Monday, July 23, 2007

Our Servant God*

We live in a power obsessed society. It seems everything is about power. We want more powerful computers, more powerful cell phones, electronics, more control over our lives. We want energy independence from OPEC. In the global context we are facing some dramatic challenges as America gets nose to nose with Russia over a missile shield—it reminds me of the 70s! Iran and North Korea have been constant irritants as they have sought nuclear power—Al Qaida and terrorist organizations are looking for technology to allow them to create biological weapons or a “dirty bomb.” People want power!

We sometimes even get caught up in the power play by misunderstanding the nature of God’s power at times. We like focusing on a God who demonstrates incredible pyrotechnic power as he levels Sodom and Gomorrah or sends a flood or brings judgment against nations. We bandy around words like omniscience and omnipotence. But in all of this we miss the ultimate power and nature of God.

To get a better glimpse of God’s power we have to enter an upstairs, borrowed room. It is night time and the room is bathed in the glow of oil lamps made out of pottery. The center of the room is a low lying table—perhaps one foot off the ground. A group of men are reclining around the table for a family celebration. The evening meal has been served—but something is wrong. In a first century culture where everyone travels on foot—down the same roads traveled by camels, donkeys, horses and cattle—it is essential for people to have their feet washed before they eat. Why? They recline, for one. So your feet are in close proximity with the person sitting next to you. They aren’t stuck under the table, they are tucked up behind you. No servant would wash feet—that is reserved for the slaves of the day. Either you washed your own or a slave did it.

The text tells us Jesus knew it was time for his crucifixion. He also knew the little group of men with him would desert him at his greatest moment of need. He knew one of them would betray him and another would deny him. But the most telling statement is John 13:3 - “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God…” Jesus is a figure of power and authority. What is the very first thing he does after this description of his power and authority? What does he do as a result of his recognition? “So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

This incident reveals something about God’s nature to us—something people may find uncomfortable. We want a God of power and strength and majesty! But the God Jesus shows us is one whose very nature is to serve. We sometimes have soft pedaled this incident in the life of Jesus as just an object lesson. Jesus isn’t just making a point—he is the point!

Once an argument was started among the followers of Jesus and they were arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus tells them "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

I like the way Erwin McManus says it: "The very core of God, when you unwrap God, is the servant heart of God. It’s that God, in all of his power, could find nothing more godly to do than to tie a towel around his waist and to wash his followers’ feet." Is it possible we are more intimidated or uncomfortable with this kind of God than with a God who throws lightening bolts around and executes judgment against the nations? We want our God to be powerful, strong, maybe even a little totalitarian and harsh. That way we can fear him or even keep him at a distance—perhaps even reject him. But God as a servant? Doesn’t that make you uncomfortable? It certainly made Peter that way. “You’re not going to wash my feet!” It just doesn’t make sense if power is an ultimate value to you.

But Jesus continues to defy explanation by washing feet—even of the one who betrays him. Of course, anyone who has read Philippians 2 shouldn’t be surprised by this incident. We briefly acknowledged this passage last week. Jesus, although he was God did not consider equality with God something to exploit—but he humbled himself and took on the very nature of a slave. Do we think Jesus had to alter his character, his essence—the core of his being, in order to take the role of a servant? I don’t think so. What do you call someone who creates you with needs that only he can meet? What do you call someone who lives to save you? What do you call someone who patiently waits and waits just so you can live with him forever? Yes he is LORD—but LORD in a very different way than we have imagined!

Notice what Jesus says after he washes everyone’s feet in John 13:12ff –
"When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. 'Do you understand what I have done for you?' he asked them. 'You call me "Teacher" and "Lord," and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.'"
Do you understand what he is saying here? The nature of God is to be a servant! And we are never more like God than when we serve! In fact, we are most like God when we serve.

In one action Jesus destroys the current view of what it means to have a fulfilled life. It’s not about comfort and security. It’s about serving. He has said it over and again in a dozen different ways! If you want to lead, serve. If you want to be preeminent, be the last. I am among you as one who serves. For the son of man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. How can we miss this? He even says in verse 17, “If you understand what I'm telling you, and act on it—you will live a blessed (fulfilled) life.”

This goes against the grain—even among those who attend churches. A lot of people turn out for church services in order to have their needs met. They are saying: “I need healing in my life. I am wounded and troubled—my soul is crushed within me. My family is falling apart, my life is a mess. I'm hurting in ways no one can even imagine.” All we want is to be fixed. And all we can think of is someone taking us and curing us of what’s wrong. And what goes against the grain is to accept the idea healing and fulfillment comes through serving. We have been given a path to healing and a path to fulfillment—through embracing the very nature of God: the nature of a servant. Jesus says: if you call me Lord and Master—then do what I do: serve. Blessing and fulfillment comes through serving. We become most like God when we serve others.

Many of you know exactly what I'm talking about, too. You know it deep in your gut. Whether you are building a house for a poor family in Central America, loving on orphans, doing home repair for the elderly, listening to the lonely or crying with the bereaved you experience something deeply spiritual. And when you do this in community—as a team working a shelter or serving food in a Ronald MacDonald House you suddenly find yourself in worship. It’s as if time stands still and you find yourself in a place where time intersects eternity. You find yourself in the very will of God. You experience the nature of God—and you know it’s the right thing to be doing. It is in service where you come to know him intimately.

This isn’t a works oriented righteousness. We couldn’t serve ourselves or save ourselves. Jesus did that on a cross. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t even have the opportunity or ability to serve. No. We are just involved with something he initiated. We are collaborating with him to touch a world. We are participating in the very nature of God.

Yes, we live in a power crazed world: politically, socially, and even religiously. But the power of God is not to be understood in bolts of lightening, explosions, and earthquakes. The power and nature of God is fully experienced when a person chooses to humble herself enough to bend down and wash the feet of those in need.

May you fully experience this paradoxical power of God. May you stand with all of us as a community who serves. And may you come to grasp this truth: we are most like God when we serve.
*The seed thoughts for this sermon came from a variety of sources, but I am most thankful to an article by Erwin McManus from Preaching Today entitled, "The Servant Heart of God"; especially his phrase, "We are most like God when we serve."

No comments: