Salted with Grace

(2 Kings 2:19-22, Job 6:6-7; Colossians 4:2-18)

[HOLD UP SALTSHAKER] Recognize this? Right, it’s a saltshaker, about half-full of salt. I’d be willing to bet that most of you have one at home, and a box or two of salt besides what’s in the shaker. It’s just common, ordinary stuff. Would you believe that this is one of the driving forces of history?

Well, the journalist and writer Mark Kurlansky would, which is why he wrote the book Salt: A World History. Granted that this is the same guy who thought it would be a good idea to write a children’s book about cod, it still tells you something about the historical importance of salt that he could spend 500 pages writing about it. He may overstate his case—I doubt, for instance, that the destruction of the great kingdom of Poland was due to German production of sea salt—but there’s no denying that he’s right about the importance and value of salt in the ancient world. For our culture, too much salt is the problem, but that’s an issue peculiar to our modern era; for most of human history, the problem was not having enough. To the Romans, salt was so valuable that they paid their soldiers’ wages partly with salt—since their word for salt was sal, they called this the salarium, from which we get our word “salary.” And one of the justifications Thomas Jefferson used for the Lewis and Clark expedition was a mountain of salt which was supposed to be somewhere along the Missouri River.

So why was salt so valuable? Well, there were a number of reasons, as there were a number of important uses for salt. First off, it was one of the primary means of preserving food. If you were rich enough and lived close enough to the mountains, you could have ice packed down from the peaks and use that to keep food cold, but that wasn’t available to most people. In some parts of the world, meat would be smoked to help preserve it, but smoking wasn’t (and isn’t) sufficient by itself; foods could also be dried, but for many foods, drying and salting went together, while others were salted without being dried. Salt was valued because it preserves other things of value—namely, food.

Second, connected with this, salt was seen as a purifying agent; that’s reflected in our passage from 2 Kings. The water at Jericho was bad, and so the crops didn’t grow well; the tradition was that when Joshua cursed the city after its defeat, that he had cursed the water. When the people of the city brought their plaint to Elisha, he purified the water by throwing salt in it. Now, this is clearly presented as a miracle, not as a mere chemical reaction—this is something the Lord has done; the salt is symbolic. Nevertheless, the symbol was of great importance, as the Hebrews took symbolism much more seriously than we do, and accorded symbols a much greater degree of significance; it was through the salt, and the act of throwing it in the water, that the Lord purified the water.

Third, salt gives flavor; it’s the most basic of all spices, because it not only gives its own flavor but intensifies other flavors, bringing them out. Thus Job asks, as he protests both the terrible things which have happened to him and his friends’ insistence that they must be God’s judgment on him for his sin, “Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt?” This is a rhetorical question, an appeal to a proverbial truth, and the expected answer is, of course, “No.” No, you need salt to bring flavor to food. (You might be thinking we’ve taken poor Job just a little out of context here, but not really. We’ll come back to him later.) Without salt, food doesn’t have the taste, the savor, that it should have—it’s too bland, even tasteless.

Now, we might add a couple other things to this. One, though it’s not exactly what you’d call a use of salt, we know that salt causes thirst—that’s the reason for beer nuts. Salt attracts water; salty food pulls the water right out of the tissues of your mouth, so that you need to drink more to make up for that. The biblical writers don’t seem to have had reason to do anything with that fact, but they must have been aware of it. Two, salt is an irritant—if you rub salt in a wound, you increase the pain, as the salt goes to work on those damaged tissues. The bottom line here is that when you put salt on anything living (or recently living, like a dead fish), it doesn’t just lie there and do nothing; as one commentator put it, “Whatever salt is applied to, it invariably penetrates.” It’s active, it sinks in, it goes to work—to preserve, to purify, to dry, to flavor.

It’s in that light that we must understand Paul’s command to the Colossians: “Let your conversation always be filled with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” He first says this very straightforwardly—“Let your speech always be filled with grace”—but maybe that feels too generic, it’s not vivid enough, so he follows it up by saying the same thing another way: “Let it be salty.” Now, Paul didn’t invent that image; in secular writers of the time, for speech to be salty meant it was witty and entertaining, not boring or insipid—it had a zing and a kick to it. Here, of course, the salt is not wit, but grace, and so we need to consider what that means.

First, grace should be a purifying influence in our speech. When the people of Jericho told Elisha that the water was bad, he told them to bring him a new bowl full of salt, and he threw salt in the water to make it pure and wholesome; and grace should have the same effect on our speech. The thought here is the same as Ephesians 4:29, where Paul writes, “Don’t let any unwholesome or corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Let the salt of grace purify and preserve your speech, Paul is saying, so that nothing which is unwholesome, nothing which would tend to tear other people down or lead them into sin, corrupts your words. Only say things which are appropriate to the people you’re talking to; give people the responses which will build them up in Christ, and do so only in ways which will give them grace. If your words won’t give others an experience of the grace of God, then be quiet until you can say something that will.

It’s worth noting that this reflects back to some of the things Paul said to “put off” back in chapter 3—“anger, outbursts of temper, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying.” None of these build people up, or attract them toward holy living; they’re destructive, tending either to batter people down or to undermine them and destroy their foundation, bringing them down from within. Just as important, they don’t build us up, either; these ways of speaking teach us to view those around us not with the eyes of God as people to be loved and cared for, supported and encouraged, but with the eyes of the devil as competitors and challengers to be beaten and humiliated—and that’s destructive to our spirits. Anger is sometimes appropriate, but even then, if it’s left unchecked, it’s terribly corrosive; malice, hatred, abusive language and lies are pure spiritual poison. The salt of grace works against them, cleansing their toxic effects from our speech.

Of course, that’s not the only effect of speech salted with grace; it doesn’t only purify our words, it also purifies the lives of those with whom we speak. This isn’t just a matter of not saying bad things which will hurt people, it’s also about taking care to say things which will give them grace and build them up. Graceless words drive people away from God; grace-full words draw people toward him. Grace-full words, words of love and forgiveness, compassion and understanding, give hope; graceless words that cut and condemn and belittle give only despair. Grace-full words give people the energy to attack their sin and the hope of victory, where graceless words take away hope, driving people to give up and give in. As such, to speak without grace is the most counter­productive thing we can do; if we want people to grow, to address the sin issues in their lives and overcome those things which hold them back, we need to set aside temper and all such things, and seek to give grace to those who need it. Yes, that means offering it to those who we’re sure don’t deserve it, but as God says, that’s why it’s called grace.

That’s not just a matter of what we say, either; it’s also a matter of how we say it. Salt doesn’t only purify and preserve, it also gives flavor, making food palatable. As Christians, the dominant “flavor” in our speech should be the grace of God. This goes beyond our words to our tones of voice, facial expressions, body language, and so on. If our words speak grace, but everything else communicates anger, disappointment, or judgment, the effect will be graceless. Sara will tell you that this is an area in which I can speak from experience, because I’ve had to learn the hard way; people need to be able to feel grace from us before they’ll be able to hear grace.

This is particularly important for those times when we need to confront people with their sin and challenge them to change. Most of the time, people don’t want to be corrected, and most people don’t take it all that well when you tell them something they don’t want to hear. And yet, Paul makes it clear in chapter 3 of this letter, verse 16, that this too is part of our responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and one which we need to be faithful to exercise as part of loving them with the love of Christ. If we’re going to be able to do that—not just effectively, but at all—then we need that savor of salt, the savor of grace, in our words if we want them to swallow what we have to say.

This, I think, is where Job comes in, as an example of how not to deal with people. He’s been living a godly life, and now he’s suffered more calamities and disasters than any one person should ever have to bear, he doesn’t deserve what’s happened to him—and when he opens his mouth to lament, to give voice to his suffering, his friends say, “Stop complaining, stop pretending this isn’t your fault, and accept that this is God’s judgment on you for your unrighteousness.” There’s no grace in their words—there’s no effort to address Job in the midst of his agony as a human being, rather than as an abstract theological problem—and so there is nothing in what they have to say which makes his disaster any easier to take. “Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt?” No. Of course, there’s also the fact that Job’s friends were wrong, but his words don’t just apply to false counselors; can that which is unpleasant—namely, correction and rebuke—be swallowed without the salt of grace? Not easily, and sometimes, not at all.

Now, as we talk about this, we need to remember that salt has a sting to it, and sometimes people won’t react positively to that sting. There are those who are actively resisting grace, and so even if our speech is seasoned with grace, sometimes people will respond with anger, hostility and derision anyway—indeed, precisely because we’ve shown them grace. Most people don’t react that way most of the time, but there are always some who do; when that happens, the challenge is not to respond in kind, not to let our own tempers flare and our hurt feelings take over, but to continue to show them grace even when they clearly don’t want any part of it. It’s when we can respond in that way that we are most clearly showing the world the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who forgave his killers even as they were crucifying him; it’s in those moments that his self-sacrificing love shows through most clearly to the people around us.

This is our calling as Christians: to speak grace to those who need it, which is everybody. To speak grace to our brothers and sisters in the church, and never more than when they’re doing wrong and need to be set right; to speak grace to those outside the church, to a world that feels its need for grace but too often doesn’t want to admit that need, much less accept it. It’s to speak grace, precisely in those times and to those people that make it hardest to do so—because when we least want to offer grace is exactly when grace is most needed, and most real, and most truly grace. Grace by its very nature is undeserved, and so the fact that it’s undeserved is no reason not to offer it—rather, it’s the very condition which makes it necessary. Speak grace, because we too live only by grace; we too are undeserving, though we often find it easy to forget that uncomfortable fact. Speak grace, because it’s by the grace of God in Christ—and only by that grace, in the power of his Holy Spirit—that hearts are changed and lives made new.

In the Lord, for the Lord, from the Lord

(Leviticus 19:13-16; Ephesians 5:21-33, Colossians 3:18-4:1)

Last week, we spent some time considering what the life of Christ looks like in us, and how it begins with and grows out of his gifts to us—his word, his love, and his peace—which, as we allow them to fill us, change us, and change our motivations, so that we come less and less to desire those things which God does not love, and more and more to want to please him with our lives. We noted the fact that this is supposed to produce a change in our behavior, and you may remember that the things Paul emphasizes, the virtues we’re supposed to put on, all have to do with how we treat other people and how we relate to them. They’re all about living lives of love for the people around us.

