July 15, 2019
The Proper 11C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 10:38-42 from the Lectionary Gospel; Amos 8:1-12 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 15 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Colossians 1:15-28 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 30 (Lord’s Day 11)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Few things are easier than taking a portion of Scripture, isolating it from its original context, and then using this now rarified, out-of-context pericope to serve as some universal statement. (Think counted-cross-stitch wall hangings or Precious Moments figurines!) This brief lection from Luke 10:38-42 is a classic example. How many times hasn’t this gospel snippet been used to prove that hearing the word of God is just generally more important than doing and being busy? “The one thing needful” is a phrase lifted out of this story and often used as a symbol of the importance of listening over doing.
It’s amazing how much folks have made out of this brief passage since the story itself is quite spare. Thus, and not surprisingly, many commentators and interpreters over the years have rushed in to turn Martha and Mary into mere tropes, metaphors that stand for any number of things. Is this a story on the value of contemplation over a deeds-based ministry? Is this a story grinding an axe to address the role of women in ministry in Luke’s day? Can this story be used as a proof text for those who have traditionally been suspicious of certain kinds of social activism in the church?
In truth, it is difficult to say. There are also other difficulties. First, the Gospel of Luke generally places a premium on service, on diakonia, yet Martha’s service is apparently criticized by Jesus in verse 40. What’s more, earlier in Luke 10 Jesus gave advice to the 72 mission workers that when they were welcomed into someone’s house, they were to eat whatever was set before them (Luke 10:8). Yet here Martha’s busy preparation to get a meal set before Jesus seems to be met with some disdain. Also, Jesus has just told the Parable of the Good Samaritan which had the bottom line of “Go and do likewise.” So how can Jesus pivot from advocating an active ministry of mercy and neighborliness to looking askance at a person who is doing a lot vis-à-vis someone who is content to do nothing but sit and listen?
Verses 38-42 do not appear to fit very comfortably in this section of Luke. The incident itself seems private and obscure enough that it’s difficult to imagine its carrying very much value or meaning in the context of the wider gospel.
All of which is a roundabout way to say that preaching on this text is fraught with difficulties. The temptation to turn this into a moralistic little lesson about this or that or a mere metaphor for something larger is very real. Indeed, it would be easier to do that with this passage than find a solidly good way to preach on it given how relatively thin the story’s literal and actual content is.
Probably the only mistake we can make with this incident is to make it an either-or scenario. Given its placement in Luke, this story can at best highlight one kingdom value among others. The question, therefore, is not to ask whether this passage advises us just generally as to whether it is better to listen than to serve, to be contemplative or to be active but rather the question is: in the larger kingdom scheme of things, what do we learn from this passage? What particular aspect of life before the face of God is being addressed here?
Approached this way, perhaps those who suggest that hospitality is a theme here are on to something. How do we receive Jesus? What do we think is Jesus’ first priority when he, as it were, comes into a person’s home? Martha seems to assume that attending to the demands of Emily Post is the most important thing when a person of Jesus’ importance stops by for a visit. We’re not certain just what all Martha was up to—this story is spare in its details. We’re likewise not sure what Jesus was saying to Mary—not a syllable of Jesus’ discourse is preserved for us.
But this much is clear: service is important. Jesus deserved to be served and have a meal dished up for him—even a very nice meal was not something Jesus would have sniffed at. He had a reputation for being a glutton and drunkard precisely because he frequented a lot of nice dinner parties and was no culinary ascetic when doing so. And again, earlier in this very chapter Jesus told his followers to eat whatever was set before them, be it lavish or simple. Presumably on this evening, Jesus did this: he gratefully ate what Martha set down on the table before him.
So far so good. The problem was not in the fact that Martha served—no word of rebuke would have come her way had she not taken the initiative to ask Jesus to rebuke Mary for not lending a hand. It was only then that Martha came in for some criticism. Service is good. Service is lovely, in fact, and is in its own way a “needful thing.” Jesus says nothing here to undercut the idea that hospitality and service are noble endeavors and the right thing for also disciples to do. But if and when we elevate that form of hospitality over hearing and pondering the Word of God—if and when we think, therefore, that Jesus himself is more interested in haute cuisine than in the Bread of Heaven that alone gives life—that is when we get into trouble.
