This is the slightly edited text of a sermon I gave on 24th July 2022, based on Philippians 2.3-11.
Who is God for you?
Powerful, almighty, maker of all things, holding everything together?
Supremely in control? One who answers prayers, who is mighty to save, whom no one can stop?
An all-consuming fire, a jealous God?
If God is for you, no one can be against you?
The lion of Judah, roaring with power?
Who is God for you?
Homeless, human, emptied of all but love?
Abandoned, fearful, in pain, dying?
One who bears scars for all eternity?
The still small voice, the quiet whisper?
One who will never push himself on us, but who waits patiently for us to turn?
The lamb who was slain?
Both are true pictures, of course. Our God is both a mighty lion and a gentle lamb.
But I suspect we will each be drawn more to one than the other. Or more to one at certain times. When we are in trouble, we want the God of power and might. We want God to come and deliver us. Once the worst has happened, we may be more at peace with the God who shares our weakness, our pain, our sorrow. I suspect (and I may be wrong) that the God of weakness is a little less familiar. Anyway, today I’ve been given the theme of humility, so let’s consider the lamb who was slain – the humble face of God.
God chooses to work through humility.
In a sense, it’s obvious when we think about it: we worship Jesus Christ, who died on a cross for the sin of the world. That’s what it means to be a Christian. It wasn’t that Jesus completed his mission despite being killed - his death was part of his mission. Yes, he triumphed over death, coming out the other side. But before that he suffered, and then he spent two days dead before rising on the third day. ‘[H]e humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross..’ (Philippians 2.8). Crucifixion: a shameful death, a barbaric death.
Therefore, 'God elevated him to the place of highest honour and gave him the name above all other names' (8.9). It’s through Christ’s humbling – his humiliation – that he saves us, and which causes the Father to honour him, giving him the name above all other names.
And then, after his cross and resurrection, Jesus sends out his followers, one by one and two by two, to undertake the massive task of sharing good news in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. And that is still how God is changing the world - one by one and two by two, a conversation at a time, one small act of grace at a time, using a church which (admittedly only in the global north) is weakened and increasingly seen as irrelevant.
I mean, when you see the state of the world – the refugee crisis, human trafficking, climate change - wouldn’t you rather have the roaring lion? Don’t you just wish sometimes that God the Almighty would swoop in and sort it out? Don’t you just wish God would use some of God’s mighty power? But God has chosen to work through humility. In quiet, small ways, sometimes unseen.
I consider myself an evangelist - which, for me, means that people who don't come to church are my highest priority - my favourites, even. And evangelism is tough in the UK today. Church attendance has been declining steadily for decades; Christian belief is in decline, too, based on people's answers to the religious belief question on the Census. Some Christians deal with this tough mission context by praying for revival. Some deal with it by working really hard on community engagement, evangelism, invitation and welcome. Still others argue that we need to develop new forms of church that are more relevant to people who aren't interested in church in its current form. The 'narrative of decline’ can be very disempowering - this sense that, whatever we do, the church is in freefall. My own view, on a good day, is that we can choose to embrace the weakness of the church and the de-centring of the church - we can accept that the church doesn't have the power and influence it once had. We can make our peace with that, because that’s how God chooses to work anyway. God chooses to work through weakness.
God puts limits on God.
This wonderful passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is believed to be a kind of early statement of faith - Paul is probably quoting something people would already have heard, a bit like an early creed. There’s a little phrase in Philippians 2 that a lot of theology has been written about - ‘he gave up his divine privileges.’ Actually that’s the New Living Translation trying to make it simpler for us: the NRSV, which is closer to the original Greek but harder to understand, says ‘he emptied himself’. Lots of people in the many centuries since this was written down by Paul have pored over it to try and understand the incarnation: God becoming human. What did it mean for the eternal son to become a human being? How could Jesus be fully God and fully human? He emptied himself…
God emptied Godself to become a human being. Was Jesus God emptied of power?
But Jesus performed miracles, you will rightly say. Well, some have said that, in Jesus, God showed what a human being completely full of the Holy Spirit and open to God’s power could be. Maybe the power Jesus displayed was the power of God the Father working through the Holy Spirit ( See Donald Baillie, God Was In Christ). It’s just a theory, no one knows
But whether this theory is right or wrong, I think it’s fair to say that Jesus is God with limits.
God limited to one place and time.
God limited by flesh: getting hungry, getting thirsty, getting tired, sweating.
God who submits to capture, torture, and death.
God who dies, and for a while, stays dead.
And isn’t humility, for us, partly about acknowledging our limits? A humble person knows they are just one person, and there is only so much one person can do. And no one is indispensable. That while they may have strengths and abilities, they also have many weaknesses and perhaps a few vices. Jesus didn’t have moral weaknesses, but he did embrace human limitations. Even the ultimate limitation of death.
We’re sold a myth of endless possibility in the global north: our relative wealth insulates us to an extent from life’s problems. I say 'relative wealth', recognising that the cost of living crisis is affecting many of us, and doubtless some of us reading this are struggling financially. But my point is that we’re told that we can do anything, be anything. We can stay young forever if only we buy the right skin cream. We can stay healthy if we follow the right diet and exercise regime. We have the power to determine our own destinies. I have recently discovered the work of Kate Bowler, an American academic who studies the history of religion, who received a very challenging cancer diagnosis in her mid-thirties. She has written several books: the last one I read is called 'No Cure for Being Human.' She points out that this myth of endless possibility and complete agency over our lives is just not true.
Humility is partly about recognising our limits. And coming to Christ who, in humbly embracing these limits, transcended them all, overcoming death by death, rising to new life so that we too might one day rise to new life. Now with us by the Holy Spirit; no longer limited by time and place, but here now, today, praise Jesus. In Christ, we have the hope of resurrection life now, and resurrection life beyond death.
God isn’t calling everyone to be humble all the time.
Paul urges the Philippians to be humble, in imitation of Christ:
'Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.'
When we put others’ needs first; when we resist boasting; when we don’t have too high an opinion of ourselves; when we don’t grasp for positions of honour: then we are imitating Christ’s humility. Indeed, many people over the centuries have argued that pride – the opposite of humility – is the essence of sin. That humanity’s problem, above all, is pride: thinking too much of ourselves. Putting ourselves and our needs first. Trying to dominate others.
But that isn’t always true. Some people put others first all the time. Some people spend their lives caring for others’ needs. Some people already don’t think much of themselves. Some people are told that they should keep quiet and stay in their place: because of their gender, because of the colour of their skin, because of their sexuality, because they have a disability.
Some people need to be a bit less humble.
Someone said to me once – and I think it was very wise – if there’s a particular negative character trait you’re worried about, it’s probably not an issue. If you’re concerned about ignoring others’ needs, you probably don’t need to worry, because it’s something of which you’re aware. If you’re worried about arrogance, you probably needn’t be. It’s the sins we don’t realize we have that are a problem.
God is calling some of us to embrace humility, in imitation of Christ, the lamb of God. But perhaps to others God is saying, rise up like a lion, and take your place in the world.
When I was writing my book, I spent some time looking through the lyrics of popular worship songs. I was writing a chapter about the powerlessness I experienced through my involuntary childlessness, and I started to see that powerlessness reflected in the Godhead. I saw God choosing to work through humility, weakness, powerlessness, in Christ. There aren't many song writers who consider God's powerlessness, but Graham Kendrick is one. Consider these words from 'Meekness and Majesty':
Meekness and majesty Manhood and deity In perfect harmony The Man who is God
Lord of eternity Dwells in humanity Kneels in humility And washes our feet