Can our sorrows ever be salvaged? Can our tears be turned to the wine of joy?
A gifted troubled older minister came to me one day. He said that he wanted to talk to me about his depression. I ask some usual questions to diagnose his spiritual condition. He seemed to me to be a most faithful man. He was a faithful minister following the Lord. Yet, he was suffering incredible persecution — persecution by his own emotions. He held his head in his hands weeping. “I just can’t stop crying,” he told me through the sobbing. I thought of the passage, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of the Lord, you should not only believe in Him but suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29). Have you ever been there? I have. The Lord comes to us, speaks to us, and he comforts us with his word of a kind and compassionate guidance from Philippians 2:5 – 11.
This Palm Sunday (and Holy Week) passage speaks to transforming suffering to joy through the mind of Christ demonstrated in his divine humility. God is calling us to receive the gift of joy in the midst of suffering through putting on this mind of Christ on this Palm Sunday. How we do that? What are the divine features of this Palm Sunday mindset that transforms suffering into joy? Philippians 2:5 through 11 provide two Palm Sunday leaves of wisdom to wave as an act of worship this morning; two transformative features of a Christ-like mindset that can transform suffering into joy.
First, we learned that the way to gain is actually to lose.
We understand this in verses five and six:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God ra thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:5-6 ESV).
Paul writes that Jesus was in the form of God but did not counted equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Now, before we can understand what this passage is saying, we should probably take the time to investigate what it is not saying. This passage, which has often been misunderstood, is not saying that Jesus emptied himself of his divine nature in order to become humanPaul is saying, rather, that Jesus shed his royal robe of prerogatives. He emptied himself of his rights of divinity, not his actual divinity in order to become human. He chose not to “exploit” (NRSV) his rights in order to fulfill God’s plan to save.
Imagine that we were entomologists from NC State University who wanted to study insects and learn more about red ants in North Carolina. The greatest way for us to do this is to actually become a red ant, live in an ant bed, subject ourselves to the same environment as other red ants, and to experience life as a red ant, and yet never cease being human. This is the logical approach that C.S. Lewis took in teaching about the incarnation:
“The Eternal Being who knows everything and who created the whole universe became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a [fetus] inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab”
The Apostle Paul is here saying that the incarnation also has practical application for the way we live. As with all of Paul’s writing, the incarnation is doctrine on fire and pastoral theology. And what does this say to us today? The way to gain in life is to lose. The study of “leadership” understands this intuitively. Those who lead must always be down in the mud with the troops. We’ve all seen the archival photographs or moving WWII film of General Eisenhower mingling among the troops before that dreadful D-Day English Channel crossing.
We’ve seen the photographs of Prime Minister Winston Churchill being urged to get away from the front-lines as bullets were getting all-too-close to the English prime minister who was one of the leaders of the Free-World. Or, who can forget “Reagan at the wall?” The mere mention of the phrase “Reagan at the wall” has become filled with the meaning of hope and freedom. Or, in your own life, what father would hope to gain the respect of his family by sending his young daughter to the door as a prowler came to the door in the night?
Not too long ago I saw a teacher, who couldn’t have been two years out of college, get down and sit on the ground next to a little boy who looked like he had received a pretty good shiner in the playground (yes, those still must happen). For a boy, there is little lower than getting defeated on the playground, and that teacher knew this could impact every area of learning for that boy. The wise teacher’s simple act of compassion in sitting quietly by the student in the hall that day was as important as any paper she would grade that year. And I thought to myself, “This is not a teacher, this is an educator.” These and so many others like them are examples of leaders who get their boots and shoes muddy. They gain respect as they give themselves away freely to those they lead.
Similarly, any Christian community—i.e., a parish church—will find her place in this community by giving herself away to this community. A husband gains esteem in the home by giving himself away to his wife, by prioritizing her above his life in small everyday ways. A wife gains the love and devotion she craves from her husband by honoring him in small, everyday ways to support him as the only cheerleader he needs to face the giants in his life. Imagine that we are all doing this to each other and endless circle of getting: what a beautiful picture of Christ among us. Suddenly, even accumulated sorrows begin to be transformed.
