11 March 2012
Listen carefully because I want to hear your opinion in a moment.
One Saturday Kevin invited his neighbor Rodney to come with him to his church gathering the next day. It was a bit of an awkward moment for Rodney. He didn’t want to offend Kevin and he was grateful for his hospitality but Rodney had figured out that he didn’t need religion anymore. Yes, he had grown up in a fine Bible-believing church with good preaching and an excellent youth group.
But Rodney had been doing a lot of thinking on his own and he decided that the basic premise of religion -- particularly Christianity -- was that God was at war with people to get them to obey him -- to submit to him. But he explained to Kevin, that from his perspective that just seemed to lead to conflict.
Besides, in his experience people are basically good. Yes, they do some stupid things at times but not to the degree that they need some kind of cosmic Savior.
What we really need, Rodney reasoned, is some kind of universal peacemaker -- someone to just help us all get along.
"Does your church agree with me?" Rodney asked Kevin.
So, you’re on the other end of the ear plug that Kevin has in his ear -- you know, the kind of thing the anchor on the 6 o’clock news has in her ear so she can get prompts from the broadcast engineers. What advice are you going to be whispering into Kevin’s ear during the conversation.
Indeed, conflict does play prominently into the discussion in the Colossian context. And Paul was trying to address some similar, although not totally identical issues, that had started to sprout up in the church there.
There were some people stirring up disunity with their alternative exclusivistic version of the gospel. And what Paul is saying here in chapter 1 is setting up his response to that throughout the rest of the letter. He creates a theological foundation for the radical behavior he is expecting.
That’s the back story behind our passage this morning -- Colossians 1:21-23.
It’s obviously not a long passage but I have divided it into three sections anyway -- one for each verse -- and have given them each a label. I mean, if it's going to be a good sermon it needs three points -- right?
Verse 21 is -- WHO WE WERE
Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. (CEB)Alienated... enemies with him in your minds...
Remember, in the biblical way of thinking the mind is the CPU of the person -- that is the central processing unit that controls the behaviors.
So, what happens in the mind is as important as what you do because the activity of the mind leads to the actions. This is why it is important to love the Lord your God with heart, soul, mind, body, strength -- the whole kit and kaboodle. It’s all related and attached -- a package deal. Garbage in -- garbage out -- always.
So, if you are an enemy of God in your mind, it will work its way out in your actions -- always. And the fact is that from a biblical perspective we are by default thinking and acting like God’s enemies.
- We are self-focused and self-absorbed -- rather than God-focused and God-absorbed.
- We are naturally prone to wander and do our own things rather than God things.
- We develop our own agendas rather than follow God’s agenda.
Paul is saying that through the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection -- God has become the victor over evil. He has ultimately disabled the big E enemy and rendered any residual enemy thinking futile and freed us from its grip.
He has changed the defaults. We are no longer default enemies of God but are his friends -- if we embrace his grace -- and accept his kind offer.
Art Patzia, who teaches at Fuller Seminary in Northern California says -- and I think he really gets it --
“A good way to appreciate what God has done is to remember what one was before God’s grace was experienced personally.” (CEB)Remember who you were. "I once was lost but now am found..."
This is what Paul seems to be implying here in verse 21. People forget how far they’ve gone and get frustrated and quit. OR they forget what God has done for them and they jump the shark -- so to speak. So, remember who you were.
Secondly, I’ve labeled vs 22 as WHO BY THE GRACE OF GOD WE HAVE BECOME.
We used to be enemies of God but now, we have been reconciled to him. He made peace between us -- even though he never considered us to be his enemies. We were the ones who were enemies in our own minds and actions.
Reconciliation is a key word from the hymn quoted in verses 15-20. And that triggers Paul’s theological explanation in verse 22.
“But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame.” (CEB)So, when God looks at you -- at us -- he sees his own grace reflected back to him through the Jesus mirror. And he sees us as holy, faultless, and blameless because through our connection with Christ we are holy, faultless, and blameless.
In his mind it is as though there was never a problem between us and him -- the reconciliation is that complete.
I suspect that there were false teachers in that part of Asia Minor who were minimizing the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus -- the reconciliation. And even if they were not directly denying the incarnation, the death, and resurrection -- when they shifted the focus from him toward the add-on experiences or their new fangled system of theology they were in practice minimizing the reconciling work of Christ that happened through the incarnation, cross, and resurrection.
Let me put it another way -- If our theology or our thinking is anything but Christ- centered -- we are in practice denying the reconcilatory work of Christ.
Sometimes we get preoccupied with certain types of spiritual experiences or systems that emphasize what we need to do to be happy or successful. Yes, Jesus is important -- but his importance in our lives diminishes as we chase after additional things.
What are you chasing?
But if we keep at who we already are in Christ -- reconciled -- at peace -- holy, faultless, and without blame we'll stay on track.
Then, in light of this, we come to verse 23, which I’ve labeled -- HOW TO LIVE INTO YOUR ROOTS.
“But you need to remain well established and rooted in faith and not shift away from the hope given in the good news that you heard.” (CEB)And we do this in two ways:
A. BY ATTENDING TO THE ROOTS OR FOUNDATION.
The other night at the Arizona Rare Fruit Growers Association we heard a lecture on caring for citrus trees and the speaker, an extension agent, said that one of the biggest problems for growers is that they tend to focus more on the top of the tree while ignoring the health of the roots.
Even though you never see it, you’ve got to care for the root system if you want to get good fruit and keep the trees growing. If the water or nutrients aren’t getting to the roots -- regardless of how well you prune (which of course, you don’t normally do to citrus), paint the trunk white to prevent sunburn, or spray the leaves for diseases or insects... No matter how much attention you give to the top the tree will still die.
