'That don't impress me much'
My fascination with the British royal family dwindled after Lady Diana’s death that Sunday morning in 1997. It had all begun in 1981 in my grade 7 classroom as we watched a real live fairy tale unfold before us. We were mesmerised as we followed Princess Diana down the aisle in her crushed taffeta dress to marry her prince.
Although my fascination has waned, the world’s hasn’t. (I will not delve into the psychology of the common people loving the British royal family). The public and the media cannot get enough of them and recently it has been Prince Harry’s engagement to Canadian actress, writer and activist, Meghan Markle, which has attracted the spotlight and the flashing cameras. The months leading up to this had journalists and advisors to the royal family working overtime to establish her suitability. Does she have a smidgen of royal blood running through her veins?
Family Tree experts have traced her history to see if there is any aristocracy in her lineage. Lady Di, Fergie and Kate Middleton all underwent the same scrutiny. What was their pedigree?
Just to throw the cat among the pigeons, Harry and Meghan’s engagement has resulted in much discussion about the social significance of Meghan being of mixed-race. That is what her lineage uncovered. (Perhaps there is an African king or chief in her ancestry?) She will be the first mixed-raced royal in the British Royal family. (I am sure those deceased royals are rolling over in the royal graves). ‘Tut, tut.’
Fascination with blue blood and silver spoons is not just limited to royalty.
It is prevalent is most strata of society. It just presents itself differently.
No matter how much Shania Twain’s 1998 chart topping single, ‘That don’t impress me much,’ tried to convince us otherwise, we are not convinced. We are impressed by Rocket Scientists, Brad Pitt and guys in shiny cars…and the British royal family.
Social standing, family connections, double-barrelled surnames, educational qualifications, alumni, alma maters, sport achievements and what side of the track you come from, all seemingly impress us.
They are the backstory credentials which either validate or
invalidate our pedigree, and by association, our worth.
Just as you were thinking this is a worldly dilemma that we can acknowledge, let me shatter that notion and tell you that it has also crept into the church context. It is among Christians and is so ingrained we don’t easily recognise it.
It is widespread; from what church you go to and its numbers and programmes (which impress), to how long your family has been in the church (which is very impressive), to whether your dad is an elder or pastor (which always impresses), to being a pastor or elder’s wife (which impresses even more), to being a missionary or a missionary kid (which is even more impressive), to being a celebrity Christian speaker and travelling across the country and the world to conferences as a keynote speaker (which is the most impressive).
We have our own versions of a red carpet.
‘Oh, are you so and so’s daughter? Wow, it is so nice to meet you.’ Until that family connection had come to light I was a ‘nobody.’
‘She is an elder’s wife; she is so godly.’ I am still trying to find that connection in Scripture.
There is a Christian pedigree which impresses which we need to stop being impressed by.
This man-made hierarchy in the church is endorsed nowhere in Scripture.
It is worldly thinking which causes harm in churches because it results in partiality, prejudice, piousness and pride. (There is a 4 part alliterative sermon outline).
Those who have not grown up in a church context or don’t have the ‘right’ family connections in the church, often feel intimidated, side-lined or overlooked. They feel less worthy. There is the unspoken expectation that they have to prove themselves and that they should be impressed with the ‘church elite.’
(An encouraging NT example is that of Timothy who had a Jewish mother and Greek father which would not have given him impressive church credentials and yet that did not deter Paul from seeing this young believer’s heart of faith and devotion to God. He accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys and became the young pastor at the church in Ephesus. There were no ‘family connections’ or family status in the NT church.)
This attitude has been unwittingly fed by our natural tendency to be impressed by the outward and status by association. We often see this highlighted in the baptismal testimonies of teenagers and young adults who have grown up in the church and whose parents have been longstanding church members or are elders, pastors or missionaries. These young people are afforded a status and are often put on a pedestal and given the limelight.
Over the years, I have listened carefully and their testimonies tend to be variations on a theme.
They generally testify to outward obedience and profession of a Christian faith but inwardly they were rebelling against God, hating Him and not loving Christ but loving sin more. By their own admission, outwardly they were convincing, self-righteous actors. As impressive as their catechism answers and knowledge of Scripture were, their hearts were actually far from God.
