Sermon: The Humble Deity

October 1, 2023

Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

“Paul’s rhetorical purpose,” writes Troy Troftgruben at Working Preacher, “is primarily to give a pattern of thinking and living for believers in Philippi — one grounded in the way of Jesus.”

So, what’s the pattern? Mutual love, which he describes as concern for the interests of others. Humility that does not raise one’s self-regard above others. A common mind-set so that each person in the church community of Philippi does these things and so that some people do not take advantage of the rest.

Then Paul chose an example, a role model, to guide the Philippians’ thinking and to emulate with their behavior. It probably won’t surprise you to note that it was Jesus. After all, we live in a time when WWJD, an abbreviation for “What Would Jesus Do?” is a fairly well-known phrase. In Paul’s case, though, he didn’t advise his readers to do what Jesus would do. He advised them to do what Jesus did.

It looks like Paul then quoted from a hymn written sometime between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in around 30, and the time Paul wrote the letter some thirty-odd years later. The hymn takes up verses six through eleven, and seems to come in two sections or stanzas. The first one praises Christ’s humility in taking human form and being so faithful as to endure death on a Roman cross. The second stanza makes a stark reversal, celebrating Christ’s exaltation by God and declaring that everyone will praise Jesus Christ as Lord.

It’s a very moving hymn, and the second stanza may well have inspired a number of the hymns of our hymnal, hymns which praise the power, majesty, and glory of Christ. It’s the first stanza, though, that draws my eye today, as Paul may have intended. Remember that Paul wanted to encourage his Philippian readers to live their faith in humility, to not set themselves above one another, to consider each other as equals or even superiors in the Church. As Dr. Troftgruben continues, “Paul does not recommend a traditional cursus honorum (course of honor) — the way of upward mobility and aspiration — but a course of downward mobility: the way of relinquishment and honoring others, seen foremost in the life of Christ.”

As Jane Lancaster Peterson writes at Working Preacher, “The practical wisdom of Christ manifests in love, sharing in the Spirit, in compassion, sympathy, mutual humility, and in shared concern for one another’s best interest.”

Mutual humility. Humility that starts with Jesus himself. Humility that equality with God is not something to be exploited. Humility that, if we spin this just a little further, is not just an attribute of Christ.

It is an attribute of God.

Our God is a humble deity.

In some ways that’s a ridiculous statement. We believe in a creating God, and my goodness the universe is a grand thing. Stars, oceans, running water, rising trees, the profuse beauty of flowers, the richness of human companionship. That’s awfully extravagant for a humble deity.

Further, the accounts of such things as the Exodus sound pretty sensational. There’s a bunch of plagues, and divided bodies of water (more than once). There’s a moving vertical cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. There’s the basic Law inscribed in stone by God’s own finger – I call that pretty splashy – and repeated demonstrations of power with water gushing from rocks and manna forming with the dew.

We’ve got stories about the strength of Samson and the drought prophesied by Elijah. There’s the plague that drove the Assyrian army from Jerusalem and there’s Daniel among the lions. There’s the angel that announced Jesus’ birth to Mary and there’s more angels that sang to shepherds in the hills. There’s Jesus’ resurrection and the miracle of languages at Pentecost.

But you know, it turns out that these flamboyant events are relatively rare in the Scriptures. A lot of the text turns out to be the voices of people summoning the people to do things right and righteously – and warning of consequences if they don’t. Even Jesus’ healings weren’t considered extraordinary things in his time. He was one of several wandering healers, and if he was considered more effective than most, that didn’t put him in a different category.

Mostly, God tends to deal with human beings much more quietly. More intimately. More subtly. God’s most resplendent miracles always seem to leave room for questions, for interpretations, even for dismissal. Remember what they said at Pentecost? “They are filled with new wine.”

Our God is a humble deity.

That’s never stopped God from doing the things that God can do. Humility is not the denial of power or strength or even glory. Humility is restraint. It’s respect. It’s even love. At least, when it’s God who is humble.

Writing about the discussion Jesus had with the chief priests of the Temple in Matthew 21, Cheryl Lindsay writes at, “Ultimately, the leaders want Jesus to submit to their authority. In other words, they want to control him and his message. Control always leads to diminution and restriction. That’s not the way of Jesus, which progresses through invitation and attraction rather than coercion or compulsion.”

Jesus, emulating God, invites and attracts. God also does not coerce or compel.

Liz Coolidge Jenkins writes in the Christian Century, “We live in a world where some of us — often those privileged by various power structures — have been socialized to look out too much for our own interests at others’ expense. Conversely, others of us have been trained to look out only for the interests of others at our own expense. But a truly harmonious community — a community of comfort, encouragement, consolation, and strength — calls for balance: each one looking to others’ needs while also not ignoring their own.”

The apostle wrote in hopes that his readers – in Philippi, and yes, you and I in our day – would follow the example of Jesus, and of God, in living in that harmonious community of humility and love. I echo his hopes.

Even before that hope, however, I give thanks for a God whom we experience in divine humility, in compassion, and in steadfast love. A humble deity.

Thanks be to God.


by Eric Anderson

Watch the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric preaches from a prepared text, but he also believes in adapting and improvising. As you can see.

The image is Saint Paul by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (known as Guercino), 1600s – Sotheby’s London, 08 Juli 2009, lot 28, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on October 1, 2023

Social Networks: RSS Facebook Twitter Google Stumble Upon Digg Reddit

Leave a Reply

close window

Service Times & Directions

Sunday School Classes

Sunday 8:45 am

Sunday Worship Service

Sunday 10:00 am

Adult Bible Study

Monday 6:30 pm, Wednesday 9:00 am

(International Young Adults Association)
Bible Study

Wednesday 7:30 pm

The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga

(The Rev. Tevita) Sunday 1:00 pm Wednesday 7:00 pm (Sanctuary)

The United Church of Christ, Pohnpei - Hilo

(The Rev. Ichiro) Sunday 10:00 am (Bdg. of Faith)

The Samoan Church

(The Rev. Sunia) Sunday 4:00 pm (Sanctuary)

440 W. Lanikaula Street
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-1283