March 19, 2018
The Lent 6B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 11:1-11 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 50:4-9 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 31:9-16 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 give you the recipe for chocolate chip cookies and then describe step-by-step someone following that recipe.
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 of 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. And 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). 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). 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 his 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 2018 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.
In John Grisham’s novel, The Firm, an exceptionally gifted young man fresh out of law school lands a dream job with one of the most respected law firms in the country. The partners in this firm greet him royally, wining and dining him, buying a house for him and his young wife, lavishing him with accolades and praise. It was a glorious start to his law career! But within months it becomes clear that most of those partners are criminals with connections to organized crime. The firm itself hired thugs to keep the partners in line and the cozy house they had bought for the young couple turned out to be loaded with hidden microphones that had recorded all their private conversations, their lovemaking . . . everything.
Given how things turned out, it’s hard to imagine that in later years this man or his wife would nonetheless look back fondly on those early heady days when the firm first hired him! It did not turn out at all well and so there would be nothing good to look back on.
So also with Palm Sunday: 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 make 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 an abusive marriage that ended in divorce? Even if a person did note the anniversary of a failed marriage, wouldn’t the memory of that bring regret rather than joy, a disappointed frown rather than a fond smile?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Isaiah 50:4-9a’s juxtaposition of beauty and brutality is so jarring that it may be disconcerting. Yet that combination is part of what helps make our text in so many ways reminiscent of daily life. After all, it sometimes feels as if we’re almost constantly moving from beauty to brutality (and then, so often, right back to beauty – and back yet again).
The prophet probably penned the words of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday to an Israel whose sins have dragged her far from the beautiful home God had promised her ancient ancestors and granted her parents and grandparents. But the second half of Isaiah’s prophecy anticipates a time when God will bring Israel home.
That brightening future, however, puts Israel’s fortunes in stark contrast to those of our Old Testament lesson’s narrator. After all, while Isaiah 50 suggests Israel’s fortunes are on the rise, its narrator’s seem moving in the exact opposite direction.
His persecution is both sad and perhaps a bit surprising. The narrator seems to be, after all, as our colleague Scott Hoezee notes, the kind of person most of us would want for a friend. He seems to know just when to talk and when to listen.
Of course, assaults on “nice” prophets like our text’s are hardly unique. As Hoezee noted in an earlier Sermon Starter on this text, “Whether it’s the assassin’s bullet that shatters the face of Martin Luther King, Jr., pierces the body of Mahatma Gandhi or takes out Abraham Lincoln; whether it’s the Tiananmen Square tanks that threaten to run over non-violent students or the powers that be that sequester away in prison for years and years a Nelson Mandela, those with a gift to speak sustaining words for the weary and listen to the cries of those who need to be heard are indeed turned over to the smiters and the biters and the spitters and the whole shameful lot of those who carry out this world’s worst persecutions.”
Yet even in the face of almost fanatical persecution, Isaiah 50’s narrator insists he has not rebelled against God’s call to speak God’s truth. The narrator insists that he has “not drawn back” (5). It’s certainly possible, if not likely that his courage stems at least in part from the strong sense of God’s calling that verses 4-5a recount.
There the narrator recognizes that God has given him not just his mission, but also his ability to carry it out well. God has given him the tongue of a teacher. However, God has also given him the ear of someone who’s willing to be taught so that he can be an effective communicator. Morning by morning God awakens our text’s narrator to listen to God like a student.
At least some of us who write and read Sermon Starters are tempted to think that the most important qualification of a good teacher is the ability to communicate effectively. Isaiah 50 reminds us that good teachers are, first of all, good students. Those who wish to teach God’s truths are eager to hear God speak before they even dare to speak on God’s behalf. So we pray for open ears before we pray for articulate tongues.
Yet citizens of the 21st century, perhaps especially in North America, seem increasingly quicker to speak than to listen. Christians of every political and theological stripe also seem increasingly quick to speak on God’s behalf. We’re naturally more eager to put our tongues than our ears to good use.
So Isaiah 50’s wise preachers and teachers will want to at least consider reminding anyone who claims to speak for God, whether formally or informally, to listen to God before speaking for God. We’ll urge each other to pray for open ears before we pray for nimble tongues. We’ll challenge each other to be diligent students of God’s Word and ways before we’re speakers of God’s Word.
However, as Isaiah 50:4-9a reminds us, even good student/teachers may suffer for listening to before speaking for God. “The sovereign Lord has opened” the narrator’s ears (5). So what’s his “reward”? Brutal persecution. Yet the narrator insists it hasn’t deterred him. He, instead, allows his assailants to both physically and emotionally hurt him deeply.
