Do any of you remember the old musical Camelot, about King Arthur and the Round Table?
It was popular back in the early 60's, it’s one of the reasons the Kennedy White House started being called Camelot. The reason I bring it up is because of Lancelot. Remember Lancelot? Until he and Guenevere fell in love and destroyed the kingdom he was the very best of the knights - and he knew it. Robert Goulet played the role on Broadway, and we first meet Lancelot
as a brash young man come to join Arthur’s noble experiment, a company of outstanding knights sworn to brotherhood and Christian virtue. But Lancelot, young and untried as he is, has no doubt at all that they’ll snap him up as soon as he appears.
Camelot! Camelot! In far-off France I heard your call.
Camelot! Camelot! And here am I to give my all.
I know in my soul what you expect of me, and all that and more I shall be.
A knight of the table round should be invincible,
succeed where a less fantastic man would fail,
Climb a wall no one else can climb,
cleave a dragon in record time,
swim a moat in a coat of heavy iron mail.
No matter the pain he ought to be unwince-able,
impossible deeds should be his daily fare,
But where in the world is there in the world a man so extraordinaire?
C’est moi, c’est moi, I’m forced to admit, ‘tis I, I humbly reply;
The mortal who these marvels can do, c’est moi! C’est moi! ‘Tis I.
Well, of course this is probably not exactly how the real historical Lancelot - if ever he existed at all - showed up at Arthur’s door. But the point is that he went, thinking himself - for whatever reason - suited to the job. It’s a far cry from Moses’ response when God called him to another sort of dangerous and heroic mission, isn’t it. Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" [Ex 3:11]
Which one do you think is a better model of meekness? Moses’ example, of course. In the very next chapter we’re told that “the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth. [Num 12:3] What does the dictionary say? Webster’s unabridged first defines meek first of all as “patient and mild, not inclined to anger or resentment,” Okay, I’ll agree, that’s meek. But I don’t think that’s all that comes to most of our minds when we think
“meek.” I think that the second definition fills it out a whole lot better. “Tamely submissive”, Webster goes on, “easily imposed on, spineless or spiritless.” Now that’s what most of us picture as meek. Caspar Milquetoast, right? Never stand up for yourself, can’t say “boo!” to a goose, as the old saying goes. Although why anyone would want to say “boo” to a goose escapes me. Anyway, with that definition it’s pretty hard to put meekness and inheriting the earth together.
But think about it. Moses wasn’t exactly easily imposed on; he put up a pretty good fight before he agreed to what God wanted from him. And later on when he was leading the Israelites around in the wilderness, he didn’t put up with any nonsense from them either. So perhaps meekness doesn’t mean weakness after all. Maybe there’s more to it than just submission.
Remember what Martyn Lloyd-Jones said about these beatitudes - none of them are natural qualities. So although we may call someone meek who is naturally passive, easily led, timid, that’s not what the Bible is talking about.
And Lancelot - believe it or not, he too was called meek. Listen to what Sir Thomas Malory wrote about him in Le Morte d’Arthur:
"Thou wert the most courteous knight that ever bore a shield, the truest friend that ever bestrode a horse, thou wert the meekest and the gentlest man that ever ate in hall among ladies, and the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest."
How can someone be both meek and fierce? Lloyd-Jones points to the great Biblical examples of meekness: the martyr Stephen, King David, the patriarch Abraham, and of course the greatest example of all, Jesus Christ. Abraham was rich and powerful, and yet he let Lot take his first pick of the land when they had to split up. David was a great warrior who became a mighty king; and yet he endured Saul’s unjust treatment of him without retaliating. Stephen was willing to die for the truth. And Jesus stood up to the most powerful forces the world could bring against him and never gave an inch. Meekness is compatible with great strength, with authority and power. And C. S. Lewis says that meekness is not a compromise, not some happy mean between ferocity and gentleness; he is all one when the occasion demands, and all the other when necessary.
The two key ingredients of meekness are to know yourself, and to be able to say “no” to yourself. Moses had a realistic view of himself. He knew that he didn’t have what it took to be the savior of the Israelites. He needed major assurances from God, guarantees of presence and power and protection. Now, back in the early days, when he was a prince of Egypt, he did think he could fix things with brute force. He killed a man who was abusing a slave, and wound up having to flee for his life. I have a feeling that back when he was Prince Moses, we might have heard him singing the Egyptian equivalent of “Cest moi!” But 40 years in Midian, herding sheep and learning about life from that wise sheik Jethro, had tempered that youthful brashness.
