In the 1950-s, Sao Kya Seng, the prince of 34 independent Shan states in northeastern Burma, also known as Hsipaw, came to Denver, Colorado, to study agriculture. Since he wanted to experience what it was like to be a student in the US, he kept his identity secret. Not even his professors knew who he really was. One of his fellow students was Inge Sargent from Austria. Both of them being exchange students, Inge and the Burmese prince quickly found that they had a lot in common and started to spend more and more time together. Their friendship grew into love but the Burmese prince decided that he would not let on his true identity even though they were seriously dating. He did not want Inge’s decision to date him to be colored by the fact that she could marry into royalty. So when he finally proposed, with an engagement ring of ruby and diamond, Inge still did not know who he really was. Inge said yes and they got married, as any other couple, in the US. For their honeymoon, Sao Kya Seng was taking Inge to his home country, so that she could meet his family and see where he was from. When their ship reached the shores of Burma, hundreds of people were waiting at the harbor. Many of them had gone out in small boat, holding up welcoming signs. A band was playing and some people were tossing flowers at the ship. Surprised at all this excitement Inge turns to her husband, and asks whose arrival they are celebrating. “Inge,” he says, I am the prince of Hsipaw. These people are celebrating our arrival. You are now the princess.” (From Twilight over Burma: My Life As a Shan Princess, by Inge Sargent.)
The story of Jesus is the story of God coming to this world in a way you never would have expected. It is the story of God incognito. Jesus, who was himself God, came to the world and concealed his divine majesty by becoming a human being like you and me.
“Being in very nature God, he 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.”
Why did he do this? This is the way he shows his love for us.
Do you know what impresses me about some of my good friends? That they will let me be myself when I am around them. I don’t have to pretend. I can just relax. I don’t have to pretend that I have everything together. I don’t have to pretend that I am holier than I am. I can just be who I am with all my imperfections. Friends that let me be like that, are the friends that don’t play games with me. They don’t have a polished facade that they keep showing me without letting me see their weaknesses. They show me the trust that they let me look into their own life and they give me the freedom that I can be comfortable letting them share of myself.
Do you think of God in that way?
Have you played the game when you hear a word and you are supposed to say the first word that comes to your mind? If I say “God,” what words do you think of? Heaven? Glory? Holy? Exalted? Throne?
How about slave? obedient? death? lowly? pathetic? shame?
A Norwegian preacher once said that Jesus stepped down so low, so that he would always be below us, so that he could always be there and catch us when we fall.
Have you noticed how many people that want to be your friend when it comes to offering good advice and telling you how to do things? They want to be the older brother friend or the older sister friend. They want to be the ones that always know. Not that they mind sharing their superior knowledge with you. That’s how they show that they are your friend. I think of these people as people that like to be your friend, the friend that is placed a little bit higher than you. I don’t like to have too many of these friends. I prefer the people where I can be the one standing a little bit higher, the friendship where I can be the one that knows best. But how difficult it is to find the friend that is happy to stand below you.
How hard it is to be that friend, who is happy to stand below.
Can you imagine that God came to be that friend. When he came to the world he abandoned all his power, status, and influence, and became a carpenter without a permanent address. Of course, for the incarnation to happen, he had to let go of some of his divine majesty, so that he could fit in a human body. But there were so many other ways he could have chosen to become a human being. He could have come in a way more appropriate for someone of such tremendous importance. He could have come as a king, or at least as a wealthy, highly respected member of the community
“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!”
Imagine that there was one person, one man, that was ultimately responsible for all the suffering in the world, a man that had so much power and influence that he alone controlled world events and caused millions of people to die of starvation, caused nations to go into war and people to suffer. Imagine that his workings were finally disclosed to the world and an international tribunal was set up to mete out the appropriate punishment for this person. Execution would be too mild a reaction, that would be over in a moment. Something would have to be devised so that this person could experience the suffering he had inflicted on so many people. Imagine that a drug had been invented that could reverse the effects of aging. This drug could be administered to this person, so that he would have to live his whole life over again. This time a life of suffering. What should we let his life be like?
The misery of course had to start from the minute he was born. He would have to experience the agony of being hated just because he was born. Let him live a life as a victim of racism, constantly to be judged by the color of his skin, before he had the chance to do anything, people would have made up his mind about him. Let him be born a Jew, the most hated people of all.
That would of course not be enough. We would have to make sure, not only that those of another race hated, he would have to be despised by his own kin as well. There would have to be something that made him different from the outset. Let him be born out of wedlock among conservative village people.
This is only the beginning. He would have to suffer an unstable childhood. He would have to have traumatic experiences starting in his very early years. Let him be born in a war torn country. Let there be an attempt on his life while he is still an little child and let him grow up in a foreign country as a refugee.
Needless to say, he would have to be poor. He would have to be born to a family who could not afford to pay for decent health care, so that he would be born under less than sanitary circumstances.
He would have to suffer psychological hardship when he grew up. He should what it was like to be rejected by other people, rejected so that it really stings. Let him experience making friends, friends who would turn around and hand him over to be killed just for a small amount of money. Let him experience his best friend swearing that he never knew him.
He would of course have to suffer the utmost pain any human being has ever seen. Let him be given into the hands of sadistic torturers, who would make him their play thing. Let him then finally die, a slow, shameful, and utterly painful death.
