A Hollow God – Lectionary 09/27/2020

Philippians 2:1-13

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

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.

Sermon Text

            Two weeks ago, we discussed the cross as the ultimate source of glory and scandal in our life. However, before the scandal of the cross came another scandal. The incarnation of Jesus was the first instance of God’s subversion and violation of our expectations. The God of the Universe, coming into the world to bring about God’s kingdom, ought to come as a conquering hero, or a strong king, or some great priest who leads the people into a holier tomorrow. Such an incarnation would see Christ ruling the earth and bending it to his will, such an incarnation would make sense to us. If you want something done, why not do so with strength and power and with all the authority you hold as God.

            Certainly, this was the dream of the prophets and of the Jewish revolutionaries of the late centuries BCE. The three main perspectives were that God’s justice would come through a Messiah that was a holy Judge over creation, or a Kingly warrior, or a Holy Priest.[1] The existence of three distinct views allowed for a certain fluidity to exist about how the Jews in the post-exilic world expected God to redeem them. It was not uncommon for people to claim to be Messiahs or to be given the title by others. For example, Cyrus the Great of Persia, the conqueror of Babylon, is called God’s “Messiah,” in the book of Isaiah – a temporary attribution for what would become an eternal and deific title. (Isaiah 45:1)
            All three perspectives on the Messiah believed that the seemingly rational thing for God to do, was to take on a position of power and strength and might in reordering the world. God, if God thought like we did and was to accomplish God’s goals like we do, would not want to be anything but quick, exacting, and strong armed in executing God’s judgment and salvation within the world. But God did none of this. God was none of that. God became nothing, God hollowed out Christ, taking on humanity, and denying himself all the glory of Godhood.

            We are told that Christ, the eternal Word of God, looked at the glory of his Godhood, not as something to hold onto like a vice, but to let go of.[2] The hymn that constitutes the majority of our scripture today describes Christ as, “emptying himself,” literally – making himself hollow. Christ gives up the throne of Heaven, takes on human flesh, and lives out the life of a slave to all people. Christ follows the path of his life of service to the very end, dying on the cross that defines shame and fear, and only after all this is complete is given back the glory that was due to him. The victory of Christ was in death, was in shame, was in a life lived on the outskirts and margins of all “decent” society.

            Christ was rejected by almost all those in authority. Pharisees who held sway over local populations as teachers of God’s law rejected him, even though their teachings were so often similar. The Sadducees who controlled the Temple and who rejected the ministry of prophets and preachers outside of Moses rejected him, even though he spoke with the authority of Moses and then some. Even the Essenes and Zealots, the most radical of the Jewish sects, rejected Jesus even though he too opposed both Rome and Jerusalem for their sins against God’s people. Jesus was rejected by all authorities of his day and for many different reasons. Most powerful of all these reasons was that Jesus had no interest in earthly authority, no desire to rule Rome or Judah, but only to do the will of God at all times.

            A person who does not desire power cannot be bought with money. They do not seek out a position to take advantage of others. A person who does not love strength and might will not fight back against you when you attack them. Such a person is dangerous above all others. A person willing to suffer all manner of violence, to love the one who pierces their side, who does not fear death but gladly takes a crown of thorns as though it is a crown of gold. A person who is willing to die, and more than that to die without complaint or raising up arms against their murderer is a person that cannot be controlled. The threat of power, of force, of coercion, is lost on a person who regards even their life as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

            God entered humanity and destabilized all the systems that Christ came in contact with. A wedge was put between the way things were and the way they could be. All oppressive systems were useless against Jesus. He had no money, and so you could not steal it to deprive him of his livelihood. He had no power, so you could not strip him of his office to silence him. He had no home, so you had no place to track him down to and threaten him. The King of all the Universe, now a vagrant with no power, was somehow able to counter all threats against himself. Jesus embodied the idea, “When all you’ve got is nothing, there’s a lot to go around.”[3]

            The Hollow God, the Messiah who came without any power to speak of, nonetheless retained his Godhood. Jesus never ceased to be a member of the Trinity, never lost his rightful place seated beside the Father in Heaven. Jesus had given up all authority, all rights to power and glory, and yet retained his God-ness, his Θεοτης (Theotes.)  Being fully human he was a slave to all, being fully God he was the ruler of all, and being the uniquely existing Christ neither fact conflicted with the other. Christ was King, Christ was also a slave, Christ was all powerful, Christ had given up all power.

            Christ only found his power on Earth through obedience to God. Obedience defined not by passivity, but by activity. Christ, having nothing to call his own, lived among those who had nothing to give him. The poor, the outcast, the sinner, the people who had been denied even their humanity by the society around them. Christ, if he was living in our world today, would not be with us in this gathering – where we gather regularly to pretend we have our life somewhat together – but out in the streets. Christ would be in bars and alleyways rather than churches. Christ would be sleeping under bridges and park benches rather than cozy houses. Christ would be in the places we do not dream to look, far away even from our modest means. We have too much power – and Christ would abhor our hoarding of it.

            The ultimate revelation of the Christ hymn is not just that Christ gave up so much to be with us on earth, but that Christ models that self-emptying for us as well. In the same way that Christ gave up retribution for mercy, we also are called to turn the other cheek. In the same way Christ did not fear death, we are called to live as people who do not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. As Christ opposed the oppressive forces of his day through advocacy with the poor and rejection of power, we are called to take up our cross, the ultimate sign of shame and loss, and follow him to Calvary. Christ emptied himself in a way we could never understand, to remind us that we must empty ourselves in every way that we can.

            We are a people who love to win. We want victory, we want to live perpetually in Easter, but we ignore that we live simultaneously in the victory of Christ and in the world that still languishes in death. We are not worldly victors, accruing money and power, but spiritual victors who are transformed into the image of God through Christ’s righteous actions upon our life.

            In the Roman world, when a country was defeated in war, statues were erected of the Caesar or the victorious general standing over that country – represented often as a woman in chains. The word used in our text for Jesus’ rejection of his rights as God is similar to the one use to describe these images.[4] In so much as Jesus did not hoard his power as God, neither did he seize power as a human being. The Christ hymn of Philippians asks that we never look to inspiration from an imposing victor standing over his enemies, but to glory in the person at their feet. Jesus did not live on earth as a king crushing people beneath his heel, but as the victim of the kings of the earth. Our victory is not in dominion or in power, it is in loss, in death, in powerlessness.

            As worshippers of a Hollow God, we too must be Hollow people. Hollowed out of pride, of arrogance, of love of wealth and power, even love of life itself. This does not make us reckless, we do not “[rush] on death… Without being martyrs.”[5] We live lives instead that are rooted in divesting ourselves of the privilege and power we have been born with or else accrued. We give money at all opportunities to worthy causes and needy people. Our primary focus is not upon whether or not we can defend ourselves, but on what risks we ought to take for the good of others. We do not long to be victorious over the world, we do not see displays of might or violence as Christian and good, but through submission to God walk up the road and accept the loss of everything we have if it is the will of God.

            We worship a slave crucified by those in power. We must not think we are greater than our master. We must oppose the proud, the oppressive, the evil and the cruel, not through joining in their wickedness, but through taking on the yoke Christ has prepared for us. We must suffer, we must die to this world, and indeed die in our flesh, but we do so with Christ as the example before us. Unless a seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot be born again. So to, we cannot experience the life of Christ unless we empty ourselves, unless we lay at the altar every good gift God has given us, and regard these things as loss for the cause of the Gospel.

Ours is not the earthly victory, ours is not the dominion of the world or one another, ours is the earthly death and the heavenly victory, ours in not violence and dominion but submission and peace. Do not grab at power outside yourself or hold onto power within yourself, but let us all cast it aside, let us empty ourselves, let us find nothing in ourselves but the Spirit of God who first emptied themself for our good. Praise God, praise the humble King, praise the victory we win in loss. Praise Jesus Christ, the name above all other names. – Amen.

[1] Bart D. Ehrman “Jesus the Suffering Son of God” in A Brief Introduction to the New Testament. (New York, New York: Oxford. 2009) 61

[2] T. Francis Glasson“Two Notes on the Philippians Hymn.” In New Testament Stud. 21, pp. 133-139

[3]  Brian Stokes Mitchell. Through Heaven’s Eyes. The Prince of Egypt. DreamWorks Records. Digital

[4] Katherine A. Shaner. “Seeing Rape and Robbery: ἁρπαγμαός and the Philippians Christ Hymn” Biblical Interpretation 25 (2017) 342-363

[5] Clement. Stromata. IV.

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