Bend Your Knees
There is only one thing that matters in life: whether or not you will bend your knee to God.
A war took place in heaven at the beginning of time. Two angels lead the battle: Lucifer and Michael. Lucifer refused to bow to God. He aspired to become chief in heaven, and so, he plummeted down to hell. He submitted to no one, and, as Milton so colorfully puts it in Paradise Lost, he ended up with his head in the mud and his rear end to heaven. Michael, on the other hand, ground his existence in one thing. He was a servant of God. He was the soldier of a king, whose sole duty and joy was to submit. St. Michael became prince of heaven and chief of the angels.
There’s only one thing that matters in life: whether or not you will bend your knee to God.
We see a similar story in the life of Father Abraham. Abraham and his nephew Lot lived in a land called Negev. They were the lords of very rich and successful tribes. But the day came when their tribes had grown so much that they could no longer fit together. They ran out of shoulder space and started getting into fights. So, Abraham met with Lot and said, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” We all know the rest of the story. Lot naturally chose the better-looking land called Zoar. Abraham submitted. He went to the not so nice place called Canaan. In the end, Lot lost everything and Abraham became the father of a great nation.
Humility is so easily misunderstood.
We mistake it for weakness: for being milk toast. We mistake strength as: submitting to no one, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and exerting your individuality. But this is all backwards. The greatest mark of strength is the greatest ability to submit. So our Lord taught us in our gospel this Sunday.
When you are invited to a banquet, he says, don’t sit down at the place of honour. Someone more important may come in and tell you to move to a lower seat. Then you’ll be dishonored. Instead, go and sit at the lowest place, and your host may tell you to move up higher. Your honor will be even greater.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
There’s a subtle message here that’s easily overlooked. Christ is not saying it’s wrong to sit in the high seat or virtuous to sit in the low seat. He isn’t saying that we should reject dishonor, nor that we should want to be honored. He’s telling us that it really doesn’t matter. If someone praises you – that’s fine. If someone insults you – that’s fine too. If good things come your way – praise the Lord. If bad things come your way – praise the Lord still. Quite simply, Christ is telling us to submit.
My confessor often puts it this way: Be like the duck. All the rain of heaven can pour down on the duck, but, the duck doesn’t let it soak in. The water bounces right off. And so, when good and bad comes our way, we don’t need to let it get under the skin. We have to become like the duck. Keep paddling forwards.
In the words of St. Basil: “humility is practiced…by simple submission.”
Michael the Archangel and Father Abraham are prime examples of this.
St. Michael submitted to God’s will, simply because God is God. If you look at this story, you have to ask yourself why Lucifer, after all, made such a big deal about power. What did he have to prove? He didn’t need anything. He could have had eternal bliss in heaven. Instead, he gave it all up because he wouldn’t submit. St. Michael, on the other hand, was stronger. He didn’t need to prove anything. He had nothing to rob from God. He was manly, because he knew and embraced his place in life, and he served in that place with vigilance and unbending determination.
Abraham submitted to Lot’s way, simply because it was the righteous thing to do. In an instant, you see what these men valued most. Lot wanted success. Abraham wanted righteousness.
Righteousness, in Hebrew, is ‘tseddig.’ In order to understand Hebrew you have to know how the Jews of the Old Testament thought. They were a very matter of fact people. I suspect, of all authors in modern literature, their favorite would probably be Hemingway. They cut to the point without ever becoming flowery or oversentimental. Tseddig, ‘righteousness,’ simply means, ‘the right path.’ If you’re wandering in a desert and want to get from point A to point B, you need to stay on the correct path. The minute you wander off that path you end up in all a mess. There’s nothing abstract or lofty about righteousness. To be righteous simply means to follow God.
Most of us are really good at making a mess of things. Have you ever known someone that operated like a bulldozer? He insists on his own way and plows on forward regardless of the trail of catastrophe behind him. Are you that person? If you think you aren’t then just wait. We all are. It’s just a matter of degree. All the while, God doesn’t ask us to make our own path. He’s already made the path. He is the path. We just have to get on it.
Abraham was righteous because he was willing to submit.
“If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”
What do you make of this? Does it sound weak?
In reality, it’s a fanatically bold statement. Abraham is above worldly success. Ambition, power, self-seeking glory…none of these hold any weight to him because his self-worth is anchored in righteousness. I honestly believe he didn’t care whether Lot chose the greater land or the lesser. It didn’t matter. All Abraham desired was to serve God faithfully.
So what’s the point?
When we hear about Michael the Archangel and Father Abraham we can feel that their decisions were far more important than any decisions we might have to make. But that’s nonsense. On a daily basis, we have the opportunity to make decisions just as profound as theirs. At every moment we each have to decide: will I follow my way or God’s way?
God revealed Himself to humanity as Jesus Christ, and we encounter Jesus Christ today in His Body, the Church. The whole path is laid out there. The Way was laid out by the Church when bishops got together and gave us the bible. We find holiness when we start submitting our lives to its teachings. The Way is still laid out before our feet in the ongoing decisions of bishops throughout history and to this very moment. They give us the calendar. They tell us how to worship. They tell us when to fast, when to feast, how often to go to confession and how maneuver through the complications of life. We align ourselves to God the minute we stop making our own paths and simply get on the bandwagon that is the Church.
When I was an evangelical Christian, I strove to hear God speaking to me privately. But as an Orthodox Christian, I now struggle to hear God speaking to me corporately. The Church is the Body of Christ. We encounter Christ in one another.
This is freedom; the truest kind of freedom. WE don’t have to make our own path. We just have to align our lives to God’s path, and it’s all laid out for us.
The same principle applies to our lots in life.
In Fr. Schmemann’s profound words: “The spiritual life consists of one thing: the way we play the cards we’ve been dealt.”
Whether you’re rich or poor, popular or friendless, healthy or unhealthy…it really doesn’t matter. Whether you get your way or not, you’re praised or insulted, you’re brought up or brought down…The only thing that matters ultimately is whether, in the end, you will bend your knee to God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.