Sunday, December 19, 2010

My sermon from this morning: Colossians 1:18-20

A few weeks ago the country of Cote d’Ivoire held presidential elections. RCI is afflicted by that which ails many countries in Africa—strong ethnic groups divided geographically, in this case north and south complicated by a history of strong dictatorships with a good dose of corruption. When Matt came to Africa to meet my parents for the first time RCI dazzled the world by having a coup which eventually devolved into an all out civil war. My mom and dad, at that point living in Abidjan were evacuated three different times before they gave up
and moved to Kenya. Fast forward ten years to these recent elections. The leader of the northern opposition, Ouattara, in that first conflict ran for president this time and won a little over 50% of the vote. Not surprisingly, the incumbent president, Gbagbo, from the south, nullified the election results and had himself sworn in as president again, taking up residence in one section of Abidjan. Ouattara responded by also swearing himself in, selecting a government and taking up residence in the very nice Hotel du Golf—one of my preferred places to go swimming on earth. So RCI is distinguished  right this moment by having Two Presidents and so far 20 people, at current count, killed in various small conflicts across Abidjan and I just read this morning that there has been violence at Grand Bassam, my most preferred beach in the whole world.

I don’t know about you, but I think this is a pretty vivid picture of a creation that is broke open, undone. I could certainly list more—small domestic brokenness, little break downs in communication or love that niggle in the back of the mind and are really tough to let go of; the brokenness of the body, of which half of Binghamton experienced this week in the form of a horrendous stomach flu; the breakdowns of the institutions of material life—like my shower door jumping off its hinges and smiting me on my foot. All of creation is broken. It is torn open, undone.

But wait!
Those of you who were here last week should be crying out—
hang on! all creation is For Christ.
He holds it all together.
He made it.
If he withdrew his sustaining loving power for one moment, as Matt said,
we would all shrivel up and disappear.
He is the source of our breath, our life, everything that we have.
How, on one hand, can we talk about the glorious supremacy of Christ, and on the other cope with the serious brokenness of life and creation and principalities and powers?

This cognitive experiential observable disconnect plants us right where we need to be in Colossians verses 18-20. I’d encourage you to have your Bible’s open.

Paul writes,
That is Jesus,
Is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
that in everything he might be preeminent.
For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
making peace by the blood of the cross.

Ok, so, first, before you protest that these few verses have nothing whatsoever to do with anything we have been talking about, we have to go back to the beginning, we have to be reminded of the nature and place of sin in creation.

Paul is strategically purposeful in his use of the word “firstborn”.
Just to remind you, firstborn can either mean born first, or representative.
So Emma is our firstborn, but Jacob was also firstborn even though he was born second, because he is the head of the House of Israel. Christ wasn’t born first, he is the head over all creation. In the same way Adam, though not born, but created first, is representative or head over all of humanity, that’s us. 

It is hard to understand in our western autonomous individualism that anyone would represent or be head over the entire scope of human beings from the beginning all the way to the end, but it wouldn’t have been hard for Paul. For most of the world, and certainly in the first century, identity is given to you at birth by the group into which you are born and we are all born into Adam’s group. 

Just to fly off on a tangent, I think that’s why its so hard for us, in the west,
to understand political conflicts in Africa where group ethnic language identity is so defining, so basic, so fundamental to individual identity. In this worldview, then, Adam, in his capacity as our representative or head, sinned.
He made the road down which we all go.
He broke his relationship with God,
with his wife Eve,
with creation,
with the cosmos itself
and we all walk in his way by going ahead and sinning ourselves.
As a result we live fragmented overwrought, sick, broken lives—trying always to put all the pieces back together but never quite managing. Something is always out of order.

I belabor this because God’s sovereign will over creation, made perfect in Jesus, is to fix this problem, is to put everything back together. That’s what’s going on here. To establish the authority and power of Christ first only lets us know that the problem was always in hand. There was never a time, even in the first second of Adam’s sin that God didn’t know what to do.

So, how is he fixing the problem?
If you have your Bible’s open, notice that we’ve gone from very big to smaller.
We’ve gone from the immensity of God—because trust me, God is bigger than his creation—to the rather enormous nature of creation, the earth, the skies, the seas and all that in them dwell; to the very big nature of the principalities and powers of this world—imagine living in Abj. at this point and how insurmountable the problem of having two presidents would be--all the way down to verse 18—the body of the church, which, as we sit in this enormous building seems the smallest and most powerless of anything on this list so far.
And yet, here is the church at the end of the list, 
led up to,
left till last like that’s what we’ve all been waiting for.

