Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 9, 2017
Philippians 2:5-11 Commentary
“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.
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