Palm Sunday C
April 08, 2019
The Lent 6C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 19:28-40 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 50:4-9a 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 Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 40 (Lord’s Day 16)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In one of the earlier episodes of the TV series M*A*S*H the doctor known as “Trapper” gets diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. Although initially upset about having to deal with a hole in his gut, Trapper soon beams with joy when his bunkmate Hawkeye reminds him that according to Army regulations, Trapper was going home! His ulcer was his ticket out of the misery of the Korean War.
As the episode progresses, they arrange a farewell party for Trapper. But minutes before Trapper shows up for his party, he is informed by the Company Clerk, Radar, that the Army had recently changed its regulations and his ulcer would have to be treated right there in Korea. Trapper goes to the party anyway and allows the hilarity, festivity, and joy of the evening to proceed for a good long while until he’s asked to give a final speech, at which time he tells everyone the truth: he’s not going anywhere after all.
But throughout the party, both Trapper and Radar have a look in their eyes that betrays the truth, if only anyone had looked close enough to notice. Trapper smiles and even laughs during the party at times but it’s a bit muted and the sadness in his eyes tells the reason why: it’s a nice party but it’s not going to end the way he had hoped or the way all the other partygoers were anticipating.
I wonder if someone had looked deep into Jesus’ eyes that day in Jerusalem if they might have seen something similar. As I said in a sermon of mine on Luke 19, Palm Sunday in Luke is bracketed by some dark events: ominous words in Luke 19:26-27 and outright weeping on Jesus’ part in Luke 19:41-44. So as Jesus allowed the Triumphal Entry little parade to continue, did his eyes betray the real truth? Did he smile as he received the “Blessed is the king . . .” accolades but even so displayed a very deep sorrow in his eyes?
In the Revised Common Lectionary you can take your choice between “Liturgy of the Palms” or “Liturgy of the Passion.” This Luke 19 text is assigned for the “Liturgy of the Palms,” and we’ll simply note the irony that Luke 19 does not have a single palm branch in sight. No “Hosannas” in this text either and no children (unless you count Jesus’ reference to the DEATH of children in Jerusalem’s upcoming destruction. A happy reference to children whose praises were “the simplest and the best” or the lips of children who “made sweet hosannas ring” that is not!!)
Here, then, is an opportunity for us pastors royally to tick off all kinds of Children’s Choir directors who distribute palm fronds to accompany the children’s singing “Hosanna Loud Hosanna.” But the point of Luke 19 is not to offend well-meaning choral types or squash everybody’s Palm Sunday frivolity. No, Luke strips away everything that would distract us so that we can have a clear and singular focus on Jesus alone. Look at HIS face, peer deeply into HIS eyes. That’s where the real story is being told.
I like Barry Moser’s Palm Sunday illustration in the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible. There is a darkness and a somberness to Jesus here—and even to his donkey!—that I think matches the mood Luke is depicting.
Jesus knew what he had to do, and proceeding into the Holy City was part of all that. And he knew that if he did his Father’s will in all this, there would be precisely the “peace in heaven and glory in the highest” of which the crowds sang but he also knew where he’d have to go and what he’d have to endure to secure that peace and glory.
In the church it seems that we too often try too hard to let “Palm Sunday” be a bright spot in the Lenten darkness in ways that may not allow us fully to absorb the dynamics here. We need to look deep into those eyes of Jesus on this day. We need to see the sadness just behind the mirth, the deep pity that undergirds the larger celebration.
Because in seeing that on the face of Jesus, we find yet another way to identify with our Lord—or perhaps better said, we find another way in which our Lord is able to identify with us. Because as pastors, but also as ordinary churchgoers, how often haven’t we also had to proceed through a worship service with songs of praise on our lips and wrenching hurt in our hearts? How often don’t we have the experience as pastors of looking out over a congregation during the singing of a hymn and suddenly finding our own voices choking a bit when our eyes fall on Marjorie, whose secret pain the pastor alone knows but that the pastor can see as Marjorie rasps out the lyrics to the hymn even as puddles of tears form in the corners of her eyes.
So often our worship of God—absolutely proper and full of peace and glory—is tinged with the sorrow and the pity of it all. We know Jesus has redeemed us (and the he did so precisely because he didn’t stop to linger over the “Triumphal” Entry parade but proceeded onward to the cross and all that happened through that sacrifice). We’re right to celebrate Jesus as our King but are properly sobered by what it cost our Lord. We’re also properly sobered to feel the pain of this in-between time of the already and the not-yet. What we see on “Palm Sunday” is not a break from it all but a way more deeply to engage life’s sharper edges. But more than that, because the eyes in which we see all that sadness are no less than Jesus’ own eyes, we know that when we also feel that mixture of glory and pain, of joy and sorrow, we are not only understood right well by our Lord, that same Lord has pointed us forward to a day when the promise will come true: he will wipe every tear from every eye.
Note: Our 2019 Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings here on the CEP homepage, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2019/
One way to freshen up this familiar story is to help the congregation notice something about Luke’s text that was also already noted above: it does NOT include most of what we associate with “Palm Sunday.” In fact, if Luke were the only gospel we had to go on, we would not call this day PALM Sunday because he never once mentions any waving of palms. Maybe we’d call it “Coat Sunday” because that is about the only detail Luke does give: people laid their coats down for Jesus to ride upon. If Luke were the only gospel we had to go on, we also would probably never have learned the word “hosanna,” because Luke never has anyone using that word. And if Luke were the only gospel we had, we would never envision little children singing to Jesus because Luke has no children around, either. In fact, you could even wonder, based on Luke’s portrayal of this event, how big the crowd was at all. Twice we are told that the people doing the cheering were only Jesus’ disciples. Is this a real parade or a wannabe one?
Knowing that Easter is coming must not make us impatient to get to next Sunday morning but instead our Easter knowledge allows us to see the cross itself as the source of our salvation. On that cross our God in Christ saved us.
Knowing what is yet to come a week from today allows us to perceive the paradox of the cross. In the cross we see the glorification of Jesus. Jesus is glorified on a cross, which, as Neal Plantinga has often said, is about as odd as being celebrated by a firing squad or getting enthroned on an electric chair. What keeps us from fleeing the cross is precisely our awareness that God in Christ is accomplishing something incredible in and through that death. Today, knowing about Easter allows us to see the entry into Jerusalem as Jesus’ own funeral procession. We don’t need to turn Palm Sunday into something it is not. We don’t need to treat this as pre-Easter but can see in this march toward Golgotha the first steps toward the gospel paradox: the death that brings life, the sacrifice that solves all that has ever been wrong with this world. Jesus must walk this path and we must go with him.
Joy for Christian people is a last feeling, not a first. Christian joy is refined and thoughtful because it has passed through death. Next Sunday we will celebrate Easter and we will do it from the midst of a war-ravaged world. In one sense it is awfully surprising that when the Son of God came to this earth, he died so hideous a death in order to save us. At the same time, however, given the bloody state of affairs we so routinely encounter in this world, it seems also inevitable that God would save us in precisely the way he did.
Author: Stan Mast
Clearly, the composers of the Revised Common Lectionary thought this little snippet of Scripture was perfect for Palm Sunday because they have selected it for all three years of the preaching cycle. I’m not sure your people will see it that way, because it is obviously more about Christ’s suffering than about his Triumphal Entry. Indeed, all four of the readings (Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Luke 22:14-23:56) focus on the theme of suffering.
Of course, this Sunday has always been called Passion Sunday as well as Palm Sunday. But most congregants will come to church today eager to hear loud Hosannas, even if they know that there were whispers of conspiracy behind the scenes even before the shouts of victory died away. So you will have to remind them that Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week during which our focus is completely on Christ’s suffering and death. Our reading from Isaiah 50 gives us a head start on our somber meditations, even as it celebrates the Good News that the Sovereign Lord was involved in Christ’s suffering.
One might wonder why this text was chosen; at first reading it seems a bit random. But then we begin to hear echoes of the New Testament here: verse 6 sounds like the preliminary sufferings of Jesus before his actual trial; verses 8 and 9 describe the trial before the Sanhedrin and Pilate; verse 7 reminds us of that striking phrase in Luke 9:51; and we hear echoes of Romans 8:32ff in verses 8 and 9. The more listen, the more it all begins to sound like a prophecy, not just for ancient Israel in Exile, but for us as we enter Holy Week.
