Emptied of Self

Scripture: Philippians 2:1-11
June 16, 2013
Christine Nafziger
 

I’m going to start this morning by giving some background on our scripture passage and how it fits into the New Testament.  One thing I enjoy about preparing sermons is researching about the book of the Bible that the scripture is from—learning more about the culture behind it, what was going on during that time, why the book was written, and so on.  It’s a way of going deeper into the scripture, broadening my understanding of what the message was for then and how it relates to us today.

I want to encourage you all to take time to do that—maybe it’s something you do once a month where you spend some time studying one book of the Bible.  You could get a study Bible and read through the notes or maybe look at some commentaries as a way to further understand that book of the Bible.  Patrick & I have plenty of books you could borrow!

So our passage this morning comes from the letter Paul writes to the church at Philippi.  In the NT, we have quite a few letters that Paul wrote to the various churches that were planted in cities throughout Asia Minor—Romans, Corinthians, Galatians Colossians and so on.  These are all letters Paul wrote to encourage or admonish the congregations at these places.  It’s not always clear when we read them alone what was happening at these churches and that’s why it’s helpful to study it further to gain more insight into what the situation was and why Paul was writing to them.

The book in the New Testament that comes before all these letters to the churches is the book of Acts.  It is in Acts that we find stories about the early church in its various locations.  We read about the travels of Peter, Barnabas, Paul, Timothy and others.  They travel here and there (from city to town) sharing about who Jesus is, performing miracles and planting churches—spreading the good news of Jesus.  These are amazing and exciting stories—people being filled with the Holy Spirit, the believers sharing their possessions, the church increasing in number, conversion stories of people like Paul who went from persecuting the church mercilessly to being persecuted for the sake of the Gospel because of his encounter with Jesus, stories of the churches being strengthened in their faith, and on and on.

But the book of Acts also includes stories of the believers facing persecution and death, of disagreements so sharp like between Paul & Barnabas that they ended up parting ways, stories of riots and imprisonments.  The letters Paul writes to the churches tell us that there were divisions and definite need for spiritual growth, that there were ways in which the churches were not being very Christ-like.

And so we see that it’s not just in our present day that the church struggles.  It’s always been that way.  The church is the beautiful bride of Christ, but she is also broken, and needs encouragement to keep persevering, to continue striving to be faithful, to grow in love for God, one another, and the world.  And so I encourage us as a church, broken but beautiful, to keep persevering, to continue striving to be faithful, to grow in love for God, for one another and for the world.

This morning we find ourselves sitting in the congregation at Philippi, reading the letter that Paul wrote.  This is one of Paul’s warmest and most personal letters.  There is a deep friendship between Paul & the Philippians.  The church at Philippi supported Paul from the very beginning and what Paul says in Philippians 1:5 “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,” alludes to their continued support of Paul.  They’ve supported him financially and by sending him one of their members, Epaphroditus, to minister to Paul while he was in prison.  At that time, prisons didn’t provide meals or do laundry, so prisoners depended on their friends.  We know that Paul was in prison many times, and this letter to the Philippians was one he wrote from prison.

We hear Paul saying to them at the beginning of the letter, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”  (Philippians 1:6)  These words of encouragement to the Philippians are ones we at Millersburg Mennonite need to hear as well.  It is God who began a good work here 60 years ago—back in 1953, and it is God who will bring it to completion.

There is discouragement along the way, conflict, misunderstandings and times we may want to give up, but we can cling to these words of hope—that what has happened and is happening here does not fall on our shoulders, that this whole thing is way bigger than us.  That it is God who is working and moving among us and our role is to simply be willing to join in the work God is doing here.  God will be faithful to complete what he has started here—to bring it to its fullness, to make it whole.

As we read further, we come to the section of the letter that Leah read for us this morning and we hear Paul encouraging the Philippians to be unified, to serve one another, to interact with each other in humility.  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Paul is talking to the Philippians about their relationships with one another in the church.  We all hopefully have some idea of what it means to put others’ interests above our own.  Through friendships, marriage, parenting, caregiving, we learn that we need to consider other’s needs.  Our decisions can’t be based solely on what we want.  And as we live our lives and go through really difficult experiences—times of wandering in the wilderness—we face the reality that life isn’t going to go the way we thought it would, that there are dreams we carry that will die, that following Jesus is going to cost us everything.

As we follow Jesus, we learn more and more that things are less and less about us.

