Thought for the week - 1 October 2023
One of the hymns I particularly recall from school, both primary and secondary, and because of the catchy tune (Camberwell by Michael Brierley) is ‘At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow. Every tongue confess Him King of Glory now.’ I recall it being very joyful and we used to sing it with great exuberance.
We can see the inspiration for this hymn, by Caroline Maria Noel, towards the end of today’s New Testament reading, Paul’s letter to the Philippians – ‘…..so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.’ The entire hymn is a rallying call to exalt Jesus; that He is indeed Lord of Lord and King of Kings.
Verse 3 of the hymn begins ‘Humbled for a season to receive a name from the lips of sinners, unto whom He came.’ Humbled for a season………the main focus of today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is humility – the humility of Jesus and how we, His followers, should try to emulate it.
Jesus came to save sinners, obedient to death – even death upon a cross. Faithfully He bore it, spotless to the last – still sinless. Even though He was fully divine as well as fully human, He humbled Himself and lived among us. Paul is telling us that an attitude of humility should be an integral feature in the Christian life. We should think more about others and less about ourselves. Jesus did this and was exalted by God. If we follow this example we should have a place in Heaven. Nicky Gumbel (Alpha and Bible in One Year) says that ‘humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking about yourself less.’
We are human, flawed. It’s not always easy to put others ahead of ourselves. We could, quite understandably, cry out ‘but what about me!!??’ But if we do our best, humble ourselves and be willing to serve others, we will please God and at the same time shine like bright lights in the spiritual darkness of the world.
Turning now to the reading from Ezekiel: the people of Israel believed they were being punished for what previous generations had done wrong (refer back to Exodus 20:5) and they were bewailing ‘it’s not fair! What about us?’ Ezekiel aims to clarify that God does not punish for someone else’s sins, nor can people use other people’s sin as an excuse for their own. God will judge each one fairly and individually. Everyone is accountable to God for his or her actions. If we have broken the rules we cannot then claim that it’s not fair. If we show humility, renounce our sinful life and turn to God, we will be given new direction.
Rather like the tax collectors and prostitutes mentioned by Jesus in our gospel reading for today. When they heard, and eventually believed, John the Baptist’s call to repentance their lives were changed. But the Chief Priests and Elders, and indeed many of the people of Israel, failed to grasp that message. They were phony – outwardly appearing righteous and claiming to want to obey God’s will but actually, constantly disobeying. The Chief Priests and Elders were far too concerned about how the crowds would perceive them to answer Jesus’ question about John the Baptist. They were not really interested in the truth. So, Jesus refused to answer their question. But when they then answered Jesus’ question about the two sons working the vineyard correctly, they shot themselves in the foot. They proved to be like the son who said ‘yes, I’ll go and work in the vineyard’ but then didn’t. ‘Lips that say Amen mean nothing without hands and feet backing them up.’ (Tony Evans, American Pastor and Bible Commentator) In this interaction, Jesus exposes the darkness in their hearts and their ultimate spiritual doom. They did not demonstrate humility in any way, shape or form.
God sees into the heart. He knows our true character. In today’s gospel, the first son’s heart was good – though he said he wouldn’t work in the vineyard, he later thought better of it and went. But the second son was phony – ‘yes of course I’ll go’ he says but then goes off and does his own thing.
Just before today’s gospel reading, Jesus had cursed a fig tree which bore many leaves suggesting that it was fruitful, but in fact it was devoid of fruit. As is the House of Israel in Ezekiel’s day, and the Chief Priests, Elders and Pharisees in the gospel – all show and no substance. No humility at all. It’s all very well to clam to have faith but if this is not followed up by action it is empty faith (see James 2:26)
Ezekiel makes it clear that God is so pleased when the wicked change their ways, sinners repent and come good. He takes no pleasure in the deaths of sinners. He wants sinners to repent and enjoy life everlasting. Israel cannot claim innocence and that ‘it’s not fair’ – they’ve only got themselves to blame for their sorry state. It’s no good blaming the past; it’s the current mistakes that need addressing. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, if they demonstrate humility, mend their ways, repent and turn to God and obey His commands. God is effectively saying, through Ezekiel, that He will judge on the end result, not the journey. So if we sin and then repent from the heart, that is how we will be judged – not on the sin. But if we sin and don’t repent from the heart, then we will be judged based on the sin. God does not weigh up good deeds versus bad deeds. If the good deeds outweigh the bad, it doesn’t mean that we’re OK in God’s eyes. Salvation is where we end up, not where we start.
Worship of Christ is based on a love we cannot resist. Jesus set aside His glory and humbled Himself to live among us, even dying for us on a cross. All because of His forceful love, Agape, for us.
William Barclay (Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism and Church of Scotland Minister) postulates that verse 11 in today’s section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is perhaps the most important verse in the New testament – that every tongue should confess that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD. As Christians we feel able to do just that, even if we cannot articulate exactly why we confess that. Jesus is Lord, and is also the Holy Spirit, and is also God the Father. The Holy Trinity. Try and get your head around that! I find it mind blowing! But, Barclay concludes that ‘Christianity consists less in the mind’s understanding than it does in the heart’s love.’ Basically FAITH.
To conclude, we can see humility as a key feature in each of today’s readings. Paul offers the Philippians ways to demonstrate humility:
Be like minded with fellow believers – be joyfully filled with the Holy Spirit
Have the same love for each other even in hard times.
Be one in spirit and mind – the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is permanent but we need to ask regularly to be filled by the Spirit – this is the case for ALL believers.
And finally – true humility – think of others above ourselves. Show a concern for the needs of others thus strengthening unity within the church.
Thank You Lord for sending Your Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for my sins. I confess that I am a sinner and I ask Your forgiveness. I receive, and confess, Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and surrender my life and my future to Him.