“Father, your words to us are like a sharp double-edged sword - so we pray that as we open it up now you would open us up to and do surgery on us. Healing our sinful hearts and minds and make us more like Jesus. Amen.”
Apparently if you take 10 chickens, any 10 chickens, put them in a pen together, and spread a little chicken feed around. In a matter of minutes, you will witness the most amazing phenomenon. The chickens, previously strangers, will form a hierarchy based on dominance or, in everyday language, they will establish a Pecking Order.
So Chicken Number 1 pecks at and intimidates Chicken Number 2, without experiencing any kind of retribution from Chicken Number 2. Chicken Number 2 will take it from Number 1 but will turn around and peck away at Number 3, who will in turn will take out its frustration on Chicken Number 4. This continues all the way down to Chicken Number Ten, who, needless to say, has a pretty miserable life – being pecked but having no-one to peck.
And I’ve got to say that as we turn to Philippians 2 tonight, this phenomenon of the Pecking Order does not belong exclusively to chickens. It is a human thing too. It is positively encouraged in our society as we are encouraged to “look after number 1” and be “upwardly mobile”. In business the perceived wisdom is that the only way to be successful is to trample on the heads of those around you. The advertisers are obsessed with encouraging us to get one step ahead of everyone else by buying their products - pampering our egos and telling us that it’s all “because… you’re worth it.” And as a result we all have the tendency to look at others in terms of their profession, education, looks, wardrobe, car and home, all with the subconscious mind-set of fitting them into the Pecking Order.
So it’s no surprise that we find this order at work wherever we go - you will find it in your office or place of work, at sporting events, parties, conferences, the school playground… And it can even happen in the Church. Which is why the Apostle Paul says to us in this passage tonight:
“do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.”
He is writing to the church in Philippi and is telling these Christians his reason to live. He lives for Christ! He lives for Christ’s gospel! And Paul wants them (and us) – to live for Christ and his gospel too. “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” he says at the end of chapter 1. And he gives us this great vision of Christians standing firm, working together in solid, God inspired unity - sharing the gospel of Christ with a broken, rebellious world that so desperately needs it.
Only 2 things can undermine that kind of unity. Opposition from outside the church… And selfishness from within. We touched on the former last week, but now we train our sights on the later at the start of chapter 2. And we’re going to look at 3 mindsets which will help us root out “selfish ambition and vain conceit” from our own hearts, and therefore from the heart of our fellowship too. Let me open up mind Number 1 for us:
(1.) Our Mindset – Pass On What You’ve Received (v.1-5)
Take a look at Philippians 2v.1:
“1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Can you see what Paul is saying here? It’s like he’s saying: “OK folks, hands up if you’ve ever experienced any of the following:
• Hands up if you’ve joined your life to Jesus and you’ve become a Christian.
• Hands up if you have been aware of his love in big or little ways... even in the darkest of moments of life.
• Hands up if you have revelled in the sense of belonging to the fellowship of God’s people.
• Hands up if you’ve received care and concern from other Christians.
Anyone? Yes! Well, if you’re a Christian and you’re part of Christ’s church you have received all these great benefits. So... PASS THEM ON!” That is what Paul is saying. Or as Don Carson so succinctly puts it in his excellent commentary on Philippians: “We are called not only to enjoy the comforts of the gospel, but to pass them on.”
This is so counter cultural. Usually if we find something good, encouraging, pleasurable or comforting we want more of it for ourselves. You read one Harry Potter book and you can’t wait for the next one to come out. You watch your favourite TV show and can’t wait till next week’s episode. You come back from your holiday to the Algarve and immediately start planning the next one! You want more!
And we can be like that in the Christian life. There are certain things that we may have found helpful in bringing us to and growing us in faith. And that’s great - we celebrate that. But we can become too fixated on what we want to get out of church that we miss out on opportunities to love and serve others as we should. And we fail to pass on what we’ve received.
For some they fixate on what they can get out services - “I’m only going if it’s my kind of music, my kind of style, my kind of preacher, and I can sit with my kind of people.” For others it’s what they can get out of serving - “I’m not going to get stuck in unless I can do it my way, unless I get a voice in the process, unless I get to know what’s going on, unless I feel I’m really needed.” But the focus is on us. And as Paul says: “It’s selfish ambition.”
And we can just as easily get caught out by “vain conceit” can’t we? As what people think of us colours so much of what we do. I’ve been so aware of that this week, as I’ve tried to prepare this sermon. I’ve been praying and hoping that the Lord will help you through it – but it’s hard not to hope that you’ll also think I’ve done a good job. And our service of others can easily be hindered by our worries about looking good.
“No!” says the Apostle Paul,
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Our focus is to be on others. We are to get over ourselves, and put the eternal well being of others above our own petty interests. And I’ve got to say I’m encouraged by how many people I see doing that in this congregation. It’s great to see folks coming to church thinking:
• “I’d like to talk to my friends, but I’m going to talk to newcomers and those on their own here this evening.”
• Or “I’d like to sleep in on a Sunday morning, but instead I’m going to serve Christian parents by looking after their kids in the crèche so that they can get to church.”
• Or “I’d like to just have a quiet family lunch and a read of the papers after church, but I’m going to have some students round to give them the care and support they miss from home.”
That’s putting others first. That’s putting their interests before our own. It’s costly, but when we think and act like that we build the unity of the church and stand together for the sake of the gospel.
Now just before you start thinking, “I can do that.” Or “Hey, big deal I’m already doing that.” Paul scales the challenge up a bit by saying: “5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:” And this is our second point:
(2.) Christ’s Mindset – He Made Himself a Nobody! (v.6-8)
And here is Christ Jesus in verse 6:
“6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
Imagine that at the end of the service you went to the back of the church to grab a cuppa. And instead of finding some fresh faced students, Parish Assistants or folks from the 20s & 30s group you find a little old lady with a white perm who looks vaguely familiar serving the teas and coffees. And as she pours your tea you suddenly realise that you’ve seen her somewhere before - It was on the telly. At Christmas. And she was giving a speech. And as you frantically start bowing or curtseying and mumble an embarrassed “Thank you Your Majesty” she says to you “Just call me Lizzie” and starts wiping down the surfaces with a jay-cloth. I guess if that happened at the end of the service whether you are a royalist or not, you’d be pretty shocked! Because you don’t expect someone of that rank to humble themselves quite so spectacularly.
“But that’s exactly what Christians should do,” says the Apostle Paul. Because even though Jesus was God. Incredibly he chose not to cling onto his own privileged position and use it for his own advantage. He: “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
And so the eternal one who deserved to be SERVED by all of humanity, humbles himself to become a SERVANT of all humanity. He made himself a servant. One without any rights. A nobody. And he chose to do that voluntarily. He put himself there... in the place that we most naturally run from. No-one wants to be thought of as a nobody, everyone wants to be a somebody!
And Jesus’ downward trajectory doesn’t stop there. It continues in verse 8 as:
“8...being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!”
Why does Paul add that bit about “death on a cross”? Wasn’t it enough that he just died? Well Paul wants to stress the kind of death he died. He didn’t die comfortably in his bed with dignity, he didn’t go quickly in some sort of traffic accident - none of that at all. No! Christ Jesus died one of the most humiliating, painful and slow deaths ever invented by human beings. He died on a cross.
Now we don’t often get how horrific and humiliating that was. ‘Cos you can walk into your jewellery store and you can ask for a gold or a silver cross and that seems quite acceptable. It’s a nice piece of jewellery. Some of you might have that round your necks at the moment and it looks great. But what would you think of it if you were to go into a jewellery store and say: “Have you got any of those nice electric chairs?” Or what would you think if you pitched up at church next week and we’d put up a full size replica of a guillotine out the front of church? You see, our culture and our familiarity with the event may have sanitised the cross, but make no bones about it... this was a desperate and humiliating way to die.
You may have seen Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” and like me it made your stomach churn, but even they didn’t go the whole hog because the Romans would have stripped them naked and hung them up for all to see, depriving them of any last vestiges of dignity they might have had. And not even Hollywood with all their CGI technology can begin to represent the spiritual agonies that were going on underneath the surface of this scene. As Jesus cries out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” we get a glimmer of the terrible, voluntary, God-forsakenness that lay at the heart of it.
So do you see what we’ve got? We have Christ Jesus who started from the very top, who becomes a human being and becomes obedient to death on a cross, so that he can serve rebels like you and me.
Are you beginning to grasp the scale of what Jesus did for you? Purposeful, sacrificial action for the benefit of others. He made himself a nobody... “and your attitude should be the same,” says the Apostle Paul. You should be willing to follow in his footsteps. For if he thought it worthwhile going to such great lengths for us, then surely we should go to such lengths to encourage and reach others with the gospel?
