Monday, March 25, 2013

A Palm Sunday Sermon

As with last year, I have no plans to post new content during Holy Week.  I'll be sure not to repeat my mistake of discussing my own personal (unorthodox) theology, as I did on Good Friday and Easter 2012.  (It was a distraction from Sa  However, if it might be welcome as you observe Holy Week, I'll leave you with a Palm Sunday sermon I preached 7 years ago -- seems like yesterday -- when I was working in parish ministry.


Psalm 118:1-2
Mark 11:1-11
Philippians 2:5-11 (below)
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name, 
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father. 

“The Humility of Christ” – Philippians 2:5-11
Jacob Lupfer – First UMC Kissimmee, FL
April 9, 2006 – Palm Sunday

Where we are liturgically
            Palm Sunday is a special day in the life of the church.  For us, and for the two billion other Christians around the world, we are beginning a brief but intense spiritual experience we call Holy Week.  I want us to think together this morning about Jesus and the things we remember about him today and during the week to come.  But first, we need to look at how this seemingly insignificant day fits into the church’s and our culture’s hierarchy of holidays.
            It is sometimes difficult for Christians to remember that Easter is our highest holy day.  In a materialistic world, Easter just isn’t the same kind of financial powerhouse as Christmas.  Christmas is our economy’s greatest holiday; so great, it seems, that the religious meaning of Christmas is sometimes difficult to hold onto.  Over the past several years, I’ve had a recurring thought around Christmas time: “It’s sad that we’ve commercialized Christmas, but I’m just glad they’ll never be able to do that to Easter.”  And yet, here we are…  I have a news story from several years ago that I want to show you.  The headline says, “War-Theme Easter Baskets For Sale In Central Florida.”
            Speaking of the shameless exploitation of Christian holy days, I’ve often noticed another difference between Christmas and Easter.  One way they’ve found to make more money on Christmas is to invent a “War on Christmas,” demanding that retailers refrain from greeting worshippers shoppers with the phrase, “Happy Holidays.”  “Holiday” being a godless, secular, anti-Christian word that means “holy day...”  You see, the so-called defenders of Christmas haven’t stood up against the commercial exploitation of Jesus’ birth – they’ve insisted on it.  Next December, when those retailers prey on my innate greed and discontentment and manipulate the power of marketing and mass media to lure me into their stores to buy my friends things that they don’t need with money that I don’t have, they’d better do it in Jesus name!  Every year the make-believe “War on Christmas” dies down when the quarterly profit sheets make it clear who the real winners are.  And in the springtime, I usually think to myself that this is a busy time of year, too, and I sure am glad that I don’t have to spend my energy taking up imaginary arms in any imaginary “War on Easter.”
            This year, I’m told they are actually talking about a “War Against Easter” on cable TV “news.”  The purpose of the “War on Easter” is to make American Christians feel like some kind of underrepresented, victimized minority group.  Yes, that’s right: American Christians – the majority religion in the most powerful and freest nation on earth.  Folks, there is no “War Against Easter” and as Christians, we’re not an oppressed group, no matter what the talking heads want you to believe.  It’s factually and morally wrong to suggest that we are, and it’s offensive to the millions of Christians in places like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, China, East Africa, and other places who, unlike us, practice their faith under persecution and threat of imprisonment or even death.  Ask yourself: Does it make you feel good to think there’s a war against Easter?  And do you really want retailers to exploit the death and resurrection of our Lord in order to increase their sales?

Humility of the triumphal entry
            If there is a war on Easter, it surely distracts us from our struggle to be like the Jesus we hear about on Palm Sunday.  In the gospel story that was read at the beginning of the service, we see Jesus sending his disciples to fetch a young donkey for his entry into Jerusalem.  The people hail him as a king, and we might expect someone like that to enter victoriously, dressed in fine clothing and riding atop a stallion.  Our gospel writer has in mind an Old Testament prophecy that speaks of Jerusalem’s ascending king as one who comes in humility, not riding on a stately animal, but on a lowly one (Zech. 9:9).  All four of the gospels tell the story a little differently, and the scene that we call Jesus’ “triumphal entry” is actually a little confusing.  The gospels seem to tell us that Jesus sees himself as coming forth humbly and with some trepidation.  But the crowds who greet him are apparently not sure what kind of king this might be.

What does the Bible say about humility?
            Jesus is portrayed as the humble king, and our opening hymn this morning included the lyric, “The Lord of earth and heaven rode on in lowly state / Nor scorned that little children should on his bidding wait.”  We don’t have to look very far to see what the Bible has to say about humility.  As one Bible scholar has pointed out, we really only need to look as far as the disciples Jesus sent out to secure the young donkey.  Here they were, not only preparing to celebrate a major religious festival, but also waiting to experience one of the most triumphant, momentous days of Jesus’ ministry.  These disciples might have preferred to perform a more exciting service, such as mapping out the parade route or passing out palm branches to the waiting crowd.  Instead, on the very day Jesus’ ragtag procession would be greeted with great fanfare, these disciples find themselves engaged in a rather unenviable service: masquerading as livestock handlers, performing a lowly service while some of their friends no doubt found more visible ways to help out.  To compare the scene to a modern-day parade, it’s the difference between the people riding comfortably in fancy cars, and the ones walking behind the animals dragging garbage cans and carrying shovels.  Yet Jesus, the humble one, calls his disciples to humble service.  Our gospel writer emphasizes this by devoting more than half his story of the triumphal entry to the task of securing the young donkey, suggesting there may be honor in lowly service after all, and, accordingly, lets these disciples go unnamed so that their service might be done anonymously, another characteristic of humility (Matt. 6).

