March 22, 2021
The Lent 6B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 11:1-11 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 50:4-9a from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Philippians 2:5-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 31 (Lord’s Day 12)
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s something I’ve just never understood. Ever since I was a little kid I have wondered why the various Gospel texts on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem are so careful to include both Jesus’ detailed instructions on where to find a colt (and what to do with it once they located it) and then a nearly word-for-word repeat of all that once the disciples do as they are told. It does not make for gripping reading! It’s like having someone read to you the recipe for chocolate chip cookies and then narrate step-by-step someone’s actually following that recipe. “Step One: Sift 2 cups of all-purpose flour . . . And then the baker sifted 2 cups of all-purpose flour . . .”
Is this supposed to be a small miracle as Jesus reveals his ability to see into the future or see what is up ahead of them in the village where the colt was tied up? If so, it doesn’t exactly rank up there with walking on water or raising the dead. If you are the Son of God, this is more of a parlor trick than some grand miracle. Or is this some hint that Jesus had actually pre-arranged all this in a very earthly manner, replete with some encoded secret password so the owners will know it’s OK to let some strangers take off with their animal? And if so, is this supposed to show how deliberate Jesus is being about marching toward his own death in Jerusalem? Or is it supposed to show us both that Jesus had pre-arranged all this and that he was purposely playing into Old Testament prophecy for the arrival of the Davidic King in the Holy City?
Take your pick—each has about as much going for it as the next. But in no case do I find a lot of inspiration in this little sub-scene of fetching the colt. (And I have graded a LOT of student sermons on these texts and never yet have I seen a student spend a lot of time on this part of the story—and many have done this—to any great effect homiletically!) And anyway, if Jesus was so intent on playing into long-expected Old Testament prophecies, why does he at the same time so manifestly not play into what the people were expecting?
In Luke’s gospel Jesus breaks out into tears at the high point of the entry parade, essentially ruining the moment. And here in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus no sooner enters the city and he high-tails it back out seeing as it was getting late. (It amazes me how many years it took before I noticed this oddity in Mark’s telling: Jesus does not STAY in the city after this grand “entrance” but leaves again. Odd.)
As I point out in my sermon “The Indignant Re-Entry,” linked to on our Lent & Easter Resources page (http://yardley.cs.calvin.edu/hoezee/2000/mark11PalmSun.html ), when Jesus comes back into the city the next day, he does so without fanfare but he does come in with fire as he curses a fig tree and cleans out the Temple courts. But why is there way more drama the following day in Mark 11 than on the day we commemorate on Palm/Passion Sunday?
As you can see, I have far more questions about this story than answers! But sometimes questioning the familiar opens up an opportunity to approach it with fresh eyes. The truth of what we call Palm Sunday is that this is not a simple celebration that happened long ago to give latter-day Christians a chance to whoop it up with some palm fronds every year a week before Easter.
Instead this is a story fraught with some mystery.
Did the disciples wonder what was going on in what Jesus told them to do—and then again when things played out exactly the way Jesus told them it would? Did they suspect Jesus was playing into Old Testament anticipations?
And if they did, what did they make of that? After all, Mark is the one gospel account that makes the most out of the “Messianic Secret.” In Mark the disciples have witnessed Jesus forever hushing and shushing people anytime anyone came remotely close to a public identification of him as the Christ. This had to have been confusing for them. So did what looked like a public identification of himself as the Messiah confuse them still more or make them really, really excited to finally be moving forward toward the political victory they were hoping God’s Messiah would accomplish?
You see, it’s easy when we preach on Palm Sunday and when we sing about it in church to make the whole story look like a clear-eyed, straightforward set of events. It’s too easy to picture the disciples as moving through all this with heads-held-high confidence and swagger, to treat Palm Sunday as a big bright spot in the midst of the Lenten darkness and ahead of the darkness of Holy Week, which this Sunday kicks off each year, of course.
