‘Umble is as ‘umble does

[Readings: Isaiah 2:10-17; Psalm 33:13-21; Luke 12:41-48]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our Rock … our Old Testament reading tonight from Isaiah spoke about a rock:

Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from the terror of the Lord. [v10]

Not quite the rock I had implied in my opening prayer which was a rock of shelter and stability. Indeed, at first hearing there seems a sense in our Old Testament reading that is quite at odds with the serenity I sought to convey in that opening prayer.

The haughty eyes of the people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled, and the Lord will be exalted on that day!

It’s all a bit fire and brimstone isn’t it? Our gospel reading doesn’t seem to provide much relief either:

The master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. [v46]

In terms of Scripture, it seems that our psalm is the only place we might find something comfortable to go home with tonight; listen to the last lines:

Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear them: and upon them that put their trust in his mercy; To deliver their soul from death, and to feed them in the time of dearth. Our soul hath patiently tarried for the Lord: for he is our help, and our shield. For our heart shall rejoice in him: because we have hoped in his holy Name. Let thy merciful kindness, O Lord, be upon us: like as we do put our trust in thee.

Let me try and tie our readings together. The key would seem to be in the word of ‘humble’. It appears in the reading from Isaiah where there was a lot of humbling going on; and while it didn’t appear in the reading from Luke, there can be no doubt that the absence of humility on the part of the soon-to-be heavily punished slave was at the heart of the matter.

So maybe the lesson to be had is simply this: just be humble. If that is the lesson to be had this evening we could have bypassed our readings and simply gone to Charles Dickens and his characters Mr and Mrs Uriah Heep from the novel David Copperfield:

“My Uriah,’ said Mrs. Heep, ‘has looked forward to this, sir, a long while. He had his fears that our umbleness stood in the way, and I joined in them myself. Umble we are, umble we have been, umble we shall ever be.’”

If you have read David Copperfield, you will know that Uriah Heep may well have been ‘umble but he was an entirely unimpressive character, portrayed by Dickens as obsequious and altogether untrustworthy. Some role model!

Let’s consider the origin of the word ‘humble’ – it comes from the Latin ‘humus’, the word for ‘soil’. There is a resonance here with that phrase we hear each Ash Wednesday and at funeral services:

From dust you came and to dust you shall return.

So to be humble is to be like no more than the earth upon which we tread. However, there is more to be had from this ‘umble word humble, for humus is not the only Latin word for soil – other words include solum and terra. Having different words for a concept may simply imply repetition but in this case it doesn’t for the Latin humus is not just any soil, but fertile soil; soil that is capable of responding to nourishment. So if humility derives from this word, one can extend the logic to saying that humility is a fertile state of being that can be spiritually nourished.

As two examples of this, we have the apostles Peter and Paul. First let’s listen to Peter’s own words from his first letter:

Humble yourselves therefore under God’s mighty hand that he might lift you up … [5:6]          

Now listen to Paul’s words in Ephesians:

… though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given … [3:8]

In each case they drew spiritual nourishment from their humility. But as we know it had not been always so for both of them.

Peter had been very haughty before he was humbled. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he had thought he could take on those who had come to seize Jesus. Likewise Paul, before his journey to Damascus had been very haughty in his fulfilment of his religious duties. But Peter would be made to deny Christ three times and Paul would be struck down on that Damascus road. So had this been some kind of test; some kind of entrance rite of humiliation-hazing through which Peter and Paul were both expected to pass in order to win the merit badge of being a true disciple?

To think that way would be misguided and miss the point of the process that Peter and Paul had gone through in their true discipling. Remember both had been disciples before their humbling; yes even Paul – for he had been a zealous disciple of Jesus’ father, he had just refused to accept the son.

The key to our understanding comes from Jesus words in Matthew’s gospel:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. [11:29]

And here we have it; Jesus humbled himself. Of course we know that his whole incarnation had been very humble; for Jesus had not come among us in a blaze of glory but had been born in a lowly manger. More than that however was the very fact that Jesus, the son of God, had come among us at all. Why had the Creator of all that was, is and ever will be felt the need to come amongst the very beings he had created; and to do so in what almost seemed an act of undignified pleading? The wondrous answer, the mysterious answer is that God became human, not because he had loved us and wanted to love us again, but because he has always loved us with an eternally abiding love. Of this loving constancy we can be certain, for Jesus himself told his disciples the parable of the prodigal son. There the father hadn’t just loved his son and then loved him again when he returned … he had never stopped loving him.

