The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
Palm/Passion Sunday – April 5, 2020
God loves us with everything He’s got.
Thus, God is grieving in the depths of His being.
The mounting numbers of COVID-19 fatalities – in our region, country and world – are staggering; and each death is a world of pain and sorrow in itself. And further pain, sorrow and, yes, even death are likely to follow from the poverty caused by the extended shut-down of the world’s economy.
The God who is love is here and now suffering with us in our suffering. God’s heart is always on the line with how it goes with us. He never quits caring about us, and hence never ceases to hurt over our hurt.
If ever we doubt that God is suffering with us, we’d do well to remember how He suffered even more for us, in the limitless effort of love He made on that hill of horror called Golgotha. In that effort, Romans 5:8 says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” At Calvary, God took every pain and paid every price to redeem us.
From jail the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Philippian believers. They had been squabbling and acting badly toward each other. Their less than loving behavior was due to their lingering self-centeredness. To put them back on track, Paul did not scold them. Rather he just reminded them of how God in Christ first loved them, suffering to such depths at Calvary that it would take a lifetime to appreciate it fully.
Let us listen to Paul’s words to the Philippians as the Holy Spirit’s words to us here and now:
[Christ], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.
Christ was “in the form of God”. That does not mean that Christ only “appeared” to be like, or equal to, God. In fact, “form” there is an English translation of a Greek word which refers, not to the outward shape of something, but to its representation of its essential nature. Thus, to say Christ is in the form of God is to say that the two are one and the same at the core. Thus, the NIV renders this verse: Christ was “in very nature God”.
Yet, Christ did not “exploit” that equality with God. That is, He did not take advantage of it to serve His own narrow benefit, but employed it to save those in mortal danger. He did not hold on to His privileges, but left His position as the high King of heaven to assume the lowly state of a slave and so serve the children of earth.
Christ, continues the Bible, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
The word “emptied” there is ekenosen, a word whose meaning we can more readily be awed over than apprehend. The idea here is that Christ poured Himself out for us, giving up His heavenly glory, denying Himself access to all the powers that belonged to Him, becoming a nobody in the world’s eyes, and enduring the God-forsaken hell of the cross on our behalf. He did that when He could have played it safe and excused Himself from all that suffering and sacrifice. Out of love He did what we needed Him to do, despite the terrible costs it would exact.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself. His humbling does not imply His thinking little of Himself, but His thinking little about Himself. He was all about making the limitless effort that had to be made to save us. To make it, He had to put aside safety, status and perfect happiness in heaven. Doing that was necessary to pay for our crimes and to enable us to have perfect happiness.
In that humbling of Himself, Christ became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Christ obeyed the demands of love, and that dedication drove Him to His crucifixion. The worst of His suffering at Calvary came, not from His enduring the horrific torture designed to kill him, but from His enduring the God-forsakenness into which He abandoned himself for the sake of taking on the curse of our fall and plunging into the limitlessly deep and dark death of utter separation from God, the full and only source of life and light. The Apostles’ Creed describes it as His having “descended into hell”. On the cross Christ absorbed – in place of me, in place of you, and in place of Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and every fiend of history – the entire righteous wrath of God against evil. And our worst nightmare cannot even begin to suggest what He underwent.
To many Jews of Paul’s day, crucifixion symbolized the divine cursing of the wicked, the judgment that repudiates those who repudiate real life: the life of justice, compassion and godliness. Paul saw Moses saying more than he knew when, in Deuteronomy 21:23 he said, “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” “Tree” being a polite euphemism for the Roman’s unspeakably shameful tool of execution, Paul used Moses’ words to illumine in his letter to the Galatians how “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” The cross thereby is God’s great gift of redeeming grace.
Paul reminded the Philippians of Christ’s limitless effort at the cross because Paul understood the cross to be the fundamental fact on which all Christian thinking and living is built – and because Paul had such faith in the Philippians that he believed that, if they could just bear in mind what was involved in Christ’s crucifixion, their hearts would so fill with gratitude that they’d gladly repent of their self-serving ways and love others as generously as Christ had loved them. They’d give with an open-hand to sustain the church’s ministries, reach out to support and encourage each other and, by word and deed, show everyone what Christ is like and what a difference He makes.
And that, of course is what the Holy Spirit is asking of us this Passion Sunday. Let us so appreciate the Lord’s love for us, that we would take care of the needy, give one another attentive care and open-hearted assistance, and commend to all the Gospel of God’s redeeming grace in the crucified Christ. Let us pray.