Sunday, February 19, 2017

Boasting: A How-To Guide

“I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest! I'm the greatest thing that ever lived! … I must be the greatest. I showed the world. … I shook up the world, I'm the king of the world. You must listen to me. I am the greatest! I can't be beat!”

At least, those were the words of Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, after his famous 1964 boxing match with heavyweight champ Sonny Liston. Back in the day, Ali was an entirely new phenomenon in so many ways. His undeniable talent in the ring. His sense of racial pride and grievance. His open disdain for the establishment. His affiliation with a radical separatist movement. But maybe most memorable is his boasting. He loved to boast.

Boasting – it's such a common thing. All of us do it, no doubt, at one time or another. It's not just for presidents or rappers or actors or athletes. It literally means to puff ourselves up, to be inflated, like a bellows or a balloon. It's an expression of pride. And there are so many ways to boast, so many things people might boast in.

First, maybe we boast in our power or our strength. There are certainly cases of that in the Bible. Think of, for example, Goliath, staring down puny David. When Goliath caught a glimpse of this pint-sized warrior, “he disdained him, for he was but a youth” (1 Samuel 17:42). And Goliath said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field” (1 Samuel 17:44). Goliath was proud of his power and his strength. He thought it would make him unstoppable. Or think of the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship – or so the owners thought, until the iceberg came.

Now, we may think we don't fall into that trap. We don't swagger about and think ourselves invincible, do we? Well, I don't know about that. Maybe you're proud of how much weight you can lift, and you look down on those who aren't quite as strong. Maybe you're proud of how resilient you are against disease, and you're slow to see a doctor because, hey, they're for all those people who can't handle it, not for strong people like you. That sort of stubborn unwillingness to accept help – it can be implicit boasting, can't it?

Second, maybe we boast in our skills or our gifts. I'm reminded here of the “super-apostles” Paul had to contend with in his ministry. They passed through the Corinthian church, full of charm and skill, and wowed 'em all. And they boasted in all the credentials they had, all the reasons why they were better preachers than Paul, better at this, or better at that. They boasted in their skills, boasted in their gifts. And the believers in Corinth, the Las Vegas of the ancient world, were already predisposed to do that sort of thing.

And again, we might think we don't fall into that trap. We don't swagger about and talk about how good we are or how skilled we are, do we? But maybe we do. It's not so far off. Maybe there is something you're pretty good at. And because you're good at it, you've learned to make it one of the ways you evaluate people, whether you mean to or not. You're really proud of how good you are at this. Maybe you're a gifted musician, and so the way you think and talk reflects a sense that musical talent is what makes a person enlightened. Maybe you can cook really well, and you love to show off and boast in your cooking. Maybe you love to show off your garden and boast in how skillfully you cultivated it. Or there are so many other skills or gifts it could be.

Third, maybe we boast in our successes or victories. That was pretty common in the world of the Bible. Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans – they all loved to boast in their victories in battle. Just like Muhammad Ali did when he beat Sonny Liston and took the heavyweight championship title. And we might think we don't fall into that trap, but come on. That's not so far off, either. Maybe you've had a good business day, or a day of great productivity, and you want to boast in that. Maybe you feel a sense of achievement or vindication in some thing you've done. Maybe you get a thrill from showing off the mounted head of that twelve-point buck you bagged in your hunting trip, or the trophies you won in a competition. Or, let me say this: I heard plenty of boasting on November 9 from those who backed the candidate who now works from the Oval Office. Yes, there was plenty of boasting. That was boasting in an electoral victory.

Fourth, maybe we boast in our wealth or possessions. Jesus describes people like that – people who have a big stockpile of grain and and a big stockpile of other stuff and think they're all set for years to come (Luke 12:18-19). But it doesn't have to be quite that extravagant. Maybe you're living the American dream – a nice house all your own, a good plot of land, a fine family, and you boast in that, and you look down, even just a little, on those who haven't quite gotten there. Maybe you've invested in a really nice boat, or a really nice TV, or a great truck, and you want to show it off or talk about it – that's boasting in it. Or, like the rich fool in Jesus' parable, we boast in our financial security, thinking we've made the good decisions and good investments that will protect us – that's just as boastful.

Fifth, maybe we boast in our membership or inclusion in some group. People do boast in that, don't they? They think that, because they belong to a certain country club, that's something special about them, something that elevates them over those who aren't members. Or they belong to, say, a local historical society, and they think that, because they're members and their next-door neighbors aren't, it means they care more about their local community, and so they boast in it, pat themselves on the back for caring so much. You can imagine people doing that, can't you? It's not so far off.

