04/07/19 “Covenant People: Bended Knees”

Philippians 2:1-11 

One of my all-time favorite commercials is one for Amazon Prime, which aired last year around Christmas.  It begins with a man opening his door to a guest he has clearly been looking forward to seeing.  He greets his guest with a warm hug, and the two walk into the living room together.  As they do, we see that the host is wearing a clergy collar, and his friend is a Muslim imam.  The two sit down to enjoy their cups of tea, rubbing their knees as they do. No words spoken in this commercial at all, but you can tell how much they enjoy their friendship. There are moments when they both look pensive, and moments of laughter.  They pat each other on the arm.

At the end of the visit, both men get up from their chairs—slowly and with some difficulty because, clearly, they both are having some knee problems.  They look at each other and laugh—their achy knees just one more thing that they have in common.

The imam leaves, and the minister pauses thoughtfully behind the closed door.  Then he pulls out his phone and opens up the Amazon Prime app.  As the imam is walking away from his friend’s house, he too looks thoughtful.  He pauses under a tree, he too pulls out his phone.

The scene shifts to the next day.  The minister opens his door and receives a package.  At the same time, the imam opens his door and receives a similar package.  Opening the boxes, they pull out identical sets of knee pads—a gift given in love by a friend.  The commercial ends with the priest and imam in church and mosque, smiling as they pull their knee pads on under their robes, and then kneeling before their God.

I love this commercial for lots of reasons.  I love the obvious rapport between the priest and imam, who really are a priest and imam who became friends through doing the commercial together. I love the message that it’s possible for people of different faiths to be friends when we connect over what we share—even if it’s something like achy knees.

But I also love the fact that the motivation behind their gifts to each other isn’t an interest in gardening, or playing with the grandkids, or scrubbing the kitchen floor.  Their motivation is their shared understanding of our need to kneel before God—bending our knees in prayer and obedience and adoration of God.  The commercial reminds us that kneeling is not always easy for us—physically or spiritually.

Our spiritual knees can grow weak and rusty, just like our physical knees do. We may have some reluctance to bend a knee. But, as Paul’s letter to the Philippians and John Wesley’s prayer remind us, bending our knees to Jesus is an appropriate sign that we acknowledge him as the only new and living Way, as our righteousness and our only guide, as Christ the Lord.

I found an interesting explanation of what “bending the knee” signifies on a web site for fans of the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” It’s a series about fictional noble families and their struggles for power and control.  Apparently, during Season Three, the phrase “bend the knee” took on a life of its own, for various reasons.  But here’s what the web site said: “It is common for surrendering parties to ‘bend the knee’ after being defeated in a war or rebellion.  ‘Bending the knee’ is a formal act of submission to a king or lord, a recognition of authority and a demonstration of [loyalty].”

This is a pretty good description of what it means for us to bend our spiritual knee to Jesus. We submit our lives to his control.  We acknowledge his authority over us and pledge our faithfulness to him.  We look to him as the victor over the sinfulness in us, and we name him as our Lord.

“Lord” is a term we don’t use much outside of church.  When we’re annoyed with someone for acting like they’re superior to us, we say they’re “lording it over us.” We certainly don’t do any knee-bending in that case.  But I’m not sure that, when we talk about Jesus as our Lord, we engage in much real knee-bending either.  We certainly don’t take “bending the knee” to Jesus as seriously as the Philippians would have.

Philippi was a Roman colony that enjoyed many special privileges around property and legal rights and taxes.  There were many Roman citizens there, which meant that worship of the Roman emperor was required.  The emperor was considered a god and the only lord of his people; they owed him absolute allegiance and obedience.  The citizens of Philippi were expected to bend their knees to the emperor alone.

So when Paul announced that one day every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, he was issuing a direct challenge to Caesar’s power. For the Philippian Christians, calling Jesus “Lord” was a political statement as much as a theological one, and it could get them arrested for treason.  When Paul calls on them to bend their knees to Christ as their Lord, he is reminding them of the very serious commitment they’ve made—so serious it could literally cost them their lives.

