Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
15th Sunday after Trinity
1.10.17; St Barbara’s Church
Rev Charles Higgins
I wonder if you’ve ever been caught off-guard by an expected question. It might be something completely innocuous – something that gives us just enough of a jolt of the unexpected. But it might be a question that we find harder to answer – why do you believe in God? What’s the point of going to Church? A couple of times when I’ve been somewhere in my collar, like a supermarket or just out and about in town, people have said something to me like, ‘Can I ask you a quick question? What made you become a priest?’ Not necessarily a quick question.
The reason I say all this is that “unexpected” is a good word to have in front of us as we approach the two Bible readings we’ve had this morning. Both of them get us very quickly into questions like ‘What is life following Jesus about? Why do people worship Jesus?’ and to some answers that we might not expect. Especially the reading we had from Philippians is one of my very favourite bits of the Bible and it would definitely form some of my answer to those questions. It’s at the centre of why I do what I do.
Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church was to encourage them that they could live a life together that was marked out by love, unity, compassion, selflessness, humility if they made sure that Jesus was at the centre of everything they were, everything that they did. Sometimes something is so beautiful that we feel only poetry will really come close to describing it and the verses that talk about Jesus here are taken from a poem or a song that would have been used during worship from the very beginning of the Christian Church. But what Paul tells us about Jesus is so counter-cultural, so unexpected that sometimes we don’t, certainly I don’t, appreciate the depth of the unfathomably amazing things that we’re being told here.
If you were to ask one of the Church members that Paul is writing to here what they expected God’s chosen one, his Messiah to be like they might have pointed to someone like Alexander the Great, who became ruler of a big empire at the age of 20 and made that empire the biggest the world had ever seen. By the time he died at the age of 33, it made sense to lots of people at the time to think that Alexander’s own suggestion that he was a god was pretty accurate. This is what heroic leadership looked like in Paul’s world.
But instead Paul tells us about Jesus who is God but, unlike Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, doesn’t grasp and snatch at that kind of power but willingly is born as a human, lives a difficult life, dies an agonising death and, as far as people’s expectations go, defies them all. In our Gospel reading we’re told that Jesus is teaching in the temple, which would have been a bit like someone else coming into the Church whilst I was talking and starting a separate service at the back. He refuses to accept the premise of the question that the authorities ask him.
What Paul and Jesus himself want to show us is that Jesus didn’t become any less God when he ‘emptied himself [and was] born in human likeness’ in fact the way that Jesus lived and the death he died show us exactly what God is like. Jesus’ humility, his obedience, his loving self-sacrifice on the cross are a revelation of the very nature of God. And that is why whenever someone asks me why I’m a Christian or what the point of Church is or anything like that I would say that when Christians look at God we see Jesus. Jesus who has been through everything life can throw at you from birth to death. And in the midst of the really hard and rubbish stuff of life Christianity – the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the most realistic view of the world, it just also happens to be the most wonderful and the most mysterious.
All of us will have had times in life of indescribable joy but we will have also had profound times of difficulty and hardship. We will have been brought to the end of ourselves as we have looked at suffering in the world. One of the difficult things I’ve had to go through was having a number of operations during my childhood – I’ve got cerebral palsy and the because of the way that affects me I needed my bones and muscles correcting as they were developing. The night before I went into hospital for the first time my curate came round to see me and he gave me this nail to remind me that whatever hardship, small though it was in the grand scheme of things, I had to endure Jesus would be with me. And so if you come here today or you remember these words from Philippians sometime in the future in the midst of rubbish remember that Jesus promises to be with you as well. Sometimes to comfort, sometimes to challenge as he does with those who approach him in the temple, sometimes both at once.
Because Jesus shows us what it means to be God when he dies on the cross for us, his resurrection means that the power of sin and death is defeated – Jesus is Lord, he is exalted, Paul tells us, above everyone and everything, we’re invited into the full wonder of who Jesus is, to rejoice that he is with us and that he calls us to be the unexpected answer to the questions the world is asking. With God’s help, we are invited to imitate Jesus – to be with one another in good times and bad, to love sacrificially. In a few moments, as we respond to the invitation to share bread and wine together, as we remember Jesus’ death, his resurrection, that he is exalted above every name, the most amazing thing is as we approach our God, the creator of the world, I wonder what we expect? As God meets us in Jesus, he kneels down and washes our feet. Truly unexpected. Amen.