That conclusion is confirmed when scholars tell us that this is the third of four Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1-9, 49:1-13, 52:13-53:12, and this one). These same scholars fiercely debate whether the Servant is corporate or individual; the evidence here seems to point in the direction of individual. But all agree that the Servant is everything God wanted his servant nation to be, but was not. (See verses 1-2 for a summary verdict on Israel’s failure.) Whether corporate or individual, the Servant of Isaiah was Israel idealized or, better, Israel fulfilled.
That, of course, was exactly what Jesus was—the fulfillment of all God had intended Israel to be, the fulfillment of all God’s promises to Israel, the fulfillment of Torah, the fulfillment of God’s purposes in choosing Israel in the first place. This third Servant Song gives us a perfect picture of Christ’s perfect obedience– his active obedience as he did what Israel had not done and his passive obedience as he suffered the penalty for their (and our) disobedience. Whatever ancient Israel may have gained from this prophecy, it gives us a beautiful picture of Christ as we enter Holy Week.
It truly is a song. There are lovely poetic images (“an instructed tongue” and “wakens my ear”) and recurring words intricately connected (“I did not hide my face” in verse 6, “I set my face like flint” in verse 7, and “Let us face each other” in verse 8). Best of all, the song returns to its dominant theme 4 times, like those first 4 notes in Beethoven’s Fifth—“Sovereign Lord.” The Sovereign Lord gives me an instructed tongue and has opened my ears (verses 4 and 5), so that I am obedient. And when the suffering befalls me in spite of my obedience (or more accurately, as part of my obedience), the Sovereign Lord helps me (verses 7 and 9).
Those two words send a crucial message. It may seem as though the nations are in control of Israel and the Servant’s fate, but our God is Sovereign over all nations (and all nature, for that matter). And it may seem as though God has totally forsaken his rebellious covenant people, but our God is Yahweh, who will act through the work of this Servant to save his people.
It was no accident, I think, that the early church responded to the first incident of persecution with a prayer that opened with these 2 words (Acts 4:24). In that prayer, those Christians directly connected the suffering of Christ at the hands of both Jew and Gentile to the plan and power of their Sovereign Lord. “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 Lord (verses 27 and 28).” That is exactly the theme of this Third Servant Song.
The Sovereign Lord gave his Servant all he needed to be obedient—an instructed tongue so that he could speak “the word that sustains the weary;” an awakened ear so that he could listen to the word of his Father and always obey, even when it was difficult. Contrary to Israel that often persecuted the weak and weary and worn, Jesus sought them out in his mercy. And unlike Israel that was often deaf to God’s word, Jesus’ was always perfectly attuned to God’s word. As Psalm 40:6-8 says (and see how this Psalm is applied to Christ in Hebrews 10:5-9), God had “dug” an ear for his Servant, so that he could obey, which was better than offering sacrifices.
But the Servant did offer sacrifices—not of animals or grain or drink, but of his own body and blood. “I offered my back, my cheeks,” my whole self in a humble, humiliating sacrifice to God. But even in this, the Sovereign Lord was with his Servant. Thus, he was able to triumph even in his humiliation. As Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord.” So, Jesus “set his face like flint” to go up to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51 in older translations), even though he knew what would happen there. Though the enemies would humiliate him, he would not be put to shame, because the Sovereign Lord would ultimately vindicate his Servant by raising him from the dead.
Even at his trial, in those moments when he seemed to be nothing but a helpless criminal condemned to dying an accursed death, Jesus was in charge of things. He faced his accusers bravely, because though they condemned him, he was innocent of all charges. That’s what made his sacrifice so effective for us. “It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who is he that will condemn me?”
Because Jesus spoke such words, we can speak the words of Paul in Romans 8:33-34. “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
That is finally where our meditation on Isaiah 50 should end—with a word of comfort to the weary and worn and sad who languish in Exile or in sin. This text, and all the others in what scholars call Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55), are spoken to people who have given up all hope because it seems that God has utterly forsaken them (cf. Isaiah 40:27 and 49:14 and the opening verses of Isaiah 50). Living in the darkness of God-forsakenness, they had no hope.
