Sunday, August 30, 2020

No Knee Left Behind: Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11

Almost three thousand years ago. It was 833 BC (though they hardly knew that), and the people of Tarsus were quaking in their boots as the shock forces of the mighty foreign army laying siege to them marched right into the heart of the city, setting up a throne carrying a leader. Tall with flowing black hair and plaited beard, he stared at the chiefs and nobles and, with a booming voice, introduced himself: “I am Šulmānu-ašarēdu, king of the universe, king of all people, great king, strong king, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, ruler of all lands. I am the one who makes rulers bow down; I tread all lands under my feet like a footstool. I am the commander of all rulers, the king without rival, the Lord of Kings!”

The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III had been having a fine year. Like every year, he'd gone out on a holy war, determined to force the submission of still more rulers and cities, still more mountains and nations, before him and the gods he represented. For the empire of the world had been given into his hands. Why, just a few weeks or so earlier, Shalmaneser had laid siege to another city not so far away called Tanakun. Its king Tullu had, most wisely, come out with tribute to surrender. Shalmaneser had watched with satisfaction as King Tullu had bowed down at Shalmaneser's feet in submission. It reminded Shalmaneser of all the other petty rulers who'd wisely bowed the knee to him, like Sua of Gilzanu and Jehu of Israel. They'd crawled on their hands and knees to him, with servants carrying treasures to appease Shalmaneser's wrath and acknowledge his overlordship. So now, here in Tarsus, Shalmaneser watched as the nobles of the town, together with the people, got down on their own knees, bowed the knee to him. He gave orders to have Kirri, the brother of the late king Kate, installed as their ruler. And Kirri, for his part, once crowned, bowed the knee before Shalmaneser and confessed Assyrian greatness with tongue and tribute. So many kings bowed the knee to Shalmaneser. He truly felt the conviction he was king of the universe, king of the four quarters, lord of kings. And he, in turn, bowed the knee never to any mortal, but only to his gods – especially to the god Aššur his lord.

Tarsus, through submission, was able to wave goodbye to Shalmaneser. Over two centuries later, there'd be another Assyrian king who would declare, “All of the kings in the midst of the sea, from Cyprus and Ionia to Tarsus..., bowed down at my feet. I received their heavy tribute. I achieved victory over the rulers of the four quarters, and I sprinkled the venom of death over all of my enemies.” So wrote Esarhaddon, great king of Assyria. Another six centuries went by. A Jewish family settled in Tarsus, and in its environment they'd birth and raise a son there – a son named Sha'ul. And when their son's life was changed by an encounter with God's Son, Sha'ul – whom we know better by his Roman name Paulus, or 'Paul' – would find himself under house arrest, not in the capital of long-fallen Assyria, but in the heart of another empire: Rome.

Like Shalmaneser, the emperors of Rome made lofty claims for themselves and accepted them from others. The Emperor Augustus didn't much care for being called 'Lord,' but his stepson Tiberius would hail the late Augustus as a god, calling himself “the son of the deified Augustus the Savior and Liberator, son of the deified Caesar.” The common people, especially in the provinces, happily used the word dominus – 'Lord' – for both of them, and set up temples dedicated to the worship of Tiberius' parents Augustus and Livia. As the years unfolded, provincials especially could readily speak of “our lord the emperor.” And so by the days of Augustus' great-grandson Nero, the one under whose authority Paul was a captive, it's not so surprising that one priest of the imperial cult could address the Emperor Nero as “Lord of All the World, Supreme Commander..., our Lord Augustus.” And Paul knew that in the province of Macedonia, the city of Philippi welcomed talk like that. They built temples for the imperial cult, Roman politics gone religious. They hailed Nero Caesar, and his supposedly deified ancestors, as the lords before whom their Philippian knees bowed and whose propaganda their Philippian tongues confessed. And Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus knew and relished it.

