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Tales With a Twist: Better To Be ‘Called Up’ Than ‘Called Down’

Luke 14:7-11

Quincy Jones is by all accounts, one of the most respected personalities in the entertainment world today. Performer, composer, arranger, producer, director, promoter—Quincy Jones is all of those and more. In recent years, he has become even more famous because of his amazing ability to bring together the superstars of the entertainment industry and then get them to blend their talents and share the spotlight and work together as a team to produce something quite remarkable. Quincy Jones has produced and directed a number of spectacular events, but perhaps the best-known example is his production a few years back of the hit recording “We are the World”, which featured the combined talents of many of the top pop singers of our day. Do you know how he got these musical superstars to come together and work together as a team to create that song? Well, he did it in an interesting and obviously effective way. He placed a large sign at the entrance to the recording studio. The sign read: “Check your ego at the door!”

That wouldn’t be a bad sign to put at the entrance to the church, would it? “Check your ego at the door!” No demand for superstars here. We are all members of the team. No room here for arrogance or haughtiness or vanity or bombast or conceit or selfish pride. We are all called to be servants of the Lord.

Jesus knew that, and that is why the pompous, presumptuous attitudes He encountered in some people drove him up the wall. In fact, one of His most hard-hitting parables and one of His most haunting statements dealt with that kind of haughtiness and conceit. Jesus suggested that sooner or later, arrogant people are taken down by their own attitudes. Here is what happened. One day, Jesus was invited to the home of a wealthy Pharisee. The dinner was also attended by other prominent persons—lawyers, teachers of the law, high-ranking officials. Jesus watched with great amusement and sad dismay the sly, scheming ways these leaders worked to promote themselves. He noticed how they loved the places of prominence at any public function and He watched them angle and scramble and push and grab for the best positions at the dinner table.

So right there at the dinner table, to their faces and in their faces, Jesus told this parable: “When you are invited to a feast, do not rush in and sit down at the place of honor, lest you be called down in front of the guests, and thus embarrassed and humiliated. Rather, always give way to others. It is always better to be called up later on to a place of honor than to be called down in front of your friends.” Then Jesus delivered one of the most haunting lines ever to cross His lips. He said: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The point Jesus is making is absolutely clear. The humble attitude beats the conceited attitude any time. The gentle self-effacing spirit is much better and much more Christ-like than the pushy, arrogant, presumptuous spirit. In other words, Jesus and Quincy Jones deliver the same message: “Check your ego at the door!” Let’s try to apply that to your life and mine…

If we want to give ourselves to the service of Christ, then we have to check our egos at the door.

Elie Wiesel, in an article entitled “When Passion is Dangerous” reminds us of an old story still fresh with meaning for our time. The story goes like this: “A man is on a boat. He is not alone, but he acts as if he were. Suddenly, without warning, he begins to cut a hole beneath his seat. His neighbors shriek at him: ‘What on earth are you doing? Have you gone mad? Do you want to sink us all?’ Calmly, the man answers: ‘What I am doing is none of your business. I paid my way on this boat. I’m not cutting under your seat. Leave me alone.'” Elie Wiesel then writes these words: “What the arrogant and the egotistical will not accept, but what you and I cannot forget, is that all of us are in the same boat.” Elie Wiesel is right. Don’t miss the point. My friends, if you want to serve Jesus Christ in your life, you can’t just do your own thing. You’ve got to check your ego at the door and join the team.

A story from Yugoslavia tells of four angels who witnessed creation. The first angel observed God’s handiwork in awe and said: “Lord, your creation is beautiful. How did you do it?” That’s the world-view of the scientist. The second angel observed in awe and said: “Lord, your creation is beautiful. Why did you do it?” That’s the world-view of the philosopher. The third angel observed in awe and said: “Lord, your creation is beautiful. Can I have it?” That’s the world-view of the materialist. Finally, the fourth angel observed in awe and said: “Lord, your creation is beautiful. May I help?” That’s the world-view of the Christian. You see, after we have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, that’s the question we begin to ask: “Lord, how can I help? What do you want me to do? Where can I serve you? How can I be used to the best advantage to further the cause of Christ in the world?”

We see that same principle at work throughout the pages of the Bible. People sense the presence of God with them and then God puts them to work. People come into the presence of the Lord and then God gives them a job. Moses encounters God in a burning bush and then God sends Moses to “set his people free”. Isaiah sees the Lord high and lifted up in the temple. It’s a time of turmoil and unrest in the land. God needs a prophet—God needs a servant for this hour. Isaiah says: “Here I am, Lord, send me.” Peter, Andrew, James and John encountered Jesus walking along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. They sense His power. They fall down before Him. He tells them to get up. He has a job for them to do. He sets them to the task of fishing for people.

In every case, first the people fall down in humility. They check their egos at the door. Then they are called up and empowered by God’s Spirit to do great and wonderful things. There it is in plain view: if we want to serve Christ in our lives, then we have to check our egos at the door.

