Sunday, February 21, 2021

Sermon: “Recipe for Repentance: Humility”, Mark 8:31-38 (February 21, 2021)

(This is the first sermon in our Lenten series, "Recipe for Repentance". The text of our Ash Wednesday message can be found here.)


I’ve gotten into an online debate with a stranger exactly once. It was about a year and a half ago, back when the Democratic primary debates were the top news story in the United States. Everyone from every point along the political spectrum had an opinion on the candidates—and there were plenty of candidates to have opinions about. I generally tried to steer clear of online arguments during the political cycle, largely because I believe that listening is more important than speaking in situations like this. On this occasion, though, I made an exception and decided to offer my two cents.

See, I’d been reading an article on the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate’s debate performance, and one of my principal concerns hadn’t been addressed in the article, so I mentioned it in the comments section. My biggest problem with one particular candidate was that he never seemed able to own up to mistakes he’d made in the past—if the debate moderator asked for an explanation of a controversial position that this candidate had held, he’d respond, “That’s a mischaracterization,” or “I never said that,” or “That’s not a fair statement.” It just didn’t sit well with me that this politician seemed unwilling to even entertain the idea that his past actions might be problematic. All of his other potential strengths and weaknesses aside, this hubris struck me as dangerous.

Well. This comment did NOT sit well with one of this politician’s supporters. He’d apparently bought into the lie that demonstrating humility is showing weakness, and he was horrified at the idea that his hero might be seen as weak: my slanderous opinion could not stand. After we’d argued back and forth for a while, he suddenly announced, “Well, maybe he’s acting like that because he’s just never been wrong!”

Now, I’m not the most politically savvy person, and I certainly don’t claim to have paid much attention to this candidate prior to the 2020 primaries, but this argument struck me as completely ludicrous. This candidate had already had a political career spanning several decades, so unless he’s the second coming of Christ (which I’m quite confident he is NOT) there’s no way this man has never made a political mistake before, let alone a personal one. But his ardent supporter was so horrified by my suggestion of humility that he was willing to not only entertain this unrealistic theory, but to offer it as a legitimate argument.

Actually, even though the second coming of Christ would have no mistakes to atone for and would have every reason to boast, he’d STILL maintain an attitude of humility. But he’d certainly be no stranger to the objections of my digital foe. In Mark 8, we read about Peter having the exact same issue, and how Jesus deals with it.

In the verses right before today’s reading, Peter (correctly) identifies Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the “anointed one”. Now, to the disciples, Jesus being the Messiah was a BIG DEAL. In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was the one who would be chosen by God to redeem and save the Jewish people. Most people at the time envisioned this Messiah as a strong, military-like figure who would crush the Roman empire under his heel and return Israel to its former glory as its mighty king. And up until this point, Jesus’ actions had done nothing to disprove this theory: he was a solid success story, miraculously healing the sick and demonstrating authority over religious leaders, demons, and nature itself. (Nothing explicitly militaristic yet, but maybe he was working his way up to that.) From his disciples’ perspective, he’s a hero, a champion…a winner. Someone worth standing behind.

But then, right after basically affirming that he is indeed the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus goes and does something shocking. This winner, this champion, this MESSIAH, abruptly begins to teach that it’s not only acceptable, but NECESSARY for him to submit to suffering and death at the hands of his enemies. Knowing the conceptual baggage that accompanies the word “Messiah”, he even chooses to refer to himself using a different term than Peter had—he calls himself “the Human One”. He emphasizes not his authority, not his power, not his status as one anointed by God…but his humanity. His vulnerability. He insists that, contrary to popular belief, the Messiah must be humbled in order to fulfil his role.

This creates an unacceptable level of cognitive dissonance for Peter, who quickly attempts to “correct” Jesus. Can you even imagine? Like the opinionated voter that I encounter almost 2000 years later, Peter takes issue with the idea of a humble hero. It just doesn’t compute. Theologian Ched Myers explains, “According to the understanding of Peter, ‘Messiah’ *necessarily* means royal triumph and the restoration of Israel’s collective honor. Against this, Jesus argues that ‘Human One’ *necessarily* means suffering.”[1] And so much was riding on the “restoration of Israel’s collective honor” that Peter couldn’t let this alternative understanding gain any traction—even though it came straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Jesus, of course, shut this down immediately and decisively, calling Peter “Satan” and gathering the whole crowd to set the record straight: not only is humility a necessary attribute of the Messiah, but anyone who follows him is expected to practice it, too. In telling the crowd to “take up their cross” and follow him, he’s suggesting something more than just that the road of discipleship is a difficult one (although it certainly is). The Romans used crucifixion as a punishment for those they considered “unruly”, the troublemakers, which were most often members of the lower classes who didn’t “know their place”.[2] Through its public nature, crucifixion was not only meant to be a violent and brutal punishment; it was meant to be humiliating. And Jesus is not only willing to submit to such humiliation himself, but he calls all who follow him to do the same.

In commanding us to “say no to ourselves”, Jesus isn’t calling us to lives of extreme asceticism. He’s calling us to put our own comfort, our own desires, our own priorities, our own SELVES, to the side so that there’s room to put more important things first. THIS is what humility is at its core. Jesus models it for us by fully knowing who he IS supposed to be and who he isn’t, and by accepting the consequences, whatever they might be: as Paul puts it, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[3] He wasn’t a doormat for his enemies. He wasn’t weak. He was simply willing to make sacrifices because he understood his role in something much bigger than his personal welfare.

For Jesus, humility isn’t about low self-regard; it’s about ACCURATE self-regard. When you put it that way, humility should be easy: it’s just seeing yourself in the context of a larger picture, recognizing that you’re not the most important part, and acting according to that understanding. Humility is truth-telling about ourselves that impacts the way we choose to live our lives. But the thing is, it’s NOT easy. As my virtual debate partner demonstrated, we resist humility out of fear that our strength will be questioned or that we’ll be taken advantage of by others.

This resistance has enough repercussions in the secular realm: leaders without humility can’t learn from their mistakes, individuals without humility can’t see how their actions impact others, and a society without humility can’t benefit from being a part of the global community. But when it comes to humility in the context of our faith lives, resistance has metaphysical consequences. In the context of faith, humility means recognizing ourselves not just in relation to one another, but in relation to God. Humility means recognizing the things that are out of our control and being willing to submit ourselves fully to the judgement of the one who IS in control. Even if it makes us feel weak or inferior. Because guess what? We ARE inferior to God. Humility means acknowledging that and acting accordingly—and repenting of the times when we haven’t.

Repentance itself is impossible without humility. When we repent, we’re admitting our sins and placing ourselves unequivocally at God’s mercy. But that’s impossible if we don’t have an accurate self-regard—if we make excuses for our sin, or we decide we shouldn’t face consequences, or (heaven forbid) we consider ourselves on equal footing with God. Genuine repentance means recognizing God’s sovereignty and submitting to it fully, regardless of what that entails. It means putting ourselves second to God’s judgment. It means owning our humanity, ESPECIALLY our failings.

Ultimately, humility for us means recognizing that we belong wholly to God—not to our desires, not to our reputation, not to our position in society or our opinions. And so, when God says, “That was wrong,” our response shouldn’t be to justify our actions or to argue; our response should be, “I’m sorry, God. I surrender myself to you. Show me how to do better.” And then to do whatever it takes to make it right. Only then, when we recognize our flawed humanity in the face of God’s perfect divinity, can we begin to fix our relationship.

I never did convince my online debate partner about the importance of humility. But I eventually had to let it go, because I recognized that I wasn’t the arbiter of wisdom, and I accepted that I didn’t have the power to change his mind—a little bit of “practicing what I preach”, I guess. But I hope, for his sake, that God has continued to work in his heart and show him where he’s mistaken so that he can grow as a person. Even more than that, though, I hope that God has been able to convince him that even WITH his flaws, those things that he perceived as “weakness”, God loves him fiercely and is willing to forgive absolutely anything that he lifts up to the Lord in repentance.

Because THAT is the Good News in all of this: when we see ourselves as we really are, warts and all, and are open about it (as Jesus was open about his suffering), God doesn’t look down on us or reject us. What we call weakness, God calls strength and uses to reconcile us to Godself. So, as we enter this season of repentance, may we approach the Lord in humility. May we recognize that we are indeed dust and to dust we shall return…but that God can and does make beautiful things out of dust. Amen.


[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 244.
[2] Ibid, p. 245.
[3] Philippians: 2:6-8, CEB.

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