From Shalmaneser and Esarhaddon to Tiberius and Nero to today, countless political leaders – rulers of men and women – have either outspokenly presented themselves as 'Lord' or else welcomed others' embrace of them as 'Lord.' Countless such rulers, down through the pages of history, have longed to watch others bow the knee to them and confess their sovereignty, even if in more subtle ways than Shalmaneser quite openly did it. But into such a world, Paul sings a different song, and asks the Philippian church – and ours – to catch the tune.

Shalmaneser had believed that his so-called gods had commissioned him to go forth and conquer, to represent their mastery of the whole universe by forcing all the kings and peoples of the world to submit to him – and thus to them through him. And so, obedient to that ideology, Shalmaneser had marched from land to land with brutal violence, receiving tribute from the submissive and butchering the unsubmissive. Paul's song sings of a king with a different approach. “Have this mind among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus – who, though he was in the form of God, did not count the equality with God as a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, and took upon himself the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. Being found in human appearance, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus, Paul says, from all eternity past had existed “in the form of God.” He existed in the fullness of divine splendor and light, had existed in the Father's embrace. He was, by very nature, everything his Father was. And so he was, substantially, God the Father's equal. He was at the very summit of the great chain of being. There was no greater glory than his, no higher kingship than his. He was God the Son, God the Word, the regal and radiant face of the Most High, the perfect stamp of God's infinite shape. He had this eternally. He didn't have to conquer to get it. It was his. But although eternally he had the highest station, he never viewed it as a thing to exploit, to use for grasping and clawing and taking advantage of, the way Shalmaneser exploited his military might to get tribute. Instead, God the Son did what Shalmaneser would never have dreamed of. He emptied himself. He hollowed out his treasury and began to climb down the ladder. He was born in human likeness and pattern. He took on the form, not of Almighty God, but of powerless slave – the sort whose life and death the likes of Shalmaneser and Nero would deem cheap and expendable. And he humbled himself, pursued a lowly mindset. He obeyed submissively – following his Father's will, ultimately, but letting himself be bossed around by a Roman governor named Pilate and his soldiers, following orders to strip and be beaten, to wear a thorny crown, to carry this hunk of wood up a hill, to stretch out his arms and legs to receive their piercing nails. He was obedient all the way to his last labored breath. Unlike Esarhaddon, who boasted in having “sprinkled the venom of death” over all his enemies, Jesus himself drank the venom of death for his enemies. He embraced the lowliest and most embarrassing death – not a heroic death in battle, but a death of human helplessness and humiliation – the kind of death you get on a cross. Shalmaneser would never have done that. Esarhaddon would never have done that. Augustus would never have done that. Nero would never have done that. But Jesus stepped down from far above their heads to do exactly that.

And therefore,” Paul says – “therefore, God even highly exalted him” (Philippians 2:9a). In that one phrase, Paul flips the story around. Precisely because Jesus acted so little like Nero, precisely because Jesus acted so little like Shalmaneser, his story turned out differently than theirs. For Nero died a cowardly death and was buried in a Roman mausoleum. Shalmaneser lived out his years and was buried. Both remain under the earth, and the gods they served are exposed as frauds. But the true God declared that it was unthinkable to let death keep its hands on the Jesus who climbed down the ladder (Acts 2:24). God not only raised him from death to life in the resurrection, God then raised him from earth to heaven in the ascension; and God not only raised him from earth to heaven in the ascension, God even raised him from obscurity to central glory in the exaltation. A psalmist long ago sang, “You, O LORD, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods” (Psalm 97:9); and that same word, 'exalted far above,' is where God puts Jesus. God elevates Jesus to the top, to the high throne, to center stage with the spotlight.

