I preached yesterday on the contrast between Power and Humility. Specifically, I pondered how Jesus could fully embody both simultaneously.
Much of Jesus birth narrative places him at odds with the political powers of his day.
Augustus Caesar was the most powerful man in the world at the time of Christ’s birth. After the death of Julius Caesar, Augustus had defeated the armies of all his rivals. He had only to sign an edict and people like Joseph and Mary would travel from one end of their country to another, just to be counted.
“Augustus proclaimed that he had brought justice and peace to the whole world. He declared that his father, Julius Caesar, was a god, therefore he was a ‘son of god’. Augustus, people said, was the ‘saviour’ of the world. He was its king, its ‘lord’. And over time people increasingly worshiped him as a god.” (Wright, Luke for Everyone, 22-23)
Then Luke’s gospel tells us that angels broke into the earthly sky proclaiming to shepherds that that “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Later, Jesus would be called the “Son of God” but the angels announce that he is Savior and Lord. Augustus is not.
Matthew’s account focuses upon Herod, the non-Jewish king of Judea. Hearing from traveling magi that they sought a newborn king, Herod becomes enraged. When his plot to identify the child fails, Matthew describes the slaughter of children in Bethlehem as Herod sought to eliminate all rivals to his throne.
Jesus flees to Egypt as a political refugee.
At the same time, Luke tells us that the evidence a rival to Caesar has been born can be found in “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” If not for the angels, no one would have noticed this family in Bethlehem that night. Such was Jesus humble entrance.
Luke previously laid the groundwork for this contrast when he included Mary’s song in his gospel. Mary had no pretensions of grandeur as she praised God for noticing “the humble state of his servant.” She goes on to celebrate how God “has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”
Jesus challenged the existing power structures of the world from conception. He came to humanity with all the power of the Godhead, yet practiced humility and exalted the humble.
When our society combines power with humility it is most often expressed as the powerful demanding humility from the powerless. “Know your place.” “Don’t get too big for your britches.” “Leave this to the experts.” The powerful can demand humility from everyone except themselves. And when the people without power rise up to claim some of that power for themselves, more often than not we find ourselves in a situation abounding in conflict and violence.
Our society equates power with force, with violence, with coercion, with the biggest guns, the biggest muscles, the most money and influence. Power it seems doesn’t require wisdom, because even when foolish actions are taken that person, that organization, that nation, still has power. And power doesn’t need humility, because humility is weakness.
We face the temptation at this point to rail against power as an evil force, yet God is all-powerful. Like wealth, power has no intrinsic value as either good or evil. The person exercising power determines its character.
On the other side of the equation humility also creates temptations:
- The temptation to sugar coat abuse and discrimination as humility.
- The temptation to accept false humility as true humility both in ourselves and others.
- The temptation to equate powerlessness with humility.
Jesus expression of humility didn’t make him powerless and passive. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he refused to allow outside forces to distract him from his mission. He expressed himself assertively and directly challenged those who opposed him. Jesus was humble, but never powerless.
Living humbly means that those of us with power have a responsibility not just to use our power for the benefit of others, but to share that power with those who have little or none. Many people willingly hand over money to assist those in need. But this act of benevolence does nothing to change the power structure that created the inequality. This natural urge to cling to power makes the example of Jesus truly revolutionary. Philippians 2 frames the entire existence of the human Jesus as an emptying of power and an empowering of humanity.
Jesus came to the powerless, to the sick, an poor, and he reflected God by healing them, by forgiving them, and by giving them hope. Jesus left the throne room of heaven to allow humanity the opportunity to become fellow heirs with him. Jesus empowers his followers with the presence of the Holy Spirit within them. Jesus empowers his followers by creating a church that welcomes each person regardless of the way society describes and segregates them.
Ultimately Jesus empowers each person by emphasising the basis of all humility. Each person is made in the image of God. Each person is a child of God, and is precious to God. Each person has access to God and all power comes from Him. All gifts, talents, abilities and blessings come from Him. We give up our power and exercise humility as we share this message and embody it in our relationships with all.
We all have power in some sphere of our lives. The question we must answer is whether we use it to exalt ourselves, or others?
I must confess that I found this week’s sermon preparation academically exciting. I only hope the church members also experienced some spiritual excitement from the message.
I was fascinated by the similarities in the praise of Zechariah (Lk 1:67-79) and the angels (2:10-14) which I’ll lay out below.
Zechariah: [God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David… to rescue us from the hand of our enemies… (1:69, 74b)
Angel: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you. (2:11)
While Zechariah clearly anticipates an earthly Davidic king and rescue from the oppression of the Romans, the angel doesn’t shy away from that expectation. In fact, the angel emphasises Jesus’ Davidic heritage by referring to the “town of David”, rather than to Bethlehem.
