Advent 2017: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Hornell

Hornell Branch Meetinghouse, December 17, 2017

This post is based on a talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting in the Hornell, New York Branch on December 17, 2017.

This year, as we prepare for Christmas, I’ve been especially impressed by a line in Peter’s first letter to the church. Peter says this: “[B]e clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

The Greek word that is translated here as “resist” could be translated also as “oppose.” This meditation on the duality of pride and humility is an ancient proverb (see Proverbs 3:34). It is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing to the humble, and it is a curse against the proud. And it is a theme that is woven through the Christmas story.

After the angel Gabriel visits Mary and reveals her mission to her, Mary goes to see her cousin, Elizabeth, and they share this moment where Elizabeth recognizes Mary’s mission, and then the Holy Spirit falls upon Mary and inspires her and she prophesies:

My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God, my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent away empty. He hath holpen [that is, helped] his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.

(Luke 1:46-55)

Mary, who was poor and humble, was chosen, honored by God, and visited by angels. And the spirit revealed to Mary that Jesus’ mission was to humble the proud, and to exalt the humble. If you read the Old Testament, you read many descriptions of God as an all powerful king, a mighty warrior, a priest bearing authority. But at Christmas we celebrate his coming not as a great king or warrior, or even as a great priest or prophet, but as a baby to a young, poor couple. A manual laborer and his wife. People with no political power or significant institutional religious authority. Members of an oppressed people living under military occupation. He chose to become humble, helpless, and vulnerable.

President Utchdorf said this a few weeks ago:

There is no shame in being poor. Remember that the Savior of the World was born in a stable and laid in a manger “because there was no room for [Him] in the inn.” Then, a short time later, He and Mary and Joseph became refugees, fleeing to Egypt to seek protection from the murderous Herod. During His public ministry, Jesus walked among the broken, the hungry, and the sick. His days were filled with ministering to them. He came “to proclaim good news to the poor.” In many ways, He was one of them, for He too had “nowhere to lay his head.”

Scatter Your Crumbs,” 2017 First Presidency Christmas Devotional (Dec. 3, 2017).

Jesus was born, lived, and died in humility. Of course, this was all fulfillment of prophecy–Jesus began his ministry by reading from Isaiah’s prophecy that the messiah would deliver good news and comfort to the poor:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn (Isaiah 61:1).

In fact, it was by this prophecy’s fulfillment that John the Baptist and his disciples recognized Jesus as the messiah (Luke 7:22). It has always been and will always be an essential sign of the true gospel and the true church that good news is preached to the poor (see also D&C 35:15). God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.

I am convinced that none of us can receive the gospel unless we are humble. I don’t believe it is possible to exercise faith in Christ or repent without learning humility. I don’t believe it is possible to be truly converted without becoming humble. Unfortunately we are all proud. We read the scriptures and learn the commandments, but we are too often more interested in using them to point out the specks in other people’s eyes than to removing the huge wooden beams from our own eyes. We become more focused on condemning sin than on becoming converted or serving others. Our pride stands between us and repentance. Our pride damns us.

Jesus shows us that the way of humility is the way to exaltation. Is it any wonder that his apostles who knew him and walked with him would frequently repeat this ancient proverb that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble? Peter says it in his first letter to the church (1 Peter 5:5), but it’s not just Peter. James says it, too. In his letter to the church, James describes how we, as mortals, are susceptible to sin and temptation (James 4:5), but he assures us that God’s grace is more powerful than sin and temptation (James 4:6). He then tells us how to obtain this grace, by repeating the proverb: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6). God also repeats a version of the same thing to Moroni in the Book of Mormon: “Fools [that is, the proud] mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek…I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me” (Ether 12:26-27). God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. I testify that this is true: when we humble ourselves, we receive grace.

The New Testament tells us that God sent John the Baptist to God’s chosen people in Israel to prepare the way before Jesus. His message was this: forget about your pride in your membership among the chosen people and instead “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). And in the Book of Mormon tells us that God sent another prophet, Samuel the Lamanite, to the Nephites to prepare them for the sign of Jesus’ coming, and his message was the same as John’s: “repent, and prepare the way of the Lord” (Helaman 14:9). To the powerful, both prophets were outcasts and rejects. The proud could not hear them. Only the humble could receive their message. I suggest that we would do well to apply John’s and Samuel’s message of preparation to prepare to celebrate Christmas next week.

So how do we do that? How do we repent and prepare for Christmas? First of all, we must recognize that we deserve nothing, that even if we kept all the commandments our entire lives, we would still not deserve anything; all we have and all we will ever have is a gift of grace.

Then we must commit to be better disciples. The specifics of how to do that may be different for each one of us at different times of our lives, and if you ask God in sincerity what he wants you to do, the spirit will give you your answer. But here are some ways that I suggest to follow Jesus’ example of giving good news to the poor:

  • Find more ways to serve the poor in our community and in other places.
  • Find more ways to feed the hungry.
  • Find more ways to provide clothing for those who lack adequate clothes.
  • Find more ways to provide shelter for those who lack a roof or a place to lay their head.
  • Find more ways to provide medical care, comfort, and healing for the sick.
  • Find more ways to listen to those who voices go unheard, and to let them know that you hear them.
  • Find more ways to welcome the outcast, the foreigner, and the rejected.
  • Find more ways to stand with victims of hatred, bigotry, or oppression; lift up their hands and strengthen their knees.
  • Find ways to be more kind to those around you.
  • Pray more honestly and more often.
  • Partake thoughtfully of the sacrament, renewing your commitment to always remember Jesus and keep his commandments.

God opposes the proud, but he gives his grace to the humble. This is both a blessing and a curse, and we can choose which it will be for us. Will we be humble, and receive it as a blessing to us, or will we be proud, and turn it into a curse against us? The Christmas hymn says that “where meek souls will receive him,” Jesus still enters (“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Hymn No. 208). Let’s prepare to receive Christ by becoming humble.

 

Comments

  1. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    That looks like Hornell, NY in mid-December, yep.

  2. I really like this talk! Thank you for thinking to post it here as well after delivering it! (On a lighter note, I’m usually able to work in a LotR reference into most talks and had thought this might be something you’d try to do as well but that’s okay!)

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice talk; thanks for sharing.

  4. Hepta: Yep! I love driving through the finger lakes the morning after a snow. It takes a little longer, but I always drive the more direct route through the backroads rather than take 390.

    John and Kevin: Thanks! It was actually a weird experience: I choked up several times while giving this talk, which is extremely weird for me. I speak in church fairly regularly now, and I NEVER get emotional when speaking. Like, not even once have I ever cried or choked up before while speaking in church. I’m not sure what to make of that, exactly, but it’s not something I’ll soon forget.

    It’s not a bad bet that I’d work in a Tolkien reference when speaking. I didn’t this time, but I very often do.

  5. FlatStanley says:

    Thank you. A wonderful reminder.

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