Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s Church –Moultrie, GA
January 23, 2011
Over the past three weeks our Epistle lessons have been from the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. The overarching theme of this chapter has been a calling of the faithful to cultivate that most wondrous of virtues – humility. On the first Sunday following the Epiphany we heard, “to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” Last Sunday Paul exhorted the Roman church to, “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not….Mind not high thinks, but condescend to men of low estate.” Finally, this morning, we heard just a few moments ago some of the strongest words regarding humility. “Be not wise in your own conceits. Recompense to no man evil for evil….Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Humility and humbleness is perhaps one of the hardest virtues to achieve. After all, it was pride, the counter vice to humility that led to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were incapable of discerning the words of the serpent and fell victim to his temptation when he told Eve that she would not die if she ate of the forbidden fruit but rather that her eyes would be opened and that she would be wise, just like God. The sin of pride goes all the way back to the beginning. It was in fact Lucifer’s pride that made him incapable of remaining in his joyous state in the service of God as one of the angels. He was incapable of letting God be God, and wanted to share in the power that he felt he should be able to enjoy. Little did he know that much joy is found in the service and worship of Almighty God.
The former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Pat Riley, recounts the story of how pride led to the fall of one the great dynasties in professional basketball in the 1970’s & 80’s. In his book The Winner Within he offers these words of caution for those who let pride take over, and are unable to rejoice in a state of humility.
The [Los Angeles Lakers] won the NBA Championship [in 1980], and they were recognized as the best basketball team in the world. They began their 1980 – 1981 season considered likely to win back-to-back championships. But within weeks of the season opener, Magic Johnson tore a cartilage in his knee, and he needed a three-month recuperation period. The team and the fans rallied, and the remaining players played their hearts out. They determined to make it through that period without losing their ranking. They were winning seventy percent of their games when the time began to draw near for Magic Johnson to return to action.
As his return grew closer, the publicity surrounding him increased. During time-outs at the games, the public address announcer would always say, “And don’t forget to mark your calendars for February 27th. Magic Johnson returns to the lineup of your World Champion Los Angeles Lakers!” During that announcement, the other players would look up and curse. They’d say, “We’re winning now. What’s so great about February 27th?” As the day approached, fewer and fewer things were written or said about the players who were putting out so much effort. All the media attention was focused on the one player who hadn’t been doing a thing. Finally the 27th came, and as they clicked through the turnstiles every one of the 17,500 ticket holders was handed a button that said, “The Magic Is Back!” At least fifty press photographers crowded onto the floor while the players were introduced. Normally only the starters were introduced, and Magic Johnson was going to be on the bench when the game began. But he was nevertheless included in the introductions. At the mention of his name, the arena rocked with a standing ovation. Flashbulbs went off like popcorn. Magic Johnson was like a returning god to the crowd that night.
Meanwhile the other players who had carried the team for three months and who were totally ignored, were seething with jealousy, resentment, anger, and envy. They were so resentful that they barely won the game that night against a bottom-of-the-bucket team, and eventually the morale of the entire team collapsed. The players turned on each other. The coach was fired. And they eventually lost their opening game of the play-offs, having one of the most disastrous records ever.
Riley said, “Because of greed, pettiness, and resentment, we executed one of the greatest falls from grace in NBA history. It was the Disease of Me.”
We find ourselves in a world in which this type of story is no longer the exception it has become the norm. If you noticed, this was 30 years ago. Think about how things have continued to move in this direction over the past 3 decades. Far too many folks worship not the Blessed Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but the existentialist trinity of me, myself, and I.
C. S. Lewis speaks of pride in the following manner in Mere Christianity:
There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their head about girls or drink, or event that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it in ourselves the more we dislike it in others.
Pride can be called root of all sins. It has been defined as the excessive love of one’s own excellence. The Prophet Isaiah declares, “Woe to them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.” The Book of Judges concludes with the condition of the people of Israel who were mired in their own pridefulness, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
If there is one person alone who could remotely exhibit any sense of pride it would be God alone. After all, he is fully complete in His own essence. He could most certainly exult in His own magnificence, and yet, He is the very one who humbled himself to depths that we can only contemplate. He was humble enough to come to Earth in the most frail of forms, as a baby, and his first night was spent not in a King’s palace, but in a feeding trough for the animals. As we say in the Te Deum, “When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” St. Paul declares in the Epistle to the Philippians, “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
Pride is what eats away at us, and humility is the virtue that we must be called upon to cultivate. It is perhaps the hardest of virtues to attain because it is the counter to the worst vice, and yet, there are many who have done so. How difficult it is for us to not receive the accolades, to bow to someone else, to faithfully play second fiddle. Most conductors will say that is the most difficult instrument to play in an orchestra. Yet, it carries with it a most important role. As we heard in the lessons from Advent, John the Baptist was the greatest to ever fulfill that role.
British pastor George Duncan summarizes this so well when he says:
“Think for a moment how often we come across those whose worth is seldom recognized buy men, but I am sure will never be overlooked by God, and will certainly not go unrewarded. Many are prepared to recognize the prominent part played by Simon Peter among the disciples, but forget that if there had not been an Andrew who ‘brought him to Jesus’ there would never have been a Peter! The church universal give thanks to God for Paul, the greatest Christian who ever lived, but forget that if there had not been a Barnabas there might never have been a Paul!” Duncan goes on to ask his readers how many of them recognize the name of Albert McMakin. But Albert was the young man who invited and took sixteen-year-old Billy Graham to the evangelistic services in which he accepted Christ as his Savior. “So before there could be a Billy there had to be an Albert."
The question that remains is are we willing to be the person that God calls us to be even if it means assuming the most humble of postures? Let our prayer be that God might quench in us insidious vice of pride, and instill within the glorious virtue of humility.