Monday, November 26, 2007

The Truth is Marching On

This morning’s (second) scripture lesson is Colossians 1, verses 11 through 20.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
Being strengthened with all power according to God’s gracious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to God, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son God loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation. For by him all things were created: all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the first born from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all God’s fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
I have been thinking about it for a little while, and I have decided that I am not sure that it is at all appropriate that the Christmas Holidays follow so soon after Thanksgiving. In some grocery stores the Christmas decorations have been up as soon as the Halloween candy came down, and while this kind of thing certainly signals a rush to Christmas, even now I am wishing there was a little more time before we hit the official Christmas season.
While I am really happy to see Christmas Coke on the shelf, wreaths on street lamps and front doors, and Christmas lights, whether tacky or tasteful showing up in trees that are for the most part now bare of leaves, this year I feel like our rapid transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas is a little strange, too much almost.
Because we go from sitting around a common table, sharing a bountiful feast with friends and family, taking time to sit back and realize how good we really have it, being thankful for so many good gifts – to thinking about the things we want Santa to bring us.
We go from a spirit of satisfaction at Thanksgiving to a spirit of want – feelings of contentment to feelings of need.
We go from finally being happy with what we have to looking around us and thinking about what we would really like to have.
I think it is a sad situation; and while I certainly like Christmas presents as much as the next guy, I hate to think about how Christ’s birthday moves this country from its place of “we are so blessed with what we have” right back into our normal places of “I sure would like this” and “we don’t really have enough of that do we.”
Just what would Paul say to us I wonder. What freedom would he have to offer?
Some movements in Biblical scholarship over the last 150 years or so proposed that the author of Colossians sought to answer the same question. Such a proposal, the theory that Colossians was not written by Paul but by someone seeking to apply Paul’s theology to his or her contemporary situation, explains the difference in vocabulary used in this letter, the glaring differences in sentence structure that appears, and the way Colossians addresses problems in the church that did not emerge until after Paul’s death.
The new circumstances that some aspiring theologian hoped to apply Paul’s theology, while adding his or her own nuances, deal greatly with power and influence. Apparently some philosophy was exercising strong influence over the Christian community by claiming that some force other than God could control their lives and destinies.
Paul, of course, claimed that while we must live under the forces of government and empire, it is truly Christ who is Emperor or King. That while we do still live in a world where powers and principalities shape our existence, Christ will return “like a thief in the night,” “he will descend from the clouds at the sound of the archangel’s trumpet.”
However, while Paul urged the Christian community to be ever ready for this trumpet call, it never seemed to come. And while their ears were open they didn’t hear it, and so became distracted by the other forces which shape the world in which we live in, falling pray to philosophies and idols that seemed to give order and purpose to their lives.
Of course, we are not so different. While at times our ears are attuned to the sounds of the heavens, we are not a people of ever ready waiting. After all, there are presents to be bought, tables to be set, gifts to be wrapped, check-out lines to wait in, and credit card bills to try and ignore until after the New Year.
We have become distracted, we have tuned our attention elsewhere, and so the sound of trumpets is not what we wait for as we think about what all has to be done in the days ahead, days that do not resemble either waiting or the Thankfulness of Thursday that is by now a long past memory, cast in shadow by the commerce of Black Friday.
While we do not worship Apollo or some vague Philosophy that the author of Colossians seeks to combat, our thoughts and emotions are heavily influenced by a culture of want, a culture of greed, a culture that will mislead us all at some point in time because the message will be heard by us all many, many more times should we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Today we will not hear Jesus saying in Matthew, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. ….” But we will no doubt hear how Jared diamonds will adorn our fingers, how LL Bean will keep us warm, and how the new BMWs can get us everywhere we want to go while conserving fuel and keeping our families safe.
And in such commercials we all listen, because we seek meaning, purpose, and happiness; and so the idols of materialism have infiltrated our thoughts and homes, and even our religion.
We do not thank God for the rains and lakes that have been provided, think of ways to conserve this majestic creation, living within our means, valuing the ecosystem more than the economy – so we go back to God praying for rain like a child who’s traded his bicycle for a stack of baseball cards and now asks for a new one. How should we expect our God to respond, than with a loving mother’s voice saying, “you were not responsible with the first one I gave you so what makes you think I’ll give you another.”
For God does not dispense these things that we think we need as freely as God sets us free from the system that causes us to want more and more and more.
The careful study of this morning’s passage may well lead us all to conclude that this letter was not written by Paul but another, but our scholarship is wasted if we do not also pick up on the verbs of this passage, verbs that do not present a theory but a fact, verbs that do not present an opportunity but a reality – the forces which sway are thinking are not God, and in fact, God has already concurred these things.
This concept, that God has already conquered these forces, is the subtle nuance that the author of Colossians adds to Paul’s theology; it is a shift from focusing on the return of Christ that is to come to the reign of Christ that is already our reality. That while endurance is still needed, that while patience is still a vital virtue, we “have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son” – and here we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Such a statement does reflect a theological shift, a necessary theological shift, for Christ had not yet come back. However, by the inspiration of God, the theology did not allow Christ’s return to disappear into myth, but caused a shift in theology, a shift to focus on these great gifts that we have already, the gift that Jesus’ power already controls the destiny of the world.
For as we face Christmas, looking for things we don’t have already, Colossians calls us to look at the great gift that we do have.
That when Christmas morning comes, and the presents don’t make us as happy as those people in the commercials seem, we have already been promised that God entered our world, and did not condemn it but brought us redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection.
As we face Christmas – fall into the trap of thinking the world is here for our consumption, though after we gorge ourselves our souls are empty - we are invited to eat at this table, remembering again how love is evidenced through the simplicity of bread and wine – How our God is evidenced not through gold and diamonds and Mercedes Benz, but through the most common elements of Christ’s time.
And as we look and look, taking into account things that we want and don’t have, look here for all that we truly need has already been given.
For while Santa Clause is coming to town – the truth that Christ has come is already here;
And while the sales will end, our rush will slow by New Year’s, the truth of Christ’s love is marching on, never to be stifled by the forces that tell us we still need more.
That truth, his truth, is marching on.