Passion Sunday 2021

[New Hope Fellowship, March 28, 2021, Marty Shupack]

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — 
Phil 2:5-11

This passage, which appears to be in the form of a hymn, tells us in brief the story of the incarnation — of God becoming a human being in and as Jesus. And as such it says something more. This hymn tells us who God is – what God is really like.

We read that Jesus shared God’s nature, but instead of using his equality with God selfishly, he humbled himself to become one of us and make himself our servant. He went so far as to die as an executed criminal, taking on himself the consequences of our wrongdoing.

In this way Jesus shows us that God’s true nature is self-giving love. In love, God held nothing back but gave himself fully and sacrificially to be with us and for us – as one of us — experiencing our joy and pain and redeeming our lives. That’s the message of the incarnation: God is love.

While identifying Jesus with God, this hymn implicitly contrasts Jesus and Adam. In Genesis 3 we learn that Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit because it would make them like God. They tried to be God-like out of self-centered ambition. Jesus on the other hand expressed his divine nature by letting go of his privileges for the sake of unselfish love.

The incarnation turns the values of the world upside down. On the cross God himself identifies not with the powerful and wealthy but with the most marginalized. Crucifixion was a shameful and horrific death, the form of execution for those who were considered worthless — criminals, rebels, outcasts. On the cross God took his place among the most despised members of the human family, showing his commitment to every human being, especially those considered “least” by society. The cross tells us that absolutely no one is beyond the reach of God’s redemption.

When Paul instructs us in verse 5 to have the same mind-set as Jesus, he’s telling us to express in our lives God’s own self-giving character: Don’t act selfishly but give compassionately of ourselves. Don’t hold tightly to our privileges but let go of them in order to serve others. Don’t idolize the powerful and wealthy, but “associate with the lowly.” Don’t seek to outshine or dominate other people, but “count others more important than ourselves.” These are the counter-cultural values and actions to which we’re called as Jesus followers, expressing the selfless love of God.

One picture of our Christian calling that has been meaningful to me is that of the traditional English valet. Not a parking attendant, but the traditional personal servant of an English aristocrat. Or in the case of a woman servant, the “lady’s maid.” A valet maintains the master’s clothes, helps him dress, runs his bath, polishes his shoes, makes travel arrangements and often accompanies him on journeys to make sure his needs are met. A lady’s maid does similar things for an aristocratic woman. The valet and lady’s maid help the master and mistress be all that’s expected of them in society. Our calling is like that. Not literally, of course, but humbly using our spiritual gifts and energy to serve our sisters and bothers — to lift them up and help them be all that God calls them to be.

So let me ask you a question. If you had a choice between being the aristocrat or his valet, the noble Lady or her maid, which would you choose? We’d all want to be the aristocrat, right? But coming into our world, God chose to be the servant, not the ruler. God is like the humble, serving valet rather than the aristocratic master. Because God’s nature —God’s very identity— is self-giving love.

A writer friend once penned a story about a wish-granting cockroach. I’ll re-tell it as best I recall it. There was a man, let’s call him Joe, who worked in a grand building – a skyscraper—owned by a big corporation. His job was cleaning the toilets – the lowest job in the company. He had a small desk in the basement and a closet with his cleaning equipment.

Now this is not to demean the job of cleaning toilets. Every job that is done unto the Lord has dignity and reward. My son Josh for many years had a job in a hospital cleaning bathrooms and toilets. He was proud that he could work, and he enjoyed the friends he made there. So this story isn’t intended to demean a job of cleaning toilets. But one has to say that it’s near the bottom of jobs in the valuation of society.

So one day Joe was cleaning a toilet when he spotted a cockroach. He was about to step on it, when the cockroach spoke to him. “Wait,” it said, “don’t kill me. If you let me live I’ll grant you a wish.”

Needless to say, Joe was astounded. He figured that if a cockroach could talk he probably could grant wishes. So Joe thought a minute and then asked the cockroach to give him a better job. He wanted a job where he had a nice office and got to wear a suit. He wanted more respect. The cockroach rubbed its legs together and in an instant Joe found himself wearing a suit and sitting in an office on the third floor.

At first Joe was happy about his promotion, but he soon became discontent. You see, Joe had a supervisor, who he didn’t like. So Joe went and found the cockroach and asked for another wish. He said, “I’d like to be in management and have people working for me.” The cockroach rubbed his legs and immediately Joe found himself in a corner office as the head of an entire department with dozens of people under him.