Yes, God highly exalted Jesus – “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31). Jesus is now “exalted above the heavens(Hebrews 7:26), even. And God “bestowed on him the Name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9b). What name? The unique name of God – Yahweh – which Greek copies of the Old Testament held to be so sacred that they usually just glossed over it as, 'the LORD.' There's no name higher than that one. It's the name above every other name. “All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name,” says the psalmist (Psalm 86:9). “From the rising of the sun t its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised” (Psalm 113:3). “Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted (Psalm 148:13). Just listen to the way God talks through Isaiah:

I am the LORD, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness … I the LORD speak the truth; I declare what is right. Assemble yourselves and come; draw near, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols and keep on praying to a god that can't save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Wasn't it I, the LORD? And there's no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:18-22)

And that, God says – that is all for Jesus. God the Father throws that name, that public identity, around Jesus – or, rather, makes the veil of Jesus' flesh so transparent that the glory can't be hidden. God names Jesus with his rightful name, the name of that LORD – the LORD the only God, the LORD who declares what's right, the LORD who speaks the truth, the LORD who saves. In this one name, what's claimed for Jesus is everything any king has ever dreamt of. All the exalted titles are summed up in this name. Jesus is the King of all people. Jesus is the King of the four quarters. Jesus is the Ruler of all lands. Jesus is the King of the Universe. All lands – the whole earth – is his footstool. He is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16), “Lord of Lords and King of Kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14).

And so, where Yahweh – the LORD – said, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue will confess to God” (Isaiah 45:23), Paul quotes that dazzling pledge and cracks it open and finds Jesus enthroned upon its heart! For Paul explains that “at the name of Jesus 'every knee will bow' – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – 'and every tongue confess' that the LORD is Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). What a promise! To bow or bend the knee – that means to recognize authority and power, and to submit to it, like the people of Tarsus did to Shalmaneser, like so many kings and rulers did to Shalmaneser. Or, at least, so Shalmaneser tried to make them. But he lived in one little slice of history and one region of the globe. No king of the Zhou Dynasty in China ever bowed the knee to Shalmaneser. No ancient Britons bowed the knee to him. No ancestral speakers of any Algonquian or Iroquoian languages ever confessed a word for Shalmaneser or hailed him. Certainly no American presidents have ever or will ever bow the knee to Shalmaneser. He has no authority over them. But all will bow the knee to Jesus – not only dwellers on the face of the earth, but what's buried beneath it and what soars above it, physically and spiritually – Paul throws the net wide as the universe, wide as heaven and hell and all that's between, wider than history.

And Paul says there's one confession – only one confession, one open acknowledgment, that rightly gives God the credit, that truly gives the Father his due. God says through Isaiah, “My glory I will not give to another. … I am He: I am the First, and I am the Last” (Isaiah 48:11-12). But Jesus is not 'another,' not a rival; he's the equal the Father finds in his own heart, he's the Father's perfect Image, he's the very mind of God. And the only way to rightly glorify God is to confess that the LORD – the LORD God, and the Lord on the highest throne – is Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Father's Anointed Son. Jesus is the One who bears the Name above every other name. No other confession will do. No pious-sounding deistical rubbish can measure up. The most highfalutin talk about God is aimed entirely wrong 'til it reaches the confession that Jesus Christ is LORD!

And when Isaiah discerned that, he knew that some would make that confession with joy and willingness: “In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory” (Isaiah 45:25). And so true spiritual Israel has been redrawn based on this willing confession of Jesus as LORD (cf. Romans 2:29; Galatians 6:16). Others currently refuse to confess and bow – but, Isaiah promises, they will, though not willingly and not gladly: “To him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him” (Isaiah 45:24).

Willingly or unwillingly, though, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. That includes angel knees and demon knees, knees of muscle and long-bloodless kneecaps. Michael and Gabriel will bow their knees in holy gladness. So will Satan and all his demon host, though with shame instead of delight. And every knee that either now walks the earth or ever did shall likewise bow to the dirt in submission to the Lordship of Jesus, and every tongue will admit, openly and before everyone, the truth about who he is.

