Thursday, March 12, 2009

Stations of the Cross 2

Message preached on Sunday, March 8

Via Dolorosa
(Latin for “Way of Sorrows”) is the name given to the road that is supposedly the one that our Lord walked from the court of Pilate to the hill of Calvary. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and others from denominations similarly heavy on liturgical practices even today walk up that road carrying a wooden cross. But we want to go with the idea that the road began in heaven. The place of departure was the first station.

The Leaving
It is good to remind ourselves of what Jesus left behind to come to our earth. It wasn’t just the glory that He left behind. He left His Father to come down to earth. Leaving His loving Father to be with people who would largely not accept Him, leave alone love Him, must have been heart-wrenching for Jesus. It had to hurt. Whenever people go on a journey they scale down what they will have on hand. They reduce the things that they will access. Our Lord stripped down for His journey. The Bible has a graphic phrase to describe what He did: He “emptied Himself.” Charles Wesley used the phrase in his hymn “And can it be”:

He left His Father's throne above
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race;
'Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
The phrase was coined by Paul when he wrote to the church at Philippi that Jesus Christ:
Who though He was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied Himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled Himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross (2:6-8, NRSV).
Some theologians say that in the Incarnation there was a “Kenosis” (derived from the Greek word that is translated “emptied”), that Jesus was divested of His divinity entirely. That is not true. Jesus knew He was God and said so, and every time He did that, the Jews got ready to stone Him to death for blasphemy. What He did was to limit Himself in terms of His omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, and veil His glory with human flesh. The New Bible Dictionary (InterVarsity Press, 1962, p.689) explains the emptying thus:
The words ‘he emptied himself’ in the Pauline context say nothing about the abandonment of the divine attributes, and to that extent the kenotic theory is an entire misunderstanding of the scriptural words. Linguistically the self-emptying is to be interpreted in the light of the words which immediately follow. It refers to the ‘pre-incarnate renunciation coincident with the act of ‘taking the form of a servant’’ (V. Taylor, The Person of Christ in New Testament Teaching, 1958, p. 77). His taking of the servant’s form involved the necessary limitation of the glory which he laid aside that he might be born ‘in the likeness of men’. That glory of his pre-existent oneness with the Father (see Jn. 17:5, 24) was his because from all eternity he existed ‘in the form of God’ (Phil. 2:6). It was concealed in the ‘form of a servant’ which he took when he assumed our nature and appeared in our likeness; and with the acceptance of our humanity he took also his destiny as the Servant of the Lord who humbled himself to the sacrifice of himself at Calvary. The ‘kenosis’ then began in his Father’s presence with his pre-incarnate choice to assume our nature; it led inevitably to the final obedience of the cross when he did, to the fullest extent, pour out his soul unto death (see Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 4:4-5; Heb. 2:14-16; 10:5-ff.)
Instead of “emptied Himself” the King James Version uses “made Himself of no reputation”, while modern translations use:
  • made himself nothing (NIV, NCV, ESV),
  • gave up his divine privileges (NLT),
  • of his own free will he gave up all he had (GNB)
  • set aside the privileges of deity (TM)
In the end, all the different versions affirm that Jesus gave up His rights, powers, and glory to be one of us. How great His sacrifice! How great His love to do that for us! The Journey After the leaving of heaven there was the journey to earth. What was it like for Jesus? What was His travel experience? In a word, He underwent humiliation. That is what He had to feel when you consider what He had to subject Himself to. The humiliation started with God in a womb. Jesus, all-powerful God, was confined to a woman’s womb for nine months. In that womb He was restricted. He was utterly dependent on a woman for His sustenance. What followed was worse: God, who didn’t want to see any excrement in the living area of His people (Deut.23:13-14), had to come into the world through the birth canal of a woman. Nothing very pleasant about that. According to God’s own law, contact with bodily discharges rendered a person unclean (Lev.15:1-33). God made Himself unclean entering the world. People don’t knowingly choose unpleasant journeys. While in seminary, when my first summer vacation came up, I travelled after reserving a berth on the train going south. The next year, some of my friends made fun of me for being a sissy and so I travelled in the unreserved compartment. That was in 1972. It was better then, than it is now, but even then it was bad. I swore that if I could help it, I would never again travel without a reservation. But Jesus took His journey to the earth, knowing what was involved in the travel: confinement in a womb, and down the birth canal. Knowing that He would be humiliated, He chose the humiliation.

