December 24th, 2009

“And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death.”  (Philippians 2:8)

December 24, 2009

Humbled by history

Because Sunday morning at Corinth will be the children’s Christmas pageant and I have asked Pastor Paul to give the meditation, this is likely to be my final sermon of 2009.  Perhaps for that reason, I’m a little more reflective about the past year than I normally am at Christmas Eve.

One theme has captured my attention more than any other this year in reading, writing, and preaching.  And it happens to be a theme that leaps off the pages of Christmas stories from the Bible and Christmas music.

For those of you who listen to all my sermons and read everything I write (by “those of you” I really mean one of you, my wife Linda), this may seem like review.  But I’m well aware that a service like this draws those Corinth members who attend the Contemporary service or live out of town or just don’t come to church much at all – along with family members and friends.  Reflective repetition might be in order.

I spent a good bit of the year reading and thinking about John Calvin, because 2009 was the 500th anniversary of his birth.  The Swiss reformer was directly or indirectly responsible for so much of our American and Christian culture and thought.

What stood out most to me about Calvin was that he believed the root sin is superbia – arrogance.  The basic virtue we all need is humilitas – humility.  Arrogance severs us from God and one another.  Humility allows us to love God and others.

I was humbled by reflecting on the struggles of Calvin and his followers five centuries ago.  I was also humbled this year by the fiftieth anniversary of this building, which we celebrated in August 2009.  If you missed that celebration, feel free to pick up one of our commemorative scrapbooks in the narthex literature rack.

As part of our celebration, we opened the cornerstone which included various items of historical interest from fifty years ago, as well as items from a hundred years ago.  As I reviewed our own contributions to the cornerstone this past week, I also looked briefly again at some of those items from the past that will be out of sight for another fifty years.  Once again, I was humbled by history.

Not only was I humbled to realize that in all likelihood I won’t be around the next time the cornerstone is opened, I was humbled to read some of what they wrote.

For example, the May 1, 1908 copy of the Reformed Church Standard clearly indicates the passion of Christian people a hundred years ago for prohibition.  They believed that alcohol was the primary cause of social evil – not its symptom – and that to ban alcohol sales would cause “vice and impurity (to) die a natural death.”  If the church did not rise up and oppose liquor it should “cease to profess to be Christ-like.”

If you know me very well, you know I don’t drink and you also know that I believe alcohol is, indeed, a destructive force in many lives and families.  There’s a whole lot more self-deception than moderation about drinking.

But there are almost no Christians today who share the consensus of social liberals and social conservatives from a century ago – that the church must either band together to ban alcohol or stop calling itself Christian.  That’s humbling to me.  What are we so fired up about today that will seem in a hundred years a waste of corporate energy?

There’s not enough time tonight to mention all the other ways I’ve been humbled this year.  I have certainly made enough mistakes, taken enough missteps, had to apologize for enough misstatements.  I could certainly name more than a few people who would love to shout a hearty “Amen” to what I just said.  Along with all that, my knees hurt in a way they didn’t a year ago, and I also notice that my brain has less holding power.  The passage of time humbles a man.

Nothing like Christmas

Humility is a distinctively Christian value.  It’s important for me to say that because humility is not an American cultural value.  When was the last time you found in the self-help section of the bookstore “Humility for Dummies”?  When was the last time you heard a politician running for office say, “I don’t have all the answers – I’m going to need to work with some really great minds across the political spectrum to come up with a way forward”?

We don’t prize humility as Americans.  We prize self-awareness, self-confidence, self-righteousness.  Ours is the religion of independence, of standing up for your rights, of bettering yourself.  We’ve turned superbia from a vice into a virtue.

There is no time better than Christmas to confront our arrogance.  Even Christmas, of course, we have turned into collective narcissism.  Rather than complaining, however, let’s just step back and simultaneously step forward and think about Christmas.

Is there anything quite like Christmas in any other culture or place or religion?  Is there anywhere else where the birth of a significant person gets this much attention?  All around the world, but especially in churches and among Christians, we find ways to retell and recreate in fresh ways what happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.  The details we have are few and scant, but we fill in the gaps with our imagination – sometimes helping and sometimes distracting from the simplicity of the original.

Maybe I just don’t know, but can someone tell me if there’s another famous person – religious or otherwise – in human history whose birth has led to so much music?  Who writes and sings songs about the birth of Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama or even Mohammed or Gandhi?  Even their admirers and followers don’t.

What is it about this Jesus’ birth that is so important to Christians and sometimes even seems to overshadow his life and death and resurrection?  It’s his humility.

We sing about it in our Christmas songs.  “Down in a lowly manger our humble Christ was born.”  “Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die.”  “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?”  “The king of kings lay thus in lowly manger.”

The Apostle Paul writes about Jesus this way, perhaps quoting an early Christian hymn – “Christ Jesus…made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”  (Philippians 2:7-8)

What is it about the story of Christmas in its purest form that we cannot and must not let go?  The God who created the world we live in became one of us.  Think about that for a moment.

I am one of seven billion people living on a planet that looks like a pale blue dot as it revolves around a medium-sized star, a burning sphere of hydrogen we call the sun.  Arriving at the closest star to our sun would require more than four years traveling at the speed of light (seven times around the earth’s equator each second).  There may be 100 billion other stars – just in our galaxy, the Milky Way.  And there may be 200 billion or more other galaxies.

Christmas declares that the one who flung those stars into space stepped on to our little planet, developed from zygote to fetus inside a virgin teenager, then passed through her birth canal and was wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in an animal feeding trough because the little town’s local inn was overcrowded.  Now that’s humility.

Predestined to be humble

What’s amazing to me about that scene is that any human being, but especially any Christian who professes to accept that story as true, could find it possible to retain any little speck of superbia.  That a tiny little mobile, breathing speck of in a remote corner of Earth dust (a human being) could ever presume to blame God when we don’t understand him, could judge others as less worthy than we, could presume to know it all, could fail to utter the words, “I could be wrong,” or, better yet, “I’m sorry – I was wrong,” is unthinkable.  That we could ever figure out the meaning of life on our own is unimaginable.

Fortunately, God not only came into our world, but spoke into our world in the Holy Scripture.  But even there, we must exercise humility about our ability to understand and explain God’s Word.

Staring into the manger, even with my mind and imagination, can only increase in me humilitas.

I gained a deeper appreciation for John Calvin on this 500th anniversary year of his birth.  I had always thought of him as rather arrogant, and his followers as even more so.  And no doubt he had his blind spots.

Calvin is most criticized by moderns for his emphasis on the doctrine of predestination, which basically means that God is in charge of everything.  We don’t like that doctrine, for many reasons – not the least of which is the fact that we like to think we’re in control.  Sometimes we also attack predestination because we are trying defend God.  We don’t want to blame God for the bad stuff that happens.

What I learned to appreciate anew about predestination (besides the fact that it’s taught in the Bible) is that this was one way John Calvin taught humilitas.  I should never claim credit for any blessing in my life – including and especially the gift of eternal life.

At the root of our response to God is the recognition that the awareness of our littleness, of our ignorance, and of our instinctive rebellion against the God who made us.  The starting point for restoring that relationship with the Eternal One is to give up our superbia and choose humilitas.

That is the message of Christmas.   Amen.

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