Do you remember how the disciples are often caught by Jesus arguing about who is going to be the greatest in the kingdom of God? Like a Dad’s Army episode when the platoon is jostling to be top dog; Private Fraser is after Corporal Jones’ stripe; or Sergeant Wilson is grimacing at Captain Mainwaring’s latest pomposity. Or Peter Sellers as the power crazed factory shop steward Fred Kite in ‘I’m Alright Jack’ sabotaging the aristocratic head of personnel Major Hitchcock played by Terry-Thomas who calls Kite and his comrades ‘an absolute shower’. And you can almost see Jesus listening to his closest disciples, then raising his eyes heavenwards before shutting them up saying: “Whoever humbles himself like a little child is the greatest in the kingdom of God.” Jesus says, “Like a little child.” That is - before they get to playgroup, certainly before they get to school. In a little child, there is no need to be number one. In a little child, there is no need to be better than other children. We had nine children lined up waiting to help fill the font at a christening – all perfectly happy to take their place alongside each other, no competition whatsoever!
There is a profound peace that comes when there is no need to be better than other human beings. When there is no need to use the gifts that God has given us to lever ourselves above other people, however invisibly we try to do just that. When there is no need to lie to ourselves about our real motives.
We hear this teaching of Jesus: “Whoever discovers humility, humbleness, will be exalted in the heart and mind of God.” If we are to be a follower of Jesus, we must learn this quality of humbleness. Well, what is it to be a humble person?
Does it mean to be or feel inferior? Does it mean to put yourself down? No. Does it mean to compare yourself to others and constantly come up short? No. Does it mean to have a walking inferiority complex? No. To be afraid to stand up and be counted? Is that what it is to be humble? No. Well, what is this humbleness so important to Jesus? What is it to be a humble person?
Humbleness, humility is the opposite of pride. Perhaps it’s easier to talk about pride and conceit. What is a proud, conceited person? Think of images of pride, conceit in your mind. Pride is taking the gifts that God has given to us and using those gifts to compare ourselves with others and lever ourselves above others around us. But we certainly know humility when we see it. An example.
After possibly the best rugby player of all time, Jonah Lomu died in 2015, the rugby journalist Ian Robertson recounted how he waylaid Jonah Lomu on a railway platform in 1995 when he was at the absolute height of his powers. Bluffing, Ian said it was essential that he interviewed him there and then for the many who needed to hear it. With passengers staring in awe, Jonah Lomu duly put down his suitcases and said, well, I suppose there will be another train along soon. I’ll just wait for it and you can interview me here. There’s humility.
Remember: our God-given gifts. In other words, gifts which belong to Him and which we are only minding for Him. Think of Travis Perkins just off the Tewkesbury Road where you can hire more or else anything. In just the same way, we borrow the gifts God gives us; one day, we will have to account for how we’ve used them before we put them back on the counter. And if we’ve used these gifts to climb all over someone or generally stuff someone else, He will want to know why.
Pride or conceit is a poison spilling out of a spring, like that river on Points West that was turned bright blue by polluting effluent, killing hundreds of fish and ruining everything downstream. So what’s our response as Christians?
You know, I wonder what it was like here 200 years ago when many of our town’s churches were built. It was often hard for the church hierarchy to get here from Gloucester because of the bad roads. It turns out that on the old horse-drawn stagecoaches on what is now the A38 there were three types of tickets sold. The first class, which was the most expensive, entitled the ticket owner to remain in the stagecoach whatever conditions might be faced on the journey. A second-class ticket meant that if problems arose, you had to get out and walk alongside the stagecoach until the problem could be resolved. The cheapest ticket, the third-class one, meant that you had to share responsibility for the problem. This meant you not only had to get out of the coach, but you also had to get down in the mud with the driver and do whatever had to be done so that the stagecoach could get through the mud. This was the lowest category, the one where you’d end up caked in hardened mud, soaked in dank ditch-water, unable to feel your fingers or toes.
Jesus turns the stagecoach value system of the world upside down and said that in God's eyes the truly first-class person is the one willing to become a servant who is willing to get out and deal with the problem.
Do you remember this summary of the episode from John's Gospel, chapter 13?
"Jesus got up from the table, laid aside his garment, wrapped himself in a towel, and proceeded to deal with the dirt; that is, to do the work of a servant and wash the feet of his 12 companions. And when he had finished, he resumed his place at table and said to us, 'I have modelled for you who I am and who you are. This is the true secret of greatness’.”
Dear God, help us to make our home in your servants’ quarters.