July 29, 2019
The Proper 13C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 12:13-21 from the Lectionary Gospel; Hosea 11:1-11 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 49:1-12 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Colossians 3:1-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 6 (Lord’s Day 3)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sometimes it is surprising what people will ask a pastor. Most pastors field their fair share of biblical and theological questions. Often people will call with a follow-up query to a topic that cropped up in a sermon. Those are the kinds of pastoral inquiries one would expect. Once in a while, though, pastors get asked for advice on matters about which they don’t know a whole lot more than the next person. As most of us pastors would probably confess, when such unusual requests get made, you feel ill-equipped to say or do anything (unless you just want to fake it!).
This happened to Jesus in Luke 12. A stranger approaches Jesus with a practical matter involving a family argument. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” It’s not even a question, is it? This is a demand, and Jesus seems a bit upset about it. “Mister,” Jesus says, “I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about! I am not a judge and have no authority here at all.” It was a curt retort.
But you can’t blame Jesus. After all, this section in Luke’s gospel contains Luke’s closest parallel to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is teaching important spiritual matters. In fact, he had just finished giving a lovely set of instructions to the disciples about how they are to rely on the Holy Spirit when they face opposition. In terms of the gospel, this is very important advice. But that only makes this stranger’s interruption the more striking. If I am midway through a lecture on the Fruit of the Spirit, I will not be very happy if someone raises his hand to ask if I have any advice to give on how to do estate planning!
The only explanation for someone’s making such an intrusion is that this person is preoccupied with money. This stranger had not really been listening to Jesus at all but had been ruminating on his financial woes. So the moment there was a lull in Jesus’ speech, he burst in with this inheritance question. Jesus was not pleased at this interruption but he recognized what was going on here and so immediately offers some warnings about greed.
What’s more, Jesus uses the occasion to offer up a very brief parable. But when you think about it, this is a rather unusual parable. Most of Jesus’ parables illustrate some aspect of the kingdom, of grace, of salvation. This parable, however, is more generic. In fact, the main and only character of the parable does not have any obvious connection to anything spiritual whatsoever. He looks to be a secular figure in every sense.
But it is precisely this secular atmosphere and the complete isolation of this rich man that delivers this parable’s punch. This man is completely out there on his own, doing his own thing with no reference to anything or anyone else. He is, Jesus says pointedly, a “fool.” Biblically speaking, that is a powerful word that plays not an individual note on the larger biblical keyboard but in fact whole chords. In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament a fool was anyone who fails to notice how the world works, thus adapting himself accordingly. Fools are the ones who spit into the wind, who saw off the branch they’re sitting on, who are constantly trying to row their boat against the current because they simply do not pay attention to how life works. Fools are also un-teachable. It’s not only that they fail to make good observations on what works and what doesn’t, fools also refuse to listen when others point these things out for them.
Fools, the old adage has it, are often in error but never in doubt.
In fact, the more foolish a person is, the more likely it is that he or she will become more and more isolated as time goes by. People give up on fools. “There is no sense in talking to him,” folks eventually conclude. We have all heard the phrase “a fool’s paradise.” And that phrase is a reflection of how it often goes: having cut himself off from those who could teach him valuable lessons, having blinkered his own vision to keep from seeing the consequences of his own actions, the fool becomes an island unto himself.
But biblically speaking there is one last piece of folly that often attends such folks and it is reflected in that verse from Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” The last straw, the ultimate piece of damnable folly is to live cut off from God. Actually when we read, “The fools says in his heart, ‘There is no God,'” what that means is not full-blown atheism in the modern sense of claiming that there is no God in existence anywhere.
In biblical times there were very few, if any, atheists in that hardcore philosophical sense. More likely what that meant was along the lines of thinking “There is no God HERE.” There is no God who is close enough to see, or be bothered with, my life. So what I do, what I say, what I think, how I behave has nothing to do with God in that God, even if he exists, doesn’t see me anyway. (And if that does not bear some resemblance to what sociologist Christian Smith has termed “moral therapeutic deism,” then I am not sure what would!)
Even this parable’s dialogue is actually a monologue–the only person this rich man talks to is himself! But this isolation is a sign of the man’s basic problem: he neither sees nor cares for anybody but his own self.
The sin of this rich man in Luke 12 is that he has isolated himself from his fellow humanity, from the larger community, from God himself. But then he is interested in no one but his own self. He is not interested in sharing with those who have less. He doesn’t even see such folks. They exist beyond the margins of his consciousness.
