An Advent Sermon—- The Poverty of Christ, by CKB


[Preached forty-one times from 3.30.38 at Wednesbury to 8/15/99 at Harworth]

Paul was announcing a Collection, and he was doing so at considerable length. There were several reasons for that. One was that Paul did not find it easy to talk about money in bald terms. He could never quite forget that he was a Roman citizen, trained in the rabbinic schools, and in early life a well-to-do man. To ask for money, even to acknowledge gifts he had received, were difficult and awkward tasks for him. But this collection was perhaps dearer to his heart than his natural pride; this was another reason for his emphasis on it. Years before, in Jerusalem, he had bade farewell to Peter and James, before his great mission to the Gentiles, with the promise and desire to remember the poor—the saints at Jerusalem who were materially worse off than their brothers and sisters. It was Paul’s hope to, that by this Collection the unity of his converts and churches with the mother church in Jerusalem would be established and confirmed.

The Corinthians had been equally keen the year before. They were remarkable people, yet how like so many others– abounding in faith, knowledge, good speakers, most affectionate, and yet their charity showed signs of not only beginning at home but staying there. Paul had to exhort them to prove the sincerity of their love.
It is in this context that the text appears. It is remarkable how many of Paul’s great words do occur not in theological arguments but in quite ordinary situations. They are not inapplicable to them. It is their greatness that they are applicable to all situations. It was Paul’s wisdom as an evangelist and teacher that he brought the biggest things he knew into contact with people as they were. The Incarnation here, the condescending grace of the Son of God, the Cross, the glory of the Heavenly Places, these are the facts we ought to think of in connection with our collections, our sins, and our fears. The greatest act of the power and love of God is needed to save one sinner, to make one saint. And Paul has told us of all the grace that we need when he has said that our Lord, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor.

From this point we might begin a long and abstruse theological discussion on grace. From about the second century, Christians have been arguing about grace— What is it, whence does it come, who is its source, how is it mediated to human beings, how can they receive it, what does it do when people have got it?? The problems are by no means solved yet, nor do they look like being solved. The interesting thing is that Paul says ‘you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’. You know. He had written to them before— ‘you see then your calling, brothers and sisters, how there are not many wise according to the flesh…’ Yet, ‘you know’. Grace can only be known, it cannot be apprehended bit by bit like mathematics. Beyond human apprehension in itself, it can only be known by that faith which in the long run is not ours but the gift of God.
We can get some idea here of what Paul means in this way—in stimulating the Corinthians’ generosity he has appealed to the example of the Macedonians. At this time in Macedonia there was what we would call a depression– Roman economics had gone astray and the people suffered terribly. The Macedonians were poor. Paul speaks of the depths of their poverty. Yet they had given up to their power and beyond it. Moreover, Paul says they had not only provided the gift I asked, they began by giving themselves. And Paul calls this act of giving— grace. We must be careful not to take our comparison too far. The grace of the Macedonians is not the grace of God. But it does point to something which is beyond itself, outside itself—to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s unspeakable gift, his wondrous love in saving lost humanity—Christ’s gift not of money but of himself, with all that this implies. God who spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how shall he not with him freely give us all things.

It is to this that Paul leads us— the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. Of the riches of Christ’s heavenly home and kingly throne before he came to this world for us it is not given to us to know much. ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of humans to conceive what things are there’. ‘Yet being in the form of God he thought that position in no wise to be grasped at, clung to, but made himself of no reputation and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in human likeness. And being found in fashion as a man he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’ The mystery of divine humiliation before which we must continue to wonder! It is the truest thing in the world, and therefore we can’t understand it yet. But we can see and know it to be the grace of God.
‘Oh, ’twas love, ’twas wondrous love!
The love of God to me;
It bro’t my Saviour from above,
To die on Calvary’. (M.M. Stockton)

Before this, our only answer is—

From the “Holy, Holy, Holy,
We adore thee, O most high,”
Down to earth’s blaspheming voices
And the shout of “Crucify!” (J. Stainer)

And we can worship the more with the cherubim because we have heard, nay, because we have joined the shout of ‘crucify’. You may tell me I am omitting certain tremendous questions and difficulties in connection with the incarnation. So I am. So was Paul. As Bishop Gore very wisely said, Paul was dealing with the ethics rather than the metaphysics of the Incarnation, the impact of the love, and holiness, and righteousness of God upon the world rather than precise philosophical definitions. So we are led to consider—

His glory and his humiliation. But it is not right to separate the two completely. They can only be separated as a matter of convenience. God in Christ was mocked by the Roman soldiers. Had he never been mocked before? Had people ever scorned his majesty, defied his will, insulted his love? Have they never done so since? God forbid that we should condemn the soldiers without some very close self-examination. We know, the soldiers did not, who he is, what he was doing. Have we never pained him? Did he not say that the way we treat his brothers and sisters determines our treatment of him? How do we stand in that light? And how does he stand? At this moment there lies, if he be not dead, a Protestant pastor in a concentration camp, Pastor Niemoller. He is young and quite bold but his courage is broken under a power which can break him at will. But is it Niemoller who is the humiliated man? The Cross is not so much the humiliation of Christ, as it is humiliating for us.
And on the other hand, is not the whole of the earthly life of Christ filled with divine majesty? True greatness does not depend on outward show. When was Sir Philip Sydney great? As a courtier and poet in the brilliant court of Queen Elizabeth, or as when he lay dying on a battlefield he passed on to a common soldier the cup of water that had been brought to quench his thirst saying ‘Your necessity is greater than mine’? Hear too the words of Jesus at the end of his life—‘Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast out. Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’. And finally, from the cross itself—‘it is finished.’ Yet obviously—