What Scripture exhorts us to is the exact opposite.
There should be no place in any church context for Christian nepotism. We are all family.
‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit.’ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
What impresses us doesn’t impress God.
We may be fooled, but God is never fooled.
The mantra and repeated chorus of Scripture is God speaking to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7:
‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.’
Then God speaks even more directly through the prophet Isaiah: ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings …Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. …When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil.’ [Isaiah 1:11-16]
God saw the hearts of Cain and Abel in Genesis and accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s.
God saw the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts in their act of giving money which impressed the church. God struck them down dead.
Jesus saw the hearts of James and John in desiring impressive status positions in Heaven, and He rebuked them, saying, ‘But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.’ [Mark 10:43-44]
Jesus spoke more harshly to the Pharisees: ‘You blind Pharisees! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?’ [Matthew 23: 26-28, 33]
Just as Jesus was not impressed by the outward religious fervour of the Pharisees, so we should not be impressed by outward behaviour, spiritual knowledge which puffs up and pious religiosity.
Jesus’ brother, James, warns against such partiality and showing honour to the rich over the poor because we are easily impressed by the rich in James 2:1-9.
‘But by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ [John 13:35]
Loving one another rarely comes with flashing lights and a fan club.
It comes with a sacrificial servant heart and getting our hands dirty.
Jesus warns us in Mathew 6:1 of practicing our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them and to impress them, for then we will have no reward from our Father who is in heaven.
When we consider the Apostle Paul’s backstory and family tree, he had it all: social standing, national and religious pedigree.
It would be hard not to be impressed.
He had status, education and lineage. In his circles he was ‘royalty.’ A Jew of Jews and a Hebrew of Hebrews from the elite tribe of Benjamin. He was advancing in Judaism beyond many of his own age, and he was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers.
Worthy of celebrity status. Social media would have loved him and the paparazzi would have followed him.
Yet this was his testimony: ‘But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.’ [Philippians 3:7-8]
How did Paul get to that conclusion?
The same way we do – by looking to and considering Christ.
Jesus Christ, who had all the pedigree and lineage , but ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.’ [Philippians 2:6-7]. Jesus, the King of kings and Prince of Peace, came not to be served, but to serve.
The Jews were looking for an earthly king and political leader. That would have impressed them; not a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem raised as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth. After all, their perspective is echoed by Nathanael’s unimpressed view of Jesus in John 1:46, ’Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ According to the Jews, Jesus was born on the wrong side of the tracks.
Jesus’ earthly lineage in Matthew 1 would have had family tree experts scratching their heads in confusion. (A prostitute and a Moabite?)
This is where it is so humbling to us. We were nothing. We had no pedigree, and no lineage that would commend us to God. Our most impressive righteous deeds were like filthy rags before God, the perfectly righteous and holy judge.
Yet despite that, He chose to set His love upon us and not only send His son to save us, but to make us His sons and daughters, giving us a royal lineage and an inheritance that can never spoil or fade.
The infinitely impressive came to save and rescue the unimpressive.
Jesus became nothing so we could become something.
Jesus became nothing so He could give us everything.
That is humbling. That is grace and mercy, completely and totally undeserved.
When Meghan Markle walked down the aisle to marry Prince Harry on the 19th May 2018, she was afforded a royal title and pedigree.
When we are adopted into God’s family and become the bride of Christ, no matter what our background or lineage, we are immediately afforded an infinitely more significant royal title.
We now have an eternal royal pedigree.
We are a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God and co-heirs with Christ and we have direct access to God through His Son. Because of that, we, like Paul, can consider everything we thought we had built up as nothing compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ, who has now been exalted to the highest place.
Regardless of out past, present or pedigree, we are all equal at the foot of the cross.
Our propensity to venerate on the basis of perceived status will always disappoint and it is a dangerous preoccupation. Christ doesn’t view us in those terms and nor should we. When we recognise that, then our efforts to seek validation from others or to seek to impress them with our righteous acts are exposed as foolishness.
Paul summarises it for us in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31: ‘For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’
When we stand before God one day, cataloguing all that we have done for Him will not impress Him much. He will only measure our status and pedigree by whether our hearts have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. Nothing else will be acceptable to Him.