However, we sell Zechariah short if we think his understanding of God’s salvation was limited to political deliverance. Zechariah understood the connection between political peace for God’s people and their holiness. He knew from studying the prophets that Israel had lost its freedom because of their sinful neglect of their covenant with God. That’s why in v77 he summarises John’s mission as being to give his people the knowledge of salvation throug the forgiveness of theirs sins. Which is certainly consistent with the Christian understanding of Jesus as Saviour.
Zechariah: the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death. (1:78b-79b)
Angel: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. (2:10)
Zechariah and the angel both see God working through Jesus to replace fear and darkness with joy and peace. While the reference to Jesus as “the rising sun” is unusual, the imagery of Jesus bringing light to a dark world is frequently used in the NT. Eg. John 1:4-5
Paul uses similar language in an interesting way in Ephesians 5:8b-10 where he calls upon Christians to “Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.” Not only is Jesus the “rising sun”, but Christians are “children of light”. And while Jesus bring joy and peace, Christians are to reflect our Saviour by first “finding out what pleases the Lord” and then living it.
Zechariah: …to guide our feet into the path of peace. (1:79c)
Angels: …on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (2:14b)
Both Zechariah and the angels expected the Messiah to bring peace, but the both regard the peace as conditional. Zechariah has already connected it with the forgiveness of sins, and here implies that while Jesus guides our feet, we still have to walk down the path. Jesus isn’t dragging anyone down the path of peace.
Likewise, while the angels declared “joy to the world”, the peace is limited to those “on whom his favor rests”. Without going into a lengthy explanation, I understand that phrase to reference those who accept Jesus as Saviour, Messiah, and Lord. They are the ones who receive God’s favour. Jesus comes for all, but not everyone benefits from his coming!
So maybe you’re not jumping out of your skin with excitement right now, but I find the comparison fascinating. We find Luke repeating the same message, but quoting different people saying the same thing in different ways.
FINALLY: An interesting point about 2:11 is that this is the only place in Scripture that all three of these titles for Jesus are used together: Saviour, Messiah (Christ), and Lord. Also, if you’re looking for some indication in look about the deity of Christ… there’s that whole Son of God thing in 1:35 & 3:37, but additionally, in 1:46-47 Mary refers to God as her Lord and Saviour, titles that the angels also bestow upon Jesus in 2:11!
I know I didn’t really discuss the nature of the promised peace, so maybe you can help me out?
- Do you think the angels are only speaking of spiritual peace / forgiveness of sins? or are they speaking more broadly than that?
- How have you experienced God’s peace in your life?
- Should Christians expect peaceful families, or peaceful societies?
- Surely churches should at least be peaceful places? If so, then doesn’t that mean Christians carry a peace that goes beyond spiritual reconciliation?
In Genesis 18:14 God has just informed a 90 year old woman, Sarah, that in a year’s time she’ll give birth to a son. Naturally, she thinks He’s crazy, so He poses the question, “Is anything impossible for the Lord?” (HCSB) This is a question that we’ll periodically consider over the coming year.
I find it fascinating that God answers this question, thousands of years later, when talking to another woman He’s just made pregnant. In Luke 1:37 the angel Gabriel has just told the incredulous Mary that she will bear God’s Messiah, and that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, is miraculously pregnant also. Then Gabriel concludes, “For nothing is impossible with God.” (NIV)
Q. “Sarah, is anything impossible for the Lord?” ……………………………………. A. “Mary, nothing is impossible with God.”
Whenever I teach on passages like these I experience an urge to provide fine print for God. I feel that I need to explain that the examples of Sarah, Mary, & Elizabeth do not mean that God will provide a child to every Christian who seeks to be a parent. They don’t mean that every Christian will find a spouse, or that we’ll never suffer from significant illness or disease. So why have they been preserved for us?
I am convinced that these passages exist to demonstrate what God CAN do, not to promise what He WILL do. We could spend a whole lot of words trying to explain the WHY’s of infertility, singleness, illness, pain and suffering. But the chances are that when we got to the end of those words the struggle would still be there.
We will discuss these struggles at some point, but God doesn’t intend these passages to rub salt in our wounds, rather, He wants to inspire faith. In my experience it’s easy to lose sight of God’s possibilities while caught up in experiences and questions we don’t have answers for. As we seek answers to our WHY’s, God wants us to keep believing that He CAN. Nothing is impossible with God.
- What thoughts come to your mind when you hear God ask, “Is anything to hard for the Lord?”
- Have you ever found yourself in a situation where passages of Scripture that are intended to inspire simply made you feel worse? Have you been able to resolve that conflict?
- Do the examples of these women make you think of something else? Please share it.