A Christmas Message

This is the sermon I will be preaching tomorrow in church. Please pray that it goes well.

In case you were living in an isolated bomb shelter 100 miles under the earth without any form of communication the last few days and only come out for church on Sundays, I am going to take on the role of Captain Obvious and point out that yesterday was Christmas. However, the reason for celebrating Christmas wasn’t so obvious. Suppose you were an alien visiting the earth with the intention of writing back to your home planet about our culture, you would be able to observe this madness we call Christmas and have a very good chance of not even realizing what we consider the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas would appear to be about shopping, about giving and getting presents, about getting together with family, about being stressed out and traveling all over the country, and for some people about just hanging out in airports, about overeating, about festive lights and trees decorated with shiny balls and other assorted things. But the true reason of Christmas is not among the obvious.

This brings me to our passage for today. Similar to the way the American culture sometimes misses the true meaning of Christmas, we, the people who claim to follow the baby boy that was born in the lowly manger in the insignificant town of Bethlehem, also have the tendency to miss and ignore one of the key traits that Jesus modeled for us to follow. If you would, please turn with me in your Bibles to Phillipians 2. We will be reading verses 1-11. I’m going to be reading from the Message today, so feel free along with your own translation if you have one.

Philipians 2:1-11
1 If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care - 2 then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. 3 Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. 4 Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. 5 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. 6 He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. 7 Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! 8 Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death - and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion. 9 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, 10 so that all created beings in heaven and on earth - even those long ago dead and buried - will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, 11 and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.

One trait made the first Christmas possible, the humility of Jesus. If you have heard me preach before, you probably have gotten the picture that I like to use illustrations from television shows, novels, and movies; however, when it came to humility I struggled trying to find an illustration in our culture of entertainment. Humility is not a trait that our culture exalts. We exalt individualism, vengeance, materialism, and independence. Just like our culture does with the meaning of Christmas, it does a good job of hiding humility.
(I might not do this little guessing game. But I do think it would be fun.)
Let’s play a little game, the first kid to guess who I am describing will receive this little bag of delicious and fun fruit snacks, maybe to eat now, maybe to eat later, or maybe never to eat at all. It is all up to the parent’s discretion. You have to be younger than eight.

He wears red and blue.
He lives in New York City.
He shoots webs.
He fights Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin.
He loves Mary Jane, the woman not the plant.
His first name is Spider. His last name is man.

Spider-Man. If you watched Spider-Man 2 last summer you would’ve seen a man struggling with being humble. He gave up his role as Spider-Man, threw his costume into the trash, and walked away thinking that he would never look back. But then came the villains. They forced him to either decide to let people suffer or to give up his plans for a normal life and return to the life of the hero. He had to put aside his own dreams of what he wanted out of life and do what was intended for him to do. He wanted to be a good college student, hold down a steady job, and win back the love of his life. There's nothing wrong with any of those goals; however, they were not the goals he was intended to fulfill. Spider-Man is a modern-day example of humility, putting aside your selfish dreams and aspirations - no matter how noble they might be – for the benefit of those around you, even when doing what benefits those around you isn’t particularly what you think is for your personal best interests. Spider-Man showed us genuine humility.

It’s up to you and me to turn the fictionalized humility of Spider-Man or the genuine historical example of the Christmas founding humility of Christ into a living reality to those around us. We need to put our own dreams and aspirations aside, notice the needs of those around us, and act to meet those needs.

C.S. Lewis described humility in his book Miracles:

"In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity ... down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature He has created.

"But He goes down to come up again and bring the ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulder…

"In this descent and re-ascent everyone will recognise a familiar pattern: a thing written all over the world. It is the pattern of all vegetable life. It must belittle itself into something hard, small and deathlike, it must fall into the ground: thence the new life re-ascends….

