To Thine Own Self Be True

Zechariah 9:9/Luke 18:1-12

There is a familiar passage in Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.

There is a familiar passage in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that goes like this:

This above all: to thine own Self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Jesus of Nazareth was the Servant of all, but he was true to himself, and true to the vocation that God had given him.  Nowhere is this better seen than in the story of his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, the foal of an ass.  As the typical traveler approached Jerusalem, he would dismount, and lead his beast into the city, so that no one in Jerusalem would suppose that he was bold enough or foolish enough to enter Jerusalem the manner that Zechariah prophesied for the coming of the Great King. Jesus did just the opposite.  He sent his disciples to find an animal just like the one described by Zechariah.  And, then, placing himself upon it, he entered the city in the manner that Zechariah had prophesied. And his disciples went before him, strewing his path with their garments. Then as Jesus drew near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples remembered all the might works they had seen him do, and they began to cry out saying,“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”  Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”  “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Jesus had come to Jerusalem for two reasons:  First, he had come to Jerusalem to announce his identity as God Messiah, the Christ, the King. Some skeptics say that Jesus had no Messianic consciousness. The story of the triumphal entry, featured in all four gospels, puts an end to that.. Second, Jesus had come to Jerusalem to force the hand of the authorities. In doing the first, he accomplished the second. After Palm SundayJesus was as big a threat to the scribes, chief priests and rulers of the temple, as he was to Herod, Pilate and Rome. Hear again those words of the Bard of Avon:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Think how often that the spirit of these words—if not the words themselves, has guided the conduct of those who achieved some measure of true greatness.

Think of Galileo, the16th and 17th century Italian scientists and astronomer. Galileo once sat in the cathedral at Pisa, watching a lamp swinging in a lazy circle. He ought to have been listening to a sermon by his bishop; but that swinging lamp stole his attention, and confirmed his belief that the Earth orbits the sun, not vise versa.  The church of his day still read the Bible as a scientific text book. So the church cried, “Heresy!”  They delivered Galileo to the inquisitors, and the inquisitors threatened him with torture and excommunication. Officially, Galileo recanted; but after his recantation, he rose to his feet and muttered,“But it does move…” He persisted in this testimony to all who would listen, and eventually, it became the incontrovertible truth. Galileo was true to himself, and the world is still in his debt.

Think of Winston Churchill, the 20th century Englishman.  In the 1930’s, as a member of the House of Commons, Churchill warned against the dangers of Hitler. He said that the Nazi leader had but one goal—to conquer all of Europe. Churchill urged Britain to build up her Air Force and her Army to match the might of her Navy. For half a decade, the members of the House of Commons laughed at him. Then, when all his dire predictions proved true, he was invited to become the Prime Minister and form a government. No one has ever done better by that high office. For two long years, when Great Britain was forced to stand alone against Germany’s ambitions, Churchill challenged Hitler, saying “We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will. You do your worst—and we will do our best!”  Winston Churchill was true to himself, and the world is still in his debt.

Or think Rosa Parks, a 20th century domestic servant who lived in Alabama. One afternoon in 1955 Rosa Parks was so tired that she refused to yield her seat to a white man and go to the back of a Birmingham Bus. Her whole life, she had been taught that she was a second class citizen, and the back of the bus was the only place for her and all people like her. Yet, this one small woman, motivated as much by exhaustion as by the injustices forced upon her and her people, engaged in a single act of civil disobedience that shook our nation to its racists core. Rosa Parks was true to herself and the world is still in her debt.

If Jesus of Nazareth had not set himself upon that colt, the foal of an ass, he might have avoided the cross.  However, if Jesus had avoided the cross, he would not have been to himself and the vocation God gave him. If Jesus had somehow avoided the cross ,we would never have seen the first light of God’s Eternal Day break forth from the darkness of his Garden Tomb. If Jesus had somehow avoided the cross, we would not now pray to him as we did for much of Lent, “In to your open arms stretched out upon the cross, receive us all.”

Now it is easy to talk of Jesus Christ being true to himself.  And it is relatively easy to pick some special few human beings being true to themselves. But we live in a world that is flat, and hot and crowed with more than 7 billion people. How can we even begin to speak of being true to ourselves? There is only one way.

