Which Way Is Up?

Richard W. O'Ffill

Scripture says of our Heavenly Father that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. The more I think of God, the more I study from the Word about Him, the more I am overcome as I see and understand His character and His holiness.

I realize my instincts are wrong, my training has been wrong. My culture has taught me, and it has taught me wrong. And sometimes when I pray, I cry out and say, "Oh God, I am so different from You. My thoughts are not Your thoughts, my ways are not Your ways of doing things. They seem to be the opposite of what You want me to do." In fact, I am so far off the track that, when I get in trouble and wonder what to do, I figure out what I think I should do and then do the opposite, and I will probably be correct. You see, the Bible says that there is a way that seems right to a man, but the ends are the ways of death.

There are several texts that we quote quite often, and we actually smile and say Amen when we hear them. But I feel in my heart of hearts that these are two texts of Scripture that even the good guys don't believe. Oh, they sound good, but they just can't be true. I'm going to speak to you about these texts tonight. One is found in Matthew 23:12. Jesus says that whoever exalts himself shall be abased, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

This is one text that apparently nobody believes. It sounds good, and we believe that Jesus had good intentions in saying it. But to think that Jesus said that whoever humbles himself would be exalted makes me want to say, "But, Lord, haven't You looked around? The people who look out for themselves are the ones who are exalted. The people who toot their own horns are the ones who are exalted. In fact, we have a word we use these days that starts with a W. What is it? Wimp. We are likely to respond, "Me? I don't want to be a Wimp."

Nevertheless, there it is. He who is the greatest among you, let him be your servant. That's the other verse. Most of us Americans don't understand what it means to be a servant. In other cultures and in other countries they do. I have lived in parts of the world where people have servants. In fact, even the servants have servants. In some places there is a class of society called the Servant Class. And although you get an education and have money, you will always belong to the Servant Class.

In John, the thirteenth chapter, verse 4 and 5, we read a story that we are well acquainted with. Jesus has invited his twelve disciples to supper. It says that He got up from the supper and laid aside His garments and took a towel and girded Himself. And after that He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing. Now, maybe that doesn't bother us very much, but I want to tell you that, when Jesus began to wash the feet of the disciples, it blew their minds. Those of us who regularly observe the foot washing ceremony are accustomed to washing each other's feet. Once you have done it a few times, it doesn't bother you anymore. In fact, I think we have become so accustomed to washing each other's feet that we could almost wash the feet of our enemy and survive.

No one seems to pay attention anymore. But it wasn't that way when Jesus began to wash the feet of the disciples that day. So bad was the impact that, when He came to Peter, he said, "Don't touch me. You will never wash my feet." And you know the rest of the story.

You see, in other countries the feet have special significance. I remember when I landed in Thailand for the first time. They gave me a paper on which they listed the cultural norms of the country. One of those norms, believe it or not, had to do with the feet. Let me tell you about that.

In Thailand you must never point your feet at anyone. Let me show you how this works. I'm going to get a chair and illustrate what you don't do when you are sitting on the platform in Thailand. You don't put one leg over the other one in such a way where the foot would be pointing at anyone. This would be a horrible insult. I also learned that when I sit on the platform in church, I should tuck my feet to one side so that they wouldn't be pointing at anyone.

This seems like a strange custom to me, but they told me that it was very important. Later I heard the story of several men from Southeast Asia. One of the men was a patron of a night club and the other was the performer, a singer. According to the newspaper article, the soloist was singing in the club, and the patron was sitting at a table enjoying the music, and leaned back in his chair, putting his feet up onto the table. Unfortunately, his feet were exposed to the soloist, and when the club closed, the soloist followed the patron out and shot him. When I read that story, I realized the incredible impact that feet have on the minds of so many in the world. I understood better when Peter meant when he said to the Lord, "Don't touch me. You will never wash my feet."

