Sunday, March 16, 2008

Self-Emptying

Isaiah 50.4-9a, Philippians 2.1-11
This is a passage about God's Suffering Servant. But the Servant is portrayed not as a victim, but as a decisive figure who offers encouragement to the weary, listens attentively to God's will and who suffers only because he steadfastly confronts God's opponents instead of turning back. He knows that he will not be disgraced or put to shame because the Lord will help him, and therefore he sets his face like flint to those who are abusing him. He urges like-minded people to stand alongside him and defies his adversaries to 'bring on' the moment of confrontation because he is confident that he will soon be vindicated. No one will be able to pronounce him guilty when the cavalry arrives to rescue him.

Is this the Suffering Servant whom Christians would identify with Jesus? Not quite. For Jesus did suffer disgrace and shame when he was betrayed and killed upon the cross. God did still vindicate him, but not before his death.

When the King of the Goths first heard the story of Jesus' crucifixion he said, 'If only I and my warriors had been there, the Lord Jesus need not have died.' It was a noble sentiment, but the King had entirely missed the point of the story. Jesus had to die in order to give us an enduring victory over suffering and death. In that sense his destiny diverges from that of the Suffering Servant in this song.

It would be nice to think that whenever we stand up to tyranny, bullying or oppression we will always be vindicated. But sometimes we not only have to suffer to overcome injustice, we also have to risk defeat and even death.

The famous hymn about the self-emptying love revealed in Jesus' life and death is the traditional focus of today's passage from Paul's letter to the Christians in Philippi, but the preceding verses are equally interesting. They describe the character of Jesus. He did not look to his own interests, but to the interests of others. His humility led him to regard the well-being of other people as more important than his own safety or status. He had no selfish ambition or conceit. Instead he was motivated solely by compassion and sympathy. This is what self-emptying means. It means being prepared to give up control over one's own destiny and submitting to the will of God like a slave.

In Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, the heroine Elizabeth Bennet says of Mr Darcy, 'Indeed, he has no improper pride.' But, if Jesus is the model for our behaviour, pride is always improper.

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