Jesus Emptied Himself

A Sermon for Palm Sunday

Words, words, words. There are so many words in today's lessons. Sometimes, words can get in our way. Sometimes, there are just too many words. And sometimes, there are simply no words to describe what we think or how we feel about today's mixed message of Palms and Passion, this familiar story of the end of Jesus' life, a tale of triumph and tragedy. Where are you with this story today?

And just why are you here today? What have you and I come here to learn? Whether we are overwhelmed by words or searching for words, we are here today to learn once more how the life and death of Jesus might have some kind of meaning for us. In our own living and in our own dying, we need to learn how Jesus helps us make sense of our world. And one way to learn how Jesus can help us is through. . .music. Sometimes, there are no words. Sometimes, there is only music.

When I prayed over today's lessons, it was the epistle, that portion of the letter from St. Paul to the Philippians, that grabbed me. Again. This beloved passage, one of Paul's most influential, is just seven verses long. It deftly describes the double drama of the Palms and the Passion. Phillipians 2:5-11 grabbed me again, because it was also probably a hymn, a song that summed up St. Paul's understanding of what it means to love Jesus, to believe in Jesus – and to follow him.

Sometimes, when I pray about what I might preach, a song comes to mind. While I was preparing my sermon, a little, old spiritual song, one with just seventeen different words came back to me. It's a song I learned years ago and have sung many times ever since. It seemed to me to be a good song for Palm Sunday. It's called “Spirit of the Living God.” Do you know it? It goes like this:

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.

Daniel Iverson was a Presbyterian pastor and evangelist who planted seven churches in Florida. He wrote this simple song in 1926 while attending an old-fashioned spiritual revival. He had heard a powerful sermon on God's Holy Spirit, so he sat right down and wrote this song for the people who would come the next day for the revival. It's been popular ever since. Would you sing it with me?

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.

Singing spiritual songs together can strengthen us. Singing can replace fear with faith. Singing can be a way for us to conspire for God, to “con-spire,” which means, literally, to breathe with each other. And singing this song reminds me of the song we find in Philippians. Let me tell you why. I think this song came to me, because of a word in our lesson: the word kenosis. Kenosis is the Greek word for “emptying.” Jesus, we hear Paul tell the Philippians, emptied himself. Over and over again, Jesus had to become empty, in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit of God. He had to empty himself to be full of God's Spirit. Whether it was in the wilderness, or in the garden, or on the cross, the human Jesus emptied himself and humbled himself, over and over again – even to the point of his own death.

Is this true for us, too? Do you and I need to be emptied of anything that gets in the way of our being filled with the Spirit of the living God? When we hear the story of Jesus, the suffering Son of Man, and how he empties himself, so that, more and more, he can become the Son of God, do we stop and ask: How might God want me to empty myself, so that the Holy Spirit can fall afresh on me and fill me with God's power and love? Is this what we came here to learn today?

St. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was a prisoner in Rome. Paul was suffering there, but so were his friends back in Philippi. They faced opposition. Intimidation. Persecution. They struggled to become an authentic Christian community. Paul urged them to “live your lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel” (1:27). But what does that mean? Paul wrote this in the verses just before the ones we've heard today: “Do nothing from selfish ambition. Look not to your own interests” (2:3-4). Today Paul might have put it this way: Philippians, get your ego, get your false self out of the way, so that your True Self, your God Self, can emerge. Empty yourselves. Be more like Jesus.

I think Jesus spent his life learning how to let go and let God use him. The power of God's Spirit was constantly being refined in Jesus, so that Jesus became a perfect vessel, a perfect container – fully human, fully divine. And the Spirit of the living God kept falling afresh on Jesus, over and over again. In the words of the song, Jesus was melted and molded. God's refining fire made Jesus into a perfect vessel, melted and molded and shaped by God, for the salvation and the healing of the world.

Melt me, mold me. This is God's pattern, the pattern Paul saw in Jesus. This is the pattern that Paul, through this spiritual song, urged his Philippian friends to embody. And this is the pattern for those of us who wish to love Jesus, to believe in him, to follow him. What does it mean to be melted and molded like Jesus? What does self-emptying mean for us as Christians? What does self-emptying mean for the Church? We need to consider these questions when we sing the next part. You and I need to pray about and learn what it means to ask God's Spirit to melt me or mold me, if we are to sing: Fill me, use me. In other words, we must first be shaped and formed, we must first be melted and molded by God, the Holy Potter. If we want to be God's vessel, we must be willing to be the clay. No one emptied Jesus. No one humbled Jesus. He emptied himself and humbled himself. And so must we.

That's right. This self-emptying is not something someone else does for us or to us. This is not about one person emptying another, putting them down, draining them of their potential, forcing them to give up what God wants for them. No, this is about us – knowing when and how to give up things that get in the way of what God's Spirit wants to do, for us and through us. When we, like Jesus, allow ourselves to be put into the refiner's fire – when we enter a desert, a valley, a forest, a wilderness in our lives; when we come to a place where we are not in charge anymore, where we are no longer in control, where God can do with us what God wants to do with us – then we, like Jesus, can truly be used by God. Then, we, like Jesus, can be filled with God's Spirit and be used by God for good. Then, we, like Jesus, can do more good in this world and for this world than we ever dreamed or imagined.

This Jesus, this Messiah who suffered, God's own Son offered his True Self to us, amidst his own suffering. This Jesus emptied himself, not only for himself, but also for the people of Philippi, for the people of the Sudan – even for us, the people of Frederick. Jesus emptied himself for us. What will we do about that? What will we do for each other, today? Today, what have we come here to learn?

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
April 1, 2012