Student Carol Service - Philippians 2:5-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
We human beings are strange creatures in so many ways- some being stranger than others. For instance we like surprises: the surprise birthday party, the surprise present, the surprise encounter, the surprise exam result. Exactly what it is about surprises which make them so attractive is very difficult to say. Perhaps it is that jolt from the predictable and mundane which they bring, so making life more interesting which secures their popularity. Oddly enough we also have a propensity for liking to be shocked as the entertainment industry knows only too well. And so there is the thriller film which takes us along gently in one direction only to suddenly reverse it all for shock effect- like the ending of the movie Sixth Sense for example. This takes our breath away and we seem to like it. Many children’s fairy stories operate at this level- Little Red Riding Hood, Babes in the Wood, Snow White- the brothers Grimm were often just that- grim! Of course the surprise/shock value of something has a law of diminishing returns in that once the surprise has been sprung or once the shock has been unleashed, to return to the same surprise or shock is not so surprising or shocking- you can only watch the Sixth Sense so many times and it takes on quite a different feel.
Now it seems to me that something similar to that has happened with Christianity. On first encountering what the Bible says about Jesus is a shocking surprise for any normal person. The problem is that after years of telling and retelling and in some cases mis-telling the Christmas story it becomes as familiar and so as inane as the wallpaper on your desktop.
So tonight I am going to ask you to put to one side with me all the stuff you might have picked up from school, advent calendars and Christmas cards about what you think happened on the first Christmas and listen in to someone who initially was one of the first violent opponents of Christianity only to become one of its greatest champions- a man named Paul. Like all good thinking about God it appears in the form of a poem or song written to a group of new Christians in a Roman outpost called Philippi and you have it there on your service sheets- Philippians 2.
Here is the first shock- the identity of Jesus-v5-8 ‘Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with god something to be grasped. But made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as man humbled himself.’ Let’s stop there. I don’t know what your idea of God is, if you have any idea at all. But you know, for some he is the Pythonesque picture of an old man in the sky out of touch and out of sight. For many others with the influence of eastern religion mingled with New Age mysticism and a bit of Star Wars thrown in God is thought of by many as being more of a power than a person, something you tap into rather than talk to.
But the Bible speaks of God quite differently. Yes, he certainly is powerful. A moment’s mind blowing contemplation of some of the figures science gives us reveals that too us. Our solar system is part of the galaxy called the Milky Way. This is around 100,000 light years in diameter. Seen from far away it looks like a giant pinwheel rotating slowly in space with four broad spiral arms bright with stars. About a quarter of the way along one of these arms is our sun and it makes its complete circuit of the galaxy once every 250 million years, There are about 160 billion similar suns or stars in our galaxy and we re only one galaxy among 150 billion others. I tell you it takes some power to bring that amount of hardware into existence and keep it going. But to God it is really not such a big deal- the Bible says that God, measured the universe with a span, that is the distance between the little finger and thumb-that’s all it is to him. But a God who is nothing but all power is not going to be a God you are going to be able to relate to is it?
So now for the shock- God is also personal. Keep those figures in mind- the billions of galaxies, the trillions of stars, the vastness of space, the pinprick called earth and then read again what Paul says about the one true God who brought the whole show into play with its dazzling complexity and breathtaking beauty- ‘Jesus Christ who being in very nature God’ –that is who he is- ‘ did not count equality with God something to be grasped’- that is, he wasn’t going to selfishly cling to his privileges as God-demanding and forcing worship which is rightly his- but instead he did what? ‘Made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, being made in human likeness and being found in the appearance as a man he humbled himself.’ There’s the shock! At a time which was datable in a place which was locatable-God became a man. You see, the real God is a humble God- do you realise that?
The Omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young peasant girl. This was in all probability a teenage pregnancy. We are talking God as a foetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created. God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen. He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother. God had come to earth. But he came, not as a flash of light or as an unapproachable conqueror, but as one whose first cries was heard by a peasant girl and a sleepy carpenter. The hands that first held him were unmanicured, calloused, and dirty. The first smells he had were not of Johnson’s baby powder but of cow urine. No silk. No ivory. No hype. No party. In fact had it not been for the shepherds, there would have been no reception at all. And were it not for a group of stargazers, there would have been no gifts. God humbled himself.
He became a real human being. Think of how the angels must have felt watching Mary wipe the drool from the baby-God’s mouth. The whole spiritual universe would have watched with wonder as the Almighty learned to walk. That is the implication of what Paul is saying.
‘Being made in human appearance’ That means snotty nosed kids played in the street with him. Perhaps a girl down the street had a crush on him or vice versa. As he grew he might have had teenage spots, his knees might have been bony. But one thing’s for sure- the world was never to be the same again: he was, while completely divine, completely human.
You know, for thirty-three years he would feel everything you and I have ever felt. He felt weak. He grew weary. He was afraid of failure. He was susceptible to wooing women. He got colds, burped, and had body odour- as would you living in Palestine. His feelings got hurt. His feet got tired. His head ached. To think of Jesus in such a light is—well, it seems almost irreverent, doesn’t it? It’s not something we like to do; it’s uncomfortable. It is much easier to keep the humanity out of the incarnation-the special term used to describe this event of God becoming human. Much better to clean the manure from around the manger and wipe the sweat out of his eyes. So we pretend he never snored or blew his nose or hit his thumb with a hammer. He’s easier to stomach that way. There is something about keeping him as a vague story book figure which keeps him distant, packaged, predictable- safe.
But a God who enters every corner of our existence is a God who really does mean to do business with us isn’t he? Paul is saying; let him be as human as he intended to be. Let him into the mire and muck of our world because only if we let him in can he pull us out. Listen to what he says: “Love your neighbour” was spoken by a man whose neighbours tried to kill him. The challenge to leave family for his sake was issued by one who kissed his mother goodbye in the doorway. “I am with you always” are the words of a God who in one instant did the impossible to make it all possible for you and me.
When I find myself struggling wondering if anybody really understands- I only have to look at this passage for me to say, ‘Yes, there is- Jesus.’ Do I feel misunderstood?-so was he. Do I feel weak and like giving up? - So did he. Do I cry and are sick of death and disease?- so was he. What a God! Even as he lay there in that manger he was still holding the stars in place and bringing new ones into being. He never ceased being God, but he did become human. And that means so much in a world like ours which is overwhelmed with endless troubles and pettiness and despair.
There is a legend about a man caught in quicksand. It is a caricature, no doubt, but as with all caricatures it contains a good element of truth. Here is this man struggling, sinking deeper and deeper to his death. Confucius saw him and remarked: ‘There is evidence that men should stay out of such places.’ Then Krishna came along and said, ‘No matter, it is all Maya- illusion.’ Mohamed commented, ‘Alas it is the will of Allah.’ But when Jesus saw him, he knelt down and said, ‘Brother, stretch out your hand and I will pull you out.’ Because he is human he can call us brothers and sisters. Because he is divine he has the power to pull us out of the quicksand of death from which we can’t escape ourselves.
How? Well, here is shock number 2- the mission of Jesus- verse 8, ‘He humbled himself and become obedient to death, even death on a cross.’ Now there is the shock. We might have expected the phrase ‘he humbled himself ’following on from what we have seen already, but the cross was such a place of utter contempt and disgrace that it is kept to this point in the hymn, the low point, the central point before it is mentioned at all. In our society the cross is a piece of jewellery, in Roman society it was an obscenity. The first century Jew or Roman could no more have a symbol of a cross around his neck than we would have a dogs entrails around ours-it was that gross. And Paul wants to rub that in. That is why the poem is so abrupt at this point. Poetically it should simply have read ‘he became obedient to death.’ But Paul spoils the scanning by putting in the phrase ‘even death on a cross’ like an exclamation mark-scrawling the obscenity on the wall. You want to know how humble God is?-asks Paul, Do you want to know how great our need is and how great God’s love is? Then I will show you-he goes to a cross!
