Palm Sunday C
March 14, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
In one of the earlier episodes of the TV series M*A*S*H the doctor known as “Trapper” gets diagnosed with a stomach ulcer (Trapper was memorably played by Wayne Rogers, who died recently). Although initially upset about having to deal with a hole in his gut, Trapper soon beams with joy when his bunkmate Hawkeye reminds him that according to Army regulations, Trapper was going home! His ulcer was his ticket out of the misery of the Korean War.
As the episode progresses, they arrange a farewell party for Trapper. But minutes before Trapper shows up for his party, he is informed by the Company Clerk, Radar, that the Army had recently changed its regulations and his ulcer would have to be treated right there in Korea. Trapper goes to the party anyway and allows the hilarity, festivity, and joy of the evening to proceed for a good long while until he’s asked to give a final speech, at which time he tells everyone the truth: he’s not going anywhere after all.
But throughout the party, both Trapper and Radar have a look in their eyes that betrays the truth, if only anyone had looked close enough to notice. Trapper smiles and even laughs during the party at times but it’s a bit muted and the sadness in his eyes tells the reason why: it’s a nice party but it’s not going to end the way he had hoped or the way all the other partygoers were anticipating.
I wonder if someone had looked deep into Jesus’ eyes that day in Jerusalem if they might have seen something similar. As I said in a sermon of mine on Luke 19, Palm Sunday in Luke is bracketed by some dark events: ominous words in Luke 19:26-27 and outright weeping on Jesus’ part in Luke 19:41-44. So as Jesus allowed the Triumphal Entry little parade to continue, did his eyes betray the real truth? Did he smile as he received the “Blessed is the king . . .” accolades but even so displayed a very deep sorrow in his eyes (reflecting the sorrow in his heart, a sorrow that will very soon and very literally spill out)?
In the Revised Common Lectionary you can take your choice between “Liturgy of the Palms” or “Liturgy of the Passion.” This Luke 19 text is assigned for the “Liturgy of the Palms,” and we’ll simply note the irony that Luke 19 does not have a single palm branch in sight. No “Hosannas” in this text either and no children (unless you count Jesus’ reference to the DEATH of children in Jerusalem’s upcoming destruction. A happy reference to children whose praises were “the simplest and the best” or the lips of children who “made sweet hosannas ring” that is not!!)
Here, then, is an opportunity for us pastors royally to tick off all kinds of Children’s Choir directors who distribute palm fronds to accompany the children’s singing “Hosanna Loud Hosanna.” But the point of Luke 19 is not to offend well-meaning choral types or squash everybody’s Palm Sunday frivolity. No, Luke strips away everything that would distract us so that we can have a clear and singular focus on Jesus alone. Look at HIS face, peer deeply into HIS eyes. That’s where the real story is being told.
Jesus knew what he had to do, and proceeding into the Holy City was part of all that. And he knew that if he did his Father’s will in all this, there would be precisely the “peace in heaven and glory in the highest” of which the crowds sang but he also knew where he’d have to go and what he’d have to endure to secure that peace and glory.
In the church it seems that we too often try too hard to let “Palm Sunday” be a bright spot in the Lenten darkness in ways that may not allow us fully to absorb the dynamics here. We need to look deep into those eyes of Jesus on this day. We need to see the sadness just behind the mirth, the deep pity that undergirds the larger celebration.
Because in seeing that on the face of Jesus, we find yet another way to identify with our Lord—or perhaps better said, we find another way in which our Lord is able to identify with us. Because as pastors, but also as ordinary churchgoers, how often haven’t we also had to proceed through a worship service with songs of praise on our lips and wrenching hurt in our hearts? How often don’t we have the experience as pastors of looking out over a congregation during the singing of a hymn and suddenly finding our own voices choking a bit when our eyes fall on Marjorie, whose secret pain the pastor alone knows but that the pastor can see as Marjorie rasps out the lyrics to the hymn even as puddles of tears form in the corners of her eyes.
So often our worship of God—absolutely proper and full of peace and glory—is tinged with the sorrow and the pity of it all. We know Jesus has redeemed us (and the he did so precisely because he didn’t stop to linger over the “Triumphal” Entry parade but proceeded onward to the cross and all that happened through that sacrifice). We’re right to celebrate Jesus as our King but are properly sobered by what it cost our Lord. We’re also properly sobered to feel the pain of this in-between time of the already and the not-yet. What we see on “Palm Sunday” is not a break from it all but a way more deeply to engage life’s sharper edges. But more than that, because the eyes in which we see all that sadness are no less than Jesus’ own eyes, we know that when we also feel that mixture of glory and pain, of joy and sorrow, we are not only understood right well by our Lord, that same Lord has pointed us forward to a day when the promise will come true: he will wipe every tear from every eye.
Note: Our 2016 Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings on the CEP Home Page, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2016/
One way to freshen up this familiar story is to help the congregation notice something about Luke’s text that was also already noted above: it does NOT include most of what we associate with “Palm Sunday.” In fact, if Luke were the only gospel we had to go on, we would not call this day PALM Sunday because he never once mentions any waving of palms. Maybe we’d call it “Coat Sunday” because that is about the only detail Luke does give: people laid their coats down for Jesus to ride upon. If Luke were the only gospel we had to go on, we also would probably never have learned the word “hosanna,” because Luke never has anyone using that word. And if Luke were the only gospel we had, we would never envision little children singing to Jesus because Luke has no children around, either. In fact, you could even wonder, based on Luke’s portrayal of this event, how big the crowd was at all. Twice we are told that the people doing the cheering were only Jesus’ disciples. Is this a real parade or a wannabe one?
Knowing that Easter is coming must not make us impatient to get to next Sunday morning but instead our Easter knowledge allows us to see the cross itself as the source of our salvation. On that cross our God in Christ saved us.
Knowing what is yet to come a week from today allows us to perceive the paradox of the cross. In the cross we see the glorification of Jesus. Jesus is glorified on a cross, which, as Neal Plantinga has often said, is about as odd as being celebrated by a firing squad or getting enthroned on an electric chair. What keeps us from fleeing the cross is precisely our awareness that God in Christ is accomplishing something incredible in and through that death. Today, knowing about Easter allows us to see the entry into Jerusalem as Jesus’ own funeral procession. We don’t need to turn Palm Sunday into something it is not. We don’t need to treat this as pre-Easter but can see in this march toward Golgotha the first steps toward the gospel paradox: the death that brings life, the sacrifice that solves all that has ever been wrong with this world. Jesus must walk this path and we must go with him.
Joy for Christian people is a last feeling, not a first. Christian joy is refined and thoughtful because it has passed through death. If you burst into a classroom of 3rd Graders and surprise them with an out-of-the-blue gift, you will see the whole class erupt in happiness. Come up to a stranger in the street and hand her a $100 bill just for the lark of it, and you will see a look of happy wonderment flash across her face. For the original Palm Sunday crowd, their joyful praises were like that: spontaneous, erupting straight from the heart of people who thought an out-of-the-blue gift was getting plopped right into their laps. “Here’s your Savior and King!” the crowds thought they heard someone say. And so they erupted in happy shouts. How could they not?
But that spontaneous reaction is not real joy as we Christians would define it. It is not a faith-based joy. True joy is a miracle of grace, emerging as it does not spontaneously the way a little kid will become happy if you slip him a candy bar but thoughtfully the way joy must emerge for us on Friday when we look at a bloody cross and yet still find it within ourselves to shout, “Hosanna! What a Savior!”
Next Sunday we will celebrate Easter and we will do it from the midst of a war-ravaged world. In one sense it is awfully surprising that when the Son of God came to this earth, he died so hideous a death in order to save us. At the same time, however, given the bloody state of affairs we so routinely encounter in this world, it seems also inevitable that God would save us in precisely the way he did.
Author: Doug Bratt
Those who try to say something authoritative about the Lord had better have a really good reason for doing so.
