July 10, 2016
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. 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.
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: Doug Bratt
“Judgment” is one of those chilling words that may send shivers racing up and down our spines. Yet there are times when judgment is also a gracious gift from God. The word of judgment God wants to say through his prophet Amos, however, is as dark as an unlit cave at midnight. So it may be very hard to see any good news in Amos 8.
Of course, it begins with what seems like a lovely picture of “a basket of ripe fruit.” Few things are more attractive on a hot summer day than a ripe piece of fruit. Few things feel more decadent than letting the juice of a watermelon dribble down your chin.
So God’s sons and daughters need God’s help to understand just what God is trying to tell Israel through this apparently attractive image. By it God seems to be saying that things in Israel look as good as a bowl of ripe fruit.
Amos’ Israelite contemporaries are, after all, putting lots of money in the collection plates. They’re both attending religious ceremonies and carefully observing the Sabbath. Perhaps, in other words, the Israelites look a lot like ancient templates of ourselves, as well as those whom we teach and to whom we preach.
After all, they’re likely listening to us while their neighbors are doing things like playing golf, sleeping in or doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. They’re ripe “fruit” that drops offerings in the plate and leaves to do their best to act like Christians.
Yet Amos suggests that such appearances can be deceiving. After all, a piece of fruit can be so “ripe” that it’s almost rotten. God says that while Amos 8’s fruit looks ripe enough to be eaten, Amos’ Israel is ripe enough to be judged. While Israel may look as shiny as bright red apple, on the inside she’s basically as rotten as an overripe apple.
Those Israelites would never think of violating the Sabbath by buying and selling things on it. They also sing praise songs with their whole hearts in the temple. Yet Amos notes that the Israelites spend their whole time in church thinking not about their God, but about their gold. They basically can’t wait for the Sabbath to end so that they can get on with their daily work.
Amos 8’s preachers, teachers and their listeners may find Amos’ indictment of Israel to be sobering. Don’t all of us also, after all, sometimes think about what we have to do on Monday even as we sit in church on Sunday? That project we need to complete, paper we need to grade or write or guests we have to host easily distract even the most faithful Christians. Daily life is sometimes so full that it demands our full-time attention. What’s more, honest teachers and preachers must admit that sometimes worship allows our minds to drift like an untied boat to our daily lives.
Yet what’s particularly chilling about Israel’s ripeness isn’t that her businessmen are thinking about work during church. It’s that they’re also plotting how to rip off their customers even as they claim to worship the Lord. Israelites, in other words, sit in church scheming how to, in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of verse 5, “give little, take much and never do an honest day’s work.”
So has Amos’ Israel failed to follow church rules? Is she singing too many praise songs? The prophet mentions none of that in our text. Instead he says that it’s pure economics that makes God’s blood boil. In other words, the way Amos 8’s Israelites do business is enraging the Lord. They basically view such people as merchandise, like fruit and furniture they can buy and sell. Israelite merchants sit in church plotting how to swindle vulnerable people not only out of their money, but also out of their freedom.
Some Christians have always been tempted to view Amos 8 as affirming of their prejudices about Jewish businessmen. They’ve seen in our text Shakespeare’s Shylock plotting to defraud innocent people. This challenges Amos 8’s preachers and teachers to help hearers get past those stereotypes so they can not only to love their Jewish neighbors, but also fully appreciate what God is saying to us.
After all, God’s 21st century children also may look like shiny, ripe fruit to many of people around us. The life of the church can, for example, look as beautiful as a painting. We enthusiastically support the work of missions and caring for the poor. Many gather for worship at least once every Sunday. We’re also careful about our doctrine.
Yet if God’s people are honest, we admit that we’re naturally little less rotten than Amos’ Israelite contemporaries. What goes on in our hearts may be no godlier than what went on in the Israelites. While we may not be contemplating how to swindle people, we may be, for example, lusting and coveting even as we act like Christians.
Amos reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters that what lives in our minds is more important than the religious motions we go through. While people may not know our sometimes-rotten thoughts, God does as surely as God knew what Israel’s people were thinking. Amos reminds us that it’s easy to contemplate disobedience even as we seem to practice obedience. It’s tempting to polish our shiny religious image while masking our spiritual rottenness.
Is there, then, any grace in the prophet’s blistering condemnation of such hypocrisy? Is there any good news in God’s judgment on inconsistencies between what we do and think? Perhaps Amos 8’s preachers and teachers might use the metaphor of a pothole in the road that has no signs warning drivers about it. What happens to drivers who blithely drive right into that pothole? They may destroy their car and, in a worst case, themselves or other people.
