Palm Sunday A
April 03, 2017
Matthew 26:14 - 27:66
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some years back I heard what was reported to have been among the final gasping words of the famous singer Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s signature song was “My Way” in which he crooned that when looking back on his life, although he had a few regrets, in the end “I did it my way.”
But at the real end, our own strength is never enough. And so just before he breathed his last, Sinatra said to a family member, “I’m losing.” But to say you are losing implies that you have the sense that you should be able to win. To have a sense of defeat implies that, all things being equal, there should have been a chance for victory. We should be able to keep our life.
I suspect that Old Blue Eyes was in touch with something fundamental in the human soul: the aching sense that we were made for life. Hence, whatever death is, it gets in the way like a roadblock. “Is this all there is?” so many ask as death approaches. As Peter Kreeft once noted, if a child gets a slug of presents at Christmas but still says at the end of the unwrapping, “Is this all there is?”, then there are two ways of viewing this. Either the child is dreadfully ungrateful or someone made him a promise that has not yet been kept. Perhaps he had been promised a new puppy but so far has received just stuffed animals. But if he had been told a new puppy was coming, then the “Is this all there is?” question looks not like ingratitude so much as a proper expectation. So for us all: if we sense we’ve been promised life, then asking “Is this all there is” in the face of death makes sense.
But we all still look for ways to minimize death or skirt its pervasive reach. Have you ever heard about the death of someone’s mother only to ask right off the bat, “How old was she?” Why do we ask that? If someone tells you that her mother took the grandkids to the zoo for the day, do you tumble to say, “That’s nice. Say, how old is your mother?” Probably not. No, we ask how old someone was after they died because if we find out she was 93, we’ll console ourselves that we need not feel too bad after all. Yet another subtle implication is that even the son or daughter should not grieve too much given that this dead person had, after all, arrived at the proverbial “ripe old age.”
It’s not true though, is it? How many times haven’t I heard people say that death still hits you hard, even when long-expected. Death still doesn’t feel right even if it is tinged with some measure of relief. Even then you may hear family members say, “For his sake we’re glad, but . . .” And you know what’s next. “But . . . the rest of us now just plain miss him, that’s all.” It’s the same dynamic that can lead people in their 60s to say they feel like orphans after the last parent dies. Orphans!? At 60 years of age!? Yes, that’s how it feels.
In one of the confessional standards of my tradition (The Heidelberg Catechism), at one point a very important question gets asked: Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death?
That is a big question, so what is the answer? Did Jesus have to go all the way to death to pay for sin? Yes. But listen: why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because he had been made truly human. Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because you and I must do so, and had Jesus found a way to beam off this planet in a way that would have neatly side-stepped any kind of death, then he could not be considered just like you and me after all. Jesus had to leave this world via death for the same reason he couldn’t get into this world without exiting a woman’s uterus: because that’s how all people get here. Jesus had to die for the same reason he had to drink water every day to stay healthy, for the same reason he got hungry, for the same reason he had to close his eyes and sleep after a long day of parable-telling and teaching: because in Jesus the Son of God had entered the entirety of human existence and experience.
Sometimes people ask how Jesus could have died considering that he was not just human but also divine. By definition God cannot die, so isn’t there maybe a bit of play-acting going on here? Since Jesus was unlike the rest of us who are only human, did Jesus die just “sort of,” “kind of,” only partially?
That’s a truly vexing question but let me suggest something that may constitute a portion of the larger answer. I’d like to suggest that what was human about Jesus died the same way we will all die. His body gave out, his heart went silent, his brain waves went flat and so Jesus experienced a wrenching separation from the only body he had ever known as a human. But just before that happened, the divine part of him experienced death when the Father and the Spirit withdrew from him. For the first time in all eternity, he was alone.
Sometimes in listening to people, you may hear someone describe what abandonment feels like. Listen to the person who talks about being ditched by both of his parents when he was a child. Listen to the choking agony of a woman who talks about how she felt in the aftermath of her husband’s just suddenly walking out on her, never to return. What you hear in such woeful tales of abandonment is a dereliction that defies ordinary speech. It is not at all surprising to hear people describe divorce as “like a death.” Although a vastly milder scenario, sometimes even those who were unexpectedly fired from a longtime job may report, “I feel like something inside me died.”
