With everything that’s about to happen — betrayal, abandonment, torture, crucifixion, coming face to face with wrath — Jesus doesn’t for a moment cease to love and serve his friends. He doesn’t take “me time” to rest and prepare for the trials (literally) to come. Instead, he strips down, humbles himself, and washes the grimy feet of his disciples. It’s a story I’ve read so many times, it’s easy to gloss over, but today I’m in wonder at what patience and grace it took to wash their feet. So thoroughly and thoughtfully, knowing his time had come, knowing what was in store. It wasn’t hurried or halfhearted. He wasn’t distracted or dejected. He was present, still teaching them the lessons they would need when he was gone, including the “new commandment” to love one another, just as he loved them. What a savior! What a friend!
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (v. 30)
The humility of John the Baptist always amazes me. He looked, dressed, and ate like a wild man, and was ridiculed, jailed, and beheaded, yet Jesus said there was “no one greater” than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11). That’s probably because of John’s laser-focused mission to glorify the Messiah. Although he was related to Jesus by blood, John’s primary role was to prepare the way, which required him to joyfully decrease so that Christ’s glory would increase. He was content to simply be “the friend of the bridegroom” (v. 29). May the same be true of me.
We’ve all felt it. When we stare up at the stars or survey the outstretched sea. When we study those grand historical narratives or read some great theologian’s biography. I’m talking about feeling small.
Sure, we could all use a hearty slice of humble pie. We all need that Isaiah moment when we recognize how unclean and undone we are before a holy God. But those feelings should be balanced with (or shortly followed by) the beauty, mercy, and grace of God. They should be felt in the wider context of the Christian worldview — humility without despair. That is, humility with happiness.
Years ago, a friend, a housewife, taught me how to do this (unknowingly, as is often the case). That day we sat on the sofa in her living room and swapped summer reading lists. She flipped to the first chapter of Melville’s Moby-Dick and shared a passage that stood out to her. In it, the narrator, Ishmael, discusses his intent to go whaling:
And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:
Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.
WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.
BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.
Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces…
“Sometimes I feel like Ishmael,” she said. “Just a passing note — wife and mother of three.”
She said this with a smile, some otherworldly contentment, as she closed the book. Of course, being a wife and mom is a beautiful role, and something my friend does very well. But she understood that life has bigger headlines than hers, and somehow she’d made peace with her “shabby part.” If you asked her, she’d probably say something like this: Our life on earth is a foreword, a preface to a much longer, far greater story. A story that’s not our own. We play our part, however big or small, with God’s glory always our goal.
Paul put it this way: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Whether you’re called to be a whaler or a wife and mother of three, “do all to the glory of God.” Doing so offers the kind of humility that’s accompanied by great joy in knowing that God would give us even the smallest role in the saga of salvation.
The psalmist said it like this: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” Just a doorkeeper — that’s all he asked, if it meant being part of God’s kingdom. And if that’s my part, if that’s my tiny role, I pray that God will give me the grace to be the best doorkeeper I can be.