Also in the same country, you must never have your head higher than the head of any superiors in the room. One day we were visiting in a businessman's office and were sitting on the couch, and our host asked us if we would like a cold drink. I said I would like an orange drink, and the host snapped his finger and the servant came into the room. He gave her the order, and we continued to talk. When she came back carrying the tray of cold drinks and approached our circle where we were sitting, her head would normally have been above ours, because we were sitting down. So how was she going to serve us our drinks? She had to crawl into the room. You might hear that and say, "That's crazy. I would never allow something like that." Oh, yes, you would. When you are in those countries, you have to be aware of the importance that people have attached to their cultural customs over the centuries. I tell you this so you will understand the significance of Jesus washing the disciples' feet. This act had incredible cultural impact.

When we lived in Southern Asia, we learned an expression that goes something like this: "I showed him my shoe." This is meant to be the ultimate insult. Once I was coming back to our mission station from the city and I stopped at a filling station to buy gasoline, and I heard a tremendous rucus. I heard shouting and scuffling. I look out of the corner of my eye and saw that several men were fighting. There was a crowd standing around, pushing and shouting and cursing. Then, suddenly, another man stepped over to one of the fighters, said a word to him, and took off his shoe. He took the shoe and tapped the other fighter on the shoulder, and the fight was over. The man with the shoe was the undisputed winner. "I showed him my shoe." The other man walked away in disgrace.

Do any of you remember years ago when Nikita Kruschev was in this country visiting the United Nations? Do you remember seeing on the television or in the newspaper when he took his shoe off during a UN speech and began to beat his shoe on the desk? We Americans said, "What as country bumpkin. This guy is crazy. He's out of his mind. He doesn't have an education. He's a dummy." But for the millions and millions of the world who watched him beat his shoe, they knew what he was saying. He was showing his complete distain. They were probably thinking, "Now, there's a real men. He calls it like it is. He thinks those American guys are nothing. He is eloquent."

So when Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, He took upon Himself as their Lord and Master the form of a servant and did an act of incredible humiliation. And then having done that, He said, "I have given you an example that you should do and I have done to you." Of course, we knew that. But as I mentioned a few minutes ago, it doesn't mean much. He wasn't saying that He wanted us to wash each other's feet for a living. He was saying that He wants us to relate to each other with a spirit of humility. And it's for this reason that He said, "He that is greatest among you, let him be your servant."

That's when we come to the dilemma. Very few people in our lifetime have become great by being servants. In fact, in recent years we have an expression that goes, "Look out for #1." Another saying goes something like this: "If you don't look out for yourself, nobody else will." You've heard people say, "Hey, if you don't toot your own horn, nobody else will toot it for you."

I've heard people say--I may have said it myself--"You have to stick up for your rights. You can't let people walk on you." Now, this is the reality of the thing. The reality is, we live in a dog-eat-dog society. But in the back of our minds, we hear the words of Jesus saying to us, He that is greatest among you, let him be your servant." This is why I say it's almost impossible to believe these words of Jesus.

Some people say, "If you want to get along in the world, you have to look out for yourself." It's for this reason I have entitled this little talk tonight, "Which Way is Up?" We live in an age in which nobody puts up with anything. People are so short tempered, they try to kill each other on the highways. I was going down the highway not too long ago and saw two cars doing battle with each other. Not with guns, but they were trying to drive each other off the road, and they were screaming and cursing.

Sometimes when I drive along the turnpike, I sometimes get so sleepy that I will get off at the next interchange and try to sleep for 15 minutes. On one particular occasion, I had pulled off into an interchange parking lot and was trying to get some sleep. I don't think I was there for more than five or 10 minutes because it was too hot. I started my car and turned around to get back into the line to pick up my toll ticket. The traffic was heavy coming into the exchange, so I selfishly began to ease out into the traffic. Suddenly, a car appeared as from nowhere, and the driver was enraged. He leaned across the passenger window and exploded into a rage. I can say that I have not been exposed, fortunately, to the hate and anger that he directed at me. I couldn't even look at it. I turned my head away and I stopped. But I thought to myself, "O God, next time help me to be more careful. Help me to be more patient and not in such a hurry." This man had his problems, but I don't want to be the one who aggravates it. We kill on the highways these days.

Husbands and wives don't put up with anything anymore either. You have heard stories from the old days about wives who prayed for their husbands who were drunkards. You heard stories about wives who were even abused, if you please, by their husbands, and who lived with them for years and years and prayed for them every night. But no so today.