In a similar way, consider what would happen if God didn’t condemn sinfulness. What would happen if the Lord simply let God’s people act and think the way we naturally do? Certainly vulnerable people would suffer even more than they now do. We’d naturally exploit the very young and the elderly, the poor and the undereducated. We wouldn’t be concerned about how our society’s policies affect, for example, the materially poor and the unborn.
Since God cares so passionately about vulnerable people, God’s 21st century children would go straight towards the kind of punishment Amos describes. Our own hymns and praise songs would then turn into the kinds of mourning songs we generally sing only at funerals. Left to our own devices, we’d bitterly grieve as though our only child had died prematurely.
God’s act of judgment is also God’s act of mercy. God’s condemnation of mistreatment of materially poor people is a sign that God loves you and me enough to warn us when we’re heading toward danger. God judgment is a sign that God cares about us so deeply that God refuses to leave us to our own naturally sinful devices.
God loved Amos’ Israel so passionately that God kept talking to her through prophets like Amos even though Israel didn’t listen. God spoke Amos 8’s fierce words of judgment so that Israel would recognize how far short she fell of what God created her to be. God punished her so fiercely that she’d come to know how much she’d offended the Lord.
God’s judging word still comes to God’s people in a similar way. God condemns sinful thoughts and behavior in those ways not because God is like a playground bully, but because God cares so deeply. The Lord doesn’t want anyone to disobediently stumble into eternal separation from himself.
So God condemns sin so that God’s adopted sons and daughters can, in a sense, condemn our own sinfulness. The Lord God calls us to confess our sins so that we can again hear about God’s gracious forgiveness. God’s people can be honest about the longings that sometimes consume us because we know that God longs to transform our desires into godly desires. You and I can be candid about how our self-interest drains our concerns for society’s vulnerable members.
God is utterly determined to make God’s people more and more like God’s Son, Jesus Christ. So we can test ourselves to see whether we’re ripe for judgment, or ripe for eternal life in God’s presence.
After all, while God let Amos’ Israel endure a famine of hearing God’s word (11b), God eventually fed God’s people very well again. For a time the Israelites staggered around like refugees desperately hunting for food because God’s Word was so scarce. That Word graciously both creates order out of chaos and sustains what God creates. God’s Word also guides, forgives and blesses. Without that Word, there is only bedlam.
So at the proper time, God graciously sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, what John calls “the Word.” That Word came and ministered to us as “the Bread of Life.” By faith we receive that Word and Bread so that it nourishes us for faithful obedience.
In an op-ed piece in the November 30, 2012 issue of The New York Times, entitled “The Monster of Monticello,” Paul Finkelman writes about Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy on race. When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson affirmed the “self-evident truth” that all men are “created equal.”
Yet even as he wrote that, he owned 175 slaves. On top of that, while many of Jefferson’s contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the Revolutionary War, Jefferson did not. He remained what Finkelman calls “the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.”
1820’s heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise shocked Jefferson. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”
Yet Finkelman concludes, “If there was ‘treason against the hopes of the world,’ it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all.”
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 15 opens with a question that will trouble a lot of people in many congregations. It’s a question put to God. Now, questioning God is not a problem for most Christians these days. In fact, it’s much in vogue. Folks like David Dark speak eloquently about the necessity of asking questions if our faith is to be vibrant and relevant. His most recent book is entitled, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, including God. He rails against certainty and dogmatism and tradition and he glorifies doubt, open-ended wonder, and radical questioning.
Speaking of his own transition, Dark writes, “Over time, the Bible ceased to be a catalogue of all the things one has to believe (or pretend to believe) in order not to go to hell. Instead, the Bible became a broad, multifaceted collection of people crying out to God…. And Christianity, far from being a tradition in which doubts and questions are suppressed in favor of uncritical, blind faith, began to assume the form of a robust culture in which anything can be asked and everything can be said. The call to worship is a call to compete candor and radical questioning—questioning the way things are, the way we are, and the way things ought to be.” Dark says that this awe-filled questioning is so central to faith that “only a twisted, unimaginative mind-set resists awe in favor of self-satisfied certainty.”
While a careful reader might wonder about the provocative way Dark writes, he definitely speaks for many modern Christians. And, of course, there is abundant biblical evidence that questioning God is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of Job, for example. So asking God hard questions is a part of contemporary spirituality.
