Although this is long for a blog, I've decided to post my Christmas sermon here which I delivered on Sunday, December 20.
Perhaps it will help you to see a little more of the glory of Christ revealed in the Christmas story, and to gain a source of vision, love, and power so that you can share the grace of Christ with your family and others who need his touch this Christmas season. May the Lord bless us as we contemplate the height and humility of Jesus on this sacred day!
“Jesus, Our High and Humble Savior”
December 20, 2015
When I was a child, Christmas was always my favorite time of year. Along with the normal decorations we would put up around the house, our family would also make a countdown calendar that started with December 1st and, in one way or another, marked off the days until December 25th. And so as the days went by each December the anticipation would rise, and the excitement would rise, and the wonder of what was going to be under that tree for me would rise, and the joy of putting things under that tree for others would rise.
By the time December 24th came around, well, I could hardly wait! That day was always the longest day but when night finally came, we would bake fresh cookies and pour a cup of milk and leave them out for Santa, and then go to bed and try to get some rest. Early the next morning I would wake up and run to the living room to see what was there, and oh I have so many memories of the joy that was mine on so many Christmas mornings.
Perhaps chief among them all was Christmas of 1975 because on that day I awoke to see a brand-new bike standing beside the tree that my older brother had built for me. I was so surprised to see it there—it was a red BMX bike with shiny silver handle bars and a black grips and a black seat and knobby tires; it was everything I wanted in a bike and I couldn’t believe that my brother had done that for me. I don’t think I paid much attention to anything else that morning because I just couldn’t wait to get outside and go for a ride—you will remember that I grew up in southern California where it gets super-cold in December, like around 60 degrees!
You know, it amazes me that I still feel so much joy in my heart when I think about that day. It was forty years ago, and the present was just a bike that eventually got replaced by another bike and another bike and another bike. But I think the reason that particular present still brings light to my heart is because it came from my brother’s heart. The bike wasn’t about the bike. It was about my older brother, who was one of my heroes, who loved me and knew what I really wanted and actually took the time and spent the money to build rather than buy what I wanted. My brother gave me his heart, and that’s why his gift still gives me joy to this day.
I’m sure that many of you could tell similar stories, and that you’ve experienced similar joys on Christmas Day throughout the years. And I’m sure that some of you will create new stories and experience similar joys in four or five days from now. From my point of view, we’re free to enjoy the cultural expressions of Christmas in our country so long as Jesus remains first in our hearts and we remember to give him thanks in all things.
But having said that, I must also say that embedded in the Christmas story is a much greater joy that’s waiting for us all this very day and that, if we will receive it, it will give us joy in forty years from now, and in forty million years from now! Indeed, this greater joy will increase in measure and intensity forever because the fountain of this joy lives forever.
Now, those of you who’ve been part of a church for any length of time might be wondering why we’re meditating on Philippians 2 today and not some passage from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The answer is simple—while Phil 2 is not a traditional Christmas text, it’s actually one of the most profound Christmas texts because it helps us see more than a barn and sheep and shepherds and wise men and a blazing star that led some to journey toward Bethlehem.
Each of these things and people are integral parts of the Christmas story and have a measure of importance. I don’t mean to demean any of them, however, Phil 2 helps us see the more profound wonder of the Christmas story and it leads us to the place where the gift of long-lasting joy is waiting for all who will receive it—a joy that’s much greater than a bicycle; a joy that’s much greater even than a brother’s love. So with this in mind, let’s walk through this text together from beginning to end, and know that at first it’s going to seem like it has nothing to do with Christmas. But soon we’ll see that it has everything to do with Christmas.
Sharing in Christ Together (2:1-5)
The letter to the Philippians was written by the Apostle Paul to a church he had started in the city of Philippi. For a number of reasons, Paul had to move on from that place and eventually ended up in jail for boldly preaching Christ in places where they didn’t want Christ to be preached. However, while he was in jail the Lord used him to write a number of letters which are still in our Bibles today, including the letter to the Philippians.
So Paul begins this letter by saying that he’s thankful for their partnership in receiving and living and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, and that he’s confident that Christ will in fact finish the life-transforming work he began in them some years earlier. Paul is certain that when Jesus comes into someone’s life, he stays in their life until they have the fullness of gift he came to give them. And so it is that Paul prays that the Philippian Christians would abound in the love of Christ with all knowledge about Christ and discernment in Christ, so that they might know the difference between right and wrong, that they might be holy and blameless before God and others, that they might bear much fruit to the glory and praise of God, and that they might have deep and growing joy in God through Christ.
Then having offered this prayer, Paul wanted his beloved friends to know that though his time in jail was hard, it was also good because more and more people were believing in Jesus and those who already believe were being emboldened to tell others about Jesus. And what’s more, Paul was sure that he would be released from jail and see the Philippians again so that he could labor in Christ for their progress and joy in the faith. With that, he encouraged them to keep pressing on that they might not sink again into the shame of the world, and that they might instead be of one mind together for the sake of Jesus; that they might have the privilege of suffering together for the sake of Christ and so share in his very heart and ministry.
This was Paul’s deep desire for his precious friends. Like my brother, Paul knew them well and loved them deeply and wanted the very best for them. But in this case the question was, How were the Philippians to in fact achieve this kind of unity in Christ for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God? How were they to press on in love for God and one another and those outside the church? Paul begins to answer in the first few verses of chapter 2, so please look there with me and let’s read them again.
“1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…”
Beloved, the way Paul wanted his precious friends to press on together in Christ was simple—he wanted them to make a life of receiving from Christ and then overflowing with Christ toward one another. Notice that he didn’t encourage them to strive toward these things in their own strength. He didn’t insist that they try harder and do better. He didn’t demand that they give their all to obey God’s commands.
Rather, Paul told them to look to Christ and receive encouragement from Christ, and comfort from the love of Christ, and fellowship with the Spirit of Christ, and affection and sympathy from the heart of Christ—and then to overflow with these things toward one another. Paul knew that the fount of their love for one another was the eternal spring of Christ’s love for them, and thus he said, “Beloved, receive from Christ and then share in Christ with one another.” This was Paul’s simple but profound answer to the question: How shall we press on in Christ together to the glory and praise of God?
With this in mind, Paul then gave the Philippians, and us, some practical counsel. He said that because the love of Christ is so powerful in our lives, we should not be self-serving but other serving (vv 2-4). We should live Christ-centered, other-serving lives to the glory of God the Father. We should learn from Jesus how to do nothing out of selfish ambition or the desire to have prestige and power. We should learn from Jesus how to see others in such a way that we actually think them more important than ourselves. We should learn to walk into a room and truly think about how we can serve others and not just be served by others. We should come to church on a day like this with the attitude, “How would Jesus use me to bless someone else today?” Not with the attitude, “How are these people and this church going to give me what I need today?”
Now, Paul doesn’t say we should think nothing of our own interests. Jesus knows that we have needs and the whole assumption of v 1 is that Jesus is ready and eager to meet those needs. But Paul is saying that we should not be consumed with our own needs but that, having received so much grace and so many gifts from Christ, we should then be free to share these things with others by the power of Christ and for the glory of Christ.
O Beloved, I hope we can see clearly that all Paul wanted them and us to do was to live of life of filling up in Christ and then overflowing. He wasn’t calling on them to be humble. He was calling on them to look to Christ and be humbled. This is what would give them the resources, desire, and strength to bless others. And this is what would make Paul’s complete, indeed, this is what would make God’s joy complete, for it would bring the good news of their salvation to full fruition.
The Height and Humility of Christ (2:6-8)
This call is as strong as it is inspiring but I think Paul still had an instinct that what he said was not enough. Paul knew that he still had to help his dear friends find a treasure-trove of resources that they might be able to love one another in this way. And so it is that he penned the famous words of vv 5-8, please look there with me: “5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus [that is, don’t try to live this way on your own but rather seek to admire and imitate Christ], 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
I see three stages of the height and humility of Christ expressed in these verses. Stage One is found in v 6 and it is simply this – before he became a man, Jesus was God, without measure and without end. Indeed, we learn from other portions of the NT that all the fullness of deity dwells in him, which simply means that Jesus is everything God is. We learn that he is the exact imprint of the nature of God so that to see him is to see God – who else do you know who can make a valid claim like that? We learn that he is the very radiance of the glory of God which means that to the extent that God’s glory is visible, Jesus himself is the one who makes it shine.
