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Saturday, March 31, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Did Jesus Have to Die?

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 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. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

"Mythbusters," on the Discovery Channel, features two ex-Hollywood stunt men and their team of helpers, who every week test the truth of urban legends, popular beliefs, internet rumors, or other myths.  They've tested whether using a cell phone will cause an explosion at the gas pump, whether someone with a tongue piercing is more likely to be struck by lightning, and whether you can actually find a needle in a haystack.  One episode tested a story about a driver who left the cement in his cement truck sit too long and it hardened.  The driver supposedly loosened the cement by throwing a stick of dynamite in the drum.  Mythbusters proved a stick of dynamite wouldn't do the job, but they kept increasing the explosives until they completely demolished the truck.  Cement left in the truck is useless:  it's only good when it's poured out.
The highest price ever paid for a bottle of drinkable wine was for a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild bordeaux:  $ 114,000.  The most ever paid for a bottle of any wine was $ 160,000 for a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite bordeaux that is certainly vinegar now, but the bottle was from Thomas Jefferson's wine cellar and had his initials scratched on the glass.  No matter how old the vintage, wine is only good if it's poured out.
Hetty Green only owned one dress and wore it every day until it wore out.  She never turned on the heat and never used hot water.  She did not wash her hands and mostly ate pies that cost fifteen cents.  When her son, Ned, broke his leg as a child, she took him to a charity hospital.  When the hospital staff recognized her and refused to treat him as a charity case, she took Ned home and vowed to treat him herself.  The boy's leg developed gangrene and had to be amputated.  When Hetty died in 1916, her estate was valued, in today's dollars, at approximately three billion dollars.  All the money in the world is of no use unless it's poured out.
Jesus had it all.  He was adored by the common people, he could raise the dead, heal the sick, feed the hungry, change water into wine.  The nation was looking for a king and wanted to make him that ruler.  More than that, before his birth, he had been enthroned in heaven at God's side.  He had been present at the birth of the cosmos, he was surrounded by angels to do his bidding, he enjoyed unbroken fellowship with his Father, he existed in glory and honor and majesty.  Literally, he had it all.
But, like billions in a bank account, like cement stuck in a mixer, like wine on the shelf, it made no difference.  What does the glory of God mean when God's Creation struggles, suffers, and dies?  Jesus needed to be poured out.
So, says St. Paul to the church in Philippi, Jesus pours himself out.  Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be held on to.  Instead, he emptied himself -- poured himself out -- taking the form not of a master but of a slave, born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he lowered -- humbled -- himself, and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.
Jesus is poured out into a manger in Bethlehem, born among the poor of the world.  He is poured out into the streets of Nazareth and Capernaum and Tyre.  He is poured out weeping for his friend Lazarus, poured out restoring dead children to life, healing lepers and paralytics, exorcising demons, feeding thousands of people.  He is poured out explaining the love of God to people who cannot understand what he means.  Jesus empties himself, over and over and over.
That's a crazy way to live.  Life is supposed to be about gathering in, not pouring out.  We go to school so we can gather knowledge, so we can go to work and gather money, so we can go to the store and gather food and furniture and clothes and toys.  We accumulate friends, we acquire property, we increase in fame and reputation.  Yes, we are willing to part with some of our accumulated money and knowledge and time, but only so we can trade it for something else we'd rather have.  Even our time is traded for something else that we want, probably something that promises, in the long run, to save us more time.  We work hard now so we can retire earlier and better, and have more time.  We save and invest now so we will have more later. 
It's all a matter of balance, we like to preach to each other.  Balance your time, your energy, your money, your desire, your gifts.  Don't spend more money, time, or energy than you get in return.  Don't empty yourself.  Keep the wine in the bottle, the cement in the mixer, the money in the bank.
Jesus, it seems to me, lives an utterly unbalanced life.  He is always giving away infinitely more than he receives.  And today, Palm Sunday, begins the final draft on Jesus' life, taking it down far past bankruptcy.  This week Jesus will pour it all out, in the Temple, in the Upper Room, in Pilate's palace, in the court of the Sanhedrin, and, finally, on a cross.  There's nothing balanced about this week.  Jesus' blood flows like an overturned bottle of wine, and his life is demolished like an exploded cement mixer.  By three o'clock Friday, there's nothing left.  There's no glory, no peace, no praise, and no breath.  Jesus is empty.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Paul writes, who, though he was in the form of God, did not hold on to his equality with God, but emptied himself. 
Agnes Bojaxhiu was a young Albanian girl who felt called to become a nun.  She went to Ireland to learn English, so she could then teach in India.  After teaching in Calcutta for seventeen years, she went on a retreat in Darjeeling, and was overwhelmed by a call from God to serve the dying poor.  Begging in the streets, she raised money to found a hospice.  Beginning with 13 nuns, by the time of her death the Missionaries of Charity numbered 4,000 nuns operating hospitals, schools, and refugee centers.  Agnes poured herself out into the streets of Calcutta:  you probably know her by another name:  Mother Theresa.
Butch Nottingham is a farmer on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  In 1982 his pastor invited him to hear a program on responsible lifestyles and hunger issues.  When the leader of the program said that millions of pounds of food were being thrown away and could be used to feed hungry people, Butch questioned the figures.  Butch told the leader that if he got a group of people together with bags, they could walk behind his potato harvester and have all the potatoes they wanted.  Ray Buchanan, the leader, took Butch's bet, and they gleaned behind Butch's tractor that fall.  In the twenty-seven years since the Society of Saint Andrew began their gleaning network, 400,000 volunteers have gleaned over 152 million pounds of food to be distributed to the poor.  All it took was one farmer willing to give away what was left behind his tractor.
All the glory in heaven cannot save the world from its sin.  But Christ surrenders his heavenly glory to be born and to live among the poor and forgotten people of the earth.  He pours out his life, emptying it on the hill of Calvary.  And, not from his glory and power and equality with God, but from his emptied life, come love and hope and resurrection.  His Lordship comes not from his authority but from his servanthood.  His power comes from his obedience.  His life comes from his death.  His fullness comes from his emptying.
Hetty Green, who died with billions in the bank, is remembered only for her eccentricity; Mother Theresa, who died a pauper, changed the world.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on undrunk wine make headlines; food rescued from behind tractors feeds millions.  Cement left in a mixer gets dynamited; lives poured out for God and for neighbors build the New Jerusalem. 
Like wine, money, and cement, life is meant to be poured out. Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus . . . who emptied himself.

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