The Only Song We Sing (Phil 2:6-11)
Updated: Aug 26, 2022
As the opening lines in this sermon makes clear I wrote it
during the run up to the US federal election in 2016.
Some of you are no doubt aware that there is a political campaign underway south of the 49th parallel :-). Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton seem destined for a showdown. I don’t know if you like to follow the political process or if you’ve long grown weary of it but there is something about how we do power in politics that is instructive. It’s no surprise to anyone that both parties and their leaders are very serious about gaining the presidency. It is also clear that passion is an essential ingredient in running for office. Strong convictions, dogged determination, and hard work are all honorable traits; and they’re essential ingredients for anyone who would enter into the political arena. What is instructive for us this morning however, about the political process however is not the presence of these traits; we would expect to see them. What is instructive and fascinating, at least to me, is that by watching the political process unfold you get a front row seat into how each candidate and each political party views power.
If the candidate is ceaselessly slamming his or her opponent’s character, working all the angles to dig up dirt on them, and then proclaiming it from the roof tops the verdict is clear. He or she believes that this strategy actually works; and his party or her party believes that this works – they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t think it did. It doesn’t matter what they write in their platforms about political strategy; the real evidence for what they believe about how to gain power and how to hold onto it is found in the race for the White House.
Political campaigns tell us a lot about those who are running for office;
the political process lays it out there for the whole world to see.
This is kind of a no brainer isn’t it. Politicians are seeking to be ‘in power’, so we expect that their style of campaign would tell us how they view power. And we’d be rather foolish, wouldn’t we, if we were to watch a man or woman gain the top spot in the country by slanderous attacks on his or her opponents and then imagine that they wouldn’t use the same strategy to hang onto power once they have it. Political campaigns tell us a lot about those who are running for office; the political process lays it out there for the whole world to see.
how Jesus viewed power
There is a moment recorded in John’s gospel when Jesus came face to face with the man who symbolized the most powerful and potent political force of his day, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Judea. He spoke and acted in the name of Caesar. Our Jesus and this Pilate stand toe to toe and have a conversation – an essentially political conversation. And what we hear in this moment, just like what we hear from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tells us how Jesus viewed power and how Pilate viewed power.
We need to remember that Jesus was handed over to Pilate on a political charge. John’s gospel doesn’t give us this information up front, but by the time the trial is over we know that Jesus was handed over to Pilate by the Jewish authorities under the charge that he was claiming to be King of the Jews. It’s an ironic charge for them to bring against one of their own because many of the Jewish leaders would have liked nothing better than to have a Jewish king on the throne. But Jesus was not the kind of king they wanted. And I would suggest that was because he insisted on doing power differently than they did. So, here is Jesus, handed over to Pilate to be tried on the charge of political treason and the conversation begins. This is John 18:33 and following from the NRSV.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” is Pilate’s opening question to Jesus.
Now, let’s listen carefully to this conversation because it will tell us Pilate’s view of power and Jesus’ view of power.
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
This is not the political rhetoric Pilate was expecting from Jesus.
Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Hmmm…. what is Jesus saying?
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
This is a strange political debate, isn’t it? Pilate is confused. Jesus claims to be a king but doesn’t do power the way normal kings do. What kind of king doesn’t call upon his troops to protect him or to advance his cause? Jesus in essence has said to Pilate. “Yes, I’m a king, make no mistake, but I don’t do power like you do power. I come telling the truth, I bear witness to the truth, that’s why I was born and that’s why I came into the world. And those who stand with truth will stand with me.”
Now that doesn’t sound like anything we’ve heard in the race for the presidency, does it? What does this say about Jesus’ concept of power? Let’s read on.
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
Then we have a little break from the Q & A session. During this break Jesus is flogged. That’s an easy sentence to say but it left Jesus with his flesh hanging off his back. We’re doing politics the way Rome does politics here. There is mocking and slaps in the face by the establishment and shouts to have him crucified by his own countrymen and then Pilate and Jesus resume their conversation. Now we’re in John 19:9.
He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.
Silence in the face of accusations? This is not politics as usual.
Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”
There we have it, Pilate talking about power and the way he wields it. Pilate has already demonstrated what he believes about power. What has Jesus demonstrated? What does he believe about power?
Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”
Pilate has postured before Jesus. “Don’t you know I have power over you!” And Jesus said, “You don’t have any power.”