1. If we seek to be true to ourselves, each of us must be true to our best self; but what is our best self?

Today we speak of each of us having multiple selves.  Sigmund Freud spoke of a divided Self. Freud said that the Ego as the controlling principal of the human personality, but the Ego was constantly caught in a pitched battle between the Id, which is the most selfish and irresponsible part of us, and the Super Ego which is the most social and responsible part of us. When the Ego is ruled by the Id, then we invariably serve ourselves and hurt those around us. When the Ego is ruled by the Super Ego, we invariably control ourselves and serve those around us.

Today, Freud is fallen from fashion; but his heirs are saying much the same thing in different ways. In his book, “Homo Deus,” Yuval Noah Hariri speaks of  the struggle between “the Experiencing Self” which pursues pleasure and acts without thought of cost, and “the Reflecting Self” which learns the lessons of life, and brings a measure of discipline to the Experiencing Self.

Jesus was on the side of the Super Ego and the Reflecting Self when he said things like:”You shall love your neighbor even as you love your self!” And, “If you would come after me, you must deny yourself (Your Id Controlled/Experiencing Self), and take up the cross and follow me.”

Second, if we seek to be true to our best self, we must align our best self with the will of God. 

According to Luke chapter 22 on the night he betrayed, Jesus thought long and hard about the suffering that lay just ahead. He thought of that suffering in terms of the “cup of God’s wrath,” which the prophets said that God would unleash on the world of disobedience. Then Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but your will, be done.”

It is not God’s will that each of us should suffer what Jesus suffered. Only one could “die for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” The suffering of Jesus was unique to him. Nor is it God’s will that we should suffer simply for the sake of suffering. The New Testament tells us that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope; but it never tells us to seek suffering just to prove and toughen character and expand our hope. God wants us to suffer only when that suffering arises out of our service to Jesus Christ and our common humanity, in accordance with God’s will. In Romans 8, St. Paul writes:

“When we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’, it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are the children of God, and if children, heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with him, that we might also be glorified with him.”

Often, it is this suffering that God sends that is the very thing that makes us. As one author said, “The kind of suffering that God sends those who follow Jesus is like wings to a bird, it does not drag us down, it lifts us up.”

Third, if we are to be true to ourselves, we must be willing to accept God’s offer forgiveness for all those times in our lives when we were not at our best.

Before I came to Fries Memorial in 1979, I served in Charlotte, N.C.  While there, I met a young man who made some wrong choices, then those wrong choices un-made him. His life was a downward spiral.  At last things were so bad, his family put him in a hospital in Morganton, N.C., and I went to see him. When I met him, his once strong body was shrunken, and his strength was dried up, “as by the heat of summer.” The memory of his sins and failures dominated his days, and haunted his nights. I listened as he rehearsed a long list of indiscretions. Then he said, “The worst part is remembering it all, day after day, night after night.” As I listened, I had a fit of inspiration. In that long ago day before smartphones I used to carry a Day-Timer with a pocket in it big enough for a short stack of 3 by 5 note cards. I pulled out a card and wrote, “When we belong to Jesus Christ, we have forgiveness. We can still remember our past, but we must remember it like it happened to somebody else, because Jesus Christ has claimed it for his own. ” Then, on the back,  I added a verse from 1st Peter 2:24, “Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” I handed him the card, prayed with him, and left the hospital. Not long after my visit with him, I moved here to Winston-Salem. I am ashamed to say I lost track of him, and six long months fell from the calendar. Then, early on Easter Morning, in 1980, he rode a bus to Winston-Salem, and took a taxi to this church. When I first saw him, he was carrying the tuba he had played in high school, in hopes that he could play in the Easter Band. He gave me a bearhug, and handed me a 3 by 5 note card. It read,“When we belong to Jesus Christ, we have forgiveness. We can remember our past, but we remember it like it happened to somebody else, because Jesus Christ has claimed it for his own.”

Fourth, and finally, if we are to be true to ourselves, we must never give up or be discouraged.  When Jesus rode in to the city to the cheers of his disciples, he knew he was taking a short ride that would lead to longest, darkness night of his life. However, he did not focus on the darkness of that night, but to the Vindication he expected to receive from God in the morning he was sure would follow. In Hebrews 12:2 we read, “For the joy that was set before, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right had of the throne of God.”  I once had some good advice from a dying man.  He was one of the seven  men who built the organ in our choir loft. On the last day of his life he called me to his bedside and said, “Worth, Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!” He was right. It is only when we have reached the end of our own resources, that we enter God-room, which is the place where only God can work. God is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask, think, or imagine; but God can do this work, as he did this work in Jesus, only if we are true to the best self that in in us.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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