Palm Sunday / The Annunciation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Philippians 2:5-11
In Christ Jesus, “The King of heavenly grace,” who “Came down from His exalted throne / To save our fallen race” (ELH 127, v. 2), dear fellow redeemed:
I have never heard of a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company giving up the job to become a minimum-wage worker of the same company. It is possible that this could happen, but not very likely. An “undercover boss” might spend some time with workers at the bottom of the corporate ladder, but he will not stay there. Human beings are not inclined to give up what they have gained and move down instead of up. We want to have more success, better our standing, rise higher. This is why no one could have imagined what God would do for mankind, and how He would go about it.
Suppose you were the CEO of a company: What would you do if an employee of yours broke all the rules for the job, attacked the people around him, stole from the company, and threatened you? Not only would you fire him, you would also expect him to be arrested and punished for his crimes. In the same way we who have broken God’s holy Commandments again and again should expect to be removed from His gracious employ and punished for all our sins.
But that is not what happened. Instead, God sent one of His angels to inform a young, poor woman named Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:31-33). It is not impossible, though not very likely, for a king to rise up from such poor circumstances. But this was not just any king; this was the Messiah. This was God come in the flesh.
Human reason cannot comprehend these things. How could a virgin be pregnant? How could the tiny Child in her womb be the eternal God? How could the Lord’s death win life for us? This is so difficult to grasp because Jesus’ power and glory are not displayed like we would expect them to be.
If we were to plan the arrival of God on earth, we would envision it much differently than how it happened. First of all, we would choose a woman of different status—certainly someone known for her good deeds, but someone more prominent than Mary of Nazareth. When told that Jesus was from that town, one of His future disciples remarked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). Then we would also expect the God-Man to step onto the world’s stage with stunning demonstrations of heavenly power and with swift judgment against the wicked. In short, we would imagine that the Lord of All would act like the Lord of All.
But the Lord of heaven, begotten of the Father from eternity, “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” This is an even greater step down than CEO to minimum-wage earner. In that case, it is still exchanging one human position for another. But God the Son stepped down from His position of power and authority over heaven and earth to become the Servant of men.
What caused Him to do this? Was it because He considered the human race worthy of the effort? Did He see enough goodness, enough promise in man, that He was willing to help them out? No, the “redeeming quality” was in God, not in people. It was God the Father’s love for the pinnacle of His creation that caused Him to send His Son to become Man (Jn. 3:16). He did not have to talk His Son into it; His Son obeyed Him without hesitation. His will perfectly conformed to His Father’s, even though He must endure intense agony and punishment for sin. The text says, “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
It was in humility that Jesus revealed His greatness and glory. Many people rejected Him as Lord because He did not fit their picture of the Messiah. He did not act like they would if they were God incarnate. Which was exactly the point. Jesus was the opposite of what mankind had become since the fall into sin. He came without a hint of pride and without any pressure to prove Himself to the satisfaction of sinners.
All of this was quite unexpected—The Lord of All Becomes Servant of All?! The disciples did not understand why their great Teacher must go to Jerusalem to die an ugly death. The people on Palm Sunday did not understand His purpose in coming to Jerusalem “humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). Pontius Pilate did not understand why, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,… he opened not his mouth” (Is. 53:7) when false accusations were leveled against Him. No one can rightly understand Jesus’ sacrifice in our place. It required a humility unknown and unobtainable by any of us.
And yet our text says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” We should have the attitude that Jesus had and conduct ourselves as He did. In the verses just before today’s text, we are urged to “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4). This is the how Jesus was. He told His disciples that although He was their Lord, yet He was among them as one who serves (Lk. 22:27). He stooped down and washed their feet just as they “also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:14).
This is not how our self-centered, entitlement culture operates. We are taught to demand respect. We should fight for the benefits we deserve. We should never let anyone question the decisions we make or how we live our lives. We should never have to back down from anyone. So in other words, everyone else should serve our interests and make sacrifices for us, but they better not expect the same treatment in return.
Isn’t it obvious why there is so much hatred and bitterness in our society? It is not the fault of our political leaders or the media or anything else outside of us. The problem is in our hearts. Our hearts are full of selfishness and pride. If we loved our neighbor as God demands, we would view no one as below us. Serving others would never feel like a chore. We would give with no thought of recognition or reward. We would show respect even when the same courtesy was not returned to us.
If anyone had cause to be offended by others, it was Jesus. He did wrong to no one. He was the perfect neighbor. Yet He was betrayed, tortured, and crucified. How did He respond to such indignities, such injustice? “Father, forgive them,” He said, “for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Who can comprehend the sacrifice? Who can understand the humility?
In a sermon on this text, Martin Luther said that “Were we similarly to humble ourselves, and even to go beyond Christ in humility—a thing, however, impossible—we should do nothing extraordinary. Our humility would still reek of sin in comparison with his. Suppose Christ [were] to humble himself in the least degree—but a hair’s breadth, so to speak—below the most exalted angels; and suppose we were to humble ourselves to a position a thousand times more abased than the devils in hell; yet our humility would not compare in the least with that of Christ.” (Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 7, p. 170)
Nothing like this had ever happened before or ever would again. God became Man. Would you become a mosquito to save the mosquitos? Probably not—better to have them die. But God became Man to save sinful mankind. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary when the angel visited her on that history-altering day. The Church remembers this annunciation—this announcement to Mary—on March 25th, which is exactly nine months before Christmas.
This year, March 25th also marks the start of Holy Week. This week, we see why God became Man, why He humbled Himself so completely. One of our Christmas hymns makes the connection:
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!” (ELH 145, v. 2).
The Lord “made Himself nothing,” so you could have everything. The first pastor of this parish, the Rev. U. V. Koren, explained that “God’s Son came down to bring us up to God. He became poor to make us rich. He took our condition on Himself to give us His. He reconciled God to us so that we might be reconciled to God” (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1, p. 166). He did not come to serve us because we are worthy of His service. By nature, we are just as self-focused, prideful, impatient, unkind, and unloving as everybody else.
But Jesus did not let the nastiness of His neighbors turn His love away. He continued on His mission with a clear conscience, a definite purpose, and an obedient heart. He lived a perfect life for you, me, and all sinners who are not as we should be, and He willingly gave Himself over to death to obtain our forgiveness.
God the Father accepted His humble sacrifice on our behalf and raised Jesus from the dead. Now “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.” But our Brother in flesh did not return to the Father’s right hand alone. He came down to our level, in order to bring us up to His. He lifts us up from our low and despised position in this world to reign with Him in heaven. As another of our Christmas hymns says,
He serves that I a lord may be;
A great exchange indeed!
Could Jesus’ love do more for me
To help me in my need,
To help me in my need? (ELH 148, v. 7)
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(painting is “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)