Joy is a powerful solvent that dissolves even the most resistant sorrow. The sting is taken out. The hurt is removed. Jesus said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39 ESV). Our dear Lord instructed, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33 ESV). So the first feature of the Palm Sunday mindset is the way to gain is to lose. Philippians 2:5 through 11 provides two Palm Sunday-Holy Week leaves of wisdom to wave as an act of worship this morning; two transformative features of a Christ-like mindset that can transform suffering into joy. We have experienced one of those.
Second, we learn that the way up is down.
See verses 8 through 11.
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 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.”
This magnificent statement of faith is a theology of the humiliation of Jesus Christ. It is an important Christological statement. It says that Jesus the Son of God willingly assumed humiliation in his Incarnation, betrayal, passion, crucifixion, death, and the tomb. Jesus’ exaltation has an intrinsic consequential connection to his humiliation. The way up is down: going down—getting lower—in our humble service to others, going down—getting lower—in giving our lives away to others, which works to leading upward. What did Peter say?
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6 KJV).
This also has a deep spiritual meaning for your life. It may mean that before you have the answer that you seek God is going to cause you to be humbled in a time of prayer and perhaps the season of prayer will last longer than you ever realized; longer than you really wanted. Yet, remember that the way up is down. And as you fall on your face before God seeking him, he will exalt you in due time.
In all of these things, the ruling motif for our lives is exactly the life of Jesus Christ. This is why we observed Palm Sunday. This is why we observed Easter Sunday each and every year. This is why, for that matter, we should remember Pentecost Sunday, we remember Advent, Christmas and some of us want to remember more of the church year because the biblical themes tether the cycle of our lives to the life of Jesus. And in his life we find life.
We find meaning, and we find hope. He becomes our daily spiritual guide. The Holy Spirit leads us through the ups and downs of life and shows us that as we surrender our lives to the life of Jesus, we can expect the same pattern that existed in the life of our Savior to be reproduced in our own lives. Now, “the way up is down,” also, means that as you humble yourself and repent and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be exalted even as death approaches. Because of the resurrection of Jesus our Lord, death becomes a mere portal through which you will journey. You pass immediately into the very presence of Christ where there is no more sorrow, and there is no more suffering, and you will be exalted as one of God’s very own. This is the final exaltation coming from the humiliation of death. And this, too, is patterned after the life of Jesus.
Joy comes in losing our prerogatives in order to serve others. The way to gain is to lose. Joy also comes in giving our souls to the Lord Jesus Christ in humility so that he will exalt us in due time. The way up is down.
Now. Back to my friend. I told him that I had never met a more deeply spiritual man in all my life. This retired minister said that he had fought depression all of his life, but as a result, he had had no other option but to pray.
“My depression has forced me to my knees many times. My tears have become a sort of sacrament revealing the activity of God inside of my heart.”
This man had a deep joy, a quiet joy that was transforming his sorrow. There are churches that will tell you that you can go skipping through the tulips with exuberance from this life to the next with no problems—and if you do, you don’t have enough faith. But that is neither real nor true. How utterly un-Easter-like! It is certainly not what Paul is teaching in his Epistle to the Philippians. But there is a transformation based on the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that takes every sorrow, every defeat, every problem, every trial, every heartache, every tear, and mixes it together with the love of God in Christ and causes the very things that would seek to destroy us to become the very things that heal us. This is the power of humility. This is the power of the Cross. And this is the Gospel of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
So, the Lord by His Word and Spirit rides into your life and mine today with the message of the Gospel:
“Give your life away that you may gain eternal life; go down to serve that you may be exalted.”
And some of us who have tasted the glorious paradoxical power of Palm Sunday, the amazing transformation of Holy Week in our very souls, and the resurrection of Easter, will forever respond: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1952), 155.