The Big Mistake of “I Did This!” Deuteronomy 8: 11-18 August 18, 2019
Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church Radford Rader, D.Min.
This is how Rebecca and I began our life together in 1968. We had my old, used and not so cool 1961 Rambler that dad and I had to rebuild when the engine had blown. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment near the university, an area that became surrounded by the fires started after the assassination of Martin Luther King just weeks after our moving in. There were no rugs on the floors. Our furnishings were sparse: something to sit on in the living room (I don’t remember what), plastic tv trays for end tables, a very small black and white television that sat on the toybox Rebecca’s father had made here when she was a toddler, and my desk which had been my uncle’s when he was a child. In the bedroom were our childhood dressers, her mattresses on a steel frame, and a clock radio. The kitchen had a Formica table and chairs one of the few things we purchased along with hand me down cooking utensils and a few sensible, usable wedding gifts. We’ve come a long way, baby!
Moses’ sermon in Deuteronomy starts in such a place. Remember Egypt where you were slaves. Remember the plagues and how God set you free. Remember those decades in the wilderness where life was hard and tenuous, but God fed you with manna and protected you, guiding you in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Remember how God helped you defeat the kings and nations on whose land you now stand, lands already given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. Most of all remember God’s commandments – that began with “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” While the Israelites are anxiously hopping from one foot to the other as they stand on the banks of the Jordon with the Promised Land in full view, Moses calls Israel to remember the God who is behind all their blessings and warned that they forget this at their peril.
It is hard to remember and stay faithful in a promising land, in a land flowing in milk and honey, rich in resources and made for greatness. Nations and individuals achieve, succeed and prosper. With success and prosperity comes a natural pride in accomplishments but there is the temptation to believe we are self-made. Forgotten are all those who assisted in our success whether they be ancestors, family, mentors, colleagues or employees. It may be our hard work but not ours alone. Forgotten also are the life, health, intelligence and gifts with which we were endowed by our Creator. Forgotten is the good fortune, luck or DIVINE ASSISTANCE when everything could have imploded. Mark Twain observed “A self-made man is like a self-laid egg.”
There is nothing inherently wrong in success and prosperity; they are blessings, even more so if we continuously acknowledge them as blessings. There is something terribly wrong when nations and individuals believe it is all our doing! There is something terribly wrong when in our heart, even if it never passes our lips, is the belief that “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth!” There is something terribly wrong when as Moses says, “Your heart is lifted up”. I believe he means the pride that puffs up, a pride that becomes haughty, when we begin to believe we are worthy of all we have and inviolate in our power and possessions, when nations and individuals no longer think beyond themselves, when we say, “I no longer care about you! I don’t need you.” (Pointing at the people)— “I no longer care about You! I don’t need you!” (Pointing to heaven). We are extremely susceptible to hubris – a pride that exalts itself and believe in its own truth and creates right from its own point of view. It takes and eats the forbidden fruit grasping at equality with God. (Genesis 2-3) As King it takes another man’s wife and has him killed because he thought it his right. (II Samuel 11-12). It becomes Israel where the powerful and wealthy “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. (Amos 2:6-8). It is prayer pretending to address God but only exalting ourselves. (First Reading: Luke 18:9-14)
There is a famous verse in Proverbs 16:8 that reads “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Moses, like the prophets who followed him, warned the Israelite nation and the later nations and people who hear his words, “If you choose this path, you shall surely perish” (Deuteronomy 8:19-20). Jesus in the gospel and the writers of the New Testament are always declaring “those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves shall be humbled.” (Luke 14:11; 18:14; James 4:10; I Peter 5:6)
We are to live humbly. Humility doesn’t mean weak; being humble doesn’t make us a pushover. It doesn’t mean no success or recognition from others. The humble just don’t let it go to their heads. The humble are grateful not greedy…about being a blessing because they know themselves blessed. Humility is not thinking too highly of oneself – the model is Jesus not thinking equality with God a thing to be grasped. The humble remember that we are creatures and did not make ourselves, nor this earth – We belong to God as does the earth we are to cherish as God does. The humble keep a right relationship with God, which is the first commandment…I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other god…not self, not possessions, not power, not nation. To be humble is foremost to be humble with God., which simply means I defer to my Maker…I live for God not for myself…I live to give God glory not to glorify myself. I live like Jesus, humble and lowly of heart (not with heart puffed up), faithful to the Father’s will not my own, compassionate toward others not arrogant or rude.
Carl Jung, the great Christian psychologist, wrote “Through pride, we are self-deceiving but deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still small voice says to us, something is out of tune.” That happened to me several times in my ministry. The church was growing and flourishing. I was praised and loved. But I would lose myself in myself and think I was the reason and the means for all of it. As I lost my way, the church began to flounder. My answer was to double down, expect too much and demand too much. Eventually, it was necessary for me to step back and admit the truth: “This is not my church but God’s church. This is not the work of my hands but the work of the Spirit through whom the church will ultimately grow and prosper.” Eventually I would come to my senses and accept that I was to humbly serve. I had to step back, let God be my God. The Bible points out that I am not the only one who becomes self-sufficient and prideful. It is a rampant virus among us. Perhaps this is where you are today, needing to cease acting like Lord and Master and become again a humble servant where God is first and foremost in all that you do.