But think about it: the world—indeed, the cosmos—was teetering on the brink of the most momentous event since the Big Bang. The very Son of God was about to be handed over, betrayed, abused, murdered. There was, in a sense, going to be a death in God within days. The universe was about to turn the corner from endless darkness back toward the Light that just is God (into that Light that the darkness cannot overcome as John will tell us). What all was at stake cannot even be overstated or overestimated. The very hosts of heaven—and maybe of hell for all we know—were quite literally holding their breath to see this play out.
So would we come to a fresher appreciation of this story if we could picture the disciples as being a little confused, too, as maybe biting their fingernails now and then in wonderment as to what all was going on (and in pondering why the whole world just seemed to be so tense)?
Think of a time when you were anticipating something big. And think of a time when just how that big thing was going to go was by no means 100% clear to you or certain. Maybe you were planning to pop the question and ask someone to marry you. Maybe you were facing a major interview, a big exam, or were slated to give a speech that could change your life (if it went well that is). And now remember the knot in the pit of your stomach that you endured for many days in advance of that event. Remember how tense you felt, how jumpy you were, how now and then someone would catch you staring off into space with a couple fingers held up over your lips as you got totally lost in thought.
You know the feeling.
And now transfer all of that onto the canvas of this story. See that kind of nervous anxiety and wondering in Jesus, in the disciples, in the whole cosmos, for heaven’s sake. What Palm/Passion Sunday celebrates and observes is not simple, it is not neat, tidy, or straightforward. The air fairly crackles with electricity as the characters in this grand drama sense that something big is up. Maybe if we can pick up on those aspects of this story, we will also pick up on what makes Holy Week so momentous, so amazing, so jaw-droppingly splendid.
And maybe then we can look back at that palm branch in our hands, put a couple fingers to our trembling lips, and just wonder, wonder, wonder what this all must mean.
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2021 Lent and Easter page.
Although Psalm 118 is seldom listed as anyone’s “favorite psalm” (it’s pretty tough to edge out the likes of Psalm 23 and Psalm 150, after all), nevertheless Psalm 118 is the most oft-quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament. No other passage gets as much play time in the gospels or epistles than Psalm 118. A quote from this same psalm is tucked into Mark 11 as well when in verse 9 the people shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” which appears to be a quote lifted from Psalm 118:24-25. But here’s the funny or ironic thing: the part of Psalm 118 that most of us know about—and that gets quoted the most in the New Testament—comes from a few verses prior to that Hosanna verse where the psalmist talks about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the head of the corner after all. We know that the New Testament writers routinely applied that rejected-stone image to Jesus. So how curious that Mark is careful to have the people quoting Psalm 118 in Mark 11:9. The people are lauding and celebrating Jesus and trying to make him into the kind of hero they want him to be. But by invoking Psalm 118, there is more than a subtle hint here that these same people will be rejecting this same Jesus in pretty short order. What’s more, it will be that rejection—and not the “triumphal entry” reception—that will bring salvation to the world and make Jesus the Cornerstone for a whole new reality.
Although I have no personal experience with this, I would imagine that people whose marriages crumbled and ended in an unhappy divorce sense a swirl of emotions each year on the date of that marriage’s wedding anniversary. Possibly some look back on that marriage on the anniversary day and feel relief. If it was a dangerous or psychologically wounding relationship, one can be properly grateful to have gotten out from under all that. Others may experience twinges of remorse, or even sorrow in case the end of the marriage had not been their idea.
What I am fairly sure of, however, is that the anniversary of a defunct marriage would not be an occasion for nostalgia and certainly not something anyone would in any fashion celebrate.
And that makes me wonder about our celebrations of Palm Sunday as though the occasion is supposed to be chipper and cheerful. There are so many conflicting angles to all this. In fact, even this very story ends on an anticlimactic note. Jesus enters the temple but by then the party had already stopped. There was no royal welcome for Jesus at the house of God and so, after peering around at this and that for a little while, Jesus and the twelve disciples silently slip back out of Jerusalem with no fanfare whatsoever. The next morning Jesus re-enters the city but this time not only does no one greet him joyfully, Jesus himself tears into the place with a full head of steam, driving out moneychangers from the temple and just generally behaving in ways that made a lot of folks hopping mad at him.
