“The Triumph of Christ's Humiliation”
Today we observe Palm Sunday – and especially that time when Jesus came to Jerusalem shortly before his death, we call it his triumphal entry. But triumph, with Jesus, is not what it looks like to the world. For him, it is found in humility. It is a strange sort of triumph, a very odd celebration, in which most of the participants have it right, in spite of having it wrong. He is the king, but not the way they think. He is there to save them, but not from whom they think. He is the Son of David. But David's son is also David's Lord. And his humility is ultimately his glory.
Humility – the overarching theme.
Today, humility is almost universally regarded as a virtue. Even outside of religious circles, humility is held up as a worthy character treat, and important component of leadership. It is seen as the opposite of arrogance. A willingness to admit you're wrong. An attitude that doesn't make yourself to be so important and worthy, but regards other people as just as important. It's a nice idea, but hard to truly find among humans, and difficult to practice.
Humility related to the word for the ground. It means to be brought low or made low. The ultimate posture of humility is kneeling down, or even lying down prostrate in front of someone higher. So even the body position can indicate that you are lower, more humble, than your superior.
But sin wants to be like God. Sin wants to puff us up. It wants us to call the shots. It wants us to receive the worship and praise. The devil whispers all sorts of self-aggrandizing lies in your ear, and your sinful nature gobbles them up. Who wants to be the servant? I'd rather be the master. Sin says, humiliate others to raise yourself up. But Jesus humbled himself, to exalt us.
“Have this mind (attitude)...”
Here, in our text, Paul encourages the Philippians to have a mindset, an attitude, a way of thinking that is formed and informed by the Gospel. Similar to Jesus' words to the disciples from last week's Gospel reading, that with the gentiles people lord power over one another, “but not so with you”. Likewise Paul says to the Philippians, and to us - “among you, with you, in your midst – there ought to be a certain mindset, and one that is different from the world out there.”
It derives from Jesus – who knows more about humility than anyone. Think of it. He has sat higher than anyone. His greatness and glory and power and majesty are from eternity. By him all things were made. He is God of God and Lord of Lords. He is, and always has been, and always will be, the highest and the best. As Paul says, he was “in the form of God”. He had equality with God.
But he didn't consider that something to be grasped. He didn't “hang on to it”. He didn't consider that he should grab on and hold tightly to his high station, and never let it go. Instead, he did something astounding. Something we can't comprehend. He came down, down from his throne. Down to the ground. Down to become human. He put aside his divine rights.
Emptied himself. Only Jesus wasn't emptying himself of breads and sweets, or fasting from meat on Fridays. He was putting aside divine glory and majesty. He was swearing off his omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, at least for the most part. He still had it all, of course. But he would not fully use or exercise these divine rights during his sojourn on earth. And so he entered a state of humiliation.
The creed describes the high points in his work for us, in the state of humiliation: He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. Yes, he began his course on earth as we all do – in the lowest, smallest way – a single conceptus. He was born. Just as we are. He suffered – not just during Holy Week, but all his life – he knew the grief of loss. He knew poverty and rejection. But certainly in his passion, he suffered the humiliations of his enemies. Mocking, spitting, beating him for sport.
Obedient unto Death
Through it all he was obedient. He obeyed everything the Father asked him to endure. He drank the cup to the bitter dregs. Never wavering, never flinching, never turning aside from anything thrown at him.
He was obedient even unto death. If you're like me, you don't like being told what to do. Sometimes I want to not do something just because someone tells me I have to. But who among us would be obedient unto death? Who among us would willingly, unquestioningly march forth to our certain doom because we are told to?
No doubt, some do – like soldiers in battle. And we rightly regard those as heroes who lay down their lives this way. But they are all a shadow and taste of the obedience in suffering and death that Jesus showed. They are a small glimpse of the humiliation he endured for us.
He was obedient unto death, EVEN death on a cross. Not a quick, painless execution. The cross was designed to prolong the suffering. It was meant to be a public statement, for all to see. It intended to maximize humiliation. There's a good reason the Jews recognized that a man hanged on a tree is cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23). That's never more true than with Christ. Who suffered the humiliation of a tortured death, and also bore the sins of the world, the wrath of the Father, and the just punishment for all. He who knew no sin became sin. All of it, bound up in him. All of it, put to death, in his body.
Obedient, even unto death, even death on the cross.
And then the turn. Paul says, “therefore”.
Therefore – God has exalted him. Therefore, because of his perfect obedience and atoning death – therefore, he is exalted, lifted up again.
Up to life. Exalted in his resurrection, which is history's greatest vindication. It is the victory cry of life over death. It is the triumph of triumphs.
He is exalted, also, to his due glory, honor, might, and status as the Son of God. We see him, from this point onward, taking back more and more, exercising ever more fully – those divine attributes he had hidden in humility.
He is exalted. Up again to heaven's high throne. As his disciples watched him go to the clouds, and as the angels appeared to promise his glorious return. Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling all things for the good of his church.
And God the Father has bestowed on him the Name above all names. That is to say, the highest honor and glory of all. And that glory will be made manifest, that is all eyes will see it, at his second coming.
At his name – all will bow, willingly or not. All will be humbled, willingly or not. All will – either willingly by faith, or grudgingly and by force, acknowledge him as God and Lord. All angels. All humans. Even the devil and his demons. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.
Here will be his final triumph. Palm Sunday's triumphal entry is a foretaste of his final coming in glory. We, his people, will welcome him then – not riding a donkey, but riding the clouds. Not coming to be tried, but to judge the living and dead. Not coming to die, but to usher in eternal life for all his resurrected and glorified people. The ultimate, that is the final triumphal entry.
Christ's humiliation and Christ's exaltation are both a comfort for us, as Christians. He made himself low to save us who are rightly low. He was exalted by the Father, and will bring us with him into exaltation.
So we know that whatever humiliations we suffer in this world, we too have a greater day ahead. However low your sins have brought you, Christ pulls you out of the muck and mire, redeems your life from the pit, and gives you a firm place to stand. However low this world takes you, into depression or rejection or anguish or even death. Christ will raise you up, and give you a share in his triumph over sin and death.
So have this mind among you, which is yours in Christ Jesus. Don't grasp on to greatness, but live in his humility. Humbly confess your sins. Humbly serve your neighbor. And he who has done it all for you, will lift you up.