Sunday, March 18, 2012

Colossians 1:24-29

"Mystery and Mission"
MasterPiece Church
18 March 2012

Who can tell us who Al Capone was?

In July of 1928 the notorious Chicagoland gangster Al Capone moved into a suite at the Lexington Hotel. It was from that address at the corner of Michigan Avenue and 22nd Street that he ran his operations until his 1931 arrest.

In the 1980’s a construction company working on a renovation of the dilapidated hotel site discovered that the building had a secret shooting range and a series of hidden tunnels -- including one accessible from behind Capone's medicine cabinet.

And upon further investigation they discovered a very secret vault beneath the hotel -- obviously built to hold some of Capone’s ill-gained wealth. It remained sealed behind a 22-inch thick concrete wall.

Enter Geraldo Rivera, a tabloid journalist with a law degree, who concocted a plan to syndicate the opening of the vault on national television. He would host the special -- The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults.

Television watchers endured weeks of hype prompting the show. Geraldo’s face was everywhere -- on the side of buses -- billboards -- newspapers -- on prime-time commercials.

Then on the evening of April 21st, 1986, the two hour special -- heavy with commercial breaks -- was live on the air.
  • 30 million people were watching. 
  •  A medical examiner stood by in case they should find human remains in the fault. 
  •  Agents from the Internal Revenue Service were enlisted to be there to collect any of Capone's money that might be discovered.
There was mystery and drama in the air.

Hard-hatted construction workers chiseled away at the concrete. They blasted at it with explosives. They hooked up massive chains to the wall and finally, with the assistance of heavy duty construction equipment, they gave it a yank. And the wall fell forward. Concrete dust filled the hotel basement.

Cameras rolling, Geraldo stepped into the tiny dusty room prepared to film stacks of cash and jewels. He looked around and low and behold -- surprise! There in front of his red face was a bathtub, some old gin bottles, and an old stop sign. That was it -- the mystery of Al Capone’s vault.

Everyone in America groaned in unison and quickly changed the channel -- lest someone figure out that they had been taken in by the hype and pseudo mystery.

The Christians in the ancient city of Colossae were being fed some similar levels of mystery hype -- the exact nature of which is unclear -- for in the letter to the Colossians we’re only hearing one side of a telephone conversation.

We can certainly make out enough of what’s going on the get the point -- and quite strongly. But the exact details of the hype to which the apostle Paul is responding are not perfectly clear. But it is evident that there were people feeding the church there a bunch of hype about vaults in the heavens -- secret knowledge and spiritual mysteries.

And Paul, in his level-headed response -- adopts some of the terminology of his opponents.

“If you want to know about mystery -- let me tell you about a real mystery -- a REAL surprise," he touts.

Colossians 1:24 - (NLT here )
24 “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church. 25 God has given me the responsibility of serving his church by proclaiming his entire message to you. 26This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to God’s people.”
That is, I, the apostle who is actually suffering with Christ, (unlike those other bozos who are living cushy opulent and aloof lives) I have a real secret message -- a true mystery to reveal. If you want a genuine surprise -- without the hype and the fluff listen carefully.

And indeed this surprise is not just for the Colossians. It’s not just a turn-your-world upside down secret for a few -- but it is an incredible mystery that radically turns your whole approach to life upside down.

And as I look at what Paul is saying here I would suggest that he is actually talking about a double secret surprise -- a double mystery revealed. Of course, it’s not really totally new information to the Colossians -- or to us -- or to anyone who has been paying attention -- but he frames it in the language of mystery.

So here is the double surprise -- which I’ve surprisingly manged to label with P words -- the first of which is PEOPLES. (Note the "S" at the end of the word.)

Vs. 27 -- “For God wanted them to know that the riches and glory of Christ are for you Gentiles, too.”

For hundreds of years the assumption had been that the Jews were God’s special people -- and indeed they are special. But...

In class I will often tell a student that they are my favorite student. Ten minutes later I’ll tell another student that THEY are my favorite -- the next day I praise two or three others as my favorite. Eventually everyone figures out that they’re all important to me.

In the ancient world the Jews were seen as God’s special people -- his favorites. And the Jews assumed that this favor was absolutely exclusive.

Thus the Gentile -- that is, everyone else, was relegated to a spot on the margins. Of course, throughout the Old Testament God kept dropping strong hints that his favor -- his grace and kindness -- was for all people. But those hints were largely unnoticed.

It's like the kid who wants to know what you got him for Christmas. And you tell him he is special and that all the kids in the family are getting a special gift -- something made of cloth and you wear it on your feet between skin and shoes. And he says, “Oh, I knew you’d get ME a new video game.” Non sequitur -- total disconnect.

God’s love is wider than what everyone was assuming. The Jews were looking forward to the elevation of Israel but God was looking forward to using Israel to transform the whole world.

Can you see how the trajectory of those assumptions would veer over the years? Can you see why God’s purposes would appear as a great surprise or mystery to the Jewish people?

  • For God so loved the world...” 
  •  “Go and make disciples of all nations...”

The mystery is that the good news -- the gospel -- is for those who are the so-called enemies of God -- the infidels -- the dogs -- the lost -- the poor -- the weak -- the impure. All who feel like they are on-the-out of the whole religion thing should rally to this invitation. And those who think they've got the whole religion thing figured out should perk up their ears and get with God’s bigger program. The mystery has been revealed.

