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"CliffsNotes" for Holy Week

Notes & Transcripts

Pastor Johnold J. Strey

Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA

Sermon on Philippians 2:6-11

Sixth Sunday in Lent; Palm Sunday

Sunday, April 17, 2011


  1. A summary of Jesus’ work for us
  2. A statement of our faith in him


Just about any college student could tell you what CliffsNotes are – and they've probably used them! CliffsNotes are booklets that provide summaries of major works of literature. Students can use them to help them understand and study whatever piece of literature that they happen to be studying in school. Of course, CliffsNotes can be used wrongly if students treat them as a shortcut to reading their assignments, but they can be used rightly to get a summary of their assignment and to better understand what they are reading.

At the start of another Holy Week, one of today’s Scripture Lessons provides us with a CliffsNotes-like version of the week ahead—and, really, a CliffsNotes-like summary of our entire faith. We would be wrong to just absorb this reading (or any Sunday sermon) and think that we’re done learning and studying God's Word. But we rightly use Paul’s words in Philippians chapter two to ponder on the real meaning of the events we will celebrate in the next week. St. Paul’s CliffsNotes for Holy Week offer a summary of Jesus’ work for us, and a resulting statement of our faith in him.


This morning is Palm Sunday, but for us it also is Confirmation Day. Two years of Catechism instruction have led to this day for our confirmands. During the past two years, whenever we were about to study a lesson in Catechism class that was especially important, I would tell the students something like this: “The lesson we’re studying today is extremely important. You just gotta know this material. You have to know it so well that I could call you at two o’clock in the morning and wake you out of a dead sleep and you could give me the right answer immediately.”

The reading for this sermon contains one of those “just gotta know it” lessons. Using words that might have come from an early Christian hymn, the apostle Paul summarizes the two stages of Jesus’ life in verses six through nine of our reading. Do you remember what the two stages of Jesus’ life were? They were his humiliation, and his exaltation. Paul presents a CliffNotes-like summary of those two stages of Jesus’ life in our reading. Paul wrote, “[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

If you have watched the show on CBS called “Undercover Boss,” you’ve seen the Presidents and CEO’s of major American corporations disguising themselves as “ordinary” people and working alongside “regular” employees. The premise is to help the CEO understand the challenges and difficulties of the people that work for them.

I suppose we could say that Jesus’ humiliation was sort of an “Undercover Boss” experience. Just as the CEO’s on the program set aside their position to go into the trenches with their employees, so Jesus did not consider his divine position as the Son of God a reason to keep him from entering into our world. He didn’t grasp onto his divine power when he entered into our humanity. No, it was quite the opposite—he emptied himself of a great deal of his divine power and glory by taking on a servant’s role and taking on our human nature. And as if it wasn’t humbling enough for God to disguise his power and become a human being, Jesus further humbled himself by obeying his Father’s command to suffer the penalty for the world’s sin and guilt by his death on the cross.

A CEO who appears on “Undercover Boss” might change some of the ways he does business after his undercover experience. But when Jesus entered his state of humiliation, the results were not a change of business practices for God. No, the results were much greater! Paul put it this way: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” Jesus’ humiliation led to his exaltation. Jesus’ exaltation meant that God gave him a position of exceptional honor as the Lord over sin and death. And God caused the name of Jesus to become a title that carries high praise and significance.

There is more we need to say about Jesus’ exaltation and what its purpose was. But I want to put those thoughts on hold for a few moments, because we’ve reached the point in our reading where Paul has completed the CliffsNotes-like summary of Jesus’ two stages—his humiliation, and his exaltation. Paul talked about these two stages in a slightly different way than we talk about them in the Creed. In the Apostles’ Creed, we list the events of Jesus’ humiliation and exaltation—his conception, birth, suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial; and his descent into hell, resurrection, ascension, ruling at God’s right hand, and return on the Last Day. Paul spoke more about the big picture; he looked more at the “forest” and less at the “trees.” But so far he has given us a nice, concise summary of Jesus’ work for us.

