Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

“Living the Song

Message preached September 25, 2011
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Philippians 2:1-13

(listen to this on an .mp3 audiofile)

Order of Worship

Over 30 years ago, when I was on summer staff at Camp Swatara, we planned a meal in which we sought to expose the children to a variety of outdoor tastes, from grilled frog legs to wild sassafras tea. On the menu was groundhog, and it was up to me and Dennis Keeney to go and shoot one of those critters at his family’s farm for the meal. Now, mind you, I am not a hunter. I’m just like my Daddy in this. On that day, however, I accepted the .22 rifle from Dennis and we split up and went in search of this animal that farmers are only too glad to be rid of. Dennis took the larger gun, a 30.06, figuring that this city boy was better entrusted with the pea shooter.

I did run across a groundhog within firing range on that day. I lay down and put that critter between the crosshairs as it just sat there sniffing around, chewing on some grass. Now, either I was one terrible shot, or a part of me just couldn’t kill another creature like this. I got off several shots before the groundhog decided to mosey down his hole. After looking around for others, without any luck, I headed back to the farmhouse.

On the way, I came upon Dennis, who had a groundhog in his sights. I knew enough about guns to realize that the smaller rifle in my hands was actually better suited for this particular game. A bigger bullet would not leave much groundhog for a meal. And it didn’t. Dennis didn’t miss. After gutting and skinning the critter, we had just a little meat for the kids to try back at camp. As it turned out, what we had was more than plenty. Children aren’t known for being particularly adventuresome when it comes to food, you know.

To be honest, adults aren’t either. Take the folks in Philippi. The apostle Paul cooked up a meal for his friends there. We call it a letter, but it’s got some real tasty dishes in it. Some of those dishes are bit spicy, others have a bit of a wild taste to them. I guess I’d put the word “Joy,” in the “wild” end of things. Philippians is a letter full of “Joy,” which is different from plain old “happiness.” Some folks say it tastes a bit like chicken, but then, so do frog’s legs, if you cook them a particular way. With “joy,” however, you never quite can get that wild taste out of it, even if you season it with all sorts of troubles and problems. God’s Joy turns up in some of the most difficult situations.

This sermon isn’t about that particular dish, though. Paul had something else on the menu. You see, in his letter, he took aim at some of those Philippian’s troubles when he was hunting up the right food to serve. Like other Christians, the believers in Philippi were struggling with how to get along with each other, being a pretty diverse group of people. Now, Paul could’ve dealt with their quarrels in a very practical way. He could’ve come up with a little side dish to address the situation, something like, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Who could argue with those words? Everybody can eat that! Of course, a lot depends upon how those words are cooked. I mean, you can boil them so much that the wild flavor is sucked out and they taste just like chicken, also.

Paul didn’t serve up that dish, however. Instead, he went hunting. Now, remember, I’m not a hunter myself, so if this analogy feels a little funny on you, it does so on me, too. In many ways, that’s what the Bible is supposed to do. God’s Word should always feel a bit funny. If it fits too snug on us, then maybe we haven’t really heard it. It should always taste a bit wild. After all, it’s supposed to contain the Word of the One who spoke out of the burning bush, saying “I am who I am.”

Back to Paul, he went hunting. Did he take the little pea shooter? No, he brought out the big gun. It does seem strange, when you think about it, that he would address a problem in how people were treating each other as Christians with one of the most profound Christological statements in the Bible. What I mean by that is, Paul started writing about Jesus: who Christ was and is. By implication, he was also writing about the believers in Philippi, who they were as followers of Jesus Christ. The words don’t fit into a nifty little slogan to stick on the bumper of your car.

Many scholars believe that what Paul served up at this point was an early Christian hymn, a song that conveyed more than could really be comprehended. Good hymns are like that - they pull us beyond ourselves, stretching our spirits as they grow on us and we grow in them. Do we understand a great song of faith the first time we hear or sing it? No. As it reverberates in our beings over the years, however, it opens us up to that “wild” place Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Whether Paul himself wrote the song or not is irrelevant. The hymn is like a big gun which Paul uses to address a smaller issue, the problem of how to get along with each other. The dish he then cooks and serves pulls together belief and behavior. In other words, Paul was saying that how we see Jesus is connected to how we see each other - what we believe about him has an impact upon how we treat one another. That’s not an easy dish to swallow. It’s got a wild “kingdom” taste to it.

