Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, 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. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became 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, 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.
If you were watching the headlines on Wednesday, you noticed it was a pretty grisly day. You woke up to read that Oscar Pistorius had taken the stand in the “trial of the decade.” And it wasn’t pretty. In fact, the court had to adjoin early on two consecutive days because of Oscar’s highly emotional testimony as he described his girlfriend, Reeva, dying in his arms. The next story was no better, “Obama to Return to Fort Hood to Mourn after a Shooting.” And if you’re like me, you said to yourself in a mixture of anger and sadness, “Not again!”
As if to underscore that point, I opened up my browser to a new tab later in the day. And perhaps by now you already know what I saw there. More breaking news. “School Stabbing Spree,” the headline read. I worriedly read the story and listened to a couple of interviews. It’s difficult to hear that a high school student walked through his school randomly stabbing and/or slashing 20 different people. So, yeah, like I said Wednesday was a grisly day.
I don’t tell you this because I want to lose you with the gore. I’m telling you this because we can so easily let these tragedies blind us to the deeper more entrenched tragedy that’s going on. In other words, we can ask, “What’s so wrong with them?” When the real question we should be asking is, “What’s wrong with me?” Jesus taught us this. He taught us that national tragedies like the ones I mentioned are always important spiritual opportunities to ask ourselves that key question. Today we want to seize the moment and see what these headlines teach us in light of Philippians 2.
Now I can guess what you’re thinking. “Philippians doesn’t have any dark themes like the ones you just mentioned. Don’t I remember learning that Philippians is sort of a thank you letter? Isn’t it that letter where Paul is so happy and joyful? Isn’t that the book where Paul uses the word “joy” 16 times in just four short chapters?” And, yes, if you’re thinking that you’re right. Philippians is that book. It’s a letter to a church that is gospel centered, loving, energetic, generous, and full of life and joy. Philippians is one of those churches that anybody would want to be a part of.
And that’s what makes Philippians the perfect place to stare a reality in the face. Even in a place that is gospel centered, loving, energetic, generous, and full of life and joy, tragedy has still staked its dark flag. What tragedy am I talking about? The same tragedy that underwrote what happened at Fort Hood and sent 20 people to the hospital in Pennsylvania... the tragedy that makes people want what they what without regard for God or others. That’s the tragedy underneath everything, the tragedy of human selfishness.
Yes, it's in our souls too. Like I said before, we can’t let Fort Hood put us off the scent or Pennsylvania teach us that we’re somehow fundamentally different. Selfishness is in us too. Most of the time it just shows up in a different way. That’s what we can learn from the Philippians, a people who not only share our natures but also our beliefs. Truth be told, there's nothing surprising about what we learn. Selfishness rears its head exactly how we might guess it might. It finds ways to express itself in the normal, everyday, mundane relationships we have with others.
How do I know that? Listen to what Paul wrote to them, “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. (v. 2-3)” Now do the math. Why did Paul need to say stuff like that to them? The Philippians were well-behaved folks. Why would Paul have to remind them to be one in spirit and purpose? What’s the implication of that? There was something in them that “wants what it wants.” Or take another section of those verses. Why does Paul have to reinforce with people who worked hard to be good to consider others better than yourself? There was something in them that said, “No, I am better and more important than others.”
And, sometimes, that selfish undercurrent makes itself known. Euodia and Syntyche are prime examples of this. Phenomenal women. They worked their tails off with Paul for the gospel we are told in Philippians. Both of them are also in heaven. How do I know this? Because it says so in the Bible. Paul wrote and I’m quoting, “... whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:3)” And, yet, the human tragedy of selfishness was still not quite dead in them at that time. Paul also wrote this to them, “I plead with Euodia and with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. (Philippians 4:2)” Tell me that’s not a fascinating line. Wouldn’t you love to know what caused Paul to write that? What caused a couple of wonderful Christian women who were on their way to heaven to duke it out over some thing like a couple of barnyard hens?
I’m actually pretty thankful we don’t know because it allows us to fill in that blank. It should tell us something about ourselves that it’s not hard for us to do that. Maybe you’ve even got three in your head right now like I do. He’s thinks it’s a discussion about her spendy impulses. She thinks about his need for control. One voter thinks the church budget is a little spendy. Another thinks people are being too stingy. Grandma thinks the grandkids need more consistent discipline. Mom thinks she’s doing it just about right. And, finally, at the end of the day as the discussions played out nobody was really listening or honoring the other. Everybody just wanted what they wanted. Chock it up to our, old, ingrained, inherited original sin that is just otherwise known as plain old selfishness. There it is in the normal, mundane, everyday, Euodia and Syntyche moments of life.
Ironically as I was writing this sermon, I embodied this. I walked down from the office area of our house to take a break. Naturally, I wanted to see my family. So, unthinkingly, I snapped for the dog and stomped right into Elliana’s room… only to wake her up from her afternoon nap. Not good - for Elliana, or Melanie. Melanie said to me - as only a wife can with one of those devastating smiles on her face - “make better decisions if you want to be friends.” Yes, I have proven even through my thoughtlessness that selfishness has a stake in my soul. If the Bible's right, I’m not the only one.
It’s into the very mundane, normal, everyday, Euodia and Syntyche parts of our lives that God drops the theological equivalent of a divine nuclear weapon. That makes sense, doesn’t it? If the enemy known as selfishness is dug in that deep and is that powerful in our hearts, then God needs the ultimate bunker buster. It’s known as the gospel, the ultimate power of God. It comes here in the text in what most people agree is actually a hymn that first century Christians sang in church. Wow, is it a doozy! I’m telling you. Those first century Christians were no theological slouches when it came to understanding Jesus. This little hymn is still the standard and source for a huge amount of what we understand Jesus to be.
Listen to what the hymn says about Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God… (v. 6)" That’s the starting point of the song. It also happens to the same exact starting point for John’s Gospel if you think about it. All correct belief in Jesus starts with believing that Jesus is the real deal. He is God. He’s always been God. He always will be God. Do you see how that makes Jesus the perfect antithesis to people who are all bent on wanting what they want? This hymn teaches that there is a being who exists around whom the world actually does revolve. The universe and all its galaxies are actually all about him. Think about that. He actually does have right to walk into a room when someone’s asleep. He has the right to tell someone how to use their money (or not). He has the right to control a church budget or tell someone how to discipline their kids. He is the one being who has the right to make everything all about him and here’s the kicker… he wouldn’t be selfish if he did. He’d simply be God.
What does Jesus do with all the rights and privileges of deity? “(He) 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. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (v. 6-8)” Probably the last thing I might say at a wake to a young widow with three young children is: I know what you’re feeling. I would stare across that gap of loss and do my best to appreciate it, and probably fail. I just can’t quite comprehend it because I’ve never experienced that kind of loss. That’s what I’m feeling like on a far grander scale as I stare at this verse. How does one possibly capture all the loss that’s here? How does one leave behind the celestial bliss and the perfect sight of God… for this? How does the infinite, life giving, not able to boxed in, fullness of God become - well - this (motion to myself)? How does that same infinite, living giving, Jesus who knows only life and life and life and life allow himself to die? How does one compute that? How does the sinless, pure, holy God allow sin to curse him on a cross? How does one “get” going from the heights of pure celestial bliss to the low of humanity’s deserved hell on the cross? We can’t know. We can only stand back in awe and believe that somehow against all odds the one being who everything is about is only about everyone else.
And then we celebrate not just that that happened, but why it happened. There’s a show on TV right now called Undercover Boss. Have you seen it? The basic idea is that CEO’s take off the suit and tie, vacate the corner office, and take on menial jobs within their companies. And then the journey is documented. Most of the time the CEO’s figure out how to run their companies better and find heroes underneath them. That’s what God did. He left the universe’s corner office, put his glory and power undercover, and became one of us. There’s a key difference though. When he got here, he didn’t find any heroes. He found people who deep down underneath were all takers. That’s why he came. That’s why he allowed all the loss and went to all the trouble he did. He came to give and give and give some more. He came to give the gift that could cover over a world of taking and takers. He came to give the ultimate gift, himself.
We just can’t get enough of that. We need to hear about that giving and that gift. That message has power that trumps what’s contained in a nuclear weapon. We need it to enter our mundane, normal, Euodia and Syntyche moments and take our breath away all over again. It’s why we do Christmas. We want to hear that same gospel again. We want to remember that a baby came who was the ultimate in selflessness. We want to sing that hymn about a baby who, “no crying he makes,” because the selfless Son of God wouldn’t allow himself to be a burden to his parents. It’s why we do Lent. We watch him walk selflessly into the teeth of pain and hurt. It’s why we do Palm Sunday. We watch him climb onto his humble little mount. We watch him ride into a city and into a humanity that would take and take and take from him. And we know and we believe and we celebrate that on that first Palm Sunday the Son of God was on his way not to take from the takers, but to give to them in the most epic and selfless act in human history. I’ll tell you what. I’ll wave a Palm branch to that. I’ll sing a Hosanna too. And I’ll bet you’ll join right in. Amen.