Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
Text: (Philippians 2:5-11)
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Prayer: Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
One of the greatest gifts that we share together each Sunday as we come to church is the gift of the music and singing. Our epistle reading is a well-known reading, and every Sunday during Lent we have been singing a sentence from it in preparation to hear the reading of the holy Gospel: Christ humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
It is often said by biblical scholars that our reading today is actually a hymn—some people think that St Paul might actually be quoting a song that Christians already used to sing in the early times of the church. He may of course wrote it himself—all sorts of people in the New Testament were inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak and write poetry, like Mary when she met Elizabeth, and the baby John the Baptist leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, sang “My soul magnifies the Lord, my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”. This song is often called the Song of Mary or the Magnificat. And when Zechariah’s mouth was opened at the birth of John, he also sang a song: “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, for he has come and redeemed his people…” This song is often called the Song of Zechariah or the Benedictus. Or what about the angels who came and sang Glory to God in the highest with the shepherds in the field, or what about the Song of Simeon—“Now Lord let your servant depart in peace”—which we sing after the Lord’s Supper every Sunday?
We can take it for granted that there is so much singing in the bible—what happened when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea? They sang a song. What did King David do when he was saved from his enemies? He sang. What did King Hezekiah do when he became well again after he was sick? He sang.
No wonder St Paul says in Ephesians: “Be filled with the Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” No wonder St Paul says that “we rejoice in our sufferings”. Even Jesus Christ, after he has set before his disciples the first Lord’s Supper, and just before he headed out to the Mount Olives, what does it say that Jesus and his disciples did together? They sang! “After they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
In Acts chapter 16, we read about Paul and Silas locked up in prison in Philippi. We read: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken.”
I have often thought that maybe Paul and Silas were singing this song from our reading today from the book of Philippians, being such a powerful text, a hymn of such conviction and strength. And so here is this text that we read today:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that 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.
These are indeed such beautiful words! But their structure and the rhythm and the sound of the words is not what makes them beautiful. What gives this hymn, this song its spiritual strength is its truth. Psalm 118 says: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” What gives this passage its power is not that it sounds nice, but that it recounts the deeds of the Lord.
To recount the deeds of the Lord means that we are singing God’s history back to him. We are praising him for the great things that he has done in history, in time, among us, in front of our eyes.
As we gather here today on Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus entering into Jerusalem on a donkey, and we read about his suffering and death on the cross. We read about the history in our gospel readings today, and St Paul sings about it in our epistle reading. That Jesus Christ took upon himself the sins of the world and died for it, is one of the greatest events of history, together with his resurrection—so we really should sing about it. If we want to really understand what St Paul is talking about we have to think about it not in terms of ideas and concepts, but in terms of facts, realities, events.
And so St Paul says to us today:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.
St Paul is not telling you to think a certain way, but he is telling you that your mind should work in a certain way before it even emanates any thoughts. And this mind belongs to you through your baptism. He is telling you how you should lead your life as a Christian, and give to you the example of Jesus Christ—he is the basis for our life. And we don’t simply follow his example from outside, but he comes and lives his life within us and through us. “It is no longer I who live,” says St Paul, “but Christ who lives in me.”
So have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
St Paul says: Jesus was in the form of God.
Jesus was truly God, as Thomas confesses after the resurrection: My Lord and my God! But when we talk about the form of God, think of Jesus at his transfiguration—there is such brilliant, beautiful, radiant light shining from his body. This loveliness, this brightness, this beauty is the form of God. John says in chapter 1: We have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. This is what it means when St Paul says the form of God.
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.
St Paul says that Jesus is equal to God. He is the Son of God—and he is equal to God. In the Nicene Creed, we say that he is one substance with the Father. They share the same divine nature—they share the same spiritual being. But the fact that he was equal to God, doesn’t mean that he just grabs any chance to show off and use his power. If we had some wonderful privilege, or honour, or benefit given to us, we might be the first to use it to our own advantage. Not Jesus, though. He has the greatest advantage anyone could have—he is true God, he is in the form of God, and is equal to God. But he doesn’t use this for his own benefit. Instead, he does everything for our benefit. Think about Jesus on his hands and feet, washing his disciples feet on the night of Maundy Thursday, on the night of the Lord’s Supper. He is equal to God, and yet he serves his disciples in the most humble way. Jesus says: The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.
St Paul says: but Jesus made himself nothing, literally, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
St Paul says in Colossians that the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus bodily. You want to find God, look to Jesus. He’s the only place you can find God. St John says: He was full of grace and truth. And Jesus carries on as if he is empty. You see when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, and they say, “We want Jesus of Nazareth”, when Jesus says “I am”, they fall over onto the ground. The power of Jesus words knocks them over like flies. Nevertheless, when they come to arrest Jesus, he empties himself—he gives them his arms and the bind them up with chains, and he willingly goes with them on the way to the cross. When Peter wanted to defend Jesus with violence and cuts off the servant’s ear, Jesus says: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more that twelve legions of angels?” Jesus commands the angels to remain still—it is time for him to empty himself, to give up his privileges and his rights, and to die for you.
St Paul says, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. On one hand, he empties himself, on the other hand, he takes. He takes the form of a servant. Being in the form a servant is part of what it means that Jesus is truly human. But not only was he a true man, but he was a particular type of man: he took the form a servant, not a master. He was not only born of a woman, but he was born into a poor family. His mother was not a princess, but through her pregnancy, she became the most blessed among women, more blessed than the greatest queens that ever lived.
And so, Jesus took the form a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Before we think about Jesus suffering and death, we have to know who he is: true God and true man. Begotten of the Father from eternity, and also born of the Virgin Mary.
And then St Paul says:
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
And being found in human form. Jesus shared all the characteristics of being human—any thing that you endure, he knows what its like. Hebrews says: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with us in our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
And so as we think about all these things, who Jesus is, St Paul comes and preaches to us in his song the heard of the gospel:
He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Remember Jesus here in the Garden of Gethsemane, crying out to the Father: “If it be possible, take this cup away from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” See Jesus obedience here. See him humbling himself under the weight of all the world’s sin—under your sin. See him preparing himself to drink the cup and to drink it to the dregs, all for you, and because he loves you.
And every step of the way, from Gethsemane, to the high priest’s house, to Pontius Pilate judgment seat, to the weary road with Simon of Cyrene, to Golgotha, the place of the Skull, he humbles himself, and is obedient to the point of death—and not just any sort of death, says St Paul: even death on a cross. The most cruel and painful death that the world could dish out. A death with is equal to the severity of our sin, but most importantly, a death which fulfils God’s righteousness in every way, and wins for us the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
At this time of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Good Friday, and finally Easter, we should give thanks to Jesus Christ for the great perfect sacrifice that he made for us on the cross. In baptism, he still washes people in his blood and makes them pure and clean from all sin. He still brings his gracious and forgiving words right into our ears through the preaching of his word in the church. And the same body and blood which was given for us and was shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins is still today given to us and applied to us in the Lord’s Supper.
We are all here—everything is made possible—through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Everything we stand for, everything we are and do as Christians has been made possible, simply because Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
And so St Paul says: Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that 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.
Jesus Christ my Lord and my God, we confess that you are our Lord, and we thank you that you suffered for us under Pontius Pilate, were crucified, dead and buried. Keep your suffering and death always before our eyes, and give to us grateful and thankful hearts, and open our lips to sing your praises both here on earth and together with all the saints and angels in eternity. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.