The Palm Sunday party was over almost as soon as it began. So is it right to look back fondly on this day? Given what happened in subsequent days, isn’t celebrating Palm Sunday a little like celebrating the anniversary of a marriage that ended badly?
How are we to feel about what happened to Jesus that day? What should our sermons convey? And in most churches, does anything the pastor has to say have a chance of competing with happy children joyfully waving palm fronds?
Author: Stan Mast
The choice of this text for the Sixth Sunday of Lent makes perfect sense if we remember that the RCL has been tracing the theme of covenant this year (Year B). We have moved from God’s covenant with Noah and nature to God’s covenant with Abraham, from the giving of the covenant Law at Sinai to Israel’s egregious breaking of that Law in the wilderness, ending with the marvelous New Covenant which promises that God will forgive and forget the sins of his covenant partners.
When we examined that promise in Jeremiah 31:34, I said that our next reading would explain how a holy, just, and omniscient God could forgive so completely. Isaiah 50 introduces us to the Suffering Servant whose substitutionary obedience is the basis of God’s forgiveness of our disobedience.
Putting this text in that covenantal context might help your people listen to this hard text, but I suspect that many people will be disappointed with it. It is, after all, Palm Sunday, a day for “Hosannas” and happy children. But the RCL seems determined to focus our attention elsewhere on this glad day, because there isn’t much joy and celebration in any of the readings. Psalm 31 is filled with suffering. Philippians 2 traces the downward movement of Christ’s kenosis. The Gospel reading from Mark 14 and 15 is the whole passion story from before the Last Supper to the sealing of the Tomb. And, as I said, this first reading is the testimony of the Suffering Servant. (In fact, the RCL is so determined to focus our attention on the Passion of this Sunday, that it assigns Isaiah 50 to Palm Sunday in all three years of the cycle.)
Thus, no matter which text you preach on today, you will need to spend some introductory time explaining that Palm Sunday has always been observed as Passion Sunday, too. Palm Sunday is not just one last glorious victory before the horror of Holy Week; it is also the horrific introduction to Holy Week. Our readings for today don’t fit our favorite celebrations of Palm Sunday where your granddaughter waves palm branches as she happily processes down the center aisle. This is the gritty Passion Sunday meant to comfort and encourage the miserable daughters of Zion in Exile.
This reading from Isaiah is the third of the four Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1-9, 49:1-13, and 52:13-53:12 are the others). As with the other Servant Songs, the central problem with this one is the identity of the Servant. Is it Israel who failed as God’s servant? Or is it Isaiah himself who called failed Israel back to God and threatened punishment if they didn’t return? Or is it the coming Messiah who would fulfil all that Israel was supposed to do and be?
The key to understanding this text is seeing the contrast between failed Israel in verses 1-3 and the faithful servant in verses 4-9a, and hearing the call to walk in the light of that faithful servant in verses 9b-11. In the midst of the suffering caused by Israel’s failure, there is One who will suffer for All. If the sufferers will follow him, they will find the light. Thus, this song of suffering is, finally, not a lament, but a psalm of trust and confidence.
The servant of verses 4-9a is the ideal Israel, who was everything Israel was not. While they failed by being disobedient and suffered for it, the Servant of our text succeeds by being completely obedient. Indeed, to use old theological terms, his was both an active obedience (verses 4-5, 7b) and a passive obedience (verses 6-9a). He perfectly kept God’s Torah and he suffered as though he had broken it all.
Contrary to Israel who regularly closed their ears to God’s Word and filled their mouths with foolish and blasphemous words, this servant was receptive to God’s word. This receptivity was born of God’s grace, for it was “the Sovereign Lord” who “wakens my ear to listen….” Because of his open ears, this Servant has “an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.” This is probably a reference to weary Israel, languishing in lonely exile, and to anyone weary because their sin has led to suffering. The servant has a gracious word for the weary soul, because he has been receptive to God’s word.