Paul explains to the Philippians what bending the knee before Jesus looks like.  It’s being of the same mind as Jesus—having the same attitudes that he has.  Where we find encouragement in Christ, the consolation that comes from his love and the love of our brothers and sisters, compassion and sympathy—any of the qualities that come from sharing in his Holy Spirit—we are to live out those same qualities.  We are to take his way as our way—his will as the law for our own lives.  Nothing less than being in full accord with him will do, because he is our Lord, and when we bend our knees to him, we pledge that kind of total commitment to him.

Having the same mindset as Jesus would have had serious social consequences for the Philippians.  in Philippian society, taking on the role of a slave and Jesus’ attitude of humility would have been shameful.  Humility was a synonym for servility. It was considered a weakness at best and a character flaw at worst.  To be asked to live in an attitude of humility went against everything the Philippians had been taught to value.  Bending the knee to Jesus could be quite painful for them, socially as well as politically.

And really, we’re not so different, are we?  This notion of becoming like a slave—of living in an attitude of humility—isn’t easy for us, either. We place a high premium on sticking up for ourselves.  Even when we’re proven wrong, we find it hard to back down, harder to admit we are in error, and hardest of all to apologize.  We can go from zero to sixty in taking offense in nothing flat. Social media posts go on and on, because everyone wants to have the last word.

We may pay lip service to humility, because we know from Scripture that we’re supposed to value it.  But I’d say we feel pretty much the same way as the Philippians would have. Humility is not something our culture values, and all you have to do is turn on any news program to see that.

Where does this distaste for humility come from? What makes our spiritual knees so stiff? It comes from those things that Paul warns against.  It comes from the conviction that we’re better than others in some way—more honest, more noble, more hard-working, more long-suffering, more “right,” more “righteous.” It comes from our need for others to see us and acknowledge us as important, maybe even superior.

It comes from putting ourselves at center stage—our feelings, our desires, our needs. It comes from putting a higher value on what is good for us than on what is good for others, and particularly for what is good for the body of believers in Jesus Christ.  This me-first way of thinking and living is the polar opposite of the humility that was in Christ Jesus.

Bending our knees to Jesus is part of the whole process of dying to ourselves so that we might live in Christ. As people who have submitted to his authority, we bend our knees to him by abandoning that me-first attitude and adopting his spirit of humility.  We take him and not the world around us as our only guide and his way as our only Way—the way of compassion and love for others.  We radically change our focus, away from ourselves and toward other people.  We focus on their needs first, just as Jesus considered our need ahead of his own survival. We surrender the throne we think we ought to occupy and bend our knees to Jesus.

We bend our knees to our Divine Conqueror.  There is sinfulness in us, and our personal rebellions go against God’s rule in our lives.  But the power of that sinfulness was defeated by Christ on the cross, through God’s grace and Christ’s forgiveness.  In coming before Jesus on bended knees, we acknowledge his victory in us and submit to him in all things.

This season of Lent is a good time to think seriously about whether we’ve been neglecting our practice of spiritual knee-bending.  Is the position of kneeling in humility to Jesus and to those he loves an uncomfortable position for us? Do our spiritual knees feel kind of stiff and out of shape?

Our spiritual knees need to be kept limber just as our physical knees do and, just like our physical knees, our spiritual knees benefit from regular exercise. That exercise routine includes coming together in worship, to offer our Lord the praise and adoration he deserves.  We come to him regularly in prayer, alone and together.  We serve those whom he loves, not out of a sense of superiority or obligation but out of gratitude for all he has done for us.  We come to his table, humbled by the fact that our Lord invites us to eat and drink with him.  We seek to grow in our knowledge and love of God.  All these help keep our knees in good condition and enable us to live in a constant posture of bended knees.

We are blessed to be among those who confess Jesus’ name.  We are blessed to be the body that bends its knees to him.  We are blessed when we make his way our way, and live according to his mindset.  As we live in an attitude of bended knees, we become a blessing—the means by which the world will come to know Jesus, so that one day every knee shall bend, and every tongue confess—with us—that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young