I find these words of the Puritan Richard Baxter sum up the challenge of these verses In Philippians really well. This is what he says:
“Let us then hear the words of Christ, whenever we feel the tendency growing in us to become dull and careless. Did I die for them and you will not look after them? Were they worthy of my blood and yet they are not worthy of your labour? Did I come down from heaven to seek and save that which was lost, and you will not go next door or to the next street to seek after them? Compared with mine, how small is your labour and condescension. I debased myself to do this, but it is your honour to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and was I willing to make you a co-worker with me? And yet you refuse that little which lies within your hands.”
When the Apostle Paul calls us to “...in humility consider others better than yourselves.” This is what he was talking about. We are not just to put ourselves out for one another, but put ourselves down for one another. To put myself out for someone just involves me working harder. To put myself down for someone, well... that involves me being willing to lose not only time and money, but also status! And in a world where image is everything, that’s a far more costly thing!
This attitude of Jesus sees us:
• Not just pitching up to home group for the sake of others, but being the first to open up and be honest about our struggles, doubts and fears - Because we know that helping others to be honest too, is much more precious than what people think of us.
• And It has us giving sacrificially even if it means we won’t be able to afford to do or buy the things everyone else around us takes for granted - Because we know that paying for ministry that enables folks to meet Jesus, is a far more valuable thing than keeping up with Joneses.
• And this attitude also has us overcoming our Britishness and stepping out of our comfort zone to talk to others about Christ and his word – because we know that people’s eternal destiny is much more important than our reputation.
“5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus...”
Which, as I say, is incredibly costly… but let me assure you it’s also incredibly rewarding. Let me give you finally:
(3.) The Father’s Mindset – The Way To Up Is Down (v.9-11)
Verse 8 leaves us at the cross which tells us what the world thinks of Jesus. But verse 9 tells us what God the Father thinks of him:
“9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Do you see where humility leads? It leads to exaltation - As Jesus is exalted. Why? Because of his humility. The Father is proud of the obedience of his Son and he now exalts him to the highest of heights. And gives him “the name which is above all other names.” And that name is not Superstar or Millionaire – it’s not even Prime Minister or Mr President. The name above all other names is “Lord”. Christ Jesus is now Lord Jesus and he is reigning over everything and everyone in this broken universe of ours. He humbled himself and is now exalted. The way to up is down.
That is how God has always operated. And it’s how God treats all those who humble themselves. Remember what Jesus said in our Gospel reading from Mark 10: “...whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all.” Well, if we really want to be somebody, then it’s best to make ourselves a nobody. Because God will raise up in glory all those who give of themselves in the same way that Jesus gave of himself, for us. And if we are going to follow in Jesus footsteps isn’t it good to know that God the Father notices team players?
I don’t know if you’ve ever encountered the dilemma of the trial match in football. I encountered it a few times when I was younger and had trials for a few teams. And the dilemma you face is: “How do I play it? Do I try to go on the flash run and to score a wonder goal? Or do I just make the unselfish pass and risk going unnoticed?” Well God the Father has an eye for the one who sacrifices his own glory for the team. Who humbles himself. So don’t seek praise from others in what you do for the Lord; just serve and serve and serve and be satisfied that he sees and he rewards. The Father’s mindset is that the way to up is down. And he spots people who live that principle.
And it must be said that he also spots those who don’t! James chapter 4 verse 6 tells us that: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Which means that on that day when Jesus returns and at His name “...every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord...” it will be a great day for those who have come to Christ and followed his example and humbled themselves in the service of others. But it will be a desperate day for those who haven’t. As those who have proudly rejected Jesus will still have to bow anyway - in realisation that they were wrong, and that Jesus is no loser, but he is Lord. You either choose to bow now in which case you’ll be welcomed at the end; or you will be forced to bow later and be rejected. We will bow in awe or bow in shame.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve found this incredibly challenging. Personally challenging, but challenging for us as a church too. The world is awash with demands for the self: self-image, self-gratification, self-ambition and all the division and enmity that brings in its wake – and many don’t think the church has anything to offer them. Well wouldn’t it be great if we as a church really got this mindset the Apostle Paul lays down for us here? Wouldn’t the world sit up and take notice if we were a Christian community who more and more lived out the attitude of Jesus?
Prayer: “Father we want to pray that you would help us to be those who are transformed into the likeness of your son - King Jesus. May our attitude be his attitude, our love his love, our purpose his purpose. That we may be known as a community of light - a community who put the interests of others before ourselves. That we would love one another as Christ has loved us.”