Thus, this servant has “not been rebellious; [he] has not drawn back” from following the Word of God. Indeed, says verse 7b, he has “set his face like flint” to obey God, even if it leads to shame. Knowledgeable readers will hear an echo of Luke 9:51 here, where some older translations say that Jesus “set his face like flint to go up to Jerusalem” even though (or because) he knew that decision would mean a shameful death on the cross. He was determined to obey his Father’s will to the bitter end.
And his end was bitter, as verses 6-9a predict. In addition to fully obeying God’s will, this servant will suffer as though he had been disobedient. But he will suffer not merely as a helpless victim of cruelty and injustice, but even more as a willing sacrifice of himself. Thus, “I offered my back and my cheeks… I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” He faced those who condemned him without flinching and looking away. “Who is my accuser? Let him confront me!” His suffering was an act of willing obedience.
Think of Jesus’ words in John 10:18. “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord.” Or his rebuke in the Garden, “Do you think I cannot call my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53)?”
The sense of being in control even when he was being beaten and spit upon, accused and condemned, is conveyed in the confidence the servant exhibits. Though he looks helpless, he knows he is not. At the beginning and the end of his suffering, he says, “The Sovereign Lord helps me.” Therefore, though his tormentors will shame him, he will not finally be disgraced or put to shame. The Lord will finally vindicate him, and his condemnation will be set aside as he is raised from the dead in glory.
What a message of encouragement and hope this little song brought to its original readers in the Babylon! For 50 or 60 years they had been imprisoned there; that’s nearly two generations who had been born and raised in that foreign land. It was the new normal; it was just the way things are. What possible hope could there be?
Well, says Isaiah 50, in place of disobedient Israel who has been sent away by Yahweh, a new servant will be raised up by Yahweh to obey and suffer in their place. Like the other Songs, this one aims “to persuade a downtrodden community of Jewish exiles in Babylon to have hope in God’s promise that they will return to Jerusalem.” (Dennis T. Olson) Even though Israel the Servant is humiliated and beaten and disgraced, the Sovereign Lord is with her, so she must stay the course, be obedient, and keep trusting in the light presented by this new Servant.
But this Song is not just a pep talk for disgraced and discouraged Israel. It is also, and finally, a prediction of the coming of the Ideal Israelite, the quintessential Suffering Servant, who will save all his people from their sins. There can be no doubt that, in the end, this servant is Jesus, who suffered exactly as Isaiah 50 predicts. He has offered his active and passive obedience to the Father as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, so that we can be liberated from our own captivity. We can walk in that liberty if we walk in the light of Christ.
All around us people are lighting their own torches to find a way through the darkness, but that leads only to the outer darkness. “Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord (Jesus) and rely on his God.” That’s the message for Palm/Passion Sunday. It’s dark all around us and it’s going to get darker this week, so walk in the light of the Servant who set his face like flint and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
At the heart of the best-selling Hunger Games trilogy is Katniss Everdeen, the brave teenager whose suffering was voluntary and substitutionary. When the authorities do their annual lottery to pick the young people who will do gladiatorial battle in the annual entertainment spectacle called the Hunger Games, Katniss’ little sister, Pim, is picked. Katniss immediately volunteers to take Pim’s place. She goes to the Games, improbably wins, and becomes the symbol of a rebellion against the evil President who rules Panem. She not only takes her sister’s place, but also stands in the place of her home district and, indeed, all of Panem. She sets her face to go up to the Capital city to suffer and die, in order to save Pim and Panem.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Author: Scott Hoezee
You wouldn’t know it to look at it. Yet it’s true: a portion of Psalm 118—specifically verses 22-23—is the single most-oft quoted Old Testament text in the New Testament. Not Psalm 23. Not Psalm 100. Not some well-known story like Abraham sacrificing Isaac or David and Goliath. Nope. It’s little old Psalm 118.
