We live in an advanced age. We have our screens, our conveniences; we are very wise, very special. Christianity is so old, so pale, so uninteresting. We are located in a culture in which civility has fallen to the ground before our eyes. We don't need Jesus or His archaic, pestilential religion.
So some think. But Jesus possesses many things of which we are destitute. Jesus has virtues many can't even list, let alone have the mastery of.
What is Virtue?
What is virtue? A virtue is a trait or a quality deemed to be morally good, valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being. Personal virtues are characteristics promoting collective and individual greatness. In other words, a virtue is a behavior that shows high moral standards: doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. The opposite of virtue is vice.
But immediately there is a problem for the postmodern mind and virtue. In postmodern thinking, all is relative. Meaning is socially constructed. There is no right, no wrong. There is what is right for you and what is wrong for you, what is right for me and what is wrong for me.
This is why we don't hear about virtue anymore. Virtue doesn't fit a valueless, empty, amoral world.
Jesus' Humility Denies a Valueless World
But God came to us and become one of us. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. Jesus came and lived according to moral particulars. He was clear: there is right and wrong; there is good and evil. There is virtue and there is vice. How do we know this? Because Jesus came and showed us virtue in action.
Today, we look together, if briefly, at one virtue in particular: the virtue of humility.
If pride is the chief vice, humility is certainly among the chief virtues. In Isaiah 14 Satan sought to ascend above his fellow creatures to be worshiped as God, but Philippians two tells us that Jesus, who was God Himself, descended and took the form of a servant. He became human. He came down to us.
Relation to Others
Whereas humiliation is imposed on a person from outside, humility is the outward expression of an appropriate inner way of looking at oneself. Humility is not about hating oneself, but about having low self-preoccupation. Someone said "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less."
There are facsimiles of humility in other worldviews. Yet there is something very unique about Christian humility. The Christian understanding of humility is rooted in a recognition of self in relation to deity.
First, we are not made in the image of a random collection of organic molecules spontaneously formed from inorganic molecules, as Miller and Urey hypothesized in 1952. Rather, we are made in the image of the infinite God. And that tells us that we are valuable. We have moral attributes. We don't fit into an amoral or non-moral universe.
God is our Creator. Our entire existence stands in relation to God. Humans are not free-standing, independent creatures. Not only do we have a special relation to God; God has a special relation to us. Alone of all the creatures, man only is made in God's image. We are special to Him and related to Him in a unique way.
We were made for virtue. We read from Ephesians 2:10 last time I preached here: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them." If we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, and not created spontaneously from a puddle of nonorganic precursers for no moral purpose, we should turn to Jesus to understand this virtue of humility.
Jesus: God and Washer of Human Feet
One thing very few Christian groups practice, is foot washing. Or, as it is often called, the "ordinance of humility." What is it? Our example comes to us from Jesus.
Jesus, God, the Creator Himself, came down into His creation and took a human body like yours and mine. He is the pattern; we are the infinitely lesser copies.
Jesus taught His disciples not to be high and prideful but to be low and meek. The meek, said Jesus, shall inherit the earth. Did you ever notice how in evolutionary thinking the survival of the fittest strikes an entirely different pose? It says that the strong out-compete the weak to survive. But humility and meekness says, we should recognize our place in the creation. Humility says, I have a relation to God and to the other. I fit into a whole. There is a God-designed place for me.
I need not compete to have value. I have value because God is my Creator. He wanted me to exist. He opened up a space in eternity and positioned me here. Before I was formed in the womb He knew me (Jeremiah 1:5).
Humility says that I the finite am less than God the infinite. But it also says that I the finite am valuable like my neighbor the finite; we are both made in God's image. How did Jesus treat everyone? He gave priority to God His Father. At the same time He treated every person as valuable. He also placed the value of man above the value of other creatures. Each creature has its value in the created order, but only humans are made in God's image.
But we often differentiate between those we choose to like and those we choose to dislike. Christianity cuts that all to pieces. And the primary Example is Jesus.
Jesus knew that all men have an innate value, and so His mission is that all humans be sought for restoration.
At the end of His ministry, Jesus brought His disciples to the upper room for a special meal. There they were, 13 human persons. Doubtless, the table was arranged as in the culture at the time, as three low benches roughly in the shape of a letter "U." Those dining would be seated reclining on one side with their heads all at the inner part of the "U" and their feet out at the outside of the "U." A servant or a slave would be assigned to bath each person's feet.
But no servant was present to engage in this task. Meanwhile, the disciples were anticipating their imminent positions in the new government of the kingdom. They weren't looking for low posiitons but high ones. None were anxious to volunteer to wash the feet of the others, because to engage in that task was viewed as taking a low and menial position, certainly not one fitting for kingdom officials.
Then, the incredible happened. Because when none other took that opportunity for meekness and humility, to serve others, then Jesus Himself arose, and took the water and the towels and the basin that had been provided, and prepared Himself to wash their feet.
What strange, strong feelings must have filled that room. Jesus was the King! He would be the new Ruler of Israel! He would destroy the heathen Roman occupiers. Who was higher than Jesus?
But here was Jesus bowing down to wash their feet. They, who had been thinking of the imminent glories of high office and of exercising power over others, now found themselves amazed and speechless.
What must they have felt? What shame! What bitter sadness! Jesus, fully conscious of who and what He was, had laid aside His kingly crown and royal robes and taken the form of a servant.
The disciples now bitterly regretted their hard hearts and their power-seeking. Now they must have seen themselves in a completely different light. As for them, so for us. This service is something that we do to help ourselves always to keep in mind Jesus' lessons of humility and service toward others. In Jesus' kingdom, the only greatness is the greatness of humility.
While communion should not be a season of gloom, it remains a special opportunity for soul searching, conviction of sin, and the experience of the blessed assurance of sins forgiven. It should be both, an occasion for lucid self-censure, and at the same time a fruitful occasion in which we permit God to work in us to kindle the desire for a higher spiritual life.
When we humble ourselves and wash the feet of another, we are helped not to think too highly of ourselves, and helped to remember the gift of divine image imprinted in the other. Jesus' example of humility is not for chipmunks, lizards, amoeba, or even the silverback gorilla; it is for fallen humans. It is for us.
Today, in 2020, humility is a lost virtue. Jesus is the virtue maker; Jesus is the virtue Restorer. The Bible records Jesus' command to His disciples,
You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you (John 13:13-15).
And so, because Jesus commanded it, and we have an unfailing source of revelation showing that He commanded it (the Bible), we follow our Master's example. We wash one another's feet. And the blessing of Jesus is for us when we do them (John 13:17).
Our Lord is alive. He is King of heaven and earth. Today we can affirm that He is King of our hearts too.
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