Sunday, June 28, 2009

Vanity and Dignity

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Irenaeus of Lyons, Pastor
June 28, 2009
Mark 5.21-43

There it was, on the front page of the San Diego Union Tribune, two stories side by side that put together say a lot about us. I doubt the editors purposely put the two stories right next to each other as a statement about ourselves, but I couldn’t help but think that they were perfectly juxtaposed. One story was about a new trend in the world of technology, which is quickly becoming the world of just about everybody, even people who don’t know, or even don’t even care, much about technology. But with hundreds of millions of people who are on Facebook and Twitter and other social networking web sites like it, all kinds of people are part of a technological revolution in which they are socializing with people they know and don’t know all from the comfort of their own home or in the comfort of Starbucks on their laptop or their cell phone.

That’s what made this story so interesting, though. Because no matter how much things change the more they stay the same. And it’s true in the ever expanding world of technology. There’s a huge rush to have your own web site address, which people usually want to be their own name. They call these web site addresses “vanity addresses.” It’s all about getting people to your web site so that they can find out more about you. So even though the technological means for doing this didn’t exist for most of history, let alone even ten years ago, vanity is as old as anything.

Right next to it was an interesting story about the White House being inundated by flies. It was so bad that during an interview of the president, a fly was bugging him. President Obama was able smack it so that it couldn’t bug him anymore. Now here was the part that struck me: PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, complained about the president’s action. Since flies are living creatures, what right do we have to take their life in such a way?

These two stories, present us with a picture of ourselves of the two extremes in how we view ourselves as humans. On the one hand, there’s vanity—good old-fashioned pride. On the other hand, there is false humility, a debasement of the crown of God’s creation—people. Pride is taking God’s creation of us and placing that very creation, ourselves, above the Creator, God. False humility takes what is a command of God—that we are to be good stewards of God’s good creation, the environment and animals—and place it on a par with the crown of His creation, people, as if plants and animals are equal to the people God made to be in relationship with them.

Ironically, these two extremes, though they seem the opposite of each other, are at essence the same thing. So we can put whatever name we want on it, but it really all comes down to going against the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods. In our pride, we want to put ourselves first, above God. In our false humility, we actually do the same thing, because we are taking the way God has made His creation and saying that, no, it needs to be the way we make it; and in so doing, we place ourselves once again above God.

When vanity rears its ugly head, humility takes a beating. We don’t acknowledge that we are truly humble before the Almighty God and Creator. When false humility steps in, dignity gets crushed. We don’t acknowledge that, while all of God’s creation is wonderful, human beings hold a special place in it and in the eyes of God the Father.

So how do we beat down our pride? How do we lift ourselves up from our false humility to the dignified place God wants us to see ourselves in? The Gospel reading gives us its own picture. It shows us what our sinful flesh considers extreme—our utter deficiency of ourselves and our total sufficiency in Christ.

You can’t get more helpless than watching your twelve year old daughter getting sicker and sicker before your eyes. You can’t get more in need than twelve years of different doctors, different treatments, different medications, only to find your condition hasn’t improved. And when your twelve year old girl ends up dying, we see that ultimately there are things that are out of our control and ability and we are simply left deficient.

But you can’t be in a better position than being utterly deficient of yourself. Because when Jesus comes into your life you can see yourself for who you really are: one whom the eternal Creator, Almighty God, loves and cares for. You have no dignity of yourself, but you have dignity in Christ. He created you and He loves you. He helps you in your need. Pride gets you nowhere but left in your deficiency. False humility leaves you with yourself, and with yourself is only ultimate deficiency.

With Christ there is nothing you need to try to bolster yourself with. There’s nothing you need to convince Him of of how unworthy you are. He knows you. He knows your need. He knows where you stand before Him. He knows you can manage your 401K, or hire someone to do it. He knows you can drive yourself to the doctor and the store to get your medication. He knows you can fill out an application and beat the bushes to try to get a job in this tough economy. He knows you can fight for the rights of those less fortunate than you. He knows you make hundreds of little decisions each day in which you control what you do and how you do it.

But He also knows that at the end of the day you know yourself, that you have no control over your life, whether you will live or die tonight or thirty years from now or live but end up in a coma. He knows that you know that while you may not think about it a lot, you cannot convince yourself that you are really fine without Him. That you really are deficient of yourself, that you are completely dependent upon Him in what will happen to you when you die.

Our pride wants to be in control. It wants to dictate. It wants to hear what’s good about ourselves. If offended or made to feel bad about ourselves we turn against those who tell us what we don’t want to hear about ourselves. Or we simply turn them off. But the Word of God is not interested in telling us what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. Our pride will scoff at it. The Word of God will chop off any notions we have of false humility. This is the irony that God presents us with: we are nothing of our own selves and everything in Him. We are the crown of His creation and yet deserve eternal damnation because of our sin. We are by nature sinful and unclean and yet loved by God so much that He comes to rescue us, giving His very own life on our behalf.

God’s Word is like a hammer, breaking down our pride in order to bring us to repentance. It brings to us the truest humility there is, the ultimate humility—God Himself becoming a man. God Himself suffering as if He were the sinner. God Himself taking upon Himself the eternal punishment we deserve, all because of His eternal love for us because He created us and wants nothing more than to restore us to the eternal relationship He has with us.

We don’t need to puff ourselves up with pride or worry about our dignity or have any pretenses of humility. Our sufficiency is in Christ. Our life, our hope, our eternal care is in Him. Gladly boast of your deficiency in and of yourself. Humbly confess your sins before Him. Rejoice in His total sufficiency. Full and free forgiveness is yours, now and forever. Amen.


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