That has always been curious to me. Even most ardent Christians would be hard-pressed to tell you (without looking it up) what is in Psalm 118. In a Psalms & Wisdom Literature class that I co-teach, we often begin the first class by having each student in turn relate their favorite Psalm or a Psalm that has long been particularly meaningful to them. Not once has anyone mentioned Psalm 118. I have never heard anyone cite this poem as their favorite out of the Psalter’s 150 selections.
The verses about the stray stone becoming the head of the corner seem like themselves stray verses. It’s not even real obvious how this construction imagery pops up in Psalm 118, which is not otherwise a poem about buildings and such. Yet somehow Matthew, Mark, Luke (twice), and the Apostle Peter all latched onto these little verses and their cornerstone image as somehow capturing the essence of Jesus’ ministry.
Maybe there is something apt here. Jesus himself, after all, was also not much to look at. After he had been doing ministry for a while, even John the Baptist started to have his doubts and so dispatched a cadre of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you really the One or should we expect someone else?” You know, someone BETTER, someone more outwardly impressive.
It went that way most of the time for Jesus. Just a baby whose parents were too poor to afford anything better than a goat’s feeding trough for his first crib. Just a carpenter’s son working in Dad’s shop for most of his life. And then an odd itinerant rabbi with a penchant for telling stories few people could puzzle out. When he stood in front of Pontius Pilate, even Pilate could not for the life of him figure out what all the fuss was about. “You’re worried about this fellow?” Pilate all but asked the Jewish authorities out to get Jesus.
And then finally, there he was: literally crossed out by the Romans. There he was, hanging on a cross looking—as Neal Plantinga has said—far more like a street accident than a Savior. Talk about your rejected stones . . . Jesus was indeed tossed aside, spurned, rejected, killed.
Yet he was the One after all. “The LORD has done this,” the psalmist rhapsodized, “and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Who knows exactly to what or to whom the author of Psalm 118 was originally referring. Like most biblical writers, he wrote more than he knew under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Surely this poet could have never guessed that centuries later the evangelists and apostles would apply this verse to the Messiah of God.
But that’s what happened. A stray verse about a stray stone became the perfect emblem for how God achieved salvation in Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and rejected one. The relative obscurity of the verse fits the relative obscurity of the Savior who later appeared out of nowhere to be baptized by John.
This is Good News because in the larger context of Psalm 118 this is all about our being rescued from death. This is all about God’s finding an end run on death to do something new, something previously unheard of and, just so, something marvelous indeed. Most preachers don’t choose the Psalm text for their Palm Sunday sermon but if you have chosen this text to preach on or to weave into your Palm/Passion Sunday in some other way, then this fits well for these troubled times as the pandemic still is curtailing life and worship during Holy Week for the second year in a row.
Maybe we all have felt a little rejected and dejected across this past, seemingly interminable, year. Dejected. Disconnected. Tossed far away from the people we most want to see and embrace. Can any good come of any of this, we have been asking.
Well, the message of Psalm 118 would seem to be: Yes. Not easily, mind you. There are no neat and tidy answers to any of our harder questions just now. But we serve a God who pulled off the salvation of the cosmos by taking note of and then restoring to glory and honor a decidedly rejected stone. And that means that this Savior, this cornerstone, the One seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty is really adept at seeing us in our isolation just now. And he is really good at promising us Life. Life, not death, has the last word.
It has not been easy to sing joyful songs of late. Indeed, most of us have passed an entire year without being able to sing in the presence of fellow believers at all! But with the rejected One now the Cornerstone of God’s grand salvation edifice, we can still rejoice.
The Lord has done this. And it is marvelous in our eyes.