Now, I don’t want to dissect this song bit by bit this morning, as if it were some project in science class. That’s not my style of preaching, anyway. I see a sermon as a meal that I try to cook up for you. Of course, I’m no French chef. More like a cook on a wagon train. There’s a lot of wild food on the trail, you know. Some of it tastes a little funny. Like this bit about Jesus, who was in the form of God, and then he wasn’t. The song begins by saying that Jesus was God - that was his “form,” his “nature”, that was “who he was” before this journey on earth 2,000 years ago took place. He didn’t pop into existence out of Mary’s womb. He existed prior to that experience. That’s what the song says. It doesn’t say he existed in some other human form and was reincarnated as Jesus in some perpetual cycle of moving toward becoming a god. The song says that he was, in fact, God. That, in and of itself, is a not easy to chew on for many of us. It’s hard to comprehend. It’s part of the “wild” taste. No matter how much you cook that one, it’s not going to taste like chicken.

The song doesn’t end with that flavor, however. That statement about the pre-existance of Christ, if you will, is an awfully “big gun.” Please allow me to run with this image of a “gun.” Here is the Messiah standing over us holding the “big gun” of being “God.”  “Hey, people, I am who I am.  In order to save you I’m going to just aim and fire. I can do that, you buck-toothed rodents. After all, I am God.” (Uh-oh, did I just put things a tad off-kilter?  Are we now the groundhogs?) To be equal with God, to be God, is to hold the big gun. Funny thing is, the song goes on to say that Christ laid that gun down. What a strange thing to do! The song says he gave up everything that he was and became like us. Looking at it from one perspective, the “Master” became a “slave.” From another angle, he became fully a human being, facing all the weakness that being human involves, even death, even the most despicable type of death. Seems when he laid the gun down, he himself ran the risk of being blown away. And he was.

When we think about how rotten people can be, we often see God as the great “I am” who stands, with a big gun loaded and aimed, ready to blow this sinful world away.  Many of us feel the cross-hairs on our own chest. Funny thing is, how we see God is often how we act. Belief and behavior are connected, you know. In responding to how rotten others can be, we can try to play God by standing over them, ready to blow them away - whether our bullets are made of metal or words, whether our opponents are distant enemies or neighbors (or even loved ones). However, is this picture of a gun-totting deity how God really is? Is that what this “wild” kingdom of God all about?

Scripture says that Jesus shows us what God is really like. Well then, look and see, my friends. In the Christ hymn, Jesus laid down the gun. He showed us what “listening to and following God’s voice” (obedience) is all about. As a leader who served others rather than having others serve him, Jesus walked the path that led to his death. Because of this, the hymn sings out, God lifted him up, out of the grave and before all the world. Because of this, all of Creation: past, present, future (everything) bows before Jesus as Lord - a Lord who serves. Is this, then, how God means for us to think of himself? Are we to live with a God who stands over us with a big gun ever-ready to blow us away? Or are we to live with a God who lays down the gun, who lives with us?

How we see Jesus, how we see God has an impact upon how we live. Belief and behavior go hand in hand. That is precisely what Paul was trying to cook up and serve to his friends in Philippi. Let your attitude to life, to others, to God, be like that of Jesus. Now, I confess there is a “wild” taste to that way of seeing things, and thus to that way of living. It doesn’t quite square with how business is usually done in this world. It’s important that we not try to boil it down so much that it tastes just like chicken (if you know what I mean), that it loses its “wild” kingdom of God flavor.

Well, that’s the meal I’ve cooked up for today. I know it probably hasn’t satisfied every hunger, far from it. What sermon ever could? What scripture can say everything that needs to be said? What song, even one like this “Christ hymn” from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is sufficient to sing out the vastness of the “wild” kingdom of God revealed by Jesus and the path he paved through the wilderness to travel there? What picture of it all is enough? Keep chewing on it, though.

For now, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” It’s time to live the song.

(para traducir a espańol, presione la bandera de Espańa)


©2011 Peter L. Haynes (adapted and reused from 3/8/98)
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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