Through this season, O God, we have been singing your story–from our hymnal, and from your Word. This week, we follow Jesus into Jerusalem, still singing and storytelling along the way. Now, here, his story takes a turn, for from here we can survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died. Because we hide his story in our hearts, we know that all our gains are loss. We know that our pridefulness is to be despised; that our most charming things must be laid down as sacrifice, if we want to journey with him to the end.
As he leads us to the foot of the cross, give us strength to follow him all the way. Open our hearts to find ourselves in his story, a plotline that reaches not only onto the cross, but beyond the grave, and across the years and the miles to us. Now. Here.
Bless the reading and the hearing of your Story on this night. May all the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
The Story’s Plot: The Form of a Servant
For the past several weeks we’ve shared the journey of Lent, telling some of God’s stories as we walk the road to Jerusalem, raising our voices together in melodies of faith even as the clouds gather above us. It’s what pilgrims do. From God’s promises after the flood and to an elderly nomad, to Jesus’ anger in the temple, to the love letter to the church in Ephesus, to the disciples following Jesus into the last days–we’ve marked the miles on this journey in narrative and in song.
So it seems appropriate to begin this last leg of our travels with a biblical hymn that sings Jesus’s story, from start to finish, in all of 121 words, in Philippians 2:5-11. Scholars call it the “Kenosis Hymn,” from the word in verse 7, “ekenosen,” meaning “he emptied.” The Kenosis Hymn sings Jesus’s story, from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” It sings the very form of the divine story, the plotline of Jesus’s life: in the beginning, he was “in the form of God,” but instead of taking advantage of his position, he poured himself out and took the shape of a servant, a human being. At the climax of his story, he humbled himself in death on a cross. And in a surprise ending, his death was not the end; instead he is raised above every name. The humble One becomes the exalted One, the Lord of All.
It is, indeed, a wondrous story. But I’m afraid I have to take issue a bit with our song for tonight. It’s a great song, of course, and, like the Kenosis Hymn, it tells Jesus’s story–”how he left his home in glory for the cross of Calvary.” But I’d like to go through and do a quick edit on the lyrics, and change all the “I’s” and “me’s” to “us-es” and “we’s.” Because the plotline of Jesus’s story isn’t just about me, or any one of us. The apostle Paul included his beautiful hymn in the letter to the church at Philippi, and the song is surrounded by encouragements and exhortations to that beloved congregation. Immediately before the Christ hymn begins, Paul reminds the believers to “strive together side by side,” to “be of full accord and of one mind,” to “not do anything from selfish ambition or conceit,” but instead to “look to the interests of others.” In the verses after the hymn, Paul goes on to tell them to “do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be… children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked generation.” The story of Jesus is the centerpiece, the standard for the life of the believer, and the life of the church. Let this mind be in you, which was in Christ Jesus: this one mind and this one love, walking together and serving each other, as he did.
This is his story. And this is our story in him. He set the plot; modeled it for us so we, too, can live it; so we, too, can humble ourselves, can serve, can suffer, and can truly love.
The Story’s Characters: People of the Story
We’ve had a motley group of companions on our Lenten journey. Noah, with his cooped-up traveling menagerie. Abraham and Sarah, elderly and expecting. All the Passover pilgrims from the temple court, who sang their “Hosannahs” in the streets, then watched their intended sacrifices escape when Jesus upended the market stalls. The twelve closest friends of Jesus, who walked away from their fishing nets and toward the cross alongside him.
No story can be told without characters–and Jesus’s story is full of them, right up to the last.
It was two days before the Passover festival–just as it is today, actually–when he was among friends in Bethany, when the woman broke her alabaster jar and poured the expensive perfume on his head, an act of blessing, a service of love, and an acknowledgement of the sorrow to come. In a mirror image of Christ’s own character, she turned expectations upside-down to serve him, breaking society’s rules and ignoring the self-righteous standards of fiscal worth and waste to honor him in the only way she could–with an impractical act of beauty. And then, one of those frugal grumblers, Judas Iscariot, grousing about the denarii that woman threw away, went out immediately and showed exactly what important to him, trading away Jesus’s life for a handful of coins.
