Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 17)

Text: Luke 14:11
Jesus said, "
Those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great."

Upside down and back to front

Some of you may have read Lewis Carrollís book Alice in Wonderland. Alice falls asleep and has this amazing dream where everything seems to be upside down and back to front.
She encounters White Rabbit with a pocket watch but is always running late,
a Caterpillar (of all small brained creatures) who gives advice and bits of wisdom,
a grinning and talking Cheshire Cat that keeps vanishing,
the King and Queen of Hearts who are always saying "Off with their heads!"
Then there is the rude Mad Hatter who is always rebuking Alice for her rudeness.
Alice notices that everything is quite back to front in this strange world. She discovers surprise after surprise as she meets back to front people and creatures.

Reading the Gospels is never as puzzling as the adventures of Alice in Wonderland, but sometimes you wonder if Jesus does get things back to front and upside down. Todayís reading is an example of this. He says that those who are great will be the least in the Kingdom of God and those who are humble will be the greatest. Thatís so back to front.

We are more used to the idea that those who get ahead Ė the winners in this world Ė are those who push themselves forward, promoting their worth over and above everyone else.
Winners are the successful people;
those who make a lot of money;
those who are famous;
the ones who outmanoeuvre others;
those who are good at using the moment to outdo others and make more for themselves.
It is these people whom we call successful and hold in high regard.

In Jesusí day, people had much the same idea about what makes a person successful as we do today.

The Gospel writer, Luke, ushers us into a large room where a dinner party is in progress. Jesus, a guest, notices other guests scrambling for seats of honour. At the head of the table is the host, a Pharisee, leader of the local community. As the guests arrived Jesus noticed how they were jockeying for the seats of honour next to the host.

After watching all this Jesus says, "Hereís how parties work, Godís way Ė ĎThose who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made greatí.
Jesus is not telling his listeners something new. Guests familiar with the Scriptures would have recognized that this is a concept that runs throughout the sacred texts of Judaism.
But itís still a shock. Imagine puzzled looks.
ĎHey Jesus, what do you mean? Everyone knows you get what you deserve. You earn a good reputation and so you deserve a good place. Thatís the way the world worksí.

Then Jesus goes on saying that when inviting people to a dinner party donít invite your friends, or relatives, neighbours as you would normally do, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

How ridiculous is that! Inviting every drunk, street kid, drug addict, cheat that you can find, is sheer madness. Jesus is redefining what "hospitality" is. Jesus said, ĎNext time you have people for dinner, donít ask those who can do you favours in return.
Ask the poor for whom such delicacies are only in dreams.
Ask the powerless, the vulnerable, those who are regarded as nothing by society.
Just imagine the happiness you could bring into peopleís lives and the richness they would bring into your life as you sit down and have a meal with themí.

This is so back to front. Who in their right mind would do something like this? When you think about it, itís not so different to Alice who found herself in ĎWonderlandí where everything was so back to front.

And these arenít the only instances of Jesusí back to front ideas. He said, "Those who want to save their life will lose, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it" (Matt 8:35). And on several occasions, he commends the most unlikely people for their faith or good deeds, like Samaritans, lepers, the Syro-Phoenician woman, tax collectors and prostitutes. Why doesnít he say nice things about the people whom youíd expect him to praise - the respected and wealthy people?

Jesus is back to front and upside down. He does this to highlight that the ways of the Kingdom of God are not the same as that of the rest of the world. What is considered right and good in the world may not be the case in Godís Kingdom. These back to front ideas tell us something about the way God deals with us in grace rather than giving us what we really deserve because of our sin. God's ways are so back to front because in the world Ďwhat goes round comes roundí.
Jesus expresses these back to front ideas to urge us re-examine what it is that we have accepted as right, whereas in actual fact they are not Godís ways at all.

