April 9, 2017 “Empty” – Philippians 2:5-11
April 9, 2017 – Palm Sunday
I talked about this passage to Native Alaskan pastors while we were in Nome, particularly verse 7 which tells us that Jesus “emptied himself” when He became one of us, when He became human. Later the pastor of our church in Nome, not a native himself, told me he had heard a story of how Inupiat Eskimos sometimes give away possessions before going hunting or fishing. He said they had a word for this pronounced “u-chuk-see.” It means something like emptying in order to be able to receive the bounty of the hunt.
Verse 5 of our text tells us to have a mind, an attitude like Jesus had when He emptied Himself to become one of us. Today in the midst of Palm Sunday celebration, I’d like to invite us to follow Jesus, and to follow that Native Alaskan example in getting ready to receive God’s blessing by first being emptied.
Verse 8 begins with another phrase that gives us a clue to what this is all about, “he humbled himself.” On Palm Sunday Jesus did not ride a horse, or sit in a chariot like the heroes of Rome would. He rode into Jerusalem on a little beast more often used for carrying loads than for riding. They hailed Jesus as king, but riding a donkey is anything but kingly. Unless you hold them up, your feet drag on the ground. The animal bumps along at its own pace. From experience I tell you, donkeys stink. Matthew quotes Zechariah, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.”
The Palm Sunday parade of a King on a donkey was a living demonstration of the true nature of our Savior which Paul celebrates in Philippians 2. In Jesus Christ, God humbled Himself. He became a human being. He died. He even died like a criminal, on a cross.
Verse 6 makes clear that Jesus Christ was originally, and from the beginning, God. My NRSV translation read “though he was in the form of God.” But that word for form does not mean merely an appearance, merely that Jesus looked like God. It’s the word that in Greek philosophy denotes what is, as other translations make it, the “very nature,” the essence of a thing. Jesus’ very essence is to be God. That’s what He is, who He is.
The humility of Jesus, the humility of God, is His attitude of mind. Verse 5 says you and I are supposed to have that same mind. We’ll get to that later. For now look at the end of verse 6 to hear Jesus’ attitude, He “did not regard equality with God something to be exploited.” When we human beings have power, we want to use it, to exploit it. If points on a credit card have earned me an upgraded room in a hotel or a better seat on a plane, I’m going to take it. But Jesus didn’t think that way.
Jesus could have gotten Himself a better seat for that entry into Jerusalem, but He chose to ride a donkey. Coming into this world in the first place, Jesus could have gotten better accommodations, but He chose a stable in Bethlehem. Jesus had the power to enter our world in much better form than merely human, but He did not use it. He took “the form of a slave… and became obedient.”
Theologians and philosophers debate what it means to say that Jesus “emptied Himself.” Recently I’ve been attracted to a view with ancient roots that grew stronger in the nineteenth century, that Jesus did not just hold back His divine power and prerogatives when He became human, but that He actually laid them down, set them aside. By His own choice the all-powerful Son of God let His power go. By His own choice, the all-knowing second Person of the Trinity, limited Himself to merely human knowledge.
The Greek word for emptying is kenosis, so the theology I’ve just described is called the “kenotic theory of the Incarnation.” It’s the view that Jesus did not just refrain from using His power as God, but that, by His own voluntary decision, He did not have some of those powers while He was on earth. I’m not sure if that theory is right or not. There are problems with it, just like there are with other theories about how Jesus can be both God and human. The important thing is to hold onto both sides of that.
As verse 7 goes on to say, Jesus took “the form of a servant.” It’s that same word “form” as in verse. The One who was by very nature God became by very nature a servant, a human being. This is the great truth about Jesus, His two natures in one person. As we say in the Nicene Creed, He is “true God from true God.” But we also say that for our sake, “He became truly human.” Both God and human. That’s what we believe about Jesus.
But it wasn’t enough just to become human. It wasn’t enough for the Creator of the human race to be born as one of us. It wasn’t enough for God to stoop down from heaven to walk on earth. He humbled Himself. He did not exploit His glory and His power. He humbled Himself. Even on Palm Sunday when the crowd would gladly crown Him and make Him their ruler, He humbled himself. Instead of being a king, He was a servant.
