Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday (Series A: Philippians 2:5-11)

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Palm Sunday is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Dear friends in Christ, our King, our Lord, our Messiah, is a coming King. He comes this day into Jerusalem, He comes to His people, who line the road waving palm branches, who cheer and acclaim His name. They shout, “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” He comes to the praises of men, but He also comes in humility. He comes not on a steed of war, but on a donkey; He comes not leading an army, but twelve disciples. He comes in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This is a humble King, a King who lowers Himself, a King who gives up glory instead of taking it. He comes not to conquer, but to die; He comes not to a palace, but to a hill of execution; He comes not to a throne, but to a cross. This is a King like no other, as the events of this most holy of weeks will demonstrate. He will be glorious, He will have His triumph, but not before He is humbled, not before He suffers, not before He dies.

This King is a humble King, a King who empties Himself, who freely gives up all that is rightfully His and submits to humiliation, suffering and death. “Though He was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but make Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” This King is true God, He is equal with the Father, but yet He lays aside His glory. He makes Himself nothing, not simply being born as a man, but as the humblest of men. He didn’t seek after God’s glory, even though it was rightfully His, He resisted the devil’s temptation to grasp power for Himself, and instead walked the way of humility. He lowered Himself from the lofty heights of heavenly glory to the humility of servitude, putting Himself, the equal of the Father, into the hands of the Father’s will.

That will called on Him to humble Himself even further. It is a great mystery that Jesus humbled Himself to become a dirt-poor rabbi, born away from home, laid in a manger, with no place to lay His head. It is far greater mystery that He humbled Himself unto death. “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” He is the Son of God, true God in the glory of the Father, and He humbles and lowers Himself to the most wretched death ever devised by men. He to whom all power and glory rightfully belong humbled Himself to the disgrace of men: “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” This is the Father’s will, that Christ would die for the people, that He would humble Himself to die in your place and mine, bearing our sin, and He was obedient to that will.

The drama of this week is captured in that phrase: “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Here is the agony of Maundy Thursday, here is the horror of Good Friday, here is the fear and sorrow of Holy Saturday. He to whom all power and all glory rightfully belonged humbled Himself to the wretchedness of the cross. But that is not the end of the story. He humbled Himself knowing that He would be exalted, He laid aside His glory knowing that He would take it up again. This King died in humiliation, He died the death of a criminal, but He did not stay dead. He went boldly to the cross because He knew what would happen on the third day: “Therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near.”

The humble King was vindicated, He was not put to shame; on the other side of the humiliation of the cross stood the glory of the empty tomb. Because He humbled Himself unto death, even death upon a cross in obedience to the Father, He was given eternal glory. “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.” The crucified King is now exalted to the highest seat of honor. He who made Himself the lowest of all is now given the name above every name. The name of Jesus is the name of salvation, it is the name of glory, and at the sound of that name, all creatures, even the devil and His evil host, will fall down and give Him honor. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 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.” Humility led to glory for the crucified King.

That is the path that Paul calls on us to walk. He instructs us to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” We are to have the same mind as Christ, who not only humbled Himself, putting away His divine glory, but was humbled even to death upon a cross. He who was exalted over all became the least of all. He refused to glorify Himself, He rejected every temptation to seek after earthly gain, and instead subjected Himself in obedience to the Father’s will. He didn’t exalt Himself—He let His Father do that. You are called upon to have that same mind as your King. You are called upon to humble yourself, to refuse your own glory, to not boast in anything that you are or have. You are to put your pride to death, to put others before yourself, to be obedient to the Father whatever the cost may be. What do you boast in? Do you take pride in your wealth, your physical strength, your looks, your talents and skills? Do you crave the attention, the praise of others? Put it to death. Nail it to the cross. You are called to humility, to empty yourself like Christ, not to puff yourself up.

Paul explains exactly what he means just before our text: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but to the interests of others.” Pride looks only to your own needs; humility looks to the needs of your neighbor. The gifts you have been given are not to make you better in the eyes of others, they are to serve your neighbor in love. Empty yourself of self-serving pride and glory so that others can be filled. Despise the glory of men, their praise and adoration; it is fleeting, it fades away. Seek rather to live in humility, for, like Christ, you know that there is glory yet to come.

Jesus laid aside His glory knowing that He would take it up again; He endured the cross having spoken of the empty tomb. The one who exalts himself will be humbled; God makes sure of that, in this life or in the one to come. But the one who humbles himself in imitation of Christ will be exalted. Humility endures, while pride kills. Are you to come to God in boasting and pride, thinking that you have something to offer Him, that you have something that He needs, that you are worthy to stand in His presence because you are so wonderful? Or do you come to God empty-handed, a beggar, with nothing to give Him but your sin and wretchedness? Pride before God is the height of foolishness; humility is the only posture we can honestly have before our holy Creator. We say it at the beginning of every service: “I, a poor, miserable sinner.” Those words give us no room for pride before God or other people; we are all equally sinners, no matter what skills, wealth, or ability you may have. You are no different than anyone else; we all stand as sinners before a holy God. Is there room for pride, before God or before men, in the confession of sins? How are we to come before God?

We come as a child. Jesus, the King who humbled Himself, even to death upon a cross, told His disciples, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” What is more humble than a child? An infant is weak and helpless, totally dependent on others; they cannot give, but only receive. That is our pattern.  Our example is an infant, brought to the baptismal font; our example is Christ, hanging upon a cross. If He who had all things humbled Himself even unto death, then we, who have no reason to boast before God (and little reason to boast before men), are also called to live in humility, the humility of a child.
Christ our King continues to come to us with that same humility. Our King, our Lord, our Messiah, is a coming King. He came to this world on Christmas, He came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and even though He is now exalted above all things, even though He has been given the Name that is above all names, He still comes to us through humble means. He uses a fellow sinner, these broken lips, to proclaim the Absolution, to read and preach the Word. He uses simply water to claim children for His kingdom. He uses ordinary bread and ordinary wine to convey His Body and Blood. The King who came to Jerusalem in humility on Palm Sunday still comes in humility to His people each and every Sunday. He comes to humble us with His Law, to condemn our sin and help us to see that we have nothing to bring before Him, no merit to offer Him. But then He comes with the beauty of His Gospel, forgiving the prideful through His humble means. 

You are forgiven of your pride, you are forgiven of trying to exalt yourself, you are forgiven of seeking your own glory. Christ died not just to show you an example of humility, but to forgive your lack of humility; to pay the price for it, to take away its penalty from you forever. His humility stands in the place of your pride, He laid aside His glory to be your substitute. And now He gives you, as a forgiven sinner, the glories that followed His humiliation, and they belong to you forever. In this world, Christians live in humility, but you know that glory is up ahead, just as surely as you know that after Good Friday comes Easter. In the Name of Jesus, the Name above every name, given to the One who humbled Himself unto death upon a cross for you and for me, Amen.

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