The Humility of God

There is a hymn I have never chosen for I’m sure 30 years in its original form:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
you soldiers of the cross.
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory, His army shall he lead.
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.

1859 After first publication, the hymn was popular and was sung by both the Union and Confederate soldiers in the American Civil War. And so a very worldly picture of Christ victor. Defeating all our enemies. And I raise this as we approach Easter because this is what is on the minds of the disciples as they head for Jerusalem. They are imagining Jesus calling the people to arms and overthrowing the Romans and making Israel great again. That sounds familiar! And this is what we seem to want. The church victorious and we define victory in terms of being at the top of power and control. It’s not new, it has always been the way. And right up until the last supper, the disciples are still arguing about who is the greatest amongst them. Even after the resurrection, the disciples are still asking: Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel? But it’s not Jesus' Kingdom they want, they want the old Kingdom restored. A Kingdom of power and coercion and might and swords and spears. Is this not for many Christians the kind of Kingdom they still want?

And so we have even taken Jesus' parable about the people given money to invest and we applaud the guy who earned the most interest and rubbish the guy who didn’t buy into the system, completely inverting Jesus’ truth. So the Jesus we have mostly worshipped is in a lot of minds; blond, American, rather than dark-haired Middle Eastern; a capitalist rather than, for want of a better word, a socialist, who believed in sharing what he had with others. And very definitely supporting the American/Anglo way and being prepared to battle for it.

Interestingly, a couple of years ago, an American reporter on that channel of all wisdom and grace, Fox News, declared that it was her God-given right to carry a gun. God-given and gun somehow was jarring for me. So the God we have created in our own image, if we listen to certain evangelists, is upwardly mobile. He represents the American way and of course is a republican. Some years ago I was listening to a TV evangelist whose take on Jesus was that he lived in a luxurious villa in Nazareth with his disciples and was very wealthy. He referred to a text where Jesus says: Birds have nests and Foxes have holes but I have nowhere to lay my head. This particular evangelist's take on that was, the team had been on a mission and when they got there they discovered that no one had booked accommodation for them and so they went back to the mansion in Nazareth. You can justify a lot of personal stuff with that kind of interpretation!

The apostle Paul, probably better than any other, got the Jesus message. And he writes a letter to a church probably no bigger than we are today and he wants to set Jesus as a model before them. A best way to live if you like. And then he describes what Jesus was doing: He writes Jesus made himself of no reputation. He was always with God and in God but he chose to empty himself. Paul says, he voided everything he was. Imagine you have this triple degree and you have all these qualifications and the power to influence and control, and you take all your glittering prizes and you void them. You make them as nothing. So Jesus – what have you got? Nothing. Well what are your qualifications? Don’t have any. Well what’s so good about you, what’s your reputation? Nothing worth talking about. He empties Himself, and becomes a no man, a nothing man. Then writes Paul, Jesus abased himself, he humiliated himself. Wait wait wait! Are we talking about the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? By the way, that was what the Roman boss saw himself as – King of kings and Lord of Lords. Paul goes on: he made his nature the nature of a slave. Again a nothing! A slave has no power. And walked the path of obedience all the way to the most humiliating nothing person, kind of torturous execution on a cross.

Oh, by the way, there was one thing he never emptied himself of and that was love. Why? Because He is love. He can empty himself of everything humanely speaking that appeals to the upwardly mobile, and still lose nothing because he is love and in him there is no darkness. And then after the torturous death writes Paul that after living true to His nature of nothingness, God raises Jesus to the highest place above and gives him the Name greater than any other Name. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate and only possible response to his life. Love wins! This God this Jesus has emptied himself of all judgement over you and me, has become the final word in your life and mine and all lives. It would be as if the high judge and all the judiciary and all the minions of law and order have surrendered their power and instruments of justice and retribution and become loving slaves to all committers of pain and hurt and evil, holding them in an embrace of healing and restorative love until they themselves become love.

Understanding this self-emptying of Jesus, Paul writes: Don't do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble toward one another, always considering others better than yourselves. And look out for each other’s interests, not just your own. Why? Because that is the nature of God. Some of you may know the names, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen. They are rock climbers that set out to climb a sheer 3000 ft granite rock face called the Dawn Wall. It will take them 19 days. The climb’s ultimate test is Pitch 15, a long traverse across a stretch of rock as flat as a freshly ironed and starched collar. After multiple failures, Caldwell summons some unknowable mix of skill and resolve and spiders across. But Jorgensen is foiled repeatedly over a long sequence of days. Eventually Caldwell must move on – after all, this started off as his dream and he works his way up several other challenging pitches until it becomes clear he’ll make it. He can easily make the top and receive the accolades and the honours of being the first person to free climb this impossible cliff face. Except that he doesn’t. He goes back to his friend Kevin and in a halting, half-mumbled delivery, Caldwell declares that he’s not about to finish the climb without his buddy, no matter how much he’d poured himself into it over the past six years. Someone said, “We all thought it was an act of madness that Tommy was waiting for Kevin,” “Kevin had never climbed that difficulty, that grade level, on any route outside of the Dawn Wall in his life. It was a whole new frontier, and here he was, two weeks into this event, his body torn apart.” Tommy could have made it on his own but in a few days they both make the top. You might say, Tommy Caldwell became nothing, he gave up the right to boast, he was humble and looked out for his friend’s interest, not just his own. So the emptying God we know in Jesus empties himself of all but love and love alone and comes down to find us and serve us that in that embrace you and I might be healed and all mankind restored to every other, overcoming every division. No spears and guns, no loud display of pomposity, no self lifting up, no bragging this Jesus, just a humility of love that refuses to let us go. And for this reason: God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name.

Now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.‍