We have the occasional ruler or leader who temporarily comes down from on high. I can’t think of one in America right now, but King Abdullah II of Jordan is known for disguising himself so he can walk around among his people as one of them. In 2001, he dressed in tattered clothing and wore a wig disguising himself as an old man so he could feel what it was like to go to the public tax office. Several years ago he donned another disguise to enter a hospital where one of his subjects had been mistreated. In 2013 a video went viral of Abdullah helping push out a car stuck in freak snow in the Middle East.
On the Internet you can find an old newspaper clipping about King Gustave of Sweden, who in 1909 dressed as a stevedore and spent a day hauling sacks of coal on the docks so that he could understand the plight of working men in his country.
The humbling of King Jesus went deeper than these other kings. Verse 8 continues, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Jesus chose not to command, but to obey. He made Himself obedient to everything God the Father asked. That included dying, dying not just a peaceful, ordinary human death, but a violent, horrible, criminal’s death, abhorred by everyone.
Both Jews and Greeks of Paul’s time found it difficult to accept that the Lord of the universe, the Creator of heaven and earth, the God who stands outside of and beyond all time would stoop down not just to listen to ordinary people or to lend a hand, but to be whipped and nailed to a Cross.
For Romans, crucifixion was so vile that it was only done to foreigners. No Roman citizen could be crucified. For Jews it was a sign of being cursed, based on Deuteronomy 21:23, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” For Jesus, who was by very nature God, it was the ultimate form of His humility.
As we come to Good Friday at the end of this week, consider it carefully. Go outside if there’s a clear night and look up at the stars and think: “The One who made all that, the One who existed before any of those countless suns and galaxies ever came to be, the One who flung them all out there with the simple command, ‘Let there be light!’ He’s the One who rode that donkey. He’s the One who hung on that Cross. He’s the One who gave up more than I can ever know to save me.”
You and I are saved by the emptied humility of Jesus Christ. It’s only because He emptied Himself and was humble that you and I enjoy the forgiveness God gave us in the Cross. It’s only because Jesus was willing to serve us, in spite of the fact that we so often fail to serve Him, that we are forgiven. We are blessed for this one reason: We have a humble Savior. Let us think on that today.
Let us especially think how our text began, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s whole point in sharing this beautiful hymn about Jesus was to address a church where folks had difficulties getting along with each other, trouble showing love to each other. Paul’s answer was to point them to Jesus, to His self-emptying love.
Palm Sunday tempts us to look ahead. We wave palms and see in our mind’s eye Jesus riding into the Holy City as men, women and children sing His praises. It’s been called the “Triumphal Entry.” But it tempts us to skip ahead to the final triumph, to Easter morning and Christ risen, raised into glory and praised by people all over the world. But our text reminds us how Jesus got there, by emptying Himself, by the Cross. That’s the only way for you and me as well. To get where Jesus is, we need to be emptied, we need the Cross.
Some of you did that yesterday. You mucked out storm drains or cleaned gutters—dirty jobs. You washed windows or cleaned a refrigerator, humble tasks. You do it other ways: helping someone move; taking a turn to clean the toilets; taking off work to show up at a funeral; listening to someone that’s hurting; spending an evening or a night here for the family shelter; letting someone else have her way in an argument; giving someone a loan and not worrying about when you’ll get paid back. When you do those things, you are emptying yourself and following Jesus to the Cross.
The great good news we will celebrate this week is that though we cannot skip the Cross, Jesus’ way does not end there. The way of our humble Savior leads to the Cross, but it also leads through it and beyond, to Easter and to glory. That’s why our text goes on to glory in verse 9, “Therefore God highly exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” By being emptied and taking the lowest place, Jesus came to the highest place of all. In a smaller way, that’s true for us as well.