This is the “better portion” that Mary had chosen. On this point, however, it may be worth lingering for a moment. In the Greek of verse 42 what Jesus literally says is, “One thing is needed: therefore, Mary has elected the good portion and it will not be taken from her.” Most Greek scholars tell us that the adjective agathon/”good” can be used as a comparative form in that the actual comparative and superlative forms of Greek adjectives were waning by the time the New Testament was written. The context determines whether to translate agathon as “good” or “better” and most scholars agree that the context of Luke 10:42 indicate this should be not just the “good portion” that Mary chose but the “better portion.”
There is some indication that there may also be a bit of a pun being employed here in that “portion” in the Old Testament often referred to a literal food portion at a meal. If so, then Martha’s complaint about Mary’s lack of help with the meal was answered by Jesus with a pun to say that Mary had seen the true banquet that had been laid before her that evening and chose to “eat” a portion of that meal, which spiritually speaking is a lot more important than all the portions of a physical meal combined.
No matter how good supper had been that evening, the better meal being served was the one falling from Jesus’ lips and being lapped up by Mary as she sat at the Master’s feet. Given the superlative value of Jesus’ spiritual banquet, even a “good portion” would be the “better” portion indeed (if not the best portion of them all!). In this sense, this brief incident could be described as “a tale of two suppers.”
Jesus may or may not be elevating contemplation over service—we need both and generally should not have to choose between one or the other. As Fred Craddock says in his “Interpretation” series commentary, if we asked Jesus which example we are to follow, the active Good Samaritan or the contemplative Mary, Jesus would probably say “Yes.”
Commentator Joel Green points out that although Luke often uses the title kurios/Lord for Jesus, he fairly peppers us with that title in these 5 short verses. Some form or another for the word “Lord” crops up no less than three times in three verses. Mary sits at the feet of the Lord; Martha addresses Jesus as “Lord;” and the narrator refers to Jesus as “the Lord” when he replies to Martha. What’s more, the very posture of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet is yet another implicit indication that he is the Lord and Mary the underling or disciple. The Lordship of Jesus and his identity as our Lord is clearly key in this story. Both Martha and Mary recognize Jesus as Lord: Mary recognizes Jesus as Lord via her posture and Martha hails Jesus as Lord via her direct address of him as “Lord.” But only one of the sisters initially recognized what the presence of this Lord meant. Martha saw the Lord as one worthy of being served as fine a meal as she could muster. But Mary seemed to sense that the Son of Man as Lord did not come to BE served but to serve. A key way this Lord served was by dishing up the Word of Life. Mary knew this and took in that Word. Martha initially missed it.
Preacher Thomas Long tells a story about Grace Thomas. Grace was born in the early twentieth century as the second of five children. Her father was a streetcar conductor in Birmingham, Alabama, and so Grace grew up in modest circumstances. Later in life after getting married and moving to Georgia, Grace took a clerking job in the state capitol in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for politics and the law. So, although already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, Grace enrolled in night school to study law.
In 1954 Grace shocked her family by announcing that she wanted to run for public office. What’s more, Grace didn’t want to run for drain commissioner or for the city council: Grace ran for governor of the state of Georgia. There was a total of nine candidates that year—nine candidates, one issue. It was 1954 and the issue was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that mandated a desegregating of schools. Grace Thomas was alone among the nine candidates to say she thought this was a just decision. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls”! Hardly anyone did, though, and Grace ran dead last.
Her family was glad she got it out of her system, except she didn’t and so decided to run for governor again in 1962. By then the racial tensions in the South were far more taut than they had been eight years earlier. Grace’s progressive platform on race issues earned her a number of death threats. One day she held a rally in a small Georgia town and chose as her venue the old slave market in the town square. As she stood there, Grace motioned to the platform where once human beings had been bought and sold like a product and she said, “The old has passed away, the new has come. A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.” At that point a red-faced man in the crowd interrupted Grace’s speech to blurt out, “Are you a communist!?” “Why, no,” Grace replied quietly. “Well then, where’d you get all them galdurned ideas!?” Grace pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church. “I learned them over there, in Sunday school.”
Grace had spent time listening to the Word of her Lord. What she heard changed her life and launched her on a very specific mission in life. It’s always good to take time to listen to the Word of the Lord. But that Word is dangerous—it always leads to also action!
Author: Stan Mast
A delightfully humorous Lutheran pastor in Arizona has trained his congregation how to respond to his annual stewardship sermon. When he announces that sermon, they say in loud unison what all congregants think when they hear that it is stewardship Sunday. “Oh no!” That will undoubtedly be your congregation’s response when you tell them that you are going to preach on Amos again. “Oh no!” We did that last week, and it was real downer. Now we have to do it again, and it’s even more depressing? “Oh no!”
