Luke 2:4-7, John 13: 1-17
One of Charles Dickens’s characters in his novel, David Copperfield, is named Uriah Heep He is heard to say, far too frequently, “‘umble we are, ‘umble we have been, ‘umble we shall ever be.” The man who spoke those words knew nothing about humility. He only knew a lot about servility and groveling and using humility as a disguise for his nastiness.
In the Methodist tradition, when we are invited to share in moments of communion, we are called upon to “take this sacrament to your comfort; and humbly kneeling, make your honest confession to Almighty God.” But not like Uriah Heep, saying nasty things about ourselves that we know are not true. We are invited to come humbly, to humble our hearts, to tell each other the truth about ourselves in a time of confession.
But before we think about our humility, I would like us to reflect upon the humility of God. For one of the things we learn about God from the coming of Jesus Christ is that God is by His very nature, humble. Of course when the theologians list the attributes of God they list all the things that make God look powerful. But if the coming of Jesus is the coming of God, then Jesus acted just like God has always acted. And God, who calls us to be humble, is actually calling us to be like Jesus and to be like Himself in this regard.
The Humility of Jesus
When God chose to come among us in the incarnation, he did not choose to come as we would expect God to come. In pomp and power and overwhelming grandeur. Instead:
He came as a baby coming to the womb of an unmarried girl, born nine months later into the home of a peasant couple. His birthing moment was in a barn and as a newborn was placed into a feeding trough for animals.
Recently I came across the writings of Ken Gire. These are his words about the birthing of the Christ child.
A scream from Mary knifes through the calm of the silent night.
Joseph returns, breathless, water sloshing from the wooden bucket. The top of the baby’s head has already pushed its way into the world. Sweat pours from Mary’s contorted face as Joseph, the most unlikely midwife in all Judea, rushed to her side.
The involuntary contractions are not enough, and Mary has to push with all her strength, almost as if God were refusing to come in the world without her help.
Joseph places a garment beneath her and with a final push and a long sigh, her labor is over. The Messiah has arrived.
Elongated head from the constricting journey through the birth canal. Light skin, as the pigment would take days for even weeks to surface. Mucus in his ear and nostrils. Wet and slippery from the amniotic fluid. The son of the most High God umbilically tied to a lowly Jewish girl.
The baby chokes and coughs. Joseph instinctively turns him over and clears his throat. Then he cries.
Mary bares her breast and reaches for the shivering baby. She lays him on her chest and his helpless cries subside. His tiny head bobs around on the unfamiliar terrain. This will be the first thing the infant-king learns. Mary can feel his racing heartbeat as he gropes to nurse.
Deity nursing from a young maiden’s breast. Could anything be more puzzling or more profound?
If this is not humility, I do not know what the word could mean!
And as a baby of only a few days, he is part of a refugee family on the run. His early childhood is spent in exile in a foreign country and then as a young child lives out in the sticks in Galilee, because his parents fear the ruling powers of the day.
God himself chose that beginning. I would have chosen a palace or at least a well-to-do home, with financial and physical security. But God is prepared to take His place along with people who live in the world’s ghettos because that is the way 90% of humanity has always lived out its life
The peasant from Galilee
But the manger is only the beginning. Then God chose to live in obscurity for 30 years, and to do it in one of the smallest villages in the outback. He works in the village carpenter’s shop supporting his widowed mom. He attended the local synagogue week after week, and no one dreamed that this young man was anything more than any other villager. He did no miracle to make his work easier. If he would not change stones to bread when he was hungry, neither did he make those long tiring days easier by miracles. And this truly humble young man lived among his neighbours sharing the joys and difficulty of that little village
The wandering dependent.
But at 30 he does not throw off humility as though it were a cloak or a disguise. He enters into his calling to be an itinerant teacher. He left his job and its income, and became a transient, dependent upon other people for his food. Dependent upon the kindness of others. Then to add insult to injury he called others who had been gainfully employed to forsake their vocations and travel with him throughout the country side, like a bunch of tramps hoping that they would get invited out to dinner, and when they weren’t, to nibble on the standing grain in the nearby fields. This is not good for one’s reputation.
But that humble style of life was no con-job. He was not playing or performing the role of a humble servant. He was truly humble. He came to serve, not to be served. His entire ministry was among the marginalized people of his day, to children, to social outcasts, to foreigners. He felt more at home among such people. Those who are more proper, mutter their insults at this gross behaviour. “He hangs around with hookers and hustlers.” And so he did. He was not ashamed to be in their company.
The foot washing.
But there is one scene that drives the truth about God home. It was the night of the betrayal. There was so much on his mind. But the disciples had been squabbling about their own importance. No one had done the footwashing, which was normal protocol in entering a home. In better homes it was done by servants. In poorer homes, you did your own. But on this night no one had washed the dirt and dust off their feet. After they were all at table ready to eat supper, Jesus got up from the table, and put aside his outer robe. 30 years before he had put aside the glory and the powers of God, and now he went that step further and threw off his outer robe, and dressed like a servant, in his underclothes, he wrapped a towel around his waist, took the waiting bowl of water, and knelt before each reclining disciple and washed their feet. Then replaced his robe and returned to the supper table to share in the very first service of communion.
The next day the Son of God was stripped again, but this time by his enemies. He was left with only his loin cloth to cover him, dressed again like a slave, and then he was impaled on a cross while the world witnessed his public humiliation.
But He had humbled himself the night before. He had humbled himself for 33 years before that. But if the whole truth were told, God had humbled himself throughout all the years of human history.
The Humility of God
For God is humble. He has always been our servant. He operates in the background of our life, providing us with so much, and yet making Himself hardly noticed. He ministers to us every day of our lives, though invisible and non-intrusive. Because we are so self-preoccupied we hardly notice his constant undergirding of our lives. and so few of us even think to thank Him. And yet God asks for so little recognition. For there is no petulance in God. There is no arrogance in Him.
Even His calls for us to worship Him, are not to bolster His ego, but are intended to free us from self-admiration and vanity. For to focus on Him, may help redeems us from our focus of ourselves, from our ego centricity.
For if the truth be told, humanity. along with you and I, are infected with the virus of human arrogance. St. Augustine identified the basic disease that infects all we do: it is pride. It is vanity and self-centeredness. It is this terrible preoccupation with our selves. It is a deeply rooted narcissism that makes us think, far too often about ourselves, and causes us to make the decisions of our lives primarily to further our own comfort and security. There is within all of us too high a sensitivity to our own rights and privileges. It infects the world and it infects the church. Some of us are hyper-sensitive, and our feelings get hurt far too easily because we think too much about what we deserve. Some of us are insensitive because we think only about ourselves and our needs, and are oblivious to the needs of others. At the source of all human evil lies pride. It is the root of all self-centeredness, all self-preoccupation, all self-importance.
The only antidote is a humble spirit. A willingness to be like the one who said without any arrogance, “Come unto me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The next time you take Holy Communion remind yourself that God comes to us again in humble form. He comes to us in bread and wine. He comes to us through his word. He comes in the solemn silence of moments like this. As you receive bread and wine, would you receive Him as well to be the antidote to that dark illness that hurts us all.