Do you remember the first time you discovered one of your heroes had clay feet?
It’s a bit of a disturbing thing for many of us. I mean, I think there is a part of us which constantly looks for another person to look up to and admire. I think there is a part of us which seeks out examples and role models. There is a part of us that desperately wants to see and know a real, life, flesh and blood person who has it all together; who is successful in all endeavors; and who lives up to the expectations we have within us for a hero. I think everyone holds out hope to find such a person in life.
Oftentimes, we find someone who seems to have all these qualities. We latch onto that person. We hang on their every word. We follow their every action. We start imitating the way they talk; the way they think; and the way they act. If they are famous, we may buy their books; watch their television shows; or attend lectures or gatherings where they are in attendance. We quote them in our conversations. We strive to be just like them.
And then we find out, they are only human.
How many of you remember Michael Jordan? If you grew up in the ‘80's and ‘90's and were a basketball fan, you know exactly who I am talking about. Jordan was simply an amazing player. Some would argue–and I personally think they are right–that he was the best basketball player to have played the game thus far. He won numerous MVP awards and championships. Advertisers cashed in on Michael Jordan. Nike especially. McDonald’s was another. Gatorade was another. Gatorade even had a slogan, “Be Like Mike.”
Oh and how many of us tried to be like Mike. We wore long shorts. We wore wrist bands in the same fashion. We walked with a swagger. We tried incomprehensible basketball shots. We tried to air walk and make difficult moves as we flew through the air.
Of course, we failed, but that was minor. We had a hero who almost seemed superhuman when he took to the basketball court. If you want to know Jordan’s influence, know that nearly all my friends who were born and raised in Texas rooted for the Chicago Bulls without reservation or thought of the Spurs, Rockets, or Mavericks. Jordan captivated us.
But as time passed, we found out even Michael Jordan had limits. He retired three times. He came back to play twice. Does anyone remember when he came back and played for the Washington Wizards? I do. It was a miserable thing to watch. Michael Jordan had grown old. He no longer had many of his abilities. Kids who never saw him play with the Chicago Bulls wondered what the fascination was with this old player who could no longer dominate games like he once did.
And then, there was Jordan’s attempt at team ownership and general managing. Those were abject failures. While Jordan the player was awesome; Jordan the general manager, owner, and even coach were awful. Success in one area did not guarantee a golden touch in all other areas. No one I know wanted to be like Mike once he became old and left the court for good. He was only human after all–much to the chagrin of many who truly admired the man.
Examples of this abound. They abound everywhere. Everyone has a skeleton or two in the closet. Everyone has something in their lives that can be used against them in one fashion or another. There have even been books written about Mother Teresa criticizing her for some of the decisions she made in caring for the poor and needy. More than a few pastors and televangelists have been brought to their knees by scandal–monetarily and sexually. Politicians are rocked by scandals on almost a weekly basis now. And people who put their trust in these individuals find themselves disappointed and upset that their heroes are imperfect and not completely trustworthy.
Sometimes, it shocks us. And it really shouldn’t.
I mean, I’m a pastor. For as long as I can remember, I have learned, taught, and preached that we are all both saint and sinner. We have both good and bad within us. I know this cognitively, but there is still a part of me that longs to find someone to completely trust. And I thought I had found someone I really admired in Timothy Keller. I’ve quoted him a lot in sermons and in other places, and I will still quote him by the way. But I couldn’t help but feel a bit of disappointment the other day when I was trying to find some sermons he preached. I went to his congregation’s website. I clicked on the links to find sermons and found that they were being sold for $5 a pop. Five bucks for a sermon!! Five bucks for what was preached as an exposition on God’s Word? What happened to St. Paul’s statement, “I proclaimed the Gospel freely!”? I was disappointed. But I shouldn’t have been. Everyone has clay feet. Everyone.
Of course, this is hard for us to admit. It’s hard for us to look in the mirror and say, “Self, you are broken. You don’t live like you should. You don’t care for others like you should.” We don’t like telling ourselves such things. In fact, usually, we’d like to think we have it all together and that it is the other person out there who has the problem. We are just fine the way we are. We are good enough. Sure, we might make a mistake here and there, but we are basically good. We are basically upright. We are basically okay. Not like those people out there.
Jesus had a word or two to say about such folks in our Gospel lesson today from the book of Matthew. He says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
This is an interesting statement here. Some have commented that Jesus is being sarcastic, but I don’t think so. I think Jesus is serious in what He tells His followers. Why? Because the scribes and Pharisees are teaching the Law of Moses, which, of course, was given by God. We are supposed to follow and do what God tells us to do. When someone tells us to follow God’s laws and instructions, we should listen. So, what is the problem and why does Jesus say, “But don’t do as they do?”
Let me put it in this fashion. Let’s say I get up on Sunday morning and I tell you, “We must love God with all our hearts and souls and minds, and we must love our neighbor as ourselves.” And I preached a long sermon about such matters with all kinds of illustrations and arguments which urged you to do such matters. You and I hopefully know Jesus said that all the commands of God are summed up in these two commandments. They are Jesus’ instructions to all of us. Of course, we are all supposed to do these things. We are supposed to live them out. This is why Jesus says, “Do what they tell you to do.”