Jesus Christ put your interests before His own. He had status, the greatest status there is, equality with God. He did not consider it something to grasp, something to hang onto. He emptied all that out of Himself to take on our humanity. He had privileges, the privileges of being the master, master of the universe. He emptied himself of His privileges and took up the burden of obedience. He went from the highest position to the lowest. If Bill Gates got up tomorrow and started scrubbing toilets at Microsoft, it would not compare. If President Trump started sweeping the streets of Washington, D.C., it would not be as humble. If Angela Merkel served in a soup kitchen in Germany, it still would not be as deep a submission as Christ Jesus emptying Himself.
He emptied Himself for us. The Gospel shows us that He was not only God’s servant but He became our servant. He served you and me by humbling Himself even to the point of accepting mockery and an unjust execution. It was all in your interest. He thought humbly for your sake, looking out for you, not for Himself. So it is no wonder that the very most Christian thing you and I can do is to think like Jesus did when He became our servant on the Cross. He put your interest ahead of His. He asks you now to put the interest of others ahead of your own.
I hope our country is not getting into another war in the Middle East, but if we do I pray that God will give us leaders like general Omar Bradley in World War II. He’s a secondary character in the film Patton. The star is George C. Scott playing George S. Patton, the most colorful American general of that war. Patton was an eccentric, dictatorial genius. He wore high boots and carried ivory-handled revolvers. At one point, as I recall, the film flashes between Patton in his fine uniform carrying his swagger stick and general Bradley dressed in fatigues and leading his men up a hill. Bradley wasn’t sitting behind the lines directing things. He was in the trenches with his men. Common soldiers loved him. He dressed like they did. He ate their food. He marched with them. He was their friend. I don’t know about you, but I like Bradley better than Patton.
Jesus Christ is the complete fulfillment of what we see in Omar Bradley and in those kings and leaders who come down from their thrones and out of their secure facilities to be with their people. Jesus is the God who is also one of us. He chose to be on the battlefield with us. He chose to be hungry and tired and tempted. He got angry and He got sad. He knows what it is like to pray and not get what you pray for. He knows what it’s like to spend a night in tears. The mystery of Jesus is that He willingly accepted all that so that He could be with you. He gave up for awhile the perfect friendship of the Trinity, so that He could be your friend.
A general like Bradley is one I would want to follow. A king like Abdullah is one I could respect. God did not give us a proud and arrogant savior. God did not give us lord filled with his own importance and glory. No, God gave us Jesus, who, while remaining thoroughly God, emptied Himself so that He could be thoroughly human. I want to bow before a Lord like Christ Jesus. As Paul asks, I want to be like Christ Jesus.
Our text concludes, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Every knee will bend before Jesus because He is the king who was willing to bend His knees around a donkey. Every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord because He let His tongue be dry and thirsty as He hung on the Cross dying for us.
Harvey, that Covenant pastor in Nome, said that he had recently been reflecting on that fact, that every knee will bend and every tongue confess… willingly. We sometimes have the idea that every believer is going to bow and confess voluntarily but that God will force everyone else to do it. But our self-emptying Lord is so wonderful, so beautiful, that all creation is going to want to worship Him once they see Him clearly.
Just like those who surrounded Jesus on Palm Sunday, let you and I join that circle of praise early. Let us bow our heads and confess that Jesus Christ is our Lord. In a moment we’re going to sing Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “And Can It Be that I Should Gain” “an interest in the Savior’s blood.” Wesley too was amazed at the love which caused Jesus to humble Himself to die for me, for our whole sinful and helpless race. The second verse is really what this sermon is all about:
He left his Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite, his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
Those Native Alaskans let go of possessions before they go out to hunt or fish, expecting to come home with sleds filled with game and nets filled with fish. May you and I let go of the things we have, let go of our own glory, so that we can carry home the great gift of our Savior’s love.
During this most important week in the Christian calendar, that is the mystery we remember and celebrate. Jesus the Son of God emptied Himself to save us by taking on our humanity and then raising it up into glory. By giving up glory, Christ our Lord became even more glorious. He invites us to follow that same path, that same plan, to empty ourselves so that He can fill us with His love, with His own humble glory.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj