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Worship and Sermons
October 1, 2017

“Humble Obedience” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, October 1, 2017, Year A / Pentecost 17 – Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Psalm 25:1-9  •  Philippians 2:1-13  •  Matthew 21:23-32

THEME:   Humility is the key to submitting to God’s will by serving others.


         Have you ever known someone who is always sure they’re right – even when there’s overwhelming evidence that they’re wrong?

         It’s aggravating isn’t it? 

         Well, overconfidence is not only frustrating in relationships, but it can be downright dangerous on a larger scale.  There have been some famous examples of this.

         A few months before the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, for example, the Soviet Minister of Power and Electrification said the chance of a meltdown was one in 10,000 years.

         We routinely overestimate our level of knowledge and our ability to predict things accurately.  Psychologists have even given it a name.  It’s called the overconfidence effect. 

         You would think this is a common problem we all share.  That’s true.  Though I should mention here that men are more prone to this than women.  Maybe that doesn’t surprise you?

         But what is truly surprising is this:  Experts suffer even more from the overconfidence effect than ordinary people.

         One of the earliest and best-known studies of overconfidence among experts was published by a researcher at Claremont College named Stuart Oskamp.  He asked a group of psychologists to read the case study of “Joseph Kidd” a 29-year-old man who had experienced adolescent maladjustment.

         The experiment had 4 phases.  In each one, Dr. Oskamp gave the psychologists more information about the subject and his life history.  He then asked them to answer a set of multiple-choice questions that remained the same at each phase. 

         This required them to make clinical judgments about the subject’s personality, and then, to estimate the likelihood that their judgment was correct.

         The findings were surprising. 

         First, we would assume that with more information, the accuracy of their judgments would go up.  It did not.  At each phase, the percentage of correct judgments hovered between 25% and 27%.

         What did increase, however, was the level of confidence the psychologists had in their conclusions.  As they got more information in each phase, their confidence almost doubled, even as their accuracy scores remained consistently low. 

         Psychologists call this misplaced confidence “miscalibration.”

         They’ve also identified the best way to correct it.  It’s deceptively simple:  stop to consider the reasons why your judgment might be wrong.  In other words, exercise humility.

         And in our gospel text this morning, we see a striking example of the need for that.

         Jesus is beginning his second day in Jerusalem.  The events of the previous day, which we normally read about on Palm Sunday, were momentous.  After entering the city on a colt with the crowds of followers shouting “Hosanna!” (Save us!), Jesus chases the moneychangers from the Temple courtyard. 

         Day two promises to bring more fireworks and we are not disappointed.  On his way to the Temple, Jesus withers a fig tree that bears no fruit.  It’s an ominous sign, a portent of God’s coming judgment and wrath on those who fail to repent by living justly in preparation for the Kingdom. 

         At the Temple, Jesus begins to teach.  But, no sooner does he get going than the Chief Priests and Elders approach.  Indignant, they demand to know his credentials. 

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"

         But Jesus confronts them with a question of his own that exposes their hypocrisy and lack of true faith.

         Was John’s ministry of baptism and repentance a commission from God or was it simply of human origin?

         It’s a shrewd question.  In evaluating John, they’re also evaluating him.  It puts them in a bind. 

         All the people believe John was God’s prophet, a modern day Elijah.  But these leaders refuse to accept that he and Jesus might both be divinely commissioned.

         So, Jesus tells them a parable that pinpoints their hypocrisy.  Like the son who says he’ll go to work in his father’s vineyard, but doesn’t, the high priests and Elders claim to serve God, but only serve themselves.

         They’re God’s shepherds, charged with caring for the people, and yet they fail to do the very things the law and the prophets command:  they fail to do God’s will by loving and serving the lowest and the least as Jesus himself has been doing.

         This is THE cardinal sin in Matthew’s gospel.  For him and his community of believers, faith means walking the talk. 

         In the words of Frederick Bruner, one of our great contemporary New Testament scholars, what counts is not just verbal faith – what we confess; or formal faith – our religious affiliation or attendance; or even faith based on a conversion experience.  What matters above all is obedient faith.  

         John Calvin, the great Protestant Reformer, agreed completely.  In his commentary on this passage, he wrote, “Faith does not consist solely in a person giving his assent to true doctrine . . . it embraces something greater and loftier:  that the hearer, renouncing himself, devotes his life wholly to God.”

         The model for this self-sacrificing faith is Jesus himself.  As Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

         What Paul expects of the Philippians is that they will imitate Jesus by being willing to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but, in humility, regard others as better than yourselves (and) look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”

         But the High Priests do not wear humility well.  They are the aristocracy, the pinnacle of the religious, political and social hierarchy.   There were only 28 active High Priests at any given time, plus a limited number of former High Priests.  All of them came from just a handful of noble families.

         They had wealth, power and status.  According to the gospels, they were impressed with themselves and very much enjoyed impressing others.  The only person they would even pretend to humble themselves for was the Roman Governor, Pilate.

         So the obvious answer to the question of why they refuse to accept Jesus as God’s Messiah, is pride – hubris. 

         But there’s something else behind their opposition to Jesus.    

         The High Priests were advised by the best-educated legal minds in the land:  the scribes.  The scribes were experts in the Jewish scriptures.  They knew the Mosaic law and the prophets inside and out.

         If the chief priest had a question about any matter, he would seek the advice of the scribes.  That’s what made the High Priests absolutely sure they were right – even when they were wrong.

         It’s also why they care so much about Jesus’ credentials.  It’s as if they’re saying, “Unless you’ve got some source of expertise that’s more authoritative than the scribes who advise us, then you’ve got no business teaching here in the Temple.

         So, they miss the boat.  Evan the tax collectors and prostitutes can see what they can’t: that Jesus is truly from God. 

         These high priests have made a critical error.  They’ve mistaken the authority of overconfident human experts for the call of the one, true God in Jesus Christ.

         The warning here for you and me is the same.   

         When we hear God calling us to serve him by humbling ourselves and serving others, let’s make sure we don’t make the same mistake the High Priests did:  let’s not let ourselves be blinded by so-called ‘expert’ advice, including our own.

    Like the voices in our heads that tell us:

  • We can’t use our job or business as a platform for ministry, OR
  • Real mission only takes place in third world countries and disaster zones, OR
  • I don’t have any spiritual gifts for God to use, OR
  • I can’t teach Sunday School because I’ve never worked with kids, OR
  • I couldn't possibly be an Elder because I don’t have business or managerial experience.

         The truth whatever God calls us to do, he also gives us the ability to do it. 

         The key is not to resist, but to humble ourselves and avoid thinking we know better than God. 

         Afterall, there’s no higher authority and no greater expert than him.


Last Published: October 5, 2017 10:38 AM
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