Sermon: Humility

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Philippians, chapter 2. Philippians is in the New Testament – Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. Philippians 2 beginning in verse 1. This fall we have been making our way through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, which is a letter filled with joy and thanksgiving, even as it comes from Paul in prison. Last week, we heard the call to live our lives in a manner fitting of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This week, Paul continues that same theme by pointing to one specific gospel characteristic of the christian community: Humility. Philippians 2:1-11, but before we hear God’s Word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Father, may your Word be your only rule, Your Holy Spirit our only teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our only concern. Amen. 

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God. 

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 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. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of 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.

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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

As we sat around the table, I said, “now find a reasonably friendly looking stranger or a strange looking friend.” The consistory members began to glance at one another, quickly pairing up and moving off to listen to each other.

For the past couple months, we, as the leadership at Bethel, have been taking time to dwell in these opening words from Philippians 2. Each month, after I pray, we read the passage twice, split into pairs and take a few minutes to listen to each other for what we are hearing in this passage. It is amazing how rich God’s Word is. I told them last month that their insights and questions were helping my sermon preparation, so they deserve some thanks for that. But one aspect of this passage kept coming back to us as we listened together. Humility. What does it look like to truly follow Christ in humility? 

I really want to do two simple things this morning. First, I want to lay a gospel foundation for us as we consider what it means to hear these commands as people who are united to Jesus. Second, I want to help us consider the barriers to humility that make following Christ’s command so difficult for us and what the gospel might offer us as disciples. 

First, let’s lay the gospel foundation. What we do arises out of who we are in Christ. The call to humility does not come out of nowhere. It comes from the gospel itself, from Christ himself. Paul ends this passage with a hymn to Christ. He might have written it himself or it might have already been sung in the churches. But Paul follows this call to humility with a hymn praising Jesus Christ. Paul sings the gospel. 

Jesus humbled himself to come down in the flesh. Jesus, who was himself God. As John says, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Son of God, coequal, coeternal, very God of very God (in the words of the Nicene Creed), is fully God himself. Unlike the Philippians, unlike many in the church and certainly in the world, the Son does not consider his high status as as privilege to exploit for his own benefit. Instead, without ceasing to be God in any way, he sets aside this status and takes on human flesh. God takes on flesh. The word we use for this is Incarnation – enfleshment. There is no human action or analogy that quite captures the power and depth of what the Son does in emptying himself and taking on flesh. Imagine a slaveowner who chooses, voluntarily, to become a slave himself. It would be unthinkable and yet that only scratches the surface of what the Son does in taking on human flesh. The Lord of the universe, the very word through which the world was spoken into being, chooses to take to himself humanity – fully humanity – hungering, thirsting, excreting, bleeding, frail humanity. 

Yet, this is just the beginning of the state of Christ’s humiliation. He does not come as a man in glory, a powerful prince or king. He is born as a baby, weak and helpless, a baby outcast and born in a manger. Every step of his life is one of humility, of putting others ahead of himself. For Christ, humility was costly. Walking in the will of his Father involved suffering and pain and eventually death. And not just any death, but death on a cross – shameful, cursed, excruciatingly painful. 

As Paul speaks of humility, he sings the gospel hymn. Christ came down for you and me. He set aside his status and crossed the infinite gap between Creator and creation to be born as a baby, only to live, suffer, and die for the salvation of sinners. Yet, then there is the surprising reversal. Jesus who went down farther than anyone has ever gone is now lift up higher than any other. Lift up from the grave. Lifted up to the right hand of the Father. Given the name that is above every name 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. 

When Paul calls the church to humility, he cannot help but sing the gospel. Christ born in the flesh. Christ dying for our salvation. Christ risen and reigning. And there is almost an unspoken echo then back to what we heard last week from 1:27, “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What we do arises out of who we are in Christ. If we know Christ, if we have faith in him, we are united with Jesus – united with him in his humiliation and exaltation. Paul is saying, ‘if you are people of the gospel, people of Christ, let your life reflect that in your character through humility.’