It is so easy for a Christian to be taken up with a certain attitude or way of life that is so opposite to what God wants. The argument always goes, "Everyone else is doing it." But just because everyone else is doing it, doesnít mean it is right and God-pleasing.
Just because it is the trend to move in with a partner and live together before the commitment of marriage, that doesnít make it right.
Just because every one else at school is cheating or plagiarising, doesnít mean that this is right thing to do.
Just because your friends
put down those who have achieved something,
or ridicule people who are different,
or brand all Muslims as terrorists,
that doesnít mean that this is what God wants.
Just because a friend has problems with someone or something or has adopted certain attitudes, that doesnít mean that we should follow suit because donít want to disappoint that friend. This is a particularly difficult choice because of our sense of loyalty and fear of losing a friend.

You see, itís so easy for us as Godís people to quite unwittingly and unintentionally say things that are right when they are wrong. This is what Jesus is saying today in our text. Godís ways can be so against what is the accepted standard in the rest of the world.

Why do we find following Godís ways so hard and following the crowd so easy?
There are several reasons.
Firstly, there is the problem of standing out. If you adopt an attitude that is different to everyone else then all and sundry will notice that you are different and that your ideas are different. You may even be labelled as weird. And so to avoid that, itís better to go along with everyone else.

Secondly, the ways of the world can be much more appealing and easier than those of the Kingdom of God. Itís easier for friends to go their separate ways rather than trying to resolves the problems.
Itís more appealing to have sex with a number of partners than to be faithful to one.

Thirdly, the shift from Godís ways and the ways of the world can be ever so subtle. This is one of Satanís cunning tricks. He makes you think that you are following the ways of Godís Kingdom whereas in fact you are following his ways.
A member of a Christian congregation saw nothing wrong setting up a Buddhist shrine in her lounge room and offering prayers there every morning. Friends had done the same thing, even gave instruction how to set it up and what it meant. This person saw that others were doing it so thought it must be okay. We may say, "How could they?" But it does happen. The blurring of the line between wrong and right happens gradually and cleverly that we hardly recognise that we have been led away from Jesus and his will for our lives.

Fourthly, the culture we live in is very good at producing popular trends. We call it the "in thing". Itís the "in thing" to wear certain style of clothes.
Itís the "in thing" for men and women to spend loads of money seeking the perfect looking body.
Itís the "in thing" to be so focussed on ourselves and having our needs fulfilled that we donít see the bigger picture and how we can meet the needs of others.
Itís the "in thing" to ignore how our behaviour impacts on the community, in our case the community of the church.
Itís so easy to follow what is "in thing" without even checking whether this is what God wants us to do or not. We follow the crowd without realising that what we are doing may not be what God wants.

And since this is Fathersí Day, a day we focus on the family and its unique place in Godís plan for the people of this world, itís a good idea to ask ourselves:
Do I spend time with those I love Ė playing together, working together, learning together, having fun together as well giving guidance or discipline.
Is my home a place where Jesus is spoken about and taught frequently and I model what it means to be a Christian in todayís world?
Or have I fallen in step with the rest of the world and find myself too busy, too tired and too hassled?

To follow Godís ways may seem like the more difficult path, in fact the path that seems so back to front compared to the ways of the world. Jesus never promised that following Godís ways would be the easiest path.
This is the way Godís people stand out from the rest of the world.
We can witness to the world that there is a better way.
We can give evidence to the world that being a member of Godís kingdom is something very special; that it makes a difference in the way we live our lives.

The question that remains to be answered is Ė "how do I find out what is Godís ways for my life and my family? What does it mean to live as members of Godís Kingdom?

The answer is simple Ė Godís Word, the Bible. This is Godís message to all of us and reveals to us Godís Son. This Word tells us that God sent Jesus to heal the fractured relationship between God and us and that now as his people we have a special role to play in the world Ė to live as his children and stand apart and give witness to what are God's ways. He wants us to make a difference in the lives of others and not simply to blend in with the rest of the world.

The Bible also reminds us we are very poor at being people in God's Kingdom who make a difference because they are different. Our sinfulness wants to take the easy path, to do the "in thing", to follow the crowd and not stand out. Everyday our best intentions are sidetracked. We are upset and feel really bad that we have let God down again.

The Bible reminds us that everyday he declares us "forgiven". He makes us clean with his precious blood. And then he invites us to live as his people in his Kingdom Ė letting others see in us Christ and his plan for the world.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
2nd September 2007

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