More than a Seating Chart, a Heavenly Truth

I have heard it said that an idol of the heart is a thing that you will sin to get or that you will sin if you do not get it. I think that’s true. I also think that such idols are easy to overlook, easy to justify, easy to accept as a normal part of everyone’s life. Certainly, there are things that our society tells us are simply understood things that you must have or you will sin.

I want to point us to one idol of the heart and the solution Jesus hints at in a parable from Luke 14.

Luke 14:7-11 – 7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The parable here is a very simple one, at least in its surface application. Jesus warns that people at a dinner party should not push and shove for the best seat. It would be very embarrassing to work your way to near the head of the table only to have your host ask you to move for a guest who is more important than you. Instead, Jesus points out to us that we are wiser to take the lowliest seat so that, should our host want to honor us, the host can ask us to move to a better place.

Often when I think of this parable, what I just wrote is about as far as it goes. It is as if Jesus has just given us a nice slice of etiquette to help us navigate a social setting so as to avoid an embarrassing faux pas. But I think there is much more to be found here. It has to do with being a Christian and avoiding a dangerous idol.

The reason I think that this is more than social advice is in the word “everyone.” In verse 11 Jesus says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” I do not think that this can be said to be true in every dinner party setting. After all, I think we have all sat in a room, watched a person promote himself shamelessly, and seen that everybody in the room just lets it happen. Often times we would prefer to suffer through a person’s boorish behavior for a couple of hours than to go through the social awkwardness of rebuke.

Instead of being mere social counsel, I believe that the Savior is here asking us to think strongly about the rewards we seek. Self-promotion in this life will lead to ultimate, eternal humbling. Exalt yourself in the here and now, and you will be humbled forever. Godly humility is something the Lord will eternally reward. Of course, this is not about behaviors that will somehow earn a person the grace of God. This is about a reshaping of personal priorities so as to live for the Lord and not for the world.

So, Christian, make some application. Where do you press for the better seat at the banquet? Let me ask it a better way. What reward do you seek in this life? What type of temporal reward for your behavior and achievement do you long to have and bemoan when you do not get? What social or political wrong will not only disappoint you but drive you to sinful distraction? What will you press forward to make sure you have, especially when it comes to recognition? Or, if you will not press to get it, where will you sulk, pout, and drive yourself toward depression if you do not have others see you in a certain way?

I think if we will ask these questions, we are starting to get at what Jesus was doing in this teaching. The parable, after all, is always deeper than the simple story. Jesus is telling us that, if we find our reward in this life, if we press forward to have the lost world around us prop us up, we are heading for a humbling eternity. We cannot, we must not, live for the smiles of the world around us. Whether that be recognition for all the work we do in the church or recognition in the workplace for all we sacrifice, if our desired reward is the applause of men, we are in deep trouble.

But Jesus says that the humble will be exalted. Again, this is not true at every dinner party. But it is true eternally. All who forsake this world and turn to the Lord will find life. All who come to Jesus are to have eyes that are set on things above, not on the things of this world. No, we do not pretend life does not matter. But if we are to get the call of God right, we must see that the rewards that matter are those of heaven. The smiles that matter are the smiles of god. The seat we want is at the table at the marriage feast of the Lamb.

Friends, this can apply in so many ways. Our world tells us to demand what we feel we must have. You must have that vacation. You must have that bonus. You must have that “thank you.” And all of those things can be very good things. It is not wrong to ask about things if you feel you are being overlooked. But if you are willing to sin to get the things you believe you deserve, they are idols. If you drop into despair, if you will sin if they do not come to you, they are idols. And if you chase after the idols of the heart, you are like a person elbowing his way to the high seat at the table. You will be humbled when you find out that was not your place to begin with.

There is a better way. Set your eyes on eternity. Look for eternal reward. Be willing to sit at a lower seat at the table now, because the eternal reward is the one that matters.

Glad I’m Not Like Them

In a fascinating way, believers of all sorts have certain beliefs they value highly. The passionately theological value something. The Charismatic value something. The traditional value something. And all believe that the others around them should value what they value.

In truth, I believe that there is a definite right and wrong as to what ought to be important to believers. I believe that my understanding is from the word of God and not from my own preferences or personality. I believe that, in general, we would be better off if people valued what I value.

But there is a danger. Even if I am right, and I think I am right, there is a danger.

