped God with fasting.

But God rebuked them: Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the LORD? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh?

The Pharisees were hiding themselves from their sick brother, hiding behind a Sabbath commandment so that they didn’t have to help him. Not that they could help him with his dropsy. But Jesus could.

What gentleness on the part of Jesus! What humility! God has come into their midst, and yet instead of tearing into them for their indifference toward the sick man, instead of bringing judgment down on them for putting a religious façade on their hatred for their neighbor, Jesus humbles Himself to teach them, to teach us what kindness looks like, what Law-keeping looks like. Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day? Of course you help your neighbor on the Sabbath, if you are able. He’s much more valuable than an animal. Of course it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath, and they should praise Him instead of condemning Him. They should believe in Him instead of rejecting Him.

But they still couldn’t admit it to Jesus, even after watching Him perform a miracle and listening to His sound, Scriptural reasoning. That’s a powerful condemnation. They saw His great love and kindness in action, combined with His divine healing power, combined with His flawless illustration of helping their suffering animals on the Sabbath, and they still couldn’t admit that He was right and that they had been wrong about the Sabbath, about themselves, and about Him. “Forget about helping my neighbor,” they thought. “The Sabbath day is about me, me and my obedience, me and my resting, me and my right to sit in judgment of Jesus.”

Let Jesus’ kindness here toward the man with dropsy and toward the Pharisees stir you to love and trust in Him. He has seen your own self-centeredness and self-importance, your lack of lowliness and gentleness. He has seen you hiding from your own flesh, making excuses for yourself about why you’re right not to help your brother in his need, why you’re right not to honor and obey your parents. He calls you to repent and to believe in Him who was lowly and gentle, kind and good, in your place, who suffered and died for you in order to grant you the forgiveness of sins.

Now, learn more of the same lesson from Jesus as He gives some much needed counsel to the guests at this banquet.

Jesus watched the guests choose the seats of greatest honor for themselves at this feast, ever self-seeking, self-serving. “Me first! I should get what I want. I’m going to take whatever I want. I deserve a place of honor. I deserve recognition, more than these people around me.”

Jesus shows them how foolish they are, how foolish it is to seek honor for yourself above your fellow guests, when only the one who invited you to the banquet has the right to bestow that honor, when only his opinion counts. He can remove you from your self-chosen place of honor in an instant and shame you before your fellow guests. Or, he can move you up. He can exalt you before your fellow guests. Which is better? To be humbled by the host or to be exalted by Him? Isn’t it better to let Him exalt you? Isn’t it only fitting and right that you should walk humbly before your God, trusting in Him to notice you, to remember you, and to have mercy on you in due time? If His opinion matters most, then what does it matter if you don’t get as much honor or as many earthly benefits as the people around you? What does it matter if you sit in last place for a long time, or even for your whole earthly life? Just assume the lowest place and be happy there. As the Psalmist prays, For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. That’s the summary of Jesus’ teaching at the Pharisee’s house. And it’s what He taught with His whole life.

Who has exalted himself, but man over God? From Adam and Eve who played God in the Garden, to the idolaters who set up their own beliefs over God’s Word, to the false teachers who play God by substituting their lies for God’s truth, to the murderers all over our country and our world who play God in taking the lives of their fellow men, to the adulterers and sexually immoral who play God by taking His gifts reserved for marriage and use them as they see fit, to the coveters who play God by setting their hearts on things God has not given, to the Pharisee in us all who thinks he is more righteous than his neighbor, and even more righteous than God.

And who has humbled Himself, but the Son of God, who became Man? From His humbling of Himself to become our brother and to live as a servant, to His humble dealings with sinners, to His suffering and death for our sins, even the death of a cross, Christ Jesus has humbled Himself, out of pure love for His Father and for the human race, and now He has been exalted to the highest place and given the name that is above every name. Jesus is the One who walked humbly before God and man, and now has been exalted.

Now He calls out in the Gospel, Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.

You have heard His call to humble yourselves in repentance and to believe in Him, the lowly and gentle One, for your salvation. You have been buried with Him through Baptism into death and have risen with Him, and so you have been called to share in His exaltation, too, all in good time.

For now, as St. Paul writes as he sits in prison for his selfless preaching of the Gospel, walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love.

This walking humbly before God and man is how Christians are to walk worthy of our calling, because we all share a common Lord, a common faith, and a common Baptism. Remember into whom you were baptized. Remember His lowliness and gentleness, and learn to imitate Him. Seek the lowest place for yourself, as Christ did for Himself, and know that God will not abandon you there. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him. Amen.

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