HIgh and Low

SJF • Proper 8a • Tobias Haller BSG
The Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high.

In today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah we hear a warning theme that runs through Scripture from beginning to end — watch out for pride. This is summed up in the well known proverb that sometimes gets condensed into even shorter form: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” It is a warning to know who you are and where you stand in the scheme of things, and not to act bigger or place yourself higher than you ought.

When it comes to height, it seems, from Isaiah’s point of view, that the Lord doesn’t like big things. I have to say, this is a passage dear to the heart of a short person! The Lord, Isaiah tells us, is against all those big, tall and high things: big trees, whether oaks or cedars; high mountains and lofty hills; towers and fortified walls; even the tall ships; and finally, and this is perhaps the point, against the haughtiness of people and the pride of everyone — for the Lord alone is to be exalted.

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Ultimately, when it comes right down to it, the problem with pride is that it gets things out of proportion, and out of touch with reality. It is bad enough when the small imagine themselves to be big. But as Isaiah reminds us, it is just as bad when the big imagine themselves to be bigger than they are. Sure, mountains are big and trees are tall — but the Lord, who formed the mountains with his hands, and whose breath can strike down the trees of the forest, is higher and mightier than them all. When we forget that — all of us, tall or short — when we “get too big for our britches,” we are falling prey to the sin of pride. And God’s answer will be to trim us down to size. How much better to know where we stand in the order of things, rather than risking being brought low by raising ourselves up too high. How much better is humility than pride!

As you probably heard, Tim Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, and a fixture recently on CNN’s panel of the “best political minds on television, was felled by a heart attack just a couple of weeks ago. I always liked watching Tim Russert even when I disagreed with him; not only did he have a sense of humor, but he also wouldn’t let politicians off the hook — Republican or Democrat — if he caught one of his guests being less than completely forthright he would press them and pin them down, and not leave them any wiggle room at all. He seems to have been a very honest man himself, and expected that honesty — that deep engagement with reality — from others.

This is a likable trait — knowing who you are and not puffing yourself up — and it was likable in Russert: he knew who he was, and what his role was — in many ways he acted much as a prophet did in biblical times: not calling attention to himself as a personality, but doing his job at trying to get the real leaders of the world to be truthful — not an easy task and one of the reasons that prophets often go unrewarded or punished.

Russert once told a story about himself that revealed his ability to keep a proper perspective. He was a Roman Catholic and had served his parish as an altar boy, and as a newsman he wanted very much to convince Pope John Paul II to appear on the Today Show. He was granted a private audience — just him and the pope — and he hoped this was his chance. Of course, as he was ushered into the presence of the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the spiritual leader of close to a fifth of the world’s population and over half of all the world’s Christians, he found himself almost speechless — quite a change for this normally self-confident man — and as he found himself tongue-tied, he simply blurted out, “Bless me, Father.” The pope smiled and put his arm around Russert’s shoulder, and asked, “You’re the man called Timothy, from NBC?” Russert answered, “Yes, Your Holiness.” The pope nodded, and observed, “They tell me you are a very important person.” Somewhat surprised, Russert stammered out, “Your Holiness, you and I both know there is only one very important person in this room.” The pope smiled, nodded, and said, “Right.”

If this is how a relatively important person (whose death was noted by many fellow reporters and commentators), if this is how an important person reacts to being in the presence of an undoubtedly more important person (the leader of a church whose death was noted even more widely)— how much more ought any human being think twice about how he or she stands before the presence of the Lord?

In fact, dare we even stand? For as the prophet Malachi said in a passage made memorable through the music of Handel: “Who can stand when he appeareth?” If even mountains fall at his feet, if even the mighty oaks and cedars topple before him, if the ships of the sea are tossed to and fro — how can we poor mortals dare stand in his sight?

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And yet, we have another assurance — an assurance promised to us children of Adam, through the Son of God himself. It is not something we rely upon because of who we are, any office we hold or any family we may be part of. It isn’t because of who our parents are; it is not because of any skills we may have, or any wealth or property we may have acquired. It is not even because of any righteousness of our own.

It is only because of him his death, his burial, and his resurrection. It is only because he stooped down from the heights to the depths of the grave itself, to save us, that we have any right at all to stand before him. For “if we have been united with him in a death like his” — not our physical death but our baptism into his body, the Church, the assembly of the faithful — “so too we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Our old prideful self has been crucified, died and is buried — we have lost our old lives by taking up the cross day by day to follow him into whom we have been baptized — and the newly redeemed self will rise with him. We will stand at the last, with him, only because the cross is holding us up.

So the cross is our reliance — the one tall thing that God allows, the only one that stands: the saving cross that towers over the wrecks of time. Before that cross, the sign of humility, all the proud mountains and hills are brought low, all the mighty oaks and cedars tremble, every haughty tower and fortified wall crumbles to dust, and every tall ship founders and fails — and all our human pride, when we allow it to be crucified by taking up that cross to follow the one who died upon it, is taken up by grace, transformed and redeemed by his righteousness. For those who have chosen the humble path and died with him in baptism, and so are dead to sin, will by the blood of the everlasting covenant live with him, and that for ever, through him who offered himself for us in great humility, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+