Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.
Put your napkin on your lap. Don’t start eating until everyone is ready, and you’re given the go-ahead. Always chew with your mouth closed. Never use your utensils to stab or shovel your food. Keep your elbows off the table, though it is OK to prop your elbows on the table while you converse between courses. Cut only one piece of meat at a time. If someone asks you to pass the salt, you should pass the pepper as well - because they always travel together. Have you ever heard any of these? These are some of the more commonly known rules of etiquette, made famous by a woman named Emily Post. She was a recognized authority on all things etiquette, especially after publishing her book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, and at Home. That book came out in 1922 and still gets referenced at formal dinners and black tie affairs. Some of the stuff in there is timeless, because good manners are timeless. But editors realize that some content could use a little updating. So, now instead of making sure your home’s cigarette dispenser is always filled before guests come over, we have rules about keeping your smartphone off the table. That makes sense. Emily Post lived at a different time, and while much of what she wrote is still applicable, some of it is just plain outdated. The world is a different place.
You heard what Jesus said in our gospel lesson. Which category would you put that into? Relevant or outdated? One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” You could be excused for thinking that Jesus is simply giving advice on etiquette - because at first glance, that’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a truism wherever you go, that being told you’re in the wrong seat and having to move in front of everyone is embarrassing. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but at a sporting event, have you ever taken a seat closer to the action, only to have the usher come and ask to see your ticket stub? Then you stand up, throw a confused look on your face, like there must be some mistake, and take the walk of shame back up to the nosebleeds? Me neither. It can be embarrassing.
But Jesus’ parable didn’t deal with a sporting event. He took it to a whole new level, and puts us at a wedding feast - many times a very structured dinner, where seating arrangement usually matters. So, imagine the scenario at your wedding. You, the newlywed bride and groom walk into the reception hall, and all your guests are on their feet, clapping and cheering as you make your way to the head table. You take your place at the center of the head table in front of everyone, and all of a sudden great Uncle Fritz pulls up a chair and parks it between the two of you. He’ll have his steak dinner close to the action. But what an embarrassment to have to inform him, “No, sorry, Uncle Fritz, your spot is at that speck in the distance called Table 35 with the third cousins and random workplace acquaintances.” It’s embarrassing to think so highly of yourself only to be brought down a peg or two in front of everybody. Or, as Jesus said it, Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. So, what is Jesus getting at here? Table manners? Banquet etiquette? Trying to get you to see that it doesn’t pay to be a self-promoter, so at least pretend to be humble so that someone else will do it for you? Well, no. Jesus isn’t primarily teaching us how we relate with each other (though he certainly includes it), but ultimately, how we relate with God. He mentions a wedding banquet - a frequent metaphor for the Kingdom of God, God’s ruling activity in the hearts and lives of people. So, in the Kingdom of God, at this ultimate wedding feast of the Lamb, who gets a spot of honor? The one who’s presumptuous enough to think that everyone should marvel at his awesomeness, or the one who knows full well that he didn’t even deserve to be invited in the first place?
This is tough, because humility is tough. Humility is a hard thing to embrace because pride is so hard to let go. In our 21st century world where your value is based on how many likes you get on Facebook and how many followers you have on Twitter; a world where your worth is dependent on how far you’ve advanced in your career, and how highly your peers think of you; in a world like that, does humility really make sense anymore? Is this just another one of those “outdated rules of etiquette” that may have been the norm for our grandparents, but now we know better? When Jesus went to that Pharisee’s house, Luke mentioned that he was being carefully watched. They wanted to trick and trap him, but it’s interesting to note that Jesus was also watching them. And as he watched, he saw something that must have been close to comical, if it weren’t so sad. Pharisees, the religious elite, the “good ones,” the role models of Hebrew society, lifting up their long robes, silently scooching, tacitly tiptoeing their way to the seats of honor, thinking that where they sat at a dinner party would elevate them above all their peers. In their culture, that much they had exactly right, but tragically they missed the larger point. It’s not how you compare to your fellow human creature; how do you stack up compared to the holiness of God? A dinner party here on earth is one thing. But when it comes to the marriage feast of the Lamb, the heavenly wedding banquet, if you think you’re marching up to the head table because of how much better you are than your neighbor, then you’re in for eternal embarrassment. Or, as Jesus said it, Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.
