So far in our journey to discover the heart of Jesus’ being God with us, we have looked at the “God” side of things. Today, we’re going to flip them on their head to see more clearly what it means that Jesus is “with us.” I’ll give you a hint: It reveals a humility that is truly unique in a proud world. Read on in the third part of our series, God with Us, to find out just why this idea is such a good one.
Power to the Nobodies
We love rags-to-riches stories. We love hearing about people who are down on their luck, but by working really hard (and receiving a bit of good fortune), suddenly coming into a life of ease and plenty. There’s simply something that feels just to us when the arrogant rich are brought low and the humble poor are lifted up. Think about how many of our stories include this kind of an element in them. Cinderella is perhaps the most famous of them. But that same theme appears all over the place. If you think through the list of Disney Princesses, nearly half of them (there are twelve total) started out poor and became a princess because she married the prince. Of the rest, nearly all of them went through a season when they lost all the trappings of wealth before coming back into it again at the end of their story. We want to see this dramatic transition happen because most of us don’t feel rich and live vicariously through their good fortune.
It may not surprise you to learn that I think there’s even more to this love of rags-to-riches stories than merely wishing we could take part in them ourselves. I would argue that at the heart of all of these stories lies at least a seed of the Gospel. The Gospel, the best story of all, lies at the heart of nearly all of our stories, but especially this kind. They resonate so strongly with the Gospel because the Gospel itself is essentially one grand rags-to-riches story. In the story of the Gospel, we are the ones who are poor and miserable. We are locked in a trap of our own making, yet we cannot get out on our own. Hopeless on our own, our good God looked down from His throne with love in His heart and came on a mission to rescue us, to redeem us from our prison cell, to make us His children, and by that heirs of His heavenly fortune. In Christ, we become the sons and daughters of the king with full and unmitigated access to all the abundance of His kingdom. It’s an awfully good story. It’s a story that lies in the depths of all of our hearts. It’s a story we long to be a part of. And so we keep telling it over and over without even realizing it. This morning, as we continue forward in this season of Advent together, I want to take a look with you at how even God Himself took part in this story so that He could write it on our hearts.
This morning we are in the third part of our Advent series, God with Us. For three weeks now, we have been taking a look at the incredible idea that in Jesus, we have the God of the universe dwelling among us. As we draw nearer and nearer to Christmas day, we talk and tell stories and sing songs about a baby. All of this commotion for a baby. And this is all entirely right and proper. But while we should absolutely celebrate this baby in a way that makes Him approachable for everyone, we do so with all the more joy and gladness because He was far more than just a baby. He was God with us. In the first two parts of our journey, we have examined where the idea that Jesus is God with us came from in the first place, and dived a bit deeper into Jesus’ divine nature with the help of Paul’s great elevation of Christ’s glory in his letter to the Colossian believers.
Having now talked about the “God” side of “God with us,” this morning, as promised, we are going to turn our attention to the other side of the equation. As glorious as the image of Christ Paul painted in the opening of his letter to the church in Colossae is, if we turn just a page or two back in our Bibles, in another letter from Paul written from about the same time period as Colossians, we find a picture of glory that is the perfect complement to the one we saw last week. With the Colossian believers, Paul elevated the image of Christ beyond the stars. For the Philippian believers, he brings things back down to earth in some really important ways. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to the New Testament letter of Philippians, and let’s take a look at this together.
As you find your way to the letter, Philippians is perhaps Paul’s most joyful letter. Nowhere here do we find the fury and passion of Galatians or the Corinthian letters, or the intellectual instruction of Romans or Ephesians. Instead, we find Paul writing with warmth and joy to a people who had endured many a hard time and were struggling under the weight of the world, yet who were nonetheless persistent in their faithfulness. Paul was writing to offer them encouragement and hope. He was writing from the midst of his own hard circumstances. A couple of years or so had passed since he wrote to the Colossian church and his situation had deteriorated to the point that he knew his end was imminent. Far from making him morose, though, the fact that he was soon going to be with His Lord seems to have animated Paul even more. Because of this we find him calling the members of the church in Philippi to reach forward toward the prize of Christ with all the energy they can muster. In order for this to accomplish in them what they hope, however, this all needs to be done with the attitude of Christ Himself. We find this particular call beginning in Philippians 2:5. Look with me at what was probably an early creed or perhaps a song the early church sang together in worship.
“Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus.” That’s the important preface for everything that follows. If these followers of Jesus are going to accomplish anything of lasting value in their lives or in the world around them, it will only be when they are reflecting their Lord not merely in their words or actions, but even in the attitude they bring to those things. This, of course, raises an important question: What was the attitude of Jesus? Well, if you were Jesus what would your attitude be? And before you answer that, consider a few things about Jesus that could play into your decision. For starters, He was the Son of God. As the Son of the king of the universe, He was the heir to power and prestige and position unlike anything anyone around Him would ever experience. Even when he was standing face-to-face with the most powerful men in the region, He was never not the most important man in the room. He was always the most powerful man in the room wherever He went. He could raise the dead. No one else around Him could do anything like that. He was also unfailingly the smartest man in the room…and the contest wasn’t close. It was a little like someone with a Ph.D. in astrophysics teaching preschool, except on an exponentially greater scale. And if you want to add one more element just for fun, Jesus was always the most righteous man in the room wherever He went. In a contest of morality, Jesus won every time without fail. No one could compete with Him in a battle of goodness.
In light of all of this and more, Jesus had every reason in the world to walk around with an enormous chip on His shoulder. He of all people could have carried Himself with arrogance that was entirely justified. No one else around Him was on anything that even remotely resembled His level. It was like comparing apples and planets. Speaking in the most generous terms possible, they may have had a similar shape, but that was about as far as you could go. And yet, do we ever find anything that looks like this coming from Jesus in the Gospels? Not even close.
“Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.” There’s so much here that is just amazing. In case you missed last week, Paul starts with the assertion that Jesus is God. “Existing in the form of” is the best way we can translate Paul’s Greek here, but once again to counter those who would find evidence of Jesus’ being somehow less than fully God, the construction is talking about the reality of a thing. Another, really clunky, way you might translate what Paul is trying to express here would be something like this: In spite of the fact that the reality of Jesus corresponded perfectly with the reality of God…” In other words, the two things are really one and the same thing. In short and again: Jesus is God.
So, in spite of being God, Jesus the man did not consider equality with God a thing He could justifiably exploit for His own benefit. You may have a translation that uses the phrase “to be grasped” instead of “to be exploited” like mine does. That’s a more literal rendering of what Paul originally wrote, but the idea is the same either way. Whether He was taking them or simply using them, Jesus had all the advantages of being God right at His disposal. All of them. There was never a situation He ever faced that had to go in some way other than His way. He could have played the “God card” anytime He pleased and been perfectly within His rights to do it because it was His. It wasn’t like He would have been trying to live big on somebody else’s dime. He owned the whole mint. The coins bore His image.
Think about what you would have done if you were in His sandals. Our culture tells us all the time to use whatever gifts we have to our own advantage. If you have something that gives you an edge over someone else, use it. If you are entitled to a good parking spot, then park there. If you have the ability to kick someone out of their seat because you want an upgrade, send them packing. If you have a string to pull that will get you promoted above the other people in your office, yank on it good and hard. Do whatever you have to do to utilize whatever advantages you have over the people around you to make sure that your life is better and easier than their life is. That’s how not just our culture, but our world has always worked. No one would have faulted Jesus if He just once went to a restaurant, saw the corner table by the window was booked, and said, “Well, I’m God, so I’m going to need you to politely ask them to move to another seat.” But He didn’t. Ever. Not even once.