But the question that David asks God at the beginning of Psalm 15 is not that kind of question. It is not a challenging question. It is more like a catechism question, a question designed to teach someone a truth, a question asked not by a rebel demanding a revolutionary answer, but by a rabbi teaching a traditional answer. Indeed, some scholars see Psalm 15 as a liturgical call to worship designed to be recited to the worshiping congregation as they get ready to climb the steps into the temple. It asks a question that aims to prepare people to meet God. “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?”
Not only is the question very different than the kind of question asked by the David Dark types of the church, but also Psalm 15 answers that question in a way many church folks will find offensive, if not downright laughable. In the laid back, latte sipping ambience of many contemporary churches, the notion that God might actually demand something of us before we can come into his presence is as foreign as forelocks and phylacteries. The God of the 21st century asks only that we show up. Come as you are, no questions asked, no requirements. Just come on in.
Now, of course, as an evangelistic strategy such a casual approach has much to commend it. For too long the church put too many man-made barriers in the path of seekers. Let’s get rid of them all. But Psalm 15 insists that there are some God-made requirements for those who would “dwell” and “live” in God’s presence. We should be able to come as we are, but we should not expect to stay there. As a pastor friend put it, the church must have “a low first step, but a long center aisle.” Come as you are, but if you want to stay here, you’re going to have to clean up your act. Conversion is simple, discipleship is not.
This is not an easy thing to sort out and keep straight. On the one hand, the list of requirements in Psalm 15 could easily lead to a “check list morality” and “works righteousness.” You have to do all these things before God will accept you. If you do these few things, you are clearly a superior saint. On the other hand, ignoring the list of requirements in Psalm 15 could easily lead to “cheap grace” and an antinomian moral carelessness.
What Psalm 15 calls for is the same holiness that fills Leviticus: “Be holy because I am holy.” Jesus echoed that very clearly as did most of the New Testament writers, calling Christians to that “holiness without which we cannot see God” (Hebrews 12:14). I suspect that many Christians today will resist Psalm 15 for one or both of these misunderstandings.
So, we’ll have to preach it carefully. It will help to point out that the opening question is a direct address to God, which implies that God and God alone has the authority to determine who may approach him. No man-made rules here. But God does have rules. Like it or not, we humans may not just mosey into God’s presence. It is a legitimate question. Who may do that?
Do what? Here again, it pays to be careful. The Psalmist talks about dwelling and living, not approaching. Does that choice of verbs suggest that approaching God in the first place as a seeker is simpler than dwelling in his presence on a day to day basis? There are no behavioral requirements for “getting saved,” but there are things we must do to stay united to God? We are justified by faith alone, but sanctification requires faith and obedience? What does it take to dwell permanently in God’s presence, to live in union with Christ? Any sinner may come to God crying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” But for sinners to live with Christ we must develop the character traits listed in Psalm 15.
Again, be careful here. Note that those who may live in constant communion with God are not a class or group of people (like priests), or those who perform certain religious actions (like sacrifices), or who practice ritual purity. No, what God is looking for is moral righteousness. Psalm 15 gives 11 answers to the opening question, but we shouldn’t push that number. This is a picture, not a prescription, a characterization, not a code of ethics. Note that the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Commandments are not alluded to here at all. Does that mean God doesn’t care about family life or sexual ethics or a covetous heart? Of course not. David is sketching, not filling in all the moral spaces.
David begins in verse 2 with a general description, using words that were part of the established tradition of Israel’s religion. “All of them are cases of conduct that effect the well-being or shalom of various levels of community” (from James Luther Mays). If we would live in God’s presence, God requires that we be “blameless.” That doesn’t mean we must be perfectly sinless. It refers to having a whole and complete devotion to God’s will. Further, we must be righteous, which means we must do what is right as a matter of habit and principle. And we must speak the truth from the heart; our words must be governed by a heart that is devoted to God. Then in verses 3-5 David applies those three general moral qualities to three concentric circles of life (the neighborhood, the religious community, and the larger society).
The Psalm ends with a statement as shocking to modern ears as the opening question. “He who does these things will never be shaken.” Really? Being a good person guarantees that nothing bad will happen to you? Of course, that is not what David meant. Reading David’s other Psalms is proof certain that bad things happen to good people.
What can David mean then? Well, think about the way Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount. The opening verses of that Sermon (Matthew 5:1-13) sound very much like Psalm 15, don’t they? Then Jesus sums up everything he taught about kingdom living by saying, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” When the storms of life come and beat against that house, it “will not fall, because it had its foundations on the rock.”