The man’s failure is, as such failures always tend to be, a double failure. Not only did he fail to see God, as a consequence he likewise did not take note of all those little reminders of God that surround each of us every day. What are those reminders?
The images of God in our midst.
The more open a person is to God in his or her daily life, the more likely it is that this person will begin to SEE God all over the place: the face of the neighbor is the face of God, the face of the poor is the face of God. But in the case of this rich man, he lost sight not only of that God but of God’s children who were also nearby.
No one had that kind of spiritual vision more than Jesus. Thus, in Jesus we see the exact opposite of this rich man’s fatal flaw of spiritual blindness. Although it is not unusual for Jesus to reach for agricultural images in his parables, still it is interesting that the crop this rich man raised and then wanted to store away for himself only was grain. Wheat. The stuff that becomes the staff of life. But by hoarding it, this man was not a life-sharer or life-giver but someone who deprived others of life. When God says in the end that this fool’s life would be demanded of him, the punishment fit the crime.
But please notice God’s last question: “Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” It is an open, unanswered question. The implication, however, seems to be that by his death, all that life-giving, staff-of-life grain will go to feed the very people he had failed to notice! By his death he became a dispenser of life after all. But not in an heroic way. That does not make this parable’s ending a “happy ending” after all. Yet sometimes it does happen that by death can come new life.
This rich man who ignored God is, of course, a counter-example for what Christians are to be. But that is no surprise since Christians follow a man who once said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
By his death and resurrection Jesus gives us the staff of life. It sets the tone for our own daily dying and rising with Christ, too.
In Luke 12:20 some translations (including the NIV and NRSV, though not the older RSV) have God saying to the rich fool that “this night your life will be demanded of you.” But in the Greek the word rendered as “life” is psyche, the common word for “soul.” It may well be that the sense of this is the taking of the man’s life, but the punch of these words is that it is finally the man’s soul that is at risk. This relates, then, to Luke 9:24-25 where Jesus famously says that if you forfeit your soul for anything to be found in this world, what could you ever give in exchange to get that soul back? Without knowing it, then, the rich fool is trafficking not in the mere physical things of this life but in eternal matters whose import cannot be overstated.
The New York Times has long had a column called “Metropolitan Diary” that features six to eight brief letters sent in by readers who relate real-life experiences in the Big Apple. Many of these anecdotes are examples of kindness and warmth in the midst of a city reputed to be cold and uncaring. Some are laugh-out-loud funny tales about the quirks of people: after all, in a city of 8 million folks, you are bound to see just about everything at least once! But many other anecdotes center on the outrageous wealth that many people in New York City possess as well as the sometimes startling things people do with that wealth.
Here is an example. A couple from the Midwest was visiting New York during a cold stretch of the month of January. As they walked up Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, a bitterly cold wind came up, causing the woman’s ears to get painfully cold. They decided to duck into a boutique to purchase a hat for her. The woman rather quickly found a lovely cashmere knit hat and was about to buy it when her husband noticed the price tag dangling from the cap: $350. They put it back and quickly fled the store. As they came back out onto the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue, however, they saw a woman passing by carrying her little poodle dog–and the dog was wearing that very cashmere knit hat!
Author: Stan Mast
Marcion was the first to do it, but surely not the last. In the middle of the second century after Christ, Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was different than the Father of Jesus Christ. The God of the Old Testament was angry, violent, judgmental, and not worth following if you were a follower of Jesus Christ. For many unwitting contemporary Marcionites, the Old Testament is a closed book.
And that’s a shame, because Old Testament passages like Hosea 11 open up the heart of God in a way that will move any follower of Jesus to tears of gratitude and love. In Hosea 1-3, we saw God as a jilted lover, a husband betrayed by an adulterous wife. Here we see God as a broken-hearted parent, a Father or Mother whose child has turned away from his loving parents to follow a worthless gang that wanders the neighborhood promising the good life it can never deliver.
Does God get angry? Yes, what parent doesn’t when their child wanders into self-destructive ways? Think of the outrage expressed by the parents of opioid addicted children. Does God say hard things? Of course, what parent doesn’t when years of love are spurned for the sake of cheap and fleeting pleasures. Does God punish? Absolutely. When we see parents who let their children wander into traffic or steal drugs from the medicine cabinet, we say that they are neglectful, that they don’t love very much or very well. A loving parent will do anything to save the child they love.
