Palm Sunday: Being empty

"Descenter" by traqair57, on Flickr

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.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:5-11)

I’m feeling strangely in touch with emptiness this week.

Our new house here in Decorah is completely empty, just a shell of the home that we hope to make of it once we move in. I went to Empty Bowls last week, and thought of the empty stomachs of brothers and sisters in this community and around the world. My parents, who visited last weekend, went home on Tuesday, and Matt left the same day for a friend’s wedding in New Jersey, so I’ve been heading home each afternoon to empty rooms and an empty bed. And as I sat, writing this sermon in a coffee shop, I looked down right at the end of this paragraph, surprised to find that my coffee cup was empty...for a second time!

So maybe it’s no surprise that this image from Philippians of Jesus emptying himself has stuck in my head, this image of the Fullness of God becoming the Emptiness of the World, this “downward mobility” of God pouring himself out to draw near to us. In many ways, Jesus’ entire life is a series of emptying moments, when he begins full and then pours himself out for the sake of the world.

I think about the way that Jesus, at his baptism, was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, descending upon him as a dove, and how he was then immediately cast out, empty and empty-handed, into the wilderness.

I think about the way that Jesus began his public ministry by filling up huge stone jars with water-turned-to wine at a big wedding celebration in Cana, and the way that he will bring his ministry to a close by pouring out his blood as wine during an intimate meal with his closest friends.

I think about today, Palm Sunday, and the way that Jesus begins his journey through Jerusalem with his ears full of “hosannas” from the crowd that fills the street, whose lips are full of praise, whose hands are filled with palm branches, who have filled the roadway with their robes and their palm leaves.

And I think about the Holy Week which stands before us, where Jesus will go on to take the form of a slave, washing his disciples’ feet, and how he will stand, empty and silent, in front of his accusers, and how his disciples will scatter and leave him empty and alone, and the way that Jesus will, at the end, breathe the very last of his spirit out of his empty lungs upon the cross.

And all of this gets me to thinking about all of those times that we find ourselves empty, in one way or another. Today’s passage from Philippians 2 seems to equate “being empty” with “being in human likeness,” and when you stop to think about it, it’s true. Emptiness is really a pretty inescapable part of our human existence.

We’re heading into Easter, a holiday season, and I know that there are so many people who grieve loved ones, for whom every holiday brings them in touch with the emptiness of a family table that is missing a spouse or parent or child.

We did some calendaring work as a staff this week, and talked a little about Mother’s Day, and I know that there are so many women – and men as well! – for whom these sorts of set-apart days remind them of the grief of losing children, or not being able to have children, or of being single when they want to be in relationship, and the way that any those realities leave somebody feeling empty and alone.

And any one of us sitting here might be feeling empty in a dead-end job, or empty because we’ve retired and feel like we have no more meaningful work to do. We might feel empty because our doubts outweigh our faith, or feel the empty sadness of a winter that has yet to turn to spring. Maybe we feel the void of a world that isn’t what God intended it to be, and the newspaper, full of its stories of violence and hunger and need and injustice all around the world leaves us feeling a little sick and empty about the future.

When Paul says “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” well, I don’t know that it takes a whole lot of work for us to be able to connect with the emptiness that became a part of Christ becoming human. It’s not a huge leap for us to get in touch with the idea of emptiness.

And maybe that’s the point.

I mean, Easter is on its way, and one week from now, we will get to celebrate that God draws life out of the emptiness of death, and we get to sing and dance and rejoice at this crazy, mysterious, unprecedented thing called resurrection. And Philippians certainly points this way, talking about how God will exalt Jesus and give him the name above all names.

But today is Palm Sunday. It is the beginning of a week of emptiness, of Jesus emptyig himself all the way to the cross. And so for today, maybe, just maybe, we are meant to linger around the first half of the Philippians Christ-hymn, spending a little time with Jesus right here, where things are still a little vulnerable and empty. Maybe today we are meant to remember that Jesus kept pouring himself out to beggars and to sinners and to sick, lonely, lost people. Maybe today we are meant to remember that, even in our own emptiness, God empowers us to pour ourselves out in compassion and love and grace and forgiveness. And to trust that God knows our weaknesses, and not just knows them, but has lived them, that we are not alone, that we are not without comfort.

Because, despite what the world might say, there’s no rule that you always have to be strong. And there is no guarantee that believing in the goodness and grace of God will render you invincible. Because the whole point of this whole Jesus-dying-on-the-cross thing is to show us the heart of a God who would rather suffer himself than watch his beloved creation slip away, a God who makes foolish the wisdom of the world, a God who is divine strength in human weakness, a God who fills us up with the very bread and wine that Christ has poured out from himself.

So you, who are weak, come to the table and eat. And you, who are empty, come to the cup and drink. All you, who are weary and heavy-laden, come to the foot of the cross and find your rest.

For Christ has poured himself out for you, and even in your empty moments, you overflow with God’s grace and love, which will never run out.

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