Athletes are easy targets for criticism. Prancing around and posing for the camera, acting like prima donnas as they do, the antics of contemporary athletes are often amusing. Football players strut across the field pointing their fingers at the camera, home run hitters stop to admire their handiwork, and basketball players try ever more entertaining high wire dunks, But sometimes these acts backfire, like when the ball falls short of the fence, making that would-be home run a very long single; or that power dunk that bounces off the rim and lands in the seats. Why do they do this? Well, it’s because the fans like it. So, should it surprise us that anyone whom we idolize, whether an actor, musician, politician, or athlete, may, on occasion, act as if they’re almost a deity?
How do you stay humble if people idolize you? I mean, what if you rode into town and people started to proclaim you the Messiah? That’s what happened to Jesus the day he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Now the crowds were looking for a deliverer and they thought Jesus might fill the job. Although he came into town as a pilgrim, the people had other ideas. Ironically, at the other end of town Pilate and his band of men were likely riding in as well. The people hoped Jesus would run Pilate out of town, and so they welcomed him with palm branches and shouts of praise to encourage him.
Is it possible that Jesus could have been thinking? "My, but don't they love me! Or, "Maybe I can use this hoopla to my advantage." The people did seem to love him, so all he really had to do was do a little dance in the end zone and they’d go wild.
Henry Milman's hymn begins with the encouraging words, "Ride on, Ride on in Majesty!" But then he changes the focus, just a bit and writes: "as all the crowds hosanna cry; through waving branches slowly ride, O Savior, to be crucified." He takes Jesus from those hosannas off to the cross, helping us understand that the triumphal entry, as glorious as it might be, doesn't tell the whole story.
THE LIFE OF HUMILITY
American culture doesn’t value humility. To be humble or meek, is to be weak. We see ourselves as a Super Power and so many Americans want a warrior Jesus. But Paul has other ideas. The Christian life, in Paul’s mind, begins with humility, and he points us to Jesus and says: he’s our example. It’s the Jesus who emptied himself of his glory and became a slave, even dying on a cross, who will show us the way. Now true humility isn’t the same thing as degrading our selves or pretending that we’re not gifted. This is a false form of humility that’s less than honest.
In fact, this false humility is really a form of self-preoccupation. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, wrote:
"The humility which consists in being a great deal occupied about yourselves, and saying you are of little worth, is not Christian humility. It is one form of self-occupation and a poor and futile one at that; but real humility makes for effectiveness because it delivers a person from anxiety, and we all know that in all undertakings, from the smallest to the greatest, the chief source of
feebleness is anxiety."1
Paul points to Jesus and says: "look at him and do as he does." Indeed, although he was in the form of God, he "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." Instead of clinging to his divine prerogatives, Jesus embraced his vocation and became a slave, taking on human life and following this calling to his death on the cross. He chose to serve rather than be served, and he let go of the all-too-human preoccupation with the self, a preoccupation that, as Temple reminds us, too often leads to anxiety. It is like catching a ball, If you worry about it and focus on it, you’ll probably drop it. But if you don’t really think about it, and therefore, don’t worry about it, you’ll likely catch it.
Too often we’re worried about how people see us or whether we’ve gotten our due. When we do this, we focus on ourselves, and we end up not able to fulfill our calling to be God’s child. As they say, just relax, and do like Jesus does.
The second stanza of this hymn suggests that God has turned the tables on our human intentions and has exalted Jesus high above all other names. When we think about the cross, it’s hard to imagine that "every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." And yet, this is the message of the Gospel. The road of humility doesn’t lead to failure, it leads to victory, just a victory of a different sort.
The crowd’s invitation must have been tempting, but Jesus ignored them because he understood that this wasn’t God’s calling. While that Palm Sunday crowd offered him a human kingdom, all they offered was an opportunity to rule a little corner of the Roman world. But God offered Jesus the position of Lord of the Cosmos, and because he took the more difficult path, we may go before him, and confess him as Lord.
Paul's hymn reminds us that Easter doesn't come without Good Friday, but before Good Friday comes, he must listen to the invitations of Palm Sunday. At the end of the day, he chooses the way of "exaltation through humiliation"2 over exaltation by way of power.
This is, ultimately, the Christian way, the way of service and humility. Because Jesus took this road, God honored him and raised him to glory, effectively restoring him to the place he held before his descent into human likeness. This hymn doesn't give us the details of Jesus' life, nor does it say how this all happens, but it does say that in taking the road to the cross, Jesus reveals God’s character and purpose. By exalting Jesus, God vindicates his life and ministry. Morna Hooker rightly says that "it is precisely because he is humble and obedient that he also is Lord. His exaltation is God's triumphant affirmation that in Christ's actions we have the perfect revelation of the love and compassion of God."3
By acknowledging Jesus as Lord of the universe, we accept the humble and obedient one as our Lord. If we truly understand who Jesus is, and if we truly want to follow him, then we’ll know that belief and action are inseparable. That is, to believe in God is to behave like the Jesus who said no to Palm Sunday and yes to Good Friday.
- William Temple in The Westminster Collection of Christian Meditations, Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, eds., (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), 336.
- Carl Holladay, Preaching through the Christian Year, C, (TPI, 1993), 172.
- Morna Hooker, "Philippians," New Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon), 11:515
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 1, 2007