Once again, he was happy for a while, but one day he had a meeting with the CEO of the company. The CEO’s office was huge, taking up the entire top floor of the building, with a massive desk, the best furniture and original oil paintings on the wall. After leaving the meeting, Joe said to himself, that’s the position what I want. He found the cockroach and told him, “I want to be the CEO of this company.” And sure enough, in an instant, he found himself at the majestic desk in the beautiful penthouse office.

All was well until one day in the evening he went up on roof of his building. He looked across the city at other lit up corporate buildings, some even taller than his. And he looked at the thousands of stars in the night sky above. Suddenly he was struck with amazement. He ran to find the cockroach and asked for one more wish. The cockroach agreed but told him that this would be the last one. No more wishes. Joe said that would be fine. 

“What I want,” he said, “is to have the job that God would have if he were on earth.” The cockroach gave Joe a curious look and rubbed his legs.  In the twinkling of an eye Joe found himself back in the basement cleaning the toilets.

We don’t have to imagine what kind of job God would have if he were on earth. We know what that was. When God came among us he took on the lowliest work there was – bearing our sins on the cross.

So what do we think God is like? If someone asks us to describe God, what would we say? A lot of people picture God as an all-powerful majesty ruling over everything and everyone.

I once read a widely circulated quote by a well-known Christian writer trying to describe God. It’s quite beautiful in its way, yet I think not quite right. It goes like this: 

You want to know who God is?  See what He has done.  Take a look at His creation.  Pay a visit to His home address:  1 Billion Starry Sky Avenue.  God is untainted by the atmosphere of sin, unbridled by the timeline of history, unhindered by the weariness of the body.  What controls you doesn’t control Him. What troubles you doesn’t trouble Him.  What fatigues you doesn’t fatigue Him.  Is an eagle disturbed by traffic?  No, he rises above it.  Is the whale perturbed by a hurricane?  No, he plunges beneath it.  Is the lion flustered by the mouse standing directly in his way?  No, he steps over it.  How much more is God able to soar above, plunge beneath, and step over the troubles of the Earth?  

That’s very poetic and has a certain appeal, but I have to say that when I look at Jesus that’s not the picture I see. Instead I see One who submitted himself to our messy human history in weakness and vulnerability. I see One who “had no stately form or majesty.” Who was tainted by sin – ours — not his own. I see One who grew weary in body and soul carrying our burdens and who was indeed troubled with our troubles. One who “bore our sicknesses and sorrows.” Who hurt with all the hurts of our world in order to heal it.

Jesus shows us what God is like — who God is. Scripture says that Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” “If you have seen me,” Jesus says, “you have seen the Father.” So what is God really like? Who is he? How should we describe him?

Jesus shows us is that God is not some distant emperor in the sky uninvolved in our lives and unmoved by our struggles. Instead, God is the washer of our feet, the cleaner of our toilets. God is self-giving, sacrificial love; and we’re called to be like him.

Many years ago a friend named Steve as a new believer prayed to see God. Steve had had a rough young life and wanted to see God in all his power and glory. He prayed to see God face to face. Steve felt that seeing God like that would strengthen him and erase his many fears. So he began to pray and as he prayed he fell asleep. 

Steve had a vivid dream in which he was standing with a group of people along a dusty road. Everyone had their necks craned looking up the road. At first all he could see was a small dot in the distance. But the dot grew larger, and he saw that it was a man walking up the road. As the man came closer Steve saw that it was Jesus carrying his cross. Jesus staggered along beaten and bloody. And as he came to the place where Steve was standing he turned his head and looked Steve in the eyes, face to face. 

As Steve finished telling me about this dream he said, “I looked into Jesus’ eyes and what I saw was utter weakness, the most profound weakness imaginable. At that moment I committed my life fully to him.” Steve saw, you see, how far God was willing to go to love and save him – the cost that God bore – how much God loved him.

Steve prayed to see God on his throne; he was shown Jesus carrying his cross. He prayed to see God in absolute power; he was shown Jesus in utter weakness. He asked to see the very face of God; his prayer was answered. 

So, brothers and sisters, if anyone asks us what God is like, tell them about Jesus.

The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that we see the light of God’s glory – the wondrous revelation of God — in the face of Jesus. And as we keep our eyes on Jesus we are being transformed into his likeness. God is forming the divine nature in us as God’s sons and daughters. That is, he’s creating in us the Christ-like character of self-giving love.

The Love that flung the stars into being and came among us as Jesus. The Love that is making all things new.