So why bother learning about the stages of Jesus’ life, or the other facts we learn from Scripture in Catechism class and our many other Bible classes? Is our goal just to be able to rattle off the correct answer to 110 examination questions like our confirmands did last week? Do we review these basic truths of our Christian faith just so we pass the knowledge test, walk through a church ceremony, and then we’re “in”? I hope not! I hope we all realize that Paul’s summary of Jesus’ work for us and our knowledge of Jesus’ work for us is for a much bigger reason than just knowing the right answers to enter into church membership.

The facts Paul recorded in our reading summarize Jesus’ work for us. “For us” is the key. From start to finish, from Christmas through Holy Week and to Easter, Jesus’ work was work done for us and our salvation. He became one of us at his birth, he suffered for our sin at his death, and he proved his victory over our sin and death at his resurrection. And that basic summary contains a message for us to seriously ponder. What a horrible spiritual condition we were in—to be that lost, to be that much of an enemy of God—that Jesus would have to battle and endure the forces of hell to rescue us! We dare not sugar-coat the truth that our sinful condition and all the ways it shows up in our lives would have put us under God’s hellish judgment forever. But we also ought not merely gloss over the amazing truth that God in love sent his one and only Son to trade places with us in his courtroom and to go to the cross to pay the complete penalty for our sin! And we can hardly skip over the miracle that we will celebrate in all its fullness next Sunday, when God the Father raised his Son from the dead and proclaimed complete approval of his Son’s completed work to rescue us from sin! God’s judgment on our sin would have been eternal death, but God’s judgment on his Son’s work was to raise him back to life and to promise eternal life to all who trust in his Son’s work.


A few minutes ago, I mentioned that there was more to say about Jesus’ exaltation and its purpose. I want to come back to the spot that we left off and have us pay attention to what the apostle Paul had to say in the final verses of our reading. “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul tells us that God had two purposes in mind when he gave his seal of approval to his Son at Jesus’ resurrection. Those two purposes were to lead people to worship Jesus and to believe in Jesus. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” We do not use gestures in worship as much as other cultures, but the gesture of bowing frequently implied worship; in fact, the particular Greek word for “bow” used in this verse appears four times in the New Testament, and every instance implies an act of worship. And worship naturally goes hand-in-hand with faith. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Paul’s words provide us with a summary of Jesus’ work for us, but they also provide us with a statement of our faith in him. The message of Jesus’ humiliation on the cross and his exalted resurrection are not merely facts to fill our mind with, but they are the fuel that keeps our faith in him burning brightly.

Some churches have the custom of confirming the Catechism class on Palm Sunday. That was the custom at the church where I was confirmed back in 1989. That is not normally our custom here, but that’s how the schedule turned out this year. Our Catechism class was ahead of schedule, and Easter is quite late this year, so everything lined up nicely to confirm our Catechism class during today’s Palm Sunday service, even though it was more of a happy coincidence than a deliberate plan.

But it is a very happy coincidence. This reading from Philippians chapter two is one of the traditional Bible readings for Palm Sunday. It provides an ideal, CliffsNotes-like summary of the week ahead as we celebrate Jesus’ work for us. It also provides a beautiful statement of our faith in Jesus. Paul has given us a statement of the very same faith these confirmands were taught and will soon confess before God and this congregation. Paul has given us a statement of the very same faith you were taught and now confess. Paul’s words are our statement of faith—the same faith that clings to the Savior who was nailed to the cross for us, the same faith that receives the forgiveness first won for you on Calvary, the same faith that believes in the Lord who rose from the dead, the same faith that acknowledges that in Christ we too will rise.


CliffsNotes can be useful for literature students, but students should never be satisfied with just “getting by” with reading the CliffsNotes. Likewise, we should not turn Paul’s simple summary of Jesus’ work and his simple statement of our faith into an excuse to just “get by” knowing that we know the bare minimum facts of the Christian faith. But Paul’s CliffsNotes summary of Holy Week gives you everything you need to confess your faith in Christ, just like our confirmands will do momentarily, and just as Christians around the world have done each week when they speak the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. And this CliffsNotes summary of our faith is not made up of stale facts. Those facts are loaded with spiritual life—the spiritual life that realizes what took place this week, that recognizes all Christ did was for us and our salvation, and that receives his blessings of peace now and paradise forever. What a great summary of our great salvation! Amen.

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