Downton Abbey


             Everyone has secrets. I will tell you mine: My wife watches Downton Abbey. There, it's out. I feel better now.  

            Well. Okay. Sometimes, I do too.


            I used to hate the PBS blockbuster for one main reason. It was on during Sunday night football.  I would shake my head at this "soap opera" that had divided our household. I would desperately stuff the remote control deep down in the cushions of the couch at the end of the first quarter of the game. To no avail! Next thing that I know, Lady Grantham has intercepted the football and Carson the head butler is calling plays from the lower hall.

            Since the Seattle Seahawks clobbered the Broncos on February 2nd, I must confess that I have been a little more relaxed about watching the "drama". I am sure that people watch it for many reasons. The more philosophically reflective may appreciate the meta-narrative of the rapid cultural shift of the 1920s and its affect on everything from economics to social mores. (see Albert Mohler, for example.  Those fascinated with the monarchy, kings and queens and princesses, get a bit of a view, albeit fictional, into what life must have been like for the British aristocracy.  You can't deny that if you just like the beauty of the lush English countryside and its historic cobblestone streets, no episode of Downton will disappoint.

            For me, what I like is that it is real. One of the constant themes is the persistent and varied attempts of those in the "real world" to help persuade the Grantham family that it is time to come down to planet earth. They have been living in a dream and that dream is about to come to an end whether they like it or not, and the sooner that they come to terms with it, the better. There is much to ponder in that for many of us.

            However, that's not what I mean when I say that it is real. What is real is that almost all the characters have secrets. They have failures and scars and wounds. They live in a world that tries to keep the upper level separate from the lower level. It is of utmost urgency that the decorum of Downton and the public image remain intact. What happens in their real lives must not be allowed to shatter the apparent order and dignity of their vital role and place in the community.

             The question, of course, that dominates the show is with whom can you trust your secret? The guilt and shame of past sin and failure can be unbearable. The risk of painful rejection and public humiliation if you confess is very high. Is there a possibility of being honest about your personal history? Do we all need to flee far away to America and start anew where nobody knows our names?

            In the gospels of the New Testament, this is precisely the issue that is addressed. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has sin. The decorum of Jewish religious life must be maintained. If you are found to be a sinner, you are cast out. One of the dominating criticisms of Jesus is that he seems to show utter disregard for the personal history of those with whom he associates. A Pharisee named Simon charges that Jesus could not be a true prophet because he allows a woman who is a known "sinner" to wash his feet with her tears and anoint him with costly perfume (see Luke 7, verse 39) . Her secret was out. How could Jesus not know it?

            The truth is that Jesus did know it. In fact, the entire scene where this woman interrupts a meal with effusive love and gratitude to Jesus is completely founded upon the joy and relief that she has found in Jesus Christ. Here is a person who knows her sin and yet doesn't condemn her. He receives her and he extends to her the forgiveness that she so desperately desires. For so long, she had been a pariah. Her life had been a living metaphor used to keep sinners silent. Shame was her name. Finally, at last, she had found rest for her exhausted soul.

            In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus extended this offer: "Come to me, those of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." What is striking about this passage is the reason that Jesus gives for burdened weary sinners to come to him? Why should they trust him? What made him different that the religious establishment that had left them as Jesus said "harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd?" There was something strikingly different about the Christ. Jesus was "gentle and humble in heart".

            For a long time, I have pondered the question, how can I be like Jesus? How can I be the kind of man to whom weary and worn sinners in deep need of rest would turn? How can I create trust when many have been named and shamed and harassed and unhelped? This is a crucial question for anyone to ask if you care about people. It must be answered by parents and pastors, church planters and boyfriends.

            Jesus had the highest standards of holiness. His teaching on godliness superseded that of the Law of Moses. Yet, sinners came to him. They really came. They came on mass. They invited him to dine with them. They felt safe. Why?

            In considering this, I asked the question "What other Bible passages describe Jesus as gentle and humble?" In Matthew's gospel, the same word for gentle is used when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a young donkey (Matthew 21:5). Matthew writes that this was the fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy from over 500 years previous by the prophet Zechariah. Riding on a donkey was a practical demonstration that he was coming to bring peace. Jesus actions were deliberately chosen. He was making a clear point. He was the Messiah and although they would kill him, His purpose was to bring peace.

            It is worth reflecting upon the question: How clear is it to the people that are around me that I have come to bring peace? The expectation of Jesus' day was that the promised Messiah would come as mighty warrior to help them throw off the oppression of foreign rulers. The nation would return to its glory days. Here is Jesus entering not as a mighty warrior but a man of peace. They would execute him in the next several days for not conforming to the expectations of the ruling authorities. Yet, remarkably, Jesus and his followers would not fight them. They wouldn't counter attack. He wouldn't call ten thousand angels to destroy his enemies.

            A good definition of gentle is a radical commitment not to attack others no matter if they are unjust or unkind. Jesus stood silent. Though they reviled him, He did not revile in return. Imagine if we did that. Imagine if a couple getting into an argument over their in-laws or their children decided that they wouldn't throw fuel in the fire by returning evil for evil.

             Do you see? Trust is actually built when we are being sinned against. When your son or daughter is yelling "I hate you!" over your refusal to let them go to that un-chaperoned Friday night party, you are building trust. They are unconsciously learning how you will respond to them if they sin. They know that you have standards. They know that they are contravening them. What you are like at this difficult moment is a good indicator of what you may be expected to be like later, What will you do if they ever find a heartbreaking need to reveal a painful personal secret? The odds are high that such a day will come.

            When we charge in the room riding on a warhorse, we reveal whose kingdom feels threatened and for whose honour we really live. When we refuse to respond to evil with evil, we are proclaiming the existence of a kingdom which is being built by Christ and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

            Gentleness, or meekness as some translations put it, is having the God-given strength not to go to war, especially when  we are wronged. It is telling people that you are not here to fight them.

            Humility is similar. Humility is announcing that we won't defend ourselves. When the apostle Paul in Philippians 2 tells us to have the same humble attitude in ourselves as was in Jesus Christ, he used the example of Christ's willingness to lay aside his high position as God, to take on human flesh, and to suffer on a Roman cross for our sins. Paul declares that God exalted Jesus to the highest place specifically because Jesus humbled himself in this way. He was God. He became man. He became man so that He might die for those who would be responsible for His death.

            Let me put it simply following Jesus example. Gentleness says that I won't attack you. Humility says that I won't defend myself, my rights, my place. Now, imagine your teenager gets caught in sin. Who will he or she turn to? Many turn to someone other than those that they should. If she knows that her Dad or Mom won't attack her and won't be all up in arms about what it means to the family reputation, she is likely to come. Why? She knows where to find a safe place to lay her burden down. When she finally needs rest for her weary soul, she knows that you know a thing or two about that.

            Every conflict provides an opportunity to assert two things. I will not attack you. I will not defend me. It also begs the question, "Why?" The answer is simple: This is love. Not that we loved God, but He loved us and gave His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Friends, if God so loved us this way,  this is how we should love one another. (see 1 John 4:10-11)

            We all have secrets. We all have sin. Where is it safe to take it?

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