An Emptied Self

Preached at Alger First UMC on April 9, 2017: Palm/Passion Sunday


Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
        and gave him a name above all names,
     so that at the name of Jesus everyone
        in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
         and every tongue confess that
            Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, CEB)


So we’ve been journeying through Lent since March 1, and now Easter is next Sunday. It seems like it’s gone by fast for me. But today, we’re at Palm Sunday.

I have a lot of memories of Palm Sunday, especially as a kid. There was one particular one that stood out this week as I was preparing this sermon. My dad was pastoring a church in Hamilton when I was in elementary school and it was a big tradition in that church for all the kids in the children’s ministry to march around the sanctuary at some point in the service with palm branches and singing a song we had learned.

Those of you who’ve gone to church for at least a few years probably have your own memories of Palm Sunday. Maybe it’s a memory similar to mine where kids are marching around the sanctuary with their palm branches. Whatever it is, it probably has something to do with palm branches and praising Jesus, shouting “Hosanna” like those crowds in Jerusalem, right?

Even outside of Palm Sunday, we generally get really into praising Jesus in the church and seeing our faith and the church as a big celebration.

Even outside of the church, I think all of us are drawn to these positive, celebratory moments in our life. We’re more likely to remember our birthday or Christmas 10 years later then that time we were really sick, unless it resulted in a hospital visit or something big, right? So in this story of Palm Sunday, we love the chance to join with the crowds in Jerusalem’s streets who flock to see Jesus ride into town, just like we did at the beginning of the service.

But there’s a problem here. Those crowds in Jerusalem flocked to praise Jesus without knowing where this week would end – with Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. If we identify with the crowd, I wonder if we do the same thing as they did.

I wonder if we focus on praising Jesus without paying much attention to the difficult, painful elements of Jesus’ life and ministry. It seems so often like we want to praise Jesus on Palm Sunday and praise Jesus on Easter next Sunday, but skip Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday in between. So often, we really don’t want to follow Jesus into the depths of pain to which he goes.

But we have to remember that Jesus’ life began and ended with him emptying himself and refusing the privileges of divinity. Jesus, the divine Son of God, humbled himself by becoming human at his birth. And he continued to humble himself through his whole life until he was finally executed on a cross.

This was a conscious decision on Jesus’ part every time. Jesus, the Son of God with all the power of God, made the conscious decision to empty himself of all that power and become human. And even as a human, he gave up all the fame he could’ve had as a water-walking miracle-worker.

Jesus, for sake of the crowds groaning for salvation, for the sake of his confused disciples, for the sake of the diseased, the women, the children, for the sake of the powerful and powerless, for the sake of people oppressed by their own country, for the sake of immigrants, for the sake of people of a different race, for the sake of people with different sexual orientations or gender identities, Jesus lowered himself and became a self-giving servant.

Hear again verses 6-8, the first part of the passage we read together at the beginning of this. “Though [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

This is Jesus, our Savior, the One we worship, the one we look to as an example for our own lives. It’s not a very attractive picture. Sure, God glorified Jesus in the end and raised him up. But that goodness only happened after Jesus went through every struggle, even death, and the worst kind of death at that – death on a cross.

Jesus could’ve chosen to remain with God, but instead he emptied himself so that we might be reconciled to God.

This is the mind of Christ which that passage from Philippians invites us to take on ourselves. This is that attitude which Paul invites us to adopt. It’s a call to not chase after glory and fame, but to live and die as an emptied self.

Now, since the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity way back in the fourth century, the Western church has actually done an awful job at this. We in the Western church – meaning the church who find our legacy in the Roman church which turned into Roman Catholicism – we can’t seem to stop ourselves from grasping at power and glory. We can’t seem to stop ourselves from trying to control society.

A quick glance through the history of the church shows that every time the church overall made a grab at power, it’s never worked out well for us. The Crusades turned into genocide endorse by Christianity. The Ku Klux Clan arose out of the Southern Church.  In the years leading up to World War II, the German National Church allied itself with the Nazis and all the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. All of this ugliness that was endorsed by the church arose out of the church making a grab for power instead of following Jesus’ example and emptying ourselves of power and glory.

Now, I don’t want you to hear this as a finger-shaking scolding for each of us to be good independent selfless Christians. This call from Philippians isn’t directed at each of us individually. It’s a call to a community of people like the church as one body together. So how might the church empty ourselves of power and privilege so that our community and our world might come to know Jesus and find salvation and peace and grace?

