Called to be different
Sermon for Pentecost 15 based on Luke 14:1, 7-14
Do we have any people-watchers here this morning? There was some people watching going on in our Gospel lesson this morning. The Jewish religious leaders were watching Jesus and Jesus was watching them.
We can only know so much about a person when we people-watch, but Jesus made deeper observations about the people he was watching; observations that allowed him to teach a profound spiritual lesson to these people and to us. A question I’d like you to consider over the next few minutes is this: What would Jesus see if he were watching me?
This was the scene: It was the Sabbath Day, the day of rest for the Jewish people, and Jesus had been invited over to the home of one of an important Jewish religious leaders; a prominent Pharisee. The Pharisees at this dinner party were doing their own people watching. In particular, they were watching one person: Jesus, because they were suspicious of him and did not appreciate that he had been publicly criticizing them. Jesus knew exactly what was happening when the dinner invitation arrived from a leader among the Pharisees. They wanted to catch Jesus doing or saying something; something they could later use against him. But the tables were turned when Jesus decided to do the people watching in the dining room of this Pharisee.
What did he see? The invited guests, probably other Pharisees, began eying up the best places at the table. When was the last time you were a dinner guest and you strategically positioned yourself so that you would receive the most honor at the meal? It sounds strange to us. When we sit down at a table, we’re probably hoping to be closest to the food or next to people who will be fun to talk to. In the Jewish culture, where you sat as a guest at a meal was a big deal. The host sat in the middle of the table and places to his left and to his right were reserved for the most honored guests. The further away from the host, the less honored you were.
The closest thing we could compare it to would be a wedding reception where the tables nearest to the wedding party are generally reserved for family and closest friends.
When Jesus noticed that the guests were trying to gain honor for themselves by grabbing the best places at the table he didn’t keep his reaction to himself. “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”
Was Jesus worried about bad manners? No, he was making a commentary that went much deeper that good dinner etiquette. It seems that human beings have this nasty habit of self-promotion that is also self-destructive. He put it this way: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We don’t usually talk about it this way. You’ve probably never told someone who is being selfish, “Stop exalting yourself.” But it’s a helpful way to think about the problem. Exalting yourself is putting your own self-interests before others so that you can benefit at their expense. Think of a teeter totter; when one person goes up the other person goes down.
What does self-exaltation look like today? What commentary would Jesus have for you if he were observing you throughout a week? I’m sure we could come up with plenty of examples: cutting someone off when you’re driving…being annoyed when the server goes to the other table even though you sat down first. You might see it at work when someone is always quick to take the easy tasks and leave the hard ones for everyone else. You see it in your homes. While we’re often polite out in public, we’re more willing to show our selfishness at home as we fight over who gets to pick the movie or who gets the bigger piece of dessert.
These might seem like harmless little tiffs, until to realize that this self-exaltation is what often tears a husband and wife apart in their marriage. Each wants things to go their way and see the other person as in the way. It destroys friendships when someone feels taken advantage of by the other person. It divides churches. “I’m not happy that things didn’t go my way.”
In many ways, we are living at a time when self-exaltation has become our national religion. If you’ve scratched your head and wondered why the world is going so crazy, it’s because we have exalted “self” to place of God himself. We’ve raised our kids on steady diet of movies that have as their primary message: be true to…who? God? No. Be true to yourself. Get on Social Media and you’ll see that so much of it is just self-promotion; hoping someone will like the selfie you posted.
If you’re wondering why yet another study came out this week documenting the decline of Christianity in our nation, it really is no surprise when you consider that Jesus calls to deny our selves and follow him. We don’t follow our hearts; we follow Jesus. We don’t say, “It’s my body, I’ll do what I want, thank you very much.” We say, “I belong to him. This body is not my own. I press it into service for Christ.”
We should not expect to win the respect of this world and we should not expect to “win” in this world. Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled; they will be brought down. But that’s not always what we see. Who are often the most successful people? Those who will stop at nothing to get to the top. But what happens to any honor that you gain from exalting yourself? What happens to the richest, the most famous, the most highly exalted people in our society? Eventually, whatever honor was theirs is forgotten in this world and they must stand before their God and give an account.
And so do we. You don’t have to be rich. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to be successful to fall into the trap of self-exaltation. In fact, you may be rather bitter and full of self-pity because all your attempts to gain honor in this world seem to go unnoticed. That’s why Jesus tells us to give up our endless pursuit of self-promotion and self-exaltation. Yes, let God worry about that.
And here’s the beautiful thing about being a Christian: we can. You see, everyone in this world is in the business of self-exaltation because, they reason, “If don’t watch out for # 1, who will?” Who has watched out for you? Who has already given you honor more than you could ever deserve? It won’t catch the eyes of this world because it seems so pathetic. God came to this earth born to a peasant girl. God became a man, not to be served, but to get on his knees and serve us. Jesus wore no crown, sought no honor, died like a criminal and was placed in a borrowed tomb. Where is the glory in that? Even on Easter Sunday Jesus didn’t go to the temple grounds to hold a campaign style rally for his followers. No, he showed himself to them quietly.
Here is the truth that lies behind it all: God hides his glory in Jesus and he hides his glory in us. You may not look like anything special to the world but you are an heir of heaven itself which is better than having any royal title in this world. You are a child of the Most High God. Today, you are a guest at his table and your lips will receive him in his body and blood.
How can we ever repay him? Of course, we cannot. But we can live differently in this world. If we have everything in Jesus already then we have nothing more to gain in this world. And if we have nothing more to gain, then we have everything to give. If we believed this, even in the slightest way, it would change our entire lives. We could be content and joyful and generous and truly free from trying to make a name for ourselves here on earth, because our names are written in heaven.
This is our daily struggle. I began this morning asking what Jesus would see if he were people watching and he looked at me? I’m ashamed to think what he would see at times. But if we turn that around, and I asked, what would we see if we were people watching and we saw Jesus? We would see one who loves us and forgives us; the one who humbled himself and was exalted by his Father. Today, he calls us to do the same and live differently. Amen