Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Connection Between Awe and Humility

As a child of the 70's and 80's, it seemed growing up that the only time you heard the world "terrorists" was when a plane would get hijacked, and inevitably would fly to Cuba. That's the only time I can remember the term ever being used in the newspaper or by Walter Cronkite (who we watched religiously every night). Even though Islamic fundamentalism really went front page in 1979 when the American Embassy in Iran was overrun by Iranian students loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini, nobody was really all that concerned with where the radical ideas taking hold in that part of the world would end up going. In those days the big concern wasn't radical religious ideologues, but rather non-religious ones.

It's hard to describe to kids today what it was like living during the Cold War. Unlike today where the enemy could be literally anywhere (either building an IED in Basra or working in a terrorist cell in Seattle plotting to blow up a shopping mall), the enemy was easily identifiable. He lived mainly in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (although he did have an outpost in that little island nation terrorists like to fly to and another little nation in the jungles of Southeast Asia... a little nation whose name still provokes anger and shame among Americans today). He worshiped no god. He purported that he believed in classless society where all things were owned collectively, meaning that no government would be necessary (but that society would only be realized if a small group of heavily armed, powerful people could force it into being by controlling, well, everything), and he owned nuclear warheads. Now the world "dirty bomb" makes our skin crawl, but at one time M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) was what kept people awake at night because an all out war between the USSR and USA seemed always like a real possibility.

I wasn't old enough to remember Atom Bomb drills. Those were before my time, during a more naive era where people believed you could survive nuclear warfare like you could a tornado. By the 70's that kind of Pollyan-ish" idea had was all but lost. But I can remember, as a kid, the parades the Communists would hold on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Tens of thousands of troops.... endless lines of tanks and cannons.... and at least one shot of a huge missile that would be pulled through Red Square. A show of force that reminded the world that the Soviet Union had better be reckoned with, and reminded those people living behind the Iron Curtain - people we now know were starving thanks to bureaucratic mismanagement - of who had the power and who made the rules. A show of force, coupled I might add, with an intelligence agency that made it's business to know whether or not you bought the party line.

We knew the Communists scared us. What we didn't know was how much they scared their own people.

The means the Communists used to stay in power weren't new. Nations and empires throughout history have used their military might as a means of flushing out concessions from their enemies and friends alike. What was different in the case of communism was the assertion that the power they wielded came not from a supreme deity, but rather as a mandate of the people. Such was not the case with all others. They took the opposite tack, connecting their power directly with some supernatural entity they believed to supreme above all others.

Supreme above all others, at times, even if they happened to be human beings.

Such was the case with the Romans during the height of the Roman Empire. This had not always been case. As the Roman Empire began to grow, credit most always went to both the power of some Romanized Greek mythological god or goddess and the power of the republic system of governance. But after Caesar Augustus solidified his power as Emperor after many long years of war, the "peace" he then brought to Empire (Pax Romana) began to be explained by his talking heads as being something only a god could bring. Such began the subtle shift away from the representative political principles that had previously guided Roman life and politics, and the shift toward an Emperor cult that elevated a man to a god.

If you think about it, you can understand why the shift occurred. If you are some lowly peon, working in a farm in outer Behoovia, if you are told at the end of a Roman pike that you'd better go to some neighboring city to pay homage to your divine Emperor, you gotta believe the odds of things ever changing in the world are pretty much slim to none. Not only are you powerless against the Roman legions terrorizing Behoovia, your god can't overcome the Emperor cause he's got bigger spiritual hammer than your god does.

A hammer so big it controls both worlds... the physical one you live in, and the spiritual one the gods live in.

What better way to codify, if you are a Roman citizen, your place in the world. You have established yourself superior to everyone else simply because your leader's got it goin on. The world must serve your purposes.

Caesar, the god, comes to bring peace through slavery, heavy taxes and the threat of force.

