Palm Sunday 2016: Humility is essential for leadership

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Philippians 2:1-11

March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday


Today is Palm Sunday.  The title of the day causes us to recall the pomp and circumstance of Jesus entering Jerusalem as a victorious king.  Yet, there are subtle questions raised with this celebration.  Jesus isn’t riding a handsome stallion, worthy of leading an army into battle.  One that rises up on two legs as the commander orders his troops to charge. Nor does Jesus ride an elephant as did Hannibal’s army, capable of travelling miles and miles with heavy equipment.  Nor does Jesus ride a fleet-footed camel known to make long treks quietly across the desert, allowing his mount to sneak up on his enemy.  Instead, Jesus comes into town riding a lowly donkey, like a lonely prospector.  Yet the crowds greet him with cheers and palm branches.  Are they serious or just acting a part?  Maybe they are looking for entertainment?  After all, before the week is over, the crowds will be calling for Jesus’ crucifixion.  And what about us?  Are we serious about our worship of Jesus?  And will we be willing to stick with him when the going gets tough?  Or will we join the crowd and cry out for his death?

Today’s text for the sermon comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Read Philippians 2:1-11.


Timothy Keller, in his book Counterfeit God’s writes:  “One of the ironies of sin is that when human beings try to become more than human beings, to be as gods, they fall to become lower than human beings.  To be your own God and live for your own glory and power leads to the most bestial and cruel kind of behavior.  Pride makes you a predator, not a person.”[1]

That’s a pretty strong statement…  “Pride makes you a predator.”  Yet, we encourage our children to be proud, we are proud of our schools, our team, our community, our race, our ethnicity, our country, even our churches.  In school we went to pep-rallies in which pride would be instilled.  As adults, we go to tailgate parties to beef-up the pride before a big game, or to political rally where there is a lot of flag waving and speeches calling on our pride.

In scripture, we’re told that pride comes before the fall.  We’ve seen examples of that of the past couple of days as the NCAA finals get underway.  In Scripture, Lucifer’s pride was so great that he fell from heaven.[2]  But is all pride bad?  It is obvious, I believe, that there can be good which comes from pride.  Taking pride in oneself encourages us to strive to be better, as an individual or within a community.  Where is the line that we cross that makes pride so dangerous?  Certainly, with pride, like a lot of things, too much of a good thing is not only dangerous but destructive.

Of all his letters, Paul correspondence with the Philippians is one of his warmest.  You get the sense Paul has close connections with this church that he had founded in his first European excursion.[3]  Reading this letter, you come away with the idea the Philippians also had a good relationship with Paul.  After all, Paul was in prison when he received a visitor from the Christians in Philippi, who came with a gift.[4]  Paul is writing this letter to thank them and to impart some wisdom about how they are to live the Christian life—especially how they can rejoice in all things.  Considering Paul’s condition, being in chains, such advice carries weight! Unlike some of his other letters (especially to Corinth), the church in Philippi appears to be in relatively good shape.  People are mostly getting alone, but that doesn’t mean there is no dissension.  In the fourth chapter, Paul lifts out two individuals specifically to whom he admonishes.[5]  Once again, we see there are no perfect churches.  But in the New Testament, the church in Philippi is better than most.

The second chapter, from where our reading began, focuses on this unity that Paul encourages all his churches to maintain.  The focus for Paul is always, not on ourselves and what we need, but on the needs of others.  However, on a simple reading of the opening of this passage, we might think that Paul is saying one thing and doing another.  Paul concludes the first sentence (in the second verse) with the plea “make my joy complete.”  It’s as if Paul is saying, “be nice to one another, it’ll make me happy.”  Mom’s say that to kids: “Play nice, it’ll make me happy.”  What it really means is that mom will have some peace.

But Paul isn’t really concerned for his own happiness here.  As one commentator writes, Paul was completely identified both with Christ and the church that his joy was not to be his alone…”[6]  “Think about others, those who are around you,” Paul says.  This is good advice for marriages, for people in business, and for anyone living in a community.  If we can get everyone focusing outwardly, on others, the world would be so much better.  The joy won’t only be Paul’s but that of Christ and his church!

You’ve probably heard the story of the management professor in a university giving his students a final exam.  The students spent hours cramming for the exam, trying to review all the theories they’d learned throughout the term.  They were all anxious when they got to their seats and the professor handed out the exams.  When the order was given, they opened the exam and found one question, “What is the name of the woman who cleans this building?”  They were stunned, shocked, and most failed the exam.  But they learned an important lesson.  Our success in life depends on others and, as Paul says, we are to honor them.  “In humility regard others as better than yourselves!  Don’t look out for your own interests, but to the interests of others!”

Paul then, beginning in verse 5, lifts up Christ as the supreme example.  In verses 6 through 11, he recites what may be the first Christian hymn.  These verses contain important Christological and theological insights, yet Paul doesn’t cite it in order to provide doctrinal proofs.  His motive is ethical.[7]  Jesus spoke of the last being first, and those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their life for Christ’s sake with save them.[8]  Likewise, Paul emphasizes that the surest way up is to step down, the way to gain is to give up.[9]

There are three movements in the Christ-hymn that correspond to the life of Jesus Christ: pre-existence, existence, and post-existence.[10]  In verse 6, we are reminded of Christ’s divine nature, in the form of God.  But this wasn’t something that Christ exploited for he willingly humbled himself down to our level.  Actually Christ goes even lower than our level.  He becomes a slave.  At this time, the idea of a god becoming a king or emperor or Caesar wasn’t far-fetched.  But the idea that a god would come as a regular Joe was crazy.   Christ, however, takes on the lowest of roles, that of a slave, and is willing even to die with and like a criminal.  That’s not what people considered “god-like” in the first century.  Yet, it is because of Christ’s willingness to be so humbled, according to Paul, that death wasn’t the final word for Christ or for us.  Instead, he was lifted up to glory and when the kingdom is fully fulfilled, everyone will give him glory.  A three-fold movement: Christ leaving his divine throne in order to be with us.  Christ dying and because of his faithfulness being raised.  Therefore, Christ will reign through eternity.

On the day we recall the events of the first Palm Sunday, we remember how the crowds became all excited upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  They were praising him, but they were doing it either out of fun or because they were thinking that Jesus was going to be something else—an earthly ruler to challenge the Romans.  They wanted him to be an earthly king.  The honor that Jesus received on that road into Jerusalem was the façade of true power.  True power comes from the hard-fought ways of death and the resurrection.  Verse 8 emphasizes that Jesus’ death was real and total and horrific: “death—even death on a cross.”  Jesus surrenders and faces the uncertainty of death, like all of us will, eventually.  But in verse nine there is a shift, as God the Father steps in not only to raise Jesus, but to exalt him.

There is an old hymn that goes, “All to Jesus, I surrender all.”  Jesus paves the way by surrendering it all for us!  A life of faith is one of surrendering to Christ.

John Calvin, writing on this passage, notes there are two clauses here.  In the first, Paul “persuades us to imitate Christ, because this is the rule of life: in the second, he invites us to it, as being the road by which we attain true glory.”[11]  There is something paradoxical about all this—being humbled and obtaining glory—but that is what our faith is about.

Remember, although Paul provides insight into Christ’s nature, he’s writing to encourage the Philippians to live in a way that will produce a Christ-like community.  It’s in such a community that Jesus’ message flourishes and we’re enabled to live out our calling to be disciples.  Again, as we find throughout the Scriptures, the message boils down to “it ain’t about us.”  The Christian life isn’t to be about us—it is to be about others.  And the Christian message isn’t about us—it’s about God.  A God who has power over death as we witness in Jesus Christ, who died and who lives.

Back to the Keller quote that I began with.  If we live as if we are a god (with a little g), we will be disappointed for that is not the way of the real God, the creator of the world, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  If we want to live like the real God, we must serve and remember that humility is a virtue, not a liability.  And for my question earlier about the limits of pride, anytime it we become more important than anyone else, we’re skating on thin ice.

So live your lives of faith by following Jesus’ example.  Go into the Jerusalems of your lives, where people may at one moment praise you and the next stab you in the back.  Go into such settings, wishing no one ill and encouraging everyone, trusting the present and the future to an all-powerful God who holds all things in his hand.  Amen.

[1]Timothy Keller, Counterfeit God’s: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that Matters, (New York: Dutton, 2009), 121.

[2] Proverbs 16:18 and Isaiah 14:12-13.

[3] Acts 16:6-15.

[4] Philippians 4:18

[5] Philippians 4:2-3

[6] See Philippians 1:7, 8.  Fred B. Craddock, Philippians: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 36.

[7] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 43), (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1983), 79.

[8] Last/first:  Matthew 19:20, 20:8, 20:16; Mark 9:35, 10:31; Luke 13:30.  Save life/losing: Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24.

[9] Hawthrone, 95.

[10] Craddock, 40.

[11] John Calvin, Commentary on Philippians 2:5.  T. H. L. Parker, translator.

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