April 13 , 2014 Palm Sunday
At the Name of Jesus
Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 24, Philippians 2:5-11, St. Matthew 21:1-17
Events are spinning, spinning, spinning . . . wheels within wheels. What human mind could keep track? And to absorb their meaning would tax the powers of a prophet.
In less than a week, the triumphal entry, the Lord’s great victory, will fade to black, eclipsed by the darkest defeat in history, the death of God. And yet three more days, less by our reckoning, and He will rise from the tomb.
Seven days, the span of God’s work in creation, becomes the gestation period of de-creation and re-creation. The cross, that emblem of Christ’s abject humiliation, spins, and now we see a token of God’s triumph.
The death of God brings life to His world . . . new creation . . . a new man. Genesis redux. Who could drink it all in and sort it all out?
St. Paul could. The apostle to the gentiles, imprisoned in Rome, ponders how to address the dissent that has seeped into the church in Philippi, the first one he planted. He sets out a meticulous argument – we expect no less from him – but in the course of it the strangest thing happens.
He breaks out in a hymn: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . .”
So enraptured is he by that thought that it sweeps him up into the realm of poetry. Our Lord’s death on the cross? Could the remembrance of it cause one to soar?
These first-century Philippians know well enough that no romance attaches to the cross. It does not dangle from necks or adorn buildings. The cross and the vile death it promises sound the long, deep, mournful note of humiliation.
The Roman Empire reserved death on the cross for insurrectionists and slaves. Come to think of it, Jesus of Nazareth was probably over-qualified for crucifixion. In the eyes of many of his fellow Jews, including almost all of their leaders, He was the enemy of Israel, the chosen people of God.
In the view of Rome, He was a threat to Caesar and thus an opponent of the mightiest empire in history.
And in His own estimation, He was a slave. As Paul writes, “He made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a . . .” Our text has “bondservant” but the Greek word doulos is elsewhere translated “slave” and that seems the better rendering here.
But who is the real authority? Does ultimate power not reside in this “slave” named Jesus? As St. Paul writes elsewhere: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him” (Col 1:16).
This “slave” is Creator of all and the Creator has stepped into His creation to redeem it from the grip of sin and death . . . and His creatures have risen up and crucified Him. Do they – do we? – favor sin and death?
Black is white and white is black; east is west and west is east. And now do we find the great apostle in his letter to the Philippians celebrating this cosmic inversion?
So we do, for from his inspired pen flows divine interpretation of this cascade of events. God looks upon the cross and sees glory where man could find only shame. Man cringes at humiliation where God smiles on humility.
Our collect for Palm Sunday takes us straight to this magnificent passage in Philippians 2: “Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility . . .”
This Jesus Christ, Paul tells us, spurned equality with God even though He was in the form of God. He came “in the likeness of men” and was “found in appearance as a man.” I think of a caterpillar. It is transformed into a butterfly without ever changing its nature. It does not cease to be a caterpillar but appears as something else.
The Son took on the nature of man without ceasing to be God. As a man, He made Himself subservient to His Father, perfectly obedient to His will. As a man, He sacrificed Himself for His fellow man. As a man, He hung upon a cross, pouring out His life to redeem the creation man had polluted with his sin, to buy it back from the angel of death.
And so now we set forth the cross as the insignia of our victory in Jesus. But do you know that despite Paul’s tightly reasoned explanation of the triumph in the crucifixion, the church was ever so slow to embrace the cross as the dominant symbol of the faith?
Early on, worshipers of the risen Lord developed a distinctively Christian art . . . but the cross was scarcely on the canvas. And the truth, simply put, is that the cross of Christ was simply wretched marketing.
A new religion in need of converts put before the world miracles, healings, the resurrection, the ascension . . . anything but the crucifixion. It’s almost impossible to find in the early art, and where it does appear it wipes away the blood.
One rare early example, at Santa Sabina in Rome, lurks in a corner, almost out of view. And he who takes the trouble to seek it out finds in it nothing to rouse his passions. The few early crucifixes that remain today make no appeal to the emotions.
How long did it take for the church to present the crucifixion as part of the complex of events that form the core of the Christian faith? The Christ nailed to His cross as the compelling image that draws men unto Him? Not until the 10th century did Christian artists paint the crucifixion in that light.
Yet here is what Paul wrote in the middle of the first century: “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
With what result? “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name . . .”
Oh, well, it only took nine centuries. How slow we are to adopt the divine perspective, even when God through His prophets and apostles spells it out for us as though for a group of rather dull second-graders.
It is the humility that spawns obedience to the point of death, even the death of the cross, that makes us great. A praise chorus comes to mind: “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord/And He will lift you up/Higher and higher . . .”
A noble thought. I wonder how I would have handled matters back then had I appeared in place of Him. But I think I know.
I’d see this unholy mess man has made of God’s good creation set right before you could say, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Evil? I’d blot it out. Oppression? I’d obliterate every corrupt, villainous government that ground its own people under the heel of its boot.
In other words, look out below!
In other words, I’d do what all those adoring souls lining the road with palm fronds on a Sunday 2,000 years ago wanted Jesus to do. I’d restore order to the created order – as I saw fit. Then I’d install myself on the throne and make sure everything I fixed stayed fixed. That’s what I’d do.
But Jesus, being the very nature of God, took on the nature of a slave. What does a slave do? He abandons his own will and does the will of his master. Jesus, in His life no less than in His death, sacrificed Himself.
He made Himself perfectly obedient to His Father on high: “Not My will but Thine be done.”
Jesus, Creator of all, appeared in His creation not as its Ruler but as the dutiful Son of the Lord on high, not as its King but as its slave.
And so if Jesus is my model of a man maybe I should consider that God has purposes beyond my frail human understanding. Maybe it shouldn’t take me nine centuries to figure out that He allows sin and death to reign in the world He called “good” and “very good” to demonstrate for us the ravages of our rebellion.
It is we who have staged the insurrection and it was Jesus who hung on the cross reserved for insurrectionists . . . and slaves.
The rebels mocked Him: “If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt 27:40). They planted their flag in the chest of the King of Glory. They had failed at Babel to establish the kingdom of man in the realm of God but this time they did not fail.
The creation has overcome its Creator. The creature has smitten that Creator. The rebellion that failed at Babel has prevailed at Calvary. But why?
Because the King took the nature of a slave. Because the Ruler of all would not stomp on His enemies but would allow them to stomp on Him. Because He came in peace.
If He were not snuffed out He would wage peace in every place where hatred and hostility held sway. Give peace a chance? Mankind has tried it and found it wanting. For God’s peace to rise man’s pride must fall. We must topple the Prince of Peace, nail Him to a cross to preserve our pride against His insurrection of humility.
Therefore, says the apostle, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In our Lord’s humiliation is His exaltation. Think back to our introit, from the 45th chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah. God says through His prophet, “I have sworn by Myself . . . that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath.”
Now we discover in Philippians the Father’s transfer of this promise to His faithful Son. And in the Son’s exaltation is His humility, for the Father demonstrates His vast power in raising His obedient Son out of the grave and exalting Him to the heavenly throne from which He will rule over all that He has made.
And Jesus shows us our purpose as His fellow heirs in the creation. Not to pursue our own ambitions – the “devices and desires of our own hearts” as our prayer book calls them – but to seek and to do the will of God to the glory of God.
For Paul does not of a custom write theological treatises as academic exercises. He addresses serious and painful problems in the churches by laying out a biblical rationale and then spinning out its application to the specific situation.
In Philippi, the issue is unity. How to pull together? Imitate Christ, each and every one of you. Put on His humility, even His slavery. When you do, you will do not your own will but the will of your heavenly Master and you will serve one another as Christ served each of you.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . .” If this mind is in you, you will know that to live for Him is to die with Him. You will know that you must first descend into the tomb with Him to rise from it with Him.
You will know that you have been baptized into His sufferings as well as His glory and you will know your affliction for His name’s sake as your great privilege.
For while He would not call down legions of angels to decimate His enemies, neither did He excuse Himself from the field of battle. He waged peace even unto His dying breath: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
On His cross He purchased our forgiveness. The lowest point of God’s life as Jesus of Nazareth became the highest point of human history. St. Augustine would say, “Proud man would have died had not a lowly God found him.”
Our collect concludes, “Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And so, beloved, behold the cross, that glistening symbol of His victory, and ours. Today, the crowds shout hosannas to our God. On Friday they will shrill, “Crucify! Crucify!” And on Sunday next He will arise from His tomb and publish the good news of His victory over sin and death.
May God grant us the humility – His humility – to walk with Him every step of the way. Amen.