So, those whose lives show the character qualities listed in Psalm 15 may live through tumultuous times that shake the very foundations. But they will not be shaken to the core. The forces of chaos will not undo them. This is a promise not of a trouble free life, but of security in God’s presence, both now and forever. “He who does these things will never be shaken.”
But who does these things, always and perfectly? No one, and that’s why we are shaken so often by the events of life. So, does that mean that we are shut out of God’s presence? Here it is crucial to read Psalm 15 in the light of the New Testament. We must do what is righteous (verse 2) and when we don’t, we must do what will make us righteous. Think of the tax collector in Jesus’ famous parable. A notorious sinner who had done none of what Psalm 15 calls for, he only got as close to God as the far edge of the Temple where he simply begged for mercy (Luke 18:13). And Jesus said, he “went home justified before God.”
The purpose of Psalm 15 is not to judge and condemn those who do not meet these requirements, but to call and encourage all of God’s people to be this way. The Gospel declares that the God who demands these things is the God who forgives us when we fail and enables us to grow in holiness.
Indeed, he is the God who brought the Temple to us, “tabernacling” among us in the flesh of Jesus (John 1:14). That is the great difference between us and David. We meet God, not in a building, but in the person of Christ. Does that mean we have to live a certain kind of life before we can enter into the life of Jesus? Thank God, no! But it does mean that if we are going to dwell in him, live in him, be united with him, enjoy his presence, we will have to live by Christ’s Spirit. If we do live by the Spirit of Christ, we will develop the fruit of the Spirit, which bear some resemblance to the character qualities and behavior in Psalm 15.
As I said at the beginning of and throughout this piece, Psalm 15 will strike many in your congregation all wrong, which is a good reason to preach it. Preach it as a call to righteousness and a call to Christ who is our righteousness (I Cor. 1:30). Be strong and strict in preaching these requirements; a morally lax church needs to hear about a holy God. But be gracious and merciful in calling sinners to Christ, who did everything we fail to do and who is everything we are not. Conclude with this. Because Christ is our righteousness, we must strive to be that kind of person. As James Luther Mays put it, “We may be tempted to take the righteousness given by grace to faith as an excuse for the failure of our lives, but the Psalmist insists that it is rather the purpose and the power of God to regenerate them.”
Though people may react negatively to the central idea of Psalm 15, everyday life is filled with examples of requirements to gain entrance. To get into Costco, I need my membership card. To gain admittance to a black tie gala, I need a ticket and a tux. To play at a nice country club, you have to be or know a member. And, most ubiquitously, to get into your computer, your on-line bank account, your investment portfolio, and a hundred other privileged places, you have to know your password.
Author: Scott Hoezee
“To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” That is the final verse of Colossians 1 and it pretty much says it all. “Strenuously contend” is what the latter half of this opening chapter conveys, and then some! From Colossians 1:15 through Colossians 1:23, Paul writes exactly two Greek sentences. The first verbal tear is 272 words long (verses 15-19). The prose style here is breathless. The words jumble out from the tip of Paul’s quill almost faster than he can get them down and he comes off like an overly enthusiastic child who, after a day at Disney World, cannot quite find the end of any sentence as he reels off the day’s wonders.
Why all the enthusiasm? Jesus! The One! The cosmic Rosetta Stone in whom all of reality makes final sense. The Greek words ta panta crop up here again and again: “All things!” Christ Jesus the Lord created all things, maintains all things, holds together all things, and explains all things. If anyone in the mid-first century thought this whole Christianity and Jesus thing was some local religion with modest claims, Colossians 1 disproves that in dramatic fashion.
As noted in the first sermon starter on the early part of Colossians 1, the Colossian Christians had come under the influence of some Gnosticizing Judaism that looked for other superior beings (or archons) who could give them the secret passwords they needed to enter the “pleroma” or the “fullness” of spiritual enlightenment. There was some mysticism, some earth-denying anti-physicalism, some weird ideas floating around Colossae. Paul was determined to bring these Christians back to the first things of the Gospel, a core one of which is that Jesus Christ is the pleroma, is the fullness of all fullness, is the most superior being ever to exist and, wonder of wonders, through baptism we gain unity with this very person.