Pilate stands there having already wielded the power of Rome against Jesus and
now he threatens to up the ante. Jesus stands there whipped and bleeding...
Two men, toe to toe in a conversation about power. Pilate stands there having already wielded the power of Rome against Jesus and now he threatens to up the ante. Jesus stands there whipped and bleeding telling Pilate that he has no idea what real power is. How Jesus responds to Pilate’s threat tells us what Jesus believes about power.
We know how this story ends. Pilate carries through on his threats and crucifies his political opponent. We know Pilate’s view of power. But what is Jesus’ view of power?
Who wins this showdown? It’s not Pilate, is it? It’s Jesus. And how does he achieve his victory? Well, it wasn’t by handing over Pilate for a flogging was it? It’s not that Jesus didn’t believe in power; he certainly did. He laid all his cards on the table and gave himself utterly to the power he believed in.
It’s not what Trump says about power that tells you what he really believes. And it’s not what Clinton says about power that tells you what she really believes. It’s what they do when they’re threatened that tells you what they really believe about power. It’s very insightful…
And here’s the rub. These truths are played out in your and my lives as well. It’s not what I say about what I believe about power that gives you the real answer. It’s what I do when I am threatened that tells you the truth of what I believe. And it’s the same for you. What we have written down in our personal play books doesn’t tell the story. How we walk it out on the campaign trail makes it plain for all to see.
And when we engage in the same kind of political power games...
we prove what it is that we believe about power.
The political bantering that cycles around campaign after campaign tell us as much about ourselves as it does about the politicians. For the way they do power clearly resonates with many voters. We’re living in democracies here in North America; our politicians are reflections of the citizenry. That’s how it works. And when we engage in the same kind of political power games around our kitchen tables and on social media, we prove what it is that we believe about power. Political campaigns tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the Trump’s and Clinton’s of this world. When we posture and rant, when we vilify our opponents, when we spread slander about them, when we sacrifice truth for victory the verdict is in. We believe in the same power that Pilate believed in.
There is a radically different approach to power; a kind of power that Paul is plugged into when he writes from his prison cell to the church in Philippi. As he writes Paul is at the receiving end of power the way Rome does power and yet, like Jesus, Paul appears unthreatened by it. Instead of a demonstration of fear Paul demonstrates a profound calmness. He sees Rome posturing but is not intimidated.
It’s not the rabid dog lunging at you from the end of a chain that models what real power is. That posture only demonstrates fear. An authentic demonstration of power is more aptly modelled by the old coon dog sleeping in the shade while the world is in chaos.
Sabra is a dog catcher and she’s good at it. I like to tell the story of the time when she was confronted with threats and violence and yet had the presence of mind to recognize that real power is not done that way. She got a call from the police asking her to come and remove a Pit Bull from a trailer where drugs had been dealt from. The police needed in, and the dog was keeping them out. So, my dear wife showed up armed for the encounter. She drove into the yard in her Matrix wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a leash in her hand. The police were not expecting this. They envisioned something very different. And when Sabra approached the door and was about to enter the two police officers got ready to do power their way. They drew their guns.
...she was carrying the biggest stick that day...
Now it may have looked like Sabra came unarmed into a dangerous situation but in truth she was carrying the biggest stick that day. What she brought to the scene was love. She saw past the noise, past all the posturing and saw a dog in pain, a scared animal that needed loving. Shooing the police officers away from the door and urging them to holster their weapons my dear wife walked into the trailer, put the leash on the dog, led him out to her car, put him in the back seat, and drove away.
I love this story because it models the way that Jesus does power. I love this story because it models for me the way I want to do power with people, especially those who like to lunge at you from the end of a big chain. My wife is no fool. She didn’t enter a dangerous situation without protection. No, she knew what real power was and used it. I would love to have seen the look on the faces of the police officers that day.
How Paul conducts himself in his circumstance tells us how he views power.
When Paul writes from prison to the church in Philippi, he’s not foaming at the mouth about those who have locked him up. He is in real danger; he could lose his life. How Paul conducts himself in his circumstance tells us how he views power. Instead of a tirade of rhetoric against the establishment out of a heart of fear, Paul writes some of the most profound words of hope ever written. Instead of threats he speaks the language of love. Instead of lamenting his circumstance Paul celebrates his circumstance and urges his readers to celebrate with him. Unthreatened by chaos Paul embraces his suffering as a good thing. Somehow, he sees it as a gift, a means by which God will be glorified and a sure testimony that victory is on the horizon. What set of strange lenses was Paul looking at the world through that he could see his circumstances and celebrate??