The Arrival

After all that, Jesus was delivered into a cattle shed. We choose a nice clean hospital for our babies to be born in. If we know that there is some place that is really great, we would go there if we could. Jesus could have chosen to be born when modern hospitals would be in place. But He chose that time and that place to be born.
After arrival, Jesus didn’t swell up with power. He remained a baby. He needed to have everything done for Him. He needed to be fed. He needed to be cleaned up when He dirtied Himself. He couldn’t do a thing for Himself. Of course, that is what happens with all babies. But we are observing what happened when God “emptied Himself” and chose infancy with all its powerlessness and all its messiness. One aspect of being a baby must have been particularly galling for Jesus: He had to be carried around. What makes this different from all the other things that babies are subjected to, is the fact that according to the Old Testament’s prophets, being carried around was characteristic of idols:

Their idols are borne by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary… They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move. Though one cries out to it, it does not answer; it cannot save him from his troubles (Isa.46:1,7).

Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good (Jer.10:5).
How awful it must have been for God to be carried around like an idol and be as unresponsive as an idol when He saw the troubles of His family and the people around Him!

The Reception
The arrival of a baby is almost always an occasion for a party. While we do have Christmas parties (in the name of Christ’s birth), there was no party when Jesus was born. His parents were too poor to afford a nice little cradle or pretty baby clothes. Cows, sheep, goats and donkeys were the ones that gave Him a reception. They were indifferent, though our pictures of the Christmas story show the animals standing around adoring the Christ Child. They continued to feed and, excuse me, to shit near the place where the baby Jesus was laid. After a while shepherds turned up. They were not the kind of people whose presence at an event would get coverage (on page 3). They were unclean because of the kind of work they did and were generally regarded as untrustworthy. Their testimony would not count in a court of law. Yet, God chose them as witnesses who went around telling people that they had seen angels, and had seen the baby King of God’s people (Lk.2:17-18). The next lot that turned up when Jesus was born were magi from pagan lands to the east of Judea. They were foreigners. Even today people are suspicious of foreigners’ motives for travelling to our land. The magi were not just foreigners, but they were idol worshippers, and to top it all, they were practitioners of astrology, an art that was associated with occultism according to Old Testament law (Deut.18:10-12). As for others, King Herod felt threatened by His birth and wanted to eliminate Him, and the priests and those who studied the Scriptures knew that Christ would be born in Bethlehem, but could not be bothered. They wouldn’t leave the court of King Herod. They preferred his favours. In the end, Mary and Joseph had to save Jesus by fleeing to Egypt. Will humiliations never end? Egypt was the land of Israel’s ancient slavery. God had liberated them from that bondage. Moses told God that if He didn’t get His people to the Promised Land, the Egyptians would say that because He couldn’t make good, He had destroyed the very people He had liberated (Ex.32:10-12). Later on when faced with the Babylonian exile, people thought they would seek refuge in Egypt. But God told them that He was against their going back to Egypt (Jer. 42:13ff). And there was God—a refugee in the very land from which God had set His people free with a display of power that was legendary. If He Himself had to take refuge, how could those old stories of His power and might be really true? There must be some mistake. God was so weak, that He was a refugee in that land of their slavery, shame and misery. When Jesus was born He was not welcome at all:
He came to His own and His own did not receive Him (Jn. 1:12).
But there were two kinds of people who welcomed Him:
  • the unclean (shepherds) and
  • the excluded (pagans/astrologers).
Truly, as Jesus said, those who know they are sick, are the ones who feel the need for the physician (Mk.2:17). If you feel unclean or excluded, Jesus came for you. And to those who received Him, Jesus gave the power to become children of God.

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