April 5, 2009 - Palm Sunday
So last week Michelle Obama hugged the queen. It created a storm of controversy in England. Evidently no one, not even the First Lady of the United States of America, is supposed to just casually put her arm around the queen of England. News reports say the queen started the hug that got caught by the cameras. But it surprised and even shocked the English people.
Jesus’ disciples were surprised and a little shocked at the directions their Master gave them one Sunday morning. Go find a donkey for Him to ride into Jerusalem. Not a horse, not a Roman chariot, but 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. Let me tell you from experience, donkeys stink. That’s why the Old Testament prophecy we read today from Zechariah says, “See, your king comes to you… lowly and riding on a donkey.”
It shows that Jesus was humble, but the Palm Sunday parade of a King on a donkey was a living demonstration of the true nature of our Savior. Our text from Philippians 2 is Paul’s exposition of the great Christian truth we call the “Incarnation.” In Jesus Christ, God humbled Himself. He became a human being. He even died.
Verse 6 makes clear that Jesus Christ was originally and from the beginning God. In some translations you will read “being 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” of thing. Jesus’ very nature was 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 that you and I are supposed to have that same mind, and we’ll get to that later. But for now look at the end of verse 6 to hear Jesus’ attitude, He “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Just hear for a moment how incredible that is. Jesus is God, but He didn’t see that as being about Him, about His own glory, His own advantage. He understood it as being for something else, for someone else.
Verse 7 begins with a little phrase that theologians and philosophers love to debate. In some translations it’s, “he emptied himself.” In ours today, it’s “he made himself nothing.” The debated is: how could that happen? How could God, full of power and glory and wisdom, empty Himself? How could God who is the source of everything, become nothing? It’s a good question. I’ve spent some time on it myself. I’d love to spend some time on it with you now, but this morning we will simply appreciate that it did happen.
It did happen. As verse 7 goes on to say, Jesus took “the very nature of a servant.” It’s that same word “form” there. The One who was by very nature God became by very nature a servant, a human being. Here is the great Christological doctrine of the church, the two natures of Jesus Christ. 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. Two natures in one person. That’s what we believe about Jesus.
As Paul goes on in verse 8, Paul wants us to reflect on what we believe more deeply. He wants us to remember just what Jesus did in His dual nature, just what it meant to Him to be by very nature a servant. So we read that “being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself…”
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 assert 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.
Besides the queen of England accepting a hug, there are stories of rulers or leaders who temporarily come down from on high. In our own time, 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. Just a couple years ago he donned another disguise to enter a hospital where one of his subjects had been mistreated.
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.
Yet the humbling of Jesus was far deeper than these other kings experienced. Verse 8 continues, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” We reflected on it last week. We reflect on it again today. Jesus chose not to command, but to obey. He made Himself obedient to everything God the Father asked, and that included dying, dying not just a peaceful, ordinary human death, but a violent, horrible, criminal’s death, abhorred by everyone.
The English people have a hard time accepting that the queen would stoop to being touched by exchanging hugs with a visitor. Both Jews and Greeks of Paul’s time would have 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 to not only be touched and handled, 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 humility of Jesus Christ. It’s only because He was so deeply and completely 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.
And as you think on it, think how our text began, “Your attitude of mind should be the same as that of 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. So his answer was to remind them of Jesus’ attitude, the attitude of humble service, even to the point of dying on the Cross.
Palm Sunday tempts us to look too far ahead. We wave our palms this morning 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 the sense of triumph 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. It’s only by humility. It’s only by the Cross. And that’s the only way for you and me as well. To get where Jesus is, we must go by the humble way of the Cross.
Many of you already know what the way of the Cross means. It means coming out yesterday and mucking out the storm drains or kneeling in the mud to weed—dirty jobs. It means giving up a few hours to help someone move. It means taking a turn to clean the toilets. It means taking off work to show up at a funeral. It means pausing in a busy day to listen to someone that’s hurting. It means spending a Saturday morning in the cold feeding hungry folks under the bridge. It means letting someone else have her way in an argument. It means giving someone a loan and not worrying about when you’ll get paid back. The way of the Cross means all that and more, and I’m glad to be here with all of you as we’re learning together more and more how to follow the way of a humble Savior.
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 taking the lowest place, Jesus came to the highest place of all. In a smaller way, that’s true for us as well.
Not long after Beth and I came to Oregon, we went to a pastor-spouse retreat. We took along our two little girls, a toddler and second grader. There were some other small children at the retreat. The problem was that there was no arrangement for child care. So during each worship or teaching time, one of us from each couple would have to stay out with kids, usually, I admit, our wives.
Then the second evening, during worship, someone volunteered to provide childcare so all the young parents could be together in the service. It was our conference superintendent and his wife. Glenn Palmberg’s schedule was already full at this retreat, speaking and meeting with pastors individually and sitting in ordination interviews. I thought the last thing he would do, when he had a few moments to himself to just sit worship, was to chase two year olds around. But that’s just what he and Sharon did, giving Beth and I and other couples a chance to sit together and share in Holy Communion at the same time.
It wasn’t long after that Glenn became the candidate and was elected to be president of our whole Covenant denomination. One of the qualities that made so many of us vote him into that position was the same humility which caused him to serve as our babysitter for an evening. Jesus said in Matthew 23:12 that “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Now I hope you won’t take on humble service with a goal of rising to high office or in hope of advancing in your career. That’s not what I’m saying. That’s not what Jesus meant. And it’s not why He humbled Himself on the Cross. All I’m saying is that there is a glory yet to be realized in taking the humble way. We will share in the glory given to Jesus.
Our text concludes, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Every knee bows before Jesus because He is the king who was willing to wrap His knees around a donkey. Every tongue acknowledges that Jesus is Lord because He let His tongue be dry and thirsty as He hung on the Cross dying for us. The marvelous mystery we celebrate is that in giving up glory, He became even more glorious.
So we come to the Table this morning to receive the signs of His humility, His broken body and His spilled blood. As you receive this humble sacrament, and go to follow the way of the Cross, may you also be blessed to receive His glory.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj