No Ground for Boasting

We’re currently in the midst of one of our most enduring cultural liturgies—awards season. With the Golden Globes a few weeks ago, the Grammys this past Sunday, and the Oscars on the horizon, along with a slew of other, less publicized events, this is the time of year when the titans of the entertainment industry gather to honor the achievements of their peers. They will gather for lavish meals. They will hand out trophies. They will make speeches. They will tell inside jokes and laugh loudly at one another’s scripted attempts at humor. They will raise their glasses to their fellow artists and smile insincerely when their colleagues win an honor that they themselves were passed over for.

While we may be somewhat used to this annual ritual, I think that if an spaceship were to land outside of such an awards ceremony, and a group of aliens were able to look in on what was transpiring, it would probably strike them as fairly odd. For all the glitz and glamour and emotion that seems to be bound up in these events, for all the ink spilled by critics and entertainment journalists about who should and shouldn’t win these awards, these shows are ultimately an opportunity for Hollywood to pat itself on the back. Each ceremony is little more than a roomful of beautiful and wealthy people telling one another what a great job they’re doing. And this year, with the spate of revelations about the predatory misuses of power and influence among the upper echelons of Hollywood, these opportunities for self-congratulation seem a bit awkward, if not completely hollow.

We all like recognition. We all like to be honored. We all like to feel that we’ve accomplished something, or at least to be appreciated for the work we’ve done. This impulse is simply a part of who we are, to some degree. But when we let these desires dominate, as we all do from time to time, they can shape our view of ourselves, our view of others, or even our view of God. Our texts for this week serve to provide some perspective—not by tearing us down, but by lifting God up.

The passage from Isaiah, like some of the best passages of wisdom literature, roots a discussion of God’s magnificence in the wonders of creation. Taking a cue from the book of Job, Isaiah invites us to consider God’s place in relationship to space and time. The God who is eternal and enduring, the God who sits above the circle of the earth and stretches out the heavens like a curtain, the God who looks down on the inhabitants of this globe the way one of us might gaze upon a cloud of grasshoppers, the God who plants and uproots kings and governments like vegetables in a garden—this is the God we are dealing with. Such a recognition should certainly keep our egos in check when pride threatens to consume us.

When God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, those who witnessed and recorded the events of his life and ministry were struck by the power that was manifest in his miraculous deeds. Like the other evangelists, Mark narrates in various places throughout his book the authority that Jesus exhibited in the face of diseases and infirmities, even in the face of demonic powers that were consuming the lives of the afflicted. There was something inescapably commanding in Jesus’ words and in his deeds, so that those with eyes to see and ears to hear knew that they weren’t dealing with an ordinary mortal, but with someone far more powerful than they had ever encountered.

If these accounts of God’s grandeur and Jesus’ miraculous activity were the whole story that scripture tells, that would be remarkable enough. Such a God, and such a Messiah, would surely be worthy of our worship, and such knowledge would certainly remind us of our place in the universe whenever we need to be taken down a few pegs. But of course, that’s not the whole story, and God’s word doesn’t exist solely for the purpose of telling us what we are not. Bound up with these descriptions of God’s magnificence, and these accounts of Christ’s authority, we also discern something of the concern that this God demonstrates towards us.

After declaring that God is master of all that he has created, and that we are like grasshoppers, Isaiah further makes plain that these grasshoppers are objects of God’s love. He reminds us, along with the Psalmist, that God pours out his love on those who are vulnerable, that he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, giving power to the faint and strengthening the powerless. Jesus, after evincing his undeniable authority, reveals his unyielding compassion when he leaves his place of rest and retreat to continue his work of healing and proclamation among the lost sheep of Israel.

How do we respond to such a God? When we see that this God, who rules over all creation, cares for us, and that his Son, who has the power to command even demons, has compassion on the weak, boasting seems ridiculous. Self-congratulation seems like a waste of time. Instead, like Paul, we respond by following the example of the God who has created us, redeemed us, and called us to the work of his kingdom. Although we are free, we don’t grasp for prestige or power or recognition, but we humbly serve those around us. We give of ourselves so that the weak and vulnerable might know the love of God, and we do it for the sake of the Gospel, that we might share in its blessings.

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