"So it is also in our moral and emotional life. The first innocent and spontaneous desires have to submit to the deathlike process of control or total denial: but from that there is a re-ascent to fully formed character in which the strength of the original material all operates but in a new way. Death and Rebirth--go down to go up--it is a key principle. Through this bottleneck, this belittlement, the highroad nearly always lies"

Humility is a tough concept to grasp. Examples of it are not exalted in our culture. It's even tougher to live out. But the perfect example of humility was shown to us on Christmas morning over 2000 years ago. God, who has all power and knowledge, emptied himself of those things and took on the flesh, skin and bones just like you and me. He humbled himself and put his security in the arms of Joseph and Mary, humans like you and me. He lowered himself to our level in order to exalt us to His. That is the beauty of Christmas. Jesus came so that people like you and me can become what we were intended to be. We, through his example and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, can give up our selfish and fruitless dreams and aspirations and clothe ourselves in the humility that Christ began to model on that Christmas Day thousands of years ago. If we want to make the Christmas story come out of hiding in our society and take its proper place at the center of this season, then we need to take the first steps as followers of Jesus and swaddle ourselves in his humility. We cannot grasp hold of what God intends for us and those around us if we continue to hang on to our own goals and desires.
Matthew 18:1-4
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”2 He called a child, whom he put among them,3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

We cannot be Christians without modeling the humility shown by Jesus, a humility that can, at times, seem almost unreal. But, obviously, it is real. We can see it in the lives of some of the great reformers of church history, in some of the quiet spiritual warriors in our church, and, most evidently, in the life of a newborn baby, not just one born 2000 years ago.

A newborn is a perfect example of humility. They totally depend upon others to feed them. They are completely vulnerable if they' aren't kept safe. There is not one ounce of self-reliance in them because they do not have the capability to be self-reliant.

Then they grow and reach Isaac's age. Humility is, unfotunately, no longer their dominant trait. It seems to be a disappearing trait. Independence, selfishness, and self-reliance are beginning to creep to dominance. They want to do everything on their own. He will try and try to tie his shoe lace or to stack his blocks in some gigantic structure, but he will usually - or in the case of the shoelaces, always - fail. But in Isaac humility doesn't always manifest itself when he fails, frustration sometimes does. Sometimes, he will become angry and tearful, yet he will still try to do it on his own. That boy will not give up. But once he reaches an emotional frenzy, he will never be able to do it no matter how much he tries. He has to give up and allow us to help him. When he does that, whatever he was trying to do gets done. And hopefully, through the process, he learned a little more how to do it, so next time he can do it better or even completely on his own.

Humility is much easier to grasp a hold of when you are completely ignorant of how to do what you need to get done. For instance, some of you might know Brian Reinhart. He's a good friend of mine. And the summer before last he refreshed my memory on how to do an oil change on my car. He was always gifted at mechanical things and I seemed to have missed the boat on that one. My attitude of submission to his knowledge made it real easy to learn. I accepted that he knew better than me, and there was no problem.

That's the way it usually works for most of us in areas where we don't know what to do; however, in areas that we think we know what to do, we are not as good of a student. Take for instance the serious subject of folding towels - something that I have, luckily, been able to get out of lately. Back when we lived in Lansing and we were newly married, I wanted to fold the towels the way I had always folded the towels. It worked fine for me to fold them that way when I was single; I couldn't fathom why it couldn't work the same way when I was married. I wouldn't accept a new way. Lindsay would try to show me, and I would just get frustrated. I know. It's silly. Getting frustrated over folding towels. In my mind it all made sense at the moment. I knew how to fold towels, and I wasn't going to change. However, the way I folded them didn't allow them to fit well on the shelves in the closet. When they wouldn't fit in the closet, they had to be refolded. It was a frustrating experience (probably moreso for Lindsay) because I could never remember how to fold them and I probably never really tried. I still don't fold them "properly" to this day.

We oftentimes don't give our stresses, our problems, or our heartaches up to God until they become so severe that we can't exist with them any more. God will be faithful and help us in our time of severe need; however, that is not the plan he has for our life. He wants us to model the humility that Jesus showed and walk our lives humbly submitted to him, always. Never should we think we are so great as to do great, or even lowly, things without him. And never should we think we are so strong as to go through the pits, that surely come, of life without him. He wants to be there every step of the way.

