Exalted in Christ!

Luke 14:1–11

1 One Sabbath, when [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.  2 And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy.  3 And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  4 But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away.  5 And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?”  6 And they could not reply to these things. 

7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed 

how they chose the places of honor, saying to them,  8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (ESV)

Ephesians 4:1–6

1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—  5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6 one God and Father of all, who is

over all and through all and in all. (ESV)

Living in turbulent times!

We are living in turbulent times. In the West, it appears that socialism with a hint of fascism is making a comeback. People are also no longer content with their God-given identities as male and female; in fact, New York City has identified 31 genders with which people can self-identify. Death in the form of abortion and medically-assisted suicide are being promoted as perfectly acceptable solutions to our problems. And of course, on all of our minds is the present pandemic through which we are suffering. And then, it seems to me that in the years to come the winds of war will be unleashed with greater frequency and severity 

With all that is going on in the world, it was very fitting that we just sang the hymn: “Seek Where You May to Find a Way”. This hymn was written by Georg Weissel on the occasion of his own installation as the first pastor of a new church in Königsberg, Germany in 1623. Pastor Weissel served that congregation until his death in 1635. His entire ministry there was conducted under the dark clouds of the Thirty Years’ War, which wrecked havoc upon much of Europe. And the plague also was a constant threat in Königsberg, with 15,000 falling victim to it in 1620 alone, just three years before Pastor Weissel’s installation (LSB, Companion to the Hymns, Vol. 2). Ministering to God’s people in those turbulent times, Pastor Weissel wrote about twenty hymns, of which two are included in our hymnal: today’s hymn and also Hymn 341— “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates”, with that wonderful opening stanza:

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates! / Behold, the King of glory waits.

The King of kings is drawing near; / The Saviour of the world is here.

Life and salvation He doth bring; / Therefore rejoice and gladly sing.

To God the Father raise / Your joyful songs of praise.

The danger of self-promoting ambition!

Pastor Weissel’s hymns exalt Jesus as the Name above all names, and thus they speak to the situation addressed by our Lord in today’s Gospel. Our Saviour is cautioning us concerning the danger of self-promoting ambition. Now, there can be selfless ambition, such as when a husband and wife strive to live within their means so that they can save for their children’s education. But self-promoting ambition is the act of scrambling for a place of honour in a way that inflates one’s worth over others and before God. Ambition says “I’m better than you. I deserve preferential treatment over you. I am worthy of greater honour than you”. Ambition for earthly honour goes hand in hand with an idolatrous ambition that seeks to impress God. Perhaps we all have attended a type of funeral service called a “celebration of life”, where the focus was not on God’s lovingkindness in Christ Jesus but rather on how the deceased person was so wonderful. 

Among the works of the flesh mentioned by St. Paul in his epistle to the Galatians are divisions and idolatry (5:20). And that is exactly what self-promoting ambition leads to: strife and division with others and also idolatry before God. And so our Lord Jesus calls us, His beloved brothers and sisters, to go and sit in the lowest place. For self-exaltation leads to shame and humiliation but those who humble themselves in Christ will be exalted.

True humility—the way faith behaves!

True humility is a sign that one is living in the kingdom of God. Self-promoting ambition, self-exaltation, before others and especially before God is evidence of the sinful pride that goes before the fall. For the person who boasts before God will be humbled in God’s judgment, while the one who humbly confesses his or her sin may boldly and gladly trust in Christ for forgiveness and so be raised up at the Last Day.

Ambition and humility are the two paths set before us today. In today’s hymn, Pastor Weissel is encouraging us to follow the way of humility: Seek where you may to find a way / That leads to your salvation. Of course, only those who build on Christ as their one foundation will find salvation. And so Pastor Weissel is saying in effect: “Build whatever buildings you desire in this life. In the end they will crumble. The eternal Church is built on Christ, and my hope is in Him!”

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are either building a grand edifice of sinful pride and ambition or a simple dwelling of love and humility in Christ. And so, beware! If you think your good deeds somehow make you better than other people, if you think your good deeds somehow bring you closer to God, then your good deeds are actually works of sinful pride, no matter how generous and humble they may appear. And in the end, your good deeds that seem so grand and your whole life will be a house of cards that comes crashing down before God’s judgment. But if you know and confess that your good deeds do not save you, that your good deeds are merely the way you glorify God by serving your neighbour, and that even your good deeds are tainted by sin, then by God’s grace your good deeds are done in Christ’s Name in true humility.

