Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Outward Focused Lives // Humility

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 05/05/2013

video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand


Continuing series today on living outward focused lives. Lives that make a difference in the lives of others. Lives that aren’t shrink-wrapped in our petty concerns about ourselves, but large, expanding lives that are unafraid and generously powerful. Lives that multiply, not divide. Lives that heal, not hurt. Lives that are full of life and spilling over.

The Bible proposes that the way of Jesus really is the only way to obtain the life we all deeply desire.


Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant…

Paul (formerly Saul) of Tarsus

from Philippians 2:1-11


As we’ve explored over the last few weeks, focusing on helping others is the secret to all kinds of success. Over time, givers win. Those that givers give to, win. Benefits multiply – the universe isn’t as zero sum as it might seem. Beyond that, living to bring life to others is the way the God described in the Bible is. As we imitate his example, we are true to ourselves in the truest sense. It’s the way in which we are faithful to the image of God in which we are created. Leading to an extraordinary form of synergy – our lives become a cooperation with God, and this experience of having God’s wind at our backs, his breath filling our lungs, his energy multiplying in our world as we seek to bless others. With the added benefits that come from maturing as human beings, such as less anxiety, freedom from the tyranny of petty emotional responses to trivial pains, and deep satisfactions that come from making a meaningful difference to others.


Today I’d like to talk about an essential characteristic of outward focused lives – humility. Humility is the key to turning strength into true success. Humility makes the great even greater. [Pope Francis washing prisoner’s feet]. A person trying to live an outward focused life without humility will only succeed in bringing judgment and conflict into other people’s lives, not to mention isolation and destructive stress into one’s own life. But a person living an outward focused life full of humility will bring love, mercy, and grace that multiplies and produces rewarding returns.

Humility is a quality that many people have some instinctive doubts about, at least when it comes to choosing the humble path for oneself. No doubt we love it when others are humble, but it feels risky to pursue humility personally. Won’t others take advantage of us if we lower ourselves to serve them?


Jim Collins, author of the classic business book “Good to Great,” conducted a 5 year research study on CEOs of the best companies in the world. He observed a hierarchy of leadership, from level 1 to level 5. Level 1, highly capable individuals with talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits. Level 2, contributing team members who contribute to the achievement of group objectives over personal objectives. Level 3, competent managers who organize people and resources toward effective and efficient pursuit of objectives. Level 4, effective leaders who catalyze commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating groups to high performance standards. And finally, level 5, simply called “Level 5 leaders” for lack of a better term, who build enduring greatness. According to his research, only a level 5 leader could accomplish the statistically rare feat of taking a company from good to great. And what makes a leader a level 5 leader? Just two components. The paradoxical combination of intense professional will (not surprising) paired with, you guessed it, extreme personal humility.

Wouldn’t that be a fitting description of Jesus of Nazareth as described by Paul of Tarsus in Philippians 2? A paradoxical combination of extreme personal humility blended with intense professional will? Look at the text again, this time with the full hymn included:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:1-11

Talk about extreme personal humility. Not considering equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, instead making himself nothing?

Talk about intense will – sticking out his sense of mission and calling (what the hymn describes as “becoming obedient”) all the way to death, even death on a cross!

And of course there is the invitation, the strong encouragement, which Paul is making to all of us to follow Jesus’ lead, so that we might join him in that extraordinary greatness that comes on the other side of humble, outward focused lives.

Humility can be a challenging topic to talk about, however, because we have a wide variety of ideas and emotional responses when we hear the word humility.


Humility meant something very different for the Philippians than it probably does for us today. For us, humility is usually a concept that has to do with the way we talk or carry ourselves, our psychology, issues of confidence and self-esteem, personal worth. [Muhammad Ali story – “Superman doesn’t need a seatbelt…”]


Eeyore is the mascot for our least powerful concept of humility. Aww, shucks, I’m not very good at this or that, I’m really not that smart or that exceptional, I’m not nearly as deserving as you. Gosh, I can’t imagine ever really making much of a difference.

In light of our usual view of humility, a certain kind of catch 22 arises; we can aim for humility but we can never claim to get there [joke about yom kippur*].

Certainly, arrogance, pride, cockiness, and self-aggrandizement have no place in the life of a Christ follower. But it’s hard to imagine Jesus saying that he wasn’t very good at something, or very smart or very exceptional or very deserving or very significant. Somehow that notion of humility has to be a little off the mark, at least as Paul is describing it.

The bible, and Paul’s letter to the Philippians in particular, reveal a different brand of humility: Jesus brand humility.


John Dickenson, in his great leadership book “Humilitas,” defines the kind of humility exemplified by Jesus this way:

The noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. The willingness to hold power in service of others.

Dickenson argues, from a historical perspective, that Jesus’ earliest followers, by responding to Paul’s encouragement and Jesus’ example, completely changed the way the western world understands and responds to humility.


A little background. In Philippians, humility is a concept that has to do primarily with social status in communities that are based on well-defined hierarchies.

In a hierarchical social structure, everyone’s place and responsibilities relative to others are well defined. Kings, priests, nobles, landowners, tradespeople, servants, slaves, men, women, grandparents, parents, children, employers, employees... Each person knew to whom they were a servant and who was meant to be a servant to them. The social order required you to make your self and your resources available to anyone of higher standing, along with various social conventions related to speech and posture, and often dress as well.

The social order was something determined by birth – it had nothing to do with talent or merit or hard work or good looks. Your standing was something that could be lost if it wasn’t defended against challengers, and something that might be advanced if you played your cards right and found favor with the right people.