However, our text’s narrator doesn’t let those assaults push him away from his prophetic calling. He doesn’t flinch when people do their worst to him. Because he’s confident God will ultimately vindicate him, the narrator continues to listen for God’s Word. Because he trusts the Lord to help him, he continues to resolutely speak God’s truths.
Our text leaves its narrator’s identity anonymous. Some suggest it’s the prophet Isaiah himself. Others suggest the suffering narrator is the community of Israel. Yet perhaps our text deliberately leaves its narrator unnamed. After all, almost countless people and communities down through the ages could have voiced his message.
Of course, on what we sometimes call Palm or Passion Sunday, Christians can hardly hear Isaiah 50 without thinking about the ghastly suffering the Romans inflicted on Jesus during the last few hours of his life. The Markan text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday vividly describes that torture. Its description of Jesus’ suffering is, in fact, perhaps more graphic than the other three gospel accounts of it. Mark 15:16-20’s description of the Roman soldiers’ wanton brutality toward Jesus is especially chilling.
Yet with a little imagination we can also hear persecuted Middle Eastern, African and Asian Christians speaking Isaiah 50:5-6. Perhaps those whom we teach and to whom we preach will even find that its words resonate with their own experiences of following Jesus the Christ.
The suffering teacher is able to confidently stand strong because he knows his God helps him. The One who vindicates the suffering teacher is “near” (8). As a result, the narrator is willing to face his accusers head-on. He trusts, after all, that God is both his defender and judge.
Yet our text’s narrator may also have a larger purpose for describing both his misery and his hope. Dennis Olson (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts) suggests Isaiah’s description presents a way for the exiled Israelite community to move forward. She too, after all, has been battered and weakened. Yet the narrator suggests that the Israelites can endure that misery because they know that God stands with them to both defend and finally vindicate them.
But, as Olson adds, Isaiah 50 can also be a model for the whole Body of Christ that is the Church. God’s adopted sons and daughters, after all, naturally respond to physical and physical attacks by lashing out at our assailants. Or we withdraw from those who attack us without speaking a prophetic word to their violence.
Isaiah 50’s narrator provides the kind of Christ-like response to others’ attacks that God equips us to offer. After all, its narrator harms neither his attacker nor himself in response to the violence inflicted on him. He remains within the sometimes brutal community to both hear and speak God’s Word because he is confident that while people may condemn him, God will graciously help him.
There are no guarantees people won’t persecute those who proclaim and hear Isaiah 50 for listening to and speaking for the Lord. There are no guarantees God’s adopted sons and daughters will be popular, healthy and wealthy.
God’s only guarantees are that God will never abandon 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 various deep waters or hot fires, God graciously goes and stays with us, by God’s Word and Spirit.
Yet it’s regrettable that the Lectionary, in its apparent obsession with omitting anything that’s even remotely uncomfortable, omits the second part of verse 9 from the text it appoints for this Sunday. After all, there the narrator insists those who unjustly persecute him “will all wear out like a garment.”
That doesn’t just serve to remind those who suffer unjustly that God takes our misery very seriously. It also warns those who fail to act like Jesus that they’ll eventually, like an aging boxer, wear themselves out by causing other people so much grief.
When I was in college, we sang a lyrical setting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem, “Von wunderbaren Maechten still geborgen” (loosely translated as, “By Gracious Powers So Wonderfully Sheltered”). He wrote it just 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”). In doing so, he reflects, among other things, Isaiah’s confidence that “He who vindicates me is near” (9).
Yet Bonhoeffer’s “God is with us night and morning” also perhaps deliberately plays on the German military’s slogan, Gott mit uns, (loosely translated, “God with us”). That military inscribed that motto on its 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 unconditionally 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. It also offers us an opportunity to explore in what ways we try to baptize our own various causes in God’s purposes.
Author: Doug Bratt
The Revised Common Lectionary has two suggested readings from the Psalms for this Sixth Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday. The first, Psalm 118, emphasizes the positive side of this day with lots of verses that anticipate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The second, Psalm 31:9-16, zeros in on the tragedy of Palm Sunday, the gathering storm of his enemies plotting his death and the suffering that conspiracy caused him. Since Psalm 118 is also the Psalm reading for Easter Sunday next week, I will write about Psalm 31.
