Kings, Colts, Crowds, Cloaks and Kenosis
Kings, Colts, Crowds, Cloaks and Kenosis
April 9, 2017
Matthew 21:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11
Palm Sunday. Clearly, this is one of the most joyful days of the Christian year.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem as a king, riding on a colt. Crowds spread their cloaks and cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9). The people are tired of the corrupt King Herod, and they want Jesus to be their ruler. We know this story well, and it is easy for us to grasp the meaning of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt, while crowds roll out the red carpet by spreading their cloaks on the road.
You can picture the scene, can’t you? A king, a colt, a crowd with cloaks. Everyone is going wild, and so do we, as we wave our palm branches. We want Jesus to be our king, and to rule our world with love and justice. Everyone is jumping along the road to Jerusalem, including some University of North Carolina cheerleaders who show up accidentally. They are just back from the NCAA basketball championship. They heard it was “Pom-Pom Sunday.”
Palm. Pom-Pom. An easy mistake.
But the sounds of celebration don’t last long. Immediately after we join the people in praising Jesus, we run into the word kenosis. It’s a Greek word, one that is untranslatable. It comes to us in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and it is much harder to understand than the meaning of the words king, colt, crowd, and cloak.
Kenosis: This is a difficult and captivating word at the very heart of the Christian faith.
I would bet that you know some other foreign words that are tough to translate. Think of the French word frisson, the strange intermingling of excitement and fear. Or the German word fahrvernűgen, which was attached to a Volkswagen ad campaign in the 1990s. It means something like “driving enjoyment.” Then there are words from Eastern religions such as Nirvana or Tao — we have a sense of what they mean, but there are no perfect English translations.
When a word is untranslatable, it is best to let it be and just learn what it means. In the magazine Scientific American (July 12, 2016), Tim Lomas has written an article about the magic of untranslatable words. He started by listing 216 of these words, and ended up with 601. He has discovered that exploring these foreign terms can make our own lives richer.
Kenosis is one of these words. It means “emptiness,” but has deeper significance — it communicates the self-emptying that Christ performed on the cross. It raises a number of important questions for us as we enter Holy Week. What was accomplished by kenosis? How did this self-emptying result in fullness? And how can we empty ourselves so that God will fill us? Holy Week forces us to confront kenosis, a word that is difficult, captivating, and full of significance for anyone who is trying to follow Jesus Christ.
Tim Lomas says that working with untranslatable words is like diving into “a deep and mystifying ocean.” So let’s take the plunge!
For starters, let’s explore the question of what was accomplished by kenosis. The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus was in the form of God, but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited (Philippians 2:5-6). In the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, The Message, Jesus “didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.”
Instead, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. As a human, Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (vv. 7-8). This is where we run into kenosis in the original Greek. According to Paul, Jesus emptied himself out, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
But what good did this do? Most of us don’t want to be slaves, or to empty ourselves out. But Paul tells us that Christ’s self-emptying had an unexpected result. God “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” (vv. 9-11).
Palm Sunday would be easy to understand if it contained only familiar kings, colts, crowds and cloaks. In that version of the story, King Jesus would ride into town and confront King Herod, and the one with the biggest crowd would win. The poll numbers of Jesus would go through the roof, and he would humiliate Herod publicly. His victory would be all over the news.
But Jesus practiced kenosis and turned our expectations upside down. He acted in a way that you would think would lead to emptiness, embarrassment and powerlessness. But the opposite turned out to be true. Because Jesus emptied himself out, God exalted him and made him the king of all creation. The result of kenosis turned out to be fullness, glory and power.
So how does this work? It is surprising, for sure. For Jesus, kenosis leads to glory and power because it is based on humility and obedience. As Eugene Peterson says in The Message, Jesus “didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of [divine] status.” He was in the form of God, but chose to accept the form of a slave. That’s humility.
When we look at political leaders, we don’t tend to see humility. We aren’t seeing it in the White House or on Capitol Hill today, among leaders of either party. But this does not mean that it is impossible. George Washington was a leader who put real effort into being humble, and it helped both him and our country. He was a general during the Revolutionary War, and twice he was given dictatorial power by the Continental Congress. He did not abuse this power. After achieving victory in war, he laid down his sword — an unusual choice for a conquering general.
Some people wanted to make Washington an American king, but he said no. After serving as president for two four-year terms, he could have sought re-election to a third term. Instead, writes David Bobb in his book Humility, “Washington opted to retire. … His ambition, above all else, was to act justly for the sake of others and his country.”
George Washington showed self-emptying humility, a trait that led to fullness as a general and as the first president of the United States.
The kenosis of Jesus — the self-emptying of Jesus — was based on both humility and obedience. Paul tells us that “he was in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (v. 6). Instead of remaining in the safety and security of heaven, Jesus allowed himself to enter human life as a fetus, a baby, a child, and eventually a man. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis asks us to “think of how you would like to become a slug or a crab.” That’s what it was like for Jesus, the Son of God, to become human.
Jesus said yes to emptying himself and entering human life, and he did this out of obedience to God. Paul tells us that “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (v. 8). Because of this choice, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, making him Lord of heaven and earth.
For Jesus, kenosis led to kingship. When he emptied himself by being humble and obedient, God filled him with glory and power. I think the same is true for us today, although few of us are willing to walk this difficult path.
Fortunately, there are some examples of people who empty themselves and allow God to fill them. They don’t necessarily follow Jesus to the point of death by execution. But they do show humility and obedience as they walk the path of Christ in the world.
Martin Hengel was a great New Testament historian who taught at a university in Germany. In that country, professors are highly esteemed and often put on a pedestal. But Professor Hengel would have his students come to his home on Friday evenings for meals and discussions. “He wasn’t influential just because he was a brilliant scholar,” says one of his students. “It was the fact that he let people come very close, that he shared his life with them — that humility is what made his influence lasting.”
Influence doesn’t come from throwing our power around. It comes from letting people come close, and sharing our lives with them. We can show this same kind of humility, whether we are influencing students, coaching a team, chairing a committee, or leading a group of workers. We can do it in our neighborhoods by getting to know our immigrant neighbors, and in our congregation by making connections with children and youths. People are grateful when we take them seriously and welcome them into our lives.
The practice of kenosis also includes obedience to Jesus Christ, who said to his followers, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). He wants us to empty ourselves, as he did, and act as slaves to each other, just as he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (v. 28).
The good news is that this emptying does not lead to embarrassment and powerlessness. Instead, it leads to great fullness. Jesus says that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (23:12). Think of George Washington and Martin Hengel, as well as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. All were great servants, and all have been exalted.
Palm Sunday has always been a predictable story of kings, colts, crowds, and cloaks. But the addition of the word kenosis turns our expectations upside down. This self-emptying of Jesus, grounded in humility and obedience, is the unexpected key to his heavenly fullness.
It’s the key to our fullness as well. Amen.
Bobb, David J. Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013. 74-75.
Dickson, John. “Great Humility.” Leadership Journal, Winter 2012, www.christianitytoday.com.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1952. 180.
Lomas, Tim. “The Magic of ‘Untranslatable’ Words.” Scientific American, July 12, 2016, www.scientificamerican.com.
Peterson, Eugene. The Message. Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2003. 2136.