The knees of Shalmaneser III and Esarhaddon, ancient kings of Assyria, will bow at the name of Jesus. And their tongues will confess that Aššur was a pointless fraud and that Jesus is the only King of the Universe. The knees of Augustus and Nero will one day bow at the name of Jesus, and their tongues will confess that the imperial cult was a sham and that Jesus is the real Dominus of All the World. The knees of Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan will all bow, and in Greek and Hunnic and Mongolian their tongues will confess, awestruck, that Jesus is the truest Conqueror of hearts. The knee of Adolf Hitler will literally bow to Israel's Messiah and confess that a Jewish carpenter has been named Leader of the Eternal Empire. The knees of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping will some day bow to the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Love.

The knees of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Donald Trump and Joseph Biden – they all will bow, they all will hit the dirt, they all will submit and throw themselves into the waiting hands of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the tongue of every president and presidential hopeful will in that day confess – willingly or unwillingly – that Jesus was always King of Kings, Jesus was always Lord of Lords, Jesus was always President of Presidents, and that Jesus' way is the only truly presidential way. Jesus has no term limit. No election can change it, no crisis can interrupt it, no scheme can subvert it. Not all the riotous uproar of the nations can cast away the cords of Christ (Psalm 2:2-3). The rulers of the earth are warned now to be wise and to serve the LORD Jesus with devotion, because his Kingship is unavoidable. Whatever they do and whatever they say, however they scheme and however they govern, we know in advance that their knees will bow, and they'll have to admit that wherever they stepped out of line with Jesus, wherever they picked a fight with him by slandering his church or harming his creatures, they led wrongly. And wherever they attained their power through conquest or electioneering or deceit, they'll know and admit that they are now humbled because they exalted themselves, while Christ humbled himself to the lowest and therefore was exalted to the highest.

Every knee will bow. No knee will be left behind. God has passed a No Knee Left Behind Act, and it's forever in force. And every tongue will confess that Jesus is highly exalted, that Jesus bears the Name above all names. “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth, young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the LORD [Jesus], for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven” (Psalm 148:11-13). Not just the princes and rulers, but the people, too – man and woman, young and old, rich and poor, of every culture and every color, every language and every tribe. My knees will bow. My tongue will confess. Your knees will bow. Your tongue will confess (Philippians 2:10-11).

The risk we run here is that needing to have it dragged out of us with chagrin and shock and shame. The risk we run is that we'll so live in the meantime that it will not be a joy to kneel to Jesus, to confess his truth in the open. Oh, we gather here to speak his name. But do we bow the knee – submit all our opinions to him, all our attitudes to him, all our hopes and dreams to him? Do we confess that this Lord deserves more allegiance than a party or an agenda, more allegiance than a race or a nation, more allegiance than a flag or a constitution, more allegiance than our own heart? One day, we'll have to bow that knee, one day we'll have to confess. How much better it would be, brothers and sisters, for that day to be the greatest joy, because we've been practicing all along? How much greater will it be to throw ourselves at Jesus' feet because that's where we've made our home, and to swear allegiance to his Lordship unreservedly that day because we've made Jesus the center of our politics and our civics, the center of our economics and our rhetoric, the center of our soul's devotion now?

The day is coming. The day is coming when all will be summoned, when all will be raised, when all will be called down to be faced with the truth that Jesus, who humbled himself from equality with God to a slave's death on the cross, has been raised and highly exalted as King of the Universe. Practice for that day. Practice for joy on that day. Practice so that, when the day comes, you can show Nero and Shalmaneser and all the mighty ones of the ages how it's done. “Turn to [Jesus] and be saved, all you ends of the earth! … Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength. To him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. In the LORD [Jesus], all the offspring of [the Israel of God, his holy church,] shall be justified and shall glory” (Isaiah 45:22-25) – for whoever now willingly confesses with the tongue that Jesus is Lord and trusts from the heart that God raised him from the dead and exalted him as Savior-King, will assuredly be saved (Romans 10:9). So bow the knee and confess your Savior-King this day with a joyous hallelujah! Amen.

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