Sunday, July 28, 2013

When "What Everyone Knows" Is Wrong

Texts:  Psalm 138; Colossians 6:6-23

EVER SINCE WE'RE LITTLE, WE LEARN that certain things are true about life in this world.  Things like, "No pain, no gain," "There's no free lunch," and "You get what you pay for."   We learn that if we want to get ahead there are powers and authorities we have to keep happy.  It might be your parents, your teachers, your boss-- or if we're superstitious, maybe it's Fate or karma or the powers of nature.  The general rule is that you have to give to get, and that's just the way things are.  It's what everyone knows.

And these basic principles don't just apply to our livelihoods and lifestyles.  As children of this fallen world we're born with the conviction that it works the same way in the spiritual realm.  It's what everyone just knows.  Good people go to heaven.   Being good means doing good deeds.  Good deeds and the right kind of worship will earn us the favor of God, however we conceive him, her, or it to be.  And if we're good and do good deeds and worship our god or gods the right way, he, she, or it simply has to reward us with prosperity on earth and heaven, paradise, nirvana, the Elysian Fields, whatever we're looking forward to in the life to come.

It's ingrained into us that that's how things are.  That if we're going to be full and fulfilled we have to keep the powers that be happy and do, do, do.  It even distresses us to think otherwise.

But along comes Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and He says, "Relax.  Forget all that do, do, do.  Trust in who I am.  Rest in what I have done.  Stop listening to what "everyone knows" and live by My wisdom instead."

This message of our Lord Jesus Christ is the message St. Paul was bringing to the Christians in the church at Colossae nearly two thousand years ago, and it's the same message the Holy Spirit is bringing to us in His Word today.  It's a radical message, a message that contradicts everything the world teaches us and everything our gut tells us is true.  But when it comes to teaching and truth, it's always best for us to obey the voice of the Lord who is Wisdom and Truth, and as new creatures in Him we need to leave the conventional wisdom of this fallen world behind.

St. Paul begins our passage from chapter 2 of his letter to the Colossians with these words, "So then, just as you have received Jesus Christ as Lord . . . " Everything hinges on this.  If we don't know what kind of Lord Jesus Christ is, and how we have received Him, we'll never get loose from "what everyone knows" and walk in the freedom of Almighty God.  What kind of Lord is Christ Jesus?  He's the ultimate, mighty, and supreme Lord Paul wrote about in Chapter 1, in whom all God's fullness dwells, as we heard in the Call to Worship.  And how is He to be received as Lord?  Verses 1:22-23 says,

"But now he [that is, God] has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel."

God willing, you received Christ as Lord not by doing anything, not even by repeating the formula of a prayer as if that were a kind of charm to make God save you.  No, you were reconciled to God by Jesus' death on the cross, and His blood was applied to you by God's doing alone. All you had to do was put your faith in-- that is, trust-- in the good news concerning what God had already done.  And as we know from elsewhere in the Scripture, even our ability to believe the gospel is a gift and work of God, and not something we have to or can work up on our own.

So if this is the case with you, if this truly is the Christ you received and how you received Him, then, you Christian of Colossae, you Christian of P----, continue, Paul urges in 2:6, to live, walk, conduct your life in Him.  As you live your life, may your roots of faith go down in Christ deeper than the most stubborn dandelion.  Let your knowledge of Him be built up higher than the tallest skyscraper.  Make sure that you are continually strengthened in the faith you have been taught, so you come to grasp more and more who Jesus is and the wonder of what He did to redeem you from sin and death, so you may overflow with thankfulness to your Savior and Lord.

Oh, yes, faith in Jesus is practical.  We aren't saved by what we do, regardless of what conventional wisdom says.  But neither can the word of Jesus that saved us just be a nice story that lives up in our heads and we forget about it most of the time.  We need by the grace of the Holy Spirit to be walking around continually in the wonderful new reality of God's work for us in Jesus Christ.

Why do we need this reminder?  Because, Paul goes on in verse 7, it's so easy for us to be taken
"captive again through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends upon human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ."

This phrase "basic principles of this world" carries several layers of meaning in the Greek, and you'll see it rendered various ways.  "The rudiments of this world" (KJV); "the elemental spirits of the universe" (RSV); "the elementary principles of the world" (NASV), to quote a few.  It mingles the ideas of rules to be followed, of facts about "the way things are," and of spirits or entities--"gods" as Psalm 138 puts it-- that have to be kowtowed to and placated.  The Holy Spirit wanted all these meanings to be included, so we His people will understand that nothing is to take the place of Jesus Christ as we live and serve Him in this world.

The Lord our God created the world and set its basic elements in order, but we are not to be subject to our chemical natures.  He created the angels and all principalities and powers, but we are not to fear them or worship them-- especially when they rebel against God and claim to be greater than or more relevant than He.  God Almighty established the basic rules of right and wrong and wrote them on the hearts of every human being, and He gave His people Israel the written Law to show them how to live in His presence.  But even the holy Law given to Moses is not the way to fullness and satisfaction in this world or the next.

