Vainglory and the Inward Turn (Trinity IV sermon)

T04 - The-Blind-Leading-the-Blind PieterBruegelthe Elder

 I consider the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing
with the glory that is to be revealed in us. 
[Rom 8:20]

 

In this early part of Trinity season we are continuing our investigation of the passions of our soul – our strong thoughts, emotions and desires.  And that begins first with thinking about those passions related to our perception of ourselves.  Last week we looked at our perception of ourselves in relation to God (last week, the passion is pride).  And this morning, we look at our perception of ourselves in relation to others in the world (the passion is vainglory).

Vainglory includes a desire to exalt ourselves above others, and worldly ways of thinking about what is most important.  Vainglory is a confusion about how to satisfy our desire for greatness.

Vainglory manifests itself if we find ourselves caring excessively about our reputation before others…  Caring too much about what others think about us…  In our contemporary world, vainglory can be revealed when we post something on social media – what are we trying to say about ourselves?  It is also revealed if we find ourselves judging and condemning others a lot – in order to raise ourselves up.  Do we become little judges, condemning the world because we’re so perfect ourselves?

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To the newly converted, or immature Christian, Jesus says,

Can the blind lead the blind? will they not both fall into the ditch?... Why do you behold the mote that is in your brother's eye, but perceive not the beam that is in your own eye?  Either how can you say to your brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in your eye, when you yourself behold not the beam that is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of your own eye, and then will you see clearly to pull out the mote that is in your brother's eye. [Lk 6:39-42]

Jesus is pointing us to a spiritual discipline which counters our vainglory – it is to turn within and look at ourselves.  After we have humbled ourselves under the mighty hand of God, after we have decided to follow Jesus, the direction of our gaze has to be inward first, towards our own lives first.  And we are to keep part of our gaze fixed there throughout our lives.

There are three important reasons for us to make this inward turn.

First, so that we might know mercy ourselves, and so be able to show mercy to our neighbour.

Jesus says, Cast the beam out of your own eye, then you shall see clearly…  The obstacle in our souls to spiritual sight, to wisdom, and to growth in holiness, the beam in our own eye, is unconfessed sin.  If we are ashamed of something we have done we often try to hide that from others, and we can end up even hiding ourselves from ourselves – denying that anything is wrong, avoiding looking within.  But how can we approach the living God who is all Truth if we are not allowing the Truth to permeate our souls inwardly?

King David had tried to hide his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, who was away in battle.  When she became pregnant, he arranged finally for the murder of her husband to try to cover it up.  (2 Sam 11:1—12:15)  Nathan the prophet called him to account – he told David of a rich man who stole and ate a poor man’s only sheep – David became outraged at such an injustice.  Then Nathan said, you’re the man!  David repented, and we can imagine that some of the most profound Psalms were written after this (e.g. Psalm 51). (See also Rom 2:1-3.)

When we turn inwardly and see the beams, our sin, we can immediately turn away and avoid looking further, living in denial.  Or we can see it and then live a diminished life walking around in guilt and shame.  But Jesus shows us another way.  We can humbly confess our sin, and be assured of perfect forgiveness through the offering of Jesus Christ on the Cross, God's mercy.

If we do this, in the same moment of being humbled before God and accepting our forgiveness in Christ, we are also humbled before all others – we see them and their sin with new eyes, with the eyes of mercy.  If we find ourselves being overly concerned with pointing out the sins of others, it is because we have not looked inwardly or have forgotten God’s mercy towards us.

We have to know mercy ourselves before we can show it to others.  This is one reason to look within.

Second, the inward turn, the looking at ourselves, is crucial so that we don’t waste our time here on earth in much vanity and vexation of spirit trying to fulfill vain dreams.   When we spend time to look within, we come to see what is truly motivating us.  Most people aren’t yet aware either of what lies behind their activity or of the vanity of their hopes and dreams.

For our young people here trying to decide what higher studies to pursue – this is a vital part of your discernment…  Why am I choosing this study, this career?  Is it to use my gifts for God’s glory and love of my neighbour, or because of how other people will perceive me? Or for the money? Or for the power it will give me?