I have always loved Frederick Buechner’s character sketch of Abraham in his delightful book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. Buechner begins by saying that if (in Yiddish) a schlemiel is someone who is always spilling soup onto his tie and a schlemozzle is someone who always get soup spilled onto his tie by others, than Abraham was something of a schlemozzle. He sort of bumped along in life, often having others get the best of him and just doing his level best to figure stuff out across the long journey God commanded him to take (a new journey he had to undertake at the very moment in his long life when rest and retirement, not becoming a wandering nomad, should have been the order of the day). But he lived on the promise: he would have heirs as numerous as stars in the sky, sand on the seashore.
At the end of his character sketch, Buechner imagines a very old Abraham at a family reunion picnic. “They weren’t a great nation yet by a long shot, but you’d never know it from the way Abraham sits enthroned there in his velvet yarmulke with several great-grandchildren on his lap and soup on his tie. Even through his thick lenses, you can read the look of faith in his eye… and more than all the kosher meals, the great achievements, and Einsteins and Kissingers, it was THAT look that God loved him for -and had chosen him for in the first place.”
And then this: Who knows, Abraham thought to himself, one day they will be talking about my great-great-great . . . grandson, the Savior of the world.
Somehow the simplicity of this portrait of this ordinary man pressed into doing the extraordinary thing of founding a new nation for God fits with Psalm 118. Rejected stones becoming the heads of corners. That’s the Gospel all right.
Author: Doug Bratt
The retired American professional basketball star Charles Barkley once famously said in a television commercial, “I’m not a role model … Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” His statement displayed the kind of wisdom that other public figures sometimes lack.
The Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday on which many Christians pay especially close attention to Jesus’ suffering, by contrast, unapologetically offers up a role model. “Your attitude,” writes Paul in it, “should be that of Christ Jesus” (5). “Think of yourselves,” as Eugene Peterson paraphrases the apostle’s call in The Message, “the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.”
As my colleague Scott Hoezee notes in his lovely April 3, 2017 sermon starter on this text, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is among his “warmest and friendliest” surviving letters to one of his favorite congregations. Yet those whom the Spirit helps to “read” between Philippians 2:1-4’s “lines” sense that at least some Philippians didn’t think of themselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.
They give us the impression, after all, that Jesus’ Philippian friends were divided rather than “like-minded.” At least some didn’t seem to share the same love, spirit or purpose. The first part of Philippians 2 implies that Philippi’s Christians did things “out of selfish ambition and vain conceit.” They even seem to have looked only to their own interests.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may be tempted to identify more closely with Christ Jesus than the Philippians. Yet perhaps especially in this Lenten season we confess that the Philippians weren’t so unlike this text’s proclaimers. This Lesson’s proclaimers would be wise to honestly but appropriately share examples of our own struggles to share our Savior’s attitude.
Paul describes Christ Jesus’ attitude in the form of what most scholars believe is an early Christian hymn. That suggests that Philippians 2’s wise proclaimers handle it more like inspired poetry than narrative, a wisdom saying or even theological treatise. We look for ways to build our presentations with language, imagery and even structure that reflect its poetic (while still true) nature.
Of course, as my colleague Stan Mast notes in his fine March 19, 2018 sermon starter on this passage, this hymn raises some difficult questions. Many of them grow out of Paul’s assertion that Christ Jesus ekenosen, which the NIV translates as “made himself nothing,” but others translate as “emptied himself.”
Of what, for example, did the eternal Son of God divest, in Mast’s words, himself? Those who proclaim Philippians 2 may want to direct more theologically sophisticated hearers to any one of countless fine books about such questions. Most of us, however, can be content to note that the second person of Trinity gave up much to become like us in every way, except that he remained perfect.
N.T. Wright (Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Westminster John Knox Press: 2004, p. 102) suggests that the Son’s decision to become human was, in fact, “not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine.” The second person of the Trinity, in other words, didn’t stop being equal with God when he became incarnate (6). He simply refused to exploit that equality. Christ Jesus chose to graciously “embody” what it means to be divine.