God has explained to them why that had happened to them and God has offered them the promises of deliverance. But his last, best word to them was not an explanation or even a promise; it was a person, this Servant who would do all they had not done and suffer as though he had committed all their sin. The Sovereign Lord would deliver them by the active and passive obedience of the Suffering Servant named Jesus.
That should be your major theme on Passion Sunday, and it would be nice to end your sermon there. But that’s not how our text ends, whether we stop where the Lectionary reading ends or proceed on to the end of Isaiah 50. Both endings have a rather severe cautionary note. In verse 9b, those who condemn the Servant “will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.” Verse 11 has a fiercer sentence: “You will lie down in torment.”
These harsh words about those who oppose the Suffering Servant are a sour ending to this lovely servant song. Thus, the RCL simply leaves them off the assigned reading. You can do that, too, but that seems a bit like shaping the Scripture to suit our theological tastes.
Or, you could use these words as a strong call to come to the light that is Christ. Verses 10 and 11 use that imagery of light in contrasting ways. Those who try to light their own way, who light their own fires and torches, will lie down in the torment of the outer darkness. We simply cannot save ourselves.
But those who acknowledge that they cannot save themselves, who know they walk in darkness, who confess that they have no light, should put their trust in the name of Yahweh and rely on their God, who has sent his Servant into the darkness. A sermon that ends this way is not merely a lovely description of the Servant who saves by his suffering, but a powerful call to trust him and him alone.
Last week I mentioned the novel, Purple Hibiscus, which is set in a troubled time in Nigeria. It focuses on a well-to-do family whose sternly Catholic father abuses the family, even as he showers his church and community with benevolent gifts. At one point, JaJa, the teenaged son rebels. He refuses to participate in the Eucharist and he finally rejects the Faith entirely. When the abusive father is found dead in his office, thus freeing the family from his depredations, JaJa’s sister piously says, “God knows best. God moves in mysterious ways.” The embittered JaJa laughs and replies, ‘Of course God does. But have you ever wondered why? Why did he have to murder his own son so we could be saved? Why didn’t he just go ahead and save us?” That will be the response of many unbelievers (and some Christians) to our text’s focus on the active and passive obedience of the Suffering Servant of the Lord.
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is Palm/Passion Sunday and so God’s people come to church. We Christians come to church because we believe when we do, we come into the presence of God. We believe in God and so we believe God is faithful to the promise that when we gather in God’s name, God is among us. Certainly we all now and again have our doubts, be they fleeting moments or long dark nights of the soul. But in general, when we step back and survey the broad contours of sacred sojourns through this life, the one unbroken line that we can see is our rock-bottom belief that there really is a God and that he really did come down here once upon a millennium in the form of a man called Jesus.
[Note: The Lectionary provides 2 Psalm options for Palms or Passion. If you wish to see a sermon starter on Psalm 118, please visit this page: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-day-b-2/?type=the_lectionary_psalms ]
It’s a daring set of beliefs. Throughout most of history it has even been radical to believe it. Almost no one who has ever had faith has claimed it is a natural, obvious, or easy thing to embrace. Yet we do believe. Most days we believe right down to our socks that Jesus is Lord. We render up prayers to him without thinking. We get our burger and fries and pause in our hearts to say “Thank You.” We kiss a loved one at the door before he or she heads off for work and we don’t even have the door bolted shut again before we furtively plead for this one’s safety on the roads.
That’s just how many of us think, and at least some of us cannot remember a time when we thought any differently. In Psalm 31:5 (which is just before this lection begins but you kind of need the whole psalm anyway to make sense of it) the psalmist refers to God in a way that anchors not only this psalm but the whole of our faith. The psalmist commits his spirit to God because Yahweh is, he says, “the God of truth.”
In Hebrew the phrase is el emet, and the word emet is a root word for “amen.” The God on whom this psalmist stakes his past, present, and future is the “Amen God!” He is “the God of truth” not just in the sense that he does not lie but in the sense of being faithful, reliable, steady, and sure. God is stable. In a world where people can be so fickle, where once-good friends can drift apart and where sometimes even the most trusted of confidants betray our trust–in such a world cynicism is easy, trust is hard. So much so that we perhaps have a difficult time really conceiving of Someone who just flat out will never let us go.