Luke 18:9-14 – 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In this parable, Jesus describes two men. One is very proud of his righteousness. The other is very ashamed of his sin and cries out to God for grace. And we all know that the tax collector who is begging for mercy is the one who ends up justified.

How does that apply to what I said earlier? I actually would suggest that there are two dangers we face, and we can avoid them with a little prayerful thought.

First is the obvious one. Be careful not to think that you are somehow better than others in the faith because of the thing you think is most important. If you value enthusiastic worship, do not look down at the one who is more stoic. If you value evangelism, do not look down on the one who is more timid. If you value doctrine, don’t look down on the one who is poorly taught. We must begin from the understanding that we brought nothing good to the table to bring about our justification. We are sinners worthy of judgment. God brought the love and the grace to us. And we all, like the tax collector, need to cry to God to have mercy on us, sinners.

The other edge that people can fall off of here is to assume that, because we are all under mercy, nothing matters. That would be a bad move. We begin with humility and grace. But we also look into the word of
God to see what God says matters. When we see in the word of God that the Scripture is how we hear God’s voice instead of a subjective personal vision, we learn that matters. When we see that God has revealed a standard for worship that is theologically rich, word-centered, joyful, and reverent, that matters. When we see that Christians are called to share our faith, that matters. When we see that only God changes human hearts, that matters. When we see that God has made men and women with total equality in value and beautifully different roles, that matters.

In order to avoid falling off the road on either side, let’s try this. Let’s begin with absolute humility. We are sinners. Not one of us is better than any other. We dare not grow the attitude that says that I’m glad God did not make me like that guy over there. And then let’s bottle up that humility, keep it on us at all times, and study the word of God diligently so that we can learn what God values along with our humility so that we can love him, love others, and obey him rightly in all things for his glory.

A Humility in Worship

Reading the account of Solomon preparing for the building of the temple, I was struck by the humble thoughts that come from the king as he sought out skilled craftsmen to help him build. Solomon, at this point, recognized a few important things about the project he was undertaking. He knew what the temple could and could not be. And Solomon knew what he was not himself.

2 Chronicles 2:4-7 – 4 Behold, I am about to build a house for the name of the Lord my God and dedicate it to him for the burning of incense of sweet spices before him, and for the regular arrangement of the showbread, and for burnt offerings morning and evening, on the Sabbaths and the new moons and the appointed feasts of the Lord our God, as ordained forever for Israel. 5 The house that I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods. 6 But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to make offerings before him? 7 So now send me a man skilled to work in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and in purple, crimson, and blue fabrics, trained also in engraving, to be with the skilled workers who are with me in Judah and Jerusalem, whom David my father provided.

Two things should speak to us in this section, I think. One is the fact that Solomon knew, from the very beginning, that, no matter how great was the temple, it could never come close to being a house for God. The temple could not be the place where God resided. All the temple could be is the place where God was worshipped. But the entirety of the heavens could not contain the glory of the Lord.

Solomon also asked a significant question, “Who am I?” Who indeed is Solomon to lead in this undertaking? Who is Solomon to build something for God? Solomon knew that he did not have the skill to make anything worthy of the Lord. This is why he was sending out for the greatest goldsmith and craftsmen he could possibly get.

I think that we could learn something from Solomon that would impact how we worship today. When the church of the living God is gathered together, Peter tells us that we are living stones being built together into a temple of our God. We, the people of God, are now where God is worshipped. This is a glorious honor, something we cannot deserve. Worshipping our Lord is a privilege. We should see the concept that God would ever receive praise from us as the highest honor available to humanity.

But

At the same time, some of the humility Solomon displayed would be good for us. We should ask, “Who am I?” Who are we that the God of the universe would hear our prayers? Who are we that the God of the universe would accept a song from our lips as worship? Who are we that the God of the universe would be pleased when we speak truth about him? Who are we that the God of the universe would give us his word so that we might know his ways?

Remember, when asking those questions, that the answer to the “who am I” question is never correct if the answer starts with what we bring to the table. We were sinners, rebels against the Lord. We were lost and hopeless. God, in his great mercy, chose to love us, save us, and adopt us. Now we know that we are in Christ, children of God, and allowed access to him in our Savior. We should not hide from worship, because God welcomes us. But we also should know that he welcomes us, not because of the good that we bring him, but because of the good he has given us.

Christians, worship the Lord with joy. Remember what an honor it is to be allowed to speak his praise. And be humble, knowing that God has given you a grace that you could never have earned on your own.