November 24, 2013 - Colossians 1.11-20

“Game of Thrones”

Colossians 1:11-20

November 24, 2013

 

11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully

12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

 

We live in a world under the grip of unseen, powerful forces, "the powers." These powers jerk us around, pull our strings, and attempt to enslave us. But thanks be to God, Jesus Christ is Lord! He has on his cross defeated the powers. He shall reign! Christians are those who know that the rule of the powers has been defeated.

Today's scripture is a letter, a letter written by Paul to the Christians at Collossae. Let's open this letter and see if it just might be a letter addressed to us as well.

The once great port of Collossae was destroyed by an earthquake in about 64 CE; it silted up, and it's never been rebuilt. For that little town of Collossae, and the tiny group of Christians within it, Paul wrote from prison a stunning short letter in which the victory of Christ the King over "the powers" is his chief message.

Now, before you dismiss this talk about principalities and powers, ask the question, "Who runs our world?" The politicians who parade about on the evening news? We think of them as powerful people. But they say that they are victims of "forces beyond our control." When we complain about the fix we're in, we're told "The economy" is to blame. What is that? Have you ever seen "the economy?" It is the power that determines our wellbeing, pulls our strings, and gives us happiness or misery, even though you can't see it. That's the language we use. We can't touch and see the "economy" or "capital trends," we can't touch "terrorism" or the "global market" but these "powers" call the shots.

There was a grand procession whenever Pontius Pilate came to town. His great military procession into Jerusalem was meant to be a sign of Roman prestige and Roman power and Roman presence. There was a message in these glorious parades: You Jews better not get out of line or the empire will come crashing down upon you.

A particularly volatile time was Passover, the week of the celebration of Jewish liberation from the empire of Egypt, a good time for Jewish hotheads to work up resentment against Rome and foster rebellion. So Pilate swept into town the week before with a full cohort of troops and armor and warhorses, just to remind any potential insurgent of who was really in charge in Jerusalem. One bloody afternoon the Romans had to crucify two thousand Jewish rebels, putting up their bodies to rot along the roads leading into Jerusalem just to remind the Jews of who was really in charge.

The point of the parade was that everybody in Jerusalem understood that Roman rule was absolute, fixed, and final. The Romans were willing to work with the Jews – as long as everyone understood that there were limits to Jewish freedom. The Jews could worship their God up at their temple; in fact, if you could keep them busy at the temple, in all the complex sacrifices and ceremonies, it might keep them happy and pacified. Just as long as they and their God understood who was really in charge.

The military might, and hardware, the technology of imperial power that was displayed in the parade was all a public statement about who ruled.  It reminds me of the parades I saw on the news from the Cold War era, the ones in Red Square in Moscow.

Paul says that they should be thankful that God has rescued them "from the power of darkness, and has transferred them into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, for the forgiveness of sins" (1:13-14).

Now Jesus came to take on the principalities and powers. He lived and taught a way of being human, which challenged the powers. The powers said: "Live and die for the almighty dollar!" Jesus said you can't serve God and mammon. The powers said get a big gun and use it; that's the only way to get things done. Jesus said that those who take the sword perish by the sword. The powers said that Caesar was the most powerful ruler in the world. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God. The powers whipped us into line by threat of military force, Jesus ruled as a bleeding lamb upon a throne.

A few days after Pilate’s parade, there was another parade into Jerusalem. That parade began, not with proud, strong legionnaires in the lead but with a rabble of ordinary folk, and many little children too. People cut down palm branches and waved them as a sign of welcome and hospitality. At the end of that parade was not a cultured, educated Roman official like Pilate, but a humble-looking rabbi, bouncing in on the back of a brown donkey. Not one single religious or government official turned out to meet him; he was welcomed only by common folk. Not one single member of the clergy welcomed him either. In fact, a short time later, the rabbi would take a whip in hand and drive the religious officials out of the temple, in a dramatic, defiant act that challenged their authority.

As he entered the city, some people took up a chant, “Hosanna! Hail, David’s son!” If any Jewish official had heard the cry, they would have gotten very nervous, or at least would have laughed. “King David’s son?” David was Israel’s greatest king, founder of the nation when it was a nation. There can’t be a royal David’s son, now that the Romans are in charge.

Two parades.  Two different politics. We are surely meant to ask, “Who’s in charge here? Who rules?” Two parades, two very different “kings.”  Is Pilate– and the Caesar whom he represents and whose will he enforces– king? Or is this rabbi, bouncing on the back of a donkey, the “king”? Pilate will tolerate no rival for Caesar, no other claimant for the throne.   Which king? Which kingdom? Where would you be? In which parade would you find your place?