Then the second part of the double surprise is PRESENCE. Not P-R-E-S-E-N-T-S  but P-R-E-S-E-N-C-E.

Check out the end of vs. 27 -- “And this is the secret: Christ lives in you. This gives you assurance of sharing his glory.”

The “you” here in Greek is that second person plural -- the collective plural which only the southern dialect of English has -- “Ya’ll” -- “Christ lives in ya’ll together.”

Yes, Christ lives in each individual who invites him into his life -- but that is because he first of all lives in ya'll -- his people -- and that includes the Gentiles. This is radical stuff.

It’s not that the ancient Jews were not expecting the Messiah -- the Savior -- they most certainly were. But they were looking forward to an imperial messiah or savior. Someone to intervene and fight their cause and put them on the top of the pile where they belonged. After all, isn’t that what God had promised them? Isn’t it?

But when the messiah came it wasn’t a camera's rolling prime-time special with a hero on big white horse -- but a gruesome sacrifice that reconciled us all to God and as we’ll see -- to each other. The rich and the poor. The slave and the master. The man and the woman. The Jew and the Greek.

God’s presence with us brings people together.

When God sent his Son into the world he had in mind something other than what people expected. He wasn’t sending an imperial messiah but a present messiah -- PRESENCE. As we read in John 1, “And the Word (the messiah) became flesh and lived among us (literally “tented” among us).

Matthew 1:23 -- “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'"

God present -- God with us -- God living among us as one of us! Hey, and we’re not even Jewish! This is the mystery in which we are participants.

And it is also the driving force behind Paul’s mission, according to vss. 28-29. And in keeping with the P tradition I’ve establish this morning -- I’ve labeled this as the PURPOSE, PASSION, PROCLAMATION, AND POWER.

I know that this sounds like crazy talk.... and maybe it is, in some ways of thinking. But, vs. 28 (CEB) -- “This is what we preach (Greek is kat-ang-gel'-lo -- not related to our word Jello but angel. Angels are God’s messengers -- and Paul is saying that he is a messenger announcing God’s message.

This preaching is a public pronouncement but probably shouldn’t be confused with the modern understanding of preaching which is more or less a set format for public proclamation during a worship service.

Katanggello would certainly include that -- but more. We can all preach in the sense in which Paul is talking.

The NLT is good here, too -- “So we tell others about Christ...” Whenever you tell someone about Christ you are participating in the apostolic preaching mission.

You know, of everything that Paul wrote, I think that these two verses comes the closest to being his personal mission statement.

“This is what we preach as we warn and teach every person with all wisdom so that we might present each one mature (literally “perfected” or “completed” -- “brought to the end”) -- mature in Christ.”

That’s the goal. Paul isn’t trying to get people to make a decision for Jesus -- although that would certainly be one small dimension of his mission. But his goal is to present each person as a mature -- convinced -- and convincing follower of Jesus -- in the fullest and most complete sense.

Paul says, this is my passion -- this is my purpose.

Verse 29 -- “I work hard and struggle...”

Just because you’re struggling that doesn’t mean that God isn’t in it. Nor does it mean that if something comes easy that it must be a God thing.

Struggle is a part of the mission. Don’t freak out because things aren’t coming together easily.

The “easy button” is a gimmick created by Staples but doesn’t really have much to do with God’s way of doing things.

If you are struggling to do what God has called you to do you are in good company. “I work hard and struggle for this goal with his energy, which works in me powerfully.”

That’s why we can continue the struggle -- because we’re drawing on God’s batteries rather than our own batteries. We’re trusting the Holy Spirit to energize us for the task.

Yes, we get tired and depleted at times -- but as we wait for it -- God re-energizes us for the task.

This is a part of the mystery. And it’s not some gimmicky formula or sensationalistic TV special. It’s the task -- the call -- the mystery which drives us.

You know, as Christians we often end up defining success in shallow and gimmicky ways -- slogans which can be reduced to bumper stickers -- or big audiences in prime-time, watching Geraldo clones trying to get attention for Jesus -- or themselves. We like the sensationalistic stuff.

And I’m not just talking about the lunatic fringe on Christian TV -- we’ve all more or less bought into the modern cultural myths of success. But Paul is quietly standing in the back of the room gently reminding us that there is more to it. There is a real and uncontrived mystery of God’s doing -- Christ lives in ya'll!

And this morning God is calling you to reject all the gimicky substitutes and embrace the mystery -- the double surprise of peoples and presence -- not just for the sake of your own maturity but so that you can join in the apostolic mission.

Once again, I find that the Message translation or paraphrase of our passage this morning really captures the essence of it all. So, I want us to read verses 26-29 together as an affirmation of our faith. They are printed in the bulletin.

I know that we’re all wired a little differently -- and that some people really engage scripture as it is read together. I also know that some of us do it with just to humor the preacher who is leading it all. Whatever your default is -- I want to challenge you to let the words sink-in as you say them -- allow them to become a reflection of who you are and what you’re about. Use them to embrace the mystery and the mission.
This mystery has been kept in the dark for a long time, but now it's out in the open. God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing. The mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, so therefore you can look forward to sharing in God's glory. It's that simple. That is the substance of our Message. We preach Christ, warning people not to add to the Message. We teach in a spirit of profound common sense so that we can bring each person to maturity. To be mature is to be basic. Christ! No more, no less. That's what I'm working so hard at day after day, year after year, doing my best with the energy God so generously gives me.

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