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04.13.14 From the Donkey to the Cross Philippians 2:5-11 Sermon Summary

by on April 14, 2014

The Bible tells stories with words and symbols. This is especially true of the fundamental message of Jesus, which is depicted symbolically and in extended narrative during Holy Week.

Summary Points

  • Some symbols of Palm Sunday
  • Jesus’ fundamental teaching and the framing symbols of Holy Week
  • What “obedience” meant to Jesus
  • Unconscious and conscious sacrifices, and which ones God wants us to make
  • Having the same mind as Christ and following him today
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Holy Week begins the longest section in each of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. From the beginning and throughout the week, the gospel writers use narrative and symbols to proclaim the good news of Christianity. It begins with Palm Sunday.

On this day, we commemorate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. The people lay branches and cloaks on the ground in continuity with scriptural precedent. (See 2 Kings 9:13 and Leviticus 23:40. Interestingly, the “waving of palm branches” isn’t part of the Gospel accounts. Mark and Matthew tell us the people spread branches on the ground with the cloaks. Luke says nothing about branches. John reports they are palm branches. Just thought you should know; our contemporary practice of waving palm fronds mimics Hollywood’s depictions of the event.)

The branches and cloaks are among the first of several symbols that serve to tell the story of Jesus’ last week. The week is framed by two symbols that reinforce Jesus’ fundamental message: these are the donkey and the cross.

One of Jesus’ foundational teachings was that if you want to gain your life, you must first lose it (see Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, Matthew 10:39, and John 12:25). Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey depicts this attitude at the beginning of Holy Week. It sets up the contrast between finding one’s life in this world verses losing it in this world and finding it in God. For while Jesus, the harbinger of the kingdom of heaven was riding in on a donkey, Pilate, the representative of the kingdom of earth, was riding in on a war horse.

The donkey is a sign of humility. In continuity with other scripture passages (Zechariah 9:9) it is also a sign of God’s promise, and thus of our hope. But in inaugurating Holy Week, it is ultimately a sign of Jesus’ obedience.

We don’t like that word, “obedience.” People talk about being obedient to earn a favor. In our culture, however, we prefer to earn things through hard work. Or people are obedient to avoid a punishment. To be punished is to lose control of oneself, and we don’t like that either. Jesus’ obedience, however, wasn’t to earn God’s favor or to avoid being punished. He was obedient out of love for God.

For Jesus, love for God leads to life, and love requires obedience, even unto death, even on the cross. Obedience even unto death evokes the image of sacrifice. But Jesus isn’t the only person to sacrifice himself. Each of us make sacrifices all the time, some are conscious, some are unconscious. Some common unconscious sacrifices include our families which we sacrifice to our careers (for example, missing the game to attend a meeting). Or our well-being physically, spiritually, socially, etc., to the pursuit of pleasure (for example, watching sports instead of playing them).

But some sacrifices are conscious, which means we choose them. These include sacrificing having desert in order to have better health. Or sacrificing a vacation for a staycation in order to get some household things done.

Generally speaking, it’s better to make sacrifices consciously than unconsciously. And Jesus taught that the best chosen, conscious sacrifice is based on love: love for God and love for others. This is the sacrifice Jesus chose. He sacrificed the admiration of the religious elites in order to heal the lepers. He sacrificed the power of the political players to serve the poor. He sacrificed a monastic life to relate to the masses. He sacrificed his life for the life of the world. Jesus taught sacrifice in words and symbol, especially during this Holy Week, first in the donkey, then at the cross.

And because life is found in losing it, because the kingdom of heaven is discovered in serving others, Paul urges that the same mind of Christ be in us, that we make sacrifices based on love of God and others. This is God’s will revealed in Christ’s obedience. Paul understood that Jesus’ obedience unto death led to his exaltation. The donkey leads to the cross, which leads to the empty tomb.

Finding one’s life by losing it, serving others, being obedient to God’s will even unto death may require our whole life. Chrissy is a grieving mother whose child died of an incurable medical condition when he was 34. They predicted this during Chrissy’s pregnancy, but she decided to have him anyway. She loved him his entire life, though it cost her dearly. He required near 24 hour a day supervision and care. Her marriage didn’t survive the challenge. She gave up her professorship at the college. Now in her seventies, alone, financially vulnerable, and full of grief, people question if it was worth it.

“On any given day I would have given my life for my son,” she says. “If I could have traded places with him, taken his condition and given him my health, I would have on the day he was born and every day since.

“In a way,” she continues, “You could say I have given my life for my son. The life I wanted I sacrificed for him. It wasn’t a split decision kind of sacrifice, like pushing him out of the way of a speeding car. But it was a sacrifice I chose every day, little by little, with no heroics and most people not noticing. It was a sacrifice I made out of love.”

Jesus was obedient out of love, even unto death on a cross. This is what God calls us to also, to lose our live with Christ in order to find them in God. Paul instructed the Philippians to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. In this Holy Week, here is one place we can start. Jesus asked his disciples to sit, watch, and pray with him when his obedience was most challenged. (See Matthew 26:36ff and Mark 14:32ff.) Take time this week to contemplate Jesus’ obedience, and ask him to lead you in the way of life, even life that comes out of death.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  • What are some of the symbols in your life that tell your life’s story? How easy would it be to tell your story using more symbols and fewer words?
  • Which kingdom do you find yourself participating in more often, Jesus’ or Pilate’s?
  • When you think about your life with God, are you “obedient” because you want God’s favor, are avoiding God’s “wrath,” or because you love God?
  • Which sacrifices that you’re making are conscious, that is, chosen? What are they based on? Are they expressions of love for God and neighbor, or do they express other priorities?
  • Examine your life for the unconscious sacrifices you’re making. After you’ve brought them to consciousness, will you continue to make them?
  • Beginning this week, will you dedicate time to sit, watch, and pray with Christ, in order that his mind may be reproduced in yours, his life replicated in yours?


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