Oh yes, if you have the courage, and if you have any sort of moral outrage about the social injustice that has created the immense income inequality dividing much of western civilization. If you don’t, and if your congregation doesn’t want to hear about it, then you really should consider preaching on Amos 8, because it puts the whole matter of social justice in the starkest of terms, in apocalyptic terms.
Amos 8 contains the fourth of four successive visions, each of them with the same message repeated with increasing power and finality. Each vision opens with an image (a plague of locusts, a raging fire, a dangling plumb line, and now a basket of ripe summer fruit). This image seems the most benign, even pleasant, until God uses a play on words to deliver his devastating message. The Hebrew word for “ripe fruit” is similar to the word for “end.” The NIV captures the idea without conveying the word play. Even as the fruit is ripe, so Israel is ripe for the picking, for being consumed, for termination. The ripe fruit is the picture of the End. It has finally come.
“I will spare them no longer,”says the covenant Lord of Israel. Previous chapters have reviewed the story of God’s repeated efforts to bring Israel back to himself, each of which failed miserably. Chapter 4, in particular, has a drum beat refrain; “yet you have not returned to me (verses 6, 8, 9, 10, 11),” followed by Amos 4:12, “prepare to meet your God, O Israel.”
That meeting will not be pleasant, because, after all God’s patient effort to redeem his people, God has come to the end of his patience. “I will spare them no longer.” That is the most awful thing God could ever day. He doesn’t say it often, and it’s not what he wants. But he says it here. And in verse 3 we hear a series of almost disjointed outcries describing the trauma of the end: “the songs in the Temple will turn to wailing, many, many bodies flung everywhere, silence!” This traumatic text is something to wrestle with if we want to be faithful to the Word and to the people of the Word.
How has Israel come to this? Why has this disaster come upon them? Why would God punish his beloved, chosen people like this? Verses 4-6 point directly at social injustice. In other places, Amos talks about corruption in the courts, but here the issue is greed and deceit in commerce. God especially condemns unjust treatment of the poor. “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.”
“But we have never done that. You are exaggerating, God.” So we can imagine Israel responding, because that is how most of us would respond. Thus, God gets specific. You can’t wait for your holy days to end, so that you can get back to buying and selling (verse 5). You prefer business to worship, commerce to communion with God. “Greed is good” has become “greed is god.”
Not only were their priorities perverted, but so were their practices: “skimping the measure, boosting the price, and cheating with dishonest scales….” I think of my box of Raisin Bran. I used to pay $3.99 for 16 ounces, but a subtle change in box size now has me paying $3.99 for 12 ounces. And I can see that classic Norman Rockwell picture of the butcher with his finger pushing down on the scale while an apple cheeked little old lady pushes up. And when I read about “selling even the sweeping with the wheat,” I recall the gross article about the “pink slime” that is added to my hamburger.
The effect of this widespread deceit, says God, is that the poor and needy end up falling further and further behind, until they need a loan just to make it day to day. They end up being a slave to lender, even to the point of having to use their shabby sandals as pledge on the loan. So, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The bottom line for Israel was that making money was more important than caring for neighbor. The God of the prophets had been replaced by the god of profit.
Now, when you preach on this text, you should in all honesty say that business is not a bad thing, that this is not a critique of capitalism, that profit is not the devil. Business is about the exchange of good and service; it’s necessary and good. Capitalism is a time honored way of doing business; it has resulted in much blessing for many people. And profit is simply a reward to effort and risk.
But we must be very careful not to blunt the message of God through Amos. Business run amok, capitalism without caring, profit as the sole goal of commerce—these things are an abomination to God, as evidenced by this judgment on his own beloved people. God hates greed and deceit because they keep people from obeying the second great commandment about loving neighbor as self.
Those business sins are rooted, as we heard last week, in a perversion of religion, such that religion becomes the servant of the status quo in government, in business, and in society as a whole. When the King and the CEO and the leaders of a culture become more important than God, that culture will fall. It must, because the very things people do to insure their prosperity will kill them in the end. “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Mammon consumes its worshippers.
