Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Philippians 2:5 - 11

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from god the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
            The epistle text from Philippians has inspired a lot of thought and devotion among Christians.  It’s one of the great passages in the Bible.  We can’t possibly exhaust its riches this morning, so we’ll settle for looking at it from two points of view – first as a commentary on Jesus’ mission, especially his suffering and death and also as a guide for Christian living, for St. Paul says that we are to have the same attitude or frame of mind as Christ.  Basically, he expands on something our Lord said during his ministry: “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls.”
            Paul described Jesus in his state of humiliation.  It’s easy to follow what he wrote, step by step, because he expressed himself in a logical way.  Christ by his very nature is God, Paul said.  He didn’t have to reach out or struggle to acquire a high status.  He was already God through and through.  When he took on human flesh, he voluntarily laid aside the benefits and glory of his divine status.  Although he performed miracles to demonstrate his control over nature and gave the penitent thief who died beside him on Good Friday the promise of paradise, he didn’t for the most part act like God.  He didn’t amaze the people of Israel with his almighty power.  Instead, he took on the very nature of a servant; he performed his works for the benefit of his needy neighbors.  He didn’t seek his own advantage or ask people to serve him.  He might have lifted himself above other folks, but he didn’t.  He didn’t seek riches or power or honor.  He came to earth as an ordinary working man so that no one would feel intimidated and anyone could approach him.
            Since he was found in appearance as a man, as Paul put it, he lived as people always do, eating, working, needing rest, companionship, and communion with God.  As a man, he had the same relationship to God and society as other people.  What’s more, he humbled himself.  He made himself even lower than others so as to be a servant.  He lowered himself even to the point of giving his life.  And not only did he make himself lower than most human beings, he also put himself under the curse of the devil, sin, and death and carried them for us.  He accepted a humiliating death as a base criminal; he gave up even the respect that is due to servants and placed himself among the outcasts.  He took on those burdens, Paul pointed out, not because we are worthy of his sacrifice, but out of obedience to his Father.  The Heavenly Father had planned from eternity that his Son would suffer and die for the sins of mankind.  Jesus acted from obedience, as Paul said.
            Then he received his reward. He set aside the form of a servant he’d taken on, and God raised him to the highest place.  Not humbled any longer, he has the name above every name.   We don’t see his exaltation now, except by faith, because our vision is obscured, but the Holy Spirit grants us faith to confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of his father.
            Jesus humbled himself, then.  We do the same.  “He who is greatest among you,” our lord said, “let him be as the least, and he that is chief, let him be as he who serves.”  Jesus calls us to serve – in our work, in our family lives, in church and our relationships with others. Christians are servants – like the Lord.  It’s easy for us to forget our callings, though, because the human mind loves to assert its own dignity.  We want to be acknowledged, lifted up, to be like God.  Jesus commands us to set aside our ambitions and imitate him.  He had a rightful claim to all the prerogatives of God, but he gave them up, while human nature, which has no right to think of itself as God, wants to be just like him in power and status.  The serpent tempted Adam and Eve to think he could make them like the Almighty, the people who built the tower of Babel wanted to assert their wills.  The violence that comes to us in the news comes from the same source – human pride that doesn’t recognize limitations.  We ask our Heavenly Father’s forgiveness for our own lack of humility and pray that he will help us set aside the pretensions and illusions the devil sets before us.  The search for humility is an excellent exercise, for when we purposely lower ourselves, we seek the truth about our situations and the truth brings joy and rest.
            God loves humility; he blesses those who have it and seek it.  “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life,” says one of the Proverbs, and another says: “A man’s pride will bring him low, but honor shall uphold the humble in spirit.  “Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly,” says a third Proverb, “than to divide the spoil with the proud.”   God loved the humility of Moses, whom the Book of Numbers says was very meek, above all the men who were on the face of the earth.  And Paul wrote in his Romans: “Be subject to one another and be clothed with humility, for God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.”
            It’s the Christian way to seek to walk humbly before God and others, and we learn from those times when God arranges external circumstances so as to humble us.  Afflictions of all kinds bring us low – illness, personal misfortune, uncertain times.  It’s important for us to see the heavy parts of life with Christian eyes.  They’re not punishments from God, but inducements for us to turn to him.  The Lord doesn’t wish to deprive us of good things, but he insists that we look to him for all blessings and to receive our lives from him.  During times of hardship, we understand that God is developing in us the mind of Christ and after we have learned the lessons he wants to teach us, he will raise us up, not necessarily in an earthly way, but according to his plan and his time schedule. 
            Life humbles everyone in many ways.  Dreams are trimmed, opportunities reduced, egos deflated.  How often do we hear the word “cutback”?  We learn that no one is very important in the long run and that we can live without special privileges – a trip to the South Pacific, say, or the fifteen room house we may have dreamt about when we were young. 
            Even the church seems pared down these days.  We may look enviously at larger church bodies whose members seem to stream through the doors.  But we shouldn’t be depressed.  God has his reason for humbling his church, just as he has reasons for humbling you and me.         
           For one thing, there is great strength in humility.  This is one of the secrets of the Christian way.  It’s common for us to moan about things we don’t have, but we can grow weak and lax if we let whining get the best of us.  As Jesus gave up the privileges high earthly status, so do we.  We make a sacrifice to God of the things we don’t have – new appliances for the kitchen, a winter palace in the Caribbean, a high position in the community.  We turn these things over to God and allow him to dispense them as he pleases and we even turn the desire for them over to him, knowing that he will provide abundantly for our needs.  We are wise to the devil, who knows how to strike at our weak points.  We ask the Lord to bring us contentment with what we have.  He’ll answer us and make us strong in our humility, as Jesus was strong.  God puts his people in a position to thrive inwardly when times are tough.
            As well, a spirit of humility reminds us that we are servants, concerned about the welfare of others.  The details of our service are different for each of us, but in general we say that we bring the mind of Christ to the people around us.  We show concern for their well-being and pray for them. 
            It’s also wise to remember our limitations, not to overestimate our abilities.  It’s best to concentrate on only a few things.  Nothing contributes to burn-out like a pile of disconnected tasks.  We’re not called to solve everyone’s problems or stick our noses where they don’t belong.  We need to take time for ourselves to recharge our batteries with Bible reading and prayer.  Time we spend with the Lord is also service, for he loves to heal us and put us back into shape.
            What’s more, we must be sure not to set standards of perfection for ourselves.  Perfectionists always have a hard time.  They criticize themselves and they invite criticism from others, who are quick to point out chinks in other people’s armor and to find fault with those who usually do well.  Be gentle with yourself; take things easily, one step at a time.  There is only one perfect human being.  Our task is not to compete with him, but to seek his help – with humility of heart.  God forgives the imperfect.  He invites us to be still in his presence.  He transforms us gradually, but first he forgives us.  The great reward of Christian humility is rest in God’s presence, the inner delight that comes with knowing that he is available to us.
            The reward for humble Christian living, Paul suggests, is that God will exalt us – a raising up that takes place partly now and in full on the last day.  Today, as Paul urged the Philippians, we live blamelessly and innocently as children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  Living God’s way, holding fast to the word of life,  we shine as lights in the eyes of God and also in eyes of worldly people, though they may not recognize God’s light for what it is.  Forgiven, declared innocent for the sake of our Lord, washed clean in his blood, we shine like stars.  Worldly minds never seek the kinds of rewards that Christians treasure, but we rejoice in what the Lord makes of our lives.  We cherish the light that shines through us, for it is a foretaste if the light that will shine in heaven.  May we keep on seeking the mind of Jesus and continue walking in the humble paths he shows us. In Jesus’ name we give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.

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