Is there any place in our society where the church is continuing to grasp at power? Is there any place in the political sphere where we hold onto power? What about in the economic sphere? What about in the social sphere? Where do we as the church need to relinquish our stranglehold on power and privilege and empty ourselves and humble ourselves like Jesus did?

These aren’t rhetorical questions, they’re genuine. Because I don’t have the answer here. By his life and by his death, Jesus leads us to the path of self-emptying and humiliation for the sake of the Gospel. For real – how can we follow him on that path?

This are incredibly difficult questions to struggle with. But today and this week might be the perfect time to struggle with this. Because today starts Holy Week. The Daily Scripture readings in your bulletin will help us journey with Jesus through this difficult, painful week.

To start us on this journey, I want to read for you the ultimate story of Jesus emptying himself. It’s a bit a long story, but it’s the second-most formative story for those who a part of the church. For our most formative story, join us next week. But to get there, we have to hear this one first.

Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I turn Jesus over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. From that time on he was looking for an opportunity to turn him in.

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?”

He replied, “Go into the city, to a certain man, and say, ‘The teacher says, “My time is near. I’m going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.” ’” The disciples did just as Jesus instructed them. They prepared the Passover.

That evening he took his place at the table with the twelve disciples. As they were eating he said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me.”

Deeply saddened, each one said to him, “I’m not the one, am I, Lord?”

He replied, “The one who will betray me is the one who dips his hand with me into this bowl. The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

Now Judas, who would betray him, replied, “It’s not me, is it, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered, “You said it.”

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven. I tell you, I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Then, after singing songs of praise, they went to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Tonight you will all fall away because of me. This is because it is written, I will hit the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will go off in all directions. But after I’m raised up, I’ll go before you to Galilee.”

Peter replied, “If everyone else stumbles because of you, I’ll never stumble.”

Jesus said to him, “I assure you that, before the rooster crows tonight, you will deny me three times.”

Peter said, “Even if I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you.” All the disciples said the same thing.

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane. He said to the disciples, “Stay here while I go and pray over there.” When he took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, he began to feel sad and anxious.Then he said to them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me.” Then he went a short distance farther and fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it’s possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.”

He came back to the disciples and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you stay alert one hour with me? Stay alert and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.” A second time he went away and prayed, “My Father, if it’s not possible that this cup be taken away unless I drink it, then let it be what you want.”

Again he came and found them sleeping. Their eyes were heavy with sleep. But he left them and again went and prayed the same words for the third time. Then he came to his disciples and said to them, “Will you sleep and rest all night? Look, the time has come for the Human One[d] to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up. Let’s go. Look, here comes my betrayer.

While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, came. With him was a large crowd carrying swords and clubs. They had been sent by the chief priests and elders of the people. His betrayer had given them a sign: “Arrest the man I kiss.” Just then he came to Jesus and said, “Hello, Rabbi.” Then he kissed him.

But Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came and grabbed Jesus and arrested him.

One of those with Jesus reached for his sword. Striking the high priest’s slave, he cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword. Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? But if I did that, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen?” Then Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, like a thief? Day after day, I sat in the temple teaching, but you didn’t arrest me. But all this has happened so that what the prophets said in the scriptures might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left Jesus and ran away.

Those who arrested Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest. The legal experts and the elders had gathered there. Peter followed him from a distance until he came to the high priest’s courtyard. He entered that area and sat outside with the officers to see how it would turn out.

The chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death. They didn’t find anything they could use from the many false witnesses who were willing to come forward. But finally they found two who said, “This man said, ‘I can destroy God’s temple and rebuild it in three days.’”

Then the high priest stood and said to Jesus, “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?”

But Jesus was silent.

The high priest said, “By the living God, I demand that you tell us whether you are the Christ, God’s Son.”

“You said it,” Jesus replied. “But I say to you that from now on you’ll see the Human One sitting on the right side of the Almighty and coming on the heavenly clouds.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He’s insulting God! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, you’ve heard his insult against God. What do you think?”

And they answered, “He deserves to die!” Then they spit in his face and beat him. They hit him and said, “Prophesy for us, Christ! Who hit you?”