The problem (for me and maybe for the preacher reading this) is that the RCL chooses Psalm 31 for Palm Sunday in every year of the three-year cycle. So, this will be the third time I have written on this Psalm for Palm Sunday plus a bonus time during the Easter season. For an intensive look at Psalm 31, see the Sermon Starter Archives for March 14, 2016, April 9, 2017, and May 14, 2017 on this “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website.
Thus, as I approach Psalm 31 yet again, I want to paraphrase a line from one of my favorite hymns, “How Firm a Foundation.” Affirming the sufficiency of God’s revelation in Scripture, the hymn writer says, “What more can he say than to you he has said….” As I put fingers to computer keyboard, I want to say, “What more can I say than to you I have said three times already.”
But trying to follow Emily Dickinson’s famous maxim, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” I will endeavor to give a different slant on the powerful truths of Psalm 31 for Palm Sunday 2018. In the past articles I joined many other writers in seeing Psalm 31 as an insight into the suffering of Jesus during Holy Week and especially on the cross. This is a time-honored approach with a sound foundation in the text, particularly verse 5 which Jesus took on his lips as he breathed his last. Our reading for today can very plausibly be read as a prophecy of Jesus’ increasing sufferings on Palm Sunday. For much more on that angle on this text, see my previous pieces.
But we can also read this Psalm section as an expression of our suffering as we follow Christ to the cross. Our Lenten journey is part of our pilgrim’s progress to sanctification and glorification, and the road can be hard. Even as Christ’s suffering intensified as he came closer to his death, our suffering will increase as we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Psalm 31:9-16 gives voice to our difficulties and to our dependence on God in Christ.
Verses 9 and 10 are a cry for mercy out of deep physical and emotional distress. We could read these verses as a description of the agony produced by a deep sense of sin, the kind of thing we read in the next Psalm (32), where David’s silence after sin brought him much suffering. And it is true that the Hebrew of verse 10 of this Psalm says, “my strength fails because of my guilt.” If we adopt that translation, we can talk about the Lenten disciplines of introspection and repentance. In bygone eras, Christians used to suffer over sin the way Psalm 31 describes.
That is a possible way to deal with verses 9 and 10, and maybe it is a necessary word for our sin-phobic day. But the rest of Psalm 31 seems to point in a different direction. The Psalmist suffers not so much because of his own sin, but because of the enemies who surround him. The conspiracy of these enemies has driven even the Psalmist’s friends away from him, leaving him alone and broken like a shard of pottery in the gutter (verses 11-13). In words that resonate with the headlines of 2018, verse 13 says, “there is terror on every side.”
It is easy to see why commentators over the years have seen these verses as a foreshadowing of the Palm Sunday conspiracy against Jesus. As the crowds shouted “Hosanna,” their leaders were plotting Jesus’ demise. But it is a bit harder to see verses 11-13 as a description of the suffering of contemporary Christians. Unless we live in the Middle East where Islamist extremism makes life miserable for Christians, most of us don’t experience such overt persecution.
The relative ease and freedom most Christians have today might make my angle on Psalm 31 a bit of a reach, unless we pick up on this business of slander in verse 13. Maybe it is too much to say that there is an organized “conspiracy” against Christians in which our enemies “plot to take our lives.” But can anyone doubt that there is increasing pressure on Christians to conform to the rapidly changing standards and mores of our society. In some circles the words “evangelical Christian” are an epithet hurled at people presumed to be ignorant and bigoted. While I acknowledge that some of the opprobrium heaped on Christians today may well be earned, at least some of the insults approach slander.
This would be a good place to challenge our people about not conforming to the world. If we have not been persecuted in any way because of our faith and life, is that because we look and act so much like the secularists around us? That’s a complicated question and should be explored carefully, but the words of Paul in II Timothy 3:12 should make us think. “All who desire to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Our observance of Lent should make us reflect on how Christ-like our lives really are.
Our reading for today ends with on a high note of confidence in God, and I’m glad for it. Lent can be a gloomy time focused on sin and repentance and self-abnegating disciplines. So, it is good to hear these positive words from the lips of someone who suffered much. Psalm 31 is filled with talk about God as a refuge, a fortress, a shelter, but there is none of that in the first verses of our reading. It’s almost as though his physical suffering and emotional distress and his terrorist enemies have killed the faith of the Psalmist. Sometimes it feels that way to us as we journey on to the cross and the empty tomb and beyond.