All these things throw us back on ourselves for hope and peace, but there is no hope or peace there.  No, only in Jesus Christ does "all the fullness of the Deity live in bodily form,"  and only in Christ is fullness given to us.

By warning us against the "basic principles of this world" Paul draws an uncrossable line between both pagan practices and Jewish legalism on the one side, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ on the other.  The church in Colossae would have faced pressures from both camps.

There would have been Judaizers telling them that to be real Christians they had to be circumcised and become Jews.  As you know, circumcision was a private sign of cutting oneself off from pagan gods and pagan practices and covenanting to worship the Lord alone.  But it bound a man-- and his affiliated household-- to obey all the Law and find his life and hope in it.  But now Christ has come, and He has fulfilled the Law for us.  Our circumcision is now spiritual, not physical, as Christ cuts off from us our old nature that could never please God.  Baptism is the sign given to us who have received fullness in Christ.  It is a public sign that our old sinfulness, our old allegiance to doing things our way has been buried in His tomb.  And our new selves have been raised with Him through faith in the power of God.

All God's power, all God's doing in Christ!  For "when you were dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ."  Dead equals helpless!  This term "the written code" in verse 14 literally means "handwriting" and it carries the sense of a legal indictment against us.  And isn't that what the Law ended up to be?  The decrees and ordinances that expressed God's holiness became a writ that put us on trial and condemned us to death!  But Jesus Christ took our sentence under the Law and made it His own!  And in the process, He also dealt with the forces, the powers and authorities that had us locked up in fear.

We aren't in the habit of worshipping gods and goddesses identified with forces of nature.  At least, I hope we aren't.  But we can still be bound up in superstition.  We can still feel a compulsion to check our horoscope before deciding anything important.  We can still be pulled towards believing some prophet who claims to have a source of special spiritual knowledge separate from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and is revelation in His word.  But by the best divine irony in history, Jesus Christ as He hung on the cross dying for our sins made a public spectacle of all of that.  Even as He was mocked and ridiculed He turned the tables and showed how foolish and powerless all those so-called gods really were.

You as a man or woman redeemed by Jesus Christ are no longer held captive by the basis principles of this world!  You have been freed from the clutches of the elemental spirits of this universe!  Therefore, let your mind be free of false guilt and needless fear.  The Colossians were under pressure to observe the Jewish festivals and the seventh-day Sabbath.  No, says Paul!  Those things were only shadows and pointers to Christ who was to come.  Christ is the reality, hold on to Him!  Some people even today will claim to have special visions and revelations, and try to make you feel you're second rate as a Christian because you just go to church and hear the preaching and receive the sacraments and do "unglamourous" things like that.  Others will go on and on about their guardian angels, as if it were wrong to trust directly in God.  Ignore them all.   You're running a race greater than any Olympics; don't let anyone get you off track and disqualify you for the prize.  People like that, Paul says, are proving they have forgotten the identity of the Lord who has saved them.  Jesus is our only Head; we, His body the Church, keep growing only as we stay connected to Him.

You have died with Christ to the basic principles of this world.  So don't submit to living as if they still governed you!  Don't go thinking that God is going to save you or keep you saved by certain things you do and enjoy or don't do and enjoy.  Paul illustrates the problem in terms of the Jewish kosher laws, but all religions set up foods and practices that are artificially taboo, even if they are good in themselves.  For us in our day, it might be rules about alcoholic beverages or watching movies or what car we drive or whether we're ecologically sensitive enough.  All these things belong to this world, which is passing away.  They can't save us, and abstaining from them can't even make us moral.

We as Christians live in this world, but our reality is in Christ.  We feel pressure to conform to the rules of this world, but they have all been subverted and turned on their heads by Christ.  "No pain, no gain"?  Christ's pain is our gain.  "There's no free lunch"?  Christ Himself is our free lunch, and we feed on Him by faith forever.  "You get what you pay for"?  We get what Jesus has paid for, eternal life, and we no longer need to fear the death we deserved.  We no longer need to fear Fate or those nameless forces that seemed to be out to get us, for we have died in Christ to them all and they no longer have any power over us.

Brothers and sisters, everyone wants to feel satisfied, to be fulfilled, to experience fullness in their lives.  Everybody knows how to get that-- that is, they think they do.  But in this case, what everybody knows is wrong.  No, bad people don't go to heaven, but our God has found a way to make bad people good, through no effort of their own.  For in Christ lives all the fullness of Almighty God in bodily form, and by His cross His fullness, power, triumph, and joy are ours.  Live each moment of each day rooted and built up in Him, keep on being strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and may your thankfulness overflow towards God for doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.  Amen.