“Down in the Valley”

“[Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Philippians 2:6-7

As early as Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), Christians understood Isaiah's fourth “Servant Song” (Isa. 52:13-53:12) to be describing Jesus. His humble arrival, his innocent life, the injustice and pain he suffered, his faithful obedience to his Father’s will, and, of course, his sacrificial death where he bore our sins on the cross (1 Pet. 2:23-25) are all found in Isaiah 52-53. Jesus was the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29) and in him there is forgiveness (Col. 1:19-20).

In Philippians 2, Paul writes his own poem about the Messiah and he seems to adopt both the structure and content of Isaiah’s. Servanthood is emphasized in both. Jesus “emptied himself” just as the Servant in Isaiah “poured out his soul to death” (Isa. 53:12). Both Paul’s poem and the Isaiah-passage begin and end with Christ’s transcendent glory (Phil. 2:6, 9-11; Isa. 52:13; 53:12) and between those two points of triumph, the downward staircase that ends at the cross. Both Paul and Isaiah take us from the highest high in heaven to the lowest low on earth and back again.

Paul’s point was for us to emulate the same attitude of self-denial for the sake of others that Jesus had (Phil. 2:1-4). Just as the Servant did not hold on to the “rights” that were his but gave them up so that others may live, so are we to walk the same road. We are called upon to consider others as more important than ourselves,  to serve as he served, to empty ourselves as he did.

When we behave like Jesus, however, we must be prepared to be met with the same astonishment and rejection as he was (Isa. 52:13-53:3). One tragic aspect of our Christian love and service is simply being taken for granted. We pour out our lives for others, and they simply drink us up and throw us out without so much as a “thank you.” When that happens to us, when we find ourselves ‘down in the valley’ of that V-shaped narrative of Isaiah 52-53 and Philippians 2, we need to remember a few things.

First, we need to remember that we are simply being treated as Jesus was. “He was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3). Why should we think our sacrificial love should get universal recognition and appreciation if the world for whom Jesus died paid no attention to him? Jesus said, “A servant is not above his master” (Mt. 10:24) and “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Jn. 15:18-21). While most people will take us for granted, there will be some who will be drawn closer to Christ as a result of him living in us. And most importantly, God notices our faithful service and will reward it in the end (1 Cor. 15:58).

Second, being treated like Jesus for acting like Jesus should fill us with hope, not despair. The apostles, after they were beaten and released, were “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). They could rejoice because sharing in Jesus’ suffering is the sure sign that we will share in Jesus’ triumph and resurrection! (Phil. 3:10-11) When we are down in that V-shaped valley, we must always be singing that final song of triumph to get us through.

The burden of servanthood is to bear the burdens of others. Jesus carried our griefs and sorrows. While we can never bear others’ burdens in the same way or to the same extent Jesus did, we can at least help them carry those burdens to the place where Jesus can unload them. “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). We are Christ’s wounded healers, bringing God’s healing love to bear in this broken world. Someday, he will take us from this deep valley up to heavenly heights.