But humility is difficult to live out. It is a constant battle with our selfish ambitions. Surrendering our goals, plans, and idea of independence doesn't come easily. But if we truly want to live life and experience it to the full - to taste the greatness that God has planned for us - then we must deny ourselves and dailyand humbly submit to His will. Matthew wrote:

The Cross and Self-Denial - Matt 26:24-28
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

God's kingdom is here now (or else Jesus was a liar - and you can probably figure out where I stand on that one since I am up here saying we need to be more like Jesus), and we, the church, are a glimpse of that kingdom. But what picture of God's kingdom do we give to the world? What do the people of Antwerp think about God because of us? It all depends on if we are truly humbly submitting to God and his will or living in our own selfish ambitions, no matter how noble they might be. God wants us, along with every group of believers throughout the world, to be His people living together to show the world what it means to be the Kingdom of God. This can't happen if a spirit of humility is not exhibited among us. A genuine spirit of humility will guide us to follow the example of Jesus, humble ourselves, and take on the form of a slave to all of those around us.

Picture Christ as yourself. If you were to literally switch bodies with Jesus and he was to live your life for a week, would your life be any different than it currently is? Would our church be any different if each of us took seriously the call to humble ourselves and become a slave to our community?

Galatians 5:13-14 reads:
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

When we miss the mark on attaining humility, we encounter humility's arch-nemesis, pride. Pride allows us to think that our church is the best church in town. Humility causes us to see our church, with all of its faults, in the light of the ideal church and encourages us to strive for perfection. Pride allows us to compare our lives to our weaker brothers and sisters in Christ or to those who do not even know Christ and think how great our faith is. Humility causes us to compare our lives, with all of their faults, to Christ and strive for perfection. Pride allows us to view ourselves as more fortunate than others who are not as well off. Humility causes us to get down and dirty and love those less forutnate.

Someone wore a t-shirt to church a couple of months ago and on it were the words, "I'm like a superhero with no powers and no motivation." I hate to analyze a silly statement. Okay, maybe I enjoy it. But if we look at that sentence - I'm like a superhero with no powers and no motivation - what makes it funny is that it can't be true. What makes a superhero "super" is their powers and what makes a superhero a hero is there motivation. You can't be a superhero without any powers and without motivation.

I think a lot of us fall into the same category when it comes to our Christian lives. It would be beneficial for non-Christians if a lot of us wore a similar shirt with a disclaimer on it. "I'm like a Christian with no humility and no loving actions." However, like the superhero statement, I don't think we can be Christians without humility or without loving actions. They are essential ingredients to being a Christian. A proper humility allows us to acknowledge our faults and view people and events the way Christ viewed them.

Humility's end result is always love. The humility of Christ as a baby in the manger led to the love of Christ for everyone on the cross. And our humility, if it does not result in similar sacrifice and love, is not the humility of Christ but a disguised form of pride. If our life is not filled with loving actions then we should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we have a faith problem. We can't be Christians without loving actions. All the faith in the world, if it does not show itself in love, is meaningless. You will find a better rendition of that thought in 1 Corinthians 13.

Somewhere along the way we have turned our invisible faith into being more important than the works that accompany it, a concept that I have yet to run across in Scripture: I actually run across the contrary. We have even gone so far as to say good works are evil. We take the "do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing" passage out of context and do not read it in the light of a verse that is in the same Sermon on the Mount, which includes the following verses only 25 verses before that one.

Matt 5:14-16
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The "do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing" passage is a warning against doing good works before men for your personal glory. However, we are told in the passage that I just read that we are to do our good works so that they shine before others and bring glory to our Father. Our good works cannot be done in secret if they are supposed to bring God glory through our shining. We shouldn't discard the baby with the bath water. The problem isn't doing good works, the problem isn't even doing good works that others can see. The question we must ask is "Who we are trying to glorify by doing good works?" If we are trying to glorify ourselves, then they are not good works but selfish evil actions. But if they are done by us in order to bring glory to God, then they are exactly in line with God's plan for our lives.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of us look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus...who empited himself, taking on the form of a slave and humbled himself to the point of even being obedient on the cross.

It is our calling to make the humility of Christ visible to the community of Antwerp and those around us where we work and live. As I mentioned, humility is not something our culture exalts, yet we know living a lifestyle of humility is something we have to battle for our whole lives. God has placed the salvation of others in our hands. We can either live our lives in such a way in order to help them see the humility that Christ began to show in that manger over 2000 years ago, or we can choose to be a barrier to Christ by proclaiming to be his followers yet living a life completely contrary to the example he set for us to live. I hope we all choose to be the humble hands and the humble feet of Christ to the world. Merry Christmas.

Watch out for the potholes