That’s what the Old Testament shows us about God, and nowhere clearer than Hosea 11. God is not an Idea, a Force, the Unmoved Mover of the Greeks or the “unified field” of today’s new age mystics. God is a Person, a Parent (I use Parent rather than Father or Mother, because the Hebrew of Hosea 11 has no gender hints). God is a Parent who loves God’s children to death. Hosea 11 opens up the broken heart of our Divine Parent with what amounts to a soliloquy, God on center stage speaking his thoughts for all of us to hear.
Perhaps the central word in this passage is “changed” in verse 8. The idea of God’s heart being changed has always presented a deep philosophical problem for those who believe in the simplicity of God. That’s the idea that God is complete in himself, that he is not influenced by outside forces because he is absolutely self-sufficient. If God were to change, doesn’t that entail that God was wrong before, that God needed more information, that God had to change to become more perfect. Those are powerful arguments, but they run smack dab into texts like this one: “My heart is changed within me.”
Another translation gives us a way out of the philosophical dilemma, and into the whipsaw changes in the text itself. The word “change” can be translated “churned,” like the churning sea, where underwater currents and heaving waves collide and create a chaotic sea. That’s what we see in this picture of our broken-hearted Parent—colliding emotions, seemingly conflicting intentions, tender love crashing into terrible wrath, threats of destruction followed hard by promises of deliverance. “My heart churns within me….” Any loving parent knows that a broken heart is just like that.
In verses 1- 4 we are given an unforgettable picture of God’s love for Israel, from adoption to adolescence. Israel was not God’s natural born (only begotten) Son. Imagine adoptive parents visiting an orphanage in the olden days, seeing a particularly attractive or miserable orphan, and falling in love on the spot. “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son.” From that moment on, God’s love was intense and never ending.
Any parent can remember helping a little one learn to walk. “lt was I who taught Ephraim (an alternative name for Israel) to walk, taking them by the hand….” And when they fell, scraping their knee or bloodying their nose, I healed them, even though they didn’t realize it was me. “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love….” Here the language gets confusing, as God uses farm language with this mention of a yoke, unless that is a reference to the yoke of slavery in Egypt. The idea is that God tenderly led Israel, perhaps a reference to the wilderness wanderings. That is surely the meaning of, “I bent down to feed them.” God recalls the Exodus and the Wilderness and, by implication, the Conquest of the Promised Land, all evidence of his great love for his adopted child.
But (that’s the word with which verse 2 begins), in spite of God’s tender love, Israel consistently and stubbornly wandered off to worship other gods. Like a rebellious toddler running away from his parents into the crowded confusion of the mall, says God, “the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.” In spite of all I had done for them, “they sacrificed to the Baals and the burned incense to images.”
Why would Israel do that? Because the neighbors did. Because they were covering all the bases. Because they wanted to be prosperous and safe. That’s what the Baals promised, according to their neighbors. How would you feel if your child began to hang around with the neighbor who was a drug dealer, calling him “Daddy” and smoking his dope?
That’s exactly how God felt—broken hearted and angry. We hear that justifiable anger in verses 5-7. If Israel wants to be in bondage to foreign gods, well then, let them go back to Egypt, or its future equivalent, Assyria. If they don’t want me to rule over them in my parental love, let them be ruled by Assyria with its military power. This is not what God wants for his child, obviously, but this is what will happen, because “they refuse to repent.” “My people are determined to turn from me.”
This is not a violent, vindictive God lashing out in rage; this is a heartbroken parent finally allowing the consequences of a rebellious child’s behavior fall on that child. Maybe the only way they will learn is if I let the Assyrians attack them (“swords will flash in their cities, will destroy the bars of their gates”) and lead them into Exile. After all these years of calling out to them and answering their prayers, I will temporarily stop answering their prayers and I won’t “exalt them,” raise them up, come to their rescue. In effect, God says in verses 5-7 what many a frustrated, desperate parent has said, “I’ve had it. Let them suffer the consequences of their foolishness.”
But once again, as had happened for centuries and will happen to the end of time, God’s love overwhelms his anger. Or maybe it’s better to say that God’s love expresses itself in a more tender way, because anger is an expression of love. Hear the agony of God. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” For a powerful effect, put the names of your parishioners in place of Ephraim. “How can I hand you over, Israel?” Then, in a reference to the cities of the plain next to Sodom, cities that were completely destroyed because their wickedness was so great, God says, “How can I treat you like Admah and Zeboim?” I can’t utterly destroy you. You are my child.