But that is the foundation on which Psalm 31 is built but also on which everything we believe is built. It is the basis for this psalm’s two most striking lines. A good deal of the psalms use somewhat formulaic language. Phrases like “being handed over to enemies,” God’s being “a refuge and a rock,” asking God “have mercy on me”–all these are quite common throughout the Psalter. It seems like certain catch phrases were so conventional that all Hebrew poets made use of them.
But here and there in the psalms there are phrases found nowhere else. Psalm 31 has two such lines in verses 5 and 15. The more famous of the two is verse 5. Because Jesus quoted this with his dying breath in Luke’s gospel, this verse tends to pop out at Christian readers. But even had Jesus not spoken these words, they would still be striking. “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” A similar idea comes in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” The spirit and the times of this psalmist are placed into God’s hands. But what does that mean? What did the psalmist convey with these words and, assuming we would like to adopt a similar view for our own lives, what might they mean for us?
Let’s begin with verse 5, which has come to be understood differently than it was originally intended. Since these were Jesus’ dying words, we assume this verse is meant only for the moment before death–a pious way to depart this life. And indeed this phrase did come to be used just that way. The first martyr Stephen said this in Acts as he was being stoned to death as did the famous early church martyr Polycarp as he was being burned at the stake. Taken this way verse 5 looks like a kind of holy epitaph.
Curiously, however, that is not the way it is used in Psalm 31. Instead this is very much a plea not to die! This psalmist is in trouble. Evil people plotting schemes of death surround him. So in verse 5 he cries out, “Look, O God! I’m taking my ruach, my very breath, and placing it into your hands. Keep this breath in my body, O Yahweh, O reliable and steady and faithful God! Don’t let them take my breath away from me!”
Similarly in verse 15: couched in a context that indicates that life had gotten about as bad as it can get, the psalmist declares that his times are also in God’s hands. First his breath and now his times are cupped in God’s hands. Hemmed in by people who don’t believe in God, who ridicule the psalmist for his faith, this poet hurls everything to God.
What’s more, this psalmist is bold enough to tell God that what he expects God to do with his breath and times is preserve them. He’s counting on God to quell the lying tongues around him, to squash the evil ones who wish him harm. He’s putting God on notice that God’s own faithfulness and mercy are on trial here. He expects results.
And apparently God comes through. The psalm concludes in verses 21-24 (again, beyond the rim of the lection but necessary to notice) with words that make it clear that these prayers were answered. You can envision this psalm being read in a Temple worship service by the psalmist as a personal testimony. He would try to whip up the faithful by giving his autobiography. The final line of this psalm has the psalmist essentially saying, “Just look at me! If God could get me out of the jam I was in, he can do the same for you! So thank God for what he did for me and, while you’re at it, take heart! He may well do the same for you one day!”
What do we do with Psalm 31? Can we trust God with our body’s breath and our life’s times even though things may not click together so neatly for us? Can we still join the psalmist in calling God the God of utter reliability, faithfulness, and stability when, as a matter of fact, we do not always get our prayers answered the way we want?
If the Christian faith were a matter of seeking only a pain-free life of health, wealth, and success, then every counter example of such a life would serve to diminish the trustworthiness of God. But a faith whose primary symbol is a cross can never be construed in such simple terms. Most of the time when we look at the cross, or when we ask the average Christian to express what the cross means, we say (or we hear others say) that what the cross means is “Jesus died for our sins.” And that’s true, of course.
But maybe we need to look at that cross and realize that what it also means is that there’s more to God’s ways with a fallen world than simple formulas, neat guarantees, or pat answers. The cross may be God’s giant “No!” to sin, but it is also God’s giant “No” to simplicity. The cross screams testimony to how complicated things can be, how deeply entrenched evil is, how perilous it can be for even the Son of God to enter this world. Even Jesus could not get off this planet with his every prayer answered and his life preserved.
Yet Jesus was resurrected and is alive today to proclaim that God is faithful. Even when the worst happens, even so we commit our entire selves to God’s pierced hands. As we enter this new period of earthly time, we again commit our times to God’s hands. We do so hoping that all will be well for us, believing that God is the one who has the power to make it well for us, but we commit our entire selves to God first and last because he is worthy of our faith, adoration, and our very selves. Maybe all will not be well, but we believe God is still worthy of our love.
