Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Faithful Love of Your Humble God” (Philippians 2:5-11)
Palm Sunday: April 14, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Since my family and I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia for eleven years before moving to Valdosta, there is no way I can avoid talking about the University of Virginia’s first ever men’s basketball national championship last week. But first, a little background from last year…
On March 16, 2018 the UVA Men’s basketball team became the first number one seed to ever lose to a sixteen seed in the first round of the March Madness tournament. Prior to that game sixteen seed teams were a combined 0 – 135 against one seeds. Going into that game against number the sixteen seed University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers the Virginia Cavaliers were twenty point favorites. They had a record of 31-3, had set the record for most ACC wins in a season and had just won the ACC tournament. But instead of winning by twenty points, as had been predicted, number one seeded UVA lost to the sixteen seed by twenty points, 74-54. At the postgame press conference UVA coach Tony Bennett put it this way:
We got whipped. It wasn’t even close…I told our guys we had a historic season, a historic season in terms of most wins in the ACC. A week ago we were cutting down the nets and the confetti was falling. And then we make history by being the first one-seed to lose. I’m sure a lot of people will be happy about that, and it stings.
Coach Bennett later revealed in an interview with USA Today that as humiliating as that loss had been, there had still been an upside:
I’m thankful for what happened because it drew me closer to my faith in the Lord, drew me closer to my wife and children, just because you realize what’s unconditional. In those spots when the world is telling you you’re a failure, you’re a loser, and you’re the worst thing going and all that stuff you say, “OK, what really matters?”
In their first round game of this year’s March Madness tournament UVA, again a number one seed, found themselves again trailing to the sixteen seed Gardener-Webb University Runnin’ Bulldogs by fourteen points in the first half. Everyone was thinking, “Here we go again,” but they rallied and won. And last Monday night they won the national championship in overtime 85 – 77 over Texas Tech. When the final whistle blew and UVA had capped their historic worst to first run, Coach Bennett bowed his head and simply said, “Thank you. I’m humbled, Lord.” And when he talked to his team in the locker room afterward, he told them, “Promise me you’ll remain humble. Don’t let this change you.”
No doubt last week Tony Bennett and the players who had experienced that “worst to first” run with him received lots of cheers and kudos from the very same people who had told them last year, “you’re a failure, you’re a loser, and you’re the worst thing going.” People can be so fickle.
Along these lines in 1923 Jimmy Cox wrote a song that became a blues standard, a song entitled “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” It has been performed by many artists but most famously by Eric Clapton and his fellow bandmates of Derek and the Dominos on their masterpiece 1970 double album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs as Clapton sings:
Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spent all my money, I just did not care
Took all my friends out for a good time
Bought bootleg liquor, champagne and wine
Then I began to fall so low
Lost all my good friends
I did not have nowhere to go…
‘Cause nobody knows you
When you’re down and out
In your pocket not one penny
And as for friends you don’t have any
When you finally get back up on your feet again
Everybody wants to be your long-lost friend
It’s mighty strange without a doubt
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out
On this Palm Sunday we are reminded that during the final week of Jesus’ earthly life he went from first to worst. At his triumphal entry people were metaphorically “cutting down the nets” and “the confetti was falling” or rather the palm branches were falling, onto the road upon which Jesus entered Jerusalem, with shouts of “Blessed is he that comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” chanted by the crowd. Later that same week the crowd began chanting something quite different, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And the crowd got what they wanted, and Jesus was crucified. In five days Jesus went from first to worst in the most horrifying and painful way imaginable.
The crowds during Holy Week could not have been any more fickle, and yet Jesus could not have remained any more faithful. And Jesus also remained humble. None of the fickleness of the crowds changed him, not at all. Palm Sunday is always a stark reminder of the fickleness of people and the faithfulness of God.
In his Letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul emphasizes the importance of humility in the church. In the verses immediately preceding today’s passage he wrote, “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” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Then the apostle points to the ultimate example of what this looks like by describing the humility of our Lord and Savior Jesus 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 (Philippians 2:5-8).
Jesus humbled himself in becoming a human being at his incarnation, and humbled himself again in becoming a servant. In response to his disciples arguing among themselves who was the greatest, Jesus had told them this about his humility, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus had also taught, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
Jesus did not just teach about this kind of humility, he lived it. He humbled himself yet again at the Last Supper and washed the disciples’ feet—including, yes, even Judas Iscariot’s feet—and the next day humbled himself yet again in dying on a cross, a death so ignominious, so degrading, so awful, so humiliating that Roman citizens were not lawfully allowed to be crucified. But Jesus was not a Roman citizen. Jesus was the Humble King of a kingdom marked by humility and love, the Kingdom of God.
As Jesus the Humble King suffered that humiliating death on the cross, passersby derided him, “You’re a failure, you’re a loser, and you’re the worst thing going.” And Jesus just took it. And Jesus just kept humbling himself. And Jesus just kept praying, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). And then Jesus just died. His humiliating suffering and death were over. On a cosmic scale and for the sake of a fickle world, Jesus had humbled himself to the ultimate degree and gone from first to worst. Jesus did nothing from selfish ambition. He considered others, including you, better than himself. And how did God the Father respond to this humility of his Son? Paul continues:
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 (Philippians 2:9-11).
Jesus was raised from the lowest place, the grave, and exalted to the highest place, the right hand of the Father. You could say Jesus’ humility took him from first to worst and back to first again. And the Risen Jesus remains as humble and faithful as ever, bearing on his hands and feet and side for all eternity the scars of his humiliating death for a fickle world, the scars of his humiliating death for you.
So on this Palm Sunday may the Holy Spirit help you “realize what’s unconditional” and remind you “what really matters”: the faithful love of your humble God, who not only knows you when you’re down and out, but also loves you when you’re down and out. Finally, scripture tells us the only proper way to respond to the faithful love of your humble God, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:10, KJV).