Which we have no problem with, in theory; but Paul won’t let us leave it in theory—he applies it immediately to specific circumstances, to particular relationships. It isn’t just good enough to love “people” in general and show them compassion and grace—we need to live this way in the most intimate part of life, and so that’s where Paul goes in our passage this morning. He begins, logically, with the marriage relationship, and here I have to raise a quibble with the NIV. You see, the NIV introduces a comma in verse 18 where it doesn’t actually belong, right after the word “husbands.” This might seem like a really picky thing, but it isn’t. Listen to the emphasis. “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” What that says is, it’s fitting in the Lord for you to submit to your husbands, so do that. It’s an absolute statement. Take the comma out, and you get this: “Wives, submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.” Now, “as is fitting in the Lord” doesn’t reinforce the first part of the statement, it modifies it.

In that culture, wives were subject to their husbands, at least legally—that’s the reality—and that wasn’t going to change in any great hurry. Paul, then, isn’t saying this in a vacuum, or trying to begin some new practice; rather, he’s addressing an existing reality in the light of the things he’s just been saying about how God calls us to live together. As a practical matter, in a world in which wives weren’t much more than property, what does it mean to live in a Christlike manner in marriage?

For the key to understanding this, turn to Ephesians 5, which was written about the same time. This is one of those passages where translation is a real problem. You see, first, that “submit” there in verse 21 isn’t a separate verb—it’s dependent on the command in verse 18 to “be filled up by the Spirit.” Paul says, be filled with the Spirit instead of wine, and then starts listing what goes along with that: “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and praising God, giving thanks to God the Father for everything, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

And second, the sentence doesn’t stop there. There’s no verb in verse 22—it just continues, “submitting to one another in reverence for Christ, wives to husbands as to the Lord.” Now, the grammar lesson might seem to be a bit much, but it’s really very important. You see, what the world has in mind when it thinks of “submit” or “be subject” is one person bossing another around—I tell you what to do and you do it, and that’s that. It’s a one-way street. What Paul means is something very different: all of us as brothers and sisters in Christ are supposed to submit to one another as part of being filled up by the Spirit; we’re called to mutual submission in Christ.

Now, if we are, all of us, to submit to each other, rather than just some people submitting to other people, then clearly submission doesn’t mean just doing what you’re told—that would be hard to sort out. So what does it mean? Well, flip over a bit to Philippians 2, where Paul writes, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” As the ultimate example of this attitude, Paul points to Christ, who had more right than anyone to insist on his own way and his own prerogatives, but chose instead to give them all up and accept crucifixion. It seems to me that the command to submit to each other doesn’t mean that we have to do whatever anyone tells us to do, but rather that we don’t have the right to dominate others; we can’t insist that we are more important than they are. Instead, we should be willing to let others be more important, we should be ready to let others have their way, and we should be as concerned for the good of those around us as for our own good.

It’s in that context that Paul turns to address wives and husbands. Many argue that this is a special case, that mutual submission is only the rule outside of marriage, and that inside marriage submission is a one-way street. The reason I’ve usually seen offered for this is that Paul doesn’t go on in either of these passages to tell husbands to submit to their wives, and that therefore this must be a special duty for wives, not husbands. On first read, that makes sense; but if that’s the correct reading of these passages, then what do we make of the fact that Paul tells husbands to love their wives, but never tells wives to love their husbands? Clearly, he doesn’t mean that wives don’t need to love their husbands. This suggests—especially in light of the command in Ephesians to mutual submission—that he doesn’t intend submission to be just one-way, either; after all, one element of loving another person is being willing to put them and their will and their good ahead of ourselves and our own. Rather, it seems likely that Paul emphasizes submission to wives and love to husbands for some other reason.

The reason, I think, is the cultural situation he’s dealing with, which enshrined the legal superiority of husbands over wives. Husbands had, at least in theory, absolute power over their wives—and, for that matter, their children; and we all know what absolute power does: it corrupts. It corrupts those who wield it; it also corrupts those who are under it. Paul’s driving concern, then, is to address both halves of this relationship and tell both husbands and wives how to deal with the situation as Christians. The key principle here is that this should be all about Christ, and doing what pleases him (which includes not submitting to things which clearly do not please him); along with this, we see the truth that greater authority doesn’t mean a greater opportunity to get your own way, but rather a greater opportunity to love and serve. “Husbands,” Paul says in Ephesians, “love your wives as Christ loved the church.” How did Christ love the church? He laid down his life for the church. That, and nothing less, is the standard.

From the marriage relationship, Paul turns to the relationship between parents and children, and you’ll notice that here he moves from the word “submit” to the word “obey,” clearly indicating the shift to a truly one-way responsibility and a fixed hierarchy. Mutual submission doesn’t mean we all have to do whatever anyone tells us to do, but yes, when parents give orders, children are responsible to obey them. I want to point out here, though, that all through this passage, as he addresses different groups of people, Paul directs his comments to them—for instance, his comments about wives are addressed to wives, and his comments about husbands are addressed to husbands. This might seem obvious, but we often tend to read them the other way around—as if Paul had written, for instance, “Husbands, your wives are supposed to submit to you as to the Lord”; we focus on what others are supposed to do for us, rather than on what Paul commands us to do. Verse 20 isn’t addressed to parents, to use as a stick with which to beat our chil­dren, but to the children themselves; yes, we need to teach our children to be obedient, but you know, the reason really isn’t “Because I say so.” It’s not because I say so, it’s because God says so, and because I in my place am trying to do the best I can to teach them to do what is wise and good and pleasing to God.

Which means that the real burden here (as earlier) is in the second command, not the first; and given that the legal power and authority was vested in fathers, the command is to them: “Don’t provoke your children, lest they be disheartened.” If the command to children is “Obey your parents in everything,” then the command to parents—and particularly fathers, whose legal authority over their children was literally unlimited and unrestrained—is, first of all, “Don’t presume on this.” Some would look at the command to children and take it as license to give any order they pleased, but Paul will have none of that; instead, he says, you must take it as a responsibility, to be sure that the orders you give are fair and appropriate, for what is best for your children, and in line with the law of Christ, which is the law of love. Your concern must be, not that you get what you want, but that you give them what they need, so that they will not lose heart—or faith.

Finally, we have directions given to slaves and masters—most of them to slaves, presumably because there were many more slaves than masters in the Colossian church. If you were here when we started this series by looking at Philemon, you may remember that slavery in the ancient world was a very different thing from slavery in the American experience, because though slaves were property, everyone acknowledged that they were still fully human, and needed to be treated as such. You may also remember the way in which Paul undermines the class distinction of slavery in that letter by teaching Philemon, and through him the rest of the church, that he needs to view Onesimus no longer as his inferior but as his brother and equal in Christ.

Here we see Paul making the same point to those in the church who are slaves: what really matters is not that they belong to another human being, but that they belong to Christ, and it’s really him they’re serving. Their call just happens to be to serve Christ by obeying their masters, remembering that anyone who does wrong will receive the punishment they deserve—whether a slave or a slaveowner; neither would be able to use their status as justification or excuse, because there is no partiality with God. Just to drive this home to slaveowners, Paul reminds them as he reminded Philemon that this is what really matters for them, too: they belong to Christ and are called to serve him, and thus in truth, they and their slaves share a common master who will judge them both together on that common ground.

It’s in 3:17 that we see most clearly the governing principle in our passage this morning, in the command to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”; in verses 18 and following, we have the specific application of that principle to whatever forms of service or obedience we might find ourselves required to give. Wives were expected to be subject to their husbands—so do so as is fitting in the Lord, as part of the mutual submission which all of us as Christians are to render to each other; husbands, you remember that part, too, and love your wives with the love of Christ. Children must obey their parents—yes, but do so as your service in the Lord, not simply because human authority requires it; and though this isn’t put in so many words, parents, you remember that you give orders to serve them and the Lord, not yourselves. Slaves (and in our day, employees), obey your earthly masters, yes—but do it for the Lord, knowing that’s really who you’re serving anyway; and masters, remember that you, too, have a Master in heaven—in fact, the same Master—and treat all those who work for you accordingly.

In other words, what Paul’s talking about here isn’t prerogatives and hierarchies and what we have the right to expect from others; he’s calling us to serve others in the name of Jesus, as an expression of the love of Christ, in humility which seeks to put the good of others first. It’s not a hard thing to understand—it’s very simple, really. It’s just hard to do, because that’s not our normal reflex, it’s not what comes naturally to us. But that’s what it means to follow the Son of Man, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. And so Paul says, yes, we’re all called to serve others, no matter our position; and however we’re called to serve, whomever we’re required to obey, we need to do it, and to do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Whatever your work may be, do it as service to the Lord, knowing that your just reward is in his hands.

Change Your Clothes!

(Genesis 3:6-11; Colossians 3:5-17)

The other day, as I was driving home, making the first curve on Lake, I just about drove into a tree. No, I’m not that bad a driver, but I was most definitely that startled by the appearance of a new yard sign. If you’ve been out our way, I’m sure you’ve seen it: a big white wooden sign reading, “Impeach Obama Pelosi & Reid.” It’s not an isolated idea, either; on Facebook, there are already several “Impeach Obama” groups. I haven’t been invited to join one yet, and I don’t want to; for crying out loud, he hasn’t done anything except run for office—since when is campaigning a crime? This is just one more sign that our politics has gotten ridiculous, and not the good kind of ridiculous, either.

The problem here, at its root, is a theological one. That might sound strange, but it’s true: we’re out of whack politically because we’re out of whack theologically, in a couple different ways. First, and this is something we’ll talk more about later, is that our politics in this country has become idolatrous: rather than identifying ourselves simply as Christians, rather than finding our sole identity in Christ and letting that define us, we identify ourselves as Republicans or Democrats or Independents and define ourselves that way as well. How we vote isn’t who we are, it’s just part of what we do as we try to be faithful disciples of Christ. When we lose sight of that, we end up in this position—and conservatives get beaten up for this, but liberals are just as bad—in which we look to politics for answers to our problems, and a sort of secular salvation. We put our trust in earthly rulers, which is just what Scripture tells us not to do, as we saw last week.

When we get ourselves into that position, that leads naturally to the second theological problem, that of overidentifying our cause with God’s, and thus concluding that our opponents are necessarily God’s enemies. To be sure, there are real evils in this world, and thus in our politics, and some of them have powerful political constituencies and advocates; we as Christians have the responsibility to identify those evils and oppose them to the best of our ability. However, we need to be careful to avoid a couple traps which go along with that. One is the trap of assuming that those who disagree with us must necessarily do so out of evil motives; there are no doubt those for whom this is true, but there are many others who are seeking to do what’s best, to the best of their ability and understanding. We need to give people the benefit of the doubt unless and until they give us reason to do otherwise. The other is the trap of assuming the purity of our own motives—that because we are in the right, it makes us better people with purer hearts.

The truth is—and we must never forget this—we’re all sinners. Some of us sin less, some of us sin more, we’re at different levels of spiritual maturity and going different directions, but even the most godly people among us are still sinners saved by grace. We have died with Christ, we have been raised with Christ, we have been given new life in Christ—but in the same old flesh, well-practiced in all the same old sins. We are justified, we are saved, we are being transformed into the image of Christ, but we’re still in process. That’s just how it is in this world, and we need to keep that in our minds. In our disputes and disagreements, in our wants and desires, in the issues we face and the decisions we must consider, we must always remember that we too are sinners, and take that fact into consideration. No matter who we are, our positions, our preferences, our ideas, our desires, our plans, are all tainted by sin, and we have no right to pretend otherwise.

That said, while none of us is going to win free of that condition in this lifetime, that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress; God’s grace is at work in us, setting us free from sin, and while that work is unfinished, he never fails of his purposes. No matter how bad we might be (or might have been) or how holy we think we are now, no matter how old and set in our ways or how young and callow, God is at work in us, and he calls us to work with him, to align our efforts with his. Paul lays out two parts to that in this passage. First he says, all these things that belong to this fallen world and to your old selves, put them to death. It’s much the same thing he says in Romans 8:13, where he writes, “If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”

This isn’t something we can accomplish in our own strength; our own efforts need to be a part of it, and there’s an important place for spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, and silence, but it’s only by the power of the Spirit of God that we can make any real progress in dealing with our sin. The goal is the complete rooting-out and destruction of sin in our lives; we’ll never reach it in this life, but it’s nevertheless the goal toward which we work. It’s an ongoing struggle against the sin in our lives, to weaken and starve it, so that through loss of strength and lack of food, it dies away little by little, losing its ability to draw us into sinful actions. This requires us to know our own sinfulness, to be aware of the ways in which our sin tricks us and overcomes us, if we are to fight against it intelligently; and it requires constant vigilance—but then, as the Irish politician and writer Edmund Burke noted, that’s always the price of true freedom.

Along with this, Paul says, “Change your clothes!” The image here is of the old self with its sinful practices as a suit of clothes we wear, and of the new self, which is from God, as another suit of clothes. The more we come to appreciate the new life God has given us, the more we learn to see the old self, those old clothes, for the dirty things they are. Imagine coming home after some fiasco, soaked to the skin, cold to the bone, covered in mud and filth, and taking a long, hot shower, or perhaps a long, hot bath; when you’re warm and clean, are you going to put those clothes back on? And yet that, in a sense, is just what we do whenever we turn back to sin: we’ve been washed clean, and yet we put the filth of the old self back on. Paul says, “Don’t do that—put on the habits of your new life in Christ.”

If we put these two commands together, we get a complete picture. As we work to put to death the inward reality of sin, we are also to be at work stripping ourselves of our sinful habits, which are rooted in that inward reality, and replacing them with new ones. For the things we need to set aside, Paul points on the one hand to the disordered desires which lead us to pursue the pleasures and things of the world instead of God, and on the other, to the destructive passions, and the destructive language that goes with them; put those aside, he says, take them off and get rid of them.

In their place, clothe yourselves with a new way of living, one which is marked by compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and a forgiving spirit. These words describe an attitude that doesn’t give way to rage when one is done wrong but chooses to show grace, and is willing to waive one’s rights for the good of others, even when they don’t deserve it. The ultimate example of this is Jesus, who at times spoke quite sternly to the Jewish leaders who had set themselves against him, yet died on the cross for them, with a prayer for their forgiveness on his lips. Just so, says Paul, we should bear with one another and forgive one another just as Christ has forgiven us.

Of course, it would be very easy to take these things and turn them into just another legalistic religion, just another way of putting faith in our own ability to be good enough—just work hard enough at being compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, and forgiving, and you’ll please God. But look what Paul says next: clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony, and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. In other words, these virtues aren’t individual things to be worked on individually and to be accomplished by stern effort—they’re supposed to be the fruit of the love of God and the peace of Christ in our lives. When are we not compassionate, kind, humble, and so on? When we don’t love the people we’re dealing with, or when we’re not at peace—when we’re in conflict within ourselves, when we’re in conflict with those around us, when we’re anxious, when we feel the weight of our own lives resting on our shoulders. But if we open ourselves up to the love of God—because love, too, is not something we do in our own strength; love comes from God, it’s his gift to us and his work in our lives—and let him fill us with his peace, then these virtues are the result.

How do we do that? Well, you’ll note the end of verse 15—“be thankful”; we’ve talked about the importance of gratitude, and about the importance of worship in renewing our gratitude, and that’s part of what Paul’s talking about here. There’s another element here as well, though. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you,” he says—not pass through on the way to somewhere else, not just drop in for tea every now and again, not even buy next door, but move in, make itself at home, get its name on the title deed, and start rearranging the furniture. Let it fill your life, and let it do so richly. Don’t domesticate it, don’t just let it tell you what you expect to hear; don’t settle for the “elevated, obvious, and boring,” to use Frederick Buechner’s phrase. This isn’t just a library of clichés, trite sayings, and moral platitudes, it’s the word God has given us that we might know him. Open your heart to everything he has to say to you through it; dive deep into his will and his character. And as you do, and as you grow in your faith and in your relationship with God, don’t hoard that, don’t keep it to yourself, but turn around and use that to bless others, so that the word of Christ may dwell in all of us richly. That’s the goal, after all, that we would be a people in whom the word of Christ is living and active.

A key part of that is worship, and especially our worship together. “With gratitude in your hearts,” Paul says, “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” It’s worth noting the variety he commends to them: psalms, songs to God from the Scriptures; hymns, the tried and tested songs to God produced by the church; and spiritual songs, new songs to God inspired by the Spirit. I don’t know if the first-century church had anything like our worship wars, or what other issues there may have been around what they sang, and when, and how, and how much; but Paul has no brief for any of it. Use whatever, he says; use all of it. Just sing to God, and teach his Word.

May our worship be about him and him only, and move our hearts to gratitude for who he is and all he’s done for us. May we focus our minds and our hearts and our lives on him and him alone, letting his word dwell in us richly, letting him fill us with his love and his peace. As we do that, he will teach us to live in such a way that everything we say and everything we do is a gift to God, a thank-offering to him, in the name of Jesus; and the more we look at him, and the better we come to know him, the more we will see that anything we can’t say or do in the name of Jesus, anything we can’t offer up to God for his good pleasure, is something we shouldn’t say or do at all.

Citizens of Another City

(Psalm 146; Colossians 3:1-4)

I’m told that there’s a guy who recently filed suit against Barack Obama demanding that Sen. Obama produce his birth certificate. His argument, if I understand this correctly, rests on the fact that when Sen. Obama’s mother married Luis Soetoro, Soetoro adopted her son Barack, and the family moved to Soetoro’s native country of Indonesia, mother and son became Indonesian citizens, and under US law at that time had to give up their US citizenship to do so. This guy contends that as a consequence, they can no longer be considered natural-born citizens, and thus that Sen. Obama is constitutionally ineligible to be the President of the United States.

Now, on its face, this lawsuit is laughable. First, it’s true that up until recently, US law forbade dual citizenship (except for citizens of Israel)—but that only really applied to adults; children of American citizens born overseas could be considered citizens both of the US and of the country of their birth until they turned 18, at which time they had to choose between those two nations. Second, this is a matter of interpretation, not of black-letter law, because this specific issue isn’t addressed anywhere in the US Code or in the text of the Constitution, and it’s a question which up until this point has not been raised; thus what this guy asked the courts to do was, on the basis of no supporting precedent, declare the frontrunner in Tuesday’s presidential election ineligible. There isn’t a judge in this country that would have the guts to do that, even if he believed it was an open-and-shut case that he should; and it isn’t, not by a country mile.

As a result, the whole lawsuit is just so much wasted effort. I’m not really a believer in deciding elections in the courts anyway, but if he was going to try to do that in this case, there are much worthier legal issues to raise than this one. The only merit to this guy’s suit is that he takes citizenship seriously. Which he should. Which we all should, and probably quite a bit more seriously than many people in this country do, because for all that Americans tend to be pretty blasé about it, citizenship is a profoundly important thing. It’s all about where we belong, and to whom, and where our allegiance lies; it’s about our identity in this world. As such, it means a great deal, whether we ever think about it or not.

It certainly was something the apostle Paul took very seriously, in a couple ways. In the first place, he was a Roman citizen—remember, under the Roman empire, not everyone was, by any means; there were a great many people, including most Jews, who weren’t citizens and thus didn’t have full legal or civil rights. Paul, however, was, and he used that to his advantage on more than one occasion. At a practical, concrete level, he knew just how much citizenship meant. In the second place, though, he also understood that his earthly citizenship had limits, because he owed God a higher allegiance; in Philippians, he even frames this in political terms, telling them, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here in Colossians, he doesn’t use that particular language, but the same core idea is in view: this world is no longer your primary allegiance, because this world is no longer where your true life is. You have a new and very different life, the life of Christ.

This tells us several things. One, this tells us something important about salvation. In our passage last week, Paul says, “If you died with Christ”; he begins this section with “If you have been raised with Christ.” Our salvation, as we usually understand it, isn’t just about a decision we made or an action we took or even the actions we take now; it’s about death and resurrection. It’s about a living God raising dead people. It’s about our old selves being crucified with Christ, nailed to the cross with him with all our sin and all our guilt and all our shame, and us dying with him and being raised to new life in his resurrection. It’s about a cataclysmic change in us, a change worked by the will of God in the power of his Holy Spirit through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, that makes us all new people. Our salvation is not merely a reversible act of our fickle human wills, it’s the irreversible act of God’s unchanging will.

Two, this tells us something equally important about the implications of our sal­vation: namely, being saved isn’t just about going to heaven. It isn’t even just about going to church and supporting the church. Both of these things are part of the picture, but only part. It’s about a complete transfer of allegiance that comes from a complete change of identity: we no longer belong to this world, and we’re no longer primarily identified with it. Our true life is elsewhere.

Does this mean we’re supposed to withdraw from the world? With a few exceptions, no; God has placed us in this world to live in it for him. What it means is that, to borrow language Paul uses in 2 Corinthians 5, we should regard ourselves as his ambassadors—we live here, but not because this is our home; rather, we live here as his representatives, in order to serve him and carry out his ministry in the community and country in which he has placed us. From the point of view of this nation, we’re citizens here and owe it our allegiance, but from God’s point of view—which should be ours as well—our allegiance to this nation is and must be secondary, and our primary citizenship is not on earth at all, but in heaven. Our focus should be not on the things of this earth, but on the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; the goods we seek should be the goods of heaven, and the goals on which we set our minds and hearts should be the goals Christ has set for us.

This isn’t to say that we should ignore the things of this world, or that there’s something wrong with them; God created them too, and he created earthly pleasures, and he wants us to enjoy them. But we should see them in their proper light, not as goals in themselves but as things to enjoy along the way; we should remember that they come to us as blessings from God’s hand, and that they’re not what life is about, or what we’re supposed to be living for. We need to keep our priorities straight.

Three, on this Sunday before our presidential election, this all has a very particular application this week. One of the great preachers and teachers of our time, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, has written a wonderful piece on this, a meditation on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, called “Let Christians Vote as Though They Were Not Voting”; with permission, I’ve made some copies available on the table in the back, and I’d encourage you to take one and read it, because I think he’s dead on. As Piper says, we’re in the world, and God has given us this world to use for his purposes and to his glory, which means we have to deal with it, in all its manifestations; the key is that we don’t take it too seriously. And so, as he continues,

There are unseen things that are vastly more precious than the world. We use the world without offering it our whole soul. We may work with all our might when dealing with the world, but the full passions of our heart will be attached to something higher—Godward purposes. We use the world, but not as an end in itself. It is a means. We deal with the world in order to make much of Christ.

So it is with voting. We deal with the system. We deal with the news. We deal with the candidates. We deal with the issues. But we deal with it all as if not dealing with it. It does not have our fullest attention. It is not the great thing in our lives. Christ is. And Christ will be ruling over his people with perfect supremacy no matter who is elected and no matter what government stands or falls.

As Christians, as the ambassadors of the kingdom of God on earth, we have the responsibility to work for the good of our community, of the nation in which we live, and of this world; God told his people through the prophet Jeremiah, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf,” and that command applies to us as well. We need to use the minds he’s given us to come to the best conclusions we can about what this country needs and what ought to happen, and then we need to act on that; which means, at the very least, voting. But having done that, we need to be careful not to put too much weight on it, or to get too tied up in it; we need to leave the results in God’s hands, for whatever his purposes may be.

Of the options we have, there’s no doubt in my mind who would make the best president—but that doesn’t mean I know whom God intends to set in that position, or what his reasons and plans are, or to what purpose; and so on Tuesday, I’m going to do my part, and trust God for his, remembering that “no matter who is elected and no matter what government stands or falls,” it remains true that “Christ will be ruling over his people with perfect supremacy”—and that my life, our life, is not in a political party but in Christ. Our salvation is not in this election, or any election, but in Christ; for we are citizens of another city, the city of God, and it is from that city that we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our life.

Go On as You Began

(Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Colossians 2:6-23)

In understanding this section of Colossians, it’s helpful to flip back a few pages, just for a minute, to the letter to the Galatians. As I’ve mentioned before, the opening to that letter is an unusual one for Paul. After the greeting, where we would normally find the thanksgiving and prayer, instead he jumps right into the body of the letter with these words: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” They began by following Christ, believing in his gospel, but now they’re being led astray by a false gospel; they’re turning off the true path. Then in chapter 3, he comes at this from a different angle: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” In abandoning the true gospel, they’re turning their backs on the power of God and seeking to live by a very different power. In chapter 4, he puts his concern in terms of freedom and slavery: “Formerly,” he says, “when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” That word translated “elementary principles,” by the way, is the same word we have here in this passage. Finally, in Galatians 5, Paul sums up his concern for them in this way: “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?”

“You were running well—who got in your way? Why did you leave the path?” That’s Paul’s question to the Galatians, it’s the concern he has for them, and though he’s less urgent in this letter because the situation is less urgent, it’s the concern he has for the Colossian church as well. They started off in Christ, led in the gospel by some whom Paul had discipled, but now other teachers have been working on them, and they’re starting to drift; they’re starting to turn away from their freedom in Jesus and back to slavery to the powers and authorities that rule the world. They’re starting to think about trading in the religion of grace, the good news of Jesus Christ, for a religion of human teachings and human rules, and so Paul stands up to tell them, “Stop.”

The problem is, living by grace is a hard balance to keep, because it costs us nothing yet asks everything of us; it flips our transaction-based thinking on its head. We’re used to obeying orders and earning our way. They train us to do that in school—someone tells you to do something, you do it, and then you get graded. You get a job, they tell you to do something, you do it, and then someone else gives you money and tells you you’ve earned it. It’s a transaction—we do, and we get back. Most religions operate the same way—you do, and you get back. But then God comes along and says, “No, no, no—I do, and you give back—not because you have to in order to get, because I’ve already given you everything, but out of love and gratitude, because it pleases me and you want to please me.” Living by grace means living to please God, not in order to earn his favor, but in grateful response to his unearned favor.

The trick in that is, we’re used to working to a line, measuring ourselves against a standard, that says “Good enough.” You work x number of hours, you do y number of things, you sell z amount of product, and you’ve done good enough, and you get to keep your job; add ten or fifteen or twenty percent to that, and you get a raise. Perform to a certain measurable level, get the results you want, and then you can stop and say, “That’s good enough,” and go do something else with the rest of your life. The trick about living by grace is that it means we can’t do that with God, because it means we’re motivated not by the need to reach a certain standard, but by gratitude—gratitude for an infinite gift; and if the gift is infinite, then where does gratitude stop? Where do we get to the point that we can say, “That’s enough—that’s adequate thanks for what Jesus did for me”?

The fact of the matter is, we don’t. However much we do, the movement of gratitude for the gift of Jesus Christ continues to draw us on to do things and work at things and make efforts for which we will earn nothing in return, and which will serve not to show everyone how wonderful we are, but rather how wonderful God is; and that’s not how we’re accustomed to living, and it doesn’t fit with our ideas about what we deserve. As such, it isn’t something we can do just by working harder, because that will tend to turn our gratitude into resentment; it’s been well observed—by the science-fantasy writer Anne McCaffrey, of all people—that gratitude is an ill-fitting tunic that can chafe and smell if worn too long.

The only antidote to that is to keep changing that tunic on a regular basis—to keep renewing our gratitude, to keep reawakening our sense of the heights of God’s glory and goodness and holiness, and the depths of our own sin, and the incredible, world-shattering thing Jesus did to lift us out of those depths and up to his heights, and the horrifying price he paid to do so; that’s why the life of grace begins with worship, why we need to worship together to stay spiritually healthy, because this is part of what our worship is supposed to be about. Worship keeps it ever fresh in our mind just how much we need God’s grace, and how much reason we have to be grateful. Without it, we lose the balance of grace and fall off to one side or the other, into legalism or lawlessness.

The world, of course, pulls us toward lawlessness; it may be happy enough to deal with “spirituality,” but only with all sense of obligation removed—it wants nothing to do with “religion.” Some churches go that way, too, drawn by the culture; the rest of the church, though, tends to call them “liberal” and react against them, which has the unfortunate tendency to pitch us into legalism. To be sure, the legalism of our own day and age tends to look rather different on the surface than the legalism of days gone by, but it’s the same underneath; as the Nashville pastor and writer Jared Wilson puts it, “the smiling face that self-help ‘Christianity’ puts on evangelicalism claims to be setting followers free from rules and judgmental religion. But really, by making discipleship about helpful hints and positive power for successful living, it’s really just making a works religion in our new image. In an odd twist, the Oprah-ization of the faith is really just optimistic legalism. Because what is Pharisaical legalism, really, but self-help with bad p.r.?” And as Jared continues, there are a lot of people who love this, because “they want to be told religion is not about rules and regulations while at the same time being told each week which four steps (with helpful alliteration) they need to do in order to achieve maximum what-have-you. They want to be reassured that works don’t merit salvation while at the same time convinced salvation is about trying really hard to do things that unlock the power or secret of God’s such-and-such.”

What’s the appeal? Well, partly, it makes things simpler; if you have a list of things to do, then all you have to do is those things, and you’re home free. You can measure yourself against the list, and you know if you’re good enough; you can look at where you stand and where the line is, where the fence is, and know which side of it you’re on. And you know just how far you can push it without going over. Living by grace, you can’t do that; infinite gratitude calls for more than just a limited response. And partly, if it’s just a matter of doing this list of things, and you do do them all, then you can take the credit for that; you can point to them and to yourself and say, “Look at me, I did that. Am I not wonderful?” There’s plenty of room in legalism for ego-stroking; that might be why it’s such an appealing thing to preach, too, because you get to hold yourself up as the model for everyone else to follow. If you’re the sort of person who has it all together—or are good at looking like you have it all together—that can be a great way to attract followers, and attention, and praise, and build a big successful ministry. Like Groucho Marx said of sincerity, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

And so, throughout its history, the church has been tempted into one form or another of legalism. The Colossians weren’t even the first—that would have been the Galatians, who got hit with it in its purest form: go back to being Jews—and of course they were far from the last, because this spiritual weed just keeps popping up. Whether it’s the belief that you have to follow this set of rules in order to appease the spiritual powers that can block your ascent to God, as Paul denounced to the Colossians, or the belief that you have to follow that set of rules because grace only gives you the ability to earn God’s favor, leaving you to earn it, as the Reformers denounced in the medieval Catholic church, or the belief that you have to follow yet another set of rules (only they call them “principles” these days) in order to experience the fully fulfilled life God wants for you—leaving modern-day Pauls to stand and say, “No, in Christ you have been given all fullness”—it’s all the same thing at the core: salvation by doing stuff, rather than by Christ alone. That’s the enemy’s game. He’s always trying to convince us that salvation is not in Christ alone, that he’s not enough, that what he did is not enough, that we need to add something of our own, because he knows that to add anything to Christ is to lose Christ.