Several theological traditions have claimed that it was that experience of abandonment by the other two Persons of the Trinity that constituted Jesus’ “descent into hell.” If so, then it is theologically accurate to say that Jesus did indeed experience death across the fullness of everything he was and is as both divine and human. We don’t need to declare that Jesus died but do so with our fingers crossed behind our backs as though to waffle or hedge a little. Jesus went all the way to death because we all must do so.
How could our God ever be more compassionate than to so identify with us in our humanity that he did this for us and for our salvation?
What’s the line from the old hymn: Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
It’s ironic the bystanders misheard Jesus and concluded he was calling for Elijah. Elijah, of course, had been the prophet who was whisked to heaven in a chariot of fire. Of course, that didn’t mean Elijah had avoided death, but in the popular imagination there was a belief that Elijah was still alive and so maybe could swoop down once again in his fiery chariot. And so having heard what they thought was a prayer to Elijah, those around the cross concluded that this Jesus fellow was hoping that maybe a fiery chariot would swing low to snatch him off that cross and preserve his life after all.
So they quickly sopped a sponge with some wine vinegar to act as a kind of crude anesthetic, hoping they could keep Jesus alive long enough to see either if Elijah really would show up or, much more likely (and much more fun for them to witness, too) to see the disappointment that would come to this Jesus once the realization sank in that there’d be no last-minute chariot ride for him!
It’s not what Jesus had said at all, of course. He wasn’t crying out to an Elijah he thought would help him avoid death. He cried to the God whose withdrawal had just assured Jesus that he would die momentarily, derelict and hellishly alone. He knew there would be no escape for him. The gospels indicate that Jesus had known for some while that he’d come to an end pretty much like this. Yet he was human enough that even he could not resist the urge to shriek out his question as to the why of it all. There was no answer just then, and Jesus soon died in the midst of that deafening divine silence.
And then it all happened. The very moment Jesus entered hell, here on earth all heaven broke loose! The temple curtain split wide open, an obvious symbol that now the way to even God’s most Holy of Holies was open for all. Then, in the weirdest incident recorded in any of the four gospels, Matthew tells us tombs of saints split open and, right then and there on that dark Friday afternoon, bodies came back to life, later strolling into Jerusalem. If ever there were a gospel verse about which even some conservative biblical commentators may raise an eyebrow, it’s this one. The mere idea of these people returning from the dead raises a slew of questions that Matthew shows zero interest in addressing.
But Matthew includes this dramatic event and he does it for a solid reason: it’s God’s answer to the “Why?” question with which Jesus died. Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because we all must do so. But because Jesus was more than just a human being like you and like me, his going all the way to death reversed death.
Some say that death is a doorway, a portal to whatever comes next. But until Jesus died, it was a door that swung just one way. By entering death, Jesus kicked that door open from the other side and so made a return to life possible after all. And not just for those yet to come in the future. Sometimes people ask if Jesus can help those who died long before Jesus ever arrived on this earth. Matthew 27 says that Jesus’ work was so powerful, it goes both ways on history’s timeline. In fact, the first people who received new life because of Jesus’ sacrifice were those who had died even before Jesus had! And if Jesus could help those who had been dead for a long time already, you know that he now stands as the gateway to life for all those yet to come, yet to live, yet to die.
“Surely this was the Son of God” the centurion at the cross exclaimed. Recently I heard someone suggest that we tend to read those words the wrong way. What if this centurion was merely being sarcastic? Suppose, seeing this dead-as-a-doornail man hanging limply on that cross, suppose this centurion sneered as he said, “Surely, this was the Son of God!” Maybe he said it that way, or maybe he said it with the astonished conviction we usually read into these words. Either way or both ways, it was an ironic statement. Never before had Jesus looked less divine than when he was so totally and completely dead. Yet somehow it was also at that same moment that he revealed the deepest measure of his very nature. To be God is to be a life-giver, even if doing so requires you to die.