Or here's another example, and this one might shock you. How about – wait for it – United States citizenship? You can boast in being a US citizen, can't you? You can think that being a US citizen is special, that it entitles you to special treatment ahead of other people in greater need, that US citizens deserve things that others don't. That “America First” mindset – it's really a “me-and-people-like-me-first” mindset, where your membership means that you deserve special deference over other people, that it entitles you to more, makes you better and more trustworthy than those 'foreigners' and 'outsiders.' And that's boasting in membership. And we are plenty prone to do it.

Sixth, maybe we boast in our connections. People boast in that, don't they? And what I mean is, they boast in who they know. Maybe their mom or dad, their grandma or grandpa, was somebody big in these parts, and they want everybody to know it. That'd be boasting. Or maybe they feel more American because their ancestors fought in the Revolution or came over on the Mayflower. If that's how they use those facts, it turns into a boast. Or maybe they're friends with the mayor or the governor or the CEO, and they boast of the access or influence that gives them. Or maybe they've met a celebrity and can't stop name-dropping. It's not so far off.

Or seventh, maybe we boast in our experiences. People might boast in that, don't they? People who get to go somewhere, do some traveling – they can keep reminding people of it, pretend it makes them more worldly and sophisticated, rub it in people's faces a bit, think it makes them special – and that would be boasting. I've been guilty of it myself, a time or two. And that's just one example. Maybe the life you've led is full of hardship, and you tend to think that gives you a special outlook on life, one that's more valuable than the thoughts of people who you assume don't have your background. Any of you ever start a sentence with, “Well, when I was your age...”? A lot of those sentences amount to boasting, too.

Or eighth, maybe we boast in our intelligence or our knowledge. That's a common one. Looks a lot like the one with skills and gifts. Maybe there's something you know, some crucial area of expertise. And since you know it, you like to show it off a little bit. You think it makes you special, makes you a bit better than people who don't know as much or can't think as fast. It's easy to get sucked into boasting there.

Ninth, maybe we boast in being 'right,' being 'virtuous.' It's a common one in politics these days. I see and hear it all the time. People boasting about how they're good and decent and support all the right causes, not like the haters and bigots and -ists and -phobes all around them. If one side of our latest political struggle tended to boast in victory, the other side compensated with a lot of people doing this other sort of boasting.

But it isn't just them. It's easy for anybody to boast in taking the 'right stand,' or at least thinking they are. It's easy to boast in valuing all the things that the sad world outside our walls doesn't seem to value anymore – and you can boast like that no matter what political stance you take, as long as you think about yourself as the heroic defender of the cause and other people as dastardly foes of good or as just sadly unenlightened. So we boast. We do it in personal squabbles, too, with family members or co-workers or neighbors – we're right, they're wrong, and we boast in our rightness.

And tenth, maybe we boast in our morality, our goodness. We're good, decent people. We don't lie (too much), cheat (too much), steal (too much); we try not to hurt people, and we think that makes us good and upstanding. Not like the people in the newspaper, who did this or that awful thing, who committed some crime, who go to prison. And so we think and act and talk like we're better than them. We say awful things about what they might deserve for what they've done. When we talk about conditions at the local prison, we scoff at treating prisoners as actual people like you and me. We speak derisively about people around the world, or next-door, who don't seem to share the values we hold dear. We speak unflatteringly about our strange neighbors, who seem less well-adjusted than we adjudge ourselves. And we think that our basic decency, our good “works,” are what gives value to our lives and merits us treatment, whether by God or by others, that not everybody deserves. And so we boast.

But the problem with these ten boasts is that none of them really hold up. God advises us against them. “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches” (Jeremiah 9:23). God doesn't approve of any of these attitudes, any of these boasts. In fact, he says, he delights in deflating our inflated view of ourselves. “May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts” (Psalm 12:3).

Many of these things are ultimately of no consequence. Strength? You saw how that turned out for Goliath, for the Titanic. Strength and power can be beaten. They can fail. They can fade. Skill? It can be lost. It can be outmatched. Success? You won't always win. And most of these victories – what will they matter in a billion years? Wealth? It can be lost – Job learned that. And you can't take it with you – that's the point Jesus made in his story about the rich fool. Membership? Most of it doesn't matter, in the big scheme of things, and it can be lost, whether by expulsion or death. Connections? They can become irrelevant or absent. Experiences? Many don't ultimately matter, and there's always somebody with a better one. Knowledge? You might find it harder to access someday, and there's always somebody who knows more and can think faster and more clearly. Being on the 'right' side? It's good, if true. But it won't earn you favor with God, and it might not change anything about the world we live in. And our works? Our works don't save us – our salvation doesn't come by works, precisely so that we can't boast in them (Ephesians 2:9). So all this boasting is ruled out (Romans 3:27).

When Paul encountered the risen Christ, he learned that the hard way. In his old life as a Pharisee, he knew a lot about boasting. He had a lot of qualifications to boast in, after all. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6). Paul used to boast in those sorts of things. They were what he thought set him apart from others. He was more observant, more committed, more connected, more qualified; he was stronger, smarter, wiser. He had everything he thought mattered, everything he thought made him special, everything he thought was worth boasting in.