And this is what Paul is talking about.  To follow the way of Jesus means that we must be willing to be emptied of self.  This is what Jesus shows us through his life and death.

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,
who, being in very nature God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

In my reading this week, I came to a new understanding about the phrase that says, “Jesus being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited…”  The word “exploited” literally means “seized.”  Jesus didn’t seize what was rightfully his.  But the point isn’t that it’s so amazing that Jesus didn’t seize his equality with God because of course anybody would want that power, that place of honor and sovereignty.  The point is that the reason Jesus didn’t seize his equality with God is because that’s not in his nature.  Jesus being in very nature God, means that he and God share the same nature, and the nature of God is that of self-emptying love.

And that’s what is so amazing.  That the very nature of God, the very essence of who God is, is one who gives all he is for our sake, so Jesus would of course empty himself in order to show God’s love to us.

And that is the very nature that God asks us to imitate.  It means we give up our needs and wants for the sake of others and for the sake of Christ.  It means that instead of thinking and operating as if you are always in the right, you acknowledge that you have things to learn from your brothers and sisters in Christ here at MMC.    It means that instead of having a bad attitude because you don’t like something about the worship service, you give your all to God in worship because that’s what we’re here to do and because there are others around you who connect deeply with those same things you dislike.  Giving up your needs and wants for the sake of others means that instead of being jealous or envious of someone else’s situation, you celebrate with them.  It means that instead of assuming you know what others are thinking or how they will react to something, you listen attentively to their thoughts and truly try to understand their perspective.

God is calling us at Millersburg Mennonite to let go of the things that divide us.  God is moving us to a deeper love for each other. It’s a movement from self-importance to humility, from self-centeredness to servanthood.

Putting other’s interests before our own is not some form of piety we strive for, trying to make ourselves holy.  It’s what we do because we’re imitators of Christ.  “Christian” means little Christ.  It’s how children are with their parents.  They watch and listen and they pick up on words or gestures and they imitate their parents, sometimes to their parents’ embarrassment!  But this is how we are to be as Christians—we watch and listen to how God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit operate in the world and we try to imitate them.

Serving one another with Christ-like love is difficult and sometimes painful.  It means we need to relinquish control, to be willing to not have things go our way.  It’s a hard blow to our ego.  Being emptied of self doesn’t mean we focus on ourselves to try to become empty.  It doesn’t mean we treat ourselves unkindly or have no awareness of who we are.

Paul says in this letter that Jesus became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross, which was the method of execution used only for slaves, criminals and others of little or no status.

The week of Easter is called Passion Week and during that time we talk about the passion of Christ.  But what is the passion of Christ?

It’s not the cross—the cross is the consequence of Jesus’ passion.  The passion of Christ is self-emptying love, it’s a passion for justice and joy, for unlimited sensitivity to the vulnerability, need and suffering of others.  It is from within this passion that one cares for others, helps them, feeds them, loves them, and speaks the truth fearlessly, obedient even unto death.  It’s a giving of oneself that leads to the cross.

This is the same passion we are to live by.  A passion that empties one of self, meaning that we are attune to the needs, pains, hopes and desires of others.  This passion takes us beyond self-interest to concern for others, beyond obsession with our achievements and our failures.  And the more we empty ourselves in love for others, the more we receive who we truly are, who God has created us to be.

This love that Jesus shows us is a love that nothing can ever separate us from.  God was, and is and always will be Immanuel, God with us and for us.  And in the face of this love, finally every knee will bow.

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Every creature will bow to the One who bowed first and still bows.  Jesus, exalted by God and Lord over all creation, will one day be worshiped and given the honor due him by every knee and every tongue of every living creature.

I would like to end my sermon by having all who are able, turn around and kneel at your seats before Jesus, as I pray a prayer.

God, we kneel in awe of your great love, a love that cleanses us from our sin, a love that does not let us stay as we are but transforms us to the very core.  We kneel before you in deep gratitude for the self-emptying love of Jesus and the guiding love of the Holy Spirit.  We want to be like you.  To be little Christs.  To put others’ needs and interests before our own.  To pour ourselves out in love for others.

And so we ask that you would help us, for we know that this giving of ourselves will cost us everything. It will lead us to the cross, but you have told us that all who lose their life for your sake will find it, for it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!  Amen.”  (Rev. 7:9-12)

Amen.

 

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