Sermon March 30, 2011
The Lowly Lamb of God
“Ever patient and lowly” is the way the hymn “Lamb of God, Pure and Holy” (LSB 434) describes Jesus, and that sums things up. Last week we considered Jesus, the patient Lamb of God, the suffering Lamb. And we discovered that Jesus covers our sufferings in His sufferings. Tonight we focus on Jesus, the lowly Lamb of God. And once again, we find out that His lowliness is more than an example; it is a gift in which we find humility ourselves.
And that’s a good thing, because we don’t have much humility to spare. Humility is in pretty short supply. Several generations have grown up believing that the cardinal sin is not pride, but low self-esteem. Our world is populated by many people who pay no attention to the needs of others, much less to the will of God. They worship at the shrine of the unholy trinity: Me, Myself, and I.
Now don’t be mistaken—this is not just a problem ungodly people have. We cannot assume that we have escaped this trap ourselves. You and I daily are bombarded with a steady stream of messages that tell us we have an inherent right to be in control, that things should be just the way we want them to be, that our opinion is the only one that counts. Christians don’t walk away from such strong and unrelenting temptation untouched, especially when you consider that this message is extremely popular with the sinful flesh within. In league with the devil and the fallen world, our sinful flesh simply does not want to hallow God’s name nor let His kingdom come.
The Bible lists humility, along with kindness and meekness, among the Christian virtues (Colossians 3:12). Yet in many circles today any one of the three would be considered a sign of weakness. Lowliness doesn’t go over so well. We are told that to get ahead, we have to promote ourselves—humility is for sissies.
Not so in the kingdom of God. To put yourself ahead of God and other people is not a mark of independence and initiative; instead, it is the sure sign of an idolatrous heart. Christ tells us: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30–31). That’s the sum total of the Law of God. And that Law still holds. St. Paul writes in the verses immediately before our text: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Unfortunately, all too often that is not the way it is among us. When it comes to humility, we are sadly lacking. Instead of counting others more significant than ourselves, it is just the other way around: we consider ourselves most important of all.
This puts our text in an entirely different light. When the apostle writes, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), we are struck immediately by two things. First, the sad fact is that our natural attitude is not very Christlike when it comes to humility. What should be is not what actually is. Second, what we do not have in ourselves we are given by faith in Jesus—the humble attitude of Jesus is one of the gifts He gives to those who love and trust in Him. When you have Jesus by faith, you also have all His gifts. “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened,” He said, “and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:28–29a).
As we watch Jesus throughout this Lenten season suffering the consequences of our sin, we are struck again by His deep and profound humility. He never once complained of injustice or returned violence for violence. As Isaiah wrote: “Like a lamb [that is led] to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Yet that clear and evident humility of Jesus was not weakness, but strength. “No man takes [My life] from Me,” Jesus said, “but I lay it down of My own accord” (John 10:18).
Jesus is not a helpless victim in His suffering and death. He remained perfectly in charge throughout the whole ordeal. It looked for the entire world as though He was defeated that day they flogged Him nearly senseless and then nailed Him on the cross to die, a beaten and bloody pulp of a man. Yet Jesus was and remained God throughout His torment; for the only way captive humanity could be rescued and released would be if God Himself became the ransom price.
That, of course, is exactly what happened. St. Paul paints the scene in vivid detail in our text: “being in very nature God, [He] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing” (Philippians 2:6). Jesus was indeed equal with God, being the eternal Son of the Father, with whom He had existed from all eternity as one with the Father and the Spirit, three individual persons yet eternally one undivided God. Jesus was always in the form of God, yet when the time came for Him to ransom mankind; He surrendered His equality with the Father and emptied Himself of His divine glory, exchanging the form of God for the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.
With three hammer blows the apostle drives home the deep mystery of the incarnation and the profound wonder of our redemption: taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, being found in human appearance. God of God and Light of Light, true God from all eternity, Jesus Christ is also true man, freely sacrificing His divine majesty to come down here among us to be suckled and diapered like any other infant. Only thus could He rescue and save the whole rebellious world. Now, that’s humility for you—but that’s not the totality of Christ’s humility.
The apostle continues: “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8). Now I dare say we have heard so much about the cross in this church that we have almost become numb to it. Yet there is a shocking frankness about these words that likely doesn’t come across in plain English. Every faithful Jew who knew his Bible knew that there was a unique horror to the cross—and it wasn’t what you think. Our thoughts likely turn to the macabre—the gruesome horror and physical agony of nails being driven through human flesh. Although that was bad enough—and struck terror in the hearts of the bravest of men, even in the morbid world of the first century—there was a special horror to death by crucifixion among the people of God. All victims of the cross were automatically under the wrath of God. In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Lord had explicitly warned Israel: “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23).
So the lowest point in the humiliation of Jesus was exactly this: that He willingly placed Himself under the judgment of God in His death. Yet again note how Jesus was in complete control even in this: “He humbled Himself” (Philippians 2:8). The Son of God deliberately and freely chose to relinquish His divine glory, to empty Himself and come among us as a man, then to lower Himself still further all the way to death in obedience to the Father’s will. He suffered no ordinary death, but the superordinary death of the cross, there to be cursed for us in order to bursting the bonds of the curse that held all mankind captive.
Talk about lowly. Is there anyone here who would go to such great lengths for the benefit of someone else? If you know your own heart, you know the answer is no. Humility may be fine for other people, lowliness may be well and good, but the sinful heart just doesn’t want to go there. Who would want to take a back seat to somebody else? So everybody around us pays the price.
When our stubborn pride gets in the way, it causes more than enough hurt to go around. No wonder, then, that a lot of those nearest and dearest to us are injured in the process. No wonder that many of our friends and family go begging for sympathy and love because our self-inflated ego doesn’t leave them room to breathe.
It’s not a pretty picture. But that is what happens when selfish pride takes over. Lowliness goes out the door, and humility doesn’t even show up on our radar screen. That is when people get hurt. And make no mistake about it, we injure ourselves as well. When pride runs amok, it not only affects other people, it also cuts us off from God.
To the walking wounded, then, the message of the lowly Lamb of God this night comes as healing medicine for the soul. For our Lord Jesus walked the lowly, lonely road that led to the cross precisely to remove the injury and hurt that you and I have done in our sinful pride. The death He died on His cross in abject lowliness and humility was our death. The curse He bore in that shameful death was our curse. Now the power of that curse is broken. The warfare between God and mankind is over and done. We have received from the Lord’s own hand double for our sin. The miserable record of our sin, all the hurt and shame of it, is blotted out in Jesus’ blood.
In exchange for the misery of our sin, we receive the very life of Christ, the lowly Lamb of God. What you see now is only partial. The life of humility and lowly service we now live is only part of the picture. First, comes the cross, and then the crown. Because our Lord Jesus, the lowly Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, humbled Himself and obeyed His Father’s will all the way to the death of the cross, “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).