Now here is the dramatic turning point of this divine soliloquy. “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.” I still have my anger, but I won’t carry it out in complete destruction. Instead, in my compassion, I will punish my child to correct him. But I won’t allow their sin to completely destroy them.
Why would God change his mind? What has happened outside of God that moved him to change? Was it Israel’s repentance? No, Israel was still determined to turn from God, refusing to repent. It was nothing outside of God that caused this change in the way love is expressed. It was something within God. “For I am God and not man—the Holy One among you.”
God is not like us humans; he is Holy, that is, Wholly Other. There is a limit to our love. There are conditions on our love. Sometimes when we get angry enough, we lose our temper, we can’t control ourselves. Sometimes our children push us beyond our limit and we never speak to them again. But God’s love does not run out, has no limits, demands no conditions. So, in spite all of Israel’s sin, “I will not come in wrath.” Yes, Israel will go into exile. But I will not be governed by my wrath.
Instead, at the right time, I will come in love again. Then, and only then, Israel will follow Yahweh again. In language that is echoed in Revelation 5 and that was surely the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, Yahweh will roar like a lion. And God’s sinful, exiled children will come trembling (“No, Aslan is not safe, but he is good”). Trembling with reverence and relief, with gratitude and love, God’s children will follow their God and not wander away after other gods.
God kept his word. He did roar and the king of Persia let God’s people go home. “I will settle them in their homes.” But they and all of us continue to wander. It seems we never learn. That’s why God sent his other Son “out of Egypt,” to show the limitless love of God for sinners. On him, in our place, God did pour out his fierce wrath. We don’t want to hear that kind of talk today; indeed, some call that “divine child abuse.”
But it’s true to Hosea’s picture of God and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God hates sin because of what it does to his beloved children, and in his anger he must punish it. But loving us as he does, he says, “I will not come in anger, I will not devastate you.” Instead, I will do that to my only begotten Son. That was not “divine child abuse.” It was simply the gracious action of a brokenhearted Parent.
If we believe that, we will follow God with trembling. As the old hymn puts it, “My God, how wonderful you are; your majesty how bright! How beautiful your mercy seat in depths of burning light. Oh how I fear you, living God, with deepest tenderest fears, and worship you with trembling hope and penitential tears?”
I will never forget the funeral of little Jack. At the age of 9 he was killed in a car crash. His parents were bereft, so were his grandparents, so was his school, so was his church, and so was I. As I prayed for something to say at his funeral, God brought to my mind the words of Romans 8, those lovely words about God’s love that conquers all. But the words that seized my attention were the opening words of verse 31, “What then shall we say….” What do we say in the face of such a tragedy? We ask, Why, God, why? What is the answer to that agonized question flung for millenia into the face of God? What then should I say at the funeral of a 9 year old, with his parents and classmates and church members and me sobbing in confused grief? I said, “We do not know the mind of God. But we do know his heart. We’ve seen his heart in the life and death of Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son.” And we have heard it today in God’s brokenhearted soliloquy in Hosea 11.
Author: Scott Hoezee
At times there is a very fine line separating the poems we call Psalms from the biblical literature we call Wisdom such as in the Book of Proverbs. Psalm 49 is a classic example of a definite blurring of that fine line. In fact, Psalm 49 sounds sufficiently like any number of passages in Proverbs that it basically counts as Wisdom Literature in its own right.
What’s more, Psalm 49 sounds one of the definitive themes in Proverbs: namely, the deceptive and hollow nature of wealth and the folly of those who make pursing wealth—and then touting their wealth once they get it—the be-all and end-all of their lives. Although Psalm 49 lacks the father-to-son conversation you so often encounter in Proverbs, these verses can easily be read as the advice of an older person to a younger person.
And the advice is pretty straightforward and can be summed up in that well-worn old bromide, “You can’t take it with you!” There is little sense in fretting those who have more money than you. They are finally very often hollow at their spiritual core. They might live in grand gilded mansions now but at the end of the cosmic day their only permanent home will be a tomb. And those gilded mansions? Someone else will take them over.
This is perhaps the bottom line of Psalm 49: you cannot use your money to buy your way out of death. You cannot parlay with God to secure an everlasting lease on your earthly life. Death is the great equalizer. The great leveler. In the face of death there are no higher or lower classes, no distinction among socio-economic groups. As Proverbs also says—and as that other gem of Wisdom Literature in the Bible, the Book of Ecclesiastes, observes with harsh clarity—wise and foolish, strong and weak, rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant: they all die and they all die in pretty much the same way and then, poof, that’s it. End of story. In fact, verse 12 seems to say that you may as well be a horse or a pig or a cow because you will die just like they die. It’s the only way off the planet. Birth, it is said, leads to a terminal condition called life.
However, in these first 12 verses, there is a scattering of another thought: can a human life in any way be redeemed, purchased, saved? True enough, all the money in the world cannot do it. That much is crystal clear. But can something—can Someone—else accomplish this? The first half of this psalm raises the specter of this possibility but does not answer the question, which is why it is so odd that the Lectionary stops this reading at verse 12 because before this poem concludes, we get an indication that in fact the righteous will be redeemed. “But God surely will redeem me from the realm of the dead, he will take me to himself” the psalmist writes in verse 15. And THAT salvation is what will separate out the fate of the righteous from the fate of foolish, wicked rich people who not only appear to die like an animal but just possibly really do finally and fully die that way with no prospect of any future hope to be seen.
In the Lectionary this is paired with Jesus’ parable about the foolish rich man in Luke 12. And, of course, as we point out in the sermon starter on that passage here on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website, Luke is also the gospel where Jesus famously asks what price a person could pay to buy back his or her own soul if by gaining all the wealth of this world he or she along the way lost his or her soul. It’s a rhetorical question on Jesus’ part. The answer is “You cannot buy your soul back once you forfeit it for money.” You cannot buy it back with your money and in the process of acquiring your wealth you also will have abandoned access to any resource that could do the trick of redeeming back your own soul.
Not a pretty picture. Not a pleasant prospect. But if there is one thing the wealthy are good at in this life it is distracting themselves from uncomfortable truths. It is surely not easy to live without ever facing a few ultimate questions, without ever entertaining—however fleetingly—thoughts as to whether there is anything to come after your heart strokes its last beat. It is not easy to live that way but if history has taught us anything, it is that it is possible to live that way. The unexamined life may not be worth living, as the old adage has it, but it may at least feel fun in the meantime.
Of course, many of us know wealthy people who are able to see the limits of their wealth, who are dedicated disciples of Jesus and who do their best to follow him. So let’s not in our preaching on something like Psalm 49 make this some black-or-white scenario that the rich automatically perish unto perdition and the comparatively poor automatically get saved. There are plenty of poor people who have no more taken the time to examine the foundations of their lives than some wealthy folks.
If Psalm 49 represents part of the Bible’s wisdom tradition, then we need to remember a key lesson of the Book of Proverbs: it takes wisdom to apply wisdom. The reason some of the proverbs in Proverbs contradict each other is because a hallmark of being wise is to know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to life. Sometimes you have to rebuke a fool harshly so as to shake him out of his folly but other times you need to walk away quietly from a fool because no matter what you say, you will make matters worse. So which is it? Well, depends. Your approach to a fool depends on discerning a small welter of other things.
But as a general observation on life—and wisdom is all about making such penetrating observations—it can be said with some certainty that not a few rich people are so busy pursuing and then flaunting their money that they never notice the rapid approach of their own tomb. And if they don’t wake up sooner or later to the deeper truths of the universe, the day will come when it’s too late, when you know you can’t take it with you, and when you know you long ago foreclosed on the few prospects you might ever have had to take a different spiritual path in life.
It reminds me of what was reported to be the final dying words of singer Frank Sinatra: “I’m losing.” Perhaps so but then again, the man who made himself famous singing his signature song “I did it my way” should never have thought that on his own he could ever ultimately “win” to begin with.
This rather lyric (albeit not per se Christian) passage from James W. Jones in his book In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life represents what we might all hope could happen to those willing to examine their own lives but that too often may not happen, especially to those too busy being distracted by their wealth to bother with such ponderings:
“Growing up, children may learn to speak of God, envisioning God within the limits of their cognitive frame perhaps as a giant man (or woman) who lives above the clouds in a great white palace. Children talk to their God as they do to their teddy bears, consulting ‘him’ about the weighty matters of childhood. But the time comes when children trudge off to school and leave behind the enchanted Eden of their private world. There they learn that beyond the clouds are only limitless curves of space bending back on themselves: no great white palace, no friendly giant God, only the infinite, still emptiness. Gradually the child, now become a young man or woman, may cease to speak of God at all.