And if we want to live life in the spirit of Christ, we have to check our egos at the door.

If we reach out to others in a spirit of pride and arrogance, if we reach out to others in patronizing ways, even if we think that we are helping them, it’s not really help at all. Real help always comes clothed in humility, love and gracious concern. Real help always comes wrapped in a spirit of empathy and compassion.

I love the way an older minister expressed it. He said: “During my first ten years of ministry, I saw myself standing on the bank of the stream of life shouting out instructions to the poor, hapless swimmers down below. I was the expert. And then during the next ten years of my ministry, if I saw someone who was about to go under, I plunged into the water and saved them from drowning and then I quickly returned to my instructor’s position on the shore. I was the rescuer as well as the expert. Now, during the last ten years of my ministry, I have come to realize that I am in the water with everyone else, that we’re all companions together in the great struggle of life. Our arms are around each other, trying to help one another make it to the shore. I’m not the expert or the rescuer. I’m just one struggling soul trying to help another struggling soul find the way to safety for both of us.” It’s a shame that it takes so many of us such a long time to learn that very basic truth—namely that ultimately and finally, we are just like everyone else. When we finally learn that, when we “check our egos at the door” and begin to live that way, it sets us free.

That’s the way I feel at this point in my own ministry. I don’t have all the answers, far from it. But what I can say is this: there is no deep pain in your life which I have not already plumbed in my life—and what I have found in those depths is not an answer that satisfies, but a Christ who saves. I’m in the water with you, and I’m going to hold on to you and I want you to hold on to me so that together, we can reach out to the Christ who wants to hold onto us both. That’s our only hope. He is our only hope. So if you want to live your life in the spirit of Jesus Christ, you’ve got to check your ego at the door.

Let me finish with a story, or as Paul Harvey would say it, “the rest of the story”…

Do you remember the photograph which plunged our whole nation into pain back during the Vietnam War? The photograph won the Pulitzer Prize and carved itself into the consciousness of all Americans alive at the time. My guess is that those of you too young to be alive or aware at the time of that war, have seen that picture in your history books. It was the photograph taken in 1972 of a nine-year old girl, running naked and burning from napalm from after a bombing strike on her Vietnamese village. Well, here is the rest of that story.

John Plummer is a minister in Virginia. But he wasn’t always a minister. He flew helicopters in the Vietnam War. He was a proud, cocky, arrogant combat pilot, swaggering his way through life. In 1972, he flew a combat mission against a Vietnamese village. In the briefing before takeoff, he was told that the village had been evacuated. He proceeded to unleash an incredible barrage of armaments against that village. Several days later, he saw that photograph of the naked, running, burning girl. The caption listed the village in which she lived. It was the village that he had bombed. He said: “That image burned into my heart and haunted me for many, many years.” Every time he saw that picture again—and it seemed that the picture was there every time he turned around—he was plunged into deeper guilt. He started drinking heavily. He was discharged from the service in 1982. His marriage fell apart. His wife and four children left him. Some years later, he met his second wife. She led him back to the faith. Eventually, in an effort to rebuild his life, he went to seminary. His first pastorate was a little rural church in Virginia. Things have gone well, but he has never been to overcome the guilt and the pain.

The little girl in the photograph was named Kim Phuc. She collapsed right after the picture was taken. The photographer who took that picture took her to a nearby hospital. She began a process of surgery that would consume years. Plastic surgeons were able to help some, but she remained hideously scarred and unable to use significant parts of her body. Last year, the newspapers in Virginia ran a story that Kim was alive and living in Toronto and that she was going to speak at a Veteran’s Day observance in Washington, D.C. John Plummer read that story and then he contacted several of his fellow helicopter pilots and asked them to go with him to Washington to hear her speak. When Kim got up on the platform and began to tell the story of what happened that day in 1972, John Plummer began to sob. Kim concluded her remarks by saying that she had been to Christianity in 1982—and that because of her faith, she hoped that someday she might meet the pilot to express her forgiveness. She said: “We cannot change the past, but we can make sure together that we have a better future.”

The word was then passed up through the crowd that in fact the pilot was there in the audience. He was then escorted up to meet her. She saw him coming and she held out what was left of her badly scarred arms to embrace him. He held onto her. He said: “I’m sorry”—over and over and over again, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She said: “It’s all right. I forgive you. You are now my brother and my friend.” John Plummer said: “Finally, I was free. Finally, I was at peace.” Easter Sunday, one year ago, she visited him and the two of them spoke at his church in Virginia. There you have the rest of the story.

Dear friends, Jesus said: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” That’s the way life really works. Lots of proud, arrogant, conceited, self-centered people will want to disagree, but sooner or later they are going to learn that that’s the way life really works. When we, in humility, give ourselves to Jesus Christ, then our Lord can—and will—do great things to us and through us and for us…greater than we could ever imagine. Amen.

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