Once we have this gospel hymn humming in our hearts, the opening verse of chapter 2 takes on a different tune. If then there is any encouragement in Christ – Christ came for you, Christ died for you, Christ is risen for you, does that not encourage you whatever you are facing, doesn’t knowing Christ give you strength to keep running? Any consolation from his love – in your times of grief and sorrow, don’t you experience comfort from the love of Christ who went to death – even death on a cross out of love for you. Any sharing in the SpiritChrist has poured out his Spirit on all believers, uniting us to himself and to one another in the church, this is one of the great benefits of the gospel. Any compassion and sympathy – Any pain we are suffering, Christ has already known and gone ahead of us. Any loss we bear, Christ has already known and gone ahead of us. There is no part of human nature that Jesus did not take to himself in order to heal and redeem – no height nor depth. 

Paul sings the gospel at the end and opens up the benefits of the gospel at the beginning – encouragement, comfort, sharing/fellowship, compassion, sympathy. Sandwiched between these treatments the gifts and glory of the gospel is the challenging call to humility. A call that comes to all Christians as a call to live in light of the gospel we have received. 

I mentioned at the beginning that we have been dwelling with this passage as a consistory for the past few months. We would read the passage twice and take time to listen to one another for what God was saying to us through his word. It is a time for insight and questions, but also for us as a group to notice just what God wants to say to the consistory about our life together. Again and again, we came back to this call to humility. Do nothing out of 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. 

I remember sitting next to one particular consistory member who confessed, “This seems pretty straightforward as far as what it says, but it doesn’t happen very often. Why is humility so hard?” 

I think this person was right. Even with our gospel foundation in place, the challenge of God’s Word here is not that we don’t understand it, but that it is hard to do. Humility comes from the word for ground or dirt, the same word at the root of ‘human.’ It is less about considering yourself dirty in some negative sense as remembering that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Humility is about knowing your place relative to God and those around us. It is putting others ahead of ourselves. 

But why is humility so hard? If, as we are told here, it is so important for our life together as the church, if it arises from the gospel and humility of Christ, and if a lack of humility is so destructive, why is humility so hard and so rare? 

The Spirit identifies three specific barriers that regularly cause us to stumble along the path of Christian humility: Division, Ambition, and a Me-First attitude. 

The first barrier is division. It’s in verse 2: make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. same, same, full, one. There is a theme here. In light of the benefits they have received in the gospel, Paul is calling to church to be united. But he would only do that if there was a problem with division. If I go home today and walk into my basement and then holler up the stairs to my kids, “Please clean up your LEGOs,” it is only because they are all over the floor. If they were already picked up and put away, I wouldn’t need to say it. In the same way, the fact that Paul calls the church to have the same mind, same love, be in full accord, and have one mind is only because division existed in the church. 

Division destroys community. It destroys churches. We are living in an increasingly fractured society. What in past generations were disagreements about policy and morality have devolved into completely separate communities. People are beginning to identify more with their political party than their community, neighborhood, and country. Online social media silos and 24 hour news channels make it easy to only hear people telling you things your already agree with and telling you everyone who believes differently is crazy. I’m not telling you anything you are not already seeing with your own eyes. And that division – political, cultural, ideological – is entering into the churches. Already where I am from, many people, in practice at least, hold their commitment to party far tighter than their commitment to Christ. And it is tearing a country apart and tearing the church apart. Let that not be true here. In a fractured age, for the church to buy into the divisions of the world, to fix our vision, to set our hopes, to give our loyalties there will be to invite division into the heart of the church. 

There were disagreements in the church in Philippi. There have always been disagreements in the church. There are times where the church must stand and stand unmoving no matter the opposition. There are times where we must say, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” But it is easy and destructive to let disagreements devolve into division. When there is division is a roadblock to the church in its mission and a roadblock on the path of humility. 

So Paul says to a church tempted to division, be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Your minds are divided, you convictions divergent. Yet, be united in your mind. And not just any mind, but have the mind of Christ. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. We overcome the barrier of division first and foremost by seeking the mind of Christ. Division invites us to seek the mind and will of our group, our party, our faction, our people. Life in the world (and even in the church) becomes and us versus them world. This displays an utter lack of humility. Yet, Christians are invited to seek the mind of Christ. having the same love. Their divisions were fracturing their love for one another. Again, seek the mind of Christ, contemplate his love for the church. being in full accord and of one mind – a lack of unity gridlocks the church, keeping it from moving forward in the way of Christ. 