But perhaps one day, when staring into the face of his or her own newborn child, or when engulfed by the fierce beauty of the raging ocean or the soaring stillness of the mountains, or when confronted by the grave into which parents or friends have tumbled, or wrestling with recalcitrant fears and anxieties that leap unbidden from the caverns of the mind, the young man or woman, now become an adult, discovers that he or she has (in William James’s words) ‘prematurely closed his accounts with reality’ and that there is more to reality than can be dreamt of in any one philosophy. And the grown child may again speak of God, not as a giant in a palace beyond the clouds or a great policeman in the sky but as a way of connecting with the sacred mystery that surrounds us.”
~~ James W. Jones, In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995, p. 22.
Author: Doug Bratt
On that glorious first Easter morning an angel told the two Mary’s that God had raised Christ from the dead. Two thousand years later God’s adopted sons and daughters hear an aging apostle tells us that God also somehow raised us with Christ.
But if it’s sometimes a little hard to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, how much harder is it for God’s beloved people to believe that God somehow raised us with him (1)? It isn’t just, after all, that each of even the saintliest people will still die, unless Christ returns first. It’s also that we also don’t even always feel very spiritually alive; you and I sometimes feel spiritually listless, if not downright dead.
Scholars suggest that much of Paul’s letter to the church in Colosse is a kind of catechism for new Christians who wish to be baptized. In it he teaches about the kind of life that’s appropriate for those who through faith God has raised to life.
Since the early church often baptized Christians early on Easter, Colossians 3’s 21st century hearers might try to imagine early church leaders reading it to people who have been baptized for less than a day. You and I may even picture some of our text’s first hearers as figuratively dripping wet.
In Romans 6 Paul uses baptismal language that’s similar to what he uses in Colossians 3. There, however, he focuses on Christ’s death that we share by virtue of our baptism. In Romans 6, the apostle calls the Romans whom God has buried with Christ to “live a new life.” In Colossians 3 he focuses on Christ’s resurrection by referring to us as “raised to life.” Paul reminds Jesus’ followers that those whom God has already resurrected will someday appear with him in glory.
In a sense, however, these are just two sides of the same coin that is the Christian life. God didn’t, after all, just bury our old sinful selves with Christ. God has also graciously raised us with Christ to a new life of obedience.
Now on what’s perhaps a hot and sleepy Sunday (at least in the northern hemisphere), our text may seem about as helpful as instructions for living on Mars. So those who proclaim Colossians 3 want to let the Spirit help us look for ways to lay out at least some implications for the way we move into a new week.
Paul fills his letter to the Colossian Christians with language about what it means for God’s adopted children to live as Christians whom God has filled with the Holy Spirit. He reminds us that when we’re baptized, God somehow buries and raises us with Jesus Christ. In that way God has made Christ’s death his adopted brothers and sisters’ death, and Christ’s resurrection our resurrection.
And since God has done all that to, in and for us, Paul challenges us set our “hearts on things above” (1b). Yet that may initially sound like a call to some kind of New Age ascent to a higher mental state. It sounds almost as if the apostle is calling Jesus’ followers to detach our minds from this world. Others worry that he’s calling us to be, as the saying goes, so “heavenly minded” that we’re of no “earthly good.” In other words, so busy thinking about heaven that we don’t get involved on earth.
However, Colossians 2 strongly suggests that Paul is calling God’s people to resist such detachment. There, after all, he talks about “fine-sounding arguments” (4) and “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (8). So when Paul calls his readers and hearers to set our hearts on things above in this week’s epistolary lesson, he seems to be calling us to structure our daily lives in ways that are consistent with Jesus’ resurrection.
God has, after all, “hidden” our lives “with Christ in God” (3). While that’s an almost indescribably rich idea, it seems to at least mean that the fullness of Christ’s obedient life now belongs to his adopted brothers and sisters. So God graciously views and treats both those who proclaim and hear Colossians 3 as God does God’s only “natural” Son, Jesus.
However, those whose lives God has hidden with Christ now also have God’s Holy Spirit living in us. So God has given God’s adopted children both the freedom and the power to live as God’s responsible children. As a result, God’s dearly beloved children can let that Spirit shape our lives in ways similar to Jesus’. God, has after all, put our sinful ways to death and is raising us to new life ways of faithful obedience.