After all, few tasks are, more intimidating than trying to faithfully proclaim God’s Word. In fact, most preachers and teachers know the fear that sometimes chases them right up to the pulpit or lectern.
Scholars usually categorize the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday as the third of four “suffering servant” passages of Isaiah 40-55. Many also believe Isaiah composed it sometime during the late exilic period, perhaps around 540 BCE. This part of the prophet’s writings particularly anticipates a time when God will rescue God’s Israelite sons and daughters from their misery and enemies.
Yet that makes the plight of the prophet and those to whom he speaks in some ways radically different. Israel has known great suffering and loss. However, Isaiah points ahead to a time of reconciliation and restoration. The situation of the person (or people) who speaks this text, however, is quite different. Those fortunes seem to be heading in the opposite of Israel’s.
Our text’s narrator, its “me” (4) remains anonymous. Some suggest it’s Isaiah himself. Others suggest the suffering individual is the community of Israel. In either case, however, as Scott Hoezee notes, the narrator seems like the kind of person we’d all want for a friend. The speaker appears to be someone who knows just when to talk and when to listen. She seems to be able to both speak just the right words at just the right time and offer a listening and sympathetic ear when the situation calls for it.
Of course, our text’s narrator gives all the credit for all of that graciousness to the Lord. “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary … The Lord “wakens me morning by morning … to listen like one being taught,” the narrator says in verse 4. “The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears,” he adds in verse 5. The vivid imagery is that of someone who has been taught well to listen very well.
This provides Isaiah 50’s preachers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to reflect with the community on ears and hearts that are softened to God’s voice. How does such a listening spirit manifest itself in God’s sons and daughters? How can God’s adopted children open ourselves to such genuine wisdom and sensitivity?
And yet, the narrator goes on in verse 6, this good listener is also a real sufferer. He has already suffered and endured brutal persecution. His enemies have struck, stripped, insulted and spit on the speaker. Christian hearers’ thoughts are quickly drawn, especially in the season of Lent, to Jesus’ experiences before both Jewish religious and Roman leaders. Yet with little more imagination, we can also hear persecuted Middle Eastern, African and Asian Christians speaking the same words. While such humiliation of such a kind person make no sense to us, it reflects the experiences of countless people of God down through the ages.
The narrator, Jesus and other Christians’ experiences that reflect Isaiah 50 offer its preachers and teachers an opportunity to consider together the nature of Christian suffering. This text especially presents a chance to talk about why those who suffer for their faith’s experiences generally aren’t ours. Jesus seemed to promise his followers things like what the narrator endures. So why don’t we endure them more often?
And yet the narrator refuses to let his misery dissuade him from pursuing his God-given mandate. “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,” he writes in verses 7 and following, “I will not be disgraced … I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near … It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.”
How can our text’s narrator endure what he doesn’t seem to deserve? Instead of wavering in the face others’ violence, he is confident God is on his side. Instead of lashing out as those who mistreat him, the speaker expresses his confidence that God stays right with him. As a result, like Job, the speaker is completely confident God will ultimately vindicate rather than him.
So the narrator can confidently offer three rhetorical questions: “Who then will bring charges against me?” (8). “Who is my accuser?” (8). “Who is he that will condemn me?” (9). If the language sounds familiar to people who are more familiar with Paul’s words than Isaiah’s, it should. The apostle makes extensive use of them in one of the great expressions of the faith, Romans 8.
Here, finally, is the best thing anyone who suffers unjustly has going for her. There are no guarantees people won’t persecute us unfairly. There are no guarantees nice people will finish first. There are no guarantees God’s adopted sons and daughters will be popular, healthy and wealthy. The only guarantees are that God will never leave or forsake those whom God loves for Jesus’ sake. The only guarantees are that nothing in all of creation can separate God’s people from God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. The only guarantees are that when we pass through deep waters or hot fires, God goes with us, by God’s Word and Spirit.