Meanwhile, Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant woman came and said to him, “You were also with Jesus the Galilean.”

But he denied it in front of all of them, saying, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

When he went over to the gate, another woman saw him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.”

With a solemn pledge, he denied it again, saying, “I don’t know the man.”

A short time later those standing there came and said to Peter, “You must be one of them. The way you talk gives you away.”

Then he cursed and swore, “I don’t know the man!” At that very moment the rooster crowed. Peter remembered Jesus’ words, “Before the rooster crows you will deny me three times.” And Peter went out and cried uncontrollably.

Early in the morning all the chief priests and the elders of the people reached the decision to have Jesus put to death. They bound him, led him away, and turned him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, who betrayed Jesus, saw that Jesus was condemned to die, he felt deep regret. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, and said, “I did wrong because I betrayed an innocent man.”

But they said, “What is that to us? That’s your problem.” Judas threw the silver pieces into the temple and left. Then he went and hanged himself.

The chief priests picked up the silver pieces and said, “According to the Law it’s not right to put this money in the treasury. Since it was used to pay for someone’s life, it’s unclean.” So they decided to use it to buy the potter’s field where strangers could be buried. That’s why that field is called “Field of Blood” to this very day. This fulfilled the words of Jeremiah the prophet: And I took the thirty pieces of silver, the price for the one whose price had been set by some of the Israelites, and I gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.

Jesus was brought before the governor. The governor said, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.” But he didn’t answer when the chief priests and elders accused him.

Then Pilate said, “Don’t you hear the testimony they bring against you?” But he didn’t answer, not even a single word. So the governor was greatly amazed.

It was customary during the festival for the governor to release to the crowd one prisoner, whomever they might choose. At that time there was a well-known prisoner named Jesus Barabbas. When the crowd had come together, Pilate asked them, “Whom would you like me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?” He knew that the leaders of the people had handed him over because of jealousy.

While he was serving as judge, his wife sent this message to him, “Leave that righteous man alone. I’ve suffered much today in a dream because of him.”

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and kill Jesus. The governor said, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?”

“Barabbas,” they replied.

Pilate said, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”

They all said, “Crucify him!”

But he said, “Why? What wrong has he done?”

They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!”

Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that a riot was starting. So he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I’m innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It’s your problem.”

All the people replied, “Let his blood be on us and on our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.

The governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the governor’s house, and they gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a red military coat on him. They twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They put a stick in his right hand. Then they bowed down in front of him and mocked him, saying, “Hey! King of the Jews!” After they spit on him, they took the stick and struck his head again and again. When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the military coat and put his own clothes back on him. They led him away to crucify him.

As they were going out, they found Simon, a man from Cyrene. They forced him to carry his cross. When they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Skull Place, they gave Jesus wine mixed with vinegar to drink. But after tasting it, he didn’t want to drink it. After they crucified him, they divided up his clothes among them by drawing lots. They sat there, guarding him. They placed above his head the charge against him. It read, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” They crucified with him two outlaws, one on his right side and one on his left.

Those who were walking by insulted Jesus, shaking their heads and saying, “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.”

In the same way, the chief priests, along with the legal experts and the elders, were making fun of him, saying, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son.’” The outlaws who were crucified with him insulted him in the same way.

From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. At about three Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”

After hearing him, some standing there said, “He’s calling Elijah.” One of them ran over, took a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a pole. He offered it to Jesus to drink.

But the rest of them said, “Let’s see if Elijah will come and save him.”

Again Jesus cried out with a loud shout. Then he died.

Look, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split, and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection they came out of their graves and went into the holy city where they appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and what had just happened, they were filled with awe and said, “This was certainly God’s Son.”

Many women were watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to serve him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

That evening a man named Joseph came. He was a rich man from Arimathea who had become a disciple of Jesus. He came to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate gave him permission to take it. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had carved out of the rock. After he rolled a large stone at the door of the tomb, he went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting in front of the tomb.

The next day, which was the day after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate. They said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will arise.’ Therefore, order the grave to be sealed until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people, ‘He’s been raised from the dead.’ This last deception will be worse than the first.”

Pilate replied, “You have soldiers for guard duty. Go and make it as secure as you know how.” Then they went and secured the tomb by sealing the stone and posting the guard. (Matthew 26:14-27:66, CEB)



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