Text: Proverbs 25:6-14
St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness.” (Ephesians 4:1-2 English Standard Version) Our Lord said in the Gospel, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) In a way, both of these sayings may be sermons on the words of the Holy Spirit through Solomon in the Old Testament text, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” (Proverbs 25:6-7) If there’s one word that should appear ahead of all others in our minds this week it’s this: humility.
The Holy Spirit directs us in all three readings to the humility that befits us as Christians. Mindful of the humility of Christ – how He submitted Himself to take our form and to suffer death on the cross for us – we should, in turn, count others as greater than ourselves. The encouragement toward humility this week doesn’t just concern how we relate to other people, however, but also how we relate to our God. We should be aware of our many sins and not be so quick to stand before God on our own two legs. Still, because we often fail at humility in both these areas, Jesus thought less of Himself for us.
The book of Proverbs is not a particularly easy book to understand or preach on. To us, much of it seems like unconnected and disjointed sayings. There are glimmers of clarity. Confirmation verses are often chosen from this book, but beyond those verses we don’t always “get it.” The book itself has contributions from multiple human authors – each writing by the inspiration of the Spirit – but the bulk comes from the pen of King Solomon. Solomon, as you remember, was blessed by God with wisdom beyond all other humans both living and departed. He writes in Proverbs about this wisdom. This wisdom is not purely human wisdom, but the wisdom of God formed through faith in Christ. Faith is the starting point in our text today. Though it seems to be only about how to behave in front of people more powerful than you, Solomon and St. Paul (and our Lord) are all of the same mind.
Solomon wrote, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” It’s hard to say more on that than what our Lord said. When in the presence of those higher in station than yourself, Solomon would say, don’t be so quick in assuming your own worthiness. Instead, act humbly. Place others above yourself in your own mind, says Solomon. It’s better to afterward be raised up, than to be lowered in the sight of others. Better to be humble than to be humbled. Even though Solomon writes about being in the presence of kings, we can take this idea to all our interactions with other people. The wisdom we receive through faith in Christ should lead us to live in humility before all people.
The reality, though, is that we don’t always behave in such God-pleasing ways. Through the Fall into Sin, we were all born with an innate lack of humility. This is the reason why we all need to be taught humility. Instead, too often, the Old Adam within us asserts himself and we place ourselves – in mind and action – above our neighbor. By nature, we are wired to place more value on our own well-being and desires than those of others. Even in this last week, we have behaved this way. There were opportunities for us to help and be our service to our neighbor in Christ that we squandered. Perhaps we felt it would’ve taken more time, more effort, than we were willing to give. Maybe we thought that, even if we didn’t help, someone else would. On the other hand, there were times this week where others served us and we were well-pleased by it.
Not only are we hardwired through the Fall to think more highly of ourselves than our neighbors, we also have a skewed idea of our standing before God. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:12) He said this right after recalling for them how many of Israel were disciplined by the Lord for their lack of faith. They had a skewed sense of their standing before God and, as a result, some were bitten by serpents and others were struck by plague. We, also, have presented ourselves before God with a lack of humility. We freely confess most of our sins, but there are those sins for which we are not sorry. We have been so corrupted by the Fall that we often think to act before God as if we were anything other than poor, miserable, wretched sinners. In short, although King Solomon, St. Paul, and the Lord all encourage us toward humility, we have not always so behaved either before others or, even, before God.
Therefore, St. Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) St. Paul pictures our Lord to us as a humble servant. Though He is the author of life and creator of all things, worthy above all to be served, He chose rather to serve. He stepped down from His throne and was born and raised, just as we were. He suffered all the same things we endure; He resisted all the same temptations so that He might serve us this way: by dying for the sins of all on the cross.
He did not count His equality with the Father as something to be doted upon, but in humility thought of us more than Himself. Though He would have every right to humble us with the condemnation of hell, He chose to be humbled Himself so that we, by faith in Him, might be raised up from death. Through our Baptism, by the Word of God, we have received the Holy Spirit who created faith in us. By this faith, we receive the fruit of Christ’s humiliation for us – the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. The same Holy Spirit now leads us, in turn, to count others more highly than ourselves.
This is a challenge because, as we said, the Old Adam continues to rage within us and inflames us to a lack of humility. Let us hear the lessons this week, though, and confess that it is better to be humble than to be humbled. God grant us His Holy Spirit that, mindful of the humility of Christ, we also would behave humbly toward our God and neighbor. The Lord grant us humility this week in all that we say, think, and do.