At Ignite on Thursday evening, Malcolm brought a picture along of a pot that had been broken and repaired using a Japanese technique called Kintsugi. In this method the repair is done with a lacquer mixed with gold, in a way that highlights the repair and makes the pot even more beautiful. Now there are a variety of ways that this idea might help us to understand life and its challenges, indeed I’d seen a similar picture on the notice board of the chaplain at Severn Hospice earlier in the day, but it struck me as I was thinking about our theme for this morning that there is something about the coming together of the humility of the pot and the glory of the gold that combine to make something greater than the sum of the parts.
As a church we believe that we are called to be closer to Christ. This term we’ve been exploring different aspects of that call. A few weeks ago we thought about Hannah and the pain that was involved in her call. Sometimes coming closer to Jesus means that we suffer. Last week we thought about Hannah’s son, Samuel, and the first time that he heard God calling him, as he lay asleep on his bed as a child. He had to learn to recognise God’s voice and when he did, to be obedient. As we answer the call to be closer to Christ so we will learn to hear his voice more clearly, to recognise it, and to obey it.
This week we’ve jumped forward a few centuries to another mother, to Mary, the mother of God, and we’re thinking about the fact that the call to be closer to Christ is a call from a place of humility to a place of honour.
So, let’s take a few minutes to reflect on Mary’s journey, and then we’ll go on to think about how these reflections might inform our journey.
Mary’s starting point was a humble state. She was female in a culture dominated by males. She was a child in an adult’s world. She was Jewish, one of a people whose home land had been invaded and was now occupied by Romans. She had no status, no riches, no power. Mary occupied a humble state, and she was aware of it, she knew it.
Not only did Mary occupy a humble state, but she also had a humble attitude. For me this is seen firstly in her careful listening to what is said to her. She speaks little, just a question that shows that she has listened to and understood what is being said to her. Having listened and heard, the second thing that Mary does is to agree and obey. She is the Lord’s servant, she doesn’t puff herself up, get proud in herself. She doesn’t pat herself on the back and praise herself for having been chosen for this honour, instead she praises God. This is the third thing that reveals Mary’s humble attitude – she worships. She focusses away from herself and onto God. Her worship is specific, heartfelt, and calls to mind the character of God, the promises of God, the things that God has done in the past and will do in the future.
So Mary started in a pretty humble place, and had a humble attitude, but more than that, she accepted humiliation. She knew some of what was coming. She wasn’t married, she lived in a small village. She would have been able to imagine the gossips, the whispers behind hands, the sly, knowing looks. She knew the shame that would be brought on her parents, on Joseph, on herself. She accepted the humiliation of this pregnancy because she trusted God – she believed that God is a promise keeper and when God said that her child would bring in the Kingdom, she believed it and was willing to bear the cost of humiliation that it would bring her. “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me according to your word,”
And now where is Mary? She is now in a place of honour. “All generations will call me blessed” she sings, because she rejoices in the honour of being chosen to bear God in her body. She saw her Son rise to life, she knows that she is a daughter of the King, that she is loved by God, and she is with her heavenly Father and her earthly Son in eternity in an experience that is uniquely hers. No-one else will ever knows what that feels like, she is truly blessed and honoured by God. What a journey from a humble place to an honoured place, as close to God as it is possible to get.
So what about our call to be closer to Christ?
I wonder if you feel like you occupy a humble state. Maybe you feel you are young and others don’t take you seriously. Maybe you feel your years, and believe yourself to be diminished in your own eyes, and in the eyes of others. Maybe you feel like your work is menial or maybe that you can’t find work. There are all kinds of reasons for feeling like you occupy a humble state. Whatever they are for you, be assured that God is calling you to get closer. Nothing about your life circumstances will stop God loving you, or wanting you to draw closer to Christ, and to receive honour from him.