That is God’s truth and we must not let our concern for our people or for ourselves blunt God’s message in Amos 8. Indeed, our love for our people should make us preach this forthrightly, because in verses 7-12, God says that these social injustices are precisely why Israel must fall. For honesty’s sake, for the church’s sake, for God’s sake, we must not stop with a condemnation of social injustice. We must keep going to the end of the chapter here. A liberal social agenda must not keep us from this shocking picture of a God whose judgment means severe punishment.
Here’s how seriously God takes mistreatment of the poor through greed and deceit. “The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob (that is, by himself?), ‘I will never forget anything they have done.’” Is this is the God who “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103),” and who promises that in the new covenant “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jeremiah 31)?”
What are we to make of this? Well, of course, God does forgive all our sins through Christ when we repent and put our trust in him. That’s the Gospel. But these people have not returned to God in repentance and faith (remember the previously mentioned verses from Amos 4). They have stubbornly resisted and rebelled, and God wants to put the fear of God in them. He does not want them to lightly dismiss his words about the heinous sins of idolatry and injustice that will ruin their country and their lives. Having patiently dealt with them all those centuries, he will not simply let things go on and on. The End has come and he will not forget what they have done. For their sake, for the world’s sake, for God’s sake, this must stop. And though God will finally forgive and restore, he will not forget the sins that ruined his beloved nation.
What follows is a hair raising description of God’s judgment. The land will tremble as with an earthquake, rising and falling like the floodwaters of the Nile River. The sun will go down at noon, as with a solar eclipse. Nature itself will be shaken by God’s wrath. Israel’s festive feasts will become funereal and the whole nation will stagger about in sackcloth with shaved heads, mourning the way parents lament the bitter loss of an only son.
Worst of all, when all of this happens, God will not speak to them. In other times of distress, Israel could always look to God for a word of direction and comfort and hope. But when the End comes, God will go silent and there will be a famine of hearing the Word of God. Not only will nature be shaken and their nation destroyed and the people sent into Exile, but even worse God will not speak to them for years. He had spoken to them over and over through the prophets, but they had effectively said what Amaziah said to Amos in Amos 7:12, 13. “Get out, go back, shut up, do not prophesy!” In the End God will comply with their wishes. There would be no word from the Lord.
Of course, God loved them too much to keep silent forever. Eventually, when Israel understood what had happened, God sent other prophets to help them as they rebuilt their lives and their land. Finally, God sent his Word to become flesh and dwell among us full of grace and truth. It is through Christ that we must read this stunningly negative prophecy. All of this punishment was a sign of God’s love, tough love, stern love, to be sure, but love nevertheless. God said that very clearly in Amos 3:2, “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.” When great love meets great sin the result is great punishment. The cross is the ultimate demonstration of that.
We might say, why can’t God just let sin go? Because it is so destructive of human life. Why can’t God just make us stop sinning? Because he would have to kill us, take away our humanity, our will, to make us stop. So, instead, God lets our sin rebound upon us, allows us to experience the inevitable results of sin (“the soul that sins will die”). Then in his mercy God speaks a Word into our sin and guilt, a Word who takes the punishment we deserve and restores us to our place as God’s beloved children.
So, use this text to help people see the seriousness of the sins of idolatry and injustice. Don’t hold back on the reality of judgment. But don’t end until you have told them the Good News about what the great love of God has done about the great sin of God’s people. In the End, in Christ, God’s love defeats our sin. That is the hope of priests who have sold out to the culture, businessmen who have made greed their god, and the poor who have cursed God in their pain.
The idea of sin rebounding on the sinner isn’t a negative idea held only by grumpy old conservatives. It is the spiritual version of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Our only hope for surviving the recoil of our sins is God providing a substitute who will take the blow for us.
I read recently that the cost of raising a child in North American culture is $250,000. Actually, it’s much more than that. Raising a child requires the sacrifice of a parent’s life. All parents know that from experience, although there’s a growing emphasis in our culture on taking care of yourself first. But the hard reality is that if we aren’t willing to sacrifice for our children’s welfare, they won’t grow up well. Indeed, when people focus on their own needs and simply let their children take care of themselves, we call that neglect. Sometimes we take a child away from neglectful parents to save the child’s life. God sent his children away to save their lives. Ultimately the Son of God sacrificed his own life for their salvation.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Perhaps you have seen variations on this but people sometimes joke about the over-the-top list of qualifications you can sometimes see in church advertisements for a new pastor. “We are seeking a pastor with deep biblical knowledge, superb communications skills, a well-tuned pastoral heart, an ability to relate well to the youth and someone who is around 30 years of age with 20 years of pastoral experience.” Not a few of us have read such ads and concluded “I guess that rules out the Apostle Paul!”
