The Way Up Is Down

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Palm Sunday

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10)

INTRODUCTION: Today is Palm Sunday when we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As Jesus approached the city on the donkey, the people cheered and waved palm branches in the air. They cried out: “Hosanna! Save us! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It would have been easy for you or me to let all those shouts of praise go to our heads, but not Jesus. Jesus had resolutely set his face to Jerusalem many weeks before, and he was not going to let anything deter him from his mission. He had come to humble himself and die on the cross for the salvation of all who would believe in him. And as such the truth of James 4:10 would have resonated strongly with him amidst the cheers of the crowd.

We’re going to talk about James 4:10 in a bit, but first I have a thesis I want to share with you, and my thesis is this. Everyone is here, and they want to get there. That’s right, nobody wants to be sitting here listening to this message right now! No, I’m talking in more general terms, in life terms. In terms of life, everyone is “here,” and they want to get “there.”

Now in order to prove my thesis, let me be sneaky and define my terms. “Here” is where you are right now, and “there” is where you want to be. So there you have it: everyone is “here,” and they want to get “there.”

Furthermore, for most people the “there” where they want to be represents some type of improvement over where they are right now. Everyone wants something better out of life, not worse.

Let’s illustrate this thesis with the image of a mountain. The “here” where you are right now, that part of your life that you would like to see change or improve, is located at the base of the mountain, and the “there,” that place where you want to be is located at the top of the mountain.

So how do you get from here to there? How do you get to the top of the mountain? That’s what today’s message is all about.

I. The Top of the Mountain

So what is the top of the mountain? What is this place we are all looking for?

1) Some people think financial security is the top of the mountain. You know, “If I just had enough money so I didn’t have any more financial problems or worries – that would be the top of the mountain for me.” But we know financial security isn’t the top of the mountain, because there are too many rich people out there who are miserable. There are too many wealthy people who are still trying to get from here to there. Money can’t buy you love, and money doesn’t make you happy. Financial security is not the top of the mountain.

2) Some people think success in their chosen field is the top of the mountain. “If I could just get that promotion, or strike that business deal, or win that award – that would be the top of the mountain for me.” But the people who’ve been there, the people who’ve already climbed to the top of the ladder will be the first to tell you, it always leaves you wanting more. Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots and multiple Super Bowl winner, said in a December 2007 interview:

“Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is.’ I reached my goal, my dream, my life. I think, ‘… it’s got to be more than this.’ I mean this isn’t, this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be … I love playing football and I love being quarterback for this team. But at the same time, I think there are a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find.” (http://spurgeon.wordpress.com/2008/01/10/tom-brady-super-bowl-rings-and-ecclesiastes/)

Tom Brady at the very pinnacle of his success testified that success is not the top of the mountain.

3) Some people think finding the perfect relationship is the top of the mountain. That’s getting closer, but I’ve got to tell you, there are no perfect relationships in this world because there are no perfect people. And if you are looking for a human relationship to give you ultimate meaning and purpose in life, you will find yourself disappointed every time.

So what is the top of the mountain? I’m going to tell you what the top of the mountain is and how to get there, but first I want us to look at some of the ways the world says we get up the mountain.

II. The World’s Way Up

Let me share with you the four main ways the world tries to get from here to there. How does the world say you get to the top of the mountain?

   A. The way up is “up” (the path of self-exaltation)

The first way the world tries to get to the top of the mountain is “up.” This is the path of self-exaltation. Self-exaltation is pride in yourself. For this person the way up is “up” because you believe that the only way to the top of the mountain is to lift yourself up. And so you boast, you brag, and you draw attention to yourself. After all, you’re the greatest! You’re the best! You’re the king of the mountain! And if you can just convince yourself and everyone else that you are already there, that you have already arrived at the top, then maybe, just maybe, you really will be there. This is the path of self exaltation. The path of self-exaltation says: the way up is “up.”

