Sunday, March 16, 2008

Empty: A Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11

Matthew 21:1-11, Philippians 2:5-11
March 16, 2008

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, you have just heard the words of a hymn, an ancient hymn of the earliest people to call themselves Christians. There is an old saying, usually quoted in Latin: Lex orandi, lex credendi: As we pray, so we believe. I think that should be amended to read: As we pray and we sing, so we believe. You and I, we have learned what we know of God in very large part from the hymns that have shaped us. “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the bible tells me so.” “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” We sing these words, and they form the very foundations of our faith. This has been true of believers from the beginning. The ancient church sang the words to this hymn, and so they believed. They sang: let us be like Christ. He was really something. But he allowed himself to be nothing. He was God come down to earth. He could have been so full of himself. But instead he was empty. Let us be like him.

Why should anyone want to be empty? Now that I mention it, why should anyone want to listen to a sermon whose title is “Empty”? There is a reason why the sermon title was not put on the sign this week. To most people, driving by and wondering what’s going on in that big stone church this weekend, “Empty” probably wouldn’t sound so good.

Empty is the disappointment of a beautifully wrapped package under the tree that turns out to have absolutely nothing inside it.

Empty is the internal greyness described in these lyrics by singer/ songwriter Ani DiFranco:

The sky is grey
The sand is grey
And the ocean is grey
And I feel right at home
In this stunning monochrome
Alone in my way…

Empty is the disillusionment of the journalist John Krakauer, reflecting on his experience at the summit of Mount Everest on an expedition in which eight people died: He writes,

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal… I understood on some dim, detached level that it was a spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care.

And those experiences of emptiness are the complaints of the relatively well-off, those of us who are comfortable enough to be afforded the privilege of inner turmoil. From the point of view of the other 90% of the world’s inhabitants…

Empty is the painful, gnawing stomach of a child whose parents don’t have the ability to provide him with a nourishing meal.

Empty is the fractured mind of a detainee at Guantanamo after six years of solitary confinement.

Empty is the shock of self-awareness when you find yourself in a crowd yelling, “Crucify him!” when only days earlier you were in a crowd singing a hymn: “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

What on earth would possess the early Christians to sing a hymn of praise to the emptying, the emptiness of Christ?

Paul uses this hymn in his letter to the Philippians, and he places it in the middle of a passage in which he is giving advice on ethical behavior… how to live, how to be. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he says, and then goes on to describe the self-emptying of Christ.

But I would like for us to go back, to the part just before Paul inserts the hymn. Here Paul is still telling the Philippians how to live; he says,

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… Philippians 2:1-5

… and then our passage begins. We usually associate emptiness with greyness, hunger or feelings of disillusionment. But the self-emptying of Christ has something to do, instead, with encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, sympathy and joy. In fact, in our passage, the emptying is what leads to exaltation, glory, every tongue, living and dead, praising God. What is this emptiness, this self-emptying of Jesus Christ, that we should be aspiring to?

The hymn tells us, first, that Christ had equality with God… as John puts it, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And, who among us wouldn’t like a little taste of that power? Remember Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty? After things go badly for him at work, Bruce tells his girlfriend that God has abandoned him—in fact, that God is doing a lousy job at being God. So, in the way movies can make these things happen, God calls Bruce in for a meeting and says, “Fine. I need a vacation. You be God. We’ll see how you do.” And of course, Bruce spends his first week with divine powers making himself the greatest lover in history, giving victory to the local hockey team, and exacting revenge on his colleagues. Who wouldn’t want to wield a little of that power? Who doesn’t want to belong to the Emperor’s club? Who wouldn’t want to exploit that sweet situation?

Here is what Jesus Christ does. Though he is one with God, he refuses to exploit that power. Instead, he empties himself, taking the form of a slave rather than the form of God. Jesus Christ submits himself to the laws of nature and the laws of human beings. He identifies himself completely with the human condition, even becoming susceptible to death. That in itself is remarkable, but the manner of his death is even more shocking: death on a cross. Death by crucifixion was the punishment the Roman Empire reserved for rebels and disobedient slaves—those the authorities most wanted to check and humiliate because their crimes were against the very fabric of the social order as well as the power of the Empire itself. We almost can’t appreciate how horrifying these words, and this truth—death on a cross—would have been to those early followers of Jesus, and those ancient believers. The only modern parallel that comes to mind is that photograph I know you’ve all seen: the image of a man standing on a box, wires attached to his fingers, a blanket with a hole cut in it for his only clothing, and a hood obscuring his face: a detainee at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The shock most of us felt on seeing that picture several years ago begins to approach the shock of early Christians seeing their savior on a cross. It goes completely against our understanding of what and who God is.

But it is precisely who God is. Self-emptying—becoming human, subject to the authorities, subject to death—this is not what Jesus Christ does in spite of being one with God. This is what Christ does because he is one with God.

This is our encouragement in Christ: that ours is a God who suffers the devastation of flood and hurricane and tornado. This is the consolation from love: that ours is a God who suffers torture with those who are tortured. This is the sharing in the Spirit: that ours is a God who knows the full range of human suffering and human depravity, and who does not leave us alone in it. Christ emptied himself, which turns out to be the greatest expression of the fullness of God’s love for us.

Be of the same mind; have the same love. So Paul counsels us. What an overwhelming, impossible task: to have the same mind and love as Christ! All we can do is to try, one difficult moment at a time, to follow the Lord who has shown us how it is done. All we can do is to try to emulate the self-emptying love of Christ one action at a time: serving this meal, mentoring that student, sheltering this traveler, restraining that tongue. All we can do is to start where we are: with these relationships, this family, this church, this workplace, this community. All we can do is to try to let this hymn take root in our hearts. Hear again the song of praise of the ancient church:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11


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