The Step of Emptying

Lent: Journey to the Heart  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  23:13
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We take the final steps on our journey to the heart of Christ this lent as we enter the city of Jerusalem with Jesus. Jesus shows us that it is through humility and letting go of the self's desires that we find glory in God's abiding love.

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The New Revised Standard Version Imitating Christ’s Humility

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

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

8 he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

The opening words of this text are the key to understanding our next steps in the journey to the heart of Christ. Paul opens what was likely a familiar ancient Christian hymn with the encouragement: “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Christ followers — your mind is to be like Christ…he says. And then he proceeds to show how.
It’s very common for us to think of the Lenten journey as one of individual piety and spiritual growth. Lent is the time for us to retool, to calibrate our practices, to prohibit something, to take something on. And we largely do this as individuals. But what this text highlights for us is that it is also about collective action, shared models of humility and service, that we are called to.
Paul is evoking a “communal consciousness” when he talks about the mind of Christ being in “you”.
So, you, y’all. Let’s take a moment to get our minds together with a practice.
Breath.
A Practice: Visualizing the Triumphal Entry
This Lent, we’ve intentionally focused on the portion of the lectionary readings that draw from the letters of the New Testament, rather than the Gospel narratives we are most familiar with from this time of year. We’ve, instead, heard these Gospel texts as a part of the lector readings. It is so important that we listen to the whole of Scripture for how God is being revealed to us.
However, today, I want to look back on the text describing Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we heard Faye read moments ago. In looking back, I want to invite us to a bit of an imaginative practice to get into the text a bit more from the collective mind that we hear about in Philippians 2.
Visualize with me, for a moment, what it might be like to stand on the crowded streets of the city during this processional at the beginning of the Passover festival.
Imagine the sounds and smells of people packed together to welcome Jesus into the city. Imagine being sandwiched together with others (obviously this is a pre-COVID world!).
Now, as you imagine yourself watching Jesus come into the city, go inwards and consider what kind of person he would have to be to demand your attention, to get you to stand and wave a palm branch for him. Perhaps you were expecting someone riding in on a stallion, not this donkey. Perhaps you would have preferred that he was accompanied by a marching band and fanfare. Perhaps you appreciate his austere appearance, maybe you see how the trappings of empire and power do not adorn his attire. What do you see when you see Jesus?
Consider his humility, his quiet way, as he rides the donkey. What does this tell you about him?
As you imagine this scene, what would it be like for you to be in his place, to be riding in that crowd, to be atop that donkey? What would you be thinking? What would you have to let go of to be in that place? What would you have to accept?
Having the mind
I invite us to that imaginative exercise to help us get our minds into place with Christ. The whole direction of our Philippians reading today is to point out that we are to take on the mind of Christ, to have our frame of reference and perspective shaped by the one who humbled himself to a point of emptiness in his journey to the cross.
I don’t always find it easy to try to think like another person. It is so much simpler to think for myself, to set my own priorities, to tend to what’s mine and let others take care of themselves. But the Christian journey is not about self-directed growth. It’s about humble submission to a shared life together, a common good, with all of us pursuing and receiving the mind of Christ as Christ followers.
So the process of emptying the self, of letting go of position and power, as Christ does, is what we are to do as well. This is an “all y’all” statement — to all who follow Jesus, it is a humble road, a road of release and downward mobility.
Human Humility
As we enter Holy Week, we are again reminded of the model of Christ in order to see the road ahead for us, as well, at least for those of us who accept this calling to emptying ourselves and becoming humble.
Humanity is instructed to follow in the way of humility. This obedience is collective, where we, the church, act as one to be servants of those in need, letting go of our power, becoming, as the text says, “slaves” who give up what we have to serve God’s purposes and loving way on earth.
Now, as is often common, we need to clarify some of the language here. Talk of servants and slaves has a lot of baggage attached to it. Racist preachers have been quick to use this text to justify slavery and institutions of bondage. “Look, it says here that Jesus was like a slave, so it’s totally justifiable that we have systems of enslavement too, right?” No. Wrong.
