Friday, July 18, 2008

Coming down the mountain

by Nathan Brown

He may seem an unlikely exegete—and perhaps his recall of the details may be a little haphazard—but, in a conversation with a French journalist, Irish rock star and activist, Bono, offers an interesting retelling of what he describes as “an amazing moment” from the Bible.

“It’s when the Children of Israel are wandering through the desert,” Bono explains. “They’ve just been delivered from captivity by Moses, but they’re straight back to worshipping the golden calf. It’s business as usual, they have forgotten the God who delivered them. They keep getting warnings, and finally God just has enough and says to Moses: ‘Get out of the way, I’m gonna destroy my people. Then I’m gonna start again. This experiment has just run out of gas, and this freedom thing is really not working out. So get away from the midst of these people, because I’m gonna vaporise them. I can, I made them, after all.’ . . . And then the Scriptures record that ‘Moses, knowing the heart of God’—this is an amazing line—‘instead of running away, runs into the centre of the people and says: “If you take them, take me.”’ And God presumably smiles. It was the Gospels in action, people laying down their life for their brother” (Michka Assayas, Bono on Bono. Story adapted from Exodus 32).

This story was echoing in the back of my mind a few months ago, when I was involved in a discussion at Avondale College—the Adventist church’s college in Australia. I had presented a paper on the nature and role of faith in world today and was fielding questions from a group of academic staff and students. The question that most caught my attention and continued in my thinking beyond that afternoon was something to the effect of what should characterise the church in its mission and ministry in today’s society.

My one-word answer was “Humility.” But it’s an answer prone to misunderstanding. There are too many negatives that come with the concept of humility.

Yet it is not about standing up for nothing, believing nothing and being walked over ideologically and practically. Rather, humility at its best is built solidly on the foundation of our belief, and our trust in the goodness of the God we say we believe in.
“Although truth is not always humility, humility is always truth: the blunt acknowledgment that I owe my life, being and salvation to Another. This fundamental act lies at the core of our response to grace” (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel).

Of course, the model and motivation for this is Jesus Himself. Throughout John’s apostolic writing—his gospel and letters—the love of God is a constant theme, but it is interesting to note what John regarded as the crescendo of this refrain. He introduces the story he tells in John 13 with these words: “[Jesus] now showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1). John then proceeds to describe Jesus, the eternal Son of God, washing the feet of His dusty and doubting disciples, one-by-one.

According to John, this was the greatest, most profound expression of the love of God—and it is an act of incredible humility.
It is little wonder Paul uses this same motif when urging that “your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) and goes on to describe the steps Jesus took in humbling Himself, despite being equal with God, to “even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8).

In response to that goodness—that overwhelming humility—we expend ourselves—personally and corporately—in serving and seeking the best for those with whom we share our lives and our world. It is little wonder the prophet Micah linked the impulses for justice and mercy with the imperative to “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The temptation of God’s followers had been to seek to take up residence with God on the mountaintops of spiritual experiences. That was the crux of Peter’s ill-informed suggestion on the mount of transfiguration that they should set up shelters in that time and place (see Matthew 17:4). But that is not God’s way. Practical humility is about coming down from the mountain to walk amid people who are lost, threatened or suffering, risking ourselves for their healing and saving.

The example of Moses in this regard is daunting. In His anger at the people of Israel, God was threatening to destroy them and transfer the promises given to Abraham—that his descendants would become a great nation—to Moses and his family (see Exodus 32:10). As a descendant of Abraham himself, this is almost as big a promise as God could offer to Moses. But Moses resists the temptation—if it is right to call something offered by God a temptation.

Instead, Moses has the boldness to argue with God—belying the presumption that humility lacks courage or conviction—suggesting to God that to act like He is threatening to act will make God look bad, quoting back those same promises to God (see Exodus 32:11-13). But then Moses goes further and puts himself on the line to urge his case with God.

Moses had been struggling to lead these people through the wilderness. They had been complaining and bickering almost from the moment Moses led them to freedom. And yet, Moses says to God, if you are not able to forgive them, “then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exodus 32:32). Moses offers to give up eternity to save those with whom he has shared his journey.

And Moses’ outrageous humility apparently changes God’s mind. God sends Moses and the people on their way, with the promise that His angel will go before them (Exodus 32:34). And perhaps, even this is another example of the humility of God—a God who can back down from a moment of anger, even when it is justified.

But what would it mean if such Moses-like—and Christ-like—humility was to characterise the church today? What would it mean for us corporately to react like Moses to God’s offer that He would make Moses’ family a special people—a remnant—among all of those who claimed to be God’s people?

After reflecting on this story of Moses with the help of an Adventist pastor friend, writer Brian McLaren suggests, “The faithfulness of a faithful remnant is not crabbed and constricted; it is loyal, magnanimous and generous” (A Generous Orthodoxy). That’s humility, seeking to serve and save others, at cost to ourselves and perhaps even before ourselves. We risk ourselves based on the little we know of the greatness and graciousness—the humility—of God.

And that’s why the Beatitude—“Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5)—is such a life-changing reality. This promise is the foundation for our humble living and active service to our tragic world.

A few years ago, a sportswear manufacturing was selling a T-shirt that read, “The meek may inherit the earth, but they won’t get the ball.” The concept of meekness seems so out of place in our competitive society that describing someone as “meek” is unlikely to be considered a compliment. But Jesus continually proclaimed—and demonstrated—a different way of measuring life and judging success. In the kingdom of God, perhaps “getting the ball” just isn’t so important. Jesus was talking about a different kind of strength, embodied in humility, which only comes with the assurance of our acceptance by God.

To be truly meek risks being ripped-off, overridden and ignored, not because meekness is weakness but because history has been dominated by the presupposition that might is right. Accordingly, this Beatitude looks to the future—an inheritance. It seems likely Jesus was quoting from Psalm 37 when He included the meek in the list of Beatitudes. If so, His source expands on the promise that forms the second half of His statement—“the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace” Psalms 37:11).

It’s a remarkable promise that forms part of Jesus’ invitation to join Him in living today as part of His revolution of humility. By coming down the mountain into a world of broken and hurting people, we have the opportunity to show the world the full extent of His love. That call must change us and it must change our church.

“Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”


  1. I like the definition of humility Richard Foster provides in "Prayer" on page 61:

    “Humility means to live as close to the truth as possible: the truth about ourselves, the truth about others, the truth about the world in which we live."

    This definition definitely has an Adventist flair to it and provides a healthier understanding of what humility is about.

  2. Well said Nathan!

    Last week in Sydney I met with a lay person over breakfast. The topic of conversation: Jesus. One of the things that he said that struck me was that the Beatitudes seem to build upon one another, meaning that in order for us to posses Beatitude #2, we must posses the #1 first.

    One concern that I have for the Church is the shift from emphasizing head knowledge as a way to salvation to that of serving those who are needy ("social gospel"). While I think that this is a step in the right direction, I sometimes wonder if our motive is birthed out of a heart that recognizes its poverty of spirit (Blessed are those who are pour in spirit). Further, have we really been broken to the point of weeping over what makes Jesus weep? (Blessed are those who mourn.) For it is only then that we catch a glimpse of what true meekness is all about.