Our Humble Lord
Our Humble Lord
Zechariah 9:9 & Philippians 2:5-11
by William Klock
St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem takes us back to Prophet Zechariah’s oracle of judgment against the enemies of God’s people. The first verses of Zechariah 9 are a litany of woe and destruction: “Lo, the Lord will strip Tyre of her possessions and hurl her wealth into the sea and she shall be devoured by fire…Gaza too shall writhe in anguish…The king shall perish from Gaza; Asheklon shall be uninhabited…I will make an end of the pride of Philistia…” These were great nations and prideful pagan peoples who worshipped false gods, produced unspeakably immoral cultures, and persecuted the holy nation of Israel next door. You can almost hear the Israelites cheer as Zechariah speaks this message from God. You can picture the Messiah, the Anointed One, riding down from heaven, flaming sword in his hand, to drive his enemies out of the Promised Land and destroy them and their cities. In verse 9 Zechariah exhorts the people to rejoice:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he… (Zechariah 9:9a)
I see pictures of the allies liberating Paris in August 1944. Grateful crowds cheering the men who drove off the Nazis and a victory parade through the streets led by Charles De Gaulle. We’ve all seen those pictures. Just put it in an ancient context – move it from 20th Century Europe to Ancient Palestine and you’ve got the idea. The Jews had been looking for their promised Saviour for centuries. Every girl longed to be the chosen mother of the Messiah. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, many of those in the crowd cheering him on were no doubt expecting that in Jesus of Nazareth was come the one who would ride down on the pagan nations with his flaming sword in hand, giving the Romans the boot, and leading the people in a great victory parade through the streets of Jerusalem.
But that isn’t the end of verse 9 – it goes on:
…triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass. (Zechariah 9:9b)
This isn’t the Messiah that the people were expecting. Conquering heroes ride through town in a chariot or on the back of a warhorse – not on the back of a donkey. Donkeys are farm animals for poor people. But that’s what the Messiah did – he came, the conquering hero, riding into Jerusalem on a simple donkey.
St. Paul writes about the humility of the Messiah in our Epistle lesson:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6-7)
Jesus was “in the form of God.” This was one of the great Christological passages of the New Testament that the Councils drew on when they worked out our creeds. St. John reminds us, “In the beginning was the Word” – in the beginning was the preincarnate Christ, in the beginning was the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Jesus said of himself, as we read last week in our Gospel lesson, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Jesus named himself with the holy name that God revealed to Moses when he appeared in the burning bush: I AM. Jesus Christ is God, the creator of the universe, the sustainer of life, the source of all blessing, now incarnate. Jesus had every right to ride down from heaven, sword in hand, to vanquish the enemies of his people. He is perfectly holy, he is perfectly just, he is God. The Messiah deserved the praises of the people around him – he deserved their worship – he was God and we all, as his people, owe him all those things. They are our “bounden duty and service.”
And yet Christ didn’t come in the way people expected. He came humbly like one of us – and even then not as the highest of us, but as like the lowest. As St. Paul says, he “emptied himself,” became a man like us, and not just a man, but a servant. Not just a servant in the terms that we think of a servant. The Greek word used by St. Paul is δουλος; not a just a servant – literally a slave. St. Paul says that Christ emptied himself, that he gave up his heavenly and godly prerogatives, and became the lowliest of the low.
Theodoret commented on these verses saying, “Being God, and God by nature, and having equality with God, he thought this no great thing, as is the way of those who have received some honour beyond their merits, but, hiding his merit, he elected the utmost humility and took the shape of a human being.” Jesus was God, yet he didn’t feel the need to “fill himself up.” Instead he emptied himself, St. Paul’s Greek literally says he “poured out” himself. As God, Christ was worthy of the people’s praise, worship, and adoration. He was worthy to be led to the Temple and enthroned inside of it as the Creator and King. He was worthy to receive their tribute and their service. But that’s not what Christ did. Christ emptied himself – he poured himself out. He knew that as God he was worthy of all these things, that he deserved and even had a right to greatness, but instead he gave up all thought for himself and poured out his fullness so that he could enrich others. St. Paul isn’t saying that Christ gave up his divinity. He’s telling us that Christ gave up the rights that he had as God and put himself totally at the disposal of his people – God became poor so that his people could be rich.
Jesus was born as one of us. He could have been born as a nobleman – a rich man or a man in a position of political power, or even as a Levite, maybe as the high priest himself or some other earthly religious leader. He could have, but instead he became not only a man, but a slave. A rich man would still have had some right to the admiration and praise of men. A great political leader – a warrior or a king – would have been raised up on a pedestal by his people. A great religious leader would have been looked up to by the people too. But Jesus’ desire was to empty himself – to completely pour himself out – and so he became a lowly slave to others. Not literally a slave, but he took on himself the attitude of a slave. He didn’t come to lord over people. He came to serve them. Remember that Jesus’ ministry was to the people as he traveled by foot around the country with nothing more than the clothes on his back. It was Jesus who washed his disciples feet. His ministry was one of service to others.