On the other hand, you might not occupy a humble state in society. I can’t pretend to. I have a good job, I live in a nice house, a have authority in my work, and a position in the community as a function of my job. Those of us in this kind of position are also called by God to draw closer to Christ, but we have to be on guard to ensure that we never fall into the trap of believing that this has anything to do with any of that. We are to remember that God “has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.”
Whatever our station in life, we would do well to cultivate a humility of attitude. It seems to me that Mary’s example can show us how we might do this.
We are to listen to God speaking to us. This might be in the scripture, through our Christian brothers and sisters, it might be in dreams or words of knowledge. We are to remain open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is right that we test what is said, Mary asked a question, but we are to listen more than we speak.
We cultivate humility by obeying God. What we hear, that we are to do. With Mary we say, “I am the Lord’s servant” Last week we played “Eli Says” at All In and, to be honest, some of you weren’t very good at it, sitting down when Eli had said stand up and standing up when Eli had not said to stand up. I know that I’m not always very good at obeying God. Love your neighbour, make disciples, don’t covet.
We worship by focussing on God. We remind ourselves of God’s place and our place in the great scheme of things. We move ourselves out of the centre of our attention and our thoughts and we put God there instead, in God’s rightful place.
It is when we do these things, when we listen to God, when we obey God, and when we worship God that we are released into knowing who we are in God, and a true humility blooms in our hearts and minds.
So, whether or not we live in a humble state, we can develop a humble attitude of heart. And it is that humble attitude of heart that will enable us to accept the humiliations that come with following Jesus faithfully.
Nobody likes to be humiliated, it’s a horrible feeling, it makes us feel small and powerless, embarrassed and angry, we kick against, we rebel, we hate it.
But, it seems to me that the only path to honour in the Kingdom of God is by way of humiliation. As we are called closer to Christ, so we get closer to the circumstances of his birth, of his conception, we become identified with them. As we answer the call to be closer to Christ, so we get closer to his way of life, the outcasts and fringe people that he chooses to eat with, to spend time with, and we become identified with them. As we answer the call to be closer to Christ, so we get closer to his cross, we leave the crowd watching from a distance, we pass through the religious types mocking, we stand with his mother, at the foot of the cross, and we become identified with his shameful, naked, traitor’s death.
And yet, here are the paradoxes of the Christian faith, that death leads to life, that crucifixion leads to resurrection and that humiliation leads to honour. This is not some kind of Orwellian double speak. We are not pretending that black is white, that bad is good, or that up is down. In some way, at the heart of our faith is the reality that only those who lay down their lives can find them, and that those who cling on to their lives will lose them.
Tonight John will be speaking at the evening service in our sermon series on Philippians, looking at “Rejoicing in Humility.” Now, I don’t want to steal his thunder, so I won’t use the passage he’s speaking on as my example, but I do want to remind us of Paul’s example and teaching. So let’s look at his letter to the church in Rome: Romans chapter 8, where he writes,
“Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.”
The sufferings of Christ included his humiliation, Paul’s suffering included humiliation, so our suffering will include humiliation. But, here’s the thing, that suffering is not even to be compared to the glory that awaits us as children and heirs of God. If we are faithful and hold on, if we persevere and push on then we will be given a crown. We will be with God, forever, in a place of honour.
And we have not been left alone to struggle on. We have been given a strengthener, an encourager, a guide, a comforter, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ abiding in our lives.
This is the same Holy Spirit by whom Jesus was conceived in Mary, it is the same Holy Spirit that inspired her to sing of God, “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
It is the same Holy Spirit of whom Jesus said to his followers, “I will ask the Father and he will send you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”
This is the promised Holy Spirit, the expression and seal of God’s mercy to the people of the new covenant, and we know that God keeps promises.
So this morning, whatever your station in life -old or young, in work or unemployed, rich or poor, influential or powerless, hear God’s call to you to come closer to Christ. Come closer with humility: listening carefully, obeying faithfully, and worshipping whole heartedly. Accept the humiliations that come with following Christ gracefully as you are filled with the Holy Spirit and know that you are a beloved child of God who is honoured by God.