Pastor' Column: How to achieve dizzying greatness this Christmas (without alcohol)
December 10. 2013 1:24PM
True greatness isn’t to be found according the usual standards and methods of the world. What most people associate with greatness, particularly spiritual greatness, isn’t actually greatness at all, but a wicked and damnable self-righteousness. True greatness in the eyes of God, rather, is found when a person sees himself or herself in light of God’s perfection and banks completely on Christ instead of any supposed inherent goodness.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told a story about a Pharisee, a respected teacher of God’s law who seemingly had it all together, and a tax collector, a universally-hated servant of the Roman government who overcharged everybody. The Pharisee approached God in prayer and thanked God that he wasn’t a common “sinner” like everybody else. He pointed out all the seemingly good things he did as proof, such as giving contributions to the temple.
In contrast, the tax collector wouldn’t even come very close to the normal place of prayer, but stood far off and lowered his eyes. He didn’t compare his righteousness to others but went straight to the real standard: God’s righteousness. In that light, he saw that he didn’t measure up but could only humbly cry out for God to be merciful to him. “This man,” Jesus said, rather than the squeaky-clean law-expert Pharisee, “went down to his house justified. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is a constant theme in Jesus’ teaching. He turns the values of the world upside down. True leadership, Jesus taught, is seen in selfless service to others. (John 13:12-20) Let others praise and compliment you, rather than positioning yourself as a great and gifted person. (Luke 14:7-11) Those who are blessed by God are the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, the persecuted, i.e., those who understand that they are spiritually needy. (Matthew 5:3-12) The last shall be first and the first shall be last when God’s kingdom comes in fullness. (Matthew 19:30)
So maybe this Advent season, we all could stand to bring ourselves down a few notches. We tend to think and act as though we are a big screaming deal. Reflecting on Jesus’ own humility (The Son of God came as a baby to poor parents in a backwoods corner of the known world!) can help us gain or regain a more accurate picture of who we are and who we’re called to be. And maybe you’ve never yielded yourself to God like the tax collector did in Jesus’ story. Jesus stands ready to receive and save you. He loves to answer the desperate cry for mercy. He is all mercy. You will find that, paradoxically, the way to truest greatness is through admitting your lowliness before God.