You see, in his coming, God the Son became a slave, but in his death he became a curse. In the one he descended to earth, in the other he descended to hell. Here then is the very heartbeat of God’s reason for coming into this pain ridden world- to bear away the guilt of sinners, to absorb into his pure and sinless body the divine judgement we deserve because of our impure and sinful acts. This is the divine rescue which plumbs the pitiful depths of divine condescension, as stripped naked, bruised and bleeding, his shame is displayed before the whole world to see- Divinity in human form splayed on a cross and left to die. Christians worship the sin-bearing God and no other religion on earth does that. That is how serious God is about how we live in his world- he holds us responsible for the way we act and treat each other and, let’s admit it, we have messed up big time. And so in this great exchange, what we deserve death and judgement-Jesus receives, and what we don’t deserve, forgiveness and eternal life- he freely offers. That is a shocking surprise and runs counter to every religious instinct we have whereby we think we do something to put ourselves into God’s good books, whereas in reality he has done something to put us right with him.
And how do we know this is true? Because of shock number 3- the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. ‘Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
Having descended to the depths of hell Jesus is raised to the heights of heaven. He is declared by God the Father to have the title which surpasses all other titles-he is LORD-echoing Is 45:21-23. Back there we read: ‘There is salvation to be found in no one else, everyone must turn to the Lord (Yahweh) and be saved.’ Now, in the light of the coming of Jesus and the cross, that means everyone must turn to Jesus and be saved for he is LORD. If it were possible for people to be forgiven by any other means than the cross do you not think that God would have scoured the universe to find it? If it were possible that our good deeds and our religious devotion could ensure eternal life, do you not think God would deign to accept it? But the fact that he goes to these lengths must mean that there is only one way of salvation and this is it. People will bow before Jesus one day, either as grateful believers or unwilling rebels, but bow we will. And that day will come as a shock to many.
You say, ‘But in a world like ours with so many shocks around- the shock of AIDS, the shock of global warming- what difference does believing all this make?’ Well, there are two issues here. The first is the matter of truth. Is what we have been looking at tonight true or not? Part of what it means to be a human being is that we are concerned for truth, because truth is about reality and so makes a difference. If it is true that you have £20,000 in your bank you can act on that and do all sorts of things. If it is not true, then you can’t. If it is true that we are made for a purpose, then that purpose will shape how we live and what we live for. The coming of God into the world makes it as plain as day that we were made to have a relationship with him. All other so called meanings in life are then false tracks which will lead us to oblivion. The claim is that this is as true as the world is round.
The second thing follows on from the first- if true it does make a difference to everything, not least at the personal level. So let me tell you about Bessie Ship who was spending Christmas in an American prison-Bessie was dying of AIDS. She went along to a Christmas service in the jail. Afterwards she said to the man leading the service that she so wanted to know Jesus. There and then she gave her life to Christ in prayer. Going home as a new Christian was a new experience for her .She was immediately drawn into a church and was nurtured in the faith as she went to a Bible study group. Just three weeks after she had been released she contracted pneumonia. In hospital a Christian minister visited her and she whispered to him, ‘These have been the happiest days of my life know Jesus loves me, and that you do too.’ Two days later she died. She went to meet the saviour she had accepted on Christmas day in a cold prison cell. Of course when God came to earth, he wasn’t born in warm palace, but a dirty stable which reeked of animal dung and urine. And you know what? By his Spirit he still comes to us, wherever we are, whoever we are. Not just to inhabit dark and cold buildings, but dark and lost souls. And tonight could be the night God is calling you to do what Bessie did and let Jesus into your heart. And you can do that now as we pray.
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