In truth, the language of slave or servant here has much deeper roots in the story of God’s people. Throughout the arc of Scripture, the theme of “servant” is used to highlight the humble, collaborative, participatory way of God in the world and how humanity is meant to mirror and act ourselves. For example, throughout the prophetic works of Isaiah, we find a “servant” being discussed again and again — the servant is the epitome of the one who liberates Israel from its captivity. But servant has very different connotations than king or general. The people wanted a king, wanted military might. But what God’s way is about is about service, low position, we might even say enslavement to the yoke of God’s merciful, forgiving, humble way. Again, we do not justify inhuman forms of slavery, but instead, what we’re hearing in this text, is the truth that God’s ways are not accomplished through the use of political power or military might, but through service and care.
Perhaps I can offer a simple image to help draw some clarity in here: There are a handful of St. James members who consistently and quietly tend to little things here around the church. Subtle acts of service that benefit us all. They tend the flower beds out front, the water the plants in the lounge, they help with laundering dirty rags and table cloths. They shift the colors of the banners and decorate in little ways that keep the feeling of the season fresh.
These are humble, servant acts. In a positive way, we might say that these folks, in their commitment to caring in this way, are slaves to the task. Not slaves because its forced labor, but slaves or servants to a cause they believe in and want to help with.
I’ll offer another quick modern clarifier that I hope helps. Sociologist and author Brene Brown studies vulnerability and human connection. She has discovered that people who are able to be “wholeheartedly” vulnerable, giving themselves space to risk and be known and share their longings and love — these people are resilient, fulfilled, and model a way of wholeness in the world. What if to be a slave, like Christ is becomes a slave, is to take steps to greater vulnerability and connection with those around us? What if the self-emptying we see in Christ is an emptying of pride and position to wholeheartedly love others? I think this is helpful framing.
Exalted God
Continuing on with the passage, we find Christ journeying through death to glory. There is an outcome to this downward mobility, this kenosis, this self-emptying: it leads to glory.
In our disciplined, intellectual minds, we perhaps want to gloss over the good news here about exaltation and glory. Sure, that’s what happens for Jesus, you know, he conquers death, etc., etc., etc. But this message is for us — remember, we’re collectively getting the “all y’all” instruction to make our minds be like Christ’s — our minds which then influence our way of being and our activity in the world.
Christ, as we see, is exalted, glorified, given his true name above all other names.
But friends, this message is for us, too. There is promise here. We might not know what to do with it — do we really want to serve for a reward? Is that even service, at all?
Let’s think back to our imagination exercise, where we stood on the streets and watched the humble Christ enter the city.
Humbled, yes. But also, with our knowledge of the rest of the story, we also see that this emptying, this humility, it leads to greatness, to glory, to exaltation.
Do we believe that promise applies to us, too? Dare we? Dare we hope that God would lift us up, defeat the death in us, and help us to receive and know glory as well?
Humility leads to glory.
Do you want what you do to mean something? Do you want your life to have purpose? Then what this text is saying is that to gain these things, you have to let go of yourself, to be emptied out, to be a servant.
Let me put this in a more stark context: to the one who the world humbles, enslaves, pushes down — the one on the margins, the one with their backs against the wall…the question again is, “do you believe your life can matter?”
When you’re in the place of being held down by the powers of greed and death, then the way of deeper humility seems counterintuitive. It is here, my friends, that we find the beautifully upside down way of the gospel. To the ones who fight against the powers, the ones who live faithfully to the point of death, we find that the Good News is one that liberates and exalts them. The ways of the world which were supposed to make them successful if they just obeyed the laws, played by the rules. Except, the rules and the laws are not designed to benefit the ones on the margins. So it’s a game of being duped. Instead…when we and all who heed the call of Christ, find the way of humility, we discover that it undermines the systems of power and privilege in the world. It undercuts their influence. And by pulling the rug out from under the “rise to the top” way of the world, we find a glory unlike anything the world can offer.
The one who resists injustice and power — they find glory in the fight.
The one who humbly serves and seeks no recognition — their treasure builds inside them and marks out their life very differently than the one who seeks the praise.
The community of people who humbly follow Jesus to a place of sacrifice and emptying out: these are the ones who find their true names as beloved of Christ.
This is where the road will take us in the week ahead. This is the model of the Christian way — humility and suffering which lead to glory.
Will you walk that road? Will we walk that road together? Today, we begin taking the final steps along that journey, to the cross and into the heart of Christ.
Let’s close by looking back at the beginning of this passage — this is the heart of the matter which we collectively must pursue.
The New Revised Standard Version Imitating Christ’s Humility

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

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