On Good Friday we preached a series of sermons based on Graham Kendrick’s hymn The Servant King. I preached the first sermon.
In the name of the Living God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Reading – Philippians 2.1-8
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 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.
From heaven you came, helpless babe,
entered our world, your glory veiled:
not to be served but to serve,
and give your life that we might live.
Long, long years they had been waiting. They knew he was coming one day, but not when, exactly. They knew he would be a king. A king like his ancestor David. A king who would make Israel great again. A king who – some even dared to hope – would be even more powerful than the Roman emperor, and who would throw the hated Roman oppressors out of their country.
And then, at long last, he came. The king that everyone had been waiting for. And what does he go and do? Well, he doesn’t get rid of the Romans, for a start. Not only that, he doesn’t act like any king ought to. He doesn’t behave like a king – certainly not like any king anyone had heard of. And in the end, it’s the Romans who get rid of him! Perhaps he wasn’t a king, after all.
Why, oh why, can’t God behave like he is supposed to? You can imagine people asking the question. God had promised a king. So why doesn’t he get on with things and send one. Why raise our hopes with this man, Jesus, only to dash them again! We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel, the two on the road to Emmaus said to the stranger who joined them a couple of days after the crucifixion. And now it seems it is all over. Why, oh why, can’t God behave like he is supposed to – like he said he would.
Some of the best hymns are those that express the great Biblical truths, the great truths of our Christian faith, in a way that makes them easy to remember. One of them is Graham Kendrick’s famous hymn The Servant King, which picks up on Biblical themes exploring the nature of Jesus of Nazareth – who he was, where he came from, what he did. And modern though this hymn sounds, compared to other passiontide hymns some of which we are singing today, it stands in a tradition that reaches right back to the earliest days of the Church.
From heaven you came, helpless babe,
entered our world, your glory veiled.
Not to be served, but to serve,
and give your life that we might live.
A wonderful hymn that many have come to love. And yet, the first verse really isn’t that original. The earliest Christians sang hymns in their worship. It was natural for them to do so. Early Christian worship had its roots in the worship of the Jewish Temple, where they had sung the psalms. And some of the earliest hymns found their way into the writings that now form our New Testament.
One of those we heard in the reading I began with, from Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi. For Paul, in describing the attitude that Christians should have, launches into poetry. And in so doing has given us what has come to be called The Philippian Hymn.
Just listen to the words of Paul again – for these words form one of the key parts of the New Testament. What Paul is doing is reminding the Christians at Philippi that they must model themselves on Jesus:
As the Good News Bible puts it “Look out for one another’s interests, not just for your own.” he says, “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had.” And then he launches into this great hymn, almost certainly a hymn already in use in their worship by early Christians, that tells us the reality of the kind of God that God is. For this is not a God who behaves like God is supposed to, from a human point of view, but a God who turns the whole idea of being a King on its head. The first part of that hymn, again using the Good News Bible:
He always had the nature of God
but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God.
Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had,
and took the nature of a servant.
He became like a human being
and appeared in human likeness.
He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death –
his death on a cross.
What kind of a God is it that behaves like that? It’s no wonder that during his lifetime his own people struggled to recognise that he was the long promised Messiah, God’s anointed one.
Luke tells us how, at the Last Supper, the disciples started to argue about which of them should be thought of as the greatest. Even the disciples failed to see the point, so perhaps it’s not surprising that even today we so often fail to understand what this kind of serving ministry is about. And Luke tells us that, as Jesus explains to the disciples what he is about he says, “Who is greater, the one who sits down to eat or the one who serves? The one who sits down, of course. But I am among you as one who serves.”
When the Church Army college was still in Blackheath, the chapel had, on one of its windows, just the words, “I am among you like a servant” as a reminder of the ministry to which we were called. Now, the problem is that – even though we know that Jesus talked about being a servant, we still manage – like the disciples – to get it wrong. This is not an Upstairs Downstairs kind of servant, a Downton Abbey picture of a servant, who has an allbeit benign master, but who still simply does as they are told. Jesus was a servant, but he was never a doormat. We so very easily fall into the trap of, maybe with the best will in the world, of telling others how they should be serving. Following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent announcement of his resignation, the Church has been full of those who knew precisely how he should have done his job. And who feel that they and the Church would have been better served had he done as they wanted.
No, says Paul, in his hymn – this is not how it is. Take a look at Jesus – he came as a servant but he did not do as he was told. He served others not in the way they might have wanted to be served but in the way he, God, wanted to serve them. For he sees peoples real needs. Had he done what people wanted, had he allowed himself to become the kind of servant who just did what others wanted, he would inevitably have been criticised but probably never crucified. He served by giving up all he had to adopt a life of humility, walking the path of obedience to God all the way to the cross. You too, says Paul to us all, must be like that. Serve – but serve in obedience to God.
Prayer of Edward Lambe Parsons (1868-1960) Bishop of California
Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son came not to be served but to serve: bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience and courage, they may minister in his name to the suffering, the friendless and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.