In that view, the Son of God lived out his divinity by becoming fully human (“being made in human likeness” – 7), as well as by living and dying (“became obedient to death – even death on a cross” – 8). God then graciously raised God’s Son Christ Jesus from the dead for the sake of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Among the striking features of this hymn is its set of contrasts. In it, for example, the apostle sings that the second person of the Trinity was “in very nature God,” but “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (6). While the eternal Son of God was in nature God, he “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (7). While Christ Jesus was in nature God, he “humbled himself and became obedient to … death on a cross” (8).
Yet the striking contrasts don’t end in verse 8 – they, in a sense, simply “reverse” in nature. While Christ Jesus took the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, “God exalted him to the highest place” (9). While the eternal Son of God humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross, God “gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (10).
As Hoezee notes, perhaps especially Americans have always been intrigued by the kinds of rags-to-riches stories of ordinary people like Amway’s co-founders Jay VanAndel and Richard DeVos. But Christ Jesus’ is a kind of “riches-to-rags” (and then back to riches) story. The eternal Son of God trades in the heavenly realm’s glory for humanity’s poverty and a criminal’s fate, but then gets exalted back to the heavenly realm’s glory.
In fact, this Lesson’s proclaimers might even argue that Jesus “gets back” even more than he had to begin with. After all, while it was mostly Israelite knees that bowed before him prior to his incarnation, the ascended Son of God now receives the praise of both Jews and gentiles. What’s more, someday, somehow every knee will bow before and every tongue will confess that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ is, in fact, Lord.
So those who proclaim this text might choose to adopt its style of drawing contrasts in our presentations. We might describe to and explore with our hearers the contrast between the way Christ Jesus thought of himself and the way we naturally think of ourselves. Philippians 2’s preachers and teachers might also explore with our hearers the contrast between the way Christ Jesus thought of himself and the way our society and culture think of themselves.
Those who proclaim this passage may also want to note a couple of more things about it. As Hoezee points out, Philippians 2 reminds us that while we sometimes assume Jesus’ suffering began with his arrest, it actually lasted throughout his lifetime. Reformed Christians, in fact, profess that he suffered “during his whole life on earth.” Jesus’ suffering began, in a real sense, when the eternal Son of God “made himself nothing” by “taking the very nature of a servant.” To begin to relate to that, we might imagine waking up, as Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis’ character Gregor Samsa famously does, to discover that we’ve turned into a bug.
Those who proclaim this text may also want to note that as Fred Craddock (Philippians, John Knox Press: 1985, p. 41) points out, the subject of our text’s hymn changes in verse 9. In verses 6-8 it’s the second Person of the Trinity who chooses, relinquishes equality with Father, empties himself, becomes human, serves and obeys all the way to the cross. But in verses 9-11 it’s first Person of the Trinity who does the work. God exalts the Son perhaps by raising him from the dead, but certainly by “lifting” him back to the heavenly realm.
Philippians 2’s preachers and teachers might also ask about verse 9’s connecting “therefore.” That may at least suggest that God exalted Christ Jesus because the Son was willing to obediently go all the way to the cross. Might we infer from this Lesson that Christ’s exaltation was the result of his willing humiliation? Wright, in fact, suggests that God honors Christ Jesus in this way because Jesus did “what only God can do” (ibid).
All of this results in “the glory of God the Father” (11). All of Jesus’ humiliation and exultation, servanthood and authority, death and life bring the Triune God the kind of honor and glory that God alone deserves. Jesus didn’t bring God glory by seeking his own glory. Instead, he brought glory by emptying himself, by making himself nothing!
As Craddock notes, Philippi’s church wasn’t torn by christological debates. It seems, instead, to be fragmented by people seeking their own glory. In Philippians 2’s stirring hymn, the apostle invites the church to a different way. “In your relationship with each other,” Craddock paraphrases Paul’s message to the Philippians, “think this way, let this be the governing attitude of the group, for, says Paul, that which makes the church the church is the ‘in Christ Jesus’ mind.”
In his delightful book, Wishful Thinking, Frederick Beuchner writes, “Humility is often confused with saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship. If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.
“True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.”