Down the Ladder to the Highest Place
Down the Ladder to the Highest Place
Editorial note: Sunukjian uses a six-foot stepladder as a prop throughout this sermon. References to the prop will be noted in the text in italics.
When my first year of graduate school in Dallas was over, I made the drive back to California for the summer. It's a two-day drive from Texas to California, provided you drive about 14 hours per day. The mid-point stopping place for the night is Deming, New Mexico. I didn't have much money, and I didn't want to spend much on my motel, so I stayed in a "roach motel." It was literally a roach motel; I had to put my shoes on the bed so that the roaches on the floor would not get into them during the night.
At the end of that summer, Nell and I married. On the return trip back to Dallas for the next year, we stopped again in Deming, New Mexico. For some reason, we didn't stay in that roach motel; we stayed in the next step up: Motel 6.
As the years have passed, Nell and I have moved up. We went from Motel 6 to Best Western. From Best Western, we're now up to Embassy Suites. I suppose the next step up will be the Hilton or the Ritz Carlton.
There's always a ladder to climb (pulls ladder toward himself), and the higher up the ladder we go, the more status we gain.
We rent a one-room apartment with a roommate to share costs. Several years later we buy a cheap condo. Then we get married and scrape enough together to buy a fixer-upper. Years later, we trade up for a home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Somewhere in the future lies a 3,500 square-foot house or that luxury apartment within a block of the ocean.
Or we make the team; we get in two games as a sub; we're first string; we're all conference; we get a scholarship to college; we're All-American; first round draft pick; All-Pro; Hall of Fame.
There's always some ladder to climb; the higher up we go, the more status we have. The status feels good. It makes us feel important. It gets us attention.
If we don't have enough status, we'll even make some up:
Three dogs meet. The first dog says to the other two, "My name is Fifi—that's F-I-F-I."
The second dog says, "My name is Mimi—that's M-I-M-I."
The third dog says, "My name is Fido—that's P-H-A-E-D-E-A-U-X."
Two men meet. One says to the other, "What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a sanitation engineer," he replies.
"Oh, you're a janitor."
"Yeah, well what do you do for a living?" he asks in return.
"I'm a ventilating specialist."
"Oh, you're a window cleaner."
We want status. We want to climb the ladder and get to the highest spot—for self-importance, to be thought of as somebody, to have others pay attention to us. It feels good to be looked up to, to be catered to, or to be thought of as special.
But that concern for status is dangerous, because it tends to put "me" first. We become tempted to say, "I'm higher up, so do it my way. I matter more, so please me. I'm more important, so serve my interests."
If that attitude creeps into the church, the result is conflict, argument, dissension, and rupture. To save his friends from that kind of anger and separation, the apostle Paul wrote to them and said: Don't be concerned about how far up the ladder you can go. Instead think of how far down you can come. Your aim is not to climb up, but to climb down.
Christ is our example.
Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi, "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." Each of you should care most of all not about yourself, but about others. Then he gives them an example.
"Your example," he says, "is Christ." He went down the ladder for the sake of others. He went to the lowest level because he cared about the interests of others.
As we live with each other in this church, our model is not someone who ascended the ladder or went from the bottom to the top—the mailroom boy who became CEO, the scrub who became MVP, the immigrant who struck it rich. As we live with each other and learn how to act toward each other, our model is one who descended the ladder and went from the top to the bottom. He went from omnipotence to obscurity, from stardom to slavery, from riches to rags. Our model is Christ, who came down the ladder to the lowest level because he cared about our interests. That's the attitude we should have toward each other.
I want us to see how far down the ladder Christ came for our sake. I want us to see how low he stooped in order that we might forever free ourselves of pride and selfish ambition and vain conceit. I want us to see how far he came, in order that we might see how far we should go.
Let's turn to the apostle's words and the example he gives us in Philippians 2:5. He begins: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.
Christ became a man.