I have just described to you the life God himself chose to live, when he came to earth as a human being. “And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” My story is inaccurate only in the sense that no one made Jesus live this life and die this death. He freely chose to let this be the life and the death that he entered into.
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
Christ’s way was a way downwards, so that he could bring us upwards. He died so that we might live. He suffered for sins, so that we might be justified.
First of all, Christ did all these things in our place. But Christ’s downwards life is also an example for us to follow. The whole passage that we have read this morning is introduced by a direct admonishment to us: “In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:”
Jesus’ downwards movement is supposed to be the blueprint for our own life. We are called to have the same mind-set as Christ Jesus had, a mind-set that makes us happy to suffer loss of our own privileges, our own status, our own wealth, so that we can move downwards and lift others up. If you want to live your life as a follower of Jesus, this is what you are aiming for.
To follow Jesus will not give you wealth, fame, or popularity in this world. Nor will it give you a prize for your impressive spirituality. You see, the way of Christ is not a way upwards. It is a way downwards. Just as it was a way downwards for Jesus, from heaven to earth and from Galilee to the cross outside Jerusalem. So also is the way of Christ for us a way downwards.
This should tell us something about how we relate to other people. This is in fact the point Paul is making at this juncture in his epistle to the Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil 2:3-4). In our interaction with other people, we should not use them to lift ourselves up. We should not pick friends based on how we can become more popular ourselves, or based on how we can look good ourselves. Rather, we should be happy to brought down so that we might bring others up. We should pick friends so that we can do good for them.
“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not think you are superior” (Rom 12:16).
This is why Paul always emphasized that the life of an apostle was a life of giving up his rights. As an apostle he had the right to receive financial support from the Corinthians when he preached to them. But he abandoned this right. For he would rather share the gospel free of charge and be among the Corinthians as a loving father rather than a fee charging schoolmaster. He admonished the Corinthians to abandon their freedom to eat and drink whatever they wanted, when it caused their brothers to stumble. It is more important to act out of love to your fellow Christians than to make use the privileges that are rightfully yours.
Many times I have been frustrated: why are there so many annoying people in the church? Bear in mind that I am not talking about any of you. I started coming here relatively recently. I don’t know who the annoying people are yet. But in the different churches I have been going to over the years, I always find that I wish there were not so many irritating people.
But I also have to admit that I believe that’s exactly the way the Jesus wants it to be. Because he loves annoying people so much that he came down to earth to die for all the annoying people that have ever lived. Compared to the holiness of Christ, all of us are really annoying people. But the amazing thing is that he likes annoying people so much that when he chose his twelve closest friends, he chose the money worshiping Judas Iscariot, who was going to be judgmental and grumble about the way other people spent their own money. Not only that, but in the end he was going to betray his master for a handful of change. There was the cocky Peter, who always had to speak up before he involved his brain. There were the arrogant brothers, John and James, who thought they deserved the place of honor in the kingdom of heaven. There was the blind Bartimaeus, a very annoying and loud man, impossible to shut up when he started his shouting. All of them were also quite dense, usually incapable of grasping anything that was told them by the use of metaphor. Certainly not any company for a genius, who, at the age of 12, had all the scholars in the nation’s capital spellbound by his insights.
Jesus did not chose the friends that would jump start his social life and help him be elected home coming king. He enjoyed the company of the outcasts.
That is why I think one of the best measures of the Christ-likeness of a church, is how many annoying people that feel at home there.
The way of Christ is a downwards movement. How much that tells us about spirituality. Very often, what we think of as spirituality is exactly the opposite. It is an upwards movement. It is our attempt to lift ourselves up. It is our attempt to grow. Our attempt to become a good person. And it is all about ourselves. All about how I can be spiritual. How I can be a good person.
Christ shows us a different way. A way of spirituality that has nothing to do with lifting ourselves up and trying to climb on a spiritual ladder. Because we do not have to do that. There is nowhere for us to climb for Christ has come down to us. If you will understand what I mean: There is no need for us to become a better person, for in Christ we already are everything that we can be. We are perfect in the eyes of God. That was what Christ did for us when he came down. He became poor so that we might become rich. He died for our sins so that we might be righteous and holy and perfect before God.
Christ therefore calls us to join with him. In a downwards journey. Seeking not ourselves and our betterment. But seeking other people. Seeking other people’s betterment. Jesus teaches us to seek other people, not as a means to make ourselves more popular or even to make ourselves better people. But to seek other people for their own sake. We don’t need good works for our own sake. But other people need them.
Jesus says: “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt 23:11). In other words, the way to greatness is a way downwards.
The way downwards, however, does not end at the bottom. That is paradoxical message of the gospel. Luke 14:11 “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The way upwards ends at the bottom, but the way downwards ends at the top.
Jesus’ way did not end at the cross, it continued with his crucifixion and glorification. “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 acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
If we live a life with Christ, we can rejoice when we are brought low, because Christ’s downwards journey ends in heaven.
“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17).
The Bible often likens our relationship with God to that of a bride’s relationship to her groom. As the church of Christ, we are Christ’s bride. The second coming of Christ is often described as the great wedding banquet, when Christ, the groom, will come to get us, the believer, his bride, and lead us into his glorious kingdom. That is when we will hear the words: Welcome home. You are now the princess!
© Sigurd Grindheim