The First Sunday after Epiphany January 10, 2010
125, 129, 127, 131
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
“May the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10-11).
Dear fellow-inheritors of the Lord’s goodness:
There are many rather strange and delicate tensions in the life of every Christian—opposing forces or extremes between which the child of God must navigate. There is the struggle between communicating necessary and edifying information, on the one hand, and gossip on the other. There is the struggle between sharing good news about yourself and bragging, between charity and enabling sinful laziness, between mission work and sheep stealing. In all these areas (and so many more) we struggle for consistent balance.
Today we focus on one such struggle in particular, the tension that will forever exist between Godly aspiration and sinful ambition. And more than that, we will examine also the different sort of a heart that produces each. In viewing the star that lead the Magi to Jesus, we are reminded that our calling is also to be different kinds of stars. The text that will form the basis of our study this morning is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the second chapter:
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So far the verbally inspired words of our God. Ever aware that these are, in fact, inspired words and therefore true and applicable in every regard, so we begin with this simple prayer: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
To get a handle on our topic we need to peal away several layers and thereby look honestly into the core of at least one aspect of the typical human heart. We do this today by using a few questions.
First question: Would you like to be famous, well known, or at least universally respected? That’s probably not a fair question. Not because it isn’t relevant or important, but because Christians almost instinctively know the “right” answers to these sorts of questions—the answer that casts us in the most flattering and godly light. Most of us would therefore answer in the negative since to admit that we would like to be famous would almost certainly make us appear vain or selfish. But is that the honest answer for most of us?
There is, in the vast majority of human hearts, a natural desire to be noticed, appreciated, admired. We don’t necessarily want the paparazzi snapping long range photos of us in our back yards, or rabid fans hounding our every move, but who here thinks that it would be anything but flattering to be well known and universally respected?
We tend to be fascinated by fame. Even more to the point, the vast majority inwardly crave to be on the “inside” with famous people. Who wouldn’t find it personally gratifying to be able to list a famous sports hero or someone of worldwide fame and importance as a personal friend? Can anyone here honestly say that it would be no big deal to get a personal phone call from your friend the President, or even, former president? How much more then to be famous yourself? Honesty forces us to admit that fame carries a certain undeniable allure.
The second question, which is the real question that we need to address: “Why?” “Why do human beings crave fame or notoriety?”
The “Why?” is what gives us an insight into the main problem we seek to address this morning; it lays bare an aspect of our sinful hearts that we need to correct. We need to recognize that the human heart not only craves fame and recognition, but that craving has self-centeredness at its very core. Why else would anyone want to be famous except for selfish reasons? Why would anyone want to be a star or universally recognized and respected if not to feed the beast we know as ego? And yet even Christians desire it and therein lies the problem. We want something even though it is clearly not a good, God-pleasing thing. That’s a problem.
Where does such information or insight take us? It ought to take us to the foot of the cross in humble repentance. The Lord does not beat around the bush when it comes to his opinion of human arrogance and our natural craving for personal glory. In Psalm 101:5 the Lord tells us: “The one who has a haughty look and a proud heart, him I will not endure.” Again in Proverbs 16:5: “Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; though they join forces, none will go unpunished.”
This sort of desire is not a “nothing.” We well might all share it in common, but that certainly doesn’t make it right. It is, in fact, a rather startling revelation to most of us when we realize just how cavalier or casual we can be about the sinful condition of our hearts. This is nowhere more apparent than when we contrast what we have just come to recognize about our own hearts with what we find in our text. Take a look again at just the first few verses and note well the stark contrast: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” [vv.3-4]
If you will recall, we introduced this whole topic by pointing out the tension or struggle that challenges the Christian in so many aspects of life—in particular we are focusing on the tension between godly aspiration and sinful ambition. The first few verses of our text instruct us as to how to identify and distinguish between the two.
There is certainly nothing wrong, in and of itself, with aspiring or working to improve your own quality of life. God himself gave the following command to Adam and his wife in the perfection of Eden: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). You will also note that our text does not tell us to look only to the interests of others; it tells us to look also to the interests of others.
The fact is man does not have to be encouraged to look to his own needs. The direction of our text, however, is outward—a direction that is anything but natural to the sinful human heart. Think about this for a moment in connection with our natural desire for notoriety or stardom. How at odds such desires are with the flow or direction of our text. How could any quest for personal fame ever fit with these holy words from our text: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” The obvious answer is that no quest for personal fame and stardom could ever coexist with these inspired words, and in so admitting we lay bare the problem that we are addressing. Our hearts flat out need work, which is where our text comes in.
The Holy Spirit is obviously well aware of the benefit of an example in passing on godly behavior and attitude. That is undoubtedly why the Holy Spirit included an example in our text—a mentor to show us the kind of heart God wants to see in his children. The example, of course, is God’s own Son, and our text sums up his holy example with these words: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” [vv.5-8]
Think of the fame and notoriety that Jesus could have enjoyed on earth. He possessed miraculous powers beyond our comprehension. He could have used those powers to secure the loyalty of an unlimited following. On more than one occasion the people tried to make Jesus king, but He refused. In fact, He purposely made statements that alienated many of his followers, until only a few remained. Why would He do such a thing? He did it so that you and I could join him in heaven. He did it so that you and I could escape an eternity of utter misery in Hell. He did it, in other words, for everyone except Himself.
Our text tells us that Jesus “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” You know full well why such a thing was necessary. That “death of the cross” was necessary to pay for our sins. It was necessary to remove the barrier that we erected and which separated us from our God. In other words, the entire birth, life, and death of Jesus was directed outward—all for the benefit of you and me. That was what Jesus aspired to do; that was his sole purpose and goal. He labored—struggled—day and night so that you and I might join him one day in Paradise.
By this point you might well be wondering why such a topic is brought to the fore on this Sunday after Epiphany. Why, in other words, ask about our desire to be stars in this world on this particular day? The fact is a star plays a prominent role in Christ’s Epiphany. It was that mysterious star of Bethlehem that led the first Gentiles to the Savior. So again we ask: “Do you want to be a star?” How about a star like that? How about the kind of star that reflects or redirects the glory, praise, and attention onto another—onto your Savior Jesus Christ?
The star that the Magi followed simply handed off its glory to Jesus. That done, it apparently returned to obscurity, its job completed.
Again, how bare our hearts are laid. There is no personal glory in such stardom, which makes it a rare aspiration indeed. Yet what is that other sort of “stardom” (the worldly kind) compared to bringing the Savior into the hearts and lives of dying sinners? You want to be a star? Then reflect the love and glory of your Savior, “…that at the name of Jesus every knee might bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” [vv. 10-11] God grant to each of us such holy, selfless, loving aspirations, for when all of the vanities of this world are swept away, the only star-power that will have any lasting significance is that which led souls to their Savior Jesus. God grant us the love and humility for such service, for such truly noble aspirations. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.