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Christ the Lord

Christ the Lord

Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

Introduction: Happy Thanksgiving! I trust that the time off this week has been beneficial and enjoyable for all of you. I am particularly thankful this year, not just for the time off and the good food and relaxation, but for the life I have been blessed with in this place. I’m thankful to be here this morning with all of you, thankful for the gifts of friendship and fellowship that I receive from so many of you. I’m especially thankful for the special bonus gift that a few of you know about but most do not. One of the trips in my life that I’ve always wanted to make but never been able to is a trip to the Holy Land. Each year about this time, as Phillip and Mary Margaret Morrison gear up to go to Israel, I wonder what it would be like to go just once, not for the 20th time or whatever it is that Phillip has made the pilgrimage. And in the last few years, as Glenda Hutcheson has joined them I’ve experienced something of what if would be like just by being around Glenda a bit when she gets home – her excitement is contagious.

I’m not sure exactly what the order of events was this year, but I am grateful because the elders of this church have graced me with the opportunity to join Phillip and Mary Margaret and Glenda and I will get to see more than the slide show! All of us solicit your prayers as we make the journey to Jerusalem beginning December 5. My thanks to all of you for the relationships that we have built together over the past 9 years. It was in the Fall of 1998 that I first starting teaching the class now known as the “Early birds.”

We live in a world in which taking time for Thanksgiving seems a bit odd and outdated to many because there are too many things going on that are thankless. There are too many stories, to many headlines that leave us not with thanksgiving but with grave concern or anger or worse – cynicism and apathy. While I greatly appreciate living in an age in which there is instant access to news from around the world, I often wish I knew less. I often wish news, almost by definition any more, wasn’t about the catastrophic or horrific or scandalous. I wish news didn’t so often seem more like gossip.

The truth is that most of us, I suppose, have a love-hate relationship with most of what we say we are thankful for at this time of year. Being thankful for our families, while true, almost always has a set of flip-side stories. And holidays bring memories not only of all that is good in family but often all that is heart breaking. I’m thankful to be a citizen of the United States of America at this time of year. But I’m also painfully aware of how other people in the world see us and just as painfully aware that sometimes their claims about our arrogance and “might makes right” attitudes and our conspicuous wealth and consumption are way out of proportion to our size in the world. I love my church – both the church of my heritage and this particular manifestation of that heritage – but I also know too much that makes me too easily slip into negative, cynical thoughts and pessimism about the future. I also know too many people in too many churches for whom thanksgiving and joy and hope have been replaced by critique and bitterness and anger. Church, like family, sometimes has a way of bringing out less than the best in us, doesn’t it. And unfortunately, most of the church news that makes the news is in the latter category – not the thanksgiving and praise section, but the bitterness and anger section.

I am thankful for Scripture at such times, because the stories recorded there tell the truth about these love-hate relationships. Have you ever noticed how the Apostle Paul can begin almost every one of his letters with prayers of blessing and thanksgiving for people that he either doesn’t know at all or he knows too well? He knows the Corinthians very well and writes letters that address all of the messy junk and stuff going on in the church. Yet his letter begins in thanksgiving. He writes to the Thessalonians and to Philemon, and to the Ephesians and Romans and Philippians, opening with words of thanksgiving – knowing in some cases of great trauma danger inherent in the church’s circumstances. He is thankful for the Christians in Colossae, for people he has not met but he has heard of their faith in Christ Jesus and their love for all the saints because of the hope laid up for them in the heavenly realms.

We sometimes forget the overwhelming risks people made in the Roman Empire when they declared “Jesus is Lord,” In the Roman Empire, Caesar was Lord, and the Empire established peace. It was the Roman Military might that made and kept things right in the world. People were welcome to believe in the gods and participate in any religion they chose as long as they also worshipped Caesar and recognized that he was above the other gods when it came to peace and order and economic sustenance in life. The Roman Empire was the great consumer culture of its time – a world in which 2-3 percent of the population consumed 60 percent of the resources. A world in which the presence of the Roman military machine was everywhere and simply accepted as part of life.

So Paul writes to a group of believers in Jesus Messiah in the town of Colossae and says:

“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all his people – the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true word of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world – just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God's grace. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our [behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:3-14).
I suppose we could interpret this language about the “dominion of darkness” as a reference to the evil spiritual powers of Satan, if not for the kingdom language that surrounds it and the fact Jesus Christ is twice identified as Lord. Paul contrasts the kingdom of light and kingdom of the Son God loves with the dominion of darkness. Redemption and forgiveness of sins are part of a larger invitation into an alternative kingdom and an alternative Lord to the one who claims the power of Empire in the Mediterranean world of the first century. It is the contrast between Caesar in Rome and these people conviction that Jesus is Lord that makes this so-called Christ hymn in Colossian 1 come alive:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).
In contrast to the Ruler of Roman Empire, who was understood to be a visible god in Empire, The Son is the image of the invisible God, the first-born over all creation. Everything and everyone is under his authority, his dominion – heavenly things and earthly alike. He is the one who brings stability to all creation. All things hold together in him. And he is the head of his body – the church. Suddenly there is more than an economic or political or even social network of people that gives identity. Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to suggest an organic cohesion between the first born of all creation and the tiny collection of human beings called together by their faith in Jesus Christ.
The Son, he declares is the new beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, the one who is supreme over everything – Everything! The fullness of creator God is in him and through him all things – all things in creation – are being reconciled to Creator God. And the claim of these words is that his throne and Lordship were established right under the nose of Caesar through the means Caesar used to humiliate and subdue his enemies. The Roman cross was the symbol of Caesar’s dominion. Yet, Paul says that same cross is actually the power of God’s salvation.
When you read on in Colossians, Paul reminds his audience that at one time they were all alienated from God and enemies because of their evil behavior. But now they have been reconciled by Christ’s physical body – something happened on that Roman cross that turned the world upside down, announcing an alternative gospel to that announced in the kingdom of Caesar. This is the gospel, Paul says that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I remember hearing that verse out of context years ago being used to say that by the time Paul wrote Colossians the Gospel have been preached everywhere in the world in the first century and we needed to get busy make sure that happened again in our lifetime. But Paul’s word choice is very odd – literally he says, “in all creation under heaven.” It actually fits with what he had been saying – that God was reconciling all things to himself in Christ. That Christ is the one who holds all things together – earthly and heavenly, visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, powers.
Jesus is Lord over all creation! This hasn’t been announced just to humans in the Roman Empire. In Jesus the fullness of God was please to dwell and through Christ Jesus, God was reconciling all creation to himself. This is the good news that has been announced to all creation under heaven.
I have to confess that is not the gospel that I have preached for much of my life. I’ve not announced salvation to all creation, I’ve not announced the Lordship of Jesus as supreme over all other authorities, including our own. I’ve not announced this kingdom of the Son who rescues us from darkness and all other dominions and powers on this planet. For too much of my life my gospel has been so small! It has been only about me – saving my life or your individual life from an eternity in the fires of hell. When the gospel got expanded a bit, it was still only about my or our right church practices and our right doctrinal performances. When it expanded again to a gospel of grace, that actually had the effect of narrowing the number of places I desired to attend rather than expand the borders of the kingdom! My gospel never has grown much past my own personal preferences. I want a gospel that announces my forgiveness and places me among people that think like me and act like me and want to worship like me. I want a gospel that surrounds me with circumstances and people and the level of consumption that keeps me well fed physically and spiritually.
But this Gospel Paul announces is a radically different gospel – it’s for all creation! It’s a gospel for the environment and every part of this planet. It’s not even just for other human beings! Yes, it’s for all human beings and that’s a gigantic leap from the small, impotent gospel I wanted that gets people like us into the same church building for a once-a-week worship assembly that we don’t complain about all of the time, just some of the time. This isn’t some tiny “meet my human wants and needs” gospel – This is Creator God reconciling all creation to himself Gospel! This is good news that puts all human governments, and all human leaders, and all human efforts at military solutions to human inhumanity under a higher dominion and authority. There is no bait and switch that somehow equates the president or congress or a political party with God’s will. This gospel puts all of our consumer addictions and idolatries back in submission to the only God that can transform death back into life.
This gospel changes all of our slogans – even the newest call to “Love God, Love others, Serve the World.” Serving the world can’t just mean paying attention to other human beings in the world. Loving others can’t just mean the others mostly like us. What does loving this kind of God look like? A few weeks ago, everyone on the ministry staff began asking ourselves what it might look like for each of us to take these words and live into them in a fresh way. And I confess again, my gospel is to small. I heard these words mostly as “been there, done that.” But an “all creation” gospel makes everything new. An all creation gospel calls into question any notion of a privilege nation like the United States of America, it puts into perspective all claims to “better than status” which is my usual defense for almost anything I already believe or practice. “Well, capitalism may not be the most equitable economic system but it’s better than…. Democracy may have some flaws but it’s better than…. Churches of Christ may be messed up about a lot of things but we’re better than….. I may not be the best husband and father but I’m better than…. My financial giving and spending habits may not be what they should be but they’re better than….!”
This morning you and I are invited into the kingdom of the Son! The one who is the image of the invisible god, the firstborn of all creation! The one who is before all things, the one who holds all things together – all thing. He is the one who has supremacy in everything.
Honestly, I don’t know what this looks like other than to say I know what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like me continuing to live out my perform-to-please habits. It doesn’t look like my current critique and cynicism of church and Lipscomb University and the church politics of Nashville and the cultural habits of never telling the truth about anything. It’s bigger than my imagination! And the truth is it’s not something I can actually do – I need a gospel with God-power because it’s impossible for me to change. I need a Holy Spirit Gospel that makes Scripture the living, breathing Word of God and does the impossible not just in my life but in all creation. Would you join me this morning in believing that Gospel?
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, November 25, 2007.

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