It’s in some ways regrettable the Lectionary, in its obsession with omitting anything that’s uncomfortable, ignores the second part of verse 9. There the narrator insists those who unjustly persecute him “will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.” It doesn’t, after all, just remind unjust sufferers that God takes their misery very seriously. It also warns those who fail to act like Jesus that eventually, like an aging boxer, they’ll wear themselves out by causing so much grief.
The texts the Lectionary links to this passage are hardly surprising. The Gospel reading is Matthew 27:11-54’s account of Jesus’ trial, suffering and death. There Jesus’ accusers literally beat him and probably pull out his beard too. The Psalm reading is Psalm 31:9-16 that, among other things, Jesus quotes as he dangles between heaven and earth on the cross. And the second reading’s Philippians 2:5-11 is Paul’s stirring hymn to the Christ who suffered so horribly and unjustly at the hands of tormentors that sound a lot like Isaiah 50’s narrator’s.
When I was a student in college, we learned and sang a very lyrical setting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, “Von wunderbaren Maechten still geborgen” (loosely translated as, “By Gracious Powers So Wonderfully Sheltered”). He wrote it literally months before the Nazis hanged him for his Christian resistance to their murderous rule. In it Bonhoeffer includes the line, Gott ist mit uns am Abend und am Morgen, (loosely translated, “God is with us night and day”). Bonhoeffer reflects, among other things, Isaiah’s confidence that “It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.”
It wasn’t until later that I realized that Bonhoeffer’s “God is with us night and morning” is perhaps a deliberate play on the German military’s Gott mit uns, (loosely translated, “God with us”). That motto was inscribed on armor between the time of German unification in 1871 and the end of the Third Reich. It reflected the German aristocracy and leadership’s confidence that God was with their military.
This offers Isaiah 50’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on our own confidence that God is with us, no matter what, even if our way is not God’s way. In what ways do we try to baptize our own various causes in God’s purposes?
Author: Stan Mast
At first glance, this is not a good choice for a Palm Sunday text. I mean, how do we connect David’s feeling that “there is terror on every side” with Jesus’ experience of being surrounded by an adoring crowd shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David?” But when the lectionary reminds us that this is also Passion Sunday, we can clearly see the connection between Psalm 31 and the experience of Jesus on that Sunday.
Indeed, Psalm 31 can be seen as a cryptic prophecy of all that Jesus would experience during that entire week after Palm Sunday. It doesn’t take much imagination to see in verses 9-15 a brief description of the awful events of Maundy Thursday, as spelled out in great detail in the Gospel reading for today (Luke 22:14-23:56). We know that Jesus used verse 5 as his last word from the cross, but there are scholars who wonder if he didn’t quietly murmur the entire Psalm as he hung there. No wonder all three years of the lectionary cycle have us reading Psalm 31 on this Passion/Palm Sunday.
The appropriateness of this Psalm for this Sunday becomes even more obvious when we probe more deeply into the distress the original author was experiencing. He describes physical distress in verses 9 and 10. In verse 11 and 12 he complains of being attacked by enemies so powerful that all his neighbors treat him with utter contempt and even his friends run away from him. Everyone reacts to him as if he were already dead. And, says verse 13, all of this is the result of a conspiracy against him; “they conspire against me and plot to take my life.”
That is a perfect prediction of what would happen to Jesus on Palm Sunday and in the days following. Even as the echoes of the “hosannas” finally faded from the Temple courts, a conspiracy was being hatched among Jesus’ enemies. “Every day he was teaching in the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him.” (Luke 19:47) Truly, there was “terror on every side.” Jesus understood this terrible time all too well. Indeed, at one point in his Triumphal Entry, Jesus echoed David’s famous words about “times” (verse 15). He wept over Jerusalem’s fate, “because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:44) He knew that the time of his departure had come.
