The Exaltation of the Servant:
A Palm Sunday Sermon

Today, I’m choosing the road less traveled.

With multiple lessons given to us by the lectionary on Palm Sunday, the question among clergy at any gatherings before Holy Week is this: “Will you preach on the Triumphal Entry text or on the Passion?” Not once do any of us assume that a preacher would consider any of the other three texts. So with 13 previous Palm Sundays under my belt here at St. Mark’s, I’m choosing to go rogue.

A Palm Sunday Sermon on Philippians 2.

Paul’s words to the Philippians are likely familiar, and especially the last bit we heard today. “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.” It’s triumphal it seems, not unlike the “Hosannas!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” that we shouted as we waved our palms this morning. These words from Paul clearly point to Jesus’ transcendence; his goodness over others. Yet it’s easy to turn this into a message about power, and that’s what happens when we uncouple all of this from the words that lead into it. You see, before Paul writes that at Jesus’ name, everything in the cosmos would bow, he writes, “Because of this, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name above every name.” Too often we single out the verses about power and the genuflecting of all people to Jesus and forget that their context is on Jesus’ emptying of himself. Of taking the role of a servant. 

In other words, it’s dangerous for us if we imagine Jesus standing before a crowd demanding allegiance as his lackeys make sure everyone is following orders. It’s very different to believe that all of this honor is given to Jesus since he is the one who emptied himself and offered himself to the point of death on the cross. And this is exactly Paul’s point. Because Jesus gave of himself, God highly exalts him.

As theologian Paul Simpson Duke suggests, this action of Jesus to take the form of a servant all the way to death is one long continuous arc. He writes, “This language describes [Jesus’] whole life. For the sake of multitudes, for befuddled disciples, for the diseased, for outcasts, for women, for children, for Pharisees, he is a self-giving servant. Into his healings, his teaching, his liberations, his confrontations, his prayers, and his ongoing obedience, he empties himself. Emphatically, his dying is of a seamless piece with his living.” And all of this was his own choice. He took the form of a servant, he emptied himself, he was born in human form, and he humbled himself to the point of death. And so God glorified him.

But that’s not all. Paul begins this whole section by exhorting the Philippians to let the same mind of Christ be in them. To have Christ’s self-giving love define their community. To be those who don’t chase after power and accolades but willingly sacrifice for others. “Let that mind be in you,” Paul emphatically states. And, as Dr. Duke explains it, “This is the Christ mind: not to grasp at glory, but to live, to love, to die, an emptied self. Paul … [urges] us to be so minded.” 

We are to be those who live, love, and die as one who has given for others. As one who chooses to take the role of a servant for others. Not as a victim, mind you, but as a choice. To offer of our lives for the sake of others.

This week I saw the film “One Life” which stars both Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn as Sir Nicholas Winton at different stages in his life. In the late 1930s just before the Second World War, Winton traveled from Britain to Prague to see firsthand the desperate living conditions there due to the many Jewish families that had fled Germany and Austria out of fear of Hitler’s rise. They lived under the imminent threat of war in awful conditions. Nicholas meets with other British volunteers, and they all know that it’s only a matter of time before the borders close. Winton decides to coordinate the safe passage of children on trains to British foster homes. He undertakes the Herculean effort of wrangling visas, medical forms, passports, and money for hundreds of children to move to safety as Hitler and his regime come closer.

What’s fascinating is that Winton did all of this while describing himself as an ordinary human being. He simply knows it is the right thing to do. And this plays out later in his life when he refuses to accept praise for those actions, instead simply acknowledging he was a part of a small group trying to save children’s lives and make a small difference.

Winton took the form of a servant.

And that’s the call we have on our lives too as those who follow Jesus. We are to allow his mind to permeate us. We are to open ourselves up to the possibilities of bringing life and love to others—not for our own personal accolades—but so that someone else might experience a fullness of life. That’s the call for us as we embark on these solemn and holy days. To let the same mind of Christ be in us. And in so doing—by taking the form of a servant—we can indeed change the world for the better. May it be so.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

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