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June 26th, 2011

“A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never be shut.”  (N. T. Wright)

Philippians 2:5-11

June 26, 2011

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Try doing a Google search on “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.”  You’ll find some political commentary from the right and the left, using actual stories to back up their passionate positions.  You’ll find some “stupid criminal” stories and some headline word plays on Andrew Wiener’s name that I can’t use in a sermon.

You’ll also find a Catholic priest’s story about an atheist who mocked his mother’s Christian faith by prodding her to ask God for a million dollars.  She refused to turn his scorn into a prayer, but the son said it out loud:  “God, if you are real, let my mother win a million dollars.”  He added, “If Jesus wants me to believe in him, that’s what he’ll do.”  The next day Gloria Bentivegna bought a Lotto tree scratch off ticket at the church’s charity auction and, you guessed it, it was worth a million bucks.  Her son is now a believer.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Friday night at a wedding rehearsal dinner Linda and I sat with Lucy Corwin’s brother who told us he came to Hickory in the late 1970s as a 21-year-old and rented a room for a short time from the late Mary Stuart Tarrant.  Rick told how one Sunday, bored by the sermon as he sat in this sanctuary, he dozed off and had a vision from God telling him to take his 14-year-old cousin to San Antonio.  He told his Aunt Pat (since it was her son he wanted to take with him), who said, “When God speaks do exactly what he says as soon as possible.”  Later Rick not only raised a family in San Antonio but started an entire ministry across the border in Mexico that has brought the Gospel and Christian education resources to thousands.  You can’t make this stuff up.

C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that one of the reasons he came to believe the Christian faith is true is “It is a religion you could not have guessed.”  A medieval literary critic and fiction writer, Lewis said, “Real things are not simple.”

Take, for example, the “three personal God.”  You can’t make this stuff up.  For the last two weeks, we have discussed that God is Spirit and God is Father.  Considered broadly, most religions have little to quibble about with either concept.  The Spirit is wild, free, and invisible.  The Father is Creator and Ruler of all.  Others may not see Spirit and Father as two separate persons, but neither would you and I had it not been for the Son.

Two thousand years ago a man showed up in Palestine who claimed to be God. By the time he had lived and taught and died and risen and ascended, the conclusion was inescapable for his followers:  this Jesus was, indeed, God in human form.  Yet he talked to the Father and about the Spirit, putting on display interpersonal relationships.  Eventually the Church labeled this understanding of God the Trinity – three persons, one God.  There was no other way to explain Jesus.  You can’t make this stuff up.

In the person of Jesus the Christian faith absolutely distinguishes itself from every other way of understanding God.  The deity and uniqueness of Jesus is offensive to those who don’t believe in him.  In his own life and teachings he never intended for his identity to be anything but offensive.  If you don’t believe him, you want to dismiss him or kill him.  They did both.

The Apostle Paul wrote (or maybe quoted) one of the most profound statements on Jesus’ identity in Philippians 2.  Have you ever noticed that Paul hardly ever made reference to Jesus’ earthly life in his letters?  The fact that the Gospels were probably not yet in circulation when Paul wrote his letters cannot be the full explanation.  Stories of Jesus were almost certainly circulating. But in his letters Paul didn’t recount the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, quote the Golden Rule, interpret Jesus’ parables, expound on Jesus walking on the water, or mention the raising of Lazarus.

Paul skipped the trees of Jesus’ life and saw the forest.  Some interpreters believe Philippians 2:5-11 is an ancient hymn that Paul wrote or quoted, but it might just be that Paul waxed eloquent as he pondered that God is…Son.

I’m going to use three multi-syllable words from theology textbooks to lift up who Jesus Christ is – incarnation, crucifixion, and exaltation.

Incarnation

Paul writes that Christ Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (6-7).

As the early church grappled in two councils during in the Fourth Century with exactly what they were saying and not saying about Jesus’ identity, this passage entered the controversy.  What exactly did it mean that Jesus was “in very nature  (morphe, form) of God”?  What is “equality” with God?  What did it mean that he “made himself nothing himself”?  (The Greek is the verb form of kenosis.)  

The consensus was to say it this way:  We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.”  Since that time, the Nicene Creed has become the test for the boundaries of our faith.  Jesus is “true God” who became “truly human.”

C. S. Lewis says we Christians believe this universe is occupied by a rebellious Dark Power.  In Jesus we believe “the rightful king has landed…in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”  You can’t make this stuff up.

N. T. Wright, who wrote Simply Christian, the 21st Century edition of Mere Christianity, says many people, Christians included, misunderstand Christianity.  Our faith is not about “a new moral teaching,” even though Jesus and his followers gave us “wonderfully bracing and intelligent” guidance about how to live our lives.  Christianity is not about “Jesus offering a wonderful moral example.”  He says it’s actually depressing to watch Richter play the piano or Tiger Woods play golf (he might say Rory McIlroy now), because “It makes me realize that I can’t come close and never will.”  Nor is Christianity about offering a new way by which people “can go to heaven when they die” or about “fresh teaching about God himself” – even though you can learn a great deal about God from Jesus.

Then what is Christianity about?  “A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut,” Wright continues.  “It’s the door to the prison where we’ve been kept chained up.”  Jesus came into the world to bring together heaven and earth in “God’s rescue operation” (Simply Christian, 91-92).  You can’t make this stuff up.

That’s incarnation – God-made-flesh.

Crucifixion

Paul continues in verse 8:  “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

Many people today make the same mistake as people made in Jesus’ day, namely, thinking that Jesus’ death was unnecessary to the Story.  Everybody in Palestine in Jesus’ day looked forward to the coming of a Messiah, the ultimate deliverer. Nobody in Jesus’ day expected the Messiah to suffer and die.  I’m quite sure that when Jesus told his disciples plainly he was going to Jerusalem to be killed, they heard it as some kind of a metaphor until it actually happened.

Still today, even Christians don’t want to dwell on what actually happened when Jesus endured crucifixion.  To say Jesus “humbled” himself to this form of death is practically an understatement.  Who would choose crucifixion, that dreadful mix of public degradation, physical torture, and death by slow asphyxiation?  Jesus did.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Coupled with incarnation, crucifixion becomes for Paul the ultimate model for the central Christian virtue of humility.  Only at this point in the text are we ready to go back to verse 5 and hear Paul say, “Have this attitude in you.”  What attitude?  Humility?

And what does humility look like?  That’s spelled out in verses 1-4, but I don’t want to dwell there.  It is Paul’s application, and it’s a legitimate one.  But I’m going in a slightly different direction in this sermon series.  I’m asking what it means that this “three personal God” comes to as not only as Spirit and Father but as Son.

N. T. Wright again:  “The death of Jesus of Nazareth as the king of the Jews, the bearer of Israel’s destiny, the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people of old, is either the most stupid, senseless waste and misunderstanding the world has ever seen, or it is the fulcrum around which world history turns.  Christianity is based on the belief that it was and is the latter” (Simply Christian, 111).

What does it mean that we can know a God who not only invades the enemy’s territory that is our world, but submits to a cruel death at the hands of its inhabitants?  It would meaning nothing if it were not for the third word.

Exaltation

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (9-11).

What Paul does here is to coalesce and condense Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, his reign at the right hand of the Father, his return in power and great glory, and his future judgment of the living and the dead into this graphic, majestic description of his exaltation.  That’s what really matters, and Jesus himself made it clear by his words and acts.  As C. S. Lewis wrote,

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg–or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

As for Paul, it is of far greater interest to him than a mountain sermon preached by Jesus or even a disabled man walking again by Jesus’ power that in time and eternity the person of Jesus will be worshiped as Lord and God to the glory of God the Father.  Great moral teachings, injustices righted, diseases healed are important only as a foretaste of what is to come when earth and heaven will all be made right under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

I am not devaluing any good work done by Jesus or since his ascension in Jesus’ name.  I am only saying that all the evangelism and education, all the hospitals and orphanages, all the church services and crusades, all the sermons and songs – these are all droplets of dew compared to the drenching that will come when Christ’s name and power are revealed at the end of the age.

Glory to the Son

Our task – our privilege – is to bring glory to God the Son.  That sounds good, but it also sounds vague.  So let’s put some meat on that bone.  How do we glorify the Son?

We glorify Jesus Christ when we worship him with mind fully engaged and passions aroused.  We grieve him when we enter his presence casually and sing his songs lethargically.

We glorify Jesus Christ when we are intentional about living all of life under his direction.  We grieve him when we convince ourselves that an occasional nod to him by attending a worship service should make him happy.

We glorify Jesus Christ when all our resources are put at his disposal.  We grieve him when he gets the leftovers of our time, energy, and money.

We glorify Jesus Christ when, as Paul says, we have his attitude of humble service, considering others better than ourselves.  We grieve him when we look only to our own interests.

We glorify Jesus Christ when we are unashamed to identify ourselves as belonging to him and when we testify to his transforming power in our lives.  We grieve him when no one around us can tell we are his.

We glorify Jesus Christ when we choose faith and hope in dark times for ourselves and our world.  We grieve him with worry and despair.

We glorify Jesus Christ when we share his love for the whole world.  We grieve him with isolationism that seeks protection and prosperity only for our little corner.

We glorify Jesus Christ when we speak and act on behalf of others who are in crisis and need.  We grieve him when we turn away.

I make this final point because of an urgent appeal forwarded to me last night by e-mail.  Linda saw the after I went to bed, and we have chosen to observe today as a day of fasting and prayer for the Sudanese people.  Let me read you this message.

From the office of the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kadugli, Sudan

A Call To Prayer and Fasting to End the Nuba Genocide, and for the Peace of all Sudan! – Sunday June 26, 2011

To all my brothers and sisters in Christ,

On behalf of my people in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan we are asking all Sudanese Christians wherever they are, and the Church throughout the world to join with us in a day of prayer and fasting on June 26, 2011.

Once again we are facing the nightmare of genocide of our people in a final attempt to erase our culture and society from the face of the earth. It is not a war between armies that is being fought in our land, but the utter destruction of our way of life and our history, as demonstrated by the genocide of our neighbors and relatives in Darfur. This is a war of domination and eradication, at its core it is a war of terror by the government of Sudan against their people.

As we approach the July 9 day of independence for the New South Sudan, President Bashir has declared for all the world to hear that Sharia will be the law of the land for the North, refusing to recognize the legitimate presence of the Christian minority. It is a declaration of their determination to also end the remembrance of our Christian heritage that dates back two thousand years to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (who was from modern day Sudan).

At this moment, there is a meeting in Ethiopia with the different parties of Sudan, the African Union and other international parties seeking to find a true path of peace that recognizes our right to survive and thrive as a people, both Muslim and Christian alike, with equality and justice for all. Please pray and fast with us as you are able for a solution to this crisis.

Please forward to everyone.

Rt. Revd Andudu Adam Elnail
Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kadugli, Sudan

            (Click here for more background and perspective on this tragic story.)

If you can help advocate for these suffering believers, please do so.   Linda and I invite you to join us today as we fast and pray, for to do so shares the Savior’s heart and glorifies him as Lord of all.  Amen.

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