Again to quote Peter Kreeft, birth and death frame every human life. But it’s very difficult to refute the idea that for life to have any meaning, there needs to be something meaningful in the death that frames the far side of earthly existence. If I was born to be in the end no more than fertilizer for a rhododendron–and if, therefore, even my efforts to serve people amounts to little more than the temporary propping up of my fellow pieces of plant food–then it becomes rather difficult to imbue my life with any lasting significance in the long run. It may even start to look rather pointless in the short run.
But suppose instead that there is a God who made me and who made you. Suppose we bear that God’s very image and so are ennobled to do Godly things. But even more poignantly yet, suppose that this God loved us so much that he decided it was not enough he had already made us in his image: he needed to remake himself in our image.
And so when this marauder called death threatened to make a mockery out of the idea that anyone’s life could possibly matter, God through his eternal Son took on a human body and a human life exactly so that he could bring death itself to the one place in all reality where it could be definitively dealt with: namely, right inside the experience of God himself. Once God had let death into his own divine heart, suddenly death died. Death could no longer have the last word once it had come to the One who had been the Word of God from the very beginning. The Word of God would have the last word now, and the last word of God would be the same as had been the first word: Let there be light! Let there be Life!
We came into being in just such light and with just such God-given life. That’s why we find it difficult, if not impossible, to resist asking our own “Why?” questions when death comes for a loved one or when it comes for any of us. We were promised something more and so we ask in the end “Why? Is this all there is?” Despite the grimness of such questions, we Christians find it possible to go on with hope because the Jesus who leads the way into God’s kingdom once asked the same thing. Thankfully, he eventually got an answer. So shall we all. “Is this all there is?” No, it is not. Because of Jesus, this is not all. Not by a long shot. Believe the promise and be exceeding glad!
As commentator Dale Bruner poignantly notes, isn’t it striking in Matthew’s account to see that Jesus dies in the interrogative mood? Jesus died not with some triumphant exclamation or declaration but he died with a question trembling on his lips. Jesus died the way a lot of people die, maybe the way all people die: he died asking “Why?” Bruner goes so far as to say that this final question from Jesus “is the Gospel at its deepest,” revealing better than any other sentence in the New Testament “who Jesus is and what he does.”
That’s a powerful assertion but the way Bruner fleshes it out in his marvelous commentary convinced me that he may well be right. Jesus does not quietly slip away, nor does he treat death the way Socrates is reported to have done: namely, welcoming death as a much longed-for release from the prison house of the body. Jesus dies kicking and screaming. Jesus dies wondering why it had to happen.
She didn’t know what else to say. As a mother, she had always steered well clear of religious clap-trap, even priding herself on not force-feeding her children to believe in anything when it came to spiritual matters. But then a beloved neighbor died. He had been a kindly old man whom this woman’s children had adopted as a kind of local grandpa. But now he was dead, and the woman’s young son was very upset. The little boy wanted to know why this had to happen. So his mother reached for some naturalistic rhetoric. “It’s just the way of the world, honey. It’s part of the natural cycle of all things, and so our friend has now returned to the earth. And next spring, when you see the daffodils and tulips coming up, you can know that your friend is helping to fertilize them.” The little boy did not hesitate. He shrieked, “But I don’t want him to be fertilizer!”
In relating that story, author Peter Kreeft notes that indeed, even the non-religious in this world have a deep-down sense that humanity is meant to be more than fertilizer. Death is a natural part of the world, yet internally we rebel.
Author: Doug Bratt
Isaiah 50’s juxtaposition of beauty and brutality is jarring and perhaps somewhat disconcerting. Yet that combination is part of what helps make it 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 in a time when the Persians are on the ascendancy and Israel’s Babylonian captor is in something of a decline. Israel’s sins have dragged Isaiah’s first readers far from the beautiful home God had promised their ancient ancestors and granted their 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 the one who narrates our Old Testament lesson. After all, while it suggests Israel’s fortunes are on the rise, the prophet’s seem moving in the opposite direction. His persecution is both sad and perhaps a bit surprising. The prophet seems to be, after all, as my 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, such assaults on “nice” prophets 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 that, Isaiah 50’s narrator insists he has not rebelled against God’s call to speak God’s truth. He notes that he has “not drawn back” (5). We imagine his courageous ministry stems in part from the strong sense of calling from God that verses 4-5a describe.
