The best place is the lowest place

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Sermon for Trinity 17

Proverbs 25:6-14  +  Ephesians 4:1-6  +  Luke 14:1-11

Today’s Gospel overturns all the wisdom of the world.  The world seeks glory and honor, comfort and success.  The Christian simply seeks Christ.  The world seeks to get ahead by living according to the Law. The Christian understands that the Law of God doesn’t get us ahead at all.  On the contrary, it drives us down to the lowest place, down below everyone else, where, as believers in Christ who receive all things from Him for free, we can truly begin to serve our neighbor in love.  The people of the world run after first place, for their own gratification.  But the people of God run in the opposite direction.  The people of God seek the place of dishonor, the place of lowliness and humility, because that’s where Jesus is, to lift us up to glory that the world will never comprehend.  Only the Holy Spirit can make us understand all this.

Today we see Jesus invited to a banquet at a Pharisee’s house, not because the Pharisees loved Jesus, but because they wanted to watch Him, to evaluate Him, to catch Him saying something or doing something that they could use against Him.  The Pharisees and the lawyers gathered to sit in judgment on their neighbor, even to sit in judgment on Jesus.  See how they had exalted themselves!

But then we a sick man, a man with dropsy—that painful swelling of the limbs, especially the legs.  He didn’t come to judge anyone.  He came only with his sickness, and with faith in Christ, trusting that Jesus was good and merciful and would help him in his need.  How did he come by this faith?  The same way anyone comes by this faith.  He had heard the Gospel; he had heard that Jesus was good and kind and merciful, that He forgives sin, that He helps the lowly and heals all who come to Him for help.  That’s who Jesus is.  And by hearing that Gospel, the man with dropsy was encouraged to seek Jesus.  He knew that he would find in Jesus a faithful friend.

The Pharisees saw an opportunity.  Aha!  A sick man, and Jesus the healer.  But it’s the Sabbath day!  And we consider healing to be work that violates the Sabbath.  Aha!  We’ll catch Jesus in “clear” violation of God’s Law.  So Jesus puts the question to them: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  But they remained silent.  They didn’t want to say that it was lawful to heal, because they cared nothing for the man with dropsy, and they wanted to condemn Jesus for healing.  But they didn’t want to tell him it was unlawful, because that would be awfully hard to prove from God’s Law.  They just sat there silently, wickedly, and waited for Jesus to act, so that they could jump on Him and condemn Him afterwards as a law-breaker and a sinner.

But Jesus foiled their plan with a question that none of them could answer.  “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?”  Of course, all of them would do that.  So they could hardly condemn Jesus for showing love to this sick man and healing him, even though it was the Sabbath day. Jesus showed them that love for the neighbor is the goal of the law, even the summary of the Law, as the Apostle Paul says, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.”

And then Jesus drives it home to the Pharisees and the guests at the Pharisee’s house with a parable.  He watches the lovelessness going on around him, the self-centeredness.  He sees as everyone rushes to save the best seat for himself, as each one pushes past the others to get what he wants, to grab the highest place, the place of honor at the banquet.

And so Jesus tells this little parable in which He shows them that instead of running for the highest place, they should be running toward the lowest place, the place of least honor, the place of disgrace and humiliation, because it’s better to be raised to a higher place by the master of the banquet than to be humiliated by the master of the banquet and cast down to the bottom by him.  It doesn’t matter what your neighbor thinks about you.  What matters is what God thinks about you.  And here God reveals that He thinks very little of the one who exalts himself.  But He thinks very highly of the one who humbles himself, who seeks the lowest place, who makes himself the servant of all, who considers others to be better than himself.

Why? Because that’s Jesus.  Jesus’ love for rebellious sinners caused Him to lower Himself down, further and further, down to taking on human flesh, down to becoming a servant of sinners, down to humiliation and obedience to His Father’s Law for us, in order to redeem us and raise us up.

This is what Paul says to the Philippians, So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Now the love of Christ pushes us down, further and further, down to the lowest place, down to the utmost humility, where He shows us our sin, where He leads us to repentance, where He shows us that none of us deserves anything from God, so therefore, none of us can be any more deserving than our neighbors around us.  In that place where you know you’re a wretch and you’ve messed up everything, where you know you’re a sinner; in that place where you look around at your fellow sinners and you recognize that we’re all equally messed up, there, in the lowest place, Christ’s Spirit empties us.  He kills us with our pride and bitterness and anger, but He doesn’t leave us for dead, even as He didn’t leave Jesus for dead.

On the contrary, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There in the lowest place is where the superabundant treasure of God’s grace is found—every treasure He has to give, all wrapped up in Christ.  Christ is found in the lowest place and summons us down to where He is.  As long as you’re seeking to exalt yourself, you’re cut off from the Gospel.  When you stop trying to exalt yourself, that’s when you hear the Gospel proclaiming to you, Christ Jesus is everything.  He is your Savior from sin. His blood made atonement for all sin. He has washed you with His blood through Holy Baptism.  Your sins are forgiven and heaven is yours. See how He lifts you up and exalts you through faith in Him, even to the heights of heaven, even to the status of a saint.

Is there any joy to be found in this lowliness and humility? Is there joy here in this Christian Church?  Maybe you think you remember a time when the church was a more joyful place.  Maybe you mourn the loss of that joy.  I understand.  But now I ask, what is the joy of the Christian?  The world seeks joy in superficial things, in external things, worldly things.  Christian joy is found in only one place—at the bottom, in the lowest place.  Why?  Because that’s where Jesus is, with all His love and faithfulness; in the gutter, with sinners.  That’s where the one Lord, one faith, one Baptism is found, all wrapped up in Christ.

So what has changed?  OK, so you see disunity and anger and bitterness around you.  Things seem to be unstable and uncertain.  But are they, really?  What has changed?  Is Christ now dead?  Has His blood lost its cleansing power?  Has a single promise of His ever failed?  No.  Jesus still lives, and His blood is as precious today as it has always been. Has the Gospel ceased to be the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes?  Has your Baptism lost its power to cover you?  Are the body and blood of Christ gone from the Sacrament of the Altar?  Has God’s Spirit left you? No, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever. Nothing has changed.

Now Christ summons you to follow Him down into the depths, to bear the cross He gives and to not be afraid.  He who has called you to follow Him is faithful.  He has tied Himself to you in Holy Baptism.  Where He has gone, you must go, and it won’t be pleasant in this life.  But you won’t go alone.  He’s with you.  This life for the Christian is the cross of humiliation, but that means you’re together with Jesus on the path, even now.  It’s the next life, the life after death, the resurrection from the dead, that’s where you will find the crown of glory and eternal joy in His presence.

See, this is what Paul says to the Philippians, 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

The best place for the Christian is the lowest place, because from there, our exaltation, our being lifted up again is a sure thing.  It’s just that, it happens on God’s timetable, not ours.  It happens when God wills, not when we will, which means that we simply have to be still. We simply have to wait, and to trust.  Be still, and know that I am God, he says.  I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.  Wait for the Lord.  Be strong and let your heart take courage.  Wait for the Lord.  Amen.

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