It is into this world that Jesus makes his appearance. A leader with no army, no taxes, and no grand statues or monuments telling you about his wonderfulness. A man who claimed, or was claimed (depending on what scholar you follow) to be endowed with godly power, but used that power, as opposed to solidifying his political base, to heal people, preach that there was a better way for the world to work than the way it was working now, and seize people's hearts and imaginations. A King with no kingdom on this earth. A conqueror who conquers by dying a criminal's death on a cross to defeat, not an earthly enemy, but rather, the only thing that really scares the hell out of us....


A spiritual giant who didn't see salvation coming from large temples, big alters, and massive festivals in his honor, but rather though people who simply wanted the world to be different by becoming more like him.

The funny thing about the Apostle Paul, is that we forget that he probably lived in Israel while Jesus was preaching his message of the Good News. We forget that the man who until his own conversion, persecuted Christians most likely heard Jesus, live and in person, do his thing. He could have very well have been one of the generically labeled "Pharisees" who would test Jesus again and again, trying to determine if he was of God, or not. For all we know, Paul could have been at the foot of cross, mocking the man nailed to a tree who the Romans sarcastically called the "King of the Jews" (and this will be your fate too if you choose to act like Jews instead of a subject of Caesar).

It makes sense that it would have taken anywhere from one to three years for Paul to begin to realize just how brilliant Jesus was. For others who claimed to be a God-man, a Messiah, had both led open revolts or retreated into the desert to live in apocalyptic communes awaiting the end of all things, and watched them all come to nothing. The open revolts were ultimately crushed, the followers scattered, and the leader soon forgotten. The communes in the desert were soon forgotten, the people living for God and not having babies, soon dying off not to be remembered. And now, here was the movement of this crucified Nazarene who neither picked up a sword or escaped into the desert, but rather turned the other cheek as he continued to preach his message:

"The Kingdom of God is near!"

"When you served the least of these, who are my brothers and my sisters, you've served me."

"The first shall become last, and the last shall become first."

"For widow gave the greater gift for she gave all that she had."

"For no greater love exists than that which compels a person to give up their life for their friends.

This man's movement was going away. In fact, in the face of great opposition and oppression, it seemed to grow even faster. Slowly but surely, it must have dawned on the Pharisee that the kind of adherence to the Law needed to usher in the next Israelite dynasty that would take down the evil Roman Empire could never be voluntarily attained by enough people in this life...

but the power of Jesus message to overcome the world. Well, that was a different story.

How telling, then, it was that Paul the Evangelist, Prophet, and Pastor would say this to the church at Philippi:

3 Don't be selfish; don't live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. 4 Don't think only about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing. 5 Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. 6 Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. 7 He made himself nothing; F5 he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. F6 8 And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal's death on a cross. 9 Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name that is above every other name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

For it was only in Christ's apparent political, social, and economic weakness, that people could see past all the bull that someone like Caesar was forcing down their throat, and get to the truth. That a world were God is for us, not against us where people acknowledge the reality of their own sin as well as other's sin, and seek to overcome that sin with love, is the only world really worth living and dying for. Surely someone as educated as Paul realized the difference in Caesar and Jesus' messages. Caesar proclaimed his gospel in order to enslave people to a state, high taxes, and a perpetual underclass. Jesus proclaimed his gospel to free people from religious authorities that stood upon you to prop themselves up higher than all others, a perpetual sense of being condemned by God, and fear that death leads us to nothing else.

That Jesus was able to successfully convey these ideas by the means that he did, I believe, filled Paul with awe. An awe that led him to acknowledge Jesus' greatness and his own apparent blindness to how things really are in this crazy world.

There is a connection, I think, with awe and humility. That's what Paul is trying to convey in the text. That the brilliance of not only who Jesus is, but the message he brings, should inspire humility. Humility that leads a person to question whether or not the true north they have established for their own life really is all that true. Paul wants to make it clear... if the Philippians want to remain a great church, they must never lose their sense of awe of Jesus, for doing so will mean losing their own sense of humility, and subsequently the willingness to buy into the same bull everyone else looking to get a piece of your world is selling.

That's what I'll be preaching about tomorrow (or should I say, today).

No comments: