Sunday, December 12, 2010

Third Sunday of Advent

Philippians 4:4-7 / John 1:19-28

Let your modesty be known to all men. 

The twelfth-century English chronicler Henry of Huntingdon tells a story, unknown in earlier chronicles and so perhaps apocryphal, of the modesty, the humility of the eleventh-century king Cnut. Today Cnut is not so well known outside of more limited circles, eclipsed by the events of 1066, but in his day he was a force to be reckoned with. A Danish king of both Viking and Polish descent — his father Sweyn Forkbeard of the line of kings chiefly responsible for the unification of Denmark, his mother the daughter of Mieszko I, the founder of the Polish state — Cnut came to rule not only Denmark, but also Norway, England, and part of Sweden, could number Scotland, Wales, and parts of Ireland among his vassals, and maintained a happy alliance with Normandy and Poland. He was the undisputed master of northern Europe, and a key figure in the politics of the eleventh century. In short, Cnut had every reason to be proud of his achievements and to demand respect and praise from both peers and subjects.

However, according to Henry's chronicle, Cnut one day ordered a chair to be brought to the sea shore. There the king sat, and before his courtiers, he ordered the tide and its waves to halt and to leave his feet dry. The sea, of course, continued in its normal way, soaking not only his feet, but the bottom of the royal robe. This great and fearful king then proclaimed, for all to hear, "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws." Henry then tells us that the king removed his golden crown, setting it atop a crucifix, and he never wore it again.

Whether we believe the story to be true or not, it might strike us as a bit too staged. We may suspect that Cnut was looking for some political leverage from his show of piety. After all, might it not seem that, had Cnut truly been humble, he would not have made such a show of his humility? Are not humility and modesty the kinds of virtues that need precisely to keep a low profile without being contradicted in the very act of making of them a public display?

While such a view may seem reasonable, it is in fact mistaken. We can make two kinds of errors concerning our worth. On the one hand, we can think too much of ourselves, hold a false impression of our talents, capacities, and importance, and we can demand the rest of the world to do the same. On the other hand, out of a misdirected sense of modesty, we might always try to keep a low profile, not merely to acknowledge our limits, but even more hope and pray that we never need to let anyone else see the ways in which we fall short. We might, that is, fail to engage the world with the means God has given us, thinking he ought to have given us different means instead, and so leave ourselves and the rest of the world deprived of precisely those goods which God has entrusted to the world through our agency, our contribution.

This is why we must engage fully, publicly, without fear of the world coming to know not only who we are what we can do, but perhaps even as much if not more who we are not and what we cannot do, while all the same never failing to fulfill the mission which God has given us. This was the modesty of John the Baptist. No wilting violet or wallflower, John was clearly unafraid to proclaim without ceasing the coming of the Kingdom and the need for universal repentance. At the same time, he was happy, without hesitation, to clarify the limits of his own task in that proclamation. Three times John denied without hesitation the loftier titles the priests and Levites sought to pin upon him: the Christ, Elijah, the Prophet. In the same breath he unashamedly announced his divine mandate — I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord — and the altogether limited character of his ministry — I baptize with water: but there hath stood one in the midst of you, Whom you know not. The same is He that shall come after me, Who is preferred before me: the latchet of Whose shoe I am not worthy to loose. In short, John the Baptist let his modesty be known before all men.

This is the modesty to which Paul exhorts us, the modesty which neither asserts false claims of one's own power and so becomes needlessly solicitous of the world, nor recedes from engaging the world out of fear of exposing one's limits and faults. Rather, this is the modesty which, kept in heart and mind by the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, has no fear to expose as freely limit and defect as power and excellence, so long as the Lord Jesus Christ might be better known and loved. This is the modesty of King Cnut, the modesty of John the Baptist, and the modesty to which every Christian is called, until God stir up his might, and come to save us.

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