But the Psalmist has not lost his faith, and that is a challenge to us. I love the fact that verse 14 begins with that great gospel word, “but.” Life is hard, “but I trust in you, O Yahweh.” He still believes in the covenant God of Israel. And it is personal for him; “I say, ‘You are my God.’”
Then, picking up on the image of hands which runs through Psalm 31, he gives this classic confession of faith that has bolstered the faith of many suffering believer. “My times are in your hands….” What an affirmation for the times of our lives, especially for those of us who are feeling very negative about this time in history or in our own lives. “Our times,” all of them, past, present, future, good and bad, “are in the hands of Yahweh, our God,” the God who entered our time as a human being to redeem the times of our lives. Jesus said again and again, “It is not my time yet.” He knew that the times of his life were safely in the hands of the great “I am what I am,” who is sovereign even over something as mysterious and momentous as time. We might be intimidated by the space/time continuum of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but Psalm 31 reminds us that the times of our lives are safely in the hands of our God.
The section we are studying today ends with a prayer rooted in the unbreakable covenant of God. Verse 16a is a plea based on the Levitical benediction given by God in Numbers 6. Through all the times of life, the servants of God have blessed us with these lovely words, “May Yahweh make his face shine upon you.” Therefore, believers should pray confidently, “Let your face shine on your servant.” We can be sure that such a prayer will be answered because of Yahweh’s “unfailing love.”
Those last words of our reading, “save me in your unfailing love,” point us to Christ. He was God’s unfailing love in action to save us. At the end of this Lenten musing on Psalm 31, it is important to call suffering and persecuted Christians back to Christ. There is great comfort in remembering that these words about us are quintessentially about Christ. We are not alone in our struggles. Jesus went through everything described in Psalm 31 for us and our salvation.
Here’s how Hebrews 2:17-18 put it: “he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sin of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Hebrews 4:15 and 16 add, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Here’s a simple illustration of the subtle persecution experienced by Christians today. I offer it as a thought starter for the section of your sermon on verses 11-13. My aged mother enjoys a daily meal at a wonderful senior citizen’s center. She has many friends there and they spend many happy hours together. But one day, she mentioned Jesus as they were eating. There was stony silence. She said, “I could feel the walls go up. ‘Don’t bring that name in here,’ was the message.”
Author: Stan Mast
Has such lofty theology ever been put to greater pastoral use on the ground level of life? Whether or not these verses in Philippians 2 represent Paul’s citation of an early Christian song, the fact is that these verses represent a very high Christology. What’s more, an entire sub-branch of Christology, Kenosis Christology, got launched just by these verses as theologians from time immemorial have pondered what it meant for the Son of God to “empty himself.” Of precisely what divine attributes or perquisites did the Son divest himself? How do we square this self-emptying with the long-held theological tenet that the Son of God, even in the incarnation, remained fully divine? Can you qualify divinity and still be fully divine? Can Jesus of Nazareth, undeniably human, retain his divine credentials if for a time he divested himself of things like omnipresence or maybe even omniscience?
Questions like these have piled up over the centuries. And many if not all of them spin in part out of Philippians 2. There are depths, there are riches, there are theological puzzles aplenty in these few words.
Ironically, however, a lot of that was beside the point for Paul! Yes, there is some overt instruction going on here as to the nature of the incarnation and what Jesus did for us. But Paul’s main goal here was not a deeper understanding of the finer points of Christology. No, he was trying to help his Philippian sisters and brothers behave better. Period. Paul’s approach here is pastoral more than intellectual, practical more than academic.
Near as we can tell, the Philippian congregation was mostly a happy place. Compared to fiery letters like Galatians or painfully tortured epistles like 2 Corinthians, this letter to the saints at Philippi is mighty warm, personal, loving. These people were close to Paul’s apostolic heart and he basked in what he termed in the first chapter as their “partnership in the gospel.”
That didn’t mean there were no ripples on the surface of their life together as a congregation. There was that public spat between Euodia and Synteche that he will need to address before he finishes the letter. And all throughout the epistle there are hints and whispers that the perennially difficult sin of pride was rearing its head now and again among the members. It is a perpetual truth of church history that where two or three are gathered in the Lord’s name, there in the midst of them will be temptations to stratify the membership, to have some puff up their chests in front of others as being more vital, more central, more talented, more essential in the congregation than some of the flock’s lesser lights. Sometimes it was economics—read James—and sometimes it was spiritual gifts—read 1 Corinthians—and still other times it was the practices of the more mature that were tripping up the weaker folks—read Romans.
