During this Epiphany season we have been looking at some of the important things Jesus shone a light on through his life, teachings, and ministry. So far we have looked at the law, grace, and discipleship as seen in the light of Jesus. Today we look at the subject of humility. I’m not sure that humility was the absolute best word to choose for today. It has some negative connotations for people, primarily in the sense of false humility that just seems to be fishing for compliments, but in a more sinister sense sometimes of a person who tries to weasel himself or herself into your confidence by acting very condescendingly.
But I think humility is a good and an important word and I think it is at the heart of the way Jesus lived. It was not an act. It was not false modesty. It was a choice to lay aside one way of living in favor of another. I want to spend my time painting a picture of what this looked like using a number of references in the Bible, so I hope by the end you will understand what I mean by humility and will view it in a very positive light.
Before I get to the life and teachings of Jesus, I want to lay the foundation by reading a passage from Philippians which is very important for me, from chapter two. Paul writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in our likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” He emptied himself of being God and filled himself with being human, and he humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross.
Jesus was not the Messiah most were looking for. They were looking for a warrior king who would restore Israel’s glory and power and run out the Romans. There were times when people would have gladly rallied to a cry to arms, but he never gave it, never showed any interest in the politics or the power. One of the temptations he faced was to embrace the power and give the people what they wanted. In the temptations Satan invited Jesus to look around at all the kingdoms of the world and promised they could all be his if he would follow Satan’s way, but he would not. In the Garden of Gethsemane when he was arrested one of his followers pulled a sword and cut off the ear of one of the men trying to seize him. Jesus ordered him to put the sword away and told them that if he had wanted to he could call out to his Father, who would send a legion of angels to deliver him. But he did not.
He was consistent in this approach to life and ministry. He was born in an out of the way place to humble parents. He chose to submit to the baptism of John the Baptist though he had no sin to repent of. He endured the temptations in the wilderness to use his power to make his life easier, to show the world who he was, to amass worldly power. He surrounded himself with the least likely people to make an impression – fishermen, tax collectors, women of ill repute. He didn’t live a first class lifestyle. He told his disciples, “Birds have nests and foxes have holes to live in, but the Son of man has no place to lay his head.” He told people to practice their faith in humility, pray quietly in private, not make a big show of religion. He said to treat other people the way you would like for them to treat you.
Mark’s Gospel builds towards a turning point which comes at the end of chapter eight and beginning of chapter nine. The first part of Mark tells of the ministry and teachings and healings and miracles of Jesus. It reaches its high point with the feeding of the multitude. John says that after this event, Jesus slipped away because he could tell the people were about to make him king by force, so it is clear that it was a high point of his popularity.
Shortly after this, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples who people were saying he was and they said, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Jesus said, “And who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” At this high point, following the feeding of the multitude and the confession of Peter, Jesus did the very out of synch thing of telling him that he was going to be rejected and killed and would rise on the third day. In response, Peter “took him and began to rebuke him.” This is very strong language. Peter had just confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, so to hear these defeatist sounding words from the lips of Jesus set him off. He grabbed Jesus and rebuked him, not something you do to your teacher, your master. Jesus in turn rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter would have Jesus grasp the power, accept the crown, rule the multitudes, just as Satan had invited him to do.
From that point on in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem. He is on the way there with determination to fulfill his purpose. On the way he again taught the disciples about what would happen to him when they arrived in Jerusalem. But the very next paragraph says that Jesus asked the disciples what they were talking about while they were walking and there was dead silence because they had been discussing which one of them was the greatest disciple. He sat them down and said, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
Further down the road, people were bringing children for Jesus to bless and the disciples rebuked them for doing so. Jesus was indignant about that and said, “Let the children come, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
After a while he tried again. “Look, we are on the way to Jerusalem. There I will be rejected, arrested, condemned, and killed, and will rise on the third day.” And the next paragraph is the passage Leigh read earlier, where James and John pull Jesus over to the side by themselves and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” A blank check. Jesus doesn’t bite. “What is it you want me to do for you?” “Promise us that one of us can sit on your right hand and one on your left in your glory.” Unbelievable! How deaf, blind, and dumb can you be? And when the other ten disciples hear about it they are indignant with James and John and the company is in danger of falling apart over a power struggle.
Jesus sits them down again and says, “This is the way the world does things. The powerful lord it over the weak and tell them what to do. It shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
So they arrive in Jerusalem, and there are conflicts with authorities and increasing tensions and hostilities. Then comes the night of the Last Supper and the event I read about earlier. Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. This is a remarkable story, an enacted teaching which turns social conventions upside down.
In first century Israel people got around on foot, wearing robes and sandals on their feet. Most of the time it was dry and dusty, occasionally it was wet and muddy. Either way, at the end of the day your feet would be dirty – covered with dust or caked in mud. One of life’s little pleasures would be washing your feet off, like getting home and taking off your work shoes and putting on comfortable slippers.
Washing someone else’s feet was a nasty job, so much so that Robert Cathey tells us that the washing of a master’s feet could not be required of a Jewish slave. Occasionally a devoted disciple might do this for a beloved teacher, but it would be unheard of for a master to do this humiliating act for his disciples. This is seen in the fact that Peter reacts violently to the idea of Jesus washing his feet. Cathey writes, “This entire Gospel can be summed up in the hospitable act of friendship where an extraordinary master takes the place of servant to his own servants.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 274)
Then Jesus taught again, saying, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Followers of Jesus are still very guilty of jockeying with each other for position, arguing over which one of them is the greatest, the most important, the most “right,” the ones who will have earned the right to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory. We still get too wrapped up in the world’s ways of power and authority and winners and losers. We are still appalled by the idea of Jesus washing our feet, by the idea that Jesus needs to wash us clean from sin and is willing to do that no matter how costly it is. And we are appalled by the idea of washing one another’s feet, not so much literally as figuratively. The idea of serving one another sacrificially is very difficult for us.
Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He does this willingly. He said, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down by my own accord.” He said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
From that upper room Jesus and the disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested. As he said, he could have asked his Father and he would have sent legions of angels to fight for him, but this temptation he also resisted. He was tried and condemned without attempting to make a defense for himself. He was beaten, mocked, humiliated, crucified between two thieves.
From beginning to end, Jesus shone a light on and embodied humility. He taught and taught about it to his disciples. Whoever would be great must be the servant of all. You must become like a child to enter the kingdom. The son of man came not to be served but to serve and to pour out his life for others. I have given you an example by washing your feet. You should do the same for each other. Have you served anyone lately?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 8, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church