Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Nature of God

Self-sacrificial service – a sermon for Palm Sunday

First Reading Philippians 2: 5 - 11

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death –
        even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Gospel Luke 22: 14 - 23

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
Christ humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him
and given him the name that is above every name.
All Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’

17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 21 But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22 The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!’ 23 They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday all the events were in fulfilment of prophecy. The prophecy of Zechariah is headed “The Coming of Zion’s King.”
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Do a search for the words Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and with the Palm Sunday references in all the gospels you also discover the same phrase used in Psalm 118:
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    From the house of the Lord we bless you.
27 The Lord is God,
    and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
    up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will praise you;
    you are my God, and I will exalt you.
29 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.

No wonder the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke his disciples. They were not just hailing their Master, but in the reference to the Hebrew Scriptures at the very least hailing him as King, challenging the status quo, but very likely also Son of God.

What interests me more this morning is not a repetition of all the sermons you have heard in the past about Palm Sunday, but what Jesus was claiming for himself, and what God gave him. The paired reading from the letter to the Philippians is in the form of a hymn. It seeks to explain the things Jesus did which were certainly not what you would have predicted, and absolutely not what the crowds claimed on the first Palm Sunday. This is followed by what God did – and I would add how we should respond in our imitation of Christ which is the total objective of the Christian life.

What Jesus Did

You might have expected the arrival of a King would signal an uprising, leading a rebellion against Roman rule. But that’s not what Jesus wants. Jesus is in very nature God yet he did not seek to take advantage of his equality with God or his divine nature. Instead, Jesus did two things: first, he ‘emptied’ himself by taking the form of a slave: and secondly, he humbled himself by submitting to death on the cross.

Jesus somehow divested himself of his divinity, and embraced true humility. His humility led to self-sacrificing service of others where, alternatively, he might have exploited his equality with God to overcome all obstacles and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven as his disciples expected.

What God Did

The divine response is perhaps very much less surprising. God exalted him to the highest place, and gave Jesus a name that is above every name so that every knee should bow to him and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

You can almost hear these words sung by the early church as a hymn.

Because Jesus the incarnate God reveals to us what God is like, what does this tell us about the divine nature? Well, Jesus existed in the form of God – the NRSV actually translates the Greek as “who, though he was in the form of God” but really the meaning is “because he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”

To me, this means that the way Jesus acted was the way God would have acted, and indeed the way God did act. That means it is in God’s very nature to act in humble, self-sacrificial service.

In the Gospel of John, Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus answers, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). The hymn suggests that Jesus’ revelation of God is most conspicuous in his humility and death.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of a book by Thomas a Kempis called The Imitation of Christ. It was composed in Latin early in the 15th century. Even today, this work is regarded as a spiritual classic. The book starts with the words:
He who follows me walks not in darkness. By these words of Christ, we are invited to imitate his life... Our chief effort should therefore be to study the life of Christ.

As we enter holy week and the Easter season, what better aim can we have but to reflect day by day on this one aim, to be imitators of Christ. This means, of course, on Good Friday thinking about what it actually means to take up the cross and follow him. And the letter to the Philippians could well be something to read and think about, teaching us as it does that it is in the nature of God to empty himself of all exaltation and take on the task of self-sacrificial service to us.

Our response must surely be to become imitators of Him, sacrificing our own interests and pursuit of gain and advantage, and in their place serving others, as Christ himself ultimately did in his obedience, even to death on a cross. Amen

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