And that, Paul says, is trading in truth for falsehood, reality for shadow, and freedom for slavery. Such rules are all about things that only matter in this world, that have no real eternal value; it’s only in following Christ that we can find things of true and lasting value, because it’s only in him that we find the reality, the substance, of which this world is an imperfect copy. It’s only in Jesus, as we talked about two weeks ago, that we can find true fullness of life; it’s only in him that we can find forgiveness for sin and freedom from the burden of our guilt and our regrets. Indeed, it’s only in him that we can find freedom from the powers and authorities of this world; to turn back and follow them, as the Colossians were beginning to do, is to put ourselves under the thumb of their human representatives.

It’s to put ourselves under the thumb, let’s say, of the preachers who say, “If you just follow the rules I lay out, you’ll have that perfect marriage and those perfect kids—and if you don’t, then it’s your fault for doing it wrong.” It’s to submit, perhaps, to the power of sexual desire in our lives—which means, effectively, to some one person who’ll use that power to control us. It’s to put ourselves in thrall, maybe, to the markets, and the economic news, and the gurus. It’s to buy the line, most likely, of one or the other of our political parties, who will be only too happy to tell us that salvation comes from winning this election or voting for this candidate. In short, it’s to live in slavery to what the world tells us we must do, rather than to live in freedom in Christ and what he will do.

And despite what the world will tell you, there’s no need for that slavery. Christ has stripped those powers and displayed their impotence before the whole world—we do not need to submit to them. We do not need to acknowledge them. We do not need to give them power in our lives. In him, we have the power to live free, trusting that he will take care of us, trusting that he will meet our needs—for we give these authorities power over us when we believe that we have to submit to them to have our needs met and to find the kind of life we want to live; but we don’t have to submit to them, we don’t have to give them that power, because Jesus is faithful and he will supply all our needs, and we already have that fullness of life we desire in him. We’re free just to live in Christ—to live our daily lives in the awareness of his presence, open to his voice, seeking his will, trusting him for his guidance and his provision. We’ve been invited simply to enjoy Christ, to rest deep in his presence and his character, so that that will be the foundation of our lives and of everything else we do. The more we walk in him—spending time talking with him each day, practicing the habit of giving him each moment we live and each step we take, learning to keep our eyes and ears always open to see his face and hear his voice in the world around us—the more he works in us to build us up into a strong tower that will stand the storms of life, from which his light will shine into the world.

The Fullness of God

(Genesis 17:9-14; Colossians 2:9-15)

If you were here last week, you’ve probably noticed the gap. Last Sunday, we read up to verse 5 of chapter 2, and now we’re picking up this morning with verse 9. Given that I’m a humanities wonk by my own confession, you might feel justified in wondering if this represents a small problem with my math skills—perhaps I haven’t noticed before that there are those other numbers in between 5 and 9?

Don’t worry, though—it’s nothing like that. I’ll grant you I’m not the first person you’d want planning economic policy or doing the math to make sure your roof will bear the snow load, but I’m up to basic counting. The truth is, we read what we read this morning because of the way verses 6-23 of this chapter are structured. We have this long passage in this chapter in which Paul for the first time explicitly attacks the Colossian heresy, the false teaching that’s been seducing them away from Christ, and tells them how they ought to be living. It’s practical in the beginning and practical at the end—you might say that’s the “what”—and then here in the middle, we have the section we read this morning which gives the “why”: the theological foundation and justification for what Paul says before and after it. So what I decided to do is to take things a little out of the order Paul uses, take this section first, and then look at the passage as a whole next week and see how he applies it.

The opening statement of this section should sound familiar to you by now: “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” If this sounds a lot like “He is the image of the invisible God,” chapter 1 verse 15, and “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,” 1:19, to you, good, because it should; Paul here is making that same point in a different way, from a bit of a different angle, because this is the point that the Colossians just have to get straight. They want to see God, they want to know God, they want to experience the reality of the presence of God, which is completely right and completely admirable—but they don’t know where they need to go to do that, or how to have that experience, because they haven’t really figured out who Jesus is. They haven’t grasped that in Jesus, the invisible God became visible, and the whole of God—not just part of God, not just certain aspects of God, but God in all of who he is, in all his character, all his love and mercy and justice and grace and holiness, in all his power and glory, became human, and (as we talked about earlier this year) is still human. They haven’t figured out that everything they’re seeking is already theirs in Christ.

And so Paul says again, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,” and then he continues, “and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.” For the Colossians, as we’ll talk about in greater detail next week, those words “power and authority” relate to the spiritual powers they thought they needed to appease in order to pursue the fullness of spiritual life; for us, they may mean something different. The point is clear regardless: whatever other powers there might be, whatever other authorities you might think you need to acknowledge and respect, they are under Jesus’ control, and they aren’t the way for you to find the fullness you’re looking for. The only source of true fullness of life is Jesus—and in him, if you belong to him, you already have it.

Where Paul goes next with this may sound quite strange to our ears, since we lack the Jewish background: he discusses this in terms of the Jewish sacrament of circumcision. (“Sacrament” of course isn’t a Jewish term, but I think we can reasonably use that language.) Circumcision of males was a physical sign of God’s covenant with his people, going all the way back to the covenant he made with Abraham in Genesis 17; but fairly early on in the life of God’s people, God started using it as a metaphor and talking about the necessity for a spiritual circumcision—that his people didn’t just need to snip their flesh, they needed to circumcise their hearts, to cut away the parts of them that resisted God and his will. Just as physical circumcision was an act of outward obedience, accepting the sign of the covenant, so too they needed an act of inward obedience, accepting the authority of the covenant; but as the history of Israel showed, this spiritual circumcision was a task beyond their ability or will to accomplish. It was only in the work of Christ that that could finally become a reality.

I should note at this point that I part company with the NIV in verse 11. A more literal translation here would read, “In him you also were circumcised in the putting off of the body of flesh”; the NIV, as you saw, takes “the body of flesh” to mean “the sinful nature,” but I don’t think that’s what Paul’s on about here. Rather, I think he’s using this as a metaphor for the death of Christ on the cross. In circumcision, a strip of flesh was cut off to mark the entry of the boy or man into the covenant of God; in the crucifixion, Jesus’ whole body was torn away on our behalf to bring about our entry into the new covenant of God. In his death, we received that spiritual circumcision to which Moses and the prophets had pointed, because our hearts were made new.

Specifically, our hearts were made new through our participation in the death and rebirth of Christ. We were circumcised with him in his circumcision—which is to say, who we were before, our old natures and old selves, died with him in his death—and then buried with him in baptism; and then in his resurrection we were raised with him, with a whole new life—his life in us, by the work of his Holy Spirit. The work of God has obviously not been completed, and will not be until Christ comes again, but it has already been accomplished; all that remains is to see it worked out and brought to its full harvest, because the work Christ has begun, he will most surely finish. In the meantime, we can live in the assurance that, as Paul says in Galatians 2:20, it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, and that we have his power by his Spirit to walk in his ways.

In verse 13 Paul intensifies this point by changing his terms: not only have we been given new life in Christ, but that life is the first true life we’ve had; before the work of Christ in our hearts, we were alive physically, but dead spiritually, crushed under the weight of our sin and “the uncircumcision of our flesh.” Here again, the NIV takes “flesh” to mean “sinful nature,” and here again I disagree. This is a literal statement with a symbolic meaning: many at least in the Colossian church were in fact uncircumcised, because they were Gentiles. This was significant because circumcision was an act of obedience to the command of God to his people, and thus uncircumcision had been a marker that one had not accepted God’s authority; it was a symbol of alienation from God and his covenant. The point of Paul’s words is clear: you were estranged from God by your disobedience, you were spiritually dead in your sin, and then God came to you in Christ and forgave your sins in order that he might bring you back to life in Christ. He did this freely, as an act of his grace, in spite of the fact that we didn’t deserve it.

But how did he do it? Well, that’s where things get a little tricky, in verses 14-15. The NIV doesn’t help matters here—in truth, their translation committee didn’t cover themselves in glory on this passage—but the translation “written code” is just a bad one, because that suggests a code of laws to our ears, and that’s not what’s in view here. The Greek word at this point literally means “handwritten,” and it was used to signify a note of indebtedness written in one’s own hand—an IOU, but legally enforceable, and containing penalty clauses. We owed God obedience, and the penalty for defaulting on that debt was death; that certainly includes the Old Testament Law, which made both the debt and the penalty explicit, but it’s a far larger thing than that, going all the way back to God’s creation of humanity at the very beginning. God had an IOU on us, and he could have simply enforced it. Instead, he erased it, and then he took it and nailed it to the cross. The IOU against us was nailed to the cross of Christ as the accusation against him; the debt we could never repay, he paid with his life.

Now, remember, back in verse 10, Paul proclaimed Christ the head over every power and authority; one of the points he’s trying to make to the Colossians is that these spiritual powers they’re all caught up about are nothing next to Jesus. Here in verse 15, he comes back around to that point, in a very strange sentence. The word the NIV translates “disarmed” here, following the standard English translation, is actually the same word that’s translated “putting off” back in verse 11; it means that God stripped the powers and authorities. Of what? The translation “disarmed” suggests their weapons, but I think there’s a better read here than that. I believe the imagery here is of a royal court, of a king stripping public officials of their position, authority, rights, and pay, reducing them to powerlessness and insignificance, and symbolizing that by taking away their badges of office and their finery.

I think that’s what we have here. Jesus, by allowing those powers and authorities—working through human leaders—to strip him of his body by killing him, turned the tables on them; in doing that, he took the IOU against us that gave them their power over us and destroyed it, thus enabling him to strip them in turn of that power. And then, having reduced them to utter helplessness, he exposed that utter helplessness to the world, displaying them in a triumphal procession. This was something the Romans did; when one of their generals won a war, he would drag the enemy leaders back to Rome, where he would have a massive victory parade through the streets, with all the people of the city turned out to cheer him—and right behind the general would come the leaders he’d defeated, in chains, naked, exposed to the whole city of Rome in every sense of the word. They had dared to challenge Rome, they had dared to think that they had the power to resist—so they would receive the just punishment of having their complete powerlessness, their inability to resist the might of Rome, put on display before the gods and everybody. Jesus did the same to the powers and authorities in his resurrection, proving their complete powerlessness before him by showing the whole world that not even their greatest weapon—death—could overcome him.

And the sign of his triumph, the banner of his procession, the mark of his victory, was the cross. Normally an instrument of torture, both physical and psychological, designed to make dying not only as long and agonizing but also as humiliating and degrading as possible—the Romans were big on making examples of anyone who gave them trouble; the idea that criminals should be allowed to die with dignity in comfort would never have occurred to them—the cross was a horrible thing; but Jesus took that and flipped it around, making that place of sorrow and defeat a place of glorious victory.

Now, this is pretty dense stuff, and it comes out of a mindset that’s unfamiliar to us; that’s why I thought it was important to take the time to go through it this week and lay it all out before looking at the whole passage, and how this section fits into it, next week. So, we’ll be coming back to this; but for this morning, I want you to notice something. Let’s look at this in the ESV, since it’s a more literal translation and we can see this more clearly. Verse 9: “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and”—verse 10—“you have been filled in him”; verse 11: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands”; verse 12: “having been buried with him in baptism,” and here I think the ESV gets it wrong, “in him you were also raised with him through faith”; verse 13: “God made you alive together with him”; and then verse 15: “He [that is, God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in him.” In whom? With whom? Christ. Everything is in Christ, with Christ, by Christ. It’s not in our own strength, it’s not in our own work, it’s not in our own accomplishments, it’s not in our own determination, it’s not in our checklists or anything we can do; it’s only in Christ, only by his grace, only by his power, only through the cross.

The Mystery of God

(Proverbs 2:1-11; Colossians 1:24-2:5)

How many of y’all use e-mail regularly? How many of you regularly get e-mail forwards? How many of you send those on to other folks? There are a lot of them out there; unfortunately, a lot of them are purely phony. Maybe you’ve seen the e-mail blasting Target as a French company that’s opposed to veterans; now, my dad likes to refer to Target as “Target, the French store,” but that’s the only thing French about them—they’re headquartered in Minneapolis. To be sure, they’ve chosen to focus their corporate grant-giving on educational and arts projects, but that doesn’t make them anti-veteran. Or perhaps you’ve run across the one about Proctor & Gamble being a front for the Church of Satan? Supposedly the CEO went on Oprah and confessed it, and pointed out the “666” hidden in their corporate logo. Turns out, though, that rumor was invented by a regional distributor for Amway—long enough ago, in fact, that in older versions of the story, the confession occurred on Donahue.

Do you ever wonder why these things get around so well? They spread across the electronic landscape like kudzu, after all—there has to be a reason. Or maybe several, since we human beings tend not to do things simply, or for simple reasons. I don’t claim to know all of them, but I think I can name the big one: we’re wired to believe. That’s just the way we’re made. This isn’t to say that we’re wired to hold any particular belief—I think we were, originally, but our fall into sin broke that—but it is to say that when confronted with a proposition, with someone declaring something to be true, our deepest natural reflex is to believe it. We are innately credulous. That’s why Internet rumors spread the way they do: many, perhaps most, people grant them the presumption of belief, assuming them to be credible simply because they exist. It’s why Adolf Hitler’s “big lie” propaganda strategy worked, because it’s hard for us to credit that anyone actually could tell a lie that big, even when rationally we know that such things happen. And it’s why, as you might have seen in the news lately, research has shown that atheists are far more likely than religious folk to believe in UFOs, ESP, and paranormal phenomena; having thrown out religion, they have to find something else to believe in. Thus the line attributed to the great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton, “When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing. He believes in everything.”

Now, obviously we don’t believe everything we hear (or at least, most people don’t); we learn fairly early that we can’t, because that would require us to believe many things which are mutually contradictory. Further, as we come to believe in certain things, that rules out believing in others. Over the course of life, we evolve a set of criteria for determining what things we believe and what things we don’t; we develop filters to strain out the things which don’t make sense, or don’t fit with what we believe, or contradict things which we know to be true. And yet, despite all this, we still have the predisposition, the reflex, to believe what people tell us. I spent most of a year working in inner-city ministry, right along the north side of one of the most blighted urban slums in the developed world, and in that time I had people lie to me and try to con me in more ways than I would have imagined possible. It was an education. And yet, when I had someone come up to me one rainy night outside our favorite restaurant and ask for money because he’d run out of gas, I gave him a toonie—a two-dollar coin—and didn’t realize I’d been conned until the next week when I saw the guy referenced by one of the local columnists. I should have known better; but I was predisposed to believe his story.

The most basic reason for this, I’m sure, is that God created us to believe him. Obviously, that was bent when we chose to turn away from God into disobedience, but it’s still there; and I think there’s something about living in our fallen world that reinforces it. It shows up in a lot of ways. Some are fairly unflattering, like the desire to know something that most people don’t—we like feeling special, like we’re smarter than the average Joe—while others are more noble, like the desire to understand the world. Behind them all, if we look, I think we can see a common root: this sense that everybody has, though some pay attention to it and some don’t, that there’s more to this life than what we can see. We can study how this world works in a lot of ways, through sciences like physics or social sciences like economics, or through disciplines in the humanities like history or literature, but there’s always more to understand than we can get to, and always a deeper truth that we can’t quite reach on our own. It’s the sense that there’s a mystery at the heart of life, one that we can’t understand without a deeper wisdom than this world has to give us; we need something better to believe in than money can buy, or power can win, or pleasure can produce.

Unfortunately, if we look at churches around this country, we see a lot of them that are so determined to be relevant and with it and cool that they’ve adopted a strategy of giving the world what it already knows it wants; they mimic its sounds, its approaches, its strategies, in an effort to address the needs it’s already aware of and already understands. Thus we get worship services where a playlist right out of the Top 40 leads into sermons about how if Jesus is your CEO, you can follow these three surefire principles to prepare your children to lead successful lives. The music and the principles may be fine as far as they go—but they don’t go far enough, because they don’t go any farther than the world goes. They don’t even acknowledge the mystery, let alone aim for it; they leave that need unaddressed and unfilled.

Was this the problem in the Colossian church? We have no way of knowing for sure, but it sounds like it might have been. Certainly, from the things Paul feels the need to say to these folks, it sounds like their understanding of Christ is pretty shallow—and as a consequence, though they’ve been given the riches of the glory of the knowledge of God’s mystery, though they’ve been given the keys to the treasury of heaven itself, they don’t know it. They don’t understand what they’ve been given, and so they still feel the need for something more; as a result, they’re vulnerable to these teachers who’ve come along and promised them a new and greater wisdom, a new and greater experience of God, and a new and greater insight into his mystery. They don’t understand what Paul understands, that the supposed wisdom of those teachers is in fact false, a counterfeit, that serves only to draw them away from God.

This is why Paul says that he struggles that the Colossians, and the other Christians of the Lycus Valley, “may be encouraged . . . to reach all the riches of the full understanding of the knowledge of the mystery of God, which is Christ.” Indeed, he expresses this desire for all those who haven’t seen him face to face, for this is his hope for all the church—not just for the people to whom he initially wrote this letter, but for all of us who read it across the length and breadth of the people of God. The world tries to keep us from that, either by leading us off down the rabbit trail to chase illusions, as the Colossians did, or by keeping us so focused on the practical things of life that we forget our sense of mystery, that we forget there’s anything more to life than just getting through it. Paul calls us away from both mistakes; he calls us to remember that there is more to this life, and to dive into the mystery of God, to seek the glory of the knowledge of God in the face of Christ.

His desire is that we will learn that there is a deeper wisdom than this world can offer, and a deeper meaning to life than it knows of, and that both are found in Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, to be revealed only to those who seek him. If we would pursue understanding, if we want to live wisely, if we desire to see ourselves and others clearly and truly, we must look to Jesus, for we will only find what we desire in him. There is no better way, there is no other option, there is nothing more that needs to be said or done; Christ alone is wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:30. That is the mystery of God: that such a thing is possible; that God would actually become human, to live with us and die for us, and then to rise again to set us free; that the gap between us and God has been bridged—from God’s side!—and we don’t have to earn our way into his presence, for we are freely invited there by his grace. This is the mystery we celebrate at this table, the mystery the world calls foolishness that is in truth the root of all wisdom.

The Hope of Glory

(Isaiah 49:1-6; Colossians 1:24-29)

Has it ever occurred to you how much of what they show on TV is about suffering? I don’t mean the programs, necessarily (though many of them are, too)—I mean the commercials. For one thing, many of them are so bad, they make you suffer . . . More than that, though, suffering is really what they’re about. First, you have all the drug commercials. “If you suffer from depression . . .” with these grey-lit shots of gloomy, exhausted people—then, after they tell you about the drug, the same people in the sunshine with smiles on their faces. “If you suffer from high blood pressure,” or “high cholesterol,” or whatever—they all boil down to the same thing: Got a problem? Take a pill. Sure, there are side effects, but they aren’t as bad as this, are they?

Alongside those, though not as frequent, are the “pay an expert” ads. The ones that still come to my mind, though I haven’t seen them in ages, are ads for “the law offices of Buckland & Shumm” that used to run incessantly during Perry Mason on the Bellingham station. Different lawyers out here, but the same basic message: has someone hurt you? Sue their pants off. We’ll be happy to take all their money for you, and we’ll even let you have some of it! Also in this category are ads for counseling services and the like, and these I have a lot more respect for; I’ve been through counseling a couple of times myself (I came out still odd, but happier about it), and I know just how much good a good counselor can do. What does concern me, though, is that there’s still the idea here that suffering is a problem which needs to be fixed, and that you need an expert to fix it for you. There are times when that’s true; there are also a good many counselors who are wise enough not to foster that idea when it isn’t; but there are too many more who aren’t.

As well, we have the bread and butter of commercial advertising: Is there a need in your life? Buy our product. Dishwasher soap not getting your glasses clean? Not attractive enough to the opposite sex? Feeling flabby and out of shape? Driving an old, uninteresting car? Losing your hair? Losing your energy? Why suffer? Buy Our Product, and all will be well.

Besides these, I can think of one other type of TV ad that’s all about suffering: political ads. And no, I don’t primarily mean your suffering, real though that no doubt is. Rather, stop and think about negative political ads for a minute, because they tend to be about playing on the suffering, real or perceived, of the voters they’re trying to persuade. The most common kind of negative ad is the “distort the record” ad, which makes all sorts of exaggerated statements about the opponent’s political positions and actions that really boil down to one premise: you’re suffering, and either my opponent is the reason why, or if they win this election, they’ll make it worse. These sorts of ads give us a third response to suffering: if you can’t take a pill or pay an expert to fix it, then find someone to blame. (Just imagine if we combined these with the lawyer ads . . . “Hi, I’m Joe Schmo, and I’m running for Congress. My opponent beats up old ladies and burns down their houses. Vote for me, and after I win, I’ll sue him for millions of dollars on your behalf.” The possibilities are endless.)