I think that is the question here: that’s the question, the only question.  This is what Paul is talking about.

Now, what happens to people like Jesus who stand up to the powers? It looks fine for a while; and then the powers get organized. The tanks roll in. The powerful, invisible forces get going. That's what happened to Jesus. The powers can't stand people who challenge them. The powers rule by the illusion that they have everything under control. So if someone breaks loose, speaks of a different world, an alternative rule, they get nervous.

The powers nailed up above his head the charge of which he is guilty; he acted like he was in charge when they were in charge. They stripped him naked and publicly humiliated him in his trial and crucifixion. They celebrated their victory over the would-be king. And then Jesus hung there, proof that nobody can beat the system.  But the surprise was on them. The cross was not the defeat of Christ by the powers; it was the defeat of the powers by the bloody cross of Christ.

Which parade is greater?

The movie Amazing Grace tells the true story of William Wilberforce. As a young wealthy aristocrat in 18th-century England, Wilberforce lived a rather wild, immoral life. Then he was powerfully converted in the Wesleyan revival. He forsook sexual immorality and entered politics. That's right. God called this new Christian to a political career. He ran for parliament and for almost 40 years was the leading crusader against slavery in the British House of Commons.

Politics to be sure was not Wilberforce's only passion. He was actively engaged in evangelism. One of his most important books was a plea to the British upper classes to become committed Christians. He and his friends actively promoted foreign missionary work around the world. Wilberforce's primary calling, however, as a devout evangelical Christian, was politics.

Wilberforce believed that God had brought him to political power to end the ghastly evil of the slave trade and slavery.   In 1787, when Wilberforce began his crusade, slave ships from "Christian" Europe carried 100,000 captured Africans to the Americas every year. In fact, Wilberforce's England was the leader in this savage tyranny, with British ships carrying one-half of this human cargo. The huge profits represented a significant part of the British economy.

But Wilberforce knew slavery was a terrible sin against God and neighbor - even though almost all respectable people of his time quietly accepted the prevailing view that slaves were just property to be bought and sold like coal and cattle. Wilberforce prayed and lobbied. In fact, his small circle of friends regularly prayed three hours a day for their many tasks, including their crusade to abolish the slave trade and slavery.  Wilberforce made the radical claim that persons and ethics matter more than money and profit.

After a 20-year struggle, the British parliament finally abolished slave trade in 1807. Twenty-six years later, in the very year Wilberforce died, the British parliament abolished slavery itself. Slowly, over the next century, the rest of the world did the same.

Wilberforce was the central player in this momentous change in world history. He did it all because of Christ - because he knew Jesus was lord of all, including all the powers.  The powers - like lust, greed, fear, and all the rest - whisper to you that you can't resist them. Go along to get along. Get more stuff, a fat bank account, and work with the powers. But Paul says that these powers were defeated on the cross. They have no power over you. The battle has been won. Something has been done about the powers.

How can we live in the light of that victory that was worked on the cross? How can we best exercise our citizenship in this new reign, under a new King?

I'll tell you. Every time that you pray that prayer that our King has taught us, you are saying, in great joy and in great defiance, that Jesus Christ is Lord and that the "powers" aren't. "Thy kingdom come." Every time you bow your head and say a blessing at a meal, you are making a political statement, saying that the food that you partake is a gift of God, not an achievement of your savvy economic mastery.

So, having heard this proclamation, this victory announcement from Paul's Letter to the Colossians, we are to go back home, go out into our town, and live as those who now know who sits on the throne and how the world ends and who is in charge.  But we always struggle to live that out.

I heard of a young man who, in many ways, has had a tragic life. His father, who was a gifted and influential entrepreneur, died when he was very young, then his mother died after a long, tragic illness. Now a young adult and on his own, he has decided that he wants to be a teacher. The other day he ran into one of his father’s old friends. The man said to him, “If your father knew that you were getting ready to throw away your life, the way you have turned your back on the life he loved, he would roll over in his grave.”  Really?

A New York Times reporter visiting one booming mega church outside Phoenix recently found the typical scene: a drive-through latte stand, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at every service, and sermons about “how to discipline your children, how to reach your professional goals, how to invest your money, how to reduce your debt. ” On Sundays children played with church-distributed Xboxes, and many congregants had signed up for a twice-weekly aerobics class called Firm Believers. [1]  What or who is being worshipped here?

For Christians, life is sometimes mostly a matter of, “Which parade?”  In which parade do you walk? I think that’s on the table for discussion almost anytime that the church gathers. Which parade?  That question would have been very relevant for first century people.  It is also very relevant for you and me in today’s world.  Which parade are you marching in?

 

 

[1] McKibben, Bill, “The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong”

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