Jesus struggled with that time, even as David did in Psalm 31, and as we do in times of terrible distress. The agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, complete with sweat like drops of blood, revealed the depths of Jesus’ terror at what awaited him. Not only were his enemies against him, not only did his friends flee away into the darkness and his closest friend deny ever knowing him, but even his heavenly Father would forsake him. With besieged (verse 21) believers of all times, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
But in the end, he was able to cry out with his last breath, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” How could Jesus move from feeling so God-forsaken that he can only call his Eternal Father, “my God,” to feeling so confident that he once again calls God, “Father?” How could he entrust himself again into his Father’s hands? How can we move from terror to trust, when “terror is on every side?”
David shows us in verses 14-15. “But I trust in you, O Yahweh; I say, ‘You are my God.’“ Yes, he had moments of despair, but overall this Psalm is a confession of David’s deep faith. The tone is set by verse 1, “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge….” Yes, his enemies are many and they are strong, but God is “a rock of refuge, a strong fortress.” David is not speaking in general terms there. And he is not speaking for the people of God as a body, as the Psalms so often do. His a deeply personal trust. Note the frequency of the pronouns “my” and “me” throughout the Psalm, and especially in the great confession of faith in verses 14 and 15. “I trust in you, O Yahweh, [because] you are my God.”
Because David was so confident that Yahweh was his own God, he saw all the times of his life, even this terrible time when he was the victim of a plot against his life, as in God’s hands. “My times are in your hands….” That is the phrase here that will really preach. David had come to see his life as a series of times, or chapters. This experience in my life is not the whole story. This is just one chapter in my life story. There were chapters before and there will be chapters after, and all of them are in God’s hands.
One can’t help but recall that famous poem by David’s greatest son, Solomon. I’m thinking here of Ecclesiastes 3, traditionally attributed to Solomon (though not so much by modern scholars). Regardless of that authorial issue, Ecclesiastes 3 surely captures the “times of our lives.” “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven,” a time for birth and death, for planting and uprooting, for killing and healing, for war and for peace.
Note that word “season” in Ecclesiastes 3:1. It has the sense of appointed time; for everything there is a time that has been fixed, set. As we live through the chapters of life’s story, we are keeping appointments made by God. I know. That raises a jumble of questions about the bad times of life and how they can conceivably fit into the good plan of a loving God. But the thought here is not an unfamiliar one for those who believe in God’s sovereignty. David was even blunter in Psalm 139:16. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
Picturing “my God” as such a sovereign can be discomforting for some, especially in times of terror. Whether we are comforted and encouraged by David’s assurance about the times of life will depend on how we see the hands that hold those times. David clearly saw God as the great Planner who has made appointments for us, or as the brilliant Author who, together with us, is writing the story of our lives. But that view of God doesn’t help very much if we don’t know the character of this God. David did, because years before, when he was but a lad, he had experienced the love and care of God out there on the Judean hills where he tended his father’s sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want….”
Solomon, on the other hand, didn’t derive much comfort from this notion of life’s seasons, or divine appointments. In fact, he was weary with the ever-changing story of life. It is vanity, he wrote, again and again. Why the difference between David and the author of Ecclesiastes? Was it because Solomon didn’t see the coming Messiah as clearly as David did? Solomon was wise, worldly wise. He had some sense that God controlled human life. But he wasn’t enough in touch with the end of God’s plan, with the fulfillment that would be Jesus.
I know. That may be a bit of an interpretive stretch, but what I’ve just said about David and Solomon is surely true for us. Knowing that life has seasons, that God is in control, that sooner or later it will all make sense, and even be beautiful, is not enough. We will not be filled with joy and excitement. We will not shout “hosanna to the Son of David,” until we see that the hands holding the times of our lives are the hands of Jesus. We will be able to trust God and say, “you are my God,” only when we can see the nail prints in the hands that hold our times.
David prays passionately right after his confession of faith: “deliver me from my enemies…. Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” That prayer has already been answered for those who trust in the Son of David. His apparent triumph on Palm Sunday was the beginning of the tragedy of Good Friday. But that tragedy became the beginning of our triumph. The conspiracy to take his life was part of the plan to save ours (cf. Acts 4:28). Because he died with the words of Psalm 31:5 on his lips, we can live with the words of Psalm 31:14 and 15 on ours.