Do you know who He used all of those advantages for instead? Us. You and me. All the people around Him. Everyone else. Whatever strengths He had (and, being God, He had all of the strengths) He consistently leveraged them for the benefit of the people around Him. As God the Son, Jesus was seated in glory at the right hand of God the Father and no one could have moved Him from that position unless He wanted to go. He didn’t have to experience any lack or discomfort of any kind. And yet, when the Father looked over and said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea,” His bags were packed and He was ready to go in the blink of an eye.
He “did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” So, instead of using His divine status to enjoy a cushy existence of being…God…Jesus emptied Himself, Paul says. He tells us Jesus took on the “form of a servant” and “the likeness of humanity.” If you think about it very long or hard, Paul’s wording here can start to seem a bit tricky, so let me see if I can tease this out just a bit for us. Jesus was at one and the same time fully God and fully human. He emptied Himself of all His God abilities trading those out for human limitations. If you want to be a bit too generalizing about it, Jesus let go of all of His “omni’s,” that is, those things that make God different from us. No more being all-knowing or all-powerful or all-present. He was limited by time and space. He didn’t know things like germ theory or quantum physics. He couldn’t move mountains with His bare hands. He was limited so as to be like us in every way save one: He didn’t have a sinful nature. That’s where the part about His having the “form” of a servant comes into play. While Jesus was totally capable of sinning, He didn’t have a sinful nature that made His choosing sin a foregone conclusion like it is for us. Absent that alone, though, Jesus was fully like one of us. He was God with us as one of us.
And if that was the end of it, that would be pretty astounding humility on God’s part. I mean, there were stories in various ancient religions about gods taking on the form of humanity and moving among us—often having children with us—but other than looking like us, there was never any question as to their nature. They were still fully the gods they always were. They simply put on humanity as a kind of costume while they entertained themselves for a while. If things ever got dicey, though, they ripped that costume right off and started letting us have it again. Jesus was something different from this. The gods of old never let themselves be bothered with things like being inconvenienced or experiencing pain. They were gods after all. The idea of a god doing something like that was totally incomprehensible to us. After all, we definitely wouldn’t deign ourselves to the limitations of humanity if we weren’t stuck with them. Yet that is exactly what Jesus did. Look at the rest of v. 7: “And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross.”
This would have been a moment when anyone who wasn’t already a convinced and committed follower of Jesus in the room hearing this letter read for the first time would have collectively gasped in shock. It was a completely insane idea that a god would submit himself to death. To think that anyone would voluntarily submit to crucifixion was beyond the pale. Nobody was buying this kind of nonsense. People with power and authority simply didn’t do things beneath their station. Not only were they not going to do something like that, but their doing it would have been an offensive affront to the sensibilities of the rest of the culture. People then understood their place in society and had no real visions of departing from it. If Jesus was really God, then He would have been expected to act like a god.
The trouble was, though: Jesus wasn’t that kind of a god. He wasn’t a god who put himself and his interests first. He leveraged what advantages He had for the sake of others. He put them—us—first and Himself second. Our interests were elevated above His own. And if it took His own life in order to accomplish this goal, then He was prepared to lay it down willingly. Such humility simply goes beyond what we can grasp on our own. There’s a reason no other god from any other religion has ever been like this. We made those gods up, and this kind of thinking is completely alien to us. Everybody wants to be a somebody, but Jesus willingly became a nobody. Jesus became a nobody. Jesus is God with us—a bunch of nobodies.
But He didn’t stay a nobody. When He did all of this, when He honored the Father’s plans with His life and death, the Father rewarded Him for His efforts. Listen as Paul describes what came of all of this. Come back to the text with me in v. 9: “For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
When Jesus became a nobody, submitting Himself to the Father’s plans to the point of death on a cross, the Father responded by making Him a somebody. In fact, He became the ultimate somebody. He did not consider His divinity a thing to be exploited for His own benefit, so God the Father trumpeted the news from the highest heaven: This Jesus is My Son and He is somebody. In fact, He is so much of a somebody that you’re all going to worship Him now. Jesus became a nobody who God made into a somebody.
This is all well and good, but other than the clear directive that we should all be worshiping Jesus as Lord, is Paul getting at anything here that would apply to our lives more directly? I mean, sure, it is good enough all by itself to know we should be worshiping Jesus, but is there anything else? Actually, there is. Paul actually began this section with that part. Jump back a few verses and look at this with me starting in v. 1: “If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, make my joy complete by thinking the same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others.” And how do we do this thing that goes so directly against our natural instincts? By adopting “the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus.” In other words, if you are a follower of Jesus, you need to follow His example.
And maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “This all sounds crazy. Who would voluntarily make himself a nobody in hopes of possibly becoming a somebody?” If that’s at all where you are on this, rest assured you are in good company. That’s how pretty much everybody everywhere across the full spectrum of human history has thought about this kind of an idea. As I said a second ago: this thinking is alien to us. At the same time, if you’ve ever even internally expected some level of humility from your leaders, this is why. Jesus’ example was so powerful that it totally changed our basic expectations of our leaders. It’s why we sometimes call politicians public servants. We expect them to serve us. Or, at least, we expect them to give the impression they are serving us. If we’re honest, we don’t really think most of them think much about that at all…because we wouldn’t. Nobody in the ancient world would have even imagined such a thing as this to be the case. But at least the public perception of things operating this way now is there because of Jesus’ example. Jesus became a nobody who God made into a somebody, and now that story beats at the center of our chests.
Okay, but what does any of this have to do with Advent? How does this help us prepare to receive Jesus? For that, we need to go back just a second to what the angel told Joseph in his dream. Do you remember what it was? The angel told him he was to name his son Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is God with us. In spite of being fully God and having access to all of the trappings of divinity, He gave it all up; He walked away from all of it in order to become one of us. He became a nobody. But He played His God the Father-directed part so well that when His work was finished, God made Him the ultimate somebody. Jesus became a nobody who God made into a somebody. Yet with His seat at the Father’s right hand now secured, Jesus still takes all of His divine status and uses it for us. More specifically, He uses it to save us. He came to save His people (a group that includes us) from their—from our—sins. Fully glorified now after emptying Himself and becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross, saving us is exactly what He has the power and desire to do. Jesus became a nobody who God made into a somebody so He could save everybody.
When you are preparing to receive Jesus, you are preparing to receive the God who created the universe and everything in it; the God who not only has the power to save you, but the desire to do it. He pulled out all the stops and gave up everything that was rightly His so that you could enter into a right relationship with Him. Jesus became a nobody who God made into a somebody so He could save everybody.
The question you need to ask yourself is this one: Are you a part of this “everybody”? You don’t have to be. He’s not going to force Himself on you. If you want to stay where you are in life, trying to get by well enough on your own, He’s not going to make you leave it. If you stay there, though, don’t think that your story is ever going to become fully the rags-to-riches epic you want it to be. You may hit a high point in this life, but eventually this life is going to end and so will your story…unless you’ve made your story part of the Gospel story. You see, the one thing all of our rags-to-riches stories have in common and which the Gospel story makes explicit is that no one ever gets from rags to riches on her own. There’s always someone, somewhere along the way who contributes something she could not have managed by herself. Cinderella had her fairy godmother. Snow White had the dwarves. You have Jesus…if you’ll receive Him.
And you should receive Him. Besides, Jesus is better than all these other helpers. In this story, He didn’t simply reach down from on high to give a little boost without ever really getting His hands dirty. Jesus entered fully into the story so that He could experience it alongside us, and when He went back to His rightful riches, He gave us a path to experience them with Him; to leave our rags for His riches. Jesus became a nobody who God made into a somebody so He could save everybody. Your rags can become His riches if you will only receive Him when He comes. Receive Him now in your heart and when His second Advent dawns, you will be a joyful part of the welcoming party. Jesus became a nobody who God made into a somebody so He could save everybody. May you become a part of that “everybody” today.