Sermon - 5 Epiphany
Updated: Feb 22
In the Name... A priest was sitting beside a nervous passenger on a particularly bumpy flight. After a severe jolt, the passenger grabbed the priest's arm and exclaimed, "Can't you do something?” The priest calmly replied, "Sorry. I'm in sales, not management." Today is one of those days when all three of our readings seem to speak with a single voice. Isaiah has a vision of God that strikes him with such a deep awareness of his own unworthiness that he responds with a cry of woe. St. Paul recalls that he is unfit to be an apostle because of the way he persecuted the church before his conversion. And, in the Gospel, Peter gets a glimpse of the kind of power embodied in Jesus and falls down on his knees before him. What is it that all three situations are trying to tell us? Living in PA, I was always aware that this past Wednesday, Feb. 2nd, was a special day. But, it surprises a lot of people to know that Feb. 2nd is also a special day in the church calendar, as well. The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. And this feast affords us an opportunity to learn something about the character of God which we humans share with Him and which we heard about today from Isaiah, Paul, and Peter. It is the virtue of humility. Humility. Strange thing, humility, because just when we think we've got it, we've lost it and it's when we have it that we don't realize it. And often we confuse it with something called humiliation, the unpleasant experience of being degraded or deflated. As a result, humility is often spoken of in the same breath as low self-image, so it is treated as something to be avoided, destructive to the psyche, a code word for wimps and weaklings to justify being the doormat of the world. Not a word you want associated with you. But, this attitude, popular as it may be, could not be farther from the truth. Indeed, it is a lie. Humility has nothing to do with humiliation other than the fact that humiliation is what happens to people who do not have humility. Interestingly enough, both words derive from the Latin "humus" meaning "earth" just as does the word "human." Human means, "of the earth." Humiliation means "thrown to the earth." Humility means "aware of the earth." Aware of the earth, in other words aware that we are human and not God; aware that we may be the crown of creation, but, we are not the Creator. John Bunyan, author of the classic spiritual novel "Pilgrims Progress" once made a splendid observation. He said that when we stand in the valley of humility we have to look up at God and everybody around us looks the same size as we are. On the other hand, looking down from the mountain of pride, everybody looks very small and our back is turned to God. Humility is the opposite, not of self-esteem, but, the sin of pride, pride which goes beyond healthy self-esteem; pride which sets one person against another; pride which poisons our relationship with God. Humility is what saves us from humiliation, from being cast down from a great height we had no business climbing in the first place. And it is a virtue which results from love. The story is told of the young St. Thomas Aquinas, long before he became famous, already showing the intellectual precociousness that would make him one of the greatest Christian theologians. One day at the monastery, Aquinas was reading aloud a passage of Scripture. When he finished an old monk corrected him on the pronunciation of a Biblical name. The thing is that Aquinas had pronounced the name correctly and the old monk was wrong. The next time, though, that Aquinas read that name aloud he pronounced it as the old monk had said. When asked why he did this, he replied, "It doesn't matter to me, but, it does to our brother." Out of love, on a trivial matter, this giant among men showed humility. And this brings us back to the Feast of the Presentation. Throughout the Old Testament, the appearances of God on earth are always accompanied by colossal natural phenomena - earthquakes, storms, fire; sound and fury worthy of a Wagnerian opera. And the prophets of God who wrote about the great Day when God would descend to earth wrote lines like, "Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?" The coming of the Lord God Almighty in person to his Temple in Jerusalem would be like the dropping of a million H-bombs. And, sure enough, the prophecy was fulfilled. But, how? Jewish women were required to offer a thanksgiving forty days after giving birth to a baby boy. It could be done anywhere, but, Joseph and Mary, living so close to Jerusalem, decided to make their thanksgiving at the Temple. And so, the Lord God Almighty came to the Temple in person, and just like any other human baby. It might be strange to think to think of God as humble. After all, He is perfect knowledge, perfect power, perfect everything great and wise and wonderful. But, He is also perfect love and in His love he is perfect humility. As humans, we are created in the image and likeness of God and that means many things. One of those is that God wants us to develop in ourselves as much as we can of his character and today we see that that includes humility. Isaiah, Paul, and Peter were all great men. Nobody could say that any of them was lacking in self-esteem. And still, each of them had a deep sense of how much greater God was. Each of them was called to lead God's people and proclaim His words, but, their qualification for the work they undertook did not come from themselves. It was not their personal achievement that made them great; it was God. That's why Paul could say, “Only by the grace of God I am what I am." Today, as always, the Lord continues to ask: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The Lord still needs leaders and messengers, who, like Isaiah, will proclaim the Good News in the temple, or who, like Paul, will announce it in foreign lands to the ends of the earth, or who, like Peter, will speak up for it in the workplace. If we feel unworthy for the task, know that it is only people who feel that way that God can use. As long as we say, “Here am I; send me!”, the Lord himself will fill in the rest. He did it with Isaiah, with Paul, and with Peter. He can even do it with us. After all, he's the one in management. And he knows what his sales force can do. In the Name...