The ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is constructed over the cave where Jesus was born.
The entrance to the Church of the Nativity has a single doorway with a low lintel. To go in, you have to bend low and humble yourself.
It is a fitting way to enter the church that celebrates the lowliness of God, the place where the Son of God emptied himself to be born a human being. That doorway is a symbol of the only requirement needed to approach God in prayer – humility.
We have mixed feelings about humility. Some may look at it as an old-fashioned virtue with overtones of low self-esteem. Yet it lies at the heart of the Christian gospel and of our understanding of God.
If we were to invent God, we would probably fashion a kind of super hero figure: someone who would use force, always for the good of course, to make sure that his will was done. This god would be a god of power and authority.
That is not the Christian God. The God we worship is humble. God revealed himself to Elijah not in a powerful storm but in the still small voice. Jesus resisted the allure of power during his forty days in the desert. He does not impose his will on humanity, but chooses to come humbly among us, to be born in a lowly stable.
At Gethsemane, he did not call down legions of angels to bring in God’s kingdom by force. Instead he died in agony on a cross to show the depth of his love.
This is our God and God’s true followers will always seek to be humble and Godlike. If you want to know what kind of god someone worships, look at the kind of person they are: We become like the god we worship.
No one who is full of self can claim to be like the true God, because God emptied himself. Jesus came among us as one who serves. In Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to pray, the Pharisee in his self-sufficiency, does not know or need God. It’s the tax collector, the sinner, who is closest to God. The tax collector acknowledges his inability to help himself. He confesses his need of God’s mercy. He trusts in that mercy and God hears his prayer.
The Pharisee, although he addresses his prayer to God, is in fact simply talking to himself. He is congratulating himself on his achievements, while putting others down. His prayer in no way requires him to change, to grow or to move on. The tax collector’s prayer implies a desire to change. He wants to repent and to end his sinful ways.
The Pharisee’s prayer is closed, just like his heart and mind. The tax collector is open to God, open to new possibilities, open to growth. He is the one who is truly communicating with God. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” Those who realize their poverty without God in their lives are put right with God.
The temptation to be like the Pharisee is one that we all face. We may not think that we are perfect, but many of us have consoled ourselves with the thought, “Well at least I’m not as bad as so-and-so over there.” We judge others while absolving ourselves.
Jesus comes along and proclaims the blessed are those who rely on God for everything. In our churches, the folks who serve on the most committees or who volunteer the most, who give the most money get most of the honor and attention. We talk a theology of God’s grace from the pulpit, but we live a theology of doing religious things to make God happy.
We have found the Pharisee and the Pharisee is us.
Posted on Fri, November 11, 2016
by Rev. Wilmer Todd