Naturally, a person in such a situation would be very guarded, cautious, calculating. Every instinct would be toward self-preservation and self promotion. (watch any competitive reality show and see the same dynamics at work – lies, gossip, flattery, empty promises, not to mention anger, jealousy, bitterness.) [grocery line example; taking credit, not giving it, hiding mistakes, problems, weaknesses; going into debt to keep up with the Joneses; withholding love, encouragement or help so someone who has wronged you doesn’t get the wrong idea, etc.]

Even more than that, the Mediterranean societies at that point during the Roman empire (including the Jewish people, to a large extent) were Honor / Shame cultures. Honor was universally held up as the ultimate asset for a human being, and Shame was the ultimate deficit. Fathers weren’t primarily concerned about their son’s happiness or economic success or moral excellence, but instead about whether their sons would bring honor to the family, especially to his father and to himself. Maybe through military victory or attaining high social standing or some kind of heroic service to the community or village – not because of what he might accomplish, but because of the honor it would bring. If a Roman’s wife was found to be having an affair, he would feel more injured by the shame it would bring him than by the betrayal of love he would experience. Honor was thought to reveal greatness, and the lack of honor was thought to reveal a lack of merit.

The Delphic Canon, written in the 6th century B.C. cataloged the ethical life in ancient Greece, with 147 maxims. Sort of like a Greek version of Proverbs. Listen to a sampling:

“Control yourself”

“Help your friends”

“Return a favor”

“Nothing to excess”

“Honor good people”

“Don’t curse your sons”

“Rule your wife”

“Despise no one”

“Worship divinity”

“Respect the elder”

“Don’t let your reputation go”

“Die for your country”

“Respect yourself”

It goes on and on, but not a single mention of anything related to humility.

Before Jesus, no one had ever taught or modeled the kind of humility he embodied and encouraged, and that Paul writes about in his letter to the Philippians. It was essentially unheard of.

When we encounter true humility today, it actually makes us respond positively to the person in whom we see it. We are more likely to listen to that person, to trust them, to be persuaded by them, to respect them. [Three young men trying to pick a fight with a lone man at the back of the bus in the 1930’s, insulting him repeatedlystanding and handing them a business card before disembarkingthe words on the business card? Joe Louis. Boxer.]


Jesus brand humility means turning our instincts for self-preservation and self-promotion on their heads. Jesus brand humility means intentionally lowering yourself on the social ladder so that you become a servant to people who otherwise might have been servants to you, and voluntarily using your resources and advantages not to defend your own social standing or advance it, but rather to defend and advance the standing of others.


Jesus brand humility means learning to see that lowering yourself to serve others is not shameful, but is in fact a way of demonstrating true greatness.


Perhaps that sounds crazy—so turned around, so inside out. Surely you can’t be serious, Paul, we argue. That’s got to be a recipe for disaster, an invitation for exploitation, a losing proposition if ever we’ve heard one.

Look at Jesus, Paul says. From the beginning one of equal standing with God. One whom every creature in heaven and on earth exists to serve and glorify. One free to defend himself vigorously against every pretender to his throne. One free to use every resource in the universe for his own advantage and happiness. But one who is looking not to himself, but to his Father, and sees his Father’s broken heart for the broken creation.

Who chooses to lower himself, below the angels, below kings, below landowners, taking the lowest rung on the human social ladder, that of servant. Living as a servant to defend and advance social outcasts that they might enjoy the status of insiders in the kingdom of God, using the resources of heaven to aid the sick and broken hearted that they might enjoy the status of healed and whole people.

Then, lowering himself to play the role of sacrificial lamb, one who carries the sins of the people outside the city into the garbage heaps, so that the residents of the city can be raised from the position of estranged and lost kids to the position of beloved and restored children of almighty God.

Finally, lowering himself to death, going below the earth, which the plants use to draw nourishment from so that they can stretch towards the heavens as they seek out the sun. Every rung of the ladder descended. Every resource that could be used to defend his own position or used for his advantage now surrendered for his Father’s purposes. Why? So that he can become the servant of all of creation, that his very lifeblood would become the catalyst that renews the whole earth, every bit of rock and dirt, every plant, every animal, every human being freed from slavery and restored in relationship with its creator.

What is humility? This, Paul says, is humility.


What comes of this humility? Jesus, exalted to the highest place—and Jesus is not alone or lonely in this exalted place…every tongue is confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. What greater glory does a Father have than his children? Now, among those confessing Jesus’ Lordship, are formerly enslaved human beings, who, as a result of their surrender to King Jesus, are now themselves children of the living God, co-heirs with Christ in the kingdom. Jesus, the firstborn among many brothers and sisters, raised up along with all of his newly adopted brothers and sisters—that is the glory of God the Father.

Humility, in other words, is not a recipe for disaster, but a recipe for the infusion of life and love into the world. It’s not an invitation for exploitation, but an invitation to be used by God for his glory and the blessing of others, creating breathing room for all of creation. Humility is not ultimately a losing proposition, but the very path to true greatness.


Practical Suggestions:

1. Listen to Lewis. C.S. Lewis writes this:

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

Try this prayer: Jesus, my name is __________, and I’m proud. You are humble, and I’d rather be like you in your humility than like me in my pride. Would you be willing to help me?

2. In light of this, keep a “Self-Defense” journal this week. Write down at the end of the day every instance where you felt compelled to defend or advance your reputation or standing. Or where your first instinct was to use your resources or influence for your benefit instead of for someone else’s.

3. Nurture a higher view of yourself. You can’t have humility (which always involves lowering yourself) if you don’t start from an elevated position of awareness of your fundamental dignity. God considered you worthwhile to lower himself to serve.

Try this prayer: Jesus, my name is __________, and you saw something in me that caused you to deploy all of your resources and influence to lift me up and restore me as a beloved and noble sister (or brother).

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