Years ago, when I lived in New York, a friend of mine Genevieve constantly saw famous people and yet never recognized them. But one afternoon on a bus on the West Side of Manhattan, the ABC anchorman Peter Jennings sat beside her. She thought for once. “I recognize someone.” So, she turned to him excitedly and said, “Aren’t you Tom Brokaw?” Jennings smiled and said, “No, I’m the other guy.” Interestingly, Genevieve got over her embarrassment and had a great conversation with him around bias and objectivity in the news.
I love those stories, where the great and famous pop up in the grocery store or on the bus. But it took a story I read this week, to help me understand why I love them.
It happened in Detroit in the 30s. And it began when three guys hopped on a bus and tried to pick a fight with a lone black man sitting near the back. They insulted him. He said nothing. Then they insult him more. Again nothing. Eventually, he got up. When he did, they realized. This guy is big, really big. And as he passed them, he simply reached into his suit and handed them his business card. It had three words on it. Joe Louis, Boxer.
Now let me ask. If Peter Jennings had gotten offended by Genevieve’s mistake and told her so, what would you think of Jennings then? Or what if Louis had pummeled those guys into the ground rather than walk away, what would you have thought of Louis then? If your estimation would have gone down, you are grasping the power of one word, a word that revolutionized the world, a word that lies at the center of the words we’re about to read. And when you live out that one word in your life, it shows you the way towards greatness and fulfillment as few words can. What is that word? Here, God tells you. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
In one word in the words you just heard, God points you to a way of life that lifts you to greatness and fulfillment as few things can. In that word, God shows you. Greatness comes not when you use your power for yourself. Greatness comes when you use your power for others.
Now what is the word? Before we focus on that, you need to understand what must always come before it. Before you can use your power for others, you need to understand you have power. That’s why Paul points folks to Jesus and says be like him. For one thing Jesus definitely had was power.
And in this passage, God makes it clear how much power Jesus had. In the very first verse of this Christian song that Paul quotes, God tells you that when you looked at Jesus, you were looking at God. That’s what God means when the song tells you that Jesus was in the form of God. God isn’t saying. Jesus looked like me. God is saying. Jesus is me. That what it means to exist in the form of God. It means. You are God.
Now why does God put it that way? God puts it that way to prepare you for what’s coming. You see. For God, the infinite, immeasurably powerful author of everything is going to get small. In Jesus, God empties his power. Does that mean that God gives up his power? No God empties it. God takes the form of that infinite power and pours it into the frail form of Jesus of Nazareth. God empties the power into Jesus. It doesn’t leave. The power goes into Jesus. And if you want to be like Jesus, you need to understand you have power, maybe more than you realize.
Years ago, I went to a training on how to effectively use power to bring about good in the world. And the trainer had us reenact a dialogue from ancient history, where the Athenians, the superpower of their day were negotiating with the Melians, a much weaker party. She told us. The reenactment had only one rule. She could interrupt at any time. I got picked to represent the Athenian team. I thought that I was doing a pretty good job. But then the trainer interrupted me and told me to leave the room. And after me, others followed, all of us hanging in the hall, waiting to get called back in. Eventually she did, but I was much more cautious. I didn’t want to get thrown out. Only later did I realize the point. The trainer didn’t throw me out of the room. I threw me out of the room. The exercise only had one rule. The trainer could interrupt. She couldn’t throw out. But I gave her that power without even thinking about it. I learned how easily I can give my power away.
You have power, and only as you realize that can you use that power for others and discover the greatness and fulfillment God yearns for you to have. And that brings us to the word. What did Jesus do that led him to greatness and fulfillment? Jesus humbled himself. Too often people equate humbling with powerlessness. But you cannot humble yourself unless you have something to humble. Humbling implies power, not giving up power, but willingly using power for others. (This definition along with a number of the insights here comes from a wonderful book Humilitas by John Dickson - well worth reading)
Take Peter Jennings. He didn’t give up any power to Genevieve. He used his power to create a powerful moment of connection for them both. And Joe Louis didn’t give up his power either. He used it to protect those idiots from their own stupidity. That business card exerted more power over them than his fists ever could.
And when you humble yourself as Jesus did, as Peter Jennings did, as Joe Louis did, you don’t give up power. You channel your power so that it blesses others rather than exalts you. And that humbling creates a greatness in you that lifts you up as nothing else could.
In 1953, Edmund Hillary with his Sherpa friend, Tenzin Norgay, became the first people to conquer Mount Everest. That feat brought Hillary worldwide fame, but people remember Hillary for far more than that. Some years after Everest, Hillary was talking with an elderly Sherpa from Khumjung village, from where most of the Sherpas on his Everest climb had come. And the man said to Hillary, “What we need more than anything is a school in Khumjung. So, Hillary established the Himalayan Trust. He raised funds to build a school there. But Hillary didn’t stop with one school. Through the trust, he built dozens, along with 2 hospitals, 12 clinics even bridges and airfield throughout Nepal. For almost 50 years, until he died in 2008, Hillary spent half his year either traveling the world to raise money for the trust or supervising its projects. And when he died, he received a state funeral in his native New Zealand, not simply for climbing Mount Everest, but for all he did for those in the valley below.Before Jesus came, the world didn’t see the glory of such service. In the ancient world, it was all getting the glory for yourself, not about glorifying others. But then God came in Jesus and gave up the glory to save the world, to save you, even going as far as dying on a cross. In that awful yet wondrous act Jesus showed where true glory always lies. For Jesus’ humble self-giving didn’t take away his power. It opened the way for that power to change everything. It opened the way for that power to change you, as it changed Hillary. For when Hillary reached Everest, he only brought one thing to leave behind. He left behind a cross.
And as you let that same power, the power of this One who humbled himself for you, as you let the power of Jesus’ love rest in you, you will discover your own power and the joy of using it to serve others rather than yourself. And in that power, Jesus will lead you to what a truly fulfilled life really is.