The theme of your sermon on this text might be something like this: “Because my times are in your hands, I commit my life into your hands.” The early church took that approach to life in their times of terror. Think of Stephen’s last words as those stones smashed him to death. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” (Acts 7:59) Writing about times of terror for believers who go through persecution, Peter said, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator and continue to do good.” (I Peter 4:19)
Note: Our 2016 Year C Lent and Easter resources are available. In addition to the weekly postings on the CEP Home Page, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2016/
The opening words of A Tale of Two Cities, Dicken’s classic story about the French Revolution, capture the ambiguity of Palm/Passion Sunday and the times of our lives:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness,
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Picturing God as a Master Planner or a Great Author reminded me of a story often told by my predecessor in my last church, Rev. Jacob Eppinga. The catechism class was in revolt. They could not believe that God worked all things for the good of his children. “What about Mrs. Brown?” one asked the Reverend. “Why was she widowed with small children?” After the minister had let them all have their say, he waved his hand. “Follow me,” he said.
Puzzled, the 12 members of the class soon found themselves on a wide, busy street. “This is the Avenue of Life,” the pastor said. “Let’s take a walk”– whereupon he led his entourage into a newly built church. The unpainted wood columns, freestanding along the outer aisles, were especially attractive. An interior decorator was bustling about, directing the painters. He wore a button on his lapel that said, “Quiet, Genius at Work.” But suddenly one of the class members let out a cry of dismay. One painter, directed by the decorator, had begun painting the front column an ugly dark color, obliterating the fresh, natural look. What a shame! The minister agreed. They all left the church, mumbling.
Back on the street again, they walked on until they came to a restaurant. A cook in the window was preparing the days “special.” Someone was making a killing on buttons, for he wore the same one sported by Mr. Interior Decorator. But what a mishmash! Meats and vegetables mixed together that just didn’t belong. After registering their corporate negative judgment, the group was led along to another stop many blocks later. There on the corner a man had set up an easel. Again, he had the same button on. But after an hour the group was disillusioned. Obviously he was no Rembrandt. What they saw on the canvas made no sense at all. They left and wandered into a park.
The boys, after running and cavorting on the grass, became very hungry. The Reverend decided to lead them back to the restaurant. On the way they saw the artist putting the finishing touches on his painting. They were amazed—it was simply beautiful! At the restaurant they all ordered the “special.” It was so delicious they all wanted more. Stuffed, they all went back to the church. All the columns were now almost all black. It made each one look so strong and powerful that all revised their previous opinion.
“What have we learned today?” asked the preacher. Without waiting for their answers he gave his own: “I learned,” he said, “that we can never judge the product at any point in the process.” “I also learned,” he added, “that we can never judge the artist at any point in his work. We must always await the final result.” The minister smiled and continued. “God is a cook, and an artist, and an interior decorator and everything else rolled into one.”
They all agreed, but one girl still had a question. “What about those buttons that said, ‘Quiet, Genius at Work?’” “Oh that,” said the minister, “that’s a text from the Psalms. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”
Author: Scott Hoezee
The story is told that one evening a man in a Dearborn, Michigan, restaurant bumped into no less than the famous Chrysler chairman, Lee Iacocca. “Oh, Mr. Iacocca,” the man exclaimed, “what an honor to meet you! Say, my name is Jack and I’m having a business dinner with some colleagues over there at that corner table. It would really impress my friends if you could come over in a few minutes and say, ‘Hi, Jack,’ like you know me!” Iacocca good-naturedly agreed and so some minutes later went over to the table and said, “Hello, Jack! How are you?” Jack then looked up and snapped, “Not now, Lee. We’re busy!”