   B. The way up is “over” (the path of self-promotion)

The second way the world tries to get to the top of the mountain is “over.” This is the path of self-promotion. Whereas the path of self-exaltation is pride in yourself, the path of self-promotion is pride in comparison to other people. For this person the way up is “over” because you believe that the only way to the top of the mountain is to get there over other people. And so you criticize and compare. You talk behind people’s backs. The smaller other people seem, the bigger you appear, and so you have this nasty habit of cutting other people down to size. You put yourself first at every opportunity. You convince yourself that you are more important than anyone else. You view other people as stepping stones to get you where you want to go, and you willingly climb over their backs to get there. This is the path of self-promotion. The path of self promotion says: the way up is “over” – over other people who get in your way.

   C. The way up is “through” (the path of self-effort)

The third way the world tries to get to the top of the mountain is “through.” This is the path of self-effort. The path of self-effort is also pride, but this time it is pride in your own accomplishments and abilities. For this person the way up is “through” because you believe that the only way to the top of the mountain is through your own efforts. And so you labor and work and take pride in all that you do. The phrase “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” was invented just for you. You don’t take charity. Everything you are, everything you have is a result of your own labor and work. You will get to the top of the mountain all by yourself, thank you, because you want all the credit once you get there. This is the path of self-effort. The path of self-effort says: the way up is “through.”

   D. The way up is “around” (the path of self-preservation)

And then there’s a fourth way the world tries to get to the top of the mountain and that is “around.” This is the path of self-preservation. The path of self-preservation is the pride of entitlement. For this person the way up is “around” because you believe that the only way to the top of the mountain is to go around all the obstacles in your way. And so you avoid pain and sacrifice at all times. You don’t believe the rules apply to you, so you go around them at every chance. You hate discipline. You take shortcuts. You drive in the breakdown lane. If everyone lived the way you lived, the world could not function, but that’s okay, because not everyone is you! You’re entitled. You’re somebody. You’re special. And so you go through life avoiding anything that causes you displeasure or discomfort. This is the path of self-preservation. The path of self-preservation says: the way up is “around.”

So those are the four main ways the world tries to get from here to there: up, over, through and around. And you know what? They all have something in common. None of them work. None of them will actually get you there. None of them will get you to the top of the mountain. When you try to take the way up, over, through or around, you will always find yourself back at the base of the mountain, still waiting to get from here to there.

III. God’s Way Up

So if the way up is not up, and it’s not over, and it’s not through or around, what is the true way up? This is where we turn to God’s way, and we find that God’s way up stands in stark contrast to all the world’s ways. Because God says: The way up is “down.” That’s what the word “humble” actually means in James 4:10. It translates a Greek word which means “to make low” or “to bring low.” This is the path of self-denial. Self-denial is the very opposite of pride, because instead of exalting yourself (the way up is up), or promoting yourself (the way up is over), or taking pride in your efforts (the way up is through), or seeking to preserve your life at all costs (the way up is around) – you deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ instead.

Notice that James 4 says you are to humble yourself “before the Lord.” It is not enough just to deny yourself certain pleasures or privileges in life. You could do that and still take pride in your self-denial! You could end up flaunting your humility before others! But you can’t fool God. James 4:10 says to humble yourself “before the Lord.” The Greek word translated “before” literally means right in front of God, right in his sight, right in his presence. This is a humbling of yourself primarily before God, not before other people.

Now you would think that shouldn’t be too difficult. I mean, really, how hard can it be to humble yourself before God? God is pretty big, and we are pretty small. And yet the fact that we all struggle with this shows just how much pride is engrained in our sinful nature.

And what will God do if you actually do humble yourself before him? James 4:10 says, “He will lift you up.” He will take you from here to there. He will bring you to the top of the mountain.

