Keeping On or Going On

Pardon the pun, but what's up with these ladders? Is there some project we've started, but left undone? Sorta. Have we failed to clean up our mess, like our mamma taught us? Probably. Have we failed to do all we need to, to be really prepared to give God our whole heart and our holiest praises today? Could be. Have we left out in plain view a sign we're not really ready to follow Jesus, much less follow him to the cross? 'Fraid so. But there's more here. 'Turns out there are always those… towels… along the way. On the way up. And on the way down. So, we have a choice, you and I. We can live on the ladder. Or we can live by the towel. It's up to us. And there's probably no better time than Lent to consider… giving up the ladder and taking up the towel.

God knows there are ladders in our lives. And most of us are ladder climbers, one way or another. And it's tough to get climbing out of our system. Truth is, we covet our ladders for ourselves, and even for our kids. The ladder of success. The ladder of living at ease. The ladder of status, power, respect. The ladder of security. The ladder of advantage and preparation for our children. Honestly, we're a long way from worryin' over climbin' Jacob's ladder in our everyday lives. We're too busy with dreams of our own. And in our dreams, we pretty much always come out on top. 'Know what I mean?

'Most everybody spends a lot of their life climbin'. Tax time's here. It reminds me of a chat I had driving a preacher-friend to a meeting in the same season, years ago. He was fussin' over paying his taxes. (Of course, we wouldn't.) His specific complaint: his attorney-wife paid more in taxes that year than he made. I tried hard to empathize, but flopped, having emptied our savings, just to pay our share of the pension fund for fellow preachers. (We used to do that.) I was very aware in that talk of just where each of our families was on the ladder. (It was not my finest spiritual hour! 'Course, I'm the only one here who ever felt like that! No?…) We know about ladders. We even say, "A good man always comes out… on top." Those with both little ones and relatives-with-other-little-ones have ladders. Remember how it feels when your brother's kid learns to talk more quickly? Or your cousin's is declared gifted-and-talented…in pre-school… while your little Buford's having trouble learning to color? That preacher-friend I mentioned a moment ago. Years later he went to pastor a church I'd served as an Associate years before. He told me about the Chair of the Ad. Bd. showing up with a sleek new car. 'Said he couldn't help comparing it to his own, now years and miles old. They entered the church for a Board meeting… that had to end before the time the last bus went by the front door… so some of the members could get themselves home. My friend was not dry-eyed when he said to me, "You know, it hit me hard when I went home that night, said my prayers and had to ask, 'Lord, can you forgive me for always comparing myself to the folks with a better car, instead of the ones I serve who have to ride the bus?'" Oh, friends, for lots of us, women and men alike, old and young, the ladder becomes our life, our family, our story, even our God.

I read this week about a young fella out of college, searching for meaning. The family tuitioned a summa cum laude business major expected to seek his fortune (And theirs, maybe?) They got a son so fed up with competing, he wrote to them that he decided to join a new age religious community seeking great spiritual truths. Six months later he wrote again to say how happy he was now. So at peace with his new lifestyle. He said he was completely converted away from a life of constant competition and striving for success. (No more ladders, for him!) In fact, he wrote, "This way of life is so in harmony with my inner soul that in only six months I've become the Number Two Disciple in the entire community, and I think I can be Number One by June! … Oh yes, Ladder climbing can affect someone's spiritual life. Remember the disciples arguing among themselves about which of them would be at the top of the ladder when Jesus led them into the Kingdom? (And this, as Jesus was headed for the cross!) This is tough stuff. So hear this well:

God in Christ offers us a whole new outlook on our ladders and a whole new direction for our lives. Paul helps us see this. And the towel helps us to express it. Did you catch what Paul said about Jesus in the Scripture today?

Let this mind be in you. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5 KJV)
And then, this, maybe the oldest hymn of the church… your attitude as Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped (or, "did not consider equality with God to be grounds for grasping" ), but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant." (Philippians 2: 6-7)
Don't miss this… Jesus, being in very nature God, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Here's the most revolutionary thing ever studied in "Ladderology"! If we're really careful with the Bible's sacred words and their meaning, we learn here that Jesus comes as he comes, does as he does and leaves as he leaves, not in spite of, not as if, while, or although he were God, but because, precisely because he is in very nature… God. In Jesus, the great teaching is that it is in the very nature of God to be a servant!

Look here! Jesus is not a climber because God is not a climber. John's Gospel tells us The Son was from the beginning with the Father. Nothing was even or ever created of which he was not a part. Christ starts out, not at the bottom of the ladder, but at the top. Once you "are from the beginning with God", there are no promotions to be sought! So there's no grasping here, and certainly not for the next rung up on the ladder. Jesus goes the other way. He decides to climb down the ladder. He takes human form. And then he goes for the next rung down, the form of a servant! We can see this as those stubborn, sometimes silly, self-serving, self-seeking disciples are with him at the table on the last night of his life. Let me tell you, " 'Tweren't just their feet what were dirty and stinkin'. They were a sweaty and a soiled lot in their souls. They'd been so close for so long to Jesus, yet still clinging to ladders they had not set down with their nets! (Sound familiar to you?) So Jesus, towel in hand, washed their feet and shined their souls at the same time. "Do you know what I have done to you?… I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet. So you also ought to wash one another's feet." The Son, who once had the job description Witness to Creation, has traded in his robe and crown for a Towel and a Basin. In a world where sandaled feet tramp through mud and manure, sweat and dust, Footwasher is no sought-after title. But that's what Jesus embraces. And the disciples wonder that he would stoop so low… for them. (Why, this is a rung below Burger-Flipper!) But not even that is the end of it. Jesus will go a rung lower, lowest of the low, willingly demoted to suffer death, even on the cross, all the while knowing Jewish law says, "cursed is he who is hanged on a tree." (Deut. 21: 22-23) They understand better than we when the hymn cries out, "What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of Bliss, to bear the dreadful cross for my soul?" Says Jesus… "Do as I have for you, for each other."

So now we have a choice to make, you and I. Isn't it high time we be giving up the ladder, and taking up the towel? Here's the deal. If you and I are busying ourselves everyday striving to go up the ladder, at the very same time Jesus is moving down, aren't we goin' the wrong way? No wonder we are told to repent… which means… turn around! Otherwise, we're most certainly heading in the wrong direction! CEO is not our calling. Footwasher is! Getting isn't our goal, giving is. Superiority is not our security, surrender is. Getting-our-own-way is not the way for us, going-his-way is. And get this, Jesus says, kneeling at the sorry feet of all who follow him, "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them." Wow! So, what do you know?!
Towel Bearing brings more joy than Ladder Climbing. Jesus, who went down the Ladder to its lowest rung, was exalted by God to the highest place. Why, Paul says the day's coming, when everybody's comin' down off those Ladders. Every knee will touch the ground. Every tongue, confess. Imagine! Donald Trump's knee is going to touch the ground. And Madonna's. Big Bird's. And Arnold Schwarzenegger's. John Kerry's knee and George Bush's knee are going to touch the ground. Ken Humbert's and Rev. Linda's. Mother Teresa's knee and Saddam Hussein's, and Billy Graham's and Osama bin Laden's knees will be called to touch the ground. O, for that great day when every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, that the One Who humbled Himself to the lowest place has now been exalted and given the highest name. And it all begins with giving up the ladder and taking up the towel. Let it begin here, today, with us.

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