So, what’s the answer? Our first instinct is to try to do the opposite, isn’t it? We all know pride and self-aggrandizement are bad, so I’m going to be humble. I’ll be the most humble. I’ll be more humble than you, and I know that I’ll be so humble that Jesus will just have to exalt me! And right there is the problem. The sinful nature that lives inside you and me takes the very thing Jesus calls for – true humility – and turns it into a measuring stick to compare myself to my neighbor; or worse yet, my sinful nature turns humility into something that deserves a reward from a holy God. Whether I’m thinking about how great I am or how humble I am, I’m thinking about me! What a mess I am! Jesus said, Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted, and it seems like I can’t really win at either end of that equation. Maybe that’s the point – I can’t fix my problem, because I am the problem.
So stand back, and marvel at the One saying these words. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Jesus himself is the living, breathing embodiment of what it means to humble yourself all the way to exaltation. You and I can’t get there, because by nature we are entirely self-absorbed. So Jesus emptied himself so he could absorb all of your sin and self-centeredness. Jesus has taken away your desire to be honored at the expense of others. Jesus has delivered you from the need you feel to exalt yourself and push others down. Jesus has put to death the desire of your sinful nature to call the shots, and in its place, he has given you his perfect life. You can catch a glimpse at the beauty of this transaction in the axiom I’ve spoken about five times already - Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Did you catch it? Everyone who humbles himself will be exalted. Will be exalted…that’s a passive verb. That means someone else is doing the exalting. You can’t exalt yourself, because here it’s grammatically impossible. Someone else exalts you. Who does it? He’s the One who didn’t think of his heavenly glory and praise of angels as something he had to hold onto, but made himself nothing, taking on human nature, for you. Who exalts you? He’s the One who humbled himself to death, even death on a cross to take your place. He’s the One who lives to keep a promise to you that not even death can undo – your sin is forgiven, your guilt is taken away, heaven is your home, and now you’re free. Because of who Jesus is, he speaks these words to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” The Son of God exalts you and calls you his friend.
That’s good news. And in that good news, there is freedom. In the gospel, Jesus comes to give you all his perfect gifts – freedom from your sin; freedom from the accusation of the devil; freedom from the fear and power of death itself. In the gospel, Jesus gives you another tremendous gift – the gift of refusing to be preoccupied with yourself. To empty you of thoughts about yourself, whether positive or negative thoughts, and bring you to see that you are important to him, and you matter to the only One in the universe whose opinion actually matters. I can’t think of a more liberating message! So, now it’s starting to make some sense. Jesus said, “When you give banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” You don’t need to worry about being repaid or fishing for a compliment. When it comes to your standing with a holy God, you’ve been declared perfect in Christ. You’ve been set free to live and love and serve with an eye on the person next to you.
Check out the list of ways the writer to the Hebrews encourages that – entertain strangers, not just the people whom you think can be of some advantage to you. Remember those in prison – don’t hold a grudge against someone who has wronged you or society. Love them as Christ loves you. Honor marriage – don’t mess around with God’s gift of sexuality. Honor your spouse, even if that means admitting you’re wrong, apologizing, and taking yourself down a peg or two. Keep your lives free from the love of money – trust in God’s promise to provide and stop thinking that your two hands and big brain have earned you a living. The good news of Jesus gives an answer to every objection my sinful nature wants to throw out – what if I let someone else take credit for my work? What if I’m generous with my finances to God’s work? What if I give up the “power position” in my marriage? If I don’t look out for myself, who will? Listen to God’s answer – Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. At the end of the day, as children of God, we don’t have to be worried about being “put out.” We don’t have to fight and scratch and claw for honor in the eyes of the world – we’ll be OK. Not because we’re so worthy, but because our Savior Jesus is so perfect. You can live and love not to get something from those you serve, but to give from the abundance that God has given you in Christ.
In the gospel lesson today, Jesus isn’t teaching an outdated rule of etiquette. He’s showing us how upside down things are in the Kingdom of God – where humility is really an exalted state. So, who finds a place at the heavenly banquet table of Jesus? The humble, repentant sinner who knows he or she doesn’t deserve to be there. But here I am, and here you are, all by the grace of the One who calls you his friend! Jesus says, “Friend, come to a higher place, the place of honor at my side.” You could never earn that invitation, you could never claim such an honored place on your own, but Jesus freely and fully gives it to each of you in the gospel. Like those Pharisees, watch Jesus closely – not to trap him, but watch him in faith. Watch Jesus closely – his life of perfect humility lived in your place. Watch Jesus closely – his innocent death to cleanse proud hearts. Watch Jesus closely – his resurrection that guarantees your life. Watch Jesus closely – he’ll return and lift you up, and then the whole world will know what he has made you to be; his perfect, honored, exalted child.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen