Scripture Readings: Prov. 31:10-11; Ps. 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37 Sermon by Martin Manuel from Mark 9: 30-37: Prov. 31:10; Prov. 9:10; James 3:13-16
Restoring Humility to our Humanity
Though we all possess the corrupt, fallen human nature that resulted from Adam and Eve’s rejection of God, there is good news: The eternal Son of God, in the person of Jesus, entered into the human condition, assumed our corrupt nature, and through his life of perfect submission to the Father overcame its fallenness, opening to all humans the possibility to be who they truly are in him—their true selves, beloved children of God.
Now, through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, God works to conform believers to the true humanity that is found in Jesus. One of the beautiful characteristics of that humanity is true humility—a quality in short supply in our self-centered, prideful world.
Our Scripture readings today speak to the restoration of that humility, and in this sermon we’ll see three ways in which we cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing to form that humility in us: 1) embrace our identity in Jesus, 2) live in the fear the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.
Embrace our identity in Jesus
In Mark 9 we read of the time following Jesus’ transfiguration. Rejoining the disciples who were not with him on the mountain, Jesus took them on a retreat where he could share some important truths:
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:30-31)
Though what Jesus was saying was important, his disciples did not understand, and were afraid to ask (v. 32). To admit we don’t understand can be humiliating, and if we’re competing with others, we may not want to disclose our lack of understanding. Perhaps that was what was going on here with the disciples. Jesus sensed this and waited until the end of the trip to take up the conversation again.
As they came to Capernaum, Jesus asked, “‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34). Like children caught misbehaving, the disciples sheepishly withheld their reply. But Jesus knew what they were arguing about, and patiently taught them a vital lesson about leadership in the kingdom of God: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In human organizations, those who are ambitious often expend tremendous energy climbing to top positions of leadership, where they exercise authority over those below them. Those being ruled serve the ruler, who dictates everything the people do. This autocratic style of leadership is designed to benefit the leader, not the people. Those serving are considered less important than the leader, although often they do the important tasks necessary for the organization while the leader does little besides dictating.
To illustrate the backwardness of this worldly style of leadership, Jesus took a nearby little child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
A child small enough to be cuddled in the arms of an adult is weak compared to an adult who tends to find it easy to consider the child of little importance. But Jesus illustrated a different attitude—one in which the adult sees the child as important because of the one who gives the child its identity. Jesus is that one.
This lesson brings to light a radical concept: seeing ourselves and other humans, even the smallest and weakest, through the lens of their identity given them by Jesus Christ, their Creator and Redeemer. This perspective is radical because human worth is usually associated with things like stature, appearance, intelligence, wealth, authority, and social standing. From Jesus’ vantage point, the only real standard of measurement of human value and importance is who that person is in relation to him—their Creator, Redeemer and Lord.
When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we express confidence in him, not in ourselves. When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we don’t have to bother with comparisons with other people. We are freed to see ourselves as we actually are—small and weak, dependent on our Lord for everything. From this vantage point, our lives are not about pursuing personal ambitions, not about status and glory. Instead, our lives are in him, with him and for him.
Jesus used a little child not only to teach his disciples about servant-leadership, but also about humility. Note how he associates humility with our true identity in him. Ultimately, it is getting a true understanding of our identity in Christ that restores in us the childlike humility that is so essential, so endearing.
Live in the fear of the Lord
Another important shaper of humility is highlighted in today’s Old Testament reading in Proverbs 31. The topic is the woman of “noble character” (Prov. 31:10, NIV) called the “virtuous woman” in the KJV. Why is she virtuous? Several reasons are mentioned, but first and foremost, she “fears the Lord” (Prov. 31:30). What does that mean? The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology answers:
“The fear of the Lord” does not mean being afraid of God. Rather, it is a reverential trust in God that makes us want to please and obey him. And yet there is a wholesome feeling of being sure that we do not disobey or displease him… Fear as a preventative has value. But fright or terror has no place in the Christian life, at least in his relationship with God.
The lifestyles of those whose choices reflect a humble regard for God’s lordship over them are the opposite of those who, in their haughtiness, refuse to consider God to be the Lord of their lives. Humble submission marks one; proud self-determination the other. That is why dozens of passages in the Psalms and Proverbs encourage the fear of the Lord, including Proverbs 9:10, which says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” It is through this “reverential trust”—this realization of our dependence on God—that we receive and respond to his grace toward us.
Practice the wisdom from above
The wisdom we speak of here is not about mere human intelligence or experience. As we read in James, there is a difference between wisdom from above and wisdom that is earthly:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:13-15)
James’ contrast of these two types of wisdom reinforces the admonitions in Psalms and Proverbs about the lifestyle differences between those who fear the Lord and those who do not. One comes across as gentle, the other bitter like poison. Think again about the beauty of a seemingly innocent little child, and what it is that draws such a warm response from those who interact with the child. Is it not the quality of humility?
Those who disregard God often think they are too savvy to fall for what they consider religious superstition. Theirs is the arrogance of the child who thinks it knows more than his or her parents! Such counterfeit wisdom is rooted in demonic minds. It infects otherwise rational, intelligent-minded people, deceiving everyone not experiencing the gracious restoration given by the Father, Son and Spirit. The result is a world grasping for power, wealth, status and glory. That world despises the adult who exhibits wisdom from above:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (James 3:16)
Pure? Peaceable? Gentle? Willing to yield? Anyone who exhibits these qualities in this world is likely to be told, “Grow up!” Such qualities might be appreciated in a young child, but they typically are not respected in adults. That’s why James calls it “wisdom from above”—it’s not of this earth. It does not come from corrupt human nature.
James asserts in the first part of chapter 4 that it is due to worldly attitudes that there is human conflict at all levels. Whether in the home, among neighbors, within churches, or on battlefields between nations, the root causes are related to human pride and lust. Thus, James concludes with this strong advice: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
The Jamieson Fausset Brown Commentary says this concerning the word proud: “The Greek means in derivation one who shows himself above his fellows, and so lifts himself against God.” This is the same sinful attitude, which came from the devil and infected the demons. No wonder it is so dangerous to us!
God resists the proud because sinful pride has no place in his peaceable kingdom. This does not mean that God withholds all grace from unrepentant, prideful humans. Jesus said his Father makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The Father sent Jesus to save, not condemn, the world. The context of James 4 explains that the grace given to the humble is a special grace. In the first part of Matthew 5, the Beatitudes address this grace—special blessings that take place in the realm of the kingdom of God, not in this world. Jesus spoke these beautiful words of blessing and those who hear them can be sure that Jesus modeled the attitudes and behaviors he was advocating. His presence on earth said all that needs to be said about humility.
Are we willing to yield to God as he works to transform us into the likeness of Christ where we reflect his characteristic humility—a humility expressive of the wisdom from above? Sadly, that wisdom is typically ridiculed by the world. Jesus’ apostles would likely not rise to prominence were they living in today’s prideful, egocentric world. Why? Because, through the indwelling Spirit, they shared in Jesus’s perfected humanity, which includes his humility.
As we too yield to the transforming work of the Spirit, Jesus’ humility will shine through us more and more. May the transforming grace of the Father, Son, and Spirit work in us as we 1) embrace our identity in Christ, 2) live in the fear of the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.