Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Name that Saves” (Philippians 2:5-11)
January 1, 2017
Henry VIII, Cleopatra, Caesar, when you hear these names what images come to mind – Royalty, power hungry, ancient history? One of those three is not only a name but a title. Caesar was originally – Julius Caesar. He named his grandnephew Octavian, later Augustus, as his heir. This included a vast fortune, land, and most importantly the name Caesar. Octavian would later become the first Roman Emperor and would change his name to Caesar Augustus, the same we hear about in the beginning of Luke’s gospel. All subsequent Roman Emperors would come to be called Caesar. The title transferred the authority of the Emperor’s position and the memory of the great Julius Caesar who paved the way for the Roman Empire. Eventually Roman emperors went through an apotheosis and were viewed as living gods. Titles like “savior,” “lord,” and “king” were used to describe not only the earthly rule of these emperors but their divine status in the Pantheon of gods. By the time of Jesus, emperor worship would be the most followed cult in all the empire.
Most of us don’t know what it is like to have power like a Caesar, a royal, or a President. We might have a little authority at home or work, which causes some to feel like they are a Caesar or a President. Our titles are, Father, Mother, Boss, Older Sister, etc. Of course my daughter is a princess. If you come over our house, more than likely Greta will be in tiara, gown, and carrying a scepter. She’ll tell you she’s a princess like one of her Disney princesses. You would probably be polite and say she’s a pretty princess. But all of us, including Greta, know she is pretending. She wants to be like a princess but she isn’t because mommy and daddy certainly aren’t royal. By pretending to be a princess she’s asking a question we all have daydreamed about at some point – what would it be like to be a royal to be viewed as divine to be worshipped?
Our epistle reading today shows us what it means to be divine. Every story of the gods in the Roman empire describe the god ascending and becoming divine. The Christian good news is that the Divine descended to humanity. Paul states that Jesus was equal with God the Father in his pre-existent state. He “emptied himself” a phrase that has vexed theologians for centuries. What did Jesus’ empty himself of? Augustine said, “He emptied himself not by changing His own divinity but by assuming our changeableness.” Another theologian says, “It is what Christ assumes that humbles and impoverishes him.” This person who was existing with God the Father assumed our frailty, our insecurities, our form in order to save us. If going from God to human wasn’t enough, Jesus goes lower, coming in the form of a servant: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” If that is not enough, he lowers himself further “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The emperors of Rome thought to be Divine was to be all powerful, conqueror, ruler, extravagant. All of human existence was struggling to ascend to the gods so that one could become a god. The Bible shows us that the God descended and spent his earthly existence going lower and lower in the hierarchy of the world so that all might be saved.
If you are a Netflix binge watcher like I am, you may have watched one of their popular shows this year, the Crown. It depicts the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. One of the characters who pops up every few episodes is her disgraced uncle – the former King Edward VIII. If you don’t remember this from history, Elizabeth’s father became King because his brother, Edward the VIII, abdicated. Here is the King of the British Empire giving up his title, authority, privileges, for love. He gave it up so he could marry the woman he loved. However romantic that might appear, I share this because even though Edward gives up the title of King of England and Emperor of India, he doesn’t become simply Ed with his wife and live discreetly in a suburb. He was made the Duke of Windsor and for the rest of his life would still be referred to as “His Royal Highness.”
Jesus’ obedience and mission means that the Father is happy to exalt his son over all. Paul says that God gives Jesus “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” What is the name above every name? Is it Jesus – yes. But there is something else going on here that would have shocked Paul’s contemporaries. Israel’s God has a name. In Exodus 3, Moses asks the God who revealed himself in the burning bush for his name. God responds, “I am who I am.” In Hebrew that comes out to be four letters that scholars think was pronounced Yahweh. This name becomes so holy and revered that probably around the time of Jesus Rabbis began to not say it. Instead when they would refer to Yahweh they would call him simply “Ha Shem – the name” or more often “Adonai – Lord.” Yahweh is the one who created the heavens and the earth, Yahweh is the one who rescues his people from captivity in Egypt, Yahweh is the God who is jealous and commands that he alone be worshipped, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD (Yahweh) our God the LORD (Yahweh) is one.” In Isaiah 45, God is speaking about his power in salvation and his uniqueness. He ridicules idols that people pray to but cannot save them. He echoes the confession of Israel, “Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other…To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” The God who says “there is no other,” who is “one,” who commanded his people not to have any other gods before him, has given his title, authority, and power to his son. So that when people hear the name of Jesus the worship due to God the Father is given to the Son so that God the Father is glorified. Augustus solidified his claim as Emperor because Julius Caesar left him the name and title Caesar. God the Father solidified Jesus as savior and Lord by directing the worship, adoration, and obedience due to God the Father to His Son and transferring the power of his name Yahweh to the name of Jesus.
This has been more theologically abstract sermon than I usually preach. You might be, as I was, wondering – so what? It’s great that Jesus came and died on the cross, it is amazing that he left the power and privilege of communion with His Father to be with us. I see the connection between Yahweh and Jesus and how God is glorified when we worship the Son…but how does this affect me? Today is the Feast of the Holy Name. Thus the emphasis on Jesus’ name. There is power in that name. There is healing, salvation, reconciliation, hope, joy, and so many other things wrapped up in that name – Jesus Christ. Here’s the thing, Jesus who descended from God to be human, not only human but a servant, not only a servant but someone who came to die a gruesome death so that we might live, shares his inheritance with us. As God exalts the name of Jesus all those who share in his name are exalted. Hear what Paul says to the Galatians, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to promise.” Paul would say elsewhere that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” When God looks at us he doesn’t see a little girl pretending to be a princess. He sees a daughter who is a princess because she bears the name of Jesus who is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. – Amen.