Take the Lowest Place
Imagine you’ve been invited to a wedding. You attend the worship service. The radiant bride and the handsome groom promise their faithfulness to each other. The pastor pronounces them husband and wife, and then proclaims, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” After the service comes the reception celebration. You enter the reception hall. Music is playing, but later the volume will be turned up for dancing. The wedding cake looks so nice as it sits on the table, just waiting for the bride and groom to cut it and feed each other the first bites. Tables are decorated quite nicely. Then you notice a table at the other end of the room. It’s separated from the others and set on a platform as it overlooks the rest of the reception hall. So you go and sit at that table.
Later the bride, the groom and the wedding party enter to cheers and applause. They make their way through the crowd, and then they see you sitting at their table, the head table. The best man rushes over to you and says, “Sorry, but this is the head table. You’ll have to go to the back of the room.” And off you go, ashamed and embarrassed. As Jesus says, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” In other words, our Lord calls us to take the lowest place, in all of life.
I’m sure we all know what the head table is at a wedding reception, and who sits there. But are we really that different from the Pharisees in our Gospel reading? They loved the best seats at the dinner that Jesus attended. I’m sure many of us would love to have the best seats right behind the dugout at Busch Stadium, especially for a good playoff game. I would certainly love the best seats just a few rows up on the 50-yard line at the Edward Jones Dome. And if wedding receptions or local professional sports aren’t our thing, each of us still likes to script and tell the story of our lives with me, myself, and I as the leading character, always the hero, always in control of whatever happens in life. Let’s face it: we love to exalt ourselves.
The Pharisees exalted themselves over the sick man who crashed their dinner party. They exalted themselves over him by ignoring him. You see, one of their leaders finally arranged for Jesus to come and dine with him. And this was not just any meal; this was the Sabbath Seder meal, the Friday evening meal of teaching God’s Word and eating together. It was a mini-remembrance of Passover. They would celebrate and talk of God’s great deeds of liberating their people from slavery in Egypt. As they ate the food and drank the wine, they would toast God for His merciful goodness and rejoice in His saving deliverance.
So Jesus uses this setting to teach. The sick man was not free. He was shackled by his sickness of swollen joints. Jesus poses a simple question: Is the Sabbath Day – a day of rest – good day on which to heal and give rest? How could the Pharisees say “No”? But they know Jesus would have to exert Himself in work to heal this man. So they didn’t say anything! Then [Jesus] took him and healed him and sent him away.
You see, the Sabbath Day is about healing and freedom—healing from what ails us most and freedom from what enslaves us most. And what is that? Our sickness called “sin and death,” our inborn desire give ourselves life by exalting ourselves over others, our cancer of looking down on people around us. The Pharisees did this. They bound everyone with picayunish, man-made rules about what to do and what not to do to ensure God’s blessings. So Jesus wanted to liberate them too. He wanted to free them from exalting themselves. He wanted to free them to take the lowest place. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We could say that Jesus is teaching us “table manners” for life in God’s family in God’s house at God’s table. Too often we are like the Pharisees. They did not want to help the man with dropsy, a watery swelling of the joints, because they figured that he was too much of a sinner. How often don’t we do the same thing? We think that human being is beneath us and not worthy of our care. When we get upset about something at home, at work, at school or at church, we exalt ourselves by looking down on those who caused the problem and even talking about them behind their back. It’s really quite common.
When Jesus teaches us “table manners” for life in God’s family in God’s house at God’s table, He reverses everything we might cherish. He overturns our human desire to be exalted and “in charge,” both in our personal lives and in our church life. You see, Jesus wants to free us from exalting ourselves. He wants to free us to be humble. He frees us to take the lowest place.
It’s been said that someone asked Martin Luther, “What’s the first step in religion?” He answered, “Humility.” Then, what’s the second step? “Humility.” And what’s the third step? “Humility.” Luther was echoing Jesus. The key to life in God’s family is being humble—before God and before other people. Being humble before God means constantly confessing your sins and hearing God’s merciful forgiveness in Jesus. And, yes, you may even go to your pastor for Confession and Absolution. When we humbly confess our specific sins, the sins we know and feel in our hearts, before our pastor, he then does God’s bidding of pronouncing us forgiven because of Christ. Then being humble before other people means serving them in love rather than making them fit our expectations.
There’s a wonderful story of General George Washington. He was riding along with his coat covering the insignia of his rank. He rode past a detail where a corporal was commanding his men to lift a log too heavy for them. The corporal was shouting at them and commanding them to heave ho. Since they could not move the log, Washington quickly dismounted, walked over, and with his strong and tall body gave the log a quick push, and it went into its place. He turned to the corporal and asked him why he did not help his men. The man said, “Sir, do you not see that I am a corporal.” George Washington humbly opened his coat and said, “Yes, sir, I see you are a corporal, but I want you to see that I am the general.”
Isn’t this exactly what our Lord Jesus Christ has done? His rank is far above general, or even commander-in-chief. He is Lord of the universe. In Him the fullness of God dwells bodily. And yet He humbled Himself. He humbled Himself to be born of a virgin, to live among us, to die for all human beings, and to rise bodily on the third day.
St. Paul said it best. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8). Jesus, the true exalted One, freely took the lowest place to free us from selfishly exalting ourselves.
But this Jesus who humbled Himself was also exalted. Again hear St. Paul: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11).
Jesus humbled Himself in suffering and death for us. In His humiliation we are exalted to God’s right hand with Him. So, there’s really no need to exalt ourselves. We’re already exalted in Christ. Now we can live in the pattern of His “table manners.” Now we can freely take the lowest place. First, we humble ourselves, then God, in His own way, at His own time, exalts us. We humble ourselves in confession, and God exalts us in the Absolution of His forgiveness in Jesus. We humble ourselves in hearing and learning His Truth, and God exalts us in His true way of life. We humbly kneel at the Lord’s Table, and Jesus lifts us up by feeding us on His own Body and Blood.
Just as Jesus healed the man with a watery swelling of the joints, He also heals us from our swollen view of ourselves. Jesus sets us free to be humble, free to take the lowest place. And in Jesus’ family in Jesus’ house at Jesus’ table, He teaches us the life-long practice of humbling ourselves. After all, we find Jesus not in the heights of the heavens, but in the humble places where He lowers Himself to be found – humble water, humble words, humble bread and wine, and humble people called His Church.
Someone once said: “Saintliness and humility go hand in hand. The more fruit-laden the branch, the farther it bends to earth.” Thank God that our Lord Jesus has bent and still bends Himself to earth for us. Thank God that Jesus also frees us to learn humility and take the lowest place. Amen.