MAY 10, 2009

Play Audio


            What makes you happy?  What put a smile on your face this past week? 

            Well, this morning the Apostle Paul is ninety-nine percent happy.  Which is odd given his situation.  He’s in prison in Rome.  He’s been unjustly accused of a crime.  He’s awaiting trial, and the cards are stacked against him.  He has lost his freedom and he is unable to do the one thing he loves the most: go from town to town preaching the Gospel.  Yet he writes, “make my joy complete.”  He says, “Make me one-hundred percent happy.”  And we expect him to say, “If only I could be released from prison that would make me completely happy,” but he doesn’t say that.  We expect him to say, “If only I had a more comfortable bed” or “If only someone would send me a box of Omaha steaks that would make me completely happy!” but he doesn’t say that.  Instead, what he says will make him one-hundred percent happy has nothing to do with his own needs. 

            No, he wants one thing and one thing only.  One thing will make him completely happy.  Look at his words beginning in verse two:


            Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind ...


            And then skipping to verse five:


            Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.


            Remember that old song  by Patti LaBelle?  The song that put her on the map as a solo recording artist?  The chorus goes,


            I’m feeling good from my head to my shoes.

            Know where I’m going and I know what to do.

            I tidied up my point of view.

            I got a new attitude.


            That’s what would make the Apostle Paul completely happy, if we got a new attitude, if we had the same mindset that was in Christ Jesus.  

            Now, let me be honest.  What Paul says here has given me nose bleeds for over thirty years.  I mean, this is as tough as it gets.  To paraphrase, Paul says, “If you want to be a real follower of Jesus Christ, then think like Jesus thought.  Act like Jesus acted.  Have the same attitude, or same mind, that Jesus had.”  Then the Apostle Paul goes on to illustrate that attitude, that mindset, and do you know what it is?  To put it in today’s parlance it’s a commitment to downward mobility.  

            Unfortunately, downward mobility goes against just about every human instinct.  Since the garden days of Adam and Eve, we have been about upward mobility -- personal promotion and personal advancement - not downward mobility.  I mean, in the same way that a compass always points north, the instinctual human needle always points up.  Questioning upward mobility gives us the vapors.  Questioning upward mobility causes an inner trauma that most of us do not handle very well.  The mere mention of words like demotion, downsizing, decreasing gives us the heebie jeebies.

            When we hear the term “downward mobility” we think, “Let’s change the subject.  Let’s get back to promotion, upscale, increasing, winning.  Compass needles point north, not south.  Human needles point up, not down.” 

            Folks, what we have before us is perhaps the most countercultural passage in the Bible, and like Patti LaBelle, are we ready to “tidy up our point of view?”  Are we ready for “a new attitude?”  Are we ready to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus?

            And we see this commitment to downward mobility in two places in our passage for today.  We see it first in verse three:


            Do nothing form selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.


            This is a challenging sentence to translate from the Greek into the English because it was an ancient saying or cliche, sort of like “she made it by the skin of her teeth” which really means “she made it by the slimmest of margins.”  Well, that’s what we have here.  Paul uses a first century saying that every Greek first-century reader would understand, and the key word is “better.”  The phrase really means, “Defer to others and give them a better place.”  It doesn’t mean that we should treat ourselves as worms, as a person with no value, who sees others as more valuable or more important.

            For example, imagine you are on vacation with your family and you run out of batteries for one of the kids electronic gadgets, so you dash into a supermarket to get a pack of batteries, and you are ready to check out, but every line has someone in it, and the ten-items-or-less line has about six people in it.  So you choose a line with one person in it, a woman with grocery cart full of groceries, and you get in line and you look kind of hurt, hoping the woman will notice you and feel sorry for you, and if you are fortunate the person will notice the sad expression on your face and say, “You only have a pack of batteries?  That’s all you got?”

            And you say, “That’s all.”

            They she’ll say, “Oh, heck.  Go ahead.  Get in line.  You’ve only got one thing.”

            Now, let me ask a question about the person that told you to go ahead of her.  Did she feel good about herself or bad about herself?

            When we are able to put someone else in front of us in line, that is a sign we are filled with grace and confidence, and not selfishness or smallness.

            So that’s Paul’s first illustration of downward mobility.  Defer to others.  Give them a better place.  Then he goes on to mention another example of downward mobility, and this is the big one.  He mentions Jesus, and note  Jesus’ commitment to downward mobility.  In verses six through eight, watch as Jesus signs up for five demotions.  Watch as Jesus voluntarily descends the ladder in five different ways.

            Where does he start?  He starts at the top.  Verse 6, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God ...”  Wait.  Stop there.  Where does Jesus start his trek toward downward mobility?  He starts at the top.  Being in the form of God means a spiritual being equal with God.

            Think about what that means.  Jesus Christ was not an assistant to God.  Jesus Christ has never been a vice-president to God.  He’s not the Dick Cheney or the Joe Biden of heaven.  He’s not a junior partner to God, but rather a full-fledged member of the God-head, equal with the Almighty Father in every way, shape, and form.

            OK, let’s continue on.  Verse 6.  “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”  Some translations substitute the word “grasped” for “exploited.”  “He did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.” 

            I venture to say that most of us here this morning are “clutchers.”  We clutch positions and titles.  We clutch possessions and resources, time and energy.  Even the most mature of us here wrestle constantly with letting go and letting God.  It’s terribly difficult, even heart-wrenching, to relax our grip once we get it tightened around something we value, but here’s Jesus, the holder of all the prerogatives of deity.  Everywhere he turns it the heavens the cherubim, the seraphim, the angels are crying, “Holy, holy, holy.  Worthy is the Lamb.  The whole world is full of your glory.”  And in the midst of that, Jesus says, “I’ll relax my grip on all that.  I’ll take a demotion, if in so doing I can please God the Father, and serve people whom I love.”

            So, that’s demotion one.  Look at demotion two.  Verse 7.  “He emptied himself.”  Demotion one was the willingness to decrease, demotion two is the carrying out the decrease.  “He emptied himself.”  Of course, this does not mean he became any less divine.  No, he is still fully God.  It simply means that he laid aside, or put off, those divine aspects that would keep him from being human.  He laid aside a portion of his glory in order to become a man. 

            Demotion three: he became human.  Verse 7.  “He emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form ...”  It’s mind-boggling.  He did not appear on the landscape as a emperor or king, a statesman or investment banker, but as a common human being, more in the likeness of a slave than a slave owner.

            Maybe you have heard speakers try to give illustrations of what it must be like for the second person of the Trinity to take on human flesh.  I’ve heard people wax eloquent saying, “Well, it would be like a man condescending to the position of an ant, crawling around and living among ants.”  Maybe you have heard something similar.

            There is one problem with that analogy, however, and that is it is nowhere near as cataclysmic for creatures to condescend to a lower rank of creature as it is for the transcendent Creator to become a creature.  The distant between humans and ants is not nearly the distance between the transcendent God and a human being.

            But down the ladder Jesus goes.  From his lofty position he relaxes his grip.  He lays aside equality with God, and becomes human, and not just human, but a servant or slave.

            Jesus, however, was not done.  He still has two demotions to go.  Look at verse 8.


            “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.” 

            One of my favorite childhood memories was going to a movie with my father.  It was a rare occasion because my father only went to movies when we were on vacation. He was too focused on work to do something so frivolous while not on vacation, but one time on vacation we went to see a movie.  It was a western, “Gunfight at the OK Corral.”  Wyatt Earp, Earp’s brothers and Doc Holiday, took on a bunch of bad guys and they fought it out, at the end of the movie, at the OK Corral.  Of course, the good guys won.

            Imagine, however, that at the gunfight the guy in the white hat refused to shoot.  Imagine him dropping his holster to the ground and saying, “Go ahead.  Shoot me.  I know I’m better.  I know I could take you down, but go ahead and shoot me.”

            That’s what Jesus did.  He stood toe to toe with the forces of evil and said in a quiet and controlled voice, “You win.  I could save myself, but I’m not going to do it.  This time you win.”  

            At this point, at demotion number four, we can almost hear the angels crying out, “That’s far enough, Jesus.  That’s far enough.  Four demotions are plenty.  No more!”

            But there is one more.  Paul says that Jesus not only became obedient to the point of death, but he did so on a cross.  Note, he did not die by drinking hemlock, stretched out on a soft mattress, slipping into a painless slumber into the blackness of death.  No.  Jesus’ mode of death didn’t simply kill, but tortured one slowly.   And while all this was going on, men and women walked by, some laughing, some spitting, some hurling insults.  This is as low as the imagination can conceive.  This is the basement of human debasement  It doesn’t get any lower than this.  Jesus started in a position that could not have been any higher.  He ended up in a position that could not have been any lower.

            Listen carefully.  Why did Paul describe these five dramatic demotions of Jesus?  Why?  Was it to remind us of what Christ did for us in becoming our Savior?  Yes, but I don’t believe that was the primary reason why he penned these words.

            Friends, it’s clear from the context that the primary reason he penned these words was to call every Christian to adopt a new attitude, an attitude of downward mobility. 

            The primary purpose of this passage is to call people like me, people intoxicated with upward mobility, to get on the wagon, to join Christian AA, to get off that drug and have Jesus’ attitude, Jesus’ dedication to decreasing and demoting and downscaling for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

            Listen to the words of the Apostle Paul, one last time.


            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.


            That place where we have dug in our heals.  That place where we have said, “My way or the highway.”  That place were we have insisted on our rightful place in line.  We may want to reconsider that.  We may need to adopt a new attitude.