If you are thinking to yourself, “I think I heard that Isaiah passage last week, and the week before, you are right” – and we also appreciate you being in worship three weeks in a row. This Advent season we are meditating on the 40th chapter of the of Isaiah and preaching on different lines of scripture each week. The first week we looked at the passage in which Isaiah, cries out to the people to prepare the way of the Lord. The second week we looked at Isaiah’s call of comfort and today we are honing in on this passage:
“All people are like grass. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, and the flowers fades, but the word of the Lord stands for ever” (Isaiah 40:7-9). It’s a poem – isn’t it? The writer repeats the statement that all people are grass and then repeats that the grass and the flowers fade, and what is active is that in first stanza the breath of the Lord blows upon the grass or the people, and the second phase what is left behind are not the people but the word of the Lord. It’s a humbling statement, isn’t it? It reminds me of what we say on Ash Wednesday, quoting Ecclesiastes 3:20. “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” “All people are like grass…..”
There is a message of humility to this passage – remembering that we only here on earth for a short while, but what remains permanent, constant, is not humanity but the Word of God.
When we think about words that define this season, words that come to mind are words like “joy, peace, love, hope” – these are the words that we lift up on our Advent candles – it probably wouldn’t go over very well to have a” Candle of Humility,” but I think in order to really understand and appreciate both the meaning of Advent, as well as the meaning of Christmas, we must enter the season with a mindset of humility.
Humility is an essential component to practicing the Christian faith. It’s the starting point of following Jesus Christ. It begins from a place of humility. CS Lewis once wrote, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is about thinking about yourself less.” Humility in the Christian faith comes from the belief that we do not earn our salvation. “Because Jesus had to die for us, we are humbled out of our pride, because we was glad to die for us, we are loved out of our need to prove ourselves.”
Now this where I need you to tune in and stay with me, because this gets a little complicated. Preacher Tim Keller makes the point that there are two opposing narratives among Christians. The first narrative Keller calls the “moral performance narrative identity.” This narrative says, “I obey, therefore I am accepted by God.” The second narrative is the “grace narrative identity.” This narrative says, “I am accepted by God through Christ, therefore I obey.”
Keller writes, “people living their lives on the basis of these opposing principles may superficially look alike. They may sit right next to each other in the church pew, both striving to obey the law of God, to pray, to give money generously, to be good family members. But they are doing so out of radically different motives, in radically different spirits, resulting in radically different personal traits.” The difference is, who initiates the relationship? Is it, “I follow Jesus Christ therefore, I am loved” or is it “I am loved by Jesus Christ therefore I follow him?”
This differentiation helped me understand what is happening in our polarized society. A few months ago, I was listening to The Diane Rehm Show on NPR and a college professor called in and said that for the last 20 years he had served in his community on his local city counsel and taught Sunday school at his church. He said he felt that our culture was losing its Christian values in being biblically engaged and socially aware. He said he was noticing that there was a lack of interest in discussing how the Bible and social issues intersect. He was concerned that people were no longer seeing a connection between their faith and their role in society. The next caller called in and said, he agreed with the previous caller and that we must bring Christian values back to America and reclaim ourselves as a Christian nation. He said we should do this by “kicking out the Muslims and bringing God into the schools.” I’m fairly certain that’s not what the first caller meant. Both men claiming the name Christian. Both men desiring to follow Christ. Both men with completely opposite understandings of what it means to live into those Christian values.
This polarization leaves many non-church going folks wondering which narrative is true? People who never have stepped foot in a church, or been in a church observe these opposing view points and are left asking the question, “Would the real Christians please stand up?”
If the Christian community is indeed polarized by these two narratives, what, if anything, is there we can do about it? I doubt that either side can convince the other to change their identity. That probably won’t happen. Certainly, convincing someone to think the way we do, is the opposite of humility. The only thing that might begin to bridge our divide is if we can approach those with whom we disagree, with a measure humility and grace. Anne Lammot once wrote, “you can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hate all of the same people you do.” It would behoove us to all to remember Isaiah’s words, “all of us are grass” and none of us are the Word of God.
All Christians, regardless of their narrative, testify to a mystery they cannot fully understand and yet believe to be true and that is this: that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. And when the Word of God came and lived among us, he did not come as a mighty king, or as a person of great influence. The Word of God entered as a naked infant. He was the son of a teenage mother, born in stable. If the Word of God came into the world with such humility, and if we worship, follow, adhere to this Word, and believe the Word made flesh to be our savior, should we not position ourselves in place more humble than a baby born in a manger? Should we not bring our own selves to our knees?
Remember humility is not about self loathing. Humility is surrendering yourself to God, and thinking more of others. United States Senator, Astronaut, World War II Marine and Presbyterian John Glen passed away this week. He was clearly a smart, gifted and successful man who earned many metals on his lapel. But when he was orbiting the planet, he looked out saw the earth from the heavens, he found himself humbled by it all. He said, “to look out at this kind creation out here not believe in God is to me impossible…it just strengthens my faith. I wish there were words to describe what it’s like.”
During this Advent season, come to the manger in awe and wonder and approach the Word of God in a posture of humility. When faced with someone who sees the world differently from you, love them before you judge them. Engage in a relationship from a place of humility. Recognize that they too are first and foremost a child of God, whose primary desire is to love and be loved. Perhaps the solution is starting our relationships with each other from the same place start our relationship with Jesus Christ….to remember our humanity.
I discovered this prayer that I would like to share with you. It’s a humorous prayer that is usually attributed for those more seasoned in life, but it’s truly a prayer for everyone to hold to memory.
Prayer of an Anonymous Abbess:
Lord, thou knowest better than myself that I am growing older and will soon be old. Keep me from becoming too talkative, and especially from the unfortunate habit of thinking that I must say something on every subject and at every opportunity.
Release me from the idea that I must straighten out other peoples’ affairs. With my immense treasure of experience and wisdom, it seems a pity not to let everybody partake of it. But thou knowest, Lord, that in the end I will need a few friends.
Keep me from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point.
Grant me the patience to listen to the complaints of others; help me to endure them with charity. But seal my lips on my own aches and pains — they increase with the increasing years and my inclination to recount them is also increasing.
I will not ask thee for improved memory, only for a little more humility and less self-assurance when my own memory doesn’t agree with that of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be wrong.
Keep me reasonably gentle. I do not have the ambition to become a saint — it is so hard to live with some of them — but a harsh old person is one of the devil’s masterpieces.
Make me sympathetic without being sentimental, helpful but not bossy. Let me discover merits where I had not expected them, and talents in people whom I had not thought to possess any. And, Lord, give me the grace to tell them so. Amen.
The Advent of Humility. Tim Keller