Giving up vain dreams is hard.  In the presence of others socially or at work, or when we watch a movie or television, we see other motivations – vanity, vainglory, is in the air we breathe.  We are confronted by advertising everywhere tugging us in another direction.  It is real suffering to go against that stream.  To counter that stream we turn inwardly continually and ask ourselves – vainglory or true glory, what am I seeking?  What am I following after? 

Third, we turn and look inward since this is the way to find God.

We will consider this in more depth in the Sundays later in Trinity season.  But what can be said here is that the more the beams are removed, the more our souls become like God.  Jesus says, every one when he is fully trained will be like his teacher [Lk 6:40].  As we turn our attention from what others think of us, to looking to what God thinks, our spiritual vision clears, our attention becomes focussed less on the obstacles, the sin, because we see ever more clearly the goodness of Jesus Christ.

Greatness, true glory, comes as we conform our lives to the greatest celebrity who ever lived, Jesus Christ – God incarnate – who was not rich as the world understands that, and who showed power in another way.  Jesus is what greatness looks like in the flesh, and we will never be disappointed in him or in striving to be like him.

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Jesus says, we are to keep our gaze focussed inwardly when we’re tempted to give spiritual advice to another – cast out the beam that is in your own eye, and then you will see clearly to pull out the mote that is in your brother’s eye.  There will be a day when we become much better at helping others with wise counsel.  We will approach with the utmost care – think of how sensitive is the surface of the eye.  Jesus walked about Galilee – he could see into the depths of peoples’ souls and yet he rarely confronted them immediately with their sins.  We will walk this earth more as Jesus did seeing beyond the specks, confronting others with the face of love, expressed as mercy, with the face of God.

Be merciful, as your Father also is merciful.  Judge not, and you shall not be judged: condemn not, and you shall not be condemned: forgive, and you shall be forgiven: give, and it shall be given to you… more than enough… [Lk 6:36-38]

We mustn’t think there will be a day in our lives when we ourselves are no longer in need of mercy – in fact, as we draw closer to the exceeding brightness and holiness of God we will know ourselves ever more in need of mercy.  We come to know that we can live only “under the Mercy”.  It is why in the holy of holies in the Tabernacle, the place below where God manifested His glory to Moses and the high priests, was called the “mercy seat” (Ex 25:17-22).  It is why the Psalmist speaks so often about mercy.  It is why Jesus speaks so often about mercy, and gave his life on the Cross – to set mercy firmly in the ground in our midst for all to see.  It is why worship services in the Church are sprinkled from beginning to end with prayers and cries to God for mercy.  Mercy is the new way of life – living under God’s mercy and showing that mercy to others.  Jesus says, Blessed are merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

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Last week I spoke a bit about this impulse in us to seek greatness, that can lead to pride, it can also lead us to vainglory.

This morning Paul says, God subjected us to vanity in hope – God has made us to desire greatness, has placed this desire in our hearts for a purpose.  We’re made in the image and likeness of God who is Greatness – so it is not surprising that we desire greatness of soul.  This is the virtue called magnanimity.

God called Abraham to greatness:  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. [Gen 12:2]

God called Israel to become a nation, great, mighty, and populous. [Deut 26:5]

Jesus came into the world not to stamp out a desire for greatness but to reveal to us what that greatness looks like in the flesh.  Last week I gave the example where Jesus said, If you would be great, you must be the servant of all.  In another place in Scripture, The disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said,… whosoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. [Matt 18:4]  It seems that children, up to a certain age, are not subject to vainglory – we can look to them as our examples when we forget.

God would have us seek out his kingdom and greatness, magnanimity, in that kingdom.  St Paul says today, I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.  [Rom 8:20]

We have no idea of the dignity and glory to which God is raising us in Jesus Christ through our spiritual rebirth through baptism and faith.  Yet there are these continual oppressive whispers as we pass through this world calling us to forsake greatness in the kingdom of heaven and to be satisfied instead with a fleeting temporal vainglory.

Let me conclude with praying the Collect for this Sunday, which summarizes these things in a prayer to our Father:

O GOD, the protector of all that trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, you being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ's sake our Lord.  Amen.

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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2