Back during the time when I was thinking and praying about entering the ministry, investigating my sense of call and working through the issue of women’s ordination, in one part of myself I thought, “How astute of God to have called me! It’s a perfect fit! I have all the gifts... teaching and public speaking and writing and planning and group dynamics and a whole variety of leadership skills and....” Well, you get the idea. In one sense I didn’t have a very good self-image but there were some things I knew I was good at. Fortunately God knew just how to knock the stuffing out of that particular delusion. I won’t go into detail but it was the clear view of myself as sinner that I told you about last week, the mourning that was so intense and severe that if God hadn’t been holding my hand through the process I might not have survived. I cried for a week - including occasionally over spreadsheets in my office - and for another year or so whenever I tried to talk about it I’d have to hold my breath to keep from bursting into tears again. I still had all the gifts and skills I’d been so impressed with before, but finally I knew who I was.
And only then was I suitable for God’s use.
Sometimes pride has to be knocked out of people before meekness can be poured in. That’s what happened to Paul, remember? He started out so sure of his righteousness that he not only demonized his opponents, he sought their deaths. But Jesus shook him up, and in his first letter to Timothy he referred to himself as foremost among sinners.
Meekness is strength tamed through self-knowledge and submission to God. And it is not a natural quality. A person who finds it natural or easy to submit will not have the strength to stand up for God’s truth, to persevere against opposition, to fight the good fight or finish the race.
C. S. Lewis points out that this combination of strength and gentleness is a paradox. Those of us “who have grown up amid the ruins of the chivalrous tradition,” says Lewis, “have the notion that a bully is a coward.” This is not true, as both history and experience show us. In none of the ancient epics are the brave also called on to be merciful. In fact, the greater the ferocity, the more admired the man. Look at Achilles.
The medieval ideal - which was Christian at its core, although not always in its practice - brought together two things which have no natural tendency to belong to each other. It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew how much he usually needed that lesson. And it demanded valor of the modest and peace-loving man because everyone knew that such a one would not normally be equipped to fight for the very ideals by which he survived.
If society cannot produce such men as Lancelot, says Lewis, humanity falls into two sections: those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be “meek in hall” and those who are “meek in hall” but useless on the battlefield.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of the feminist revolution is the denigration of masculinity as violence, which sees man’s natural competitiveness as pure atavistic evil, and decries any admiration of chivalry as “glorifying violence”. A natural reaction to this is a sort of neo-heroism which elevates pure courage without honor or gentleness. We see this most clearly, I think, in what has happened to our sports heroes - the modern day equivalent of the warrior - once we ceased expecting honorable behavior (what we used to call sportsmanship) from them. We see it in the rise of violence at games, from the Little League to the World Cup. And unless we learn once again somehow to combine strength and gentleness we are going to be more and more divided between wimps and wolves. The wolf is a predator, who sees other people as food or fodder, objects for increasing his or her power or influence. The wimp is a victim, unable to protect the innocent. The wolf needs to be tamed, the wimp needs to be strengthened. Neither is usable in their natural state. And it is, believe it or not, easier to tame the wolf than to give a sheep backbone.
And please note that meekness is not only for men, although the examples from chivalry are necessarily masculine. Meekness is also for women. It is for anyone whose strengths are to be used by God. For all of us meekness requires self-knowledge, in order that we can be in right relationship with God and our neighbors. But it also requires being able to say no to ourselves. Some of us need to say “no” to our strengths, some of us need to say no to our weaknesses. For some the key issue is pride, for some it’s appetite or ambition, for others it’s
fear or doubt. What do you need to say no to?
Everyone who aspires to high office - whether our new president and his cabinet or our new elders, as they prepare for their ordination, needs to examine their own meekness quotient. How aware are you of your weakness, of your dependence on God? How able are you to say no to your own opinions and desires?
The reason the meek will inherit the earth is not by coming out of our safe little caves to find that the battle has been won for us. It is because they - we - are God’s army, taking over the world not for ourselves, but for Him. Strength - tamed in obedient service to God. The wolf who has learned to guard the sheep has a permanent place at the master’s fire.