Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 29, 2015
Philippians 2:5-11 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
For this sermon commentary, I am going to zero in on the question asked by the Palm Sunday crowd in Matthew 21:10. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by the acclamation of the crowd, “the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’” The crowds around Jesus answered their fellow citizens, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” That was the pre-crucifixion, pre-resurrection, pre-Christian, Jewish answer to the question. I want to suggest that we treat this magnificent Christ hymn in Philippians 2 as Paul’s post-resurrection, deeply Christian answer to the question, “Who is this?”
Following this angle on the text, a sermon on this text could comfort Christians whose faith has been shaken by all the higher critical questing for the historical Jesus. Or it could challenge non-Christians who are convinced that Jesus was no more than a prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. If I were to preach on this text, I would focus on that second audience and make it an evangelistic sermon designed to help non-Christians bend the knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Paul says that in the end everyone will do that anyway (verses 10-11). Out of love for all people, I would preach Christ from this text in a way that would enable them to confess Jesus name now with joy and love, rather than at the end with terror and regret.
I would preach evangelistically on this text by focusing on the question of the citizens of Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. “Who is this?” That was a question that followed Jesus his entire life, but especially during his public ministry. As Jesus began his ministry at the baptism of John, the whispered conversation between John and Jesus about who should baptize whom was thunderously concluded by that voice from heaven clearly identifying Jesus. “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” His first disciples began to follow him because of John’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin.” But throughout their time with Jesus, they were always asking, “Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?” You would think the issue had been settled when Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s heaven inspired answer became the rock on which the church was built. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The crowds never did get it quite right, though they were so amazed at his teaching and his miracles that they asked the question all the time. After his first sermon in his home church, they responded, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” It didn’t take long for the authorities to hear about him and begin to challenge him. They accused him of being in league with the devil. It was the question of his true identity that rang through his trial and subsequent crucifixion. At his trial before the Sanhedrin the main question was, “Are the Christ, the Son of God?” His forthright affirmative answer landed him on the cross. But first, he had to pass by the civil authority. Pilate asked the same question, but in a political way. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answer sealed his fate. Even on the cross, his enemies taunted him. “If you are the Christ, come down now from the cross and we will believe in you.”
That crucifixion destroyed the faith of his disciples, as evidenced by the hopeless words of the two on the road to Emmaus. “We had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” But clearly he wasn’t who we thought he was. Then they recognized the Stranger in the breaking of the bread. A week later Thomas spoke for the entire early church, when he confessed, “My Lord and my God.” So, whenever the gospel was preached, that was the message. “God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” The identity of Jesus was at the very heart of the Christian faith. In fact, John’s first epistle said that the spirit of the anti-Christ could be found in anyone who denied Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.
“Who is this?” is still the most important question in the world, and not just for skeptical historians trying to find the historical Jesus. Jesus (or at least the writer of the Gospel of John) put it very bluntly when he said, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18) Some scholars read the last verses of the hymn in Philippians 2 as evidence of universal salvation: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…. And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord….” In the end, goes the universalistic reading of those words, it won’t matter how people have answered the great identity question in their earthly lives, because God’s love will win them over in eternity. They will confess in the end. That’s a lovely thought, but it doesn’t seem to fit with John 3:18 and all the other New Testament passages that talk about the eternal importance of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Everything hangs on our answer to that identity question, and Paul’s use of this Christ hymn gives us a perfect opportunity to preach Christ in a powerful way. I’m tempted to say that Philippians 2 is the full flowering of Paul’s travels and reflection and study and preaching. This is his final answer to the question. But if this is indeed a hymn already well known to the church, then Philippians 2 is even more powerful as a call to faith. If Philippians was written in the early 50’s, then what we have here is evidence of the primitive faith of the church. Very early on in the history of the church, Christians had a very high view of Christ and a profound understanding of what was involved in the Incarnation and the Atonement. Such grand theology was not the result of decades, even centuries of theological reflection, perhaps influenced by political forces at play in the Empire. Rather the first Christians simply knew from their experience of Jesus that he was, indeed, the Christ, the Son of the living God. It only took a week for the first Christians to call the Risen Christ, “My Lord and my God.” They had seen and heard and touched (cf. I John 1:1ff) the eternal Word of life, and they knew the answer to the question, “Who is this?”
You will have to decide how textually and theologically detailed your preaching of Philippians 2 will be. In my piece for March 18, 2013, I went into great detail in expounding the sometimes ambiguous and controversial verbiage of this text. If your congregation cares about distinctions and controversy, you might fruitfully explore that theology. But if they will be put off by such heady things, and if you are convinced in your own heart that the hymn sings orthodox Christianity, you can skip the detail and focus on the overall message of Jesus’ humiliation and exaltation. In profound language Paul emphasizes Christ’s movement from the throne of God to the cross of Calvary and back to the throne. Preaching the deep sacrifice and the high exaltation of the Son of God will serve as the basis for a passionate call to believe, bow before him, and confess that he is Lord.
On the first Palm Sunday, the crowds shouted and sang their praises to Jesus, but they didn’t really know who he was. So, less than a week later some of them may have been among that bloodthirsty mob that shouted, “Crucify him.” On Palm Sunday of 2015, we have opportunity to call the confused to come to Christ with a clear exposition of his true identity.
As a little boy I was entranced by early TV. On our tiny flickering black and white set, I watched Lassie and Walt Disney Presents and Saturday morning cartoons. But my favorite was The Lone Ranger. If you’re anywhere close to my age, you’ll recall the question people always asked after an encounter with the Lone Ranger. With wonder or horror in their voices, they gasped, “Who was that masked man?”
That’s how the first century crowds responded when they encountered Jesus, the Godhead “veiled in flesh,” as the Christmas carol put it. To set up Paul’s deep answer to the question, it might be helpful to explore the various answers given by Jesus’ contemporaries (as summarized by his disciples in Matthew 16) and the answers given by our contemporaries. The light never shines as brightly as when it is contrasted to the darkness.
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