St. Paul goes on in verse 8:
And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Christ became one of us so that he could serve us. In Hebrews 4:15 we read:
For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Each of us is guilty of offending God. Each of us has committed the cosmic treason of sin. God graciously created us, and yet every one of us has rebelled against the very one who has given us life. We, his creatures, choose to be gods and arrogantly enthrone ourselves on his seat. Christ had to become one of us so that he could be the second Adam – so that he could live life as we do, suffering temptation, but not falling to it. He was obedient in every way that we are not and that total obedience led him to the cross. Again in Hebrews we read:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:7-10)
The ultimate act of service and of obedience was his death on the cross in our place. I don’t know that we give much thought to the manner of Jesus’ death other than to focus on its cruelty and heinousness. If we look at the mock trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate and someone asks us “Why?” I’m not sure we give the right answer. Why was Jesus dragged through these sham trials? Why was he crucified? Why was he taken out to be executed with two thieves? Jesus could have died in all sorts of ways. Why couldn’t he have been hit by a speeding chariot or stampeding horse while walking down one of Jerusalem’s narrow streets? Why couldn’t he have died from typhoid or leprosy or one of the other many fatal diseases that plagued the ancient world? Why couldn’t he have fallen out of a boat on the Sea of Galilee in a storm and drowned? Jesus had to suffer what he did because it’s what we deserve. We deserve to be put on trial for our sins. We deserved to be mocked and ridiculed for our sins. Ultimately we deserve to die a criminal’s death for our sins.
As you read the Gospel lessons this Holy Week, put yourself in the place of Christ. Would it be unjust if we had stood accused before Pilate or before the Sanhedrin? Would it have been unjust for us to have been scourged? Would it have been unjust for us to have been nailed to a cross and left to die? No. I expect that every one of us is probably guilty of a crime that was punished by death in the Old Testament – remember that even dishonouring one’s parents was a capital crime! Yet we take all those things very lightly. But God’s divine standard is even higher. God’s divine standard hands down the death penalty for any and all sin. Every one of us stands condemned before God.
But an awful lot of the time we seem to forget that fact. We ignore the fact that we’re sinners. We ignore the fact that our sins deserve death. And we start thinking that God owes us something. Instead of living Christ’s humility in our own lives, we become proud and self-righteous. We take pride in the knowledge that we’ve never stooped as low as this or that person. We take pride in our good works and in our “morality.” We like to point out the faults in other people, but aren’t interested in having others show us our own faults. We like to praise ourselves for overcoming sin as if we are somehow totally victorious over all the sin in our lives and as if the victory we’ve experienced over a handful of sins is somehow because of our own doing and not God’s. Each of us came to Christ knowing that there was nothing we could do to save ourselves. We came to him in humility – totally relying on his sinlessness and on his sacrifice – his sinless death made in our place. (If you haven’t ever done that, then regardless of what you may think, you are not a Christian and still stand condemned before God.) We knelt humbly before him at one time, but it seems all too common for us to become over-confident in ourselves as time goes on, and eventually we start to get the idea that somehow we can stand before God on our own merit. Maybe we rely on Christ a little bit and we pay lip service to his death on the cross as the payment for our sins, but in reality we expect to earn God’s favour. We start to see righteousness in ourselves and that’s a very dangerous illusion, because when we become self-righteous we kill our Christian witness. The self-righteous person takes great pride in the sins he doesn’t commit, but is blind to the sins he falls into every day. He goes to work and condemns the sin in everyone else around him, but is blind to the obvious sin in his own life. He shows an utter lack of charity to others, he short-changes the company by leaving early when the boss isn’t around, takes home office supplies, he gets caught up in the dirty jokes of the guy in the next cubicle.
You wonder why people have no interest in Christ. It’s in part because of our lack of Christ-like humility. It’s we proclaim Christ with our lips, but all these folks ever see is us trusting in ourselves. We say we follow Christ, but we fail to live like he did. We’re called to imitate Christ, because for many people we’re the only Jesus they’ll ever see. To a certain extent, we set the standard for the unbelievers around us – but too much of the time we set that standard awfully low and misrepresent what it means to be a follower of Christ. You wonder why some people don’t want anything to do with the Church? It’s because they look at us and they see prideful do-gooders and hypocrites.
St. Paul doesn’t just tell us about Christ’s humility and servant attitude because he wants us to know that Christ was a humble servant. Notice how he begins this doxology:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
St. Paul’s point is to urge us to be like our Saviour. We’re given the example of Christ so that we can be like him. Philips Brooks said, “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is.” Christ is that higher nature for us – he is our measuring standard. He is the one who shows us how small we are when we’re tempted to think we’re spiritual big shots. And when we faithfully hold Christ’s example before us we can never be self-righteous – we can never trust in ourselves for access to the Father, because we will always be humbled by the Eternal Son, who condescended to become man, and who died in our place to pay the penalty for our sins.
St. Paul’s doxology reminds us that because of his humility, the Father has exalted the Son and given to him the name above all names:
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.(Philippians 2:10-11)
He who confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, honours the Father, and he who hates the Son also hates the Father. On judgment day there will be no one on earth who will not confess that Jesus is Lord. The saints will confess it in love and admiration, and those who rejected Christ will have their eyes opened and will confess it in fear and trembling. God will honour those followers of Christ who make their confession out of faith and love, but there will be no hope for those who are only able to make that confession on the final day out of fear after their eyes are opened to the glory of Christ.
Our goal as Christians should be to give to Christ alone the glory for our redemption. We need to be like him in his humility, not full of ourselves, but pouring ourselves out so that we can be filled by the grace that Christ has poured from himself. Those around us should see Christ-like humility, not pride. They should see redeemed sinners serving their God out of gratitude and aspiring to personal holiness, not self-righteous, holier-than-thou jerks. Self-righteous people rarely have the desire to serve out of humility, because prideful people don’t stoop down unless it’s to take pride in that stooping. Just as he exalted his humble Son, God also promises to exalt those who follow in his humble footsteps. Our sole desire should be to faithfully follow Christ – to be like him – to imitate his model of the humble servant, but we can only do it when we rely on the grace we find in him. This was what we prayed for in our collect today:
“Almighty and everlasting God, who in your tender love towards mankind sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature and to suffer death upon the cross so that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility, grant that we may both follow the example of his patience and also have our part in his resurrection, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”