He 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 the prophet to listen to God like a student.
This serves as a reminder to those who write and read Sermon Starters. Most of us too are, after all, teachers who 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.
This is, however, also true of those who listen to teachers and preachers. North American culture in particular seems 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 those who preach and teach Isaiah 50 do well to remind anyone who claims to speak for God, whether formally or informally, to listen to God first. We urge each other to pray for open ears before we pray for nimble tongues. We call each other to be diligent students of God’s Word and ways before we’re speakers of God’s truths.
Of course, as Isaiah 50:5-9a reminds us, even good teachers may suffer for speaking for God. “The sovereign Lord has opened” the prophet’s ears. Yet what’s his “reward”? Brutal persecution and suffering. However, while he doesn’t explain the cause of that misery, the prophet insists it hasn’t deterred him. He, instead, allows his assailants to both physically and emotionally hurt him deeply. After all, few things hurt more than having one’s beard yanked out. And few things are more humiliating than having someone spit on and mock you.
Yet the prophet 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 prophet 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 the identity of its “me” anonymous. Some suggest the narrator is the prophet Isaiah himself. Others suggest the suffering prophet is the community of Israel herself. Yet perhaps our text deliberately leaves its narrator’s identity anonymous. After all, almost countless people and communities down through the ages could certainly voice his message.
On 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 Matthean text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday vividly describes Jesus humiliation. Its description of Jesus’ suffering is, in fact, perhaps more graphic than the other three gospel accounts. Matthew 25:27-31’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 find 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 prophet 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 also seems to have a larger purpose for describing both his misery and his hope. Dennis Olson suggests it presents a way for the exiled Israelite community to move hopefully 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. We 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 response to others’ attacks that God equips us to offer. After all, its narrator harms neither her attacker nor herself in response to the violence inflicted on her. He remains within the 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 us. 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. God’s 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.
Yet it’s regrettable that the Lectionary, in its apparent obsession with omitting anything that’s uncomfortable, ignores the second part of verse 9. After all, there the narrator insists those who unjustly persecute him “will all wear out like a garment.” That doesn’t 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 other people so much grief.
When I was a college student, we learned and sang a lyrical setting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, “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).
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”). After all, 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 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 offers us an opportunity to explore in what ways we try to baptize our own various causes in God’s purposes.
Psalm 31: 9-16
Author: Stan Mast
There are two ways to commemorate Palm Sunday, according to the Lectionary. We can focus on the Palms and celebrate a day of victory filled with Hosannas. That was my focus last year (see the Sermon Starter for March 21, 2016 in the Sermon Starter Archives on this “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website). Or we can focus on the Passion going on beneath the Hosannas. That is a key focus of Psalm 31, particularly these verses in the middle of the Psalm which show us the dark underbelly of Palm Sunday.
In all three years of the Lectionary cycle Psalm 31 is read on Passion Sunday, largely because Jesus took verse 5 on his lips as he breathed his last on the cross. But verse 13 is really the center of the Psalm, both literally and thematically. “For I hear the slander of many; there is terror on every side; they conspire against me and plot to take my life.” As the Hosannas rose from the lips of the crowd out in the streets of Jerusalem, whispers of conspiracy filled the back alley room where the religious leaders huddled to plot Jesus’ death. We read of that plotting in Mark 11:18, Luke 19:39 and 47, and John 11:45-53 (after the raising of Lazarus) and 12:19 (after the Hosannas).
Some scholars believe that Jesus quoted not only verse 5 on the cross, but also the entire Psalm. The combination of trust and rejection that fills the Psalm certainly fits those last hours of Christ’s life. Thus, there is some credibility to that suggestion, but we have no real evidence that it’s true. It is probably more homiletically fruitful to say that Psalm 31 enables us to experience the Passion of the Christ from the inside. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to hear Psalm 31, especially verses 9-16, as a cry from the heart of a suffering Christ.