Sometimes when you serve as a guest preacher you see a little bronze plate affixed to the pulpit that only the preacher can see: “Sir/Ma’am, We Would See Jesus.” OK, but sometimes it seems like to qualify as a pastor in some congregations you would have to BE Jesus to get the job!
All of which leads us to Psalm 15. It’s a short Hebrew poem. Short but devastating. Because here is the job description, the list of qualifications for anyone worthy to dwell with God. And it’s fairly daunting:
Treats Neighbors Well
Never Breaks a Promise
Never Changes One’s Mind
Liberally Gives Money Away to the Poor
So . . . please raise your hand if this consistently describes you. Anyone? Anyone?
Here is yet another moment when we can be glad that the Hebrew Psalter is meant to be read as a whole and not merely as a pastiche of otherwise unrelated poems. In particular in this case we can be thankful that there are also Psalms of Confession in the Bible. Because obviously those psalms would be unnecessary if any given person of faith really were able to live up to Psalm 15’s rather lofty ideals of spirituality and moral perfection. Or at least if they were able to live up to all this consistently and 100% of the time.
But perhaps this leads back to the opening line of the psalm: who may live in God’s sacred tent? This may or may not be a reference to the Tabernacle that later became the Temple. But it kind of sounds like that and, if so, it could be pointing to the Holy of Holies, to that most sacred place that was thought to be God’s earthly headquarters such that even the High Priest could enter it only once a year (and even then might have been taking his life into his own hands in so doing). You would very nearly have to BE God to enter into so sacred a space, much less to be able to live there, stay there, make it your home. If Psalm 15’s moral and spiritual bar seems to be set rather high, perhaps this is the reason: we are looking for a relationship with God akin to what Adam and Eve had with God prior to the Fall into sin. But so long as we all keep living “east of Eden,” that’s just not going to happen.
In the Old Testament even for God to be able to maintain his earthly residence among his people Israel, those people had to be constantly sacrificing and making atonement for their sins. Large swaths of the Torah and the Pentateuch are consumed with rigorous rules and regulations governing all this. Perpetual seeking of forgiveness and making sacrifices to atone for sin was the only way a perpetually unholy people had a shot to stay in relationship with a perpetually holy God.
So even from the perspective of the rest of the psalms and most certainly the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures it seems that the answer to Psalm 15’s opening question as to who can dwell in God’s sacred tent or on his holy mountain is “No one.” The description that follows can be fulfilled by no one, not even Moses, the greatest spiritual leader Israel ever had. Even he could not see God’s face. Even he could not enter the Promised Land on account of his own failures. He got closer to God than anyone but that only reinforces the idea of how very far away the rest of the people would have been from the Psalm 15 ideal.
Psalm 15 is the kind of thing that could lead to despair. Assuming we would want to be this close to God, the question becomes “Who could make this possible for us when we have no honest shot of achieving all this ourselves?”
Naturally enough, as Christians reading this poem we already know the answer. Who can do this for us? Jesus the Christ of God (and Jesus alone). In Christ we now are clothed with all the righteousness of Jesus himself and so when God looks at us now, ta-da, we fit the Psalm 15 bill after all. Oh, not really based on how things go in our daily lives. Yet spiritually we possess all the riches of Christ. He justifies us by his grace. We were crucified with him and raised with him and now share in his very Life.
Earlier I mentioned that sometimes you get the feeling a given pastor would have to BE Jesus to qualify for a church post based on the lofty job qualifications you sometimes read. But of course not only pastors but all believers already essentially ARE Jesus. Psalm 15 makes us cast about for Someone who can help us live up to those lofty spiritual and moral aspirations. But we need not look far for help. Our help is in the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth through his Son Jesus our Savior.
Frederick Buechner once helped to explain the theological meaning of “justification” by referring us back to the literal meaning of that word when it comes to printed documents. On our computers today we can “right justify” or “left justify” or “full justify” any document. Mostly we opt for left justification which means that unless you purposely indent a line to start a new paragraph, the first word of every line in the document will begin at the same place—in the same column—such that they all line up. “Justification” for those lines mean that they stand in a right relationship with the straight edge of the paper itself. The paper is a straight vertical line along its edges. For words and lines to be “justified” with that, they line up, they are as straight as the paper’s edge itself. They are in a right relationship with the page. (And if you do “Full Justification,” then both the left and the right columns do this with the left and the right straight edges of the paper on which the document is printed.)
