A Message to Salvation Army Bell Ringers
Arlington, TX — December 21, 2010
Reflections on Philippians 2:1-11
You all know the story of Christmas Eve. You know the cast of characters. We’ve got the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, the animals. I invite you to look closely at the young family at the center. There is the young mother, her face serene but exhausted. There is the young father, his face fierce with resolve to protect his vulnerable young family. Then there is the baby. Soft skin. Curled fists. If he’s crying, it’s not because he knows what’s coming. He is a baby, a beautiful baby.
In invite you to walk around behind the manger, come backstage. That’s what Paul in this passage from Philippians does for the Church at Philippi where some people thought they were better than other people. In quoting what was probably part of a hymn, he says, “You need to model yourselves after the motivation and character of God, the mind of Christ.”
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Therefore God also 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.” (NRSV Philippians 2:4-11)
I’m entitling my message this morning “Level with me.” “Level with me” can mean a couple of things. It can mean “Tell me the truth.” We use it in some mundane situations. “Level with me. Do these pants make me look fat?” We use it in some more serious situations. “Level with me. Are you drinking again? Level with me. Am I going to get laid off this time around? Level with me. Do you still love me or not?
We say this phrase when we need to know the truth about our future, but we’re afraid to hear the answer. “Level with me.”
My Uncle Jim would have been 80 this year. He passed away last December. Maybe that’s why my mind turns to him this month. He went into the Army right out of high school and trained to be a meteorologist. After he retired from the Army, he opened a map store in Phoenix for a while. Then when he was about 65 he decided to be a Methodist local pastor. He had a lot of health problems. Diabetes. Heart problems. Empheysema. The last couple of years when he was serving a little Methodist Church in Petrolia, TX, he had to wheel his oxygen tank with him up front to preach the morning message. When he couldn’t do that anymore, he started writing weekly online inspirational messages called “Jim’s Reflections.”
One night last fall, when I got home from school, the phone was ringing. I picked it up and immediately recognized his gravelly, east TX accent. “Alyce, this is your Uncle Jim. I was to the doctor today, and got some tests back. He said it didn’t look good. You know I’m an old weatherman and we like predictions. So I said to him, “Level with me, doc. How bad is it? Do I have six months?” He said, “Maybe four. So I’m putting the trailer up for sale and Minnie and I are moving back to Pennsylvania to be near our family. We won’t be able to be with you this Thanksgiving. I just wanted you to know.
You can do a lot in four months. You can sell your trailer. You can move with your spouse back home where you grew up. You can make sure she has a doctor and a church for when you’re gone. You can attend the family reunion your loved ones organize at the home church.
Jim died four months after his conversation with the doctor, almost to the day. He told the doctor to level with him and he did.
Level with me means “Be honest with me.” It also means, literally, level with me. On the same plane. One person is not higher than another. I am level with you. You are level with me. That was apparently the problem at Philippi. People feeling they were better than others. Some people think today think they are better than others. They have all kinds of reasons. They’re good looking. They have money, educational credentials, possessions, power to influence others. Those things aren’t necessarily bad. But they don’t make anybody better than anybody else in the eyes of God, in the mind of Christ. They’re level with you. They’re level with me. Some people think they are not as good as others. For all kinds of reasons. They’re not good looking. They don’t have money, educational credentials, possessions, power to influence others. Not having those things doesn’t make them lower than anyone else. Not in the eyes of God. Not in the mind of Christ.
Jesus didn’t elevate himself, according to our hymn from Philippians. He came down to our level. And if the Son of God refused to elevate himself, then why would anyone dare to elevate him or herself above others? Jesus came to earth to be level with you and level with me. So why would any of us still keep our eyes cast down, making ourselves lower than our Savior views us.
Oh, I know there are many reasons, but this little baby’s hand, now soft and dimpled, one day, calloused and strong, reaches down to lift you up. This baby is the leveler. His Mother knows it as she rocks him in her arms. He is the son of the God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.” (Luke 1:46 Mary’s Song)
I invite you to walk closer to the manger. Look at his young mother. Her face is serene but exhausted. Look at his young father, his face firm with a determination to keep his vulnerable young family safe. Look at him, the baby: so tiny, so helpless, level with you, level with me, the Son of God. What a risk he took becoming human, enduring all that you and I have to endure and more!
Each of us faces difficulties and struggles in our lives. We each have moments when we say to God what Uncle Jim said to his doctor. “Level with me, God. What does the future hold for me?” The baby in the manger is your answer. Your future, whatever unexpected blessings and misfortunes it may hold, is in the hands of a God who cared enough to become human. This God became level with me and level with you. God walks with us. God stands with us all day and evening when our feet are tired and sometimes our spirits are too. God comforts us and lifts us up when we feel down and when we fall down, not just at Christmas, but in the cold days that stretch out beyond it. God inspires us to smile and lift somebody else up when they feel down, when they fall down.
When it comes to “level with me,” gospel music singer Guy Penrod’s lyric runs through my mind.
“He came down to my level
When I couldn’t get up to His
With a strong arm He lifted me up
To show me what livin’ is
He’ll come down to your level if you’ll open up the door
He wants to make your life worth livin’
That’s what he came down for.”