All these ads run off the underlying assumption of our society that we shouldn’t suffer, that we shouldn’t have to, and that if we do, something’s wrong—something needs to be fixed, somebody’s going to pay, something has to change. In the most extreme cases, this gives us the euthanasia movement, which tells us that if we’re suffering and it can’t be fixed, we can’t change it, then we shouldn’t want to live anymore. In lesser cases, we’re urged to take a pill, see a specialist, call a lawyer, file a complaint. Behind it all is the idea that a life without serious suffering is the norm, or ought to be, and that we should expect no less; that creates a gap between expectations and reality, which creates stress, which only makes matters worse.

By contrast, the apostle Paul had a very different view of suffering. I don’t imagine he enjoyed it any more than anyone else does, but he didn’t see it as something to be rejected, to be avoided or fixed or blamed on someone else. Instead, we see him say here (and in other places), “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” That doesn’t mean he wanted to suffer, but that in the midst of suffering, as bad as it was, he was able to find joy—not despite his suffering, but in it; he was able to find his suffering a cause for joy. Why? Because he saw a purpose in it, a reason for it, and a benefit to it. He isn’t suffering for no reason, and his suffering isn’t meaningless; he’s suffering for the sake of the Colossians, for the sake of the whole church, and for Christ.

But what purpose, what reason, what benefit, could he have found in his suffering? The answer to that question begins with one key fact: Paul was a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, and there was no doubt in his mind that he was doing what God had called him to do—and he understood all his sufferings, all his afflictions, in the light of that fact. Much that he suffered, of course, was in direct response to that, as his opponents tried multiple times to destroy him (and came very close once or twice); but even those pains which came in the normal course of life, such as the hardships of life on the road, came in the course of a life devoted to serving God. With everything he did focused on following Jesus, he could and did regard all his suffering as suffering for Christ; and so the mission that gave his life meaning also gave meaning to his suffering.

This is why he says, “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Paul is not saying here that Jesus’ crucifixion was insufficient for the salvation of his people (and still less that Paul’s own sufferings are necessary to complete that work); rather, he’s drawing on the Jewish concept of “the woes of the Messiah.” In Jewish thought, this was the time of distress and suffering that would precede the coming of the Messiah to put all things right and make all things new; a roughly similar concept in Christian thought is the time of the Tribulation. The idea was that it was necessary to pass through this time in order to enter the kingdom of God. What Paul’s working with here is the thought that there is a definite measure of suffering that must be filled up before Christ will come again, and that in taking on more than his own share of suffering, absorbing more than his share of affliction, he’s reducing the amount that his fellow Christians will have to endure.

This is a strange thought to us (though I would think it must have made sense to the Colossians), but it underscores two key points: first, suffering for Christ is not something to be avoided, but something we need to accept, and even embrace, because when we suffer for Christ, it draws us close to him. Paul makes this explicit in Philippians 3:10, where he writes, “I want to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the participation in his sufferings, by being conformed to his death.” We cannot experience the power of Christ’s resurrection, which we have through the Spirit of God, if we are unwilling to walk his path of suffering; these two are inextricably linked. As well, if we suffer for Christ, then we suffer with Christ—we do not suffer alone, but in our suffering, we share in his suffering—and so we are drawn closer to him, we come to know him and share in his life in a deeper and more intimate way than we ever could otherwise.

The key is that, in joys and in sorrows, whatever may come, we keep focused on Christ. That’s the example Paul sets us here; and note the way he uses his example to help set the Colossians straight, and bring them back to that focus on Christ. Remember, they’ve fallen in with these teachers who are promising them an experience of God in his glory if they will just obey all their rules and regulations; the teachers are holding up those rules and regulations as the Colossians’ hope of a fleeting experience of glory. Paul points them, and us, to a far greater hope: the true riches of the mystery of God are not locked away from everyone except the select few who can manage to obey him well enough—instead, they’re available to everyone, because the mystery is that God was in Christ, and by his Holy Spirit, Christ is in you.

That, Paul says, is the hope of glory: the promise that we can live life, even in this fallen, broken world, in the constant presence of our loving God, and that when death comes, we will be gathered fully into his presence, able fully to experience his glory—and not only to experience it, but to share in it. That’s the hope, that’s the promise, that enables Paul to rejoice in his sufferings, because he knows that whatever he may suffer now as a result of his service to Christ will only contribute to the glory he will experience later; and it’s the hope and promise that enables us to do the same. It’s the promise we were given by Christ himself, who is our sure and certain hope of glory.


(Isaiah 1:18-20; Colossians 1:21-23)

After the service last Sunday, Bryan Benjamin came up to me and asked, “Why didn’t you talk about Jesus being the firstborn from the dead?” You can always count on Bryan to ask those sorts of questions, which is one of the reasons I appreciate him. My answer, if you boil it down, was essentially that I didn’t want to preach another 45-minute sermon; I was trying to trace a line through the passage, and I could very easily have sent myself off on a long tangent if I’d tried to unpack that phrase, and so I just didn’t. I took it into account in everything I was saying, but I didn’t do so explicitly, or go into how it connected to the rest of the passage.

And yet, that doesn’t mean we can just ignore it and head on by. You might have noticed last Sunday—I didn’t explicitly talk about this, either, but you might have caught it—that in last week’s passage, there’s a movement to Paul’s thought from one part of the hymn to the next. He starts off talking about who Jesus is—“the image of the invisible God, firstborn before all creation”—and then moves from there to talk about his role in creation. That establishes Jesus’ supremacy—Christ is Lord over everything because it was all made through him and for him and he’s the one who holds it all together—which Paul then applies to the church. And with that, the language of the hymn pivots from talking about Jesus’ role in creating the world to talking about his role in re­-creating it, in making it new; and so where in verse 15, Paul calls Jesus the firstborn before all creation, in verse 18 he calls him the firstborn from the dead—in his resurrection in a fully restored human body, free from the effects of sin, we might also say, he is the firstborn of the new creation, the firstborn of the new heavens and the new earth. Just as he’s Lord over all creation because everything was made through him, so he is the head of the church and preeminent in all things because everything will be made new through him.

Which is good, because it needs to be. We need that—our world needs that. That’s why Paul concludes his great hymn by talking about Christ’s reconciling work, about how he made peace through the blood of his cross, and it’s why he continues by turning from what Christ did to why he did it, and why it had to be done. We were, he says, “estranged and hostile in mind”; we were alienated, as we talked about last week, in several ways. First, we were alienated from God; our sin had separated us from him, had broken that relationship beyond our ability to repair—and indeed, beyond our ability even to desire to do so. Look at the old pagan religions, and you’ll see that they’re founded on fear; we take for granted this idea of a loving, caring God whom we can come to know on friendly terms, whom we can trust and on whom we can rely, but that’s not an idea people ever came up with. It took God even to give us the idea, because our sin had estranged us from him to that great an extent.

Second, to be alienated from God is to be alienated from ourselves. It’s God who made us and who alone knows us as we really are; it’s God who holds us in his hand, and in his mind—we continue to exist only because he remembers us to ourselves. It’s Godd who is the source of all good things, including all the good gifts we possess. As a consequence, we cannot know ourselves truly, at least at the deepest level, if we don’t know him; we can figure out a great many things about ourselves, but we’ll always figure some of them wrong, whether just by mistake or out of our desire to believe ourselves better (or different) than we really are. What’s more, there will always be things about ourselves that we won’t be able to make sense of, and currents in our souls that run too deep for us even to see, though we may sense their effects. This is why we invented psychologists and psychiatrists and social workers, and why we conjured up Sigmund Freud so he could invent psychoanalysts, so they could tell us some of the nonsensical truths about ourselves that we would never have wit enough to see on our own; and even so, even at our best, we remain strangers in our own minds. Only God in Christ has the ability to reverse that alienation and restore us to ourselves; only in him can true healing be found.

Third, since we were estranged from God, who is the source of all that is good in us, and since we were estranged from ourselves as a consequence, we were estranged from each other as well. We could build relationships across the divides between us as best we were able, friendships and marriages and families and business partnerships, and often, we did pretty well; but in our own strength, even the strongest relationships we can create are fairly fragile. The vagaries of life can break them, our own sinfulness can cause them to collapse, and even if everything else goes well, death brings them to an inevitable end. And even those who have the most and closest friends know far more people to whom they’re not close, some of whom may be rivals and competitors, and some of whom might even be true enemies. And beyond that, we divide ourselves up in myriad ways, companies and teams, political parties and ethnic groups, states and nations, and we fight with each other. War, of course, is one form of that—but economic competition is another, and sports yet a third, and politics a fourth.

We as fallen human beings need reconciliation; we need peace with God, with ourselves, and with each other, and we can’t do it in our own strength. This world is never going to find a peace treaty to end all wars, and there will never be any such thing as a post-partisan political candidate, any more than there will ever be an economy where no company ever goes under or a sports league where every team ties for the championship. It’s just not in us. As Paul says, our wicked works prove that. It’s not just about life after death; Jesus didn’t just come so that after we die, everything would be good, though that’s certainly part of the gift he’s given us. More than that, though, he came to bring the reconciliation we need in this life. He came to remove the barrier of sin that isolates and alienates us, and to heal the breaches it created. He came to restore our relationship with God so that we could once again call him Father; he came to free us from the distorting burden of slavery to sin that warps and mars our souls; he came to bring reconciliation between us, that we might learn to love our enemies and do good to those who harm us. Indeed, he came to bring reconciliation to the whole created order, which has been broken and sent spinning off course and out of tune by our sin, to heal the damage we have done, to restore its harmony and set it right.

He’s done this, Paul says, “in the body of his flesh, through death.” This of course reaches back to what he said in verse 20, that Christ has “made peace through the blood of his cross”; Paul is driving this point home to the Colossians, hammering it home with repeated heavy blows. The one who is the image of the invisible God, the one who was God become human, the Lord of the universe and head of the church, in whom and through whom and for whom are all things, the one who holds all things together, hung bleeding on a cross in shock and agony until his heart stopped. This is the central fact of our faith, I think, together with the resurrection, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself by taking the overflowing cup of human sin with all its agony and draining that cup to the very dregs.

