“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…”
-from Philippians 2
Imagine, if you will, an alternate universe. Imagine another planet, populated with people just as smart as you and me, but with a different history of inventions. Everything there is the same as here, with only one major difference: they did not invent an internal combustion engine. They’ve never heard of such a thing.
Okay, having followed me thus far, now imagine that for reasons unexplained in the narrative, shipments of cars are sent to them.
What will they do with the cars?
Think about the process of exploring one of these new things. There are four doors, leading to four seats- but all the seats face in one direction, so it’s not terribly good for sharing a meal or for conversation. There are wheels, so perhaps we should be going somewhere, but they don’t want to turn. There’s a disk mounted on a post, partially obscuring some dials and gauges, and then what appears to be a second set of controls in the center.
And here, on the front left-hand seat, we have a loose jabby thing of some sort on a ring.
What would you make of it?
Perhaps you would figure out how to get the wheels to roll, and then tow one behind a horse. From a car’s perspective, you wouldn’t be able to see over the horse in order to steer, but it would make a very comfortable taxi for hauling a family around.
Or, perhaps you’re imagining a culture that is technologically ahead of us, and you would put anti-gravity pods on the chassis and fly it around like a raft. Maybe you accomplish turns by opening the doors to act as brakes. Maybe you fiddle with that second set of controls in the center, and there happens to be a CD inside, and suddenly you are flying through the sky to the sweet sound of music.
These cars, though: they don’t have to be seen as vehicles, at all. They don’t have to get you anywhere. Maybe you would prop a screen on the dash and call it a crawl-in movie theater. Maybe you would haul it into your yard for your kids to use as a clubhouse. Maybe you would grow peppers inside your new, inexplicably upholstered greenhouse.
Humans are a creative species, right? All sorts of uses will be developed.
Ok, now indulge me one step further. Into our imagined alternate universe, arrives Ryan Hunter-Reay: winner of the 2014 Indianapolis 500.
Hunter-Reay steps up to your greenhouse or horse carriage or whatever, opens a door on the side, and pours in some liquified dinosaurs. Then he takes the loose jabby thing, jams it into the side of the mounted disk, and suddenly it sounds like there are lions inside.
A couple sticks and pedals are manipulated, and away he goes: driving. Hunter-Reay is using the car as it was designed to be used.
This is what Christmas is about, Friends.
See: we have these lives, and we make a muddle of them. We’re given these lives, and we don’t know how to drive them. I’m not saying that we don’t do well, on the whole- it’s just this nagging sense, for most of the year, that maybe this isn’t quite how it’s supposed to go.
I mean, I drive a station wagon with huge windows. A little work, a little dirt, and a little attention to ventilation, and I most certainly could grow peppers in it. It’s just that pepper-growing is not what a car is for.
What are our lives for?
Yesterday, Craig and I went to the Murphy Christmas Show. There were lots of songs shared about how wonderful Christmas time is, how Christmas is the best day of the year, and wouldn’t it just be grand if it could be Christmas every day of the year?
It could, you know. It could – so the song went – if we would just believe.
If you start with the definition of Christmas given in many secular carols, of course, this would be ridiculous. You can’t really spend every day drinking hot cocoa, crowding under mistletoe, and exchanging presents.
Honestly, I’m not even sure that that would be fun, in the first place. I love my family, but it wouldn’t take many days straight of singing carols around a cozy fire before my gaze started travelling out the frost-kissed windows and on toward freedom.
I don’t say that as a grinch of some sort. I love our midwinter celebration of all things beautiful, bright, and sugar-coated. My tree is decorated, my presents are (mostly) purchased, and the eggnog is flowing.
And I get the metaphorical connections between the birth of Jesus and our celebration in the bleak midwinter. You can string lights around your house and remember that Jesus is the light of the world. You can wrap boxes in cheerful paper and remember that God gives Godself as a gift. You can be thankful for the peace of a quiet winter’s night while celebrating the arrival of the Prince of Peace.
That word prince, though… it often doesn’t seem to belong on the same card as the hazy but well-lit illustration of a snow-bedecked pastoral scene.
See, Christmas isn’t about living in a Currier and Ives vision, all bundled in the back of the sleigh headed off for Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Christmas is more like that final pitched battle over who, in the end, will be vanquished, over who will be in charge of the dishes after the giant feast.
Christmas is all about power. Power is what our lives are about.
And, to be even more blunt, Christmas is all about laying power down.
Ruth read a passage to you from a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, a mining city in contemporary northern Greece. The letter was probably written in 61 or 62 AD, but most of the passage that Ruth read is considerably older. Paul, scholars think, is quoting from a much older hymn about Jesus in order to make a point about how the Philippians should behave.
So. Jesus was crucified and resurrected around 30 AD. This letter was written around 60 AD, thirty years later, at a time when the song was well enough known that it could be authoritatively quoted at someone in an argument.
This passage is, perhaps, the oldest Christian literature in existence. This would have been a song that the earliest missionaries taught to the earliest converts, all around the empire, to help them remember the most important parts of the Christian story.
Remember: they weren’t leaving behind anything written, like one of the Gospels from which we read the Christmas story. This is an oral culture, not a written one. Important information is passed word-of-mouth, and especially important information is passed in song so that it won’t be forgotten.
So, this song holds what Paul and his friends thought was the center of the faith. This song is the reason that Paul and his friends showed up in Philippi in the first place- this song demanded to be shared.
It says that Jesus is in very nature, God.
It says that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.
It says that Jesus made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
To be made in human likeness, in Paul’s culture, is not a good thing. Humans have this messy material existence, and if they wished to be purified, the mess of the material world is what they would have to escape. In the end, they hoped to fly away to a paradise untainted by the bonds of physical reality.
Jesus, you see, went in the opposite direction.
It says that as a person, he humbly accepted everything that being human means. It says that he didn’t skip out on the “death” part of what being human means. I mean, we all die, do we not? But presumably, anyone who was God in their very nature could, you know, sort of skip that part. It’s inconvenient.
Jesus, though, in order to be made human, accepted everything that came along with that humanity, including death. He went so far as to accept death on a cross: one of the most painful and shameful ways to die.
Therefore, therefore God exalted Jesus, such that everyone would acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.
This ancient crystallization of what the earliest Christians believed teaches that because Jesus was humble, because he accepted every messy bit of what it means to be human, he is exalted and proclaimed as Lord.
Jesus laid down his power. Jesus, who is according to this passage in very nature God, tossed all that aside like you or I might throw a Frisbee.
Because of that, you and I are to acknowledge him as Lord.
Throwing away power. Accepting the messy stuff. Not running away from pain and shame and death. Are you worried, yet, that this will have some sort of practical application for you?
Well, you’re right to be worried. Paul quoted this ancient hymn in order to ask the people of the church at Philippi to have this same mindset, in their relationships with one another.
And here, uncomfortably, this passage sits for us as well. Throw away your power. Be humble. Don’t run away from the worst life has to offer.
This is what it means, to have the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Christmas is about looking for a baby in a manger, and angels singing, and shepherds running to the stable, yes. The earliest Christians, though, saw something slightly different in this story.
They saw God Almighty laying aside power. And, in that, they saw a model for themselves.
Jesus comes into humanity like Ryan Hunter-Reay onto the tarmac: to show us how this is supposed to be done. Jesus, by living humbly, lives the way that human lives are supposed to be lived. That jabby thing on the ring, that was sitting on the seat of the car, the thing that makes the car run: it’s humility.
What would your family look like, Friends, if you lived by laying aside your power? How would your school change, if you followed Christ’s example of humility?
How might this Christmas gift reshape the world?