John 5:39-47 – Against Vainglory

Christ and Pharisee by Russian artist Ivan Filichev, 1993

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.

“I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda. I came with the authority of my Father, and you either dismiss me or avoid me. If another came, acting self-important, you would welcome him with open arms. How do you expect to get anywhere with God when you spend all your time jockeying for position with each other, ranking your rivals and ignoring God?

“But don’t think I’m going to accuse you before my Father. Moses, in whom you put so much stock, is your accuser. If you believed, really believed, what Moses said, you would believe me. He wrote of me. If you won’t take seriously what he wrote, how can I expect you to take seriously what I speak?” (MSG)

I like kids, even Junior High kids. They have not yet learned how to mask their honesty (like Senior High kids). Have a conversation with any early adolescent (other than your own kid) and you will likely get an unfiltered and unvarnished take on whatever topic you are discussing together. If the subject of celebrities comes up, they can quickly rattle off their favorites. There is a reason for that; they are very much in touch with wanting to be impressive, to stand out, even to be famous someday.

I have long contended that if you want to gauge a society’s true values, talk to a young adolescent. They just happen to have an emerging awareness of the world but not yet the sophistication to hide their true thoughts from others. Junior High age kids pretty much reflect what most adults are thinking but would never dare say out loud. After all, why lose prestige in the eyes of others who think I am wonderful? Better not to rock the boat, we reason.

“Vainglory” is an old out-of-style word which few people use anymore, yet perfectly captures exactly what Jesus was talking about when it came to people being unable to discern his divinity. Wherever and whenever you find an inordinate focus on wanting attention, seeking to impress others, and desiring celebrity status, there you will see vainglory digging its talons into a society.

Vainglory is just what it sounds like: an almost narcissistic self-absorption into one’s need for importance and attention so that the personal vanity blocks being able to see others right in front of them. In placing so much energy into becoming a celebrity among peers, the vainglorious person’s vanity fogs them from reality and the truth of another.

Conversely, we are to seek the glory which comes from God. Since so many are programmed to seek honor from others, it can be quite the undertaking to turn the hunt into finding our identity and fame as persons in the image of God. Our Gospel lesson today says our reorientation program begins with faith in Jesus Christ. It is the first step toward the unmasking of egomania and soliciting God’s favor.

The sixteenth-century Reformer, John Calvin, said that “a person is only prepared to obey the heavenly teaching when he is convinced that the chief thing to be sought in all of life is God’s approval.”

Thus, the appropriate response to vainglory is to fly like a bat of hell to the heavenly mercy of God. There is no shame in wanting honor; its just a matter of where we go looking for it. Faith is crippled when we keep trying to discern which way the wind is blowing. Both our identity and our sanity will eventually blow away. However, if we cease prioritizing worldly recognition and cancel our membership in the mutual admiration club, then our conscience clears enough to let divine grace fill our souls with the love of God in Christ.

Give me Jesus and that will be enough, thank you very much. As for recognition and attention, to be adored by the Savior is all I really need. Because at the end of the day, after the hurt of being ignored, overlooked, and forgotten, Jesus is standing at the door knocking, eager to come into the house and grace me with the gift of acceptance, approval, and admiration.

O Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son our God, give me the love which never ceases, that will light my soul with divine grace so that I might be satisfied in you and lessen the darkness of the world. Lord Jesus, I seek your presence and glory. May I see you, desire you, look on you in love, and long after you, for your sake. Amen.

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