If we are shallow -- if we are only attending to the above the surface visible practical aspects of life we are setting ourselves up for failure.
The phrase “established and rooted” in vs. 23 is also a construction metaphor. The NLT renders the beginning of vs. 23 -- “But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it.”
That is, trust in a solid foundation and don’t undercut it.
In Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus speaks of foundations --
“Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.” (CEB)When we lived in Texas our house was built on a concrete slab that was on a clay pad. The soil had a lot of clay and clay is subject to a lot of contraction when it dries up in the heat.
So, in the summer time, in order to keep the foundation of the house in good shape we had to water around it. You see guys standing out in the blistering heat -- not watering their plants but watering the house -- bizarre sight. The first time I saw it I wanted to say "You stupid Texans! Ya'll know, it ain't gonna grow." But they were not being stupid.
You have to take care of the foundation or it will crack and the house will shift!
Bryan Peltzer, who is a geotechnical engineer tells the story of being called to a building in rural Arizona where the pipes had frozen and then burst. That eventually led to the release of a hundred thousand of gallons of water -- and because it was an unattended building in an isolated place -- the water release lasted long enough to undercut the foundation of the building. And that split the foundation and the building. It had to be demolished because the foundation was ruined.
Paul is pleading with the Colossians to not let the pipes burst releasing a bunch of wacko teaching that might undercut the foundation -- and eventually lead to demolition of the house.
The point is -- You don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel or change yourself or become better people. Our calling is to simply live into who are already are in Christ. The war is over. Quit fighting with God. Quit trying to introduce “new and improved theology.” Such is dangerous -- undercutting the foundation of grace. Instead attend to the foundation that has already been established.
B. WE CARE FOR THE FOUNDATION WHEN WE CONSIDER THE SCOPE AND THE SOURCE OF WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE GOSPEL MESSAGE.
Look at the end of verse 23 --
“This message has been preached throughout all creation under heaven. And I, Paul, became a servant of this good news.” The scope of the reconciliation and its message is universal -- freely offered “throughout all creation under heaven.” (CEB)This is not an exclusive offer for the first 100 callers -- the spiritually privileged -- or a certain limited segment of humanity -- or for those who can get their acts together first.
I have the students in my spiritual formation class read a short story by the late Wesley Nelson. He was a Covenant Church pastor of considerable influence -- a wonderful preacher -- and evangelist. I want to conclude with his story about the horse that was tangled in wire.
When I think about how to become a Christian, I am reminded of a runaway farm horse that came racing down the road toward me. When he saw me, he dashed off the road and got tangled in a huge bundle of old rusty wire. The more he struggled to free himself, the more tightly he became tangled. Finally he lay helpless, with wires all around him, breathing heavily and snorting with frustration.This morning I want to invite you to join in the peace -- to quit struggling and fighting the God who wants to help. Relax in who we are -- who you are in Christ -- and God will start to untangle the mess -- and build for you a post-war life on a solid foundation.
Several people tried to untangle him, but as soon as anyone came close, the horse resumed his struggling. Then a man who loved and understood horses arrived on the scene. For a longtime he talked quietly to the horse from a distance. Slowly, as he talked, he came nearer. When he got close enough he began to pat the horse gently. Soon the horse grew calm enough to permit the man to begin cutting away the wire with a pair of pliers.
As long as the horse trusted the man and lay quietly, all went well. But whenever he struggled to help free himself, he only made things worse. Finally the horse gave up and let the man cut away the wires until he was free again. Not only was he free—he was also calm enough to let the man lead him back to his owner.
Life, like this runaway horse, is out of control. Here we are with everything imaginable to entertain us—to make life a paradise.
Yet these things never seem to bring us peace. The world is full of trouble, and most of the trouble is caused by people. Many of us would like to separate ourselves from those who cause the trouble and think of ourselves as being exceptions, but we can’t do this. None of us is perfectly good, and probably no one is all bad. We are all tangled up with this troubled world because we are part of it.
As the Bible says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned” (Romans 3:22-23). God has included all of us among the sinners so he can save us from our entanglement and set us free.
Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). We Christians are people who are continually being set free, free to live a satisfying and useful life, free from a troubled conscience, free to be what God intended us to be. Jesus offers us a purpose for living, and he assures us of the freedom to fulfill that purpose. Just like that horse, we must give up the struggle to free ourselves. We must trust Jesus to save us from our entanglement and set us free.
The Bible tells us: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Since salvation is a gift from God, it is available to all people on the same basis. It makes no difference what you have done, why you did it, or how bad it was. If you will trust Jesus, he will come to you as the man came to the horse, set you free, forget your past, and lead you back to God. Then he will help you start to live a new, free life.
God has done everything necessary.
God has sent his Son, Jesus, who died for ours sins and rose again. This is the most important truth about the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul explained it this way: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
God has done everything necessary for us to be saved from our entanglement. He did it for us because he knew we were so deeply entangled that we could never save ourselves. We can only trust him and accept by faith what he has done for us. This is what the Bible calls “the good news.”
What if we can’t believe in God and in Jesus?
In these days it is particularly hard to have faith in God because there are so many things all around us to trust in. God seems unreal. Because he knew how hard it would be, he sent his Holy Spirit to convince us how much we need him and to encourage us to turn to him. If we do not have enough faith, God’s Holy Spirit will give us faith.
The Holy Spirit gently assures us that God cares, just as the man gently assured the tangled horse that he cared. The Holy Spirit invites us to trust Jesus, just as the man invited the horse to trust him. All we can do is stop struggling and give God a chance.