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"he humbled himself"

One of the major pieces of advice that a priest receives about the first year in a new parish is, “Don’t make too many changes.” In theory this is sound guidance.

But I find myself victim of it on this particular occasion with regard to the readings for today’s liturgy of Palm Sunday: The Passion of our Lord.

The Gospel readings of course are from Luke, this being Year C of the Lectionary. The Hebrew Scriptures are represented by Isaiah 50:4-9a, and the Epistle would have been Philippians 2:5-11.

I say would have been, because as I was reading in preparation for this sermon, I discovered that the Epistle had been omitted from the bulletin last year. (I have to assume in the interest of time, since this service can become long with all the content required of this major feast day.)

And you see there was my problem. I trusted the wisdom of that decision which actually may go back two years or more. As a result, we did not hear Paul’s words from Philippians this morning.

When I read them after significant study of the other readings, the veil was lifted and I found it to be very profound. I share them with you:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

You can’t see how this looks on the page, but it is written in the form of poetry. This form is used in the Psalms and in other sections where the writer makes a second statement that confirms the truth of the first statement. It’s called antithetic parallelism.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

The commentators in my New Oxford Annotated Bible; New Revised Standard Version, tell me that Paul’s poetry is inspired by a passage from the Book of Daniel, which is also written in this poetic form. Daniel’s passage speaks of the divinity of a creature that appeared to him in a dream. A creature that appeared to be divine and became human:

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being

coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

and was presented before him.

To him was given dominion

and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one

that shall never be destroyed.

Paul is alluding to Daniel to explain the divine nature of Jesus, fully human yet fully divine. And this is one of the themes of Luke’s Gospel. Luke wants to explain Jesus through the lens of the fulfillment of prophecy.

Luke also wants us to see Jesus as one who is obedient. Early in his Gospel he tell us that Jesus returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and was obedient to them after his experience of being lost for three days and found in the Temple speaking with the elders.

Obedience was a major cultural norm for men in Judea. The Torah told men to discipline their sons for this purpose.

Today’s long Gospel and other readings bring us into the depth of the story that we have heard many times. To know how they are linked to the past is good. But the point is to gain new learning and to hear how they relate to our lives in a totally different time and place.

For me the new learning came from the next part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which we wouldn’t have heard anyway. When I study, I always read what precedes and follows a section of text. Paul continues, and by the way it is Paul’s writing, Philippians is considered by most scholars to be one of the authentic Epistles of Paul.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

“Work out your own salvation… for it is God who is at work in you…”

Paul is telling us that we are in charge of our own salvation. That God is working in us to make a difference in this world.

I hear him telling me that I have a divine nature, just as much as I have a destructive one, but that I can choose to be among those who will stand for the basic human rights of others, to seek positive outcomes in situations of conflict or trouble, in other words, to quote the Gospel of John, to “bring life and bring it more abundantly.”

As we enter Holy Week, we have all have past actions for which we should ask for forgiveness, but the point is that we do this to be restored to the wholeness of a life in community with all our brothers and sisters, here and everywhere in the world and with our one eternal and loving God.

Take time this week to meditate upon your life and to seek to become more fully alive in the Body of Christ that always invites those who seek a life in God’s loving creation.

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