But at bottom it was as often as not pride that was the root of it all. For whatever the reasons deep within our human hearts and psyches, we love the limelight. We love shining a little brighter than the next guy. We prefer to win arguments, make a splash, get the accolades, be known. We love knowing secrets to which others are not privy.
The imagery associated with pride almost always involves some notion of height. Whether you are looking down your nose at others, riding your high horse, having a lofty opinion of yourself, getting uppity, or believing you are just above it all, the proud are the arrogant who love to reside in the high places of life. They crave not respect but envy. The proud don’t want mere admiration, they want others to WISH they could be as fine as the proud ones. Proud people feel better about themselves when their talent or fame make others feel worse about themselves. But from such allegedly lofty perches, very little that is positive gets beamed down to those at lower altitudes.
Paul probably had some of this in mind in dealing with pride among the Philippians. So while he was thinking about lofty perches anyway, he tumbled to the idea that you cannot get higher than being God. But that is precisely what Jesus was before becoming human: God. Co-equal. Fully God. Light from light, true God of true God, and all that. But it was not the loftiness of the divine that got us saved. No, quite the opposite. It was the getting low that saved us, it was the humility of the Son—and ultimately the humiliation of the Son—that got the salvific job done. The Son of God set everything he had going for him to the side. He stooped lower than low, became a servant, became a victim of this world’s violence.
However it all works out in the intricacies of Christological doctrine, it is the trajectory of Jesus’ divine-human work that is the key thing Paul wanted the Philippians to notice, appreciate, savor, and then imitate. Jesus did not save us from the top down but from the bottom up. Oh yes, he’s been exalted now to somehow an even higher place than where he started. How can you get higher than being the full Son of God? Well, not easily but when you are the full Son of God AND you have the added distinction of having sacrificed yourself to save the whole cosmos, well THEN you really are even higher and even more worthy of praise than before. (Just try really to wrap your mind around that one!)
“Notice the pattern here,” Paul urges his readers. You are at your most Christ-like when you serve not when you are served. You look more like the Savior when you defer to others, not when you push to always get your way. You look at the world through God’s own eyes not when you stratify everyone you meet into groupings of those you deem worthy of your precious time and those you can safely ignore but when you see each person as infinitely worthy of everything you’ve got. That’s how Jesus viewed us. That’s what he saw through his own divine-human eyeballs. “Live like that, look at other people like that, stoop low to serve others like that,” Paul says “and your congregation will be a better place.”
As a Palm Sunday reading, Philippians 2 brings us to that lowly king riding humbly on a donkey. “Hosanna” the people cried. And they were just sure that the cried-for salvation would come when Jesus went higher, got more powerful, booted out Pontius Pilate and Herod and finally the Caesar. THEN he would be in a lofty position to get something done for Israel. But Jesus heard it all and knew a deeper truth: he had a little bit LOWER to go yet in the coming week before things would begin to get better.
Surely no one would have believed it had he shared it with them that day. Lots of people don’t believe it now, and some of them come to church every week. But it’s true: the way up leads down. The way to God’s own glory goes through the cross and its horrors.
“Have this mind among yourselves” Paul writes. Easy to say. Hard to do. But there is always that Jesus on whom to fix our eyes and whose pattern we can follow. If we do, we will serve with tenderness and humility. And in the end, well, in the end we will thereby share also the cosmic glory of the one who once upon a time made himself nothing for us.
From Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2015, p. 80). Rutledge is here referring to the “godlessness” of the cross and its being the nadir of Jesus as the self-emptying servant:
“Perhaps we can gain further understanding by examining a horrific incident that occurred in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 and soon became emblematic of the ongoing struggle against the persecution of homosexuals. A young gay man, Matthew Shepard, was beaten within an inch of his life by two other men and was then tied to a fence and abandoned. Eighteen hours later, in near-freezing weather, a passerby discovered the comatose figure and for a moment mistook it for a scarecrow. Matthew Shepard died in the hospital five days later without ever recovering consciousness. The particular cruelty of this death left people groping for words. He was tied up and left dangling ‘like an animal’ said one spokesperson, recalling the Old West practice of nailing a dead coyote to a ranch fence as a warning to intruders. The emphasis here is on the de-humanization of the victim; declaring another person less than human is the well-attested first step toward eliminating that person or group of people. The phrase ‘like an animal’ is therefore apt. The strongest of all statements, however was this [as written by someone in the New York Times]: ‘There is an incredible symbolism in being tied to a fence. People have likened it to a scarecrow. But it sounded more like a crucifixion.’”