We are apt, it has been said, to stress the wrong elements in Christ’s poverty, because we live under such different conditions of civilization and climate. To be born in a stable was not such a bad thing. There were plenty who had nowhere to lay their heads. A village artisan, such as a carpenter, was not in a bad position. There is something much deeper than this. You must have noticed the sensitivity of the Gospels to poverty. Jesus watches crowds of people putting money into the Temple treasury and he fastens on a poor woman who has put in two mites. In his triumphal procession from Jericho, there was a blind man at the back of the crowd, whom they were telling to be quiet. But Jesus picks him out at once. He is being jostled by great crowds and suddenly ‘Who touched me?’ One wretched, rich, but believing woman.
But note that as the Gospels move on the poverty seems to pass from the crowds to Christ himself. First he lost his family, they seem to have thought him mad. But that was not too bad, he had his friends and popularity. But presently the crowds left him too. Then he saw that ‘one of you will betray me!’ He had three left in the Garden and they— fell asleep. He lost his liberty. On the cross he was losing his life, and last ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ He lost his hitherto unbroken consciousness that God was with him. You cannot get lower than that. When you touch rock bottom in life, you will meet Jesus. In the tremendous words of the creed, he descended into hell, and if you make your bed in hell you will find you have not escaped him. If you cannot find Jesus in hell, you will find him nowhere.
And on the third day he rose again from the dead—that is God’s answer to the self-chosen poverty of his servant. The triumph in the humiliation of the cross is followed by the triumph in the glory of the resurrection. He became obedient unto death, even death on the cross. Wherefore God has also highly exalted him. Before we go on to the last point in the text, we must notice that this—

They must, said Jesus, take up the cross, they must follow him. They most love him more than anything and anyone else in the world—parents, wife, children. They must be prepared to deny themselves and confess only their Lord. And also this covers Paul’s analogy of faith with the death of Christ. Faith means to share the crucifixion of Christ, his poverty. To deny, as a means of salvation, as ground on which to stand before God, family, fame, friends, freedom, human life; to trust even at that moment when God cannot be known but can only be trusted, to tread with Jesus the path of faith in the face of the apparent severity and injustice of God. ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.’ That is faith. And the Gospel is that the divine answer to it is Resurrection. The answer of God to the cross of Christ was resurrection from the dead. The answer to the faith which is crucifixion with Christ, is the power of his resurrection—new life, life out of death, miraculous life—the life which awaits you when you will with Christ deny everything that you know and trust only in that which you have not yet experienced. So the Gospel is indeed the promise of life after death, but it is also the offer of life now to people who are spiritually already dead. Do we begin to see that—

Crucifixion was the official Roman punishment for sedition. The official charge against Jesus seems to have been that he made himself a king. The rebel was cast outside the structure of human society. Two alternatives faced him– one was his defeat and he would be nailed like a rat to a wall, an example for any others that might be like minded. Otherwise, he must seize the power himself. There was no capitulation, only defeat or triumph. It seemed that the former had befallen Jesus, that his kingdom had come to naught. Yet not all kingdoms are alike; and his did not depend on wealth and soldiers. ‘Blessed are you poor; yours is the kingdom of God’. A strange inversion of values! The poor are made rich since it is their Father’s pleasure to give them the Kingdom.
Let us not mistake the clash of the two kingdoms. There stands opposed the Roman Empire at its biggest and best and Jesus on the cross. The Roman Empire is gone, but it has its successors. Human kingdoms which depend more or less on these things on which the Christian refuses to depend offer rewards other than those which exist in the Kingdom of Christ. The human kingdoms present more observable success, but they do not present life indeed, the life of the Kingdom of God which is life out of death, the blossoming of the moral wilderness, the flowering of hope out of the ground of despair, the birth of a new person in Christ. It remains to remind you of what we began with—

You are rich, says Paul, but not just for your own selfish enjoyment—‘freely you have received, freely give.’ We are meant to give—of our money, Paul did not mind saying that, why should we? We know of course that money is not everything. It may mean very little to you, but it means a very great deal to thousands of poor folk some of whom you might help. But you know the riches of God in glory by Jesus Christ, you have treasure in heaven, the wealth of the redeemed. Are you giving it away? Are you sharing your Christian joy and hope? Are you commending your Savior to others? Can you sing, do you pray, do you act the verse—
‘Oh, that the world might taste and see,
  The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me,
  Would all mankind embrace.’ (C. Wesley)
There is a medieval picture of the death of Christ, painted with unusual vigor and realism. In the center Jesus hangs upon the cross, his body contorted in agony. On one side stands John the Baptist pointing— pointing to the cross. That is our task. Will you come now to the cross, to know something of the poverty of Christ, to find poured out on you the glorious wealth of his Kingdom, the life that is yours for the taking? And when you have come, will you stay near the cross and point others to it? For God is able to make all grace abound to you, that you have always, all sufficiency so that you may abound in everything, unto all good work.

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