The first verses (9-13) are a desperate lament, detailing the passion of Christ. It was deeply emotional; as the Man of Sorrows his “eyes grow weak with sorrow” and his “soul and body with grief.” His physical anguish is palpable as his “strength fails because of … affliction” and his “bones grow weak.”
But his suffering was also relational. Verses 11 and 12 remind us of the betrayal of Judas, the flight of the disciples in the Garden, the denial of Peter, and the general absence of his apostolic band during the worst hours of his Passion. Did Jesus think of these words as he was arrested and tried and beaten? “Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors; I am a dread to my friends—those who see me on the street flee from me. I am forgotten by them as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery.”
Being rejected by your closest friends when things get tough is perhaps more painful than any beating. We can only imagine the pain on Jesus face, when his eyes locked on Peter’s in the courtyard of the High Priest. The very disciples who led the Palm Sunday parade have become an improbable part of his Passion.
His rejection by human beings reaches its nadir as the religious leaders plot his death. How ironic that the very people designated by God to lead his chosen people in their God given mission to the world should become the leaders of a conspiracy to get rid of the Messiah who would fulfill that mission! As verse 13 prophecies, Jesus knew what was going on in that back alley. He knew the thoughts of women and men before they spoke, so there is no doubt that he clearly heard the whispering. But he made no move to escape their plot, because it was part of “The Divine Conspiracy.” Think of how the early church prayed when persecution began. “Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” (Acts 4:27, 28)
Jesus knew all of this would happen. In Mark’s Gospel alone, we hear him predict his Passion three times (Mark 8:31-32, 9:31, 10:33-34). It had to happen (“must” in 8:31). It was part of God’s plan of salvation. It was all in God’s hands. So, his bitter lament ends with a confession of absolute faith. “But I trust in you, O Lord.” Anticipating the so-called cry of dereliction from the cross, verse 14 ends, “I say, ‘You are my God.’”
And that leads to the crux of this Psalm, which was the crux of the matter for Christ and is for all Christians. “My times are in your hands….” It is difficult to imagine a more powerful and pregnant confession of faith than that. All the times of my life, good and bad, “the best of times and the worst of times” are appointments set by our covenant God whose love is unfailing. Ecclesiastes 3 will help us think about the various chapters of our lives as divine appointments. After poetically summarizing the times of our lives (“a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven”), the Preacher says, “God has made everything beautiful in its time.”
Even if we struggle to believe that all of our times are appointments made by God, we can rest secure in the words of Christ that conclude this pregnant phrase. All our times are “in his hands.” It may feel as though we have fallen into the rough hands of evil men, but we are in the gentle hands of God. We can not only commit our lives into his hands at the end of life, but we can also trust him completely in all the times of life.
There is a powerful play on words running throughout Psalm 31 that will help us understand and appreciate what it means to be in the hands of God. The Psalmist talks about two kinds of space: the threatening space of his enemies and the sheltering space of his God. His enemies are trying to set a trap (verse 4). He feels surrounded by them so there is terror on every side (verse 13). Indeed, he feels as though he is in a “besieged city (verse 21).” The enemies want to narrow his life until his last breathe is snuffed out.
But the Psalmist has another place to which he can flee, a refuge in which he will be safe. That’s how he opens the Psalm. “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge.” “In the shelter of your presence you hide [me] from them (the enemies)… in your dwelling you keep [me] safe….” (verse 20). In our day many people see faith as restricting, as life narrowing, as a threat to life full and free. The Psalmist reminds us that taking refuge in God in fact makes life more open, more liberating, more fulfilling. “You have not handed me over to my enemies, but have set my feet in a spacious place.”
The hands of God that hold the times of our lives not only keep us safe; they are also make life spacious, abundant, and free. Being a servant of God (verse 16) is the best way to live, because God’s face smiles on his servants, in the best of times and the worst of times. Psalm 31, with its connections to Christ’s passion, assures us that the hands holding our times have been pierced with nails.