The humility of Jesus
            When we speak about the humility of Jesus, the gospels give us more examples than I could possibly cite for you this morning.  We might think about Jesus’ saying in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  We might remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  We might quote Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).  Yet when we celebrate Jesus’ humility in the church, the text we just heard from Pilippians is perhaps the most relevant.  Paul seems to have a special fondness for the people in the city of Philippi, and even though his letter is written from a prison cell, he shares joy with them and encourages them to imitate the humility of Christ.
            We know that, even though the gospels are listed at the beginning of our New Testament, Paul’s letters were written first.  The section we heard this morning seems like a digression from Paul’s argument, and we are almost certain that verses 6-11 of chapter 2 are a quotation of an early Christian hymn about Jesus.  Imagine writing or talking to a friend, and suddenly a song or poem pops into your mind that makes your point more eloquently than you ever could.  That is probably what happened to Paul while he was dictating this letter.  And so it is quite possible that our text for this morning is actually the oldest passage in the New Testament, the first writing we have in our Bibles from early Christians about Jesus.  And what did those early believers want to tell us about, first and foremost?  His miracles?  His wisdom as a teacher?  Supernatural events surrounding his birth, death, and resurrection?  No!  This Christ hymn is all about Jesus’ humility, and how God honored him for it.
            Before he begins the quotation, Paul admonishes his audience: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  Then Paul inserts the hymn, saying that Jesus emptied himself, took the form of a slave, humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, a death we will remember later this week.  The quotation goes on to tell us that God highly exalted Jesus because of his humility.  If we’ve ever wondered what it was about Jesus that caused God to give him “the name that is above every name,” we have found our answer.  According to Paul, the great preacher and representative of early Christianity, God’s exaltation of Jesus did not come about because of Jesus’ miracles, or even his teachings.  It was not because of anything supernatural, or even any kind of divine connection.  Sometimes all our layers of myth and tradition, and even the New Testament itself, can obscure this powerful point drawn from the earliest Christian text we have.  Paul tells us, clearly and without ambiguity, that it was because of Jesus’ humility that God exalted him, because Jesus humbled himself.

The virtue of humility in the Christian life
            Remember Paul’s opening statement: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  Or, as he says elsewhere, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).  So, how do we practice humility in the Christian life?  Perhaps we would do well to remember the disciples who Jesus called to humble service.  Some of what we do in the church is visible and widely appreciated: chairing important committees, being a ministry leader, singing solos in worship, proclaiming the message like I’m doing now.  To those of us whose ministry is public, we have received our reward in full, so unless we take on an attitude of humility, our work counts for nothing.  The truth is, most of the work of the church goes on behind the scenes.  Many of you are, in a sense, like the disciples who got stuck with donkey duty (no pun intended…) In your own ways, many of you are imitating the humility of Christ as you help carry out the mission and work of the church.  You serve on committees, you visit the sick and homebound, you help take care of our buildings and grounds, you volunteer in the church office, you lead a Sunday school class or small group.  Others of you are being called to a work of ministry that you haven’t yet begun.  Whether you’ve been a servant of God for many years, or whether you’re just figuring out how to get started, we transform our tasks into true spiritual disciplines and even acts of worship when we imitate the humility of Christ.

Humility in Holy Week
            By the time Jesus came to Jerusalem, his reputation as a teacher and healer had spread among the people of Judea.  When the people waved palm branches a symbol of victory, they remembered the prophecy about a coming king.  That prophecy ended with a promise of restoration (Zech. 9:12).  The people had endured centuries of oppression, and by Jesus’ time many Jews nurtured the hope that God would intervene once and for all, send them a mighty king, and restore them to their former glory.  If Jesus was to be that kind of king, the people were ready to follow.  Over the next several days, however, the people’s enthusiasm for Jesus began to diminish, even as the religious authorities felt increasingly threatened by his teachings.  There is much more to be said about what happened during Jesus’ final days.  We have three special worship services during Holy Week.  On Thursday night at 7:00, we will hold a solemn, moving service remembering Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  The next day, there will be a Good Friday service at noon.  On Easter morning at 6:30, we will have a sunrise service at the lakefront on the lawn just east of the gazebo. 

Where we are going liturgically
            The season of Lent began with a call to repentance and self-denial.  If we hope to understand the humility of Christ in the week to come, we must remember that the Lenten journey continues for a little while longer.  Even if there was a “War Against Easter,” true believers will not have much time or energy this week to take up arms.  Instead, we are faced with Paul’s instruction to imitate the humility of Christ.  Our task is to face up to the areas of our lives where the humility of Christ is nowhere to be found.  On this Palm Sunday morning, we are pleased to imagine ourselves among the crowd that greeted Jesus with shouts of praise.  A few days later, however, the crowds cried, “Crucify him!”  In what ways are we part of that crowd as well?  Holy Week is a time to explore these questions as we witness to our faith.  A great celebration is coming – we know how the story ends – but our journey to the empty tomb first takes us to an upper room, through an angry mob, and up a hill to the cross.

“[He] 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” (Phil. 2:7-8).  Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

And now may the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be among you and remain with you.  Go in peace.  Pray for peace.  Love and serve the Lord.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We invite you to join in the conversation. However, anonymous comments are unwelcome.