Shocking, I know, in a world where even the church is looking for something other than the church. The Body of Christ is so out of fashion these days. But we can’t understand the rest of the verse unless we start there. Now, of course, when I use the word ‘church’ I don’t just mean this building. Paul uses the word ‘body’—a living organism, a living breathing alive group of people who have Christ as their head, who love him and are found in him,
who do what he  wants and look more and more like him every day.

The church is made up specifically of people who were once dead in sin, who could not have a relationship with God because they were dead,
who had broken relationships with each other,
who had left creation in disarray--
so far I could be talking about everybody in the whole world, right?
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God—
but then it narrows down.
The church is those whom God has brought back to life.

We watched the Princess Bride the other night. Wesley, if you remember,
was mostly dead, and, to be mostly dead is to be partly alive, and therefore, all he needed was a chocolate coated pill to come back to life.  I think most of us think of our lives in Christ that way. Yeah, I am mostly dead in sin, but not completely. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
If once you sin, which we call do, you are completely unplugged from the source of all life, God. You may go on breathing in and out because God is gracious, but you are spiritually not alive at all. Paul lays this out most completely in Ephesians 2:1.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,  But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ

No pill,
no magic incantation,
no breathing machine,
no medical intervention could bring us to life.
Only the work of God himself who accomplished it in a peculiar way.

Look again at verse 18 in Colossians—
is the firstborn from among the dead.
Here is where language is so lovely and Paul is so clever.
Here he means ‘born first’.
Jesus was the first to come back to life after also being completely dead. He was resurrected in his own though new and glorified body. And in so doing he actually destroyed death.

That is the church.
Those who were once dead are made alive in Christ. And having once been brought to life, all the brokenness begins to be reversed.

Well look at your text, in Jesus, the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. God is fully and completely there in Jesus—there’s no gap or bits missing, God is fully there.
And what is the church?
The body of Jesus.
So when you are found in Christ, when you are part of his body, the fullness of God is pleased to dwell in you through the Holy Spirit.
Your relationship with God is fully and completely restored.

It may not feel like it.
Heaven help me it very rarely feels like it. But depending on any feeling of God at all is like sticking your head up in the middle of a gun battle to see how everything is going. 

There you are, on the ground, with your gun and less ammunition that you’d like, peaking out between the bars of your shop window, ready to shoot and hoping to survive. Can that properly be called a vantage point from which to judge the nature of the battle? Who is winning? Who is in place? What’s going on? 
Me, standing in the middle of my kitchen trying to talk on the phone, make dinner, and mediate between warring children am not in the best position to judge the real nature of the presence of God in my life.

In this case we rise up on the wings of Holy Scripture to see things as they really are. Gazing down from the comfortable words of this glorious hymn
we can see that the battle is already won.
There are not two presidents,
two equal parties in the conflict of good against evil,
God and Satan battling it out.
No, Christ is preeminent,
he is sovereign,
he holds all things together,
he has destroyed death,
the fullness of God dwells in him, and what is he doing?

Look at verse 20,
he is the agent by which God is reconciling all things to himself—that means putting them all back together, both on earth and in heaven. 
How? By the blood of the cross.

We’re about to celebrate the birth of Jesus, not his death.
And we’re going to have all the children dress up and show us a picture of this amazing moment when the fullness of God came to dwell in a baby, of all things. And not a cute six month old baby of celebrity parents who could provide everything and be wonderful—no, a shriveled up new baby that cries all night and gets horrible tummy aches and doesn’t smile for a long long time, at least 6 weeks, to parents who hadn’t had any other babies, so how were they to know, in a place Child Protective Services would be on in a second. The fullness of God came to dwell, and that baby grew up and walked his steady unrelenting way to the cross to fix this mess. That’s what we mean when we say that God is sovereign over all things—he is preeminent. Not like a megalomaniacal dictator who sees all the sin and evil in the world and doesn’t care, but a being who purposes, out of love, to reconcile all things to himself by becoming one of those things—those people—suffering and dying. And destroying death. Forever.
That’s the sweet poignant desperate joy of Christmas.
That’s the purpose of the cross.
That’s the end toward which we hope and long.
That the powerful all encompassing overwhelming love of Jesus
will overtake and remake the world.

So you can go ahead and fight the fight.
You can go on muddling through,
following Jesus and keeping your eyes fixed on him
and doing what he calls you to do.
Because he is making you alive.
He is your hope, your joy, your breath, your life.
You can trust him because he has it in hand,
he is holding it all together.

1 comment:

R said...

So when can I get a copy of the collected sermons of the Kennedys, nicely bound?

Seriously miss your sermons on a Sunday.