But then, along that long and dusty road to Damascus, he met the risen Jesus. And Jesus changed his life. And after meeting Jesus and having to rethink everything, Paul came to realize that none of these things were worth boasting in. None of them earned him favor from God. None of them made him 'better' than other people, more worthy or deserving than other people. They didn't make him special – not when compared with everything he could have just by leaning on Jesus. And so, he writes, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8).

Paul didn't give up boasting, though. Actually, he found the only place where boasting is right. Boasting in all those things – it was wrong. But there is a place for boasting, a place God approves. “Far be it from me to boast except – do you know what comes next? – except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

And the same is true for us. The cross is the only place left for boasting. We have no specialness in ourselves. No strength, no skill, no success, no wealth, no belonging, no connections, no experience, no knowledge, no rightness, no works – nothing that qualifies us for God's approval. For that, we have to turn to the least-likely place: the cross.

Remember what the cross is. It's rough and bloody. It's shameful – crucifixion was hardly a topic for polite conversation in Paul's day. Today, through the power of religion, we've tamed the cross into a talisman and removed what Paul himself called “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11). But the cross, when seen for what it really is, is exactly what the world calls ugly, weak, stupid, and irrational.

Think about it. The idea that the best display of God's strength is the sight of God incarnate being executed as a criminal alongside a couple terrorists? That a trembling, heaving, oozing, stinking body pinned to splintering wood could be God's offer of beauty? The notion that this is the higher logic by which God runs the universe? That is the emblem of everything we would never dare to boast in – and yet it's exactly where Paul has learned to place all his boasting. “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. … God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-29).

The truth is, at the ugly, weak, stupid cross, we meet the beauty, power, and wisdom of God. That's where God wants us to meet him, and where he wants to meet us. It's the very place that wakes us up to the lie of all our false boasts, and offers us something true instead. It's where God offers us himself, and everything else in him:
  • Strength? The cross opens the door to the invincible resurrection life and a kingdom that can't be shaken (Hebrews 12:28). The cross is, as Paul says, the very power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). There's some real strength!
  • Skills and gifts? The cross empties us so we can receive the gifts that the Holy Spirit spreads throughout the whole body. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit … All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:4, 11). Those are real gifts!
  • Success or victory? Through the cross, we share in Jesus' victory over death and over the devil and over all the enemies of our souls. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” on the cross (Colossians 2:15). “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57). “In all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). How's that for victory?
  • Wealth? Through the cross, we become co-heirs of the entire universe, and the immeasurable riches of God's grace are thrown open wide to us (Romans 8:17; Ephesians 2:7). “Though [Christ] was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Now that's wealth!
  • Membership? The cross invites us to be citizens of God's kingdom, part of a reconciled new humanity (Ephesians 2:15-17), and indeed to be rulers over a new world in the making; we rub shoulders with saints as we march on toward the heavenly Zion, with its “innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24)! You want membership, there you go.
  • Connections? Because of the cross, the Anointed King of the universe calls us his friends and brothers, and the Almighty God who split land and sea, light and dark, and who sparked the stars in millions of galaxies into life by the word of his power – he calls us his very own sons and daughters (Romans 8:29; 9:26)! There's no connection that trumps that!
  • Experience? The cross invites us to experience the life of God in Jesus, first in his crucified suffering and then in his resurrection splendor and the divine glory that knows no end (cf. Romans 8:17). You want experience, there's your experience!
  • Knowledge? The cross opens up the wisdom of God to us and unmasks mysteries beyond the limits of our mortal minds, mysteries “hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). It lays bare the ground on which angels fear to tread. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). What higher knowledge could you ask for?
  • Rightness? The cross extends the righteousness of God to us and teaches us the blessed life (2 Corinthians 5:21). That guarantees you're on the right side in what matters most.
  • Goodness? We don't need to depend on our works. We're showered with God's favor simply through trusting him, simply by faith in his gift of grace. And it's that grace, active in our hearts, that will bear fruit in the works God appointed for us to do – not so we can boast in them, but so we can boast in him (Ephesians 2:8-10). Every God-honoring value we've got, we got it all and only by grace. Not to boast in how good and right we are, but to boast in how generous and wise our God is!
But best of all, at the cross, we get to know God. “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD (Jeremiah 9:23-24). And on the cross, he practiced all three in ways we never could have expected.

So don't boast in any of those other things. Pour contempt on all your pride. Boast in what Christ did for you – and equally for your most dignified or most downtrodden neighbor, if he or she will receive it. It had nothing to do with our qualifications. All those things are crucified to us, dead and gone, and we to them (cf. Galatians 6:14). It had everything to do with Christ's mercy, to meet us there, at the cross. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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