Mary’s Magnificat: “His mercy is for those who fear Him”

mary croppedThis weekend, I preached on Mary’s Magnificat (audio, Luke 1:46-55) at our church in the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut. The title of my sermon was “His mercy is for those who fear Him,” which is a line in the middle of Mary’s song. The reason that we live in an unsafe world is because people don’t fear God. There are a lot of other systemic and cultural factors at play to be sure, but I still think that fundamental theological statement holds true. Now I mean something very specific by “fearing God,” as those of you who have been following my trail are aware. It is not that we ought to be afraid of God, because when dread is the motivation for behavior, people do good only begrudgingly and with mediocrity. It is rather the fear that is awe and wonder at God’s majesty that builds sanctuaries of people who can speak the truth in love to one another and thus live in safety. And it is when we live in this awe and wonder that we discover the depths of God’s mercy and make it our lives’ work to help spread the reign of this mercy. That is how I interpret Mary’s statement that His mercy is for those who fear Him. Mary’s Magnificat shows us the path into the holy fear that discovers mercy. Here are the points I made in my sermon as my interpretation of the clues in Mary’s words. Continue Reading

Whose side does Jesus take?

I have a problem that perhaps you can relate to. I’m very good at taking sides according to the lines that the world draws for me rather than taking Jesus’ side. Right now, we are living in the midst of a struggle for Christian identity at least in the self-important Christian blogosphere between those who might be called Teavangelicals and “social justice” Christians. It’s the latest configuration of the century-old debate between the social gospel and fundamentalism in American Christianity (there really was a time before this was how Christians understood their “left” and “right”). Both sides define themselves in reaction to each other and put together combinations of Bible verses and logic that support their ideology and trash the other side’s. Jesus did take sides, sometimes very strongly so, but absolutely not according to our terms. He consistently opposed the proud and gave grace to the humble. Two important examples can be found in the stories of how Jesus came to the defense of women who violated social taboos in order to express their love for Him. Continue Reading

Pride: How We Hide Our Nakedness

Deadly Sin Sermon Series, 4 out of 9 — 11/6/2010
Texts: Genesis 3:1-13; Luke 18:9-14

It’s hard to understand what’s wrong with pride. Aren’t we supposed to take pride in our work? To be proud we’re Americans or proud of our children? The world teaches us to be proud of our accomplishments in our applications to colleges and jobs. Proud people work hard; they take care of themselves and don’t ask for help; they know what’s right and they’re not afraid to call out wrong when they see it. These may seem like good values, but they can make us feel like we don’t need God, and they undermine our sympathy for other people.

The early Christian Saint Augustine wrote that “pride is the beginning of all sin because [pride] was what overthrew the devil, from whom arose the origin of sin.” Some of you know the story of how the devil got thrown out of heaven. The devil’s original name was Lucifer, which means “light-bearer.” He was the brightest of all the angels, second only to God, but he couldn’t stand not being God. So he led a revolt against God. When the revolt was defeated, Lucifer was expelled from heaven and sought his revenge against God by corrupting God’s greatest creation – the human race. All of this happened because of Lucifer’s pride.

So along came Adam and Eve. God told them they could eat from any tree in Eden except for the tree of knowledge, which would cause them to die. They obeyed God and remained innocent until the devil came along. Read with me from Genesis 3:1-13. So the devil says that what’s really going on is that God doesn’t want Adam and Eve to have their eyes opened and know good and evil like God. Adam and Eve believed the serpent and they broke their trust with God. Eating a fruit might not seem like a terribly prideful thing to do, but it was the first instance of human beings declaring their independence from their Creator.

Adam and Eve’s declaration of independence was the birth of their self-awareness. Whether they really wanted to be like God or just let curiosity get the better of them, the consequence was that “their eyes were opened and they realized that they were naked.” So they sewed some leaves together to cover themselves. Then, when God confronted them about what they had done, they tried to cover up the nakedness of their sin with a story about how it was all somebody else’s fault.

Adam and Eve’s story captures something essential about humanity that makes us different than every other animal God created. The other animals are content to play their part in God’s natural order. They don’t know that they’re naked and they don’t care. If animals make mistakes, they don’t feel guilty; they just learn by trial and error. The difference with humans is that we are self-aware. Not only do we cover our physical nakedness with clothing, but we also try to hide our mistakes, with outright lies or a list of accomplishments that make up for our shortcomings.