When we read Psalm 15, we see it as almost a measuring stick. It’s the straight edge of morality against which everyone will be measured. Does my life line up with that straight edge? Or am I crooked and jagged and out of alignment at many different points? Most of us have to acknowledge we are largely out of alignment. We are not justified relative to this psalm’s straight moral edge.
But in Christ we have been fully justified by grace alone. We line up. We match. We measure up after all. Thanks be to God!
Author: Doug Bratt
If the first four verses of this Sunday’s RCL’s Epistolary Lesson don’t make its preachers and teachers’ heads spin at least a bit, we’re probably not paying enough attention to them. In verse 15, after all, Paul insists, probably no more than 20 years after Jesus ascended into the heavenly realm, he’s “the image of the invisible God.”
The Jesus who was a born to unmarried parents, is, the apostle claims, “the firstborn over all creation” by whom “all things were created.” Paul goes on to say the Jesus who lived his whole life in a remote corner of Palestine “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” in addition to being “the head of the body, the church.”
The Jesus who the Romans executed like a common criminal, he continues, “is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead.” And when we perhaps think we can’t absorb more, Paul adds, “God was pleased to have all his fullness to dwell in [Jesus], and through him to reconcile all things to himself.”
One scholar calls these assertions a poem that’s like a map of the entire creation. People are, of course, the part of the creation that Christ somehow created to be much like God. However, we’re physically not even flyspecks in the cosmos’ grand scheme of things. On top of that, by nature, God’s great purposes for the world go on without you and me. After all, we’re naturally outside God’s kingdom.
Of course, we like to think of ourselves as fairly nice people. However, Paul reminds us that we naturally make ourselves God’s enemies. We sometimes deliberately and other times accidentally sin against God and each other by what we do, say and even think.
Colosse’s Christians to whom Paul writes probably understood that better than some preachers and teachers do. After all, at one time many of them actually worshipped idols instead of the one true God. They had no idea of who Jesus is or how they could share in his benefits.
Colossian Christians’ lives once reflected the gods they worshipped. Their muddied thinking led them into one misunderstanding after the next. Colosse’s Christians didn’t act, talk or even think the way God created them to. They were, in other words, alienated from God.
We know about broken human relationships. Some of us have experienced broken marriages or friendships. When we multiply that brokenness by a million times, we begin to appreciate how naturally alienated we are from God.
Of course, some of us have been Christians for as long as we can remember. We’ve always sung “Jesus Loves Me” because it’s true. But if those who proclaim and hear Colossians 1 want to get a sense of our natural alienation of God, we might dig around in our deepest temptations. We might ask what we’d do if we could do anything we wanted without worrying about the consequences. What, for example, would we take that isn’t ours? With whom would we be intimate?
Those are dark places that God’s adopted sons and daughters would generally rather not even think about. Yet those dark corners of our lives give us glimpses of our human nature. They remind God’s people that we’re naturally not God’s children, but God’s enemies.
Of course, some of us know what it’s like to actually be alienated from God. After all, some who proclaim and hear Colossians 1 actually chose that at some point in our lives. So we know what it’s like to try to live our lives without taking God into account.
When people are alienated from each other, both parties usually bear at least some responsibility for it. Spouses or friends, for example, mistreat or speak angrily to each other.
However, in the case of human alienation from God, it’s all our fault. While God creates us for a faithful relationship with himself, we naturally choose to act in ways that make us God’s enemies.
That’s part what makes God’s response to our estrangement so gracious. “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies,” Paul writes in verses 21-22. “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death.”
Few things are more wonderful than when two friends who haven’t spoken to each other since squabbling a long time ago put the past behind them. Or when two parts of a community are brought to trust and accept each other again after a time of warfare or arguing.
However, it’s even more gratifying when that happens between God and people. God let the enmity that kept us from God do its worst to Jesus on the cross. God allowed that so that God and the human race can be brought together. Through Jesus’ death God’s dearly beloved people are reconciled to God.
Yet it’s not as if we went to God and said, “We want to be reconciled to you.” If it were up to us, we’d be content to stay God’s enemies forever. God graciously came to us in Jesus Christ and showed how desperately God wants to be reconciled to us.