We learn that he is the one through whom God the Father created all things so that when we see the stars and sun and moon, when we see land and seas and lakes and trees, we’re seeing the designs of the Father and the handiwork of Jesus. We learn that he is the one to whom God the Father has subjected all things so that Jesus is personally controlling nations and neighborhoods, peoples and persons, physical things and all of the purposes of God until that day when all things come to their appointed end and every soul stands before their Maker. We learn that Jesus is the one who, on that day, will judge the living and the dead with a perfect and powerful judgment so that all of his verdicts will have eternal effects and give rise to eternal praise to the glory of his name and of God the Father.
O Beloved, before Jesus took on flesh he was unthinkably exalted. Indeed, no one has ever dreamed of reaching the heights that rightly belonged to Christ because no mind has ever conceived the height of those heights! And this truth is what makes Stage Two so amazing, so stunning, so inspiring, so life-giving, so joy-producing. Stage Two is this – although Jesus was God, without measure and without end, he reasoned in himself that he did not need to cling to his position, his prestige, or his power. He reasoned in himself, not because of an outside force but in himself, that since he had perfect fellowship with God the Father and with God the Holy Spirit, he had all he needed and he could therefore let go of everything else. Since he had the love of the Father, he was free to empty himself for the sake of others, even for those who deserved the exact and extreme opposite of his love. To Jesus, the highest place is fellowship with God—it’s not a position; it’s a relationship—and since he fully occupied that place, he was free to go to the lowest place. Beloved, let us have this mind in us that was also in Christ Jesus; let us be full in God and then empty ourselves for one another.
This leads us to Stage Three which is this – since Jesus was perfectly content in his Father, he freely and gladly took on flesh. Jesus Christ became a human being, and herein is how Phil 2 connects to the story of Christmas. He who was so high made himself so low, for not only did he become a man but as a man he became a servant rather than a power-broker. And the word for “servant” here in Greek more literally means a “slave” and the fact of the matter is that Jesus became a slave to the will of his Father and for the good of others. For this reason, he located himself in a poor and powerless family. He didn’t need the things of the world because he already had all things in his Father. He didn’t live among the rich because he came to bring the good news of eternal life to the poor, although it turns out that even the rich are very poor and in desperate need of God.
Having took on flesh in this particular way, Jesus focused his life on but one thing – being happily and humbly obedient to his Father no matter the cost or consequence. And I hope we can see, Beloved, that the issue here is not so much sheer obedience as it is love. Jesus had a deep and lasting love with his Father, and so it was his delight to do the will of his Father. As it says in another place, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God.” This is the primary reason Jesus manifest himself on this earth.
And so it was that Jesus was obedient when his Father instructed him to touch the untouchable leper and bring hope and healing into his life. He was obedient when his Father instructed him to forgive and transform the woman who was caught in the act of adultery. He was obedient when his Father commanded him to embrace that wealthy and despised thief, Zacchaeus, replacing his greed with a voracious appetite for God and a willingness to restore what he had stolen and to offer all of his wealth to God. He was obedient when his Father commanded him to confront the self-righteous Pharisees in love that they might repent of their hypocrisy and come to know the true and living God, and in the book of Acts we see that some of them did.
Jesus was obedient all the way until that day when his Father issued the impossible command that was conceived from before the foundation of the world – My Beloved Son, take up your cross and willingly give your life that you might take the punishment and pay for the sins of others; that you might become the one source of eternal life for all who believe.
Beloved, you know that Jesus did in fact obey this command, but what I want to highlight here is not so much his actions on the cross but the heart that led him to take those actions. Indeed, it was the glad, submissive heart of Christ that made the awesome sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus was absolutely necessary for salvation because without the shedding of his infinitely valuable blood there would be no forgiveness of sins. But again, it was the glad, submissive heart of Christ that made the awesome sacrifice. It was his happy and humble obedience that led him to the cross for the glory of his Father and the eternal life of all who would believe.
The Exaltation of Christ (2:9-11)
Because Christ did what he did in this particular way, it pleased the Father to highly exalt him and to lavish upon him the name that is above every name, so that in due time every single knee will bow down to Jesus Christ, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every single tongue will profess that he is the Lord to the glory of his Father. Indeed, Stage Three paved the way for Stage Four which is this – since Jesus gladly and willingly made himself low, the Father has exalted him to the highest place. Jesus has gone from the highest of heights to the deepest of depths and back to the highest of heights again, only this time it seems that he’s reached an even more exalted place.
What I mean is that Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on High as one who has perfectly displayed love and humility and grace and mercy and forgiveness to a measure and to a degree that we can neither comprehend nor communicate. Because Jesus made himself so low out of love for his Father, his Father has granted him to dwell in the highest of heights…and as I said, it seems that the heights are even higher now.
The Call and Power to Emulate Christ (2:12-13)
O Beloved, this is the mind Paul wants his dear readers to have in Christ Jesus, and it’s the mind Christ Jesus wants us to have as well. Look at Paul’s words in vv 12-13: “12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” In light of the stunning vision of the height and humility of Christ, Paul now calls upon his readers to do two things. First, he calls on us to passionately apply the grace of God in Christ to our own lives and to one another’s lives. The words “work out” in v 12 mean “to work with great passion and focus,” and what Paul wants us to so passionately work out is being like Jesus which is our salvation. And he wants us to do this with fear and trembling, that is, with deep awe and profound respect as we look to and meditate on this glorious Christ who was so high and made himself so low and was made to be so high again.
But having said this, he quickly adds in v 13 that the reason we’re able to passionately apply the grace of God in Christ to our lives is because God the Father is working in us even as he worked in Jesus. The same one who led Jesus is leading us. The same one who commanded and supported and empowered and blessed and received Jesus is doing these same things for us. It is God who is energetically at work in us—that’s what the Greek word here implies, he’s energetically at work in us—that we might want to do his good will and that we might in fact do his good will. Do you see, Beloved? This is not about what we’re supposed to do for God, it’s about what he’s doing in us through Jesus Christ, the one who has promised to finish the work he began in us.
And what does this energetic, glad-hearted obedience look like in our lives? I go back to the beginning. “1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…”
O Beloved, the best gift ever given is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen—this is so much better than a bicycle or a brother’s love. The best gift ever given was the humble self-sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, so that whoever believes in him and looks to him alone for the forgiveness of their sins and the restoration of their relationship with God will not perish but have everlasting life. They will, along with Christ, be exalted to the highest place, for the Bible tells us that those who believe in him will be seated with him. They will have deep and increasing joy, not only for forty years, but for forty million years and more as God helps them to see the glory of Christ and to be shaped into his very image.
So the call to action is very simple and very profound today—two things. First, let us take the time to meditate on Philippians 2 alone and with our families that we might behold the height and depth and width and breadth of the glory of Christ. The blessing is in the doing, Beloved, and so as one of your pastors I urge you to join me in doing this.
Second, as we receive insight and encouragement and comfort and love and affection and sympathy from Christ, let us overflow toward one another with the love of Christ. Let’s allow Christ to bless us with his own way of thinking and living, with his deep and everlasting joy, with the mind that was in him and that belongs to us through him. Let us not only meditate on Christ and speak of Christ, but let us humbly allow God to shape us into his image that we might love one another and so complete his joy.
And as we learn to love one another, let’s also learn to love those outside the church with the love of Christ. By overflowing with love toward one another, we learn to overflow with love toward still others. So let us go as ambassadors of light into this world, not compelled by duty but deeply driven by humble love.
Behold Christ, receive the love of Christ, overflow with the love of Christ—that’s the call to action for today. Let’s pray for God’s help.