Bowing to God

Mark 11:1-11

Jesus enters Jerusalem

11 When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3  If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

4 They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. 5 Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. 7 They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. 9 Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

 

Philippians 2:5-11

5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.
9 Therefore, God highly honored him
        and gave him a name above all names,
10     so that at the name of Jesus everyone
        in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11         and every tongue confess that
            Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

One of the phrases that gets used in novels is a “stiff bow.” When I see it, I can think of that almost awkward bow where a person is attempting go through the motions of bowing without actually bending in any meaningful way. In fact, a stiff bow to me almost assuredly is an attempt to bow without bending the knee at all. By contrast the word “genuflect” contains in its definition the idea that one’s knee is bent. Google’s dictionary defines genuflect as “to lower one's body briefly by bending one knee to the ground, typically in worship or as a sign of respect.”

In most churches in the United States, we do not do a lot of genuflecting anymore. Outside of the Episcopal and Catholic traditions I am not familiar with a denomination that makes a big deal out of kneeling as a part of worship. There are some reasons for this, one is that many of our traditions were a reaction to the high liturgy and structure of the Catholic church and so our acts of worship natural deviated from what they did. Another reason is probably that here in the United States we make a big deal about not kneeling for others. We believe in respecting our leaders, whether it is policeman or clergy or judges or politicians, but no one genuflects for someone. Finally, more recently, the increasing age of our membership makes it less and less likely that kneeling is something that people are comfortable doing.

There are lots of reasons for why we do not regularly kneel in worship (though many do for Communion). What is more important to me is thinking about the effect of that. When I think about my life of faith, many of the most profound moments have come when I was literally on my knees. Sometimes it has happened in prayer, but also I remember feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit when I kneeled for confirmation and when I kneeled for ordination. When we fall on our knees we can humble ourselves before God. Without bending our knees, can we really bow before God and confess Christ as our lord?

We have descriptions of Palm Sunday from each of the Gospels. From these descriptions we can often form a picture of what is happening. There are two acts going on: people are laying things on the road, and people are shouting. From these descriptions it seems likely that while some might be bowing before Christ, most are likely standing and waving, because it is physically hard to shout while bowing. From these descriptions I would infer that Palm Sunday is not one of those moments that the author of Philippians is referring to when the passage talks about everyone on earth bowing.

Why does this matter? The crucifixion, which Christ is riding towards as he enters Jerusalem, is not a triumphant act, but a humbling act. This is the ultimate moment, of Christ’s humility. Not only does he come to earth and live as one of us, he is willing to die like us. Not only is he willing to die like us, but to be executed, using none of his power to save himself, he suffers humiliation and death so that we might have life. What is our response to this act? Do we stand and shout and wave and cheer Christ on, glad for what he is doing for us? Or, do we bow our heads, bend our knees, and drop to the ground, in awe and reverence for this ultimate act of love?

I want to think that I would be one to drop to my knees when Christ entered Jerusalem, to throw my cloak on the ground and bow before him as he passed. Yet, I worry, if I look deep into my heart, that I would be one of those to be shouting from the sidelines, glad for what he is doing but equally glad that it was not me that had to do the hard work. I would be excited for the liberation that Christ was offering, and looking forward to that new life that is promised, but not willing to humble myself and take on the burden with him. Jesus calls us to humble ourselves, to fall to our knees, but it is hard, and it is uncomfortable.

How do we do it? We look at those words from Philippians for guidance. Jesus emptied himself. What does that mean for us? One of the first things we need to empty from ourselves is our pride. We struggle with the concept of kneeling for another person, and yet Christ was willing to do that and more for us. The same pride that refuses us to bow before a king on earth can make it hard for us to bow before the King of Heaven and Earth. Until we empty ourselves of that pride we will always struggle to bow before Christ, because we will care more about ourselves and what others think of us, than we do about God.

In the coming week, we must grapple with our struggles to bow before God and the ways that we struggle to empty ourselves like Christ does. The culmination of Lent is Good Friday and the cross, a reminder that no matter how hard we try, we fall short, like the disciples before us, we want to be beside Christ, and yet when the moment happens we turn in fear. Christ invites us to gather at the table with him for the Last Supper and yet goes to the cross alone. We must all admit our role in Christ’s death if we want to share in his new life. Easter comes next Sunday, but to get there we must fall on our knees and weep at the cross and the grave.

 

Questions to Ponder:

When is a time that you have knelt for something outside of worship?

What does it mean to you to humble yourself or empty yourself before God?

Where would you have been in the story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem?

Who comes to mind when you think of someone who is humble?

Prayer:

God, when we confront your awesome power and presence we want to stand and shout “Hosanna in the highest.” Like the crowds before us, we want to cheer and wave as you pass by. Help us to empty ourselves like Christ did that we might become his humble followers. Help us to bend our knees in prayer to you and in worship of your amazing love. Grant us the courage not to stand up, but to bow down, to accept weakness as a strength and to forever follow you. Amen