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"A Deep Dive Into Humility"

So often, the church today seems to be many things, but not very humble. Apparently, this is an age-old problem, made evident in this letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. The solution to selfish ambition and conceit is found in the humility of Jesus. But how do we adopt this type of humility? Perhaps it is in examining the extremes that Jesus is willing to take as he empties himself for our sake.


            Pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung once told the story of a man who asked a rabbi why God was revealed to many people in days of old, but now nobody sees God. “Why is this?” he asked. The rabbi answered, “Because nowadays, no one bows low enough.”


            As we shall see that answer connects well with today’s scripture reading, which was probably an ancient Christian hymn, used here by Paul to describe who Jesus truly is, and why he came to earth in the manner he did. It begins by establishing Christ’s pre-existence, his earthly career and after his death, his glorification. The hymn lays out the journey Jesus makes, and it is shaped like the letter “V.”


             That V is a model of Jesus’ mission on earth because, rather than starting low and rising, he started at the top, and slid down into the darkest valley. Only later did the Father elevate him.


            Paul describes the starting point of this V shape: “Christ Jesus, was in the form of God ... did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” It doesn’t get much higher than that — Jesus began by being equal with God. Paul gives us a complete picture of Christ’s divinity, Christ’s humanity and his glorification in a snapshot.


             Jesus willingly let go of the privileges of divine glory to take on the form of a servant. The text says Jesus “emptied himself” and was born in “human likeness.” But that was not enough. Jesus “humbled himself” and was obedient to the point of death, in particular death on a cross. This was the ultimate humiliation, done out of love for us. Today we hail King Jesus, but this image of him riding a donkey is one of a servant king.


            It is obvious that Paul is driving home a point about humility. If we look back to verse 3 in the same chapter, we find Paul saying, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”1 There it is. Paul is concerned about this community’s attitude toward others. But that is not enough. He wants them to also “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”2 Jesus is the supreme example of one who had every right to assume a position of power but chose to set it aside because of the love he had for all of humanity.


            In other words, Jesus’ very nature was that of one who gives. He did not consider being equal to God as grounds for acquiring anything, especially privilege. He could have held onto his rights, his blessings and all the benefits of his kingly glory. Instead, he lived open-handedly, showing us what love and a life of service truly looks like.


            How do we rank in setting things aside for the sake of others? Do we have a hard time letting go of “our rights”? What about righteous indignation? Is it hard to relinquish our right to be mad at someone, for the sake of preserving a relationship? If we approached our marriages and other relationships with the mind of Christ, imagine what our lives would be like.


            This coming week we will observe exactly how Christ emptied himself. He refused to hold on to his divine rights. It was as if there was a veil lowered over his divinity, and it simply kept it from view. Sometimes we say, “remaining all that he was, Christ became what he was not.” He added humility, uniting his divine nature to his human nature.


            Our passage speaks of Jesus, “Taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness, and being found in appearance as a human.” This really speaks to the importance of Christ becoming one of us. When people saw him, they saw a man.


            There was a revealing moment in the life of a missionary named George Harley. In 1926, after completing medical school, George and his wife Winnifred sailed for Liberia, Africa, to serve as missionaries. When he arrived, they wanted to make him chief of staff at the Harvey Firestone Memorial Hospital in the city of Monrovia. But George said, “No. You can get any doctor you want to come and work in a big-city hospital.”


            So, they asked; “What do you want to do?” “I want to go where a white man has never been before,” he replied. “All right,” they said. “You put your things on your back and when you get to the town limits, you walk three miles. From there on it is all virgin territory.”


            And so, George and Winnifred went. They walked for 17 days and nights. George later said that it wasn’t so hard on him, but it was for Winnifred because she was more than pregnant at the time. One day, as they stopped at a little creek for water, Winnifred said, “George, don’t look now, but there are men behind that tree.” “Yes,” George said, “but don’t worry. We’re home now. They are our neighbors.”


            There they cut down some trees and made three huts. One was a medical dispensary, and soon, George was treating as many as 160 patients a day. Another hut was a chapel, and the other was their home. Their little boy was born there, and they named him Richard and lovingly called him Dickie. When Dickie was about 5, he was struck by a tropical fever.


            George had extensive training in tropical fever, but it was soon apparent there was no hope. Little Dickie died. George made a little box of wood, and they laid Dickie in it. He then lifted it onto his shoulders and started down to the clearing where he could bury his boy.


            “In getting there I had to go through the village,” George later told a friend, “One of the old men in the village saw me and said, ‘Where are you going?’ And I said, ‘My boy, he’s gone away. He died.’ And the man said, ‘Here, let me help you.’”


            George explained to the friend that he had lived in that village for five years and had been treating patients daily, but no villager had ever been to his house. “I had preached every Sunday, and not a living soul outside of Winnifred had ever been to the chapel,” he said. “Not one. They let me doctor their bodies, but they wouldn’t take my gospel.” He went on to describe the old man taking one end of the box and he took the other. When they arrived at the clearing, George dug a grave and they placed Dickie in it. After he had covered up the grave, he said; “I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I fell on my knees and began to cry my heart out. The old man cocked his head, squatted down beside me, and looked at me so strangely. He sat there for a long time, and then he jumped to his feet and went running back through the jungle, screaming at the top of his voice.”


            George said, “He went screaming ‘White man, white man — he cries like one of us!’” He went on to say; “That night we were sitting at our table. Everything within us was broken up. There was a knock at the door. The first knock in five years. I went to the door and there stood the chief. I looked past him, and there stood every man, woman, and child in the village. The next Sunday morning, the whole village was in the chapel, and outside, and looking in the windows. From that time on, I was in.”


            His friend said, “George, to get through, to break in, you had to give your son.” George said, “Yes, but what do you think it cost God?”3


            Verse 8 tells us that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.


            And then there is a dramatic shift upward in the text in verse 9, completing the final side of the “V.” Until this point, it is clearly Christ who decides and who acts, emptying himself, becoming human, serving, obeying and dying. Now, it is God who exalts Christ. Paul was a brilliant theologian. He did not reserve theology for seminaries and clergy gatherings; no, this was the church’s theology, the church’s faith.


            As we lift up shouts of praise on this Palm Sunday, shouldn’t we also lay down ways of living that do not honor God or show love of neighbor or respect for all of God’s creation around us? As we lift voices that cry out for an end to injustice and suffering, might we also lay down our pride, allowing Christ to fill them with newfound humility and glimpses of hope.


            Soon, the excitement of the parade and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem will fade, and we will find ourselves slipping into a place of sorrow, beginning with the rejection of Jesus and ending with deep sorrow as we recall his death. These past few weeks have prepared our hearts to walk from the procession to the table, from the cross  to the tomb. Today, as we celebrate Love Incarnate, who came to live and work and commune among us, we would do well to examine the ways we need to have a new mindset, a new way of living and loving. Let us find and replace those things that prevent us from fully embracing all that Christ has shown us. Let us continue with his story, following Jesus with a hope that is stronger than despair, a light that is stronger than darkness and a love that is stronger than death.

 

 

1 Philippians 2:3.

2 Philippians 2:4.

3 Recounted by Stephen Seamands, in Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return (InterVarsity Press, 2012), 38-41.



 

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