Paul then begins to describe how Christ came down the ladder. Christ started at the highest spot: equality with God. (Climbs ladder to high rung). He was equal with God. He sat on the throne of heaven with the Father. The angels adored him and bowed before him. In his very nature, he was the same as God. Deep inside, at the essence of his being, he was God. He was the one who spread out the galaxies (waves) in order to enjoy their brilliance. He was the one who created the earth (snaps), and formed people to live on it, in order that he and the Father could love them with the same love they had for each other and someday share heaven with him.
But when those people sinned, their sin brought such sorrow to God and stained them so deeply that they were no longer fit to be brought into the glory of heaven. When that happened, Jesus looked at the Father, and he realized that his equality with God was not something for him to use for his own advantage; he knew his equality with God was something to be used for their interests. The very nature of God is not to be a getter, but a giver. To be equal with God means to be one who goes. The only way for God to get rid of sin was to send Christ to live with humans and pay their penalty for them.
Only God could do that, for only God could live among them and not sin himself. Only God could live perfectly with them and not end up having his own sin to pay for. Only God could live free of the penalty of death, and therefore take their penalty on himself.
The Son looked at the Father and did not consider his equality with God something to be grasped to serve his own interests.
So he made himself nothing by stepping into their world to serve their interests. (Climbs down a rung). He didn't come as a king into his own creation. He didn't birth himself into the ruling Roman class. He didn't choose a middle-class family with the financial means to give him a head start in society. He made himself nothing. He put himself in the hands of a poor couple, in a conquered nation, in a backwater town that was the Tijuana of his day—Nazareth. Other local cities turned up their noses and said, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?"
He made himself nothing, because deep in his being he was taking on the essence of a servant. Just as at the core of his nature (waves above) he was equal with God, so at the core of his nature (waves below) he became a servant. He took on the likeness of humanity completely. He got hungry and tired. He hurt when splinters went into his palms. He felt the pain when his friends betrayed him. He understood their weakness and served them anyway. When all of them thought they were above doing a servant's job of washing dirty feet before a dinner, he got the towel and knelt on the floor. He made himself nothing, because deep in his being he intended to serve.
But there was another step down he had to consider. How far would he go to serve their interests? How much would he do? How much of himself would he give? Would he retain just a small amount of what he might be entitled to? Or would he humble himself even further? Would he lower himself even more for their sake? Would he let himself be killed so that they could live?
(Steps another rung down, to the floor.) He followed through on what he came for—he voluntarily died for us. If his service were to matter, it would have to go that far, because his death was the only thing that would remove our sin. He would have to take it on himself and have it crush him instead of us.
Christ knew he would die in the most humiliating and painful way that has ever been conceived—on a cross. The cross was humiliating because it was used only for foreign terrorists, notorious criminals, and rebellious slaves. It was painful because large nails severed tendons and splintered bones; the body sagged; hour after hour it became harder to breathe as you slowly suffocated.
He died because we are sinners, and because he loved us and did not want us to perish. He cared for us ahead of himself, and he died for us. Charles Wesley tried to capture it in a hymn we sing:
He left his Father's throne above, so free, so infinite his grace.
Emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam's helpless race.
'Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me.
Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God should die for me.
God exalted Christ.
When his downward descent had reached the furthest depths; when he died a criminal's death and was buried in a borrowed grave; when he became a forgotten servant, abandoned and ignored by most; when his caring for the interests of others had taken his life but had brought them to God; when it looked like the bottom would swallow him forever, God raised him up. God exalted him.
(Reads verses 9-11 and climbs one rung for each verse as it is read)
He descended to the lowest level, and God exalted him to the highest place. God gave him the name that is above every name: Yahweh. God gave him his own name, the most honored name in all of creation, by which God refers to himself. God gave him his own name so that whenever someone says, "Jesus," all of creation will say, "Lord! Jesus Christ is Lord." And as he stands in his glory, every knee will bend in submission, every head will bow in acknowledgement of his name—all the angels in heaven, all the races on earth, all the seething demons under the earth—and every tongue will confess, "Jesus Christ is Lord," to the glory of God the Father.
My friends, if we will share his humility, we will share his glory. If we go down the ladder, God will raise us up.
(Reads verses 3-5 and descends one rung for each verse as it is read)
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves."
"Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."
"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus."
Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.