When I was a little kid, Cowboy Bob was my hero. He had a children's show on local TV. He wore a stereotypical Western shirt and white Stetson and sat behind a table where he taught us how to do easy card tricks and simple science projects in between episodes of old 1930s westerns starring people like Lash Larue and Hop-along Cassidy.
One day at school, I heard great news. "Glad tidings of exceeding great joy," Cowboy Bob was coming to town! He was going to be in our town's annual Christmas parade.
Finally, the day arrived. I persuaded my 6'3" father to put me on his shoulders so I could get a really good look when Cowboy Bob rode through town on his valiant steed.
After way too many clowns and Cub Scout troops and church floats and high school bands, there he was riding on the back of a flatbed truck, little kids sitting on bales of hay and a short little man spinning a rope and waving at the crowd. The wind almost blew his Stetson off and for a moment I could see that he was bald.
I have never been so disappointed in my life. "Who is that?" I cried to my father, "That can't be Cowboy Bob!" But it was; alas and alack, it really was.
I wonder how soon those who turned out to greet the Messiah began to feel disappointment. Was it when they looked up from spreading palm leaves on the ground to see a slight, dust-covered man riding a donkey into town? Did "alleluia" die in their throats, as they turned to a neighbor to ask, "This? This is the Messiah?"
What was it that happened in that week between the triumphal entry and the trial before Pilate that turned "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" into "Let him be crucified?"
Our two Gospel lessons draw for us a startling contrast. We have laid out before us what Martin Luther identified as the two theologies that have competed for our allegiance down through the ages. One is the Theology of Glory -- which looks for God in the good, the beautiful, the strong, and the powerful. The second is the Theology of the Cross, which looks for God in exactly those places where we most feel God's absence: in pain, in humiliation, in suffering, in weakness and foolishness and death.
A Theology of Glory is concerned with health and happiness and prosperity.
A Theology of Glory centers on what God can do for us; on how being a person of faith can make us more popular and powerful and successful.
A Theology of Glory is all about us; all about our power and our control and our winning in life and our living large; about what works to make our life better.
On the other hand, a Theology of the Cross is concerned with God, with who God is, with what God wills with what God has done for us on the cross and with what God calls us to do in response.
A Theology of Glory centers on some formulation that makes the difficulties of our days okay, that makes everything all right, that somehow turns the evil and hurt we experience into a moral good, in the long run, in the overall scheme of things.
A Theology of Glory must have God, and us, in control, and good must - always - win.
On the other hand, a Theology of the Cross is concerned with what looks like failure, with what appears to be disaster, with what seems to be the utter and complete absence of God in our most desperate and trying moments.
A Theology of the Cross brings us to the stark realization of our mortality and imperfectability, of our need for help that comes from outside ourselves.
A Theology of the Cross calls a thing what it is, Luther said: death is death, sin is sin, horror is horror, suffering is suffering evil is evil. There is no window dressing that can make them anything else.
And yet, it is in the stark, cold cross that we are being saved.
In our reading from Philippians, we see Jesus modeling for us that which we are called to do. For you see, salvation is not just about the cross of Christ; it is also about the cross of Delmer and the cross of Amanda and the cross of Kim and the cross of Jackson, and the cross of.... Well, you put your name in that blank.
Jesus showed us the way. We have been called to follow him on that way. For Jesus, that way meant giving up whatever glory he had -- and he had it all: glory, power, wisdom, you name it, he had it -- and he let it all go.
The word translated here in Philippians as "exploited" means variously not to be "clung to," not to be "held on to," not to be "clutched at." Jesus had everything and instead of clinging desperately to it, he opened his hands and his life and let it go.
Many of us spend our lives striving and self-improving; and networking and working; and investing and saving to get what Jesus had and let go of. Jesus went further, not only did he give up all the power in the universe; he completely emptied himself of it, got rid of it, purged it, flushed it, threw it away.
Jesus became as we are, and then went to a place most of us are unwilling to go -- he became a servant to all humanity. In completely humbling himself -- he went from being everything to being nothing. From being in charge of the universe -- he went to being in control of nothing; from being the agent of creation -- he went to being de-created to dying upon a cross.
And there, there dying upon the cross is where we find God -- or rather where God finds us. For it is in our own crosses that we turn to Christ. It is when we stop chasing after whatever it is we think will justify our existence; it is when we release ourselves from the relentless pursuit of success and happiness, from seeking after that hero, that Cowboy Bob for grownups, that will make all our dreams come true. It is when we open our hands and let loose of the knot in the end of our existential rope that God can begin to come to us.
When we let ourselves become more human, and more fallible, and more frail; when we begin to die with Christ -- that is when we begin to be converted. For to be a Christian is to die and rise with Christ, every day.
We are invited to imitate Christ in dying to the old self. This is dying we are talking about. It is not easy. It is painful and arduous and time-consuming. Once we have turned our faces to follow the way of the cross, we discover each day new things about ourselves which need to die so that a new Christlikeness may be born within us. To be Christian is to follow Christ to the cross, knowing that the old person we have been must die and not knowing if we will survive, but knowing only that we cannot go on as we are.
To follow Christ in the way of the cross, is to give up on saving our "self" and to place everything in the hands of God. To go to the cross is to go to one's spiritual death because one must, but also, to do so without any sure knowledge of what comes next. It is in that moment of despair, that we realize that we are already being saved, and have been "being saved," forever, since the beginning of time.
We are called to the cross.
We are called to die to who we think we are.
We are called to cease our endless rounds of striving.
We are called to death.
We are called to life.
We are called to live for others.
We are called to follow Christ.
Amen and amen.