The Image | Proper 29

Colossians 1:11-20

11 [May you be] strengthened through his glorious might so that you endure everything and have patience; 12 and [give] thanks with joy to the Father. He made it so you could take part in the inheritance, in light granted to God’s holy people. 13 He rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14 He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation,

16 Because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him.

17 He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him.

18 He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything.

19 Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, 20 and he reconciled all things to himself through him—whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross. (CEB)

The Image

The last Sunday of the Christian year gives us a chance to do—in the church—what I often find myself doing as we approach New Year’s Eve on the civil calendar. I tend to reflect back on the year that has now passed. It’s not really a focused thing that I do on purpose. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with the intention of engaging in such reflection. Rather, it just seems to come naturally. I find myself doing the same kind of natural reflection near my birthday and wedding anniversary each year, too.

I mean, those moments feel significant, right? You go to sleep one day, you wake up the next day, and a whole year has passed. On July 27, I woke up and I was suddenly forty-three. On October 13, I woke up and suddenly I’d been married for eighteen years. Last January 6—can you believe this—last January 6, I woke up next to a forty-year-old woman. I don’t even know what happened! The day before, she’d been in her 30s.

And the number of those transitioning events only grows: children’s birthdays and rising grade levels in school. This past year, I ended up with a high school freshman living in my house. (So, if you lost yours… I swear it wasn’t long ago that this young woman fit in my arms).

Every time there is a transition from one season which is known into a new one which I haven’t yet experienced, I wax a little nostalgic about the season that is about to close. I also find myself, near those moments of transition, looking forward to what’s coming. I start to anticipate this new thing that is about to begin, and I have hopes—hopes (plural)—for what might be. After all, this might be the year that…. You can fill in the blank for yourself.

The focus of this Sunday is the Reign of Jesus Christ over all of creation. Yet, this Sunday also looks backward and forward. The Old Testament text from Jeremiah 23 recalls a time when those kings and leaders who were supposed to shepherd God’s people didn’t do a very good job. They were corrupt. They didn’t provide care for the people for whom it was their responsibility to provide care. They took bribes. Perverted justice. They led the people to destruction because they didn’t trust in God and certainly didn’t care to bother with doing right. And the people ended up being scattered.

So, the prophet tells us that God has decided to clean up our mess. God will gather the people together, and God will raise up shepherds for the people who will care for them so perfectly that they don’t have to be afraid or dismayed. And not one—not one—shall be missing. “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from David’s line, and he will rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land. During his lifetime, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And his name will be The LORD Is Our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:5-6 CEB).

The prophetic arc moves from hope for a good shepherd and a righteous king to the actual appearance of the Son of God, the beloved in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins. The Gospel text for today, from Luke (which we didn’t read), is of the crucifixion. It might seem an odd text to use on a Sunday focused on the reign of Christ, but it does point out the difference in how God’s dominion is established. This is a reign of freedom and peace which is achieved through the saving power of Christ’s death on a cross.

There is no military conquest. No subjugation of unwilling peoples. No removal of freedoms to keep the population in line. No threats. No illicit land acquisitions. This kingdom, this dominion of God, is not like the Roman Empire, or the Mongolian Empire, or the British Empire, or the United States, or any other power that has risen across the span of human history that gained power and wealth by destroying the lives of other human beings.

The inscription on the cross above Jesus said, “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38 CEB). God has made peace with all things: God has reconciled all things to God’s self, whether those things are in heaven or on earth, through the blood of Jesus spilled on the cross. God doesn’t establish God’s dominion by conquest, but by gift. God has offered God’s own self to redeem the whole creation.

What’s more, Paul tells us that God “…rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13 CEB). God has transferred us to the kingdom of Jesus. The word in Greek refers to a change of situation or place. Despite appearances, we have already been transferred to the reign of God through Jesus Christ. We’re already citizens of God’s realm.

Because the dominion of God is so different from every other kingdom, empire, or republic that has come before, and because we are a part of this different kingdom, everything has changed. Jesus is Lord of ALL. As Paul declared, “Because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him” (Colossians 1:16-17 CEB).

We can note this, but still look at the world and know that it’s a dangerous place filled with real concerns and worries. Whether one believes the science or not, global warming is a real threat to life as we know it on Earth. War and conflict, and the tragic death tolls that go with them, seem ever-present. Government officials point across our borders in every direction and tell us that all our problems are from those people on the other side. How are we supposed to feel safe in this world?

One response to this widespread distress (real or imagined) is to emphasize our differences rather than our similarities. When we do that, then we react to those differences by trying to isolate ourselves. We build walls to protect us. We militarize civilian police forces, especially in places with high rates of poverty. We press for tougher immigration laws to keep out people who look, act, speak, and worship differently from us.

As I reflect on the past year, it’s clear that we’ve heard a lot of rhetoric and calls for isolation and division because of a false worldview that attempts to highlight differences between “us” and “them.” We’ve seen a lot of activity focusing on division because of a false worldview that wants to highlight differences. Much of that talk and action is nothing short of an attempt to dehumanize living, breathing human beings who are just as beloved of God as we are; who are part of the same human family as we are.

Paul reminds us that Jesus is Lord of all people and all things, no matter who they are, what they are, where they’re located, where they’re from, what language they speak, how much power or authority they might have, what religion they adhere to, how rich or poor they are, or how highly they might think of themselves. The differences and divisions that we choose to see and choose to highlight are only constructs that we invent. In the dominion of God, these divisions we’ve made will be eradicated.

All human beings have their beginning in God. Scientifically speaking, the entire human race shares 99.9% of the same gene pool. That means the two most radically different people on earth are 99.9% alike. The differences between people whether it’s individuals or groups, really are inconsequential. In the coming dominion of God, the human race is one people. All of humanity has been reconciled to God by the blood of the cross. We are all children of God and, as Jeremiah said, in the dominion of the Good Shepherd, not one sheep—not one—shall be missing.

That’s pretty good news, I think.

Paul supports his stance by reminding us who this Jesus is. “He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him. He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything. Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him” (Colossians 1:17-19 CEB).

I wonder if we don’t forget, sometimes, that Jesus Christ is eternal. Or, maybe it’s not that we forget, but the very idea of eternal is so beyond our ability to grasp that we aren’t able to fathom the consequences of what God becoming a human being means. It’s difficult enough to grasp the scope of the word all when it comes to Christ’s Lordship.

In a way, that’s what this Sunday helps us begin to understand because, as well as looking backward to what has been, this Sunday also turns our eyes forward to what is coming. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent where our expectation of Christ’s return cranks up into high gear. Our anticipation of Jesus Christ coming to establish God’s dominion in all its fullness goes through the roof! Jesus is coming. God’s dominion is here.

So, on this last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, I find myself looking in two directions at once: backward and forward. I’ve found myself reflecting on my personal life and the life of our congregation. Looking back, we’ve all experienced significant changes in 2019. Some of those changes have been loss. Some have been about gain. Some changes were about ending a ministry or a form of how it had been done in the past, and some were about new ministries beginning