Parents are not putting up with their children, and children are not putting up with their parents. In fact, let me say at this point that we have come to the place in some ways where children are seen as interruptions in our lives. Even children ask each other the questions, "Were you planned? Were you an accident?"

Many women look upon pregnancy as a disease. They look upon their families as something that is taking away from them--their talents and time--and not giving them the opportunity to fulfill themselves. Of course, these factors are all a fulfillment of the text which says that in the last days men would be lovers of themselves.

What are we going to do about this? I want to confess that I feel in my heart a dilemma. I hear Jesus say, "He that is greatest among you, let him be your servant." Yet, everywhere I look it seems as though the person who is getting ahead is the person who is moving out. When am I going to do about it? They are telling us these days that we have our own rights as husbands, as wives, as children, and that we shouldn't let people stand in the way of our rights. What are we going to do?

Society says, "Look out for #1." Jesus says, "He that is greatest among you, let him be your servant." I got to thinking about this. This doesn't have an easy answer. I know my own heart. I know my own natural pride, my selfishness, my desire to be #1.

Then, I think to myself, One thing I know I can do. When I wake up in the morning, I should get up and pray that God will help me during the day to look for every opportunity not to make myself happy but to make others happy. Maybe that sounds easier to say than it is to do. Because when we get into a situation where we feel like we are challenged, we immediately want to defend ourselves. We want to stick up for our rights. But I got to thinking to myself, When do I get into the biggest trouble? When I'm helping others, or when I'm sticking up for my rights?" When did you get into a fight with your wife last? I shouldn't say that; nobody here fights with his wife. But most of us get into trouble with each other, not when we serve each other but when we are sticking up for our rights.

The Bible says, "When a man's ways please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him." Jesus told us, believe it or not, that we don't have to do whet we are told. Rather, He told us we should do more than we are told. Let me say to some of the men (and perhaps the women) who are here tonight. If you work for someone and you do just what you are told to do, you can suffer burnout. You can get fed up and sick of it. In fact, I have talked to young men and have heard them say to me, "I quit my job today. I'm not going to let those guys tell me what to do all the time." You see, human nature is proud and selfish. It is rebellious. That's why Jesus said you don't have to do what you're told, you have to do more than you are told. That's why He said when somebody asks you to go a mile, go two. If someone asks to be given your overcoat, give them your jacket, too. Let me put it in plain talk. Let's suppose that my wife asks me to take out the garbage, and I'm doing something else. Can't she see I'm busy? Can't she see I'm trying to study? Can't she see I'm watching TV? But trying to be a good husband, I take out the garbage, but I mumble under my breath.

How can I change that? Here's the way to do it. If she is asking me to take out the kitchen garbage, I think to myself that, if I'm going to take out the kitchen garbage, why don't I stop and get the bathroom trash, too? And get the trash from the bedrooms, too. The minute I do that, you see, it all changes the perspective. Now I don't feel like I'm being pushed around. I don't feel like I'm being told what to do. I feel like I'm in charge, if you please. I'm doing something that I've decided to do. On top of that, it makes my wife happy. Jesus said if you do just what you're told to do and no more, life can become a pretty big grind. That's why you don't do just what you're told, you do more than you're told.

What about the people who exploit us? There are people who exploit us. There are people who will take advantage of us to our disadvantage. There are people who may wake up in the morning saying, "I'm going to hurt someone today." Let me just say to you, remember what the Scriptures say, "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay." So, if you are wronged, don't try to defend yourself. God will defend you one day. In fact, if you are wronged and exploited by others, He says to you, "Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for you are going to get a great reward in heaven."

It was Jesus' last days on earth, and He was walking with the 12 disciples, telling them about the things that were about to happen. He said they were going to go to Jerusalem where He was going to be arrested. They were going to do all these things to Him, and He was going to be crucified--to be killed. Do you know, the 12 disciples weren't listening. You remember the story. They were talking amongst themselves as to who was going to be the big one in the kingdom. I got to thinking about that. That was so incredibly dumb. You know what happened. Jesus explained what was going to happen, and then John walked up to Him and asked, "Would You mind if my brother and I are the big shots in the kingdom?" It would be like you coming to me and saying, "Pastor O'Ffill, I just found out when I went to the doctor today that I need to have a life-threatening surgery. Pastor, I'm so concerned about it." And when you finish, I ask, "Could you loan me $10?"