Two days later, Judas had his payoff, Jesus was condemned, and in the pre-dawn hours, Peter showed a glimpse his character, too, just as Jesus had known that he would. I tend to think that Jesus knew the betrayal would happen, not because he could “see the future,” but because he knew his friend so very well. I think Jesus knew Peter’s fears, knew this beloved follower would let his anxiety rule him… and I think Jesus knew that Peter’s heart would break when the rooster crowed and light began to shine on his darkness.
They’re all people of the story, our traveling companions on the way of Lent: the unnamed woman who blessed him in life for the death that was coming. The angry disciple who sold Jesus for some coins, and sealed Jesus’s fate with a kiss. The trusted friend who wept when his own deception came clear in the hazy morning light. As we walk alongside them toward the cross, we may begin to see ourselves in them–our acts of giving and service; our self-righteousness and anger; our fear and our shame. Our blessings, and our betrayals. As we walk alongside them, we may begin to see Jesus, too–looking deeply in our direction, seeking and finding our true characters, knowing us, understanding us, and loving us–just as he loved them.
The Story’s Climax: The Last Days of Lent
At this point in the season of Lent, I start to feel things winding down. Just a few short days til we reach our pilgrim destination. We’ll be able to drop our bags, rest our feet. We can reinstate our favorite indulgences, or conclude our Lenten disciplines, and get back to normal life. The hard part is over, and now it’s just a matter of hanging in there for these last easy days. But the story of Lent doesn’t match my feelings–in the story of Jesus’s life, these last days aren’t the time just to coast to the end; these days are the turning point, the climax of the action. Though we might feel like we’re on the downhill side of the season, we’re still looking up at the most difficult climb of all, looking up at the cross on the hilltop.
This climax has been building since the first days of the journey. Since the tree in the Garden, since the rainbow promise, since God’s covenant for the descendants in the desert. Since Jesus infuriated the rulers by his righteous anger. Since the Prophet Isaiah experienced his own agony, and gave a glimpse into the future of the Son of God–who would also give his back to be struck, his face to be sprayed with spit and insults. Since the Psalmist sang his trust in God despite distress, sorrow, schemes and persecution.
The song of Lent isn’t slowing down or easing off. Can you hear it? The song isn’t softening–it’s resonating in us, the story of Lent is deepening in us, as we move into these last days with Jesus. The song intensifies–the story turns on these days; for though we know that death has no victory, the cross still awaits. He must still be scorned, schemed, plotted against. He must still become the broken vessel, must still face the terror of the crucifixion, must still teach us to cry out to God, must still trust that God will sustain, will absolve, will deliver. Before the story can be resolved, there is the cross.
“My times are in your hand,” the Psalmist sang. “Deliver me from the hand of my enemies. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.” The time of Lent is in God’s hand. It is not only a season, a countdown to celebration. It’s an ongoing story, a neverending song, an eternal journey that we walk with Jesus all our lives long. We learn its words and its tune by heart, singing it as we walk together, as we share the bread and wine, as we kneel in service, as we weep our confessions, as we offer our blessings, as we remember his death–not just until Easter morning breaks and Lent is over for this year. We sing, and walk, and remember his death until he comes again.
God of beginnings and endings, as we walk this final Lenten road,
let us tell your wondrous story well.
From the “once upon a time” to the “happily ever after” that is to come,
let us bring to life your cast of characters (and your own Character),
your plotline with its twists and turns (and its surprise endings)
your heros and villains (and all your regular folk too).
Let us grasp the imaginations of all who would listen.
Let us show them how our stories are part of your story, never separate from you.
Let us show them how the narrative embraces us all, how we may choose our own adventures
even when we have always been indelibly printed in your Book.
Let us all hear your story anew, from every bard whom you’ve called to speak it,
sing it, write it, rhyme it, paint it, sculpt it, preach it. Give us ears to hear, and eyes to see.
And give us, too, voices to speak.
Make narrators of us all, tellers of your wonder and of your love.
HEAR THE SONG
Classic Sandi Patty. Stunning vocal/piano performance by Rudy Micelli. The Scottish Festival Singers using the wonderful Welsh tune Hyfrydol.