In Philippians 2 Paul urges us to take a hike with him up the mountain to see the view that alters everything. “Once you have a look at this,” says Paul, “your world will never look the same again.” So, we scramble on after Paul eager to see what it is that keeps him singing in prison. And when we get to the grand vista, the scene that says it all we encounter a hymn, a poem… just a handful of words. And if we’re wired up to do power the Pilate way, we might just shake our heads and walk away muttering something about Paul’s insanity. But if we’ve tasted just a little bit of what Paul has been feasting on, we might instead say, “Yes. Of course. This is power! This is greatness! And this is what I long to plug into as the model for how I will do all of life!”
Paul is all about changing how we think. He wants to give us a different perspective, a new way to look at the world; a new way to look at our opponents; a new way to look at suffering and trials, and so he takes the Philippians to the mountain top and there he sings them a hymn. The Christ Hymn. “Think this way,” Paul is urging. “See the world as Jesus saw it. Model your lives after him. This posture is the key to everything you are looking for. This is what it means to take hold of life.” And then Paul begins to sing to them about Jesus. This is the song that won’t let Paul go.
Philippians 2:6-11 (My Translation)
6 He, existing in the form of God,
didn’t think to cling to equality with God.
7 But instead emptied himself;
taking the form of a slave,
becoming in the likeness of man.
And being found in appearance as a man,
8 he humbled himself,
to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
9 For this reason God highly exalted him
and freely gave him the NAME,
the name above every name.
10 So that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
– in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth –
11 and every tongue will confess,
"LORD  Jesus Christ!”
to the glory of God the Father.
For Jesus, victory and exaltation is not found by seizing power.
In this hymn we are taken to the scene of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are given a glimpse into his posture, his attitude, his mandate for life. And it’s a model that is very unlike Pilate’s model. It’s a model that’s very unlike the way power is always done in this world. For Jesus, victory and exaltation is not found by seizing power. It’s not achieved through manipulation. It’s not found through hanging on; it’s found through letting go. Have a look at verse 6. Jesus had it all! He existed in the form of God. And what did he do? He did the God thing. God is always bending down to meet us. It has been his posture since the garden. And Jesus, pre-existing alongside the Father for all eternity, models that humility, that posture of service. This is God folks! This is God being a man in the person of Jesus Christ modelling the position of power. This is God entering into the world in Jesus to right all the wrongs and to overthrow evil. This is God approaching the rabid dog lunging at him from the end of a chain. And without fear he approaches.
Verse 7. He emptied himself. Who does that? Who let’s go and surrenders and does so believing that this is the most profoundly powerful posture? Who thinks like that? Jesus thinks like that. This is what was beating in his chest in his little exchange with Pilate. This is what compelled him forward. This is what urged him to Calvary. He emptied himself! Brothers and sisters, if you want to make a difference where you live this is how the journey begins. This is not weakness; this is holding all the cards but choosing to let them go. If you want to live the glorious life that Paul is urging us to; a life where external circumstances don’t define us; a life where even pain and suffering are not reason for despair; a life where celebration defines who we are, come what may, it begins right here with letting go.
And verse 8. Jesus just keeps on letting go. His entire life and ministry were about letting go; taking the lowest position; becoming slave of all. It’s not what Jesus said that modelled this for us, it was what Jesus did! He took on human form, but not in the form of a human power broker. He took on human form but didn’t choose a life of power the way humans do power. He had no legions of warriors. He chose another path. He chose humility; he chose obedience; and it took him to the cross. How could Jesus do this? He tells us in his little Pilate encounter. “You don’t have any power Pilate. My Father has all the power.” And was Jesus’ faith in his Father’s power justified?
Verse 9. The determination to empty oneself, to let go of everything, to surrender all, to take the lowest position, is not an insane quest to assure yourself that you will be defeated! It is the path to life! People flee from humility as if the end is death; Jesus clung to humility because the end was life. The fallout of humble service, the emptying of oneself for the sake of others is not defeat but victory! For this reason, God highly exalted him and gave him the NAME above every name.
Jesus doesn’t urge us to take up our crosses so that we will find death but so that we will find life!