But this is the problem. Number one, no one fully loves God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and no one fully loves their neighbor as they love themselves. No one. Period. You can try to argue with me on this one, but I think I could convince you in a matter of moments that none of us can implement this teaching at all. We may not like hearing that, but it is true. The second part of the problem would be this. Let’s pretend, at the moment, that after preaching that sermon, I actually believed I was doing it. Let’s pretend that Pastor Haug thought in his mind that he actually loved the Lord with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength and that he loved his neighbor as himself. Let’s pretend for a moment that this gave Pastor Haug a deep sense of satisfaction that he could actually accomplish this faith thing, and because he believed he could accomplish this faith thing, he felt like people should look up to him. He felt like people should honor his work. He felt like people should admire him and do things for him because he was so good at following God’s commands. Let’s pretend that Pastor Haug started wearing a very big cross around his neck and walking with his chest puffed out. Let’s pretend he started wearing shirts saying, “Want to follow Jesus? Just ask me how.” Let’s pretend he tried to tell everyone at every moment what they could do better to be a better Christian and to improve their own lots in life as if he were some sort of expert in being a super-Christian. What would you think of Pastor Haug?
Some of you may be saying, “And in what way is this different than the way you really are?” Duly noted.
You probably wouldn’t like Pastor Haug very much. You would probably think he was an arrogant you-know-what. You probably wouldn’t have much nice to say about him because there are very few who truly admire someone who is self-righteous. Very few. And those who do usually admire them until something happens which exposes them in their hypocrisy.
“Do what they teach you, (about following the commands of God),” Jesus says, but don’t do what they do.” What are the Pharisees and scribes doing? Exactly what our hopefully hypothetical Pastor Haug is doing. They are being self-righteous. Listen to what Jesus says they are doing, and this comes across plain as day. “4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi.” All of these things smack of self-righteousness. All of these things smack of people who have inflated thoughts of themselves. And when someone is so full of themselves, they have no room for God. They do not believe they need God. And so, they break the first and most important commandment–even though they think they are following it.
Now, listen as Jesus wraps this little segment up. He says, “8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. “
Let’s unpack this because I think it’s crucial. Who does Jesus want us to focus on? In these three statements, where does Jesus want each and every one of us to place our trust, our hope, and our view of a role model? “You have one teacher...You have one Father–the one in heaven...You have one instructor, the Messiah.” Jesus wants us to focus on God the Father, and on Him as the Messiah. He wants us to look up to them and them alone. No one else. Why?
Here’s why. Every single role model you choose; every single instructor you view as great and fantastic; every single father figure you look to on this earth will let you down. That is simply the reality. Every single hero; every single pastor; every single professional athlete; every single parent; every single teacher; every single astronaut and politician and police officer and the list goes on will let you down. They are not perfect. They are not blameless. They are not free from selfish motivation. They will do something or say something which will hurt you.
Not only this, if you allow yourself to have everyone look up to you and think you are an awesome role model, you will eventually become self-righteous, and you will let down others. It’s a horrible, double edged sword.
Not only will you be disappointed in others, others will become disappointed in you. Why? Because they cannot be perfect; and neither can you. They cannot live up to your standards, and you can’t live up to someone else’s.
There’s only One who can. There’s only One who can live up to the standards of perfection and serve as the perfect role model. There is only One who, when you point the way to Him will not disappoint others. His name is Jesus.
For it is in Jesus that we find the cure for self-righteousness. It is in Jesus that we find the perfect role model. It is in Jesus that we find humility and the strength to try to do what we should do even though we stumble and fall time and again.
How does Jesus do this? How does Jesus keep us from becoming self-righteous? By dying for us. By giving us salvation when we didn’t deserve it. By granting us grace when we had clay feet.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be save through Him.
When you realize your salvation did not come from anything you did–from your own ability to please God and love your neighbor and follow all the rules; when you realize your salvation was given to you precisely when you were not pleasing God and loving your neighbor; you can’t get a big head. You can’t become arrogant. You can’t walk around looking down your nose at others–like the Pharisees and scribes. You are humbled. You realize you have clay feet and are not worthy of what Jesus did for you. But you also do not become self defacing. You don’t feel like a horrible piece of dirt because you were valuable enough that Jesus died for you. You realize you are indebted to Him for what He has done for you, and so you seek to follow Him; to learn about Him; to have Him instruct you and show you how to live in this world. You realize He places upon you a burden, but He does more than lift a finger to help you with it. He willingly dies to lift it. He does not wear any special garments, He hangs on a cross. He does not demand to sit at the head of the banquet; He invites you to come and dine with Him.
And when you realize this about Jesus, you are filled with thankfulness and joy. You are filled with satisfaction. Deep within, you know the sinner you are is transformed into a saint by what Jesus has done. And you become a role model–not in pointing to what you do, but what God has done. And this precisely one of the main reasons we celebrate All Saint’s Sunday. We remember those who have gone before who also pointed to Jesus. Amen.