Coming in Humility - Advent Reflection - Week Four

These reflections can used in a variety of ways, by individuals or groups, please amend as necessary. The complete series on PDF including introduction is available here.advent

Someone read aloud: Phil. 2.1-11.

Reflection. Preferably read by one voice, with everyone having a copy to follow.

Have you ever listened to a piece of music which takes you on an emotional journey: music which speaks so clearly of loss, pain and being brought low, that you could weep just to hear it played? But then it comes to a phrase where it reaches the lowest point and from there the music lifts you up again until you are soaring with the eagles. This poem is a bit like that. It takes us, step by step, through the process of Jesus being brought low. He who was ‘in the very nature of God’, didn’t hang on to that status, that glory, that position of perfection that we cannot yet understand.
No, he
“made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

The poem moves him, line by line from Godly glory to human likeness. I don’t think this word ‘likeness’ means just ‘something like a human being’. I think it’s a far stronger word than that. It’s telling us that he became what we are. That he emptied himself of his nature as God, to enter fully into the experience of being human. This self-emptying, or ‘kenosis’, has a depth of meaning which we could plumb for all our lives and never reach the end of it. How can God ‘un-be’ himself and be part of what he has created? Some might call it a contradiction in terms; I call it a holy paradox.
It’s what we celebrate so enthusiastically each Christmas. This is a Christmas carol from Paul to us.

God emptied out what he was and poured it out at our feet, rather like some offerings were poured out in front of the altar in Old Testament sacrifices, or like oil was poured out in anointing people. God poured himself out, for you, for me in sacrifice and blessing. And all that just by his identifying with us.

He was born into human history at a time when the Roman Empire held sway, under the supreme command of Caesar Augustus. In his book of Advent readings, Stephen Rand plots the history of the period for us. Octavius, the great-nephew and heir of Julius Caesar, was still a teenager when he came to power. He later re-named himself Caesar Augustus, (‘the exalted’).
“he was given …the status of the son of a god, and the award of a crown as the saviour of lives. In his life he was worshipped by many, his will and essence recognised as divine”

One of his greatest achievements was the establishment of an age of political stability known as the Pax Romana, Roman peace. At the same period of history, the son of a carpenter’s wife was born in disadvantageous circumstances in a part of that Roman Empire. We believe he was The Son of God, The Saviour of the World, The Prince of Peace. He was not exalted then, but humble.

Jesus then went on to a much more obvious sacrifice when he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Humility took on a whole new meaning at Calvary. God becomes part of his own Creation; he lives out obedience; he even dies for us, and that death is one not merely of humility, but also of humiliation. It is hard to grasp that this can be true. And Paul almost sings us this poem, lower and lower to its depth of emptiness, before the music starts to carry Jesus back up to glory again:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place”
and we will be thinking more of that in our last study.

Christ’s ‘attitude’ is one of humility and the key to that is obedience.
Will Jesus’ second coming be in humility? I think we can deduce that it will, for even in glory, he will be obedient to the Father. Meanwhile the King is waiting for his Kingdom to come to completion, but is prepared to go on waiting if it means more chance for new citizens to join.

All of which now leaves us this advent asking: how can we have this humility? Val Doonican, (apologies to all of you born after about 1975!), sang about chasing the ‘bright, illusive butterfly of love’. It’s always just out of reach. Most Christians find a similar problem with humility: the moment we get near and think we’ve got it, we are so pleased with ourselves that it rather undoes the whole attempt! Humility is something that others can see in us, but we need to somehow forget about and not be aware of. This strong hint that humility is linked with obedience is perhaps one way in to getting to grips with it. Another is Paul’s practical advice about not looking only to our own interests but also the interests of others. Note that we are to take care of ourselves, too, but not exclusively so.

Paul seems to be trying to establish some sort of harmony in this young church, where differences have become more significant than what they held in common. He appeals to them on the grounds that if they have benefited from being united to Christ, they could show it by being united to one another. And because he goes on to urge them not to act out of vain conceit or selfish ambition, we can deduce that there were some pretty big egos competing for attention in that fellowship, (if ‘fellowship’ is a suitable word for such a community!).

For me, a huge part of Christian discipleship is about becoming someone ‘with attitude’, -Christ’s attitude. It’s about being likeminded with Jesus. One of my favourite hymns begins: ”May the mind of Christ my Saviour live in me from day to day”. It is my prayer, though I know it will take my whole life to work through it. But that is no excuse for me not to be striving for it daily.

The complete series on PDF including introduction is available here.

E. Christine Bailey, 15/11/2008