We live in times of upward mobility, or so it seems, at least where western ‘values’ predominate. Humility is definitely not in fashion. The cult of celebrity is everywhere and is terribly obnoxious to the thoughtful heart. Just consider the ‘Oscars’ and ‘Grammy’ awards and see the world’s glitterati fawning over one another. So much pretension, and even in the churches it is plain to see. When I visit certain countries and am introduced as the ‘visiting preacher’, after the initial question of whereabouts I come from almost predictably I am asked, “and how big is your home church?” The question both grieves and amuses me. I can almost predict that if I say, “oh, it is only a small church of about fifty people,” I diminish in the eyes of my questioner, their estimate of the value of any ministry I may bring is suitably reduced as well.
Perhaps the temptations the enemy addressed to the Lord Jesus in the wilderness could be boiled down to the temptation to be useful by turning the stones to bread, successful and important by doing something publicly dramatic like throwing oneself down from the pinnacle of the temple and being powerful and in control like that last temptation offered to Jesus. The Lord’s ways are not the ways of the natural man. His ways are not the path of upward mobility but downward, downward and lower yet. I noticed for the first time today, the connections between the words human, humility and humus. Humus means ‘of the earth,’ indeed, “dust unto dust, ashes unto ashes,” as the old burial service has it. The Lord fashioned man of the dust of the ground and try as we might, we cannot prevent the downward weakening that leads back to the dust, physically speaking at least.
The drive to rise higher, to make progress is innate, yet, in the life of the Lord’s people, rising higher and the pathway to success is as it was in the Life of our Lord. Paul, when writing that joyfully endearing letter to the Philippians frequently uses a word that in our modern jargon could be translated as ‘mind set’. He uses it at least seven times, (Philippians 1:7,2:2&4, 3:15&19,4:7&10), and it is usually translated as mind. “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 2:4) is the one we are most familiar with but have you noticed that translation? This mind is the natural habit of the Christian. Jesus came downwardly mobile. Emptying Himself, the Incarnation was, in Him, the pathway of leaving aside glory, being found here upon earth, humbling Himself, even to the death of the cross, steps of utmost beauty and power to the eye of His Father and the wonder of angels. The incarnation must continue, the Word made flesh must be made flesh in us and we must make progress downwards.
Paul wrote this letter from a prison, he had been so eminently ‘useful’ to the Lord, his apostolic journeys, his public ministry, his pioneering of churches, so very important way he. Yet, it pleased the Lord to curtail his successful church planting activities and Paul walked in the footsteps of his Master. Was this an enforced Sabbath rest for Paul? Did he baulk at it, was he frustrated at the seeming lack of usefulness? There is no hint of such attitudes in the letter, indeed, precisely the opposite comes to light in the way he writes encouragement to his friends in Philippi, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12)! Is that not a wonderful statement? Shut up to increase downward to flow outward and upward in ways more rich. Chapter two of this letter mentions two other men who had the downward mobility about their lives, Timothy (Philippians 2:19-24) and Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-30). These two men were sharing the Christ mind, willing servants, sons of God and brothers and friends of Paul.
Right in the heart of this chapter Paul writes “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God Who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure,” (Philippians 2:12-13). Work out what God is working in, and what is the context? This mind that it in Christ Jesus, the downwardly mobile mind. The attitude that is not seeking power, successfulness but is embracing the way of the Lord Who said, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” (Matthew 6:3). I know that Jesus mentioned that in reference to giving and helping the needy, but, somehow there is a selflessness, a holy secretiveness, and absence of the seeking of public recognition that is implied and it covers the whole of life.