This story (no doubt apocryphal as I’ve heard it told about other famous people too) underscores the core of pride: we always want to look more powerful and impressive than we really are. Or at very least we want to take what we already have in life and use it as a pedestal from which to look down on as many people as we can (while also hoping, of course, that all of those people will return the favor and so look up to us). It is no accident that the images typically associated with pride have to do with height: the proud are said to look down their noses at others, are said to always be riding their high horse, are said to have a lofty opinion of themselves and a soaring ego.
The great irony and beauty of the Christian faith is the gospel truth that the one Being in the universe who really is more exalted, more lofty, and more powerful than anyone is the same Being who, far from using his lofty position as a platform for pride, once upon a time stooped lower than low so as humbly to save us from our sinful pride.
Indeed, it appears that already in the earliest days of the Christian church, believers were captivated by the spectacle of God’s Son becoming a human being. Americans have long been inspired by Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories of the common man making it big. America is the place where you really can rise up from the poverty of a log cabin to become an Abraham Lincoln, where two guys who used to make little bars of soap in their basement can end up founding Amway, where one guy with a computer idea can turn into Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, multi-billionaires.
But the earliest Christians knew that the greatest story ever told is not a rags-to-riches tale but the universe’s premiere riches-to-rags story. Because the tale of Jesus the Christ being born into this world represents our only hope of salvation. The evidence that this is among the oldest and dearest themes of Christianity can be seen in Philippians 2.
Philippians is generally regarded as the warmest and friendliest of Paul’s thirteen New Testament epistles. Clearly the Philippian church was a healthy and happy congregation with which Paul had a close relationship. However, that does not mean that everything was well in Philippi. We began to sense that a little bit at the end of chapter 1 where Paul urgently calls for unity and a oneness of spirit.
But now as we turn the corner into chapter 2, the fact that the Philippians were struggling with pride becomes very evident. So Paul makes a pitch for humility. In doing so, Paul begins in verse 1 (technically just outside this lection) with what could be construed as a kind of tongue-in-cheek shaming of the Philippians. Note these understatements: “If Jesus means anything to you, if his love for you strikes you as being important, if it should happen to be the case that you find the Holy Spirit living in your hearts, if you can find so much as an ounce of compassion somewhere inside you, why then why don’t y’all try to be unified in humility!”
This is the kind of thing that spouses might sometimes say to one another in a form of mock-subtlety. “Oh, well I thought that just maybe you cared about my feelings a wee bit. I thought that maybe you loved me enough to be a tad considerate. I thought that maybe our marriage commitment meant something to you. But if not, OK–you just go ahead and watch that football game with your friends tonight and don’t think one thought about me while I sit alone here at home!”
Ouch! And that seems to be the tone Paul takes as he urges humility on the Philippians. But no sooner does Paul address this topic and he is reminded of what most scholars believe is one of the earliest songs that was ever sung in the Christian church. The hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2 has proven to be a rich source for reflection on Jesus’ incarnation, even spawning its own branch of Christology known as “Kenosis.” “He emptied himself.” Since the Greek verb for “to empty” is the word kenoo, a lot of theologians now refer to Jesus’ being born a human as his “kenosis.”
As Philippians 2 helps us to see, Jesus had to give up a lot in order to join us on this fallen planet. At minimum he had to give up the glories and splendors of heaven in favor of a world of indigestion, stubbed toes, dirty fingernails, and backaches. But he may also have needed to give up certain other perks and powers of divinity for a little while in order to be every bit as much a human being as you and I are. He had to restrain his power, restrict his location to just one place at a time (instead of being omnipresent), give in to his body by eating when he got hungry and laying down for a nap when he got tired.
Perhaps sometimes we forget what enormous sacrifice was required of God’s Son not only at the end when he died, but every step along the way. Day and night, and not only during those famous 40 days in the wilderness, the Devil hounded Jesus with temptations, hoping against hope to derail God’s salvation before it was too late. Day after day Jesus had to look into the eyes of people he had created only to see not even the faintest glint of recognition that their own sovereign Creator was standing right in front of them. Day after day Jesus had to live on a planet he himself had lovingly shaped at the dawn of time only to see all around him signs of decay, death, pollution, and sorrow.