So Jesus isn’t just the visible manifestation of the invisible God in whom all the fullness of God lived. Jesus isn’t just the One by, through and for whom all things were created. Jesus isn’t just the head of the Church. Jesus isn’t even just the first to be raised to life and stay alive.
No, Jesus, is also the one who let people hand him over to the authorities so that God would reconcile us to himself. Jesus let those occupiers treat him like a common criminal so that we might become his brothers, as well as God’s beloved sons and daughters. Jesus is the bloodied peacemaker who presents God’s natural enemies to God as God’s spotless saints.
Yet amazingly, we’re not all God reconciled to himself through Jesus Christ. Jesus work was far grander than just turning enemies into God’s sons and daughters. No, says Paul in verse 20, “through” Jesus God “reconciled to himself all things (italics added).” That means God somehow reconciled everything, the “whole kit-n-caboodle,” as a colleague paraphrases this, to himself through Jesus’ death. God left nothing out of God’s reconciliation project in Jesus Christ.
Of course, it’s hard to know exactly what that means. Paul seems to at least claim that Jesus’ death affects every creature. In dying he scooped up every last thing. Yet it’s hard to know just how protons and penguins, molecules and marmots became alienated from God in the first place.
Paul seems to suggest that sin didn’t just break the relationship between God and humans, as well as among human beings. Sin also somehow deeply harmed creation itself. We’ve seen what our sin has done to water. Studies suggest that, for example, 80% of China’s rural wells are deeply polluted. We’ve seen what our sin has done to our air. Some studies suggest its pollution causes more deaths than malnutrition and obesity, as well as alcohol and drug abuse.
Jesus’ reconciling work invites us to also work for reconciliation. Reconciliation with God, first of all, through faith in Jesus Christ. Reconciliation with the creation, by working to care for and heal that creation where we’ve scarred it.
Those who proclaim Colossians 1 might invite our hearers to imagine what kind of impact it might have if every one of Jesus’ the reconciler’s followers followed him out of our church to reconcile ourselves to even just one person. To a spouse or friend who hurt us. To a neighbor we need to forgive or a co-worker who hasn’t forgiven us. By giving us the Holy Spirit, God has graciously given us everything we need to do all we can to be reconciled to each other.
Yet this leaves the question of just which people God has reconciled to himself through Jesus’ death. In verse 19 Paul says God has reconciled to himself “all things.” But does that mean all creatures, including every last human being without exception? Or does it refer to every aspect of creation?
Some Christians say, “Of course, God reconciles himself only Christians.” Others insist, “Of course, God reconciles to himself every single human being.” Still others with a sigh say Jesus’ redemption is non-discriminatory in nature rather than effect. That is to say, they profess that God offers to be reconciled to every last human being. However, those humans must receive that reconciliation through faith in Jesus Christ.
After all, in verse 22 and 23 Paul writes, “God has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death … if you continue in your faith.” In doing so he seems to insist faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for people to be sure of our reconciliation to God.
Yet the cosmic nature of Jesus’ work holds out hope for those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ. So God’s beloved children never write off any living person as beyond God’s gracious reach. As long as there is life, there is hope for each and every human being, by God’s grace.
If God is reconciling all things to himself through Jesus Christ, who knows what goes on deep in the hearts of those who don’t seem to believe in it? Who knows what God might do in dying people’s hearts? Who knows what God may be doing in the hearts of people who have never ever heard of Jesus Christ?
Larry Taunton wrote a book entitled, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. The title seems like an oxymoron because Hitchens was one of the 20th century’s most notorious atheists. He once wrote, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him will believeth in anything” and called it “Hitchens 3:16.”
In the April, 2016 “Books and Culture” Douglas Wilson gives a glowing review of Taunton’s book about Hitchens’s faith. Wilson had come to know Hitchens fairly well through a series of debates with him about Christianity. Wilson says when he learned Hitchens was dying of cancer, Wilson sent him an email with a lengthy attachment. In it, says Wilson, “I laid out the gospel as plainly as I knew how, addressed to him personally, in his condition.”
Wilson then concludes his review by writing, “No one is saved because we think it would be grand if they were. Good wishes and pious guesses cannot cleanse what only the blood of Christ can cleanse … but from my interactions with Christopher, I did know it was quite possible I had an attentive audience. From Larry Taunton’s book I have received the additional encouragement of knowing that the audience was clearly more attentive than I knew.”