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He Made Himself Nothing

December 13th, 2008


In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God, 

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant, 

being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being, 

he humbled himself 

by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

 washing feet
You’ve probably heard about it by now, even if you don’t live in Illinois. David Letterman’s making jokes about it: John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Leno, too. Until this week, Illinois was famous for being the home of the President-Elect of the United States. Now we’re famous as the home of a different politician.

Seems that our Governor, Rod Blagojevich, among other things, allegedly intended to get creative with the appointment of a Senator to fill President-Elect Obama’s seat. As in, creatively appointing whoever was willing to pay the most for it. That, in itself, is probably not too far beyond politics as usual. But when you talk about such shenanigans in very, well, colorful language on a telephone that happens to be wiretapped by the Feds; well, then you’re the lead story on CNN and David Letterman is coining a verb based on your last name.

Assuming that the story is true, and that Governor Blagojevich wasn’t actually talking about selling a gold watch on eBay or something (feel free to use that, Blagojevich defense team), what we have here is just another example of the old mantra: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That’s an overgeneralization, of course – I can think of powerful people who seem to have resisted its corrupting influence, and you can too. And in any case, it isn’t really that power corrupts. It’s more that there seems to be something about human beings that, once we taste a little power, we tend to use it to our own advantage, always want more of it, and will do whatever we can to hold on to it.

More than anything, what this whole sorry episode demonstrates is how far human beings are from what God intended for us to be. God didn’t roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty shaping human beings from dirt and mud just so we could get back into the dirt and mud the first chance we get. He created us to care for the world he gave us – not strip-mine it for all we can accumulate. He created us to live in relationship with each other – not use, manipulate, and take advantage of each other. That tendency we have to want to use whatever means at our disposal to enrich ourselves didn’t come from him. It comes from some other place, from a serpent hissing temptation and telling us that of course we should take whatever is pleasing to our eyes.

In all probability, Governor Blagojevich is befuddled this week. He would probably say that the only thing he’s guilty of, if anything, is using what resources he had to his own advantage. In all likelihood, he’s wondering today what in the world is wrong with that. And, in the world, the only thing wrong with it is that he seems to have broken some laws doing it. Oh, and had the misfortune of being recorded.

But that’s just another way in which the story of Jesus doesn’t unfold according to the world’s script.

The church in Philippi lived in a world in which powerful people used their position and strength primarily for their own benefit. In his letter to them, Paul reminded them that the Lord Jesus, like the lord Caesar, had such advantages – not the least of them being equality with God. He was, as Paul put it, “in very nature God.” The Nicene Creed, trying to elaborate on that a little, described Jesus as “very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” In short, what God was, Jesus was. Who God was, Jesus was. He was with God, John the evangelist would write – but not just with him. He was God.

Oh, just imagine what a person could do with that kind of power. It’s interesting, though, that Paul doesn’t spend even a moment speculating on that. Probably because it doesn’t seem that Jesus ever spent much time speculating on it. When Jesus came to us, Paul reminds them – and us – he didn’t come with a plan to enrich himself. He didn’t come selling favors or position, and in fact when some of his followers started thinking along those lines he cut them off at the knees. “No,” Paul writes: “he made himself nothing.” The humanity he took upon himself looked more like servanthood than royalty. He came, he would tell his followers, “not…to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

And then there’s that. Jesus’ humble service ended, not with him brokering a deal for a Senate seat or living in a Governor’s mansion, but with him giving up his life on a torture device. Hardly what you’d expect from divinity come in the flesh. To me, that’s one of the things that makes the story of Jesus so believable – its utter incredibility. Who in their right mind would make up a story like that?

Here’s the thing, though – the thing about that story that we sometimes miss, but that we most need to remember especially when we hear about powerful people abusing their power. There but for the grace of God go we, you see. And Paul reminds his readers of Jesus’ example to encourage them to follow it. Good theology always works itself out relationally. If we can hear the story of Jesus without becoming servants ourselves, then maybe we haven’t heard it yet. If we can believe the gospel without putting the interests of the people around us – spouses, kids, clients, co-workers, friends, and so forth – before our own interests, then maybe we haven’t believed it yet.

“In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had.” Jesus’ sacrifice for us calls us to make our own sacrifices. Oh, there will be glory and exaltation for us, a reflection of his own. But it comes for us in the same way it came for him: through service, sacrifice, suffering, and death. “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” he promised. Maybe that’s the harvest Governor Blagojevich is now reaping. But he also promised that those who humble themselves will be exalted as they share in his glory.

Our world tells us that if we don’t take all we can get, when we can, we’ll miss out. Jesus promises that if we’ll put ourselves out of mind, we’ll receive all his Father has to give.

Which is considerably more than you can get from a Senate seat, I understand.

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