Psalm 31 is a Psalm for all the times of our lives, perhaps especially for this time in history. Those who share in Christ’s suffering at the hands of anti-Christian forces can hear and use this Psalm as a source of comfort, even as they face death. That is surely how Stephen used it as the last stones smashed the life out of him. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” (Acts 7:59) And that is how Peter encouraged all believers to face the persecutions of life. “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (I Peter 4:19) Patrick Reardon comments on the words of Peter: “This committing of our souls to God is not just one of the various things we do as Christians; it is the essential feature of our life in Christ.”
Perhaps those dramatic words about martyrdom will seem distant from the experience of most of our listeners. We’re not living in the ISIS terrorized regions of the Middle East, where Christians are literally pursued to their deaths. But we certainly hear the whispers of conspiracy against the cause of Christ all around us, don’t we?
We may pick up on different whispers, depending on where we stand on the political/theological spectrum. Those on the left will hear whispers about threats to their social justice agenda, given the noises being made by the new President. Those on the right will hear whispers about threats to their personal morality agenda, given the recent pronouncements by the Obama administration and the Supreme Court. In the divided culture of North America, there are enemies aplenty and conspiracy theories of all kinds. So, all of us need to take a deep breath and say with the Psalmist and with our Lord, “But I trust in you, O Lord. I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”
The siege of the city of Aleppo is a perfect illustration of the disastrous effects of sin. In much the same way as President Assad of Syria laid siege to that city, sin besieges us, hemming us in, squeezing the joy out of life, raining down destruction on us, and ultimately taking our lives. Only the Suffering Savior can deliver us into “a spacious place.”
During last year’s Presidential election, Hillary Clinton was convinced that there was a right wing conspiracy against her, and there may have been. And Donald Trump was equally convinced that there was a left wing conspiracy against him, and there may well have been. We are all the victims of some kind of conspiracy. Thank God for what Dallas Willard called The Divine Conspiracy.
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Shining Like Stars”: A sample sermon
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 tartly replied, “Not now, Lee. We’re busy!”
This perhaps apocryphal story 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 the multi-billionaire.
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. For 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. Even at the end of chapter 1 Paul urgently calls for unity and a oneness of spirit.
But when 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 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. I suspect that we all recognize the evocative power of well-known poetry and hymns–that’s why most preachers often use short hymn citations somewhere in their sermons. So also for Paul: instead of simply saying “Be like Jesus,” as he does in verse 5, Paul decides in verse 6 to start singing in the hope that his readers will join in.
In the end Paul hopes that this mutual chorus will movingly drive home for the Philippians the central spectacle of the Christian faith the way only music can. It is a subtle way for Paul to trap the Philippians in their own words. “You sing this all the time,” Paul says, “so isn’t it high time to start living such humility in your communal life together!?”
More than an effective rhetorical technique, however, the hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2 has also proven to be a rich source for reflection on Jesus’ incarnation, even spawning its own branch of Christology known as “Kenosis.” Many translations render that verse, “He made himself nothing.” But the original Greek there actually says, “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.”
Because 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,” the apostle 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.
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.
At base true humility is simple honesty. William Law used to talk about “the reasonableness of humility.” What he meant is that humility is simply a sane, sober, honest recognition that we’re all pretty much the same. We all have things we do well and things we do not do so well; we all have gifts in some areas but not in others. Humility is simply the rational recognition of these common-sense facts. Pride, on the other hand, is irrational–it’s insane to think you’re the center of the universe, crazy to believe that you could get along just fine without other people. It’s sick to think that everyone should pay attention to you in a way that you yourself never pay attention to others.
Humility makes you celebrate the fact that we all need each other, that we’re all important in God’s kingdom. And when that is your basic attitude toward other people, you will be naturally inclined to lend them a hand in service if they need help or just to lend them your love during ordinary times when they’re doing their work. Because, you see, humility connects us to others even as pride isolates us.
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.
Again, 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.
And if that happens, Paul will go on to say in verse 15, then you, too, will experience the same paradox of humility of which our Lord Jesus is the cosmos’s preeminent example: by not worrying about how you look, by not fretting over other people’s praising of you, by not in pride becoming consumed with yourself but instead being consumed with others, you will shine like a star in the universe. In humility you will shine more brightly than the proud ever could as you stand side-by-side with Jesus, who is the Light of the world.