It's so inappropriate. I thought about the disciples and said to myself, Those men, when they looked back on their lives, must have thought, Here we were, 3-1/2 years with the Lord of Lords, the One who made the stars and everything, and we weren't seeing anything. All we were seeing was ourselves. I think they must have kicked themselves for the rest of their lives, saying they were out of their minds. Their pride, their selfishness, and their greed blinded them from receiving the blessing and the joy of being in the presence of the Son of God. I got to thinking to myself that, when I am proud and selfish and impatient, I do more than blind myself. I ruin my life. People's lives are ruined, marriages are ruined! Why? Because in the marriage they are trying to serve each other? No, because they believe they have their rights. When you get all done, you have your rights, but you don't have your wife.

Why do we lose out jobs? We lose our jobs because we refuse to have people telling us what to do. So you are your own boss, but you don't have any more paychecks.

Oh, brothers and sister, I can see that our dearest and most meaningful relationships are put in peril when we are proud and arrogant and selfish. Jesus says to us, "He that is greatest among you, let him be your servant." This goes against the grain, it goes against the nature. Yet I know that's the way it must be. Because Jesus went on to say in another place that unless we are that way, we will not see the kingdom of heaven. That's how serious it is.

Somewhere here in Florida a couple of guys were doing some scuba diving. The idea was to explore one of the underwater caves where there was a spring. One of these fellows was down in the cave for a long time when suddenly he noticed that the bubbles from his air tank were floating down instead of up. You don't have to be a scientist to know that bubbles in the water don't go down, they go up. When he saw his bubbles apparently going down, he knew something was wrong with his equilibrium. In other words, he had the sensation that his bubbles were going down, but he also knew in his head that bubbles don't go down. In that moment he knew he had to get out of there or he would die. He must make a split-second decision which way he was going to go. If he went with his bubbles, his feelings told him he was going to his death because his feelings said he would be going down deeper. But yet he knew in his mind that bubbles don't go down, bubbles go up. So if he were going to save his life, he had to follow his bubbles no matter how he felt. Well, he followed his bubbles. He kicked and swam what felt like down, down, down, following his bubbles until at last he broke the surface and was saved.

When I heard that story, I thought to myself this is the way it is with us. Yes, we read in the Bible that he who exalts himself shall be abased, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted, and that the greatest is to be the servant. And we say we know that must be the way it is. But it doesn't feel right. It feels to me that you have to look out for yourself. It feels to me that you have to be defending your rights. It feels to me that if I don't push, I don't get ahead.

Brothers and sisters, what are we going to do? What are we going to believe? Are we going to believe what we see or feel, or are we going to believe the Bible? It makes a difference.\I was giving this talk once, and afterwards a person came to me and said, "I don't agree." She told how her home broke up, declaring she wasn't going to let her husband walk on her anymore. In that very night, another person came to me telling that his home broke up, too, but he had a different attitude. He decided that no matter what, he was going to be like Jesus. Isn't this really what we ought to be? Oh yes, we are going to be reviled and persecuted. They are going to walk on us. What are we going to do? How are we going to react? I know I want to react like Jesus. He was Kind of Kings and Lord of Lords, yet He girded Himself and started washing feet. I told you at the beginning what that meant.

Tonight I feel this conflict in my soul. I feel my pride and selfishness fighting for the ascendancy. I hear the words of the Holy Spirit say, No, it can't be that way. In the kingdom of heaven up is down. He that exalts himself shall be abased, but he that humbles himself shall be exalted. I can't answer all the problems that what I have said tonight might bring into your life. But I want to tell you that this is the way it is, and that each one of us in our own life is going to have to come to grips with it. Because the servant is not greater than his Master. Jesus humbled Himself, and so must we.


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