“Sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Do you remember that saying? I asked my year 10 students if they had heard it before, and most hadn’t. Apparently, it’s no longer a part of the collective memory of our culture. Which is probably just as well, because we all know that it’s not really true, don’t we? The sticks and stones part is true, but names also can really hurt us. In fact, there’s even been a whole book that’s been written about how it isn’t true [show slide]. That’s because words hurt us deep inside, in our hearts and souls.
In tonight’s reading, we see Jesus, among other things, enduring the ridiculing of his enemies. The irony, of course, is that he is actually the King the soldiers are taunting him for being, but that doesn’t make the mocking any less hurtful or difficult to endure. Not only does Jesus endure verbal abuse, he also suffers the “sticks and stones” of being spat upon, stripped of his clothes and his dignity, humiliated, jeered and tortured with a crown of thorns.
All this begs the question: Why? Why does Jesus endure all this? What is God the Father up to in allowing his own dear Son to suffer as he does, and why does Jesus accept it with such meekness, such resignation? In many ways, this indignity signals the entire purpose and work of Jesus in coming into this world in the first place. Self-emptying. It’s what St. Paul is talking about when he writes:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…[and] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
In the incarnation, God emptied himself of his divine honour, stooping down into our humanity, into our degradation, down into the muck and the mire of our own sin and mockery of God, down into our death, in order to draw us and all people up to the place of honour, the right hand of God.
Notice that God does not wait for us to come crawling to him, pleading our cause. No, if I may use this same language (which sounds almost blasphemous) God comes crawling to us. God does not pout or take offence when we upset or insult him, but rather with infinite patience he comes to us to restore us to himself.
Now this is very different from the gods of the ancient myths, for example. In those stories you hear of the gods who were offended by sin, and how they respond in anger, with retribution and vengeance. Many other religions today portray God in this same way. But not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, he comes to us, assuming our stance, so that through this condescension, this self-emptying, we might assume his stance. This is a blessed exchange indeed!
Now this is so counter-intuitive that even the wisest philosophers and most perception of the prophets – like John the Baptist and Jesus’ own disciples – don’t get it. Consider John’s objection at Jesus’ Baptism: “I need to be baptised by you,” John so reasonable asserts, “yet you come to me?” Or think of Peter, who initially refused to have his feet washed by Jesus. Peter could not bear all of that humiliation and couldn’t understand why Jesus would. And yet, that is precisely what Jesus does – he bends down, stoops low, even down to filthy feet, to wash them, to make them and indeed all of us clean.
In all of this we come to realise how different God does things to the way we would do them. God doesn’t cling to his dignity and prerogatives. We spend a lot of time doing this, don’t we? Building ourselves up. Letting others know how important we are, how holy, how good we are, especially in comparison to… [you can fill in the gap]. But the ways of God are indeed not our ways.
Our ways are disordered by sin. The ancients described sin as curvatus in se (that is, we are curved in on ourselves) – putting ourselves first, looking to our own needs, making ourselves gods in the place of God. But when we do that, we make a pitiful exchange – the all-powerful Lord for a very small and powerless substitute.
What God wanted and still wants is to restore us and all of humanity to right order. That BTW is what the word “righteousness” means; to be “rightly ordered”, with God first, so that everything else may fall in its proper place. That’s what Jesus meant when he said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [that is, everything else we need for our bodies and lives] will be added to this as well.”
And how do we go about seeking God’s kingdom first? We do this by accepting in faith the condescension of God. By letting Jesus be the centre of our broken lives, allowing him to come into the muck and the mire of our sin and acknowledging our need for forgiveness, each and every day.
The self-emptying attitude of Christ is to be our attitude as well. In order to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jesus, we too must continually empty ourselves and accept that it is only in the posture of a beggar (as Luther says) that we receive from God, with empty hands and contrite hearts. “Nothing in my hand I bring,” as the old hymn puts it, but “simply to thy cross, I cling”.
For if it’s good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for you and me as well. In the name of Jesus. Amen.