Tales of Rwanda, Softball and a Humble Birth -- Stories That Can Change the World and Us>Luke 2:1-20 Rev. Dr. Gary Dennis, Sunday, December 21, 2008
Humility and great confidence in God -- you can see these attitudes in today's scripture about the birth of Jesus. Humility and great confidence in God -- today, we have trouble with both ways of thinking.
In 2009, humility is attached to the wrong thing. In the past, humility was always associated with ambition. Not so today -- now, humility is associated with conviction. In the past, it was all right to have some doubts about one's ability, but that same person could have great confidence about the truth. Today, we have a reversed modesty. Listen to G.K. Chesterton.
The old humility made a [person] doubtful about his [or her] efforts, which might make [the person] work harder. But the new humility makes a [person] doubtful about his or [her] aims, which make them stop working altogether.
I love Chesterton's concluding idea,
We are on the road to producing a race of [people] too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. (Orthodoxy [Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1957], pp. 31-32)
Can we recover humility associated with our ambition and a conviction associated with God? Without that intellectual and emotional conversion, today's story about God working through the humble and ordinary who trust the Lord completely will make little or no sense.
Watch the interplay between confidence and humility in this story. Luke stresses that Joseph and Mary belong in God's story because Joseph was "descended from the house and family of David," the much-loved-former king of Israel.
While this young family had great bloodlines, it didn't go to their head. They were also humble. Luke stresses things like the manger and the swaddling of the baby, even the first visitors to the Christ child -- the shepherds. In the Ancient Near East, shepherds were the "cream of the crust," people who were among the lowest-esteemed laborers in the Ancient Near East. As Luke describes it, the story of the birth of Jesus has humility written all over it.
Yet in the same story, we see some reasons for this great confidence about how God can work through these humble realities. It begins with an angel who announces the birth of Jesus. Then, the glory of the Lord surrounds this heavenly messenger as he tells the shepherds,
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:11-12).
This God whom we know in Jesus Christ can do big things through humility.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has no place for that kind of humility. Consider one of the icons of the boxing world, Mohammed Ali. This man couldn't spell the word "humility" and the world loved him. Ali use to say things like,
There is little place in our culture for humility and confidence in God. Instead, everything is about expansion, acquisition and fame. Today, it's all about getting to the top, no matter whom or what you have to stand on to get there.
While ambition, expansion and acquisition are valued by our society, Christianity sees them as the oldest sins in the book. These are the sins that got Adam and Eve thrown out of the garden and Lucifer tossed out of heaven. Ambition, expansion and acquisition are the sins that destroyed Israel and threatened to destroy the church in the Middle Ages and ever since. Ambition, expansion and acquisition caused the collapse of empire after empire. Just ask the Greeks, the Romans or the British. Nonetheless, there are few realities that are more valued in the world today than this destructive triumvirate.
What then does humility about your accomplishments and confidence in God look like in that rough-and-tumble world in which we live? The first example comes from the New York Times. On April 26, 2008, the Western Oregon women's softball team played against Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. During the course of the game, Western Oregon senior Sara Tucholsky hit the first homerun of her college career. As Sara started to make her way around the bases, she didn't tag first base. When her coach brought the mistake to her attention, she quickly turned around but to everyone's horror, her right knee buckled.
Crying, she tried her best to crawl back to the base. Tucholsky's teammates were warned that if they touched her, she would be called out. Her coaches could have called in a pinch runner but then the homerun would only count as a single.
You can probably imagine the shock everyone felt when Mallory Holtman, the opposing team's first baseman and career homerun leader for Central Washington, turned to the umpire and said,
"Would it be okay if we carried her around the bases, and she touched each bag?"
When the umpires gave their approval, Holtman and teammate Liz Wallace picked up Tucholsky, crossed their hands beneath her, and carried her to second base. Once there, they lowered the injured player and gently touched her foot to the bag. They did the same for third base and home plate. The crowd erupted into a standing ovation. Western Oregon, whose player was carried around the bases by the opposing team, went on to win the game by one run.
When later asked about the good deed and the fact that it caused their team to lose, Holtman said the decision to help out her opponent was simple. Tucholsky deserved the homerun. The ball cleared the fence. Then, Holtman added,
"It was the right thing to do."
The N.Y. Times writer said what happened can only be described as a moment of grace rarely seen in our society today (George Vecsey, "A Sporting Gesture Touches 'Em All," The New York Times, 4-30-08). Could we be so graceful and do the right thing, even though it meant we would lose? That takes a great confidence in God and personal humility.
Again, what does humility and confidence in God look like in the rough-and-tumble world in which we love? A woman whose only son was killed during the genocide in Rwanda was consumed with grief, hate and bitterness. She would often pray,
"God, reveal my son's killer. I must avenge his death!"
One night she dreamed she was going to heaven. But there was a complication: in order to get to heaven she had to pass through a certain house. She had to walk down the street, enter the house through the front door, go through its rooms, up the stairs, and exit through the back door. She asked God whose house this was. God told her,
"It's the house of your son's killer."
Can you imagine the humility and confidence in God that it takes to believe that the road to heaven passed through the house of your avowed enemy?
The story goes on. Two nights later, there was a knock at her door. She opened it, and there stood a young man. He was about her son's age.
The young man hesitated and then said,
"I am the one who killed your son. Since that day, I have had no life. No peace. So here I am. I am placing my life in your hands. Kill me. I am dead already. Throw me in jail. I am in prison already. Torture me. I am in torment already. Do with me as you wish."
The woman had prayed for this day and the revenge it would bring. Now it had arrived, and she didn't know what to do. She found, to her own surprise, that she did not want to kill him. Or throw him in jail. Or torture him. In that moment of reckoning, she found she only wanted one thing: a son.
"I ask this of you. Come into my home and live with me. Eat the food I would have prepared for my son. Wear the clothes I would have made for my son. Become the son I lost."
And so he did. Therein was hate overcome and love born out of humility and a profound confidence in God (Mark Buchanan, Hidden in Plain Sight (Thomas Nelson, 2007), pp. 187-189).
This Christmas, can we emulate what we see in Mary and Joseph, humble people with a profound trust in God? That kind of humility and confidence can make all the difference in the very challenging year that is coming.