In Nomine Iesu
September 23, 2012
Pentecost 17-Proper 20B
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~
The artwork on the cover of today’s bulletin is probably not the kind of thing
that you’d like to have hanging in your living room—or in any other room for that matter. But I’d like you to have that artwork handy for the next few minutes. For this painting wonderfully illustrates the theme of this sermon, drawn from the book of James: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
This painting is called “Death of the Firstborn.” It depicts the scene in Pharaoh’s house on that dark and scary night when the Lord struck down all the firstborn of Egypt. From the firstborn of Pharaoh all the way down to the firstborn of the prisoners in the dungeon, there was not a house in Egypt where someone was not dead. Only the Hebrew houses marked red by the blood of the lamb had been “passed over” by the Lord. Only in the homes of Hebrew slaves were the firstborn still living, loving and laughing.
But there was no laughter for Pharaoh. Look again at the painting and this time gaze into the eyes of Pharaoh. His vacant, empty stare is hardly watching the professional mourners and musicians around him. He does not look down at his dead son. He does not look down on the boy’s mother who has dissolved in tears of grief. Pharaoh’s eyes are open, but he does not see. All he can do is remember.
All Pharaoh can do is remember the days that have now passed him by—days of joy. Days of laughter. Days when he proudly believed that he was the untouchable god of Egypt. No doubt he also remembered more recent days—days when he dared to say “no” to Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Time and time again, as Moses and Aaron made their way into his presence, Pharaoh had refused the will and the Word of Yahweh. It mattered not that water turned to blood—that frogs and boils and hail and locusts and darkness descended one after another upon his kingdom. Pharaoh had scoffed at this so-called “God of Israel.”
There is hopelessness in the face of Pharaoh. He may have been regarded as the god of Egypt, but on that night at that moment, he was powerless. There was no power, no magic, no heartfelt prayer that could ever bring his son back to life. On that night, at that moment, Pharaoh’s hollow eyes had come to know this timeless truth: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And just to make sure that Pharaoh had received the message, Aaron and Moses, the humble servants of Yahweh, are making their way into the room, just visible in the shadows of the upper right corner. On that night, at that moment, a humbled and defeated Pharaoh would finally say, “Go. You and your people. Go and worship Yahweh, the Lord.”
As we turn to the words of James in today’s epistle, he takes aim at this same timeless truth of human nature called pride. As James surveyed the scene among Christians in his day, he was dismayed at what he saw: bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, and boasting. It was every man for himself, each one driven by prideful inner passions. Just like Pharaoh, they had fallen into the sin of pride.
What about you? Is pride a problem for you? If you were to make a list of besetting sins—sins that do a good job of entangling you and tripping you up, would pride be on your list? I suspect that a lot of us aren’t too concerned about the problem of pride. Our thoughts on the matter are summed up quite nicely in a little poem by David Budbill. The poem is entitled, “Dilemma.” “I want to be famous/ so I can be humble/ about being famous. What good is my humility/ when I am stuck in this obscurity?” In other words, I’ll worry about pride when I become rich and famous. Until then, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. But even for those of us “stuck in obscurity,” pride is an ever present problem.
We need to learn this lesson about the problem of pride: Pride in its worst form is not what you think it is. Pride is not trash-talking, smack-speaking, jaw-boning braggadocio. Most of us learned not to indulge in that kind of thing by the time we graduated from Sunday school. (Although, whenever the Packers play the Bears all bets are off.) The real problem with pride—pride in its most dangerous form—isn’t running around saying, “Look at me. I’m better than you.” Beloved in the Lord, pride is saying “no” to God.
Pride is saying “no” to God—reducing Him, shrinking Him down to size, confining God only to the cracks, the crevices and corners of our lives. On Sunday morning we pray, praise and give thanks. On Sunday morning we let God be God. But is there any connection between your Sunday and your Monday? We may bow our knees on most Sundays, but most of the rest of the time we simply declare our independence from God. We call the shots. We make the calls. We exercise judgment based upon what we think is right.
We know God’s Word. We know God’s will. But we choose to ignore it. We simply say “no.” God says, “Be kind and tender-hearted, forgiving one another as you have been forgiven,” but we say “no.” We say “no” as we nurse our grudges and look for ways to repay evil with evil. God says, “Flee from sexual immorality,” but we say “no.” We say “no” with sexual relationships outside of marriage, with downloaded pornography, and with our so-called entertainment choices. God says to defend your neighbor and speak well of him and explain everything in the kindest way, but we say “no.” We say “no” every time we go along with the gossip and leave the lies unchallenged and refuse to protect the reputations of anyone but ourselves. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You know God’s Word and God’s will. And you say “no.” Who do we think we are? We are all little pharaohs at heart, unafraid to tell God “no” and keep Him in His place—and to do it over and over and over again.
But be prepared to learn the lesson Pharaoh learned: God opposes the proud. God opposes the pride in you. And that’s why God has done something about the pride in you.
Look once again at the cover of today’s bulletin. It features a dead firstborn son who is held by a grieving father. But now as you look into the eyes of Pharaoh, imagine a different Father; and imagine a different Son. Imagine a Father whose love for you is so great that He did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all. But, of course, you don’t have to imagine it. For your God—the God who spared all the firstborn of Israel—He did not spare His one and only Son, Jesus. He sent forth His Son like a lamb to the slaughter. And the blood of that Lamb is the only hope for the proud.
God opposes the proud. God opposed your pride by assigning it to His one and only Son. Jesus carried your pride in His body. Your unforgiving heart, your immorality, your slander and gossip were all assigned to the Son of God. And on Good Friday God the Father opposed Him with even greater wrath and fury than Pharaoh had experienced. The God who opposes the proud opposed His Son—so that He might save the proud by the humility of His Son.
In the painting on the bulletin cover, it’s interesting how Pharaoh’s dead son is portrayed in a remarkably Christ-like pose. Walk through the galleries of any major art museum and you will likely see some Renaissance painting of the Christ taken down from His cross, who is posed remarkably like the son of Pharaoh. Yet, Jesus, even in death, was held by a different kind of Father. Where Pharaoh sat passive, powerless and impotent, God the Father could and did put an end to the mourning and gloom. He is not powerless in the face of death, but brought His Son back to life. And in the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the problem of your pride has found a solution. The problem of your sin has been met with God’s forgiveness. The problem of your death has been undone by the Lord of Life.
The eyes of our heavenly Father are looking upon you this day and those eyes are filled with grace. For in you God sees not your pride, but His Son, Jesus. God opposed your pride in Jesus. God punished your pride in Jesus. And in Jesus you have now been given humility. “God opposes the proud, but give grace to the humble.” Through faith in Jesus, the humility of Jesus is yours. Grace is yours. Forgiveness is yours. God is for you, not against you. With His help you can say “yes” to God. Yes to His Word. Yes to His will. Yes to lives of humble service toward those whom God places in your path. As you receive the body and blood of Jesus today—as the Word of God has its way with you today—the God of Sunday becomes the God of Monday too. You begin to decrease; Jesus begins to increase. Your pride that says “no” to God is being replaced by faith that says “yes” to all His promises. For Jesus cannot be confined to the corners and crevices of your life. He is the Lord of heaven and earth, Our Savior.
The problem of pride has met its match in Jesus. He rescues us from our pride and gives us a whole new kind of life—the baptized life. It’s a life of humility and service for the last and the least. It’s a life of purified hearts. It’s a life of being cared for by a loving and forgiving Father in heaven. Amen.