"The Best At Being Humble" - An Ash Wednesday Sermon

1 We announce to you what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have seen and our hands handled, about the word of life. 2 The life was revealed, and we have seen, and we testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. 3 What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete.

5 This is the message that we have heard from him and announce to you: “God is light and there is no darkness in him at all.” 6 If we claim, “We have fellowship with him,” and live in the darkness, we are lying and do not act truthfully. 7 But if we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin. 8 If we claim, “We don’t have any sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. 10 If we claim, “We have never sinned,” we make him a liar and his word is not in us.

1 John 1

“A hermit said, ‘I would rather be defeated and humble than win and be proud.’” 

That’s just the sort of loser mentality that makes Christians so troublesome. We can’t handle success. We have a talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This particular hermit was one of the Desert Fathers, one of the 4th century disciples who ran away to live in the desert after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an officially recognized religion of the Roman empire. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were the original hipsters – terrified that Christianity had become too easy. Now that everyone wanted to be a Christian, they decided that running away was the only way to make sure they were following Jesus for “the right reasons.” 

Better to be defeated and humble than to win and be proud. 

That’s not simply pathetic advice; it’s downright dangerous.  It undermines society. Imagine a kid saying that to his teammates in the weight room. Imagine a politician saying it. Imagine that as the mission statement of a business. It’s like saying 

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? (Mark 8:24-26)

It sounds like something Jesus would say. 

It’s the sort of statement that reminds us that if we didn’t know Jesus, we would never guess that we are sinners. If not for Jesus, we would think that this thing we call “morality” is pretty obvious. Everyone knows, more or less, what we are supposed to do. Sure, all of us take it a little too far sometimes. Maybe we don’t quite live up to the standard, but we have a pretty good idea what we are aiming for. Then we meet Jesus.  And Jesus so completely redefines life, and what it is for, and how it should be lived, that even the things we were most proud of suddenly seem oppressive. As Will Willimon puts it, “Sin is rarely self-evidently bad. It takes training, analysis, and much living and reflection, prayer, and quiet consideration to be a sinner. One must be taught to sin – that is, to know sin when one does it.”

In his book “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis imagined a man who has been living in hell is invited to come live in heaven. The only problem is that this man (whom lewis calls “the Ghost”) won’t accept the invitation because it has come from a bright, shining man who used to work for The Ghost, and who was convicted for murder. The Ghost looks at this Bright Man and says:

“Look at me now. I’ve gone straight all my life. I don’t say I have no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see. I done my best by everyone –that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink, I paid for it, see… I just want to have my rights.

“Oh no” said the Bright Man. It’s not as bad as that. I never got my rights and you won’t get your rights either. You’ll get something so much better.

What do you keep on arguing for (says the Ghost) I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anyone’s bleeding charity.

 “Oh, then do (said the Bright Man) Do it at once. Ask for the bleeding charity. Everything is here for the asking.”

The man never does get in. but he still has his pride.  In his case, he decides it is better to be defeated and proud than to win and be humble. 

Perhaps it is because Pride is so alluring that it is usually listed as the first and the worst of the 7 deadly sins.  When the poet Dante imagined the 7 deadlies as a mountain, he put Pride at the very bottom, farthest from heaven.  We are easily entranced by Pride precisely because it seems so practical and satisfying. Lust and gluttony are fun in the moment, but they rarely accomplish anything, and they always leave a hangover.  Pride finds a way to ensnare even folks who have the willpower to outrun every other weakness. I can’t help thinking here of Lance Armstrong, the famous bicyclist who dominated racing for years with an incredible self-discipline and will to overcome obstacles seems to have been equaled only by a pride that crushed the careers and reputations of dozens of innocent people who were caught in the wake of his cheating scandal. This is no different than a Christian who by sheer force of will shuts the door on Envy or Sloth, only to discover that he is now locked in a room with Pride. Once Pride grabs hold of us, then we begin to excuse all manner of sin in ourselves. Again, Will WIllimon: “I sin, and sometimes when I’m the best I can, that, thanks to pride, is my worst sin.”

Pride cannot be overcome by the will. I cannot simply declare myself humble; I cannot measure my humility. If ever I say “I’m the best at being humble” I lose it all.

So what is to be done?

Luckily, the season of Lent gives us several ways to humble ourselves. 

The first is to attempt something so great for God that we are doomed to fail. 

The Desert Fathers and Mothers moved out into a wasteland, not so that they could live perfect lives, but so that they could discover how weak and imperfect they truly were.   Today, we give things up or take things up for Lent – not so that we can have a slimmer figure or less stress, but so that we can learn to depend on God. 

You might try fasting.  I have always found that fasting is a wonderful way to fail for God. If I ever fast for more than two meals, I become a wretched, mean, and useless person. Which reminds me that most of the time, when I think I’m virtuous, I’m probably just well fed. It reminds me that my soul is not very strong force for good; it is in fact a strong force of meanness that I keep sedated. And I also find a new sympathy for those face every day with less than a full belly.

There are other ways to fail during Lent. Rather than giving something up, you can attempt something glorious – to love someone unlovable, to help someone who seems hopeless. You can work to forgive someone who is beyond forgiveness.  “A hermit was asked, ‘What is humility?’ He said, ‘It is if you forgive a brother who has wronged you before he is sorry.’

If you succeed in loving/helping/forgiving, you will realize how impossible it would have been without the love of Jesus urging you onward. And if you fail to love, or help, or forgive, you may realize that all the love, help, or forgiveness you have ever received was a gift, not something you earned. Love, help, and forgiveness are not things you can be proud of. 

Of course, when you fail, you might instead be tempted to blame the person you have not loved/helped/forgiven. That’s why the second thing we do in Lent is even more important than the first.  Before (and after) we attempt the impossible for God, we confess. 

Tonight is a call to confession. In a moment I will call us all to corporate and silent confessions. Tomorrow when you wake up with a smudge of ash on your forehead, let it be a call to speak a personal confession to someone. The whole purpose of this season is to help us recognize all the things we wouldn’t have noticed if not for Jesus. Between here and Easter, you may recognize sin’s power in your life. You may discover your own Pride, or Sloth, or Greed lurking in places you never suspected. Tell someone about it, and confess to that person when you fail or struggle in your commitment. You can be judicious in who you tell. You want to trust your confession to someone who knows their own sin well to know how dangerous, and how forgivable, your own is. 

This is how God breaks the power of sin and changes our hearts. Through a broken church that relentlessly attempts stupid, impossible things for God and relentlessly confesses its own sins and failure. I'm reminded of a story told of an old professor. When Time magazine called in the year 2000 to say they were naming him “America’s Best Theologian,” he immediately responded “Best is not a Christian category.” Ash Wednesday is a day for Christians to be honest. We are not the best. But as we look to Jesus, we finally know who we ought to be.  And we know He has already won everything for us. When we feel most defeated, he is still victorious, even for us.  

Repent, and believe this gospel.