Division blocks the way to humility because it becomes about your group versus my group and not about Christ. Christ, Christ’s way, Christ’s humility becomes obscured as winning becomes all-important, no matter what the cost of character. Instead, Christians are called to have the mind of Christ. be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind…Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. We are called to sing that gospel song together and set our hearts and minds on Christ above all else. 

That’s the first barrier: division. The second is ambition. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. While there are those who struggle to regard themselves with the worth they deserve, many of us struggle with humility because, if we are honest, we think we deserve to get our way. We would actually say that we think we are better than others. But we easily justify selfishness by who we think we are who we think others are. 

Maybe an example will help. Imagine I get home from a long day at work and I am just tired out. Now, Olga has been with the kids all day, who are running around, asking questions, demanding mommy’s attention, all the normal kid’s stuff. So I get home and what do I want to do? I want to lay down, kick my shoes off, rest a bit. I want her to stop what she’s doing and listen to everything I did in my day. I work hard all day, why shouldn’t I get a rest? Look at all I did today, shouldn’t she want to hear? If I think that way, what have I done? I’m being selfish – not thinking about what Olga needs or that the kids need my love and attention – I’m being selfish and justifying it because of how important I think my work is. I wouldn’t ever say it, but if that’s how I think, what I am really saying is that ‘I am better or more important than them and I deserve to be self-indulgent.’ 

Contrast that with coming home just as tired, but taking a few moments to ask Olga and the kids about what they did. Sitting down and reading a story or playing a game with the kids for a few minutes before laying down for a rest. What would that say differently? It wouldn’t say that I am not important or that my needs are irrelevant, but it would say that I consider their needs ahead of my own. It would be a way of in humility regard others as better than yourselves. I won’t tell you which way I come home more often, but I can tell you for sure which is better. 

The last two barriers to humility are tied together. Selfish ambition is about how we see ourselves in relationship to others. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. We can be tempted to view the world with ourselves on the top rung and then act accordingly. A Me-First attitude is about whose interests, goals, or needs we look after first. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Humility is hard because when push comes to shove, I want to make sure I am taken care of before you are.

Both a selfishness that views ourselves as best and an attitude that puts ourselves first is cured by the same source – the gospel of Jesus Christ. None of us has grounds for elevating ourselves above others, because each of us is a sinner and no one is saved because they were better or good enough, but only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The reality of sin cuts selfish ambition off at the knees. Maybe you are proud of how much you make or how little taxes you pay, but remember you are dust and sinful dust at that. Be humbled to know that nothing you have, nothing you accomplish, and nothing you are can make you worthy in God’s eyes. All of us, though sin, are left in the same position. Yet the invitation is given to all that if you believe in Jesus Christ, dust though you are, you are beloved. Maybe you look out at everyone else and it seems they all have it together, all are making progress, all seem valuable and worthwhile but you just don’t. Each little dustling on this earth has been made in God’s image and is therefore of equal value. And nothing we do can take that away or lift us up, only the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross can lift us up as beloved of God. There is no place for selfish ambition among redeemed sinners. 

But this exalted status as God’s children is not an opportunity for for gloating, but for service. Remember that Christ himself did not consider his status as something be exploited, but emptied and humbled himself, even to the point of suffering and death. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. I might prefer my way or that my wants and desires get treated first. Yet, we are united to a Saviour who lived every moment for others, for sinners, for you, for me. Perhaps, trusting in him, we can begin, in humility, to do the same. 

Humility is hard. Division from outside always threatens to fracture the church and shatter our bonds of love. Ambition and selfishness form inside always threatens to break our brothers and sisters and harm our own souls. This is nothing new. The call to humility in Jesus challenges us as much today as it did the first Christians to hear it. Yet, perhaps we should begin where Paul ends, by singing the gospel, letting it so fill our hearts that we receive the mind of Christ. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of 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.

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.

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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