Note: Our 2019 Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings here on the CEP homepage, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2019/
Psalm 31 is a typical biblical tribute to God. In one form or another, most of us could repeat these words from our own experience. Whether we’ve ever had a situation exactly as grim and dangerous as the one that appears to be described here, many of us have at one time or another felt pretty desperate. Maybe you had a troubled pregnancy and spent months fretting about the well-being of the baby in your womb. Or maybe you had a child in the hospital or a spouse undergoing a scary surgery or treatment. Maybe you’ve felt depressed and at the end of your rope, stuck in an unfulfilling career and a less-than-happy marriage.
And for at least some of us those have been the times when we have thrown ourselves on God’s mercy. When situations are quite literally “out of our hands,” we find ourselves throwing everything into God’s hands. When my daughter was in the hospital with a serious bone infection some years ago, I well remember the evening she had a violently adverse reaction to a medication. I went crazy with anxiety and a sense of helplessness. I just had to get out of the room and so marched into an empty stairwell and pounded my fists against the concrete walls in fear and frustration. But when I finished that pounding, I opened up my clenched fists and heaved empty hands toward heaven. I had to put it into God’s hands. Mine were empty and powerless.
Author: Doug Bratt
The retired American 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.” In doing so, he displayed the kind of wisdom that other public figures sometimes lack.
The Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday, by contrast, unapologetically offers up a role model. “Your attitude,” writes Paul, “should be that of Christ Jesus” (5). “Think of yourselves,” Eugene Peterson paraphrases the apostle’s call to the Philippians 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, most people recognize Paul’s letter to the Philippians as among his “warmest and friendliest” surviving letters to one of his favorite congregations. Yet those whom the Spirit helps to “read” between verses 1-4’s “lines” sense that at least some those Philippians didn’t think of themselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.
We sense, after all, that they were divided rather than “like-minded.” They didn’t share the same love, spirit or purpose. The first part of Philippians 2 implies that the Philippians 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, in fact, be tempted to identify more closely with Christ Jesus than the Philippians. Yet in this Lenten season we remember and confess that the Philippians weren’t so unlike this text’s preachers and teachers. So those who proclaim this Lesson would be wise to honestly but appropriately share our own struggles to share our Savior’s attitude.
Paul describes Christ Jesus’ attitude in what is the form of what most scholars believe is a hymn. That suggests that Philippians 2’s wise preachers and teachers handle it less like a narrative, wisdom saying or even theological treatise than a psalm. We build our presentations with language, imagery and even structure that reflect its poetic (while still utterly 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.” It’s not easy to full understand that assertion. 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 and inquisitive 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 so very 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 (6). He simply, instead, refused to exploit that equality. Christ Jesus chose to graciously “incarnate” 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), living and dying (“became obedient to death – even death on a cross” – 8). God then graciously raised God’s Son Christ Jesus again from the dead for the sake of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Among the most striking features of this hymn is its set of contrasts. In it 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). The eternal Son of God was in nature God, but “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (7). Christ Jesus was in nature God, but “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. Christ Jesus took the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Yet “God exalted him to the highest place” (9). The eternal Son of God humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross. However, 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 in his 2017 sermon starter on this text, Americans have always been intrigued by the kinds of rags-to-riches stories of ordinary people like Horatio Alger. 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, might we 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, the eternal Son of God, Jesus the Christ is, in fact, Lord.
So those who proclaim this text might choose to adopt its style of drawing contrasts. 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 describe and 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 famous passage may want to note a couple of 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.” C.S. Lewis once famously noted that if we want to begin to grasp the immensity of Jesus’ taking the very nature of a servant, “Just imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to discover you had turned into a garden slug.”
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 Christ Jesus 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 God 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 ourselves about verse 9’s connecting “therefore,” dio. Does it suggest that God exalted Christ Jesus because the Son was willing to obediently go all the way to the cross? Might we infer 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 his humiliation and exultation, servanthood and authority, death and life brings 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, Christ-like 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.”