“The Humility of God”
19th Sunday After Pentecost, 2005
Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO
Dear People of God,
Most of the religious endeavors of man are focused upward; man's ascent from earth to heaven. For if God is in heaven, and we want to be with God, it seems that we must climb and clamor into heaven. The trouble is this very great distance between Heaven and earth, the infinite distance between holiness and sin. But still man tries, tries to climb into heaven and find God. Man's ascent from earth to heaven.
Lutheran theologian Adolph Koberle talks about these attempts of man to ascend to heaven as the three ladders. These three ladders are moralism, mysticism, and speculation.
The first ladder is moralism. Moralism is the ladder of the will. The moralist tries to get to heaven by works, efforts and the living of the good life. Human pride often thinks that it has climbed the ladder of moralism into heaven. Time after time the question, “Why will you be in heaven? Is answered by the ladder of moralism. “I've lived a good life, I've been a good person.” This is perhaps what most people think of religion, and even of the church. That we're all here trying to be good enough for God. Lord have mercy! Good enough for God! No, the ladder of moralism in not high enough to reach heaven. The top of that ladder will only reach the peak of pride or the clouds of despair. No, no one is saved by ascending the ladder of moralism.
The second ladder is mysticism. Mysticism is the ladder of emotions. The mystic thinks that heaven can be reached by an emotional experience. If we sing the song enough times, if we sit in profound silence, if we discipline our soul, we can feel God, experience God, somehow climb the ladder of the emotions into the bliss of heaven. But this ladder, like the ladder of moralism, is woefully short. Searching the depths of the human soul for the flower of divinity, it finds instead the horror and the depth of sin, clinging not just to our flesh, but to our very soul. Mysticism finds that we are sinners, and that we cannot change that on our own. No, one one is saved by ascending the ladder of mysticism.
The third ladder is speculation. Speculation is the ladder of the mind. This ladder attempts to climb into heaven by obtaining perfect knowledge, as if salvation is a matter of knowing about God. But what do we know of God that He has not told us? So inquiry into the nature of God apart for His Word is like looking into deep darkness, and the ladder of the mind tumbles into this despair. No, no one is saved by ascending the ladder of speculation.
This is how Koberle summarizes the three ladders of moralism, mysticism, and speculation with which men attempts to ascend to God: “Moralism, mysticism, speculation, these are the three ladders on which men continually seek to climb up to God, with a persistent purpose that it seems nothing can check; a storming of heaven that is just as pathetic in its unceasing efforts as it is in its final futility.” [The Quest for Holiness, 2]
“Pathetic in its final futility,” that's how all of man's attempts are at ascending into heaven. St Paul quotes the prophet Moses, “Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down from above).” [Romans 10:6; Deuteronomy 30:12] Heaven is much to high, to far away, unatainable by any of our works or efforts or any of the man-made ladders that we build. And yet we keep building. It's part of our sinfulness. Like the builders of the tower of Babel, we can't help ourselves from thinking that we're striving and growing and getting better and better and closer and closer to heaven.
Dear people, if you think so highly of yourself that you think you can, with your will or emotions or mind, somehow climb into heaven, you are thinking of yourself as god, worshiping yourself and your will or soul or mind.
The Lord has another was, not the way of man's ascent from earth to heaven, but the decent of God from heaven to earth. That's the good news, the Gospel, our only hope. That the Lord Himself has come down to us. This is how St Paul gives it to us in the epistle reading today:
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” [Philippians 2:5-8]
Our salvation is not in the exultation of man, but in the humility of God; it is not found in the ascent of man, but in the decent of God in the man Jesus Christ. Jesus, there is heaven, salvation, life, forgiveness. There, in the flesh of Jesus, in His life and death, we see the heavenly Father, and His love and mercy toward us.
This is great mystery, that the Lord of life has humbled Himself and become a man. We sing of this mystery in the sermon hymn we just sang. One of the few Christmas hymns from Dr Luther's pen, and O how it captures the wonderful life-giving sin-forgiving mystery of the humility of Jesus.
2. He who Himself all things did make
A servant's form vouchsafed to take
That He as man mankind might win
And save His creatures from their sin.
5. Upon a manger filled with hay
In poverty content He lay;
With milk was fed the Lord of all,
Who feeds the ravens when they call.
["Now Praise We Christ, the Holy One", Martin Luther, TLH 104]
Jesus is the eternal Son of God, who from all eternity shares in the glory and majesty of the Father and the Holy Spirit. He 'is begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, By whom (that is, by the Son) all things were made,' and yet this eternal Son did not consider this equality with God as something to cling to, but 'for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.' [Nicene Creed]
No ascent here, rather descent, the coming down of the eternal Son into the womb of the Virgin Mary, into the flesh of man, into this earth, this life, this temptation, this suffering, even into this sin and this death. 'For us men and for our salvation' Jesus descends, comes down, down to flesh and down to death. That's our salvation and our hope and our peace, that Jesus was not ashamed to be humbled for us, humiliated for us, mocked, beaten, rejected and crucified for us.
This is what the Lord's church is about, why we gather here on Sunday mornings. Not to ascend and climb into heaven by our goodness or our experience, no, the very opposite. We are gathered here to rejoice that the Lord comes down to us, from heaven to earth, with His Word, with His body and blood, with His promise of life, salvation and the forgiveness of all of your sins.
May the eternal Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has descended here to us, even at this very moment, comfort each of you with these His promises unto life eternal. Amen.
And now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
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