That is why our Lord Jesus teaches us love and humility at the same time. Selfless love bears all things and covers a multitude of sins (1 Corinthians 13; 1 Peter 4:8). Love that tries to earn God’s favour is no love at all, but a mere selfish ambition. Humility is the way faith behaves. Faith does not try to earn God’s favour by taking the best seat at the feast. Faith passively receives what God gives. Faith does not find strength in itself, but casts all anxieties on God as we live in true humility under God’s mighty hand. And because faith receives God’s care apart from human merit, such faith is strong against the devil’s attacks and is exalted at the proper time (1 Peter 5:6-7, 9). Love and humility therefore go together. If you receive all things from God’s mercy alone and not because of any merit or worthiness in you, then you are truly humbled. And such humility toward God is joined by a fervent love for your neighbour, so that as you have received mercy from God for the sake of Christ, so now you show mercy to your neighbour in the Name of Jesus.

Humility fulfilled perfectly in Jesus!

Our calling in Christ is to walk not in the way of division and idolatry but in the way of the unity of the Spirit and in true faith. In Christ Jesus, our calling is to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

These characteristics—humility, gentleness, patience, and love—are all fulfilled perfectly in Christ Jesus our Saviour, who is the Head of His Body, the Church. Remember how our Lord said: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:29). And then Jesus showed His gentleness by coming…humble, and mounted on a donkey on Palm Sunday on His way to Good Friday (Matthew 21:5). Yes, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2: 8). 

The greater reality!

Our highest aim in life is to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, (Ephesians 4:15). As the Head of the Church, Jesus, the Son of God, is perfect in every way. Of course, we are not. But in Holy Baptism, we are truly connected to Jesus. And so, thanks be to God, there is more to our life in Christ than our imperfect, incomplete faithfulness in being humble, gentle, patient, and loving. There is a greater reality that sustains us, a reality that is perfect in every way, firm and unchanging. Here is how St. Paul describes this perfect reality: There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

This side of heaven, your life in Christ is a jagged line of ups and downs—of God-given faith expressing itself in love and mercy and of self-generated sin. But thanks be to God that your baptism is greater than your sins. Baptized into Christ, you look outside yourself for the comfort and assurance of salvation. You look to the reality that is perfect and that does not change. Yes, even as you struggle with the weakness of the flesh, you look to the one Holy Spirit, who breathes life into the one, holy, apostolic Church and who gives you the one hope of salvation, which is found in Christ alone. As a baptized child of God, you look to the one Lord Jesus Christ, who bore your sins, guilt, and shame and who died in your place on the cross to defeat sin, death, and the devil and to give you eternal life. You are now filled with the Holy Spirit. And so you cling to the one faith, which confesses the Holy Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and also Jesus as God-in-the-flesh come to save sinners through the shedding of His holy, precious Blood. By repenting of your sins, you return daily to your baptism, where God connects His Word to water to make you His own dear children forever.

This is the reality that is perfect, firm, and unchanging. And as you struggle against pride, ambition, and self-exaltation, this is the reality that sustains you, that there is one body and one Spirit—…one hope…— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Do you see? It is not about you. It—your life in Christ—is all about you in relation to the Church, the Spirit, the hope, the Lord, the faith, baptism, and the one God and Father of all.

Friend, move up higher!

The Holy Spirit is ever calling you to humble yourself before God in true repentance so that He may lift you up, so that He may say to you, Friend, move up higher to receive your place at the table as a gift from the Master of the feast—not because you have finagled it for yourself, but because out of His great love and mercy, the Lord has freely exalted you and has earned for you the privilege of sitting at the heavenly banquet. And as we await that glorious day when God exalts us in Christ in the resurrection to life everlasting, it is very fitting that we take to heart the closing stanza of Pastor’s Weissel’s hymn: 

My heart’s delight, My crown most bright, / O Christ, my joy forever.

Not wealth nor pride Nor fortune’s tide / Our bonds of love shall sever.

You are my Lord; Your precious Word / Shall guide my way And help me stay

Forever in Your presence.