But let’s not too hastily pass through the scene of the cross. For the cross is where Paul is on his journey. The cross for Paul looks like Caesar’s prison. The cross for Paul is his affliction, his suffering, his pain. Listen, what Paul has embraced in this Christ Hymn is the truth that the cross is the means to glory. It is not a sign that you’re on the wrong track. It’s precisely the opposite. Paul had the cross in mind when he chose to abandon power the way he formerly did power and chose the path of humility and service instead. Paul went from persecutor to persecuted in one chapter in the book of Acts. (Have a read through Acts 9.) Paul had no illusions about this. He encountered the Risen Jesus who urged him on this path. And so, when anything in his life of service to Jesus looked cross like; when anything in his life was cruciform, Paul, when he got a break from the action for just a minute sang about it! Why? Because he bought into the story we find in the Christ Hymn. The cross is the means to victory not defeat. Jesus doesn’t urge us to take up our crosses so that we will find death but so that we will find life! This is the thick irony of it all. And this is what Paul is urging the Philippians to embrace as they endure their own trials for the cause of Christ. Phil 1:29 “It has been graciously given to you on behalf of Christ, not only believe in him but also to suffer on his behalf.” Without the Christ Hymn this makes no sense. With the Christ Hymn it redefines life. Thinking like Jesus means that we don’t see the cross as the destiny but the doorway. It is through the cross that Jesus accomplished the victory; on the other side of the cross was resurrection and exaltation.
The cross is necessary. It is the place where good meets evil. It is the intersection of truth and falsehood. It is where sin does its worst in the war against righteousness. And the strange work of Jesus insists that it is also the place where evil is overthrown, where truth triumphs and where righteousness prevails. So, when your life looks cross shaped know that you have entered onto the battlefield for God; that Jesus has fought on this front and won and that because you are his, victory is nigh. That’s what Paul believed; that’s what he urges you to believe as well.
Back to verse 9. On the other side of the cross is exaltation. The Father insists on this! Jesus emptied himself and surrendered all. He let go and let God. And God held up his end of the bargain! He highly exalted Jesus and gives him the name above every name. What name is that? It’s God’s own name, Yahweh. You have to work at this a bit to get hold of it in the text but it’s unavoidable. The name above every name is God’s name, Yahweh, or Jehovah. No one knows for sure how to say it because the Jews, out of respect to God, refused to say it.
The point is this: The man Jesus’ insistence on the path of humility, his insistence on the path of justice and truth, his steadfast determination to love, even his enemies, his persistence in emptying himself for the greater good means that God sees this perfect human life and says, “That’s what it looks like to model my love for the world!” And so, God takes his name and attaches it to Jesus. God identifies himself in Jesus. It’s a profound statement and it’s a mystery beyond our full understanding, but Jesus here in emptying himself, becoming human and enduring the cross, so profoundly expresses the heart of God that God gives him his own name.
Verse 10. So, at the name of Jesus, who is now identified with the NAME of God, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, “YHWH/ LORD Jesus Christ!” to the glory of God the Father. Let’s not get lost in the technicalities. The point is that Jesus has perfectly modelled Yahweh for humanity. And the point for us is that we ourselves are identified with Jesus. This is what it means to be ‘in Christ’. His destiny and ours are inextricably linked. And this is why Paul can celebrate even when – especially when – his life begins to look like Jesus’ life. This means that glory and exaltation are on the horizon. And if that’s what’s on your horizon are you not going to sing about it too?
Paul has taken us to this glorious view; the perspective that has utterly overhauled his life. This perspective is what enables him to live without fear. This is the same perspective that enables him to live with love. This Christ Hymn says to us, again and again and again. “Stand tall! Do what is right! Take the path of humility! Always choose the path of love! Do not be afraid, for we are identified with Jesus Christ before whom every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, “LORD Jesus Christ!”
Learn to sing this song my friends. Make it your own. Take up your cross. This is the most profoundly powerful posture you can take in this world. We are free to choose either life or death. The posture of Pilate is the posture of death; the posture of Jesus is the posture of life. Let’s get on with living, church.
 This has been capitalized in order to draw our eye to the fact that this text is pointing to KURIOS in verse 11.
 Kurios is the word translated frequently as Lord in the NT. It is also the word that translates YHWH in the Greek OT. Paul is telling us that Jesus has a been given God’s name – Yahweh. He is interacting with Isaiah 45:23-24.