Sermon: Down is the New Up

Text: Luke 14:7-14
Gospel for Proper 17, Series C

Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:7)

It’s a dinner party! One guest arrives early, looks over the seating arrangements, chooses a place at the head table, and ceremoniously seats himself. He loves it! All eyes are upon him at the front of the table. The sound of hushed voices fills the room. The attention makes him feel so good about himself. He imagines what admiring, respectful thoughts the others must be thinking about him. What a meal this is going to be! Everything is going to taste so good!

Is it his imagination? All of the guests are still starting at him. This is even better than he had hoped. Then he feels a presence hovering nearby. He look up. The host asks him to move so a more distinguished person can have this seat. Instantly, he feels hot. He cheeks are flushed with embarrassment. He gets up, head bowed, and quickly slinks to an obscure seat at the back of the room. Everyone’s eyes are still on him. There is no where he can hide. By seeking his own self-exultation, by trying to be recognised by others, he has demonstrated how little he really is.

Self-Exultation leads to Humiliation

There was a situation which called for this story. Jesus had been invited to a dinner party, and he noticed how the guests were all competing for seats which would display to everyone how dignified and important they were. So Jesus’ instruction is to take the most obscure seat, and maybe someone will invite you higher. The danger here is thinking that Jesus is only talking about social etiquette. By instructing the audience to learn to take the lower seats so that they could avoid embarrassment and then achieve some recognition when they are ushered from the lowest seat to the most prominent, Jesus our Lord is not giving us a gimmick about how to ensure self-promotion. Jesus is not telling us to put on a staged, fake humility. Jesus abhors a pride that pretends to be humble.

Christ our Lord sees here the deadly sin of pride, of self-exultation. Those who exult themselves always reduce the importance of others and enlarge their own importance. “I’m the greatest, so where’s my seat?” “I’m better than them, and this position reflects my intrinsic worth!” This is the problem when there is a desperate need to have social status. This becomes the issue when there is burning desire to be recognised by others. We’re on dangerous ground when human recognition and social status are needed to find our sense of self worth or tell us how much more important we are than others. 

This isn’t just for back then and there. It is also relevant here and now. Self-exaltation is all around us. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find in our narcissistic world. Entertainment icons, music stars, political candidates, corporate executives, all participate in a system that is based on self-promotion, even if it means sacrificing others along the way. 

But those are the obvious examples. A far more insidious form of self-exaltation can also be the more disastrous kind. We too can have that sharp longing for human recognition. We too can be infected with the ambition for a higher status or position. It can softly inch into our relationships, like when a friend airs dirty laundry about another friend to make themselves look good. It can surface at our jobs, like when an employee does everything they can to climb that corporate ladder, paying no attention to the unethical way in which they go about it. It’s present when a neighbour mutters constantly complains about the actions of another neighbour, instead of offering assistance. Neither are schools immune: a bully at school, who instead of getting the help they need for the brokenness in their life, exalts himself when he takes it out on those who can’t defend themselves. A husband or wife can display this by digging up past mistakes in a marriage to put down their spouse, just so they can win an argument. It’s happens when a lady does everything she can to be the queen bee in her little social cub. It can even show itself in the Church. 

Do you know what self-exaltation really is? It’s idolatry. It’s the assumption that you are so great, you deserve to be at the top of the pole. You fear, love, and trust in yourself above all things, and you want everyone else to as well. This is salvation by recognition. Justification through notoriety. Eternal life given because of your supreme importance. And at one time or another, we are all guilty of self-exaltation. And it shatters our relationships with each other, and with the world, and with God. Jesus has a clear message for those who love themselves more than God and exalt themselves over their neighbours: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled…” God will humble those who exalt themselves, if not in this life, then certainly on the Day of Judgment.

Status in God’s Kingdom

The self-exalted are humbled and the humble are exalted. That’s the way it is in the kingdom of Christ. To go up, one must go down. It begins with Jesus who turns everything we expect upside down. He came down and dwelt among us. Jesus, God’s own Son took the low spot, even though he deserved the highest spot. He didn’t just show us how to be humble, he humbled himself because he wanted to lift us up. The high and exalted God, the one who is far above us in every conceivable way, comes down and becomes a helpless infant. His life was not lived in the spotlight, but in poor obscurity. Our almighty God lowers himself, and doesn’t even have a place to rest his head. Jesus did not seek recognition from others, but in fact, is despised and rejected. He did not seek human approval, but in fact is condemned. When Satan offered him the highest positions in the world, he turned them down. He associated with riffraff, scoundrels, sinners. And after living a humble, lowly life, he goes yet lower still. Betrayed, beaten, humiliated, scourged, crucified, dead, and buried. To give you the seat of honour at the heavenly table, he chose the seat of shame upon the cross. To give to you the bread of life, his very flesh was given into death.  To pour out on you his Holy Spirit, his very blood was poured out.  He went down to the lowest seat in humility, so that you might be lifted high.

We’re so high on ourselves that when presented with the problem of our own sin we think we can fix it ourselves. There is no solution that we have to offer. When we catch a glimpse of who God is and compare him to who we are, not a single one of us stands exalted. We can do nothing but throw ourselves upon God’s mercy in Christ. If we are going to be exalted, we cannot do it ourselves. When we try to exalt ourselves, then God will humble us. No, if we are going to be exalted, God is the one who must exalt us.  And whom does God exalt to the highest positions in the heavenly feast? Does he exalt those who seek self-promotion? Does he lift up those craving status and position? Does he elevate those pursing human recognition? No. God exalts two-bit hookers, tax collectors, riff-raff, nobodies, the blind and lame, the disreputable, the least, the lost, the lowly, the people who thought they’d been forgotten. He invites them and seats them at the heavily table. Status and position in God’s kingdom are given to those who are the least, the lost, the lowly. Those who confess and acknowledge the depths of their own sinful wretchedness are seated at place of honour in God’s heavenly banquet.  You see, Jesus was Image may contain: shoes, outdoor and texthumble because he was not looking out for himself – he looked out for you.  He did everything so that you could be exalted, blessed and lifted up. He went down to the lowest place, so you can be stetted up on high. By going to down to the cross for you, Christ has made going down the new way up.

The Christian life is a life of humility. Since we know the reality of our disgraceful predicament, and since we have tasted of God’s forgiveness, we realise that we must not exalt ourselves. We’ve come to see that it’s absolutely worthless, because God has already exalted us through faith in his crucified and risen Son. And if God has already exalted us through Christ, then while we live in this world we can put others before ourselves. We can honour those things which the world dishonours. We can care for the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” in this world because we realise that we are “poor, crippled, lame, and blind” in God’s eyes, and look what he’s done for us!

So this morning, Jesus comes to you. Are you guilty of exalting yourself? Have you sought human recognition and status? Then in humility confess your faults. Repent. Christ this day calls to you and says, “Friend, move up higher.” Move up higher, dear Christian friend, and receive the very body and blood of the risen and exalted Jesus. Move up higher, and dine at the seat of honour. Kneel before him in humility, and he will raise you up with forgiveness, life, and a place at the marriage feast of the lamb which has no end. 

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding
guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)

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