This is what Paul wants the Colossians to understand, that there is simply no room for their delusions that they can contribute anything to their own salvation; the sacrifice of Jesus is so immense, in the awe-striking glory of who he is and the truly awe-full reality of the price he paid, that there is nothing we can add to it. The price he paid and the work he accomplished on the cross was sufficient for everything; it was truly an infinite sacrifice, the work of infinite love, the gift of infinite grace, and that sacrifice, that work, that gift, is sufficient. It is enough. Whatever may come, whatever may happen, whatever we may do, it is always enough; and it only is enough. It is Christ, by his work on the cross, who makes us holy and blameless in the eyes of God, able to stand in his presence with no reason for guilt or reproach; no matter how good we might be, we can’t live up to that standard, nor will we ever be able to on our own. We can’t earn our way there—and we don’t have to. In Christ, we have been given that status that we can’t achieve for ourselves; he took all our sin on himself on the cross and paid the price for it there, and gave us his righteousness in exchange.

Now, you might have noticed that in verse 22, Paul says that Jesus has done this—“you who formerly were estranged . . . he has now reconciled in the body of his flesh”—but then in verse 23, he says, “Provided you remain firmly founded and stable in your faith.” What’s going on here? Does this mean that you can lose your salvation? There are those who argue that, of course, but no, that’s not what this means. The work of Christ on the cross is finished, it is completed, once and for all. At that moment, salvation was accomplished for all those who belong to him; it cannot be undone, and God isn’t going back on it. Paul isn’t turning around and casting any doubts on that, as if he were somehow lessening the work of Christ. Rather, what he’s doing is making a point that Jesus also made in Matthew 7 when he said, talking of false prophets, “You will know them by their fruits.” If we’ve been saved, if we’ve been reconciled through the work of Christ on the cross, if his Spirit is at work in us, that’s going to have certain clear effects in our lives; thus Jesus could go on to say, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” One of the good fruit that we bear if we’re spiritually healthy—which is to say, if we’ve received the new life of God in Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit—is perseverance: if our salvation is real, we don’t walk away from it. We may drift at times, but in the end Jesus always pulls us back by his Spirit.

This is the assurance we have in Christ, that whatever our own weaknesses or shortcomings, whatever the sins we wrestle with and however blatant or subtle they may be, our salvation doesn’t depend on us; it depends on him in whom we have put our faith and trust, and we can be certain that he is able to hold us safely and firmly in his arms through whatever may come, until at last he brings us home to him.

The Image of the Invisible God

(Isaiah 40:21-31; Colossians 1:15-20)

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture—I could easily preach for 45 minutes on this text. I know that because I’ve done it! (Just ask Sara, she was there.) As such, this passage is also the reason why I write out all my sermons. It was back when we were in college, and I was preaching to our InterVarsity chapter, of which I was one of the student leaders; it’s the only time I’ve ever preached without a manuscript. In my defense, I was also sick as a dog that night (which is the main reason I hadn’t written the thing out), so I had even more of a tendency to ramble—but still: 45 minutes—and that was when I talked a lot faster than I do now. Be glad I’ve learned a few things since then. My fellow students at the time were . . . diplomatic. They did agree, though, that I hadn’t repeated anything, and that everything I’d said was good—I just hadn’t known when to stop. There really is enough here to talk about for 45 minutes easy, especially if you don’t know when to stop. Like I said, be glad I’ve learned a few things.

This is a magnificent hymn of praise to Christ, in my opinion one of the high points of the New Testament; many scholars believe that Paul took up a hymn that was circulating around the early church and just plugged it in here, but I don’t believe that. For one thing, that assumes that there’s another great writer floating around the early church about whom we know nothing, which seems unlikely; for another, this passage just seems to erupt out of the end of Paul’s prayer, which is characteristic of Paul. He’s praying for the Colossians, he lays out the reason for their faith, and he mentions Jesus, “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”—and then he just explodes into praise for who Christ is and what he has done. He can’t help himself, he has to; Jesus means so much to him, his love for Christ is so great, and his understanding of who the Savior is and what he has done is so deep, that praise just bursts out of him. To understand Paul, and to understand anything he writes, we have to begin with that fact, because everything he says and does flows from that.

The first thing Paul says about Jesus is that “he is the image of the invisible God.” This is a powerful phrase. It was well established in the Old Testament, as we talked about a while back, that no one has ever seen God, that no one can see God and live, not because God won’t permit it but because our physical and emotional being is too limited: we simply couldn’t handle the experience. Light is a wonderful thing, but too much light blinds and burns the eyes; heat is necessary for life, but too much heat kills; and joy is essential for our spirits, but too much joy overwhelms and overloads us. For us to see God as he is would be all of these things and more, and we could not endure; we would burn like paper in a bonfire. That’s why we sang at the beginning of the service, “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

This is the problem for all human attempts at religion. Hinduism and its descendants deal with it by making a virtue of necessity, making that extinction of the self the goal of religion. A lot of modern folks, who really prefer a tame God anyway, choose to deny the whole problem. The teachers who were leading the Colossians astray made human effort the solution—if you just work really, really hard and give up all these pleasures and do all these religious things and cut out all your bad behaviors, you can purify yourself enough to see God—an approach which is still fairly common today, especially among diet books. None of these can solve the problem; only God could do that. In Jesus, the one who was immortal took on human mortality—and died; the one who was invisible in the brilliance of his glory bound himself in human flesh and bone and became visible—and indeed, touchable, and knowable in a whole new way.

Now, this is possible because God created us in his image, and though that image in us is broken and marred by sin, it still remains; and so the fact that Jesus is the image of God, the image in whom were were created, tells us something important about ourselves as well: we were made to be like Christ, and any shift away from him, any shift away from the life to which he calls us, no matter how “natural” we might claim it to be, is in fact a betrayal of our true nature. The problem, as Paul well understood, is that sin has so ensnared us and so deceived us that in ourselves, we no longer know who we are, much less who we’re supposed to be; but in Jesus, we can see who we’re supposed to be, and how we were meant to live. In him, we can see not only who God is, but who we truly are, and will be when his work in us is complete.

Having made the ringing statement that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, Paul then says several specific things about him. First, in him all things were created. He was the creative agent through whom God the Father made everything that is—nothing exists that he didn’t make, nothing exists apart from him, nothing has life that he did not give life. What’s more, nothing exists which was not created for him; everything that exists is properly his, created to serve his will and his purposes.

Interestingly, Paul emphasizes that this is true not only of the visible, physical world, but also of the invisible world, what we might call the spiritual world. This is probably in response to the false teachers in Colossae; they seem to have believed that when you ascended to the throne of God, you had to pass through a number of realms, each controlled by an angel with whom you had to negotiate—perhaps, though we can’t be sure, by offering them worship. These angelic figures, then, were of some importance, independent powers who must be treated with considerable respect. To that, Paul says, no: they too, if they exist, were created in Christ, through Christ, for Christ, and are properly under his authority, whether they accept it or not. As such, Paul says, there is only one power who truly matters in this world: Jesus.

Paul goes on to say of Jesus that “in him all things hold together.” Our scientific age has developed this idea of the universe as, essentially, a giant machine—even if God did create the world, all he had to do was put it together, wind it up, start it moving, and walk off to do something else; it would run just fine without him. Thus we have the image of God as divine watchmaker—which is a powerful argument for his existence as creator of the world, but not for his ongoing involvement with it. To this idea, too, Paul says no: the universe doesn’t run all by itself, it runs because Christ holds it together, and if he ever stopped, it would all fly apart; if the universe is a giant watch, it’s a watch with no back but God’s hand to hold all the parts in. The will of Christ sustains our lives, and the life of all that is; apart from him, we have no life, no existence, at all.

Finally, Paul says that through Jesus, the man who was fully God, the only one sufficient for the purpose, God has reconciled the universe to himself. Now, this might seem like a strange assertion, because when we look around, we don’t see that; we see a world that is very much unreconciled—to God and to itself. We see wars and rumors of wars, we see division in the church, we see millions upon millions of people chasing other gods; and when we look at ourselves, if we’re honest, we see that God’s work is very much unfinished in our own lives. And yes, it’s true that not everyone will be saved; where the peace of Christ is not freely accepted, it will be imposed. Jesus didn’t win the devil over, he conquered him. But though the conflict at the heart of creation continues, that’s only a temporary reality, until the victory of Christ is brought to full completion. The key point Paul wants to make is that the victory has already been won, the work of reconciliation and healing has already begun, and its completion is sure; even though we have not yet seen all things reconciled to God, we can speak of it as something that has already happened, because it’s a done deal. The forces of evil are like remnants of the Imperial Japanese army holding out on Pacific islands after the end of World War Two—they may still be fighting, but the war has already been decided.

If you want evidence of that, just look around: we are the sign of the coming kingdom, not in ourselves but in what our lives demonstrate. We are the vanguard of Christ’s victory, and the proof of what God has done, is doing, and will do through Christ. We were estranged from God, in rebellion against him, cut off from his love, and therefore estranged from each other, and from ourselves; our sin set up a barrier around us, crippling our efforts to relate to each other and making any attempt to reach out to God impossible, and that same barrier cut through our souls, keeping us from being who we were meant to be. Through his death on the cross, Christ broke down that barrier and ended our estrangement, bringing us back into relationship with God, back to his love and his life. The charges against us for all our evil were dismissed, and we were set free—set free to live in God.

This is good news, and reason for praise and thanksgiving. The one through whom the Father made the world, the one who holds it together, is the one who holds us together, as individuals and as a congregation. When sin pulls us away from God and we begin to grow distant from him, Jesus pursues us and draws us back. When old patterns and old ways of living reassert themselves, when we begin to act again as if we were still slaves to sin, Jesus sets us free. When the enemy attacks, seeking to use our own sins and the sins of others to break us down, Jesus builds us back up and shields us with his love. And when the devil seeks to use our sins and the sins of others to drive wedges between us, to break relationships and sever the sinews of the body of Christ, Jesus is at work there, too, bringing reconciliation. None of us is perfect; we all make mistakes, we all do wrong—you know I do, I know you do, you know each other do—and in the course of life, we’ve all hurt each other; but Jesus’ reconciling work continues, if we will only accept it, and will continue until he comes again. We are his disciples, we are his people, and whatever may come, and whatever we may do, he is right here with us, holding us together. That’s good news.