Now I promised you earlier that I would tell you what the top of the mountain is. We have already seen that it is not financial security, it is not success in your chosen field, and it is not finding the perfect relationship here in this world. So what is the top of the mountain? The top of the mountain is that place of perfect peace and contentment that we find in God alone. That is the top of the mountain. Not everyone knows that is what they are looking for. But it is. St. Augustine said it best when he prayed: “Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” (Confessions, I, 1.)

And how do you get from here to there? How do you get to that place of perfect peace and contentment in God? God says, “The way up is down.” “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10)

It’s a paradox. A paradox is something that seems contradictory at first glance but upon closer inspection proves to be true. There are a lot of paradoxes in Scripture: the first shall be last and the last shall be first; blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth; whoever among you wants to be the greatest must become the least and the servant of all. And perhaps at the top of the list: James 4:10 –“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” How do you get to the top of the mountain? The way up is down.

APPLICATIONS: Let me close this morning with just a few applications of this principle so we can see how it operates in real life. And to do that, we need to return to the four ways the world says we get from here to there, and see how God’s way works instead.

First of all, let’s look at the world’s way number 1 – the way up is “up” – the path of self-exaltation. You know when I struggle with this one the most? When I am first meeting people in a new situation. It’s very tempting when you are in a new situation to try and prove yourself to other people. And so you find yourself talking about yourself and putting yourself forward in ways that maybe you don’t usually do in more familiar situations.

Why do we do this? Because we are convinced that the way up is “up.” But if we take God’s way, we will take more interest in the other person, loving them for God’s sake, seeking to learn more about them, seeking to build them up rather than building ourselves up in their eyes. And then we let God lift us up in his way and his timing. The way up is not “up.” The way up is down.

And then there is the world’s way number 2 – the way up is “over” – the path of self-promotion. This one gets tricky, because there are some legitimate times when we need to promote ourselves, for example when you are putting together a resume or interviewing for a job. The key here is to be honest. Don’t put on your resume: “I am a lousy person, and a terrible worker. You would never want to hire me. Why don’t you hire the next guy instead?”

No, Romans 12:3 says this: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Romans 12:3) In other words, know your abilities and give an honest assessment of yourself to your boss or potential employer. But even as you do so, recognize that everything you have comes from God. Give God the glory for the abilities that he has given to you. And remember, promotion comes not from self, but from the Lord. Psalm 75:6-7 says, “No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.” (Psalm 75:6-7) The way up is not “over” other people. The way up is down.

And then there’s the world’s way number 3 – the way up is “through” – the path of self-effort. The worst example of this is when we try to work our way into heaven, when we try to earn God’s favor by our own good works. Good works are good, but they are not the way of salvation. The Bible says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) We are not saved by our own works, but by God’s grace given to us through Jesus Christ his Son who died for us so that we could be forgiven. And how do you reach this place of God’s blessing and favor? You humbly confess your sins to God, you admit your need for a Savior, and you believe that Jesus died to be your Savior. The way up is not “through” your own efforts. The way up is down.

And what about the world’s way number 4 – the way up is “around” – the path of self-preservation? Jesus said in Matthew 16:25, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) It’s another one of those paradoxes, but it’s so true. If you try to save your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for Christ, you will find it in a way you never thought possible. The way up is not “around,” because you can’t go around the cross. You can’t go around the cross for salvation, and you can’t go around the cross as a Christian. God’s way is not the way of self-preservation, but the way of self-denial. The way up is down.

Finally, as we close, let me point you once again to our Lord Jesus Christ who is the supreme example of this principle. God could have stayed up in heaven and shouted this principle down to us, and it would have been just as true. But he didn’t just shout it out to us. The way up is down, so Jesus the Son of God came down to earth as a man. He “humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:8-11)

So Jesus is riding into Jerusalem. It’s Palm Sunday. The people are cheering him on. But Jesus knows better. He comes humble and lowly, riding on a donkey. His face is set towards the cross at Calvary. And Jesus is the living embodiment of this verse in James 4:10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10)

© Ray Fowler

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