“He made himself nothing,” Paul sings. He not only was no longer living in exalted heights, he even ended up dying the worst, most public of all deaths: crucifixion. And he did it all out of a humble love of astonishing proportions. “If you want to get the hang of the incarnation,” C.S. Lewis once wrote, “just imagine how you’d feel if you woke up one morning to discover you had turned into a garden slug.”
And it is in the face of all this that Paul says to the Philippians and us, “OK, got the picture? Good, now go and be like that!” Few challenges could be greater. Of course, the reason the challenge is so great is precisely because the Devil knows that pride is the dead opposite of God. So item #1 on his list of things to do every day is to tempt us with pride. Instead we are called to humility—a humility that, unlike pride, connects us to others. Pride isolates. Pride arrogates everything to one’s self. Humility alone leads to service, to love, to kindness—indeed, to LIFE itself.
The John F. Kennedy biographer Nigel Hamilton says that Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of the Kennedy clan, was such a proud and arrogant man that he would banish from his home any guest–including the friends of his children–whom he felt did not give him enough attention or confirmation of his views. The result, according to Hamilton, is that after a while only the obsequious and the boring and the shy were permitted in the Kennedy compound, thus depriving the family, including the future president, of the kinds of contacts that could have broadened their horizons and challenged their thinking.
Pride isolates whereas humility connects. Pride is interested in the self at the expense of others whereas humility is interested in others at the expense of self. Pride seeks glory for itself but rarely gets it as the truly proud collapse in on themselves, finally resulting in a little wad of ego. Humility is always extending itself toward God and others in a life of service that finally results not in a dense wad of ego but in a gloriously extended self, open toward others like a flower in full bloom and so, as with Jesus, is glorious for all to see.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest shock of the hymn in Philippians 2 is the idea that after his emptied-out life and death of service, the Son of God somehow managed to arrive at a higher point of exaltation than what he had enjoyed before he became human! But if you were God to begin with, how could you ever get higher or more exalted than that?! Philippians 2 says that it is possible because now not only is Jesus God but he is the acclaimed Lord of lords. Humility is finally so powerful that it can enhance the life of even God himself!! Humility, Paul is saying, can and has changed both God and the world.
The story is told among Jews of a rabbi who always signed his letters with the words, “From one who is truly humble.” One day someone asked how a humble person could ever say such a thing about himself. A friend of the rabbi’s replied that the rabbi had in fact become so humble that he no longer even realized it was a virtue–it had simply become his life. Describing himself as humble seemed to him as innocent as saying he had brown eyes.
“If Jesus means anything to you, if his Spirit is in you and his compassion occupies even the smallest corner of your heart, then make humility your life,” Paul writes. Let that central movement of God in salvation–the move away from power and toward humble service–become so much a part of your life as to be nearly a reflex.
Note: Our 2016 Year C Lent and Easter resources are available. In addition to the weekly postings on the CEP Home Page, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2016/
In his memoir This Boy’s Life, writer Tobias Wolf relates that when he was a boy, he used to take a perverse joy over taking a loaded gun and then, from his second-story bedroom window, drawing a bead on passersby. Women pushing strollers, young children playing ball, garbage collectors talking and laughing together–whoever it was, Wolf would secretly aim the gun at them and then fight back laughter at the ecstasy he felt of having so much power over these people.
Over time, however, he began to feel like this was empty. Eventually he realized that having power over people doesn’t mean a thing unless those people know you have the power and respond with fear as a result. This came home to him especially in Vietnam. Nothing enraged his fellow soldiers more than unarmed civilians lipping off to the well-armed American troops. Because power can only be enjoyed when other people recognize and so fear and respect your power.
Pride is forever driving us to amass as much power for ourselves as we can and then flaunting it so that we can see in other people’s eyes flickers of respect, awe, maybe even fear. But not so for you, Paul sings out. Because we follow the universe’s most powerful being ever and yet this God does not use his superior power to inspire dread or fear. No, God inspires our love by willingly setting aside his power.