So what lessons are we to take from all this. A simple first lesson would be that we should be prepared to be undignified rather than haughty in our humility; for humility can be haughty. You may have heard the witticism:

Humility is one of those things you can’t really brag about having.

But we know that isn’t true for there is a modern word ‘humblebragging’ which is defined in the Oxford dictionary as:

Making an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud.

I admit … ‘umbly … that I have been guilty of this; and I feel almost certain that each of you have too. By way of example, the website inc.com has conjectured:

‘I’m humbled’ just may be the most improperly used phrase in the English language … we often hear this phrase when a person wants to draw attention to his or her achievement, eg, ‘I’m humbled that I was just voted the number one most awesome person in my industry.’

I’ll let you decide if you’re blushing just a bit; I know I am. Humility can be a matter of overweening pride. However, while we deal with our personal discomfort, let’s move on to a second lesson about humility. We can find this in our Gospel reading tonight where the key to the story is not that we should not get our timing wrong – the ‘Look busy, Jesus is coming’ philosophy of T-shirt fame; but rather the need to change our behaviour on an ongoing basis.

What was wrong with the slave who received the dreadful punishment of the story was not that he miscalculated when the master would return but that he had presumed he was god in the lives of the people for whom he was in reality no more than steward. And his punishment was of epic Promethean proportions where after being cut up, he was to remain with the unfaithful forever. In our context how do we see prometheanism play out? Where do we play god?

But there is still a final sting in the tale in our gospel reading tonight. The last two verses separate those who should have known better from those who didn’t. The uncomfortable part of that reading is that it speaks to me and, pardon me for saying it, you too. For By coming here regularly to worship and in particular to hear the two greatest commandments at many of our services, we proclaim evidence of what we know – that we should love God with all our heart and our neighbours as ourselves. The closing verses of our Gospel reading tonight should remind us that since we know these two greatest commandments while so many others don’t, more will be expected of us in return.

I’ve spoken a lot about the word humble, there is a related word from the same etymological stock but, in contemporary contexts, a different sense – humiliation. We’ve all experienced occasions when we were left with nothing to say than: ‘I was humiliated’. And when we say that, we mean that we felt great shame; we don’t say that phrase with any sense of having been spiritually nourished by the moment do we?

So to be humiliated is quite different from being humbled. If we want to reflect on the difference, let’s consider Christ’s crucifixion. At the trial beforehand, Peter had denied Christ three times and then when the cock crowed:

Peter remembered the saying of Jesus … and he went out and wept bitterly. [26:75]

Peter had been humiliated, he felt a terrible weight of shame – as he deserved to do; for all his protestations of faithfulness to Jesus during the time Peter had been with him it had all come to nought. It would be different, however, with the first person in history to be told he would be with Jesus in Paradise – the repentant thief. Let us listen once again to his last words:

‘We are punished justly, for we are receiving what our actions deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong,’ then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom!’ [Luke 23:41-42]

Rather than feel humiliation at his status there on a cross, he was humble before the Son of God.

At the start of my sermon I reflected briefly on the use of the word Rock in our Old Testament reading and in my opening prayer (which as you know comes from Psalm 19). Isaiah’s rock was somewhat intimidating; but if we humble ourselves before God, opening our hearts and minds to his nourishing and saving grace we may find his rock of comfort as we read in the opening verses of Psalm 61:

 Hear my cry, O God,
    listen to my prayer;
from the end of the earth I call to you
    when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
    that is higher than I, [v 1-2]

And so now I leave us to listen to tonight’s Anthem from Charles Wood [O thou, the central orb] asking particularly that we reflect on the closing words:

Let Thy bright beams disperse the gloom of sin,

Our nature all shall feel eternal day

In fellowship with thee, transforming clay

To souls erewhile unclean, now pure within. Amen.