Pride is a name for the wall that we put up to cover our spiritual nakedness. We clothe ourselves in the reassuring story that we are blameless people who don’t make mistakes and have always been successful. And as we tell this story to ourselves over and over, then every service hour, every AP class, every master’s degree, every person we’ve ever helped become like bricks in the wall of pride that we hide behind when confronted by our mistakes. We become slaves to our walls and spend our lives gathering achievements to put on our resumes.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. Let’s take a look at how it goes for them. The Pharisee’s prayer is a wall of pride. He says, God, I thank you that I’m not like other people, and he lists all the ways in which he’s better than others. It’s not a prayer so much as the Pharisee’s explanation of why he doesn’t need God’s help. We don’t know what the Pharisee was hiding behind his list of reasons he’s a good person. But by putting himself in the best light, even in a prayer, he missed out on the one thing that prayer is supposed to do – bring you closer to God. Prayer is supposed to be the one place where the walls come down and you’re real with God. How lonely when your prayer itself is a wall of pride?

And that wasn’t the only wall that the Pharisee’s pride built. He saw this tax collector beating his breast and crying out to God. Being a religious leader in his community, the Pharisee could have gone and comforted the tax collector; he could have prayed with him. Instead, the only use the Pharisee had for the tax collector was to make him a prop in his song of self-worship: thank you, God, that I’m not like that tax collector. As long as the wall of pride stays up, other people can never be more than props in the one-act plays of our lives. Regardless of how many conversations we have, regardless of how kind a face we put on, if our pride is what motivates us, we will never have any true friendships. And in some deep place beneath all the masks and beneath all the walls, we will always be lonely. When we hide behind the wall of our pride, we’re no different than Adam and Eve hiding from God because they were naked. And if we never tear that wall down, then it can keep us out of the joy of eternal communion with God.

Now what about the tax collector? He prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We don’t know his specific sins. What we do know is that his wall of pride came down. He probably had done some good things in life that he could have listed out before God to hide the burden that was in his heart. But he didn’t want to keep playing the game. He didn’t want to keep building the wall. So he decided to come out of hiding and put the nakedness of his sin right out in front of God. And Jesus says that the tax collector was the one who got what he needed from his prayer.

Now I don’t want to suggest that we’re going to have a mind-blowing, mountaintop experience every time we pour our hearts out before God. I’ve shared before that I went through a time when I was severely depressed and God felt really far away. I had started going to my first Methodist church in Toledo, Ohio, and the pastor there had taught me about this thing called centering prayer. So each night I would light a candle in my room and I’d stare at the candle and whisper over and over: “God, please make a space for yourself in my heart.” I didn’t feel much of anything, but I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t until years later that I realized God had answered my prayer.

So you might not feel anything right away, but I will promise you one thing. When the walls of pride come down, then God’s mercy can flow. And mercy is not just forgiveness, because it doesn’t stop with the person who receives it; it transforms us into merciful people and it keeps on flowing as we show mercy to other people. You don’t even need to do anything terrible to receive God’s mercy. All you’ve got to do is stop waving around whatever you’ve done well and let the wall of pride come down. And when you stop trying to build your achievements into a wall, you discover that your ability to do good at all is itself an act of God’s mercy.

Regardless of whatever myth our culture has taught us, nobody in the history of humanity has ever pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Whether we’ve realized it or not, we have always relied on the mercy of God flowing through the parents who raised us, the teachers who taught us, and the mentors who showed us the way. Our success is a product of all the ways that God has touched our lives through all the people who gave us a chance, so whatever good we do is really God doing good through us. God doesn’t need credit for all the good He does; He just knows that if we try to take credit for it, we’re going to build a wall of pride that will make us lonely and uncompassionate towards other people.

God can handle the glory so let’s give it to him and stop building it into walls for us to hide behind. God works best not through people who think they’re right about everything, but through people who have let their walls of pride come down so that mercy could flow through them – people who are grateful for God’s mercy and grateful for the privilege of sharing that mercy with others.