Is it true that we can all suffer from the illusion that we are indispensable? Perhaps it is so and our temptations to self importance lead to competitiveness with our peers such as Paul addressed with those two ladies in chapter four. Euodia and Syntyche, both had been Christian workers alongside Paul and now they were locked in some kind of disagreement (Philippians 4:2-3). I once heard a preacher make a play on their names and he turned Euodia into ‘Odious’ and Syntyche into ‘Soon touchy.’ We all got the message when we heard him say that! Oh that the mind of Christ may be in us all! He did not grasp His rights, He went downward from the throne and took upon Him the form of a servant and humbled Himself. We can trace at least five or six downward steps in those famous verses (Philippians 2:5-8). Is it any wonder that God has highly exalted Him? I do not think so, though the earth rejected Him. Jesus’s life is a testimony that the career of the Christian is not upward and to greater glory, as far as being on this earth is concerned.
This world did not want Him, nor that kind of life. Even to this day the deep seated antipathy to Jesus being the most influential Person that ever lived is displayed frequently. The indestructible and enduring testimony of Jesus is with us and abides. His words abide forever whilst the fashions of this world pass. Surely we, in God’s church, should not be surprised that we are called to walk the same downward path? Among the self important we should be shining as lights, not grumbling in our hearts and not questioning the Lord our God as He leads us into a deepening Sabbath rest in His sufficiency and the wisdom of His ways. The world rushes on, we live in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation and the evidence of that is plain to anyone honest enough to look (Philippians 2: 14-15).
In the midst of people twittering about the inconsequential and political power mongering let the people of God “Hold fast to the word of life so that in the day of Christ we may be proud that we did not run or labour in vain,” (Philippians 2:16). What has happened to carry so many of us away into the idea that the career of the church and its members should be any different to the career of its founder Jesus and His apostles? Paul was ready to be ‘’poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial service of your faith” (Philippians 2:17). Lower yet, poured out, identified with the self giving love of the Philippians believers, bearing in their lives the mark of likeness to Jesus. This is Paul’s understanding of the limitations laid upon him by being enclosed in the prison cell.
The enforced Sabbath brought His way in the wise planning of the Lord was not something he fought against. He pressed on thereby in the ‘upward call’ (Philippians 3:14). What an apparent contradiction! The upward call turns out to be the pathway of the downward! So, where are the humble servants of the Lord today? Yes, they are around, in many denominational groups and not always where you would expect. They are on every continent, they are shining as lights. God has not left Himself without witness. There is no room for the attitudes of Elijah to tarnish our view, “I, only I am left,” (I Kings 19:14). Let us therefore go forward, making progress in the pathway downwards, the marks of those going this way is deepening Sabbath rest in their soul and a spring of joy rising in their heart.
Today I was reading the book of the prophet Jonah, two thoughts particularly came to my mind as I read, the first was the attitude of Jonah as he contemplated project Nineveh. Often, sadly, people and places become God’s project put in our hands, we are called to sort it all out, correct all that is wrong and get some credentials to ourselves as we do it. It is a terrible insult to have such an attitude. First it insults God, no one, no place, no city; nothing in God’s creation is a ‘project and that needs sorting out’ to Him! Secondly it is an insult to the person or persons, or the city.
No one is a number, a cipher; each is precious to the Lord. I guess that it why I have always had a kind of aversion to the language of ‘going to save souls’. People are persons, precious in the sight of the Lord and they should increasingly be in our eyes also. So, Jonah had this spirit of superiority that permitted him to judge God and judge the Ninevites but little did he realise that God was wanting to deal with the prophet himself. If we want to use ‘project’ language then we could say that it was not only project Nineveh but project Jonah as well! Is this not always the case? As we follow the story it ends with God’s question and we do not know Jonah’s answer, how he responded to the disciplines of the possible downward.
Downward from his Jewish nationalistic hyper spiritual perch, into the heart and mind of God Whose prophet he was. Let us finish with the last words of Paul to his beloved friends in Philippi, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,(Philippians 4:23). Amen, every church has a ‘spirit’, the heart of that church; the ‘spirit’ of each church is comprised of the spirit of each one who is part of that assembly. So, many the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with our spirit, as individuals and then as churches.