From a distance of about 2,000 years, much of this may not seem overly remarkable. But as preachers we need to proclaim this passage in full-throated wonder that such things were and are true. After all, at the time Paul wrote these words, the well-documented death of the man Jesus had been as recent an event then as the presidency of Ronald Reagan is now. Not so long ago. Well within the living memory of lots of people. This Jesus fellow had come from the backwaters of the Roman Empire, had lived and worked as a simple carpenter for most of his life before lighting out on a quirky preaching career that unsettled most of the people who shared his Jewish faith. Things got political and next thing you know, Jesus was publicly crossed out by the Romans and his limp body sent the same signal all public crucifixions did in the Roman world: “Behave or you end up like this!”
A sad ending to the man’s life but these things happen. Yet now only a few short years later here is this man named Paul claiming that precisely that washed-up, crossed-out rabbi held the cosmic keys to everything. Today it would be like someone’s talking about Clyde Klunkenfelder from Whippervale, Kansas, and claiming this otherwise unknown man was the single most important person who had ever lived.
All of which is to say . . . these were huge claims! But that’s the Gospel for you. Such declarations may not play nicely in the pluralistic sandbox with other faiths but the Gospel’s scope and message are sweeping and we should no more wish it were not so than the Colossian Christians should have toyed with other options. Believing Jesus is the Cosmic One gives no believer license to be abusive or dismissive of people from other faiths—that would not sound like a very Jesus-like thing to do, either. But paring back one’s faith to shoot for some lowest common religious denominator won’t do, either.
Preaching on this text today gives us a chance to emphasize several key and vital themes. One is the sheer grandeur—and yet the subtle outer trappings—of the Gospel. Ours is a God of surprises and never more so than when he sent his only Son to this world in the form of a baby born to poor parents out in the middle of nowhere. There is a lesson in that for the church today, especially whenever it is tempted to become a locus of worldly power and influence. Service, sacrifice, and humility marked the ministry of the One who really is the cosmic Lord. The people who bear his Name even now should seek to do likewise.
But there is also a wonderful emphasis here on the physical creation of God, its value, its majesty, and its place in our Christian theology. The Gnosticism in Colossae that undercut the value of bodies and all things earthy was wrong. Matter matters. God in Christ loves the creation, and its renewal figures very large in Christian eschatology as a result. This, too, can be under-appreciated in the church today, though ecological interest and concerns are far more widespread among Christians today than was the case even a quarter century ago. But there is no missing Paul’s belief here that Christ delights in the creation he made. We should too.
Indeed, in verse 23 Paul engages in a bit of hyperbole when he says that the Gospel had now been proclaimed to “every creature” under heaven. Of course, that was not literally true even then—most people had not yet heard the Gospel much less bobcats and bullfrogs. But what is literally true is that the restoration promised through the Gospel has something to do with every creature and so Colossians 1—along with Paul’s anthropomorphizing of creation in Romans 8—reveals this truth by claiming that somewhere deep down in the breasts of chickadees and inside the golden heads of sunflowers there is a hope that species extinction and decay are not the whole story in the long run. The beauty of creation now—co-existing as it must for the time being in a world of some entropy and degradation—is an arrow pointing to the wisdom and grandeur of our God and is, just so, a sign of hopefulness to us.
The movie Grand Canyon is probably not widely known anymore these days since it came out almost 25 years ago. But it’s a great film that chronicles the lives of a number of people who all live in Los Angeles, California. Through a series of incidents, people who otherwise might not know each other find their lives intertwining. Mack is a white guy who is a rich investment banker and Mack gets to know Simon, an African-American guy who drives a tow truck for a living. Then their families get to know each other a bit, including Simon’s nephew who is a gang-banger caught up in all the terrible violence that such gangs bring to places like South-Central Los Angeles. But in many ways the life of just about every character in the movie is fragmented and is at loose ends. Life seems brutal or random or both.
But then comes the final scene when everyone takes a road trip to visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona. And in the last image of the film, everyone—the banker and his wife, the tow truck driver and his cynical, hardened nephew—comes up to the lip of the Canyon and looks out on all that vastness. It is silent. But a look of calm soon washes over every face—even the teenaged gang banger suddenly looks young and hopeful and full of the very promise that such a young person should exude. “Well,” Simon finally says, “what do you think?” And Mack replies, “I think . . . I think it’s all right.” Something about the awesome beauty of God’s creation restored order and hope, purpose and meaning to the lives of people who were not finding any meaning in their money or their guns or anything else.
When we look at the world God made, we connect this to the death and resurrection of the Jesus who also created it all and who has redeemed it all. And then we too can say, “It’s all right. The whole thing, ta panta, it’s all right.”