So Jesus’ followers don’t just have eternal life ahead of us after we die. God has given you and me himself, life and Christ right now. God has given God’s people the Spirit so that we already have growth and a closer walk with God. God has already also given God’s children the gracious gift of God’s Holy Spirit. So we don’t have to wait until we’re dying to think about the things above. God equips Jesus’ followers already now to act, talk and even think in Christ-like ways.
Sometimes, however, as Leonard Kline, to whom I owe many ideas for this Sermon Starter, notes, that can be very hard to do. God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t, after all, generally live out Christ’s resurrection in dramatic ways. We live our resurrected life in perhaps even harder stuff like our money, family and friendships. We think about the things above in connection with nitty-gritty things like work, sexuality and our attitudes. Christians want to let God raise to life Christ-like views of things like our politics and hospitality. We want to let the Holy Spirit produce in us virtues like love, kindness, faithfulness and self-control.
Of course, such thinking about the things that are above means letting God reorder our natural desires. God’s dearly beloved people, after all, naturally desire wrong things like complete independence, wealth, happiness that we choose and control over others.
In the epistolary lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday God reminds us that Christ is our life. God has, after all, raised not only him but also his adopted brothers and sisters from the dead. Now we belong to Christ, in body and soul, in life and in death. So we let God set our desires on the things God desires.
God graciously uses Christ’s resurrection to free us to desire what we really need. God frees us to desire God and God’s mercy, as well as a life that’s oriented to serving and loving both other people and the Lord. Misplaced desire can kill faith and vitality, beauty and goodness. God, however, gives us life to make us fully alive with Christ. God equips us to desire what’s good as we let God put to death our sin and raise to life new obedience that orients us toward the things that are above.
Some see parallels to the new life about which Paul writes in Colossians 3 in the movie, Dead Man Walking. It portrays the remarkable story of the execution of Matthew Poncelot. Poncelot is a bitter, hardened and cynical criminal whom the courts justly convicted of murder. However, Sister Helen Prejean volunteers to become his spiritual advisor as his time is running out. Because she’s a Christian, she wants to show Poncelot the face of love and help bring him to genuine repentance before he dies.
Eventually this condemned man announces to Prejean that he’s reading his Bible. It has convinced him, he tells her, that Jesus will be waiting for him after he’s executed. While this profession of faith is theologically solid, Sister Prejean reacts to it with something resembling shock. “That’s not how it is, Matthew,” she tells him. “It’s not like a ticket you hand in. You have to participate in your own redemption.”
Some Christians may react with our own shock to what Sister Prejean tells Matthew. She sounds, in some ways, after all, like she’s insisting a Christian must still work his way into heaven. Yet some of God’s adopted sons and daughters sense that Sister Prejean is onto something. Matthew Poncelot doesn’t initially, after all, seem to be “setting” his heart “on things above.” He just seems to want to save (or at least comfort) his own wretched skin.
Sister Prejean, on the other hand, wants Poncelot to enjoy the fullness of salvation in Jesus Christ. Shortly (and tellingly) after Easter, she challenges him to admit to his full responsibility for the ghastly crimes he has committed. Sister Prejean invites Matthew to repent not only to God, but also to the parents of the young people he killed.
At the end, God equips the condemned killer to do just that. Poncelot finally admits that he did assault the young woman and pull the trigger that killed her young friend. As the authorities strap him, as if to a cross, to the gurney with the poisonous IV dripping into his arm, he finally admits his role to his victims’ parents who witness his death. As Poncelot awaits his execution by lethal injection, he expresses deep sorrow for what he’s done.
So Poncelot, in one sense, accepts the implications of his baptism. He no longer offers excuses or alibis for his sins. Matthew stops treating God as a miraculous helper only at the time of his death. He, instead, begins to treat God as a loving Father who raises God’s adopted children to life.
Matthew Poncelot has, in other words, essentially set his mind on the things that are above. He finally begins thinking the way God wants God’s children to think about things. At the moment of his death, Matthew Poncelot finally lives as God intended him to live all along. He shows that God has buried his old, sinful self and has raised Matthew’s weak, often self-serving faith to life.
On just this side of the grave, God wraps Ponceloet’s life in Christ’s so that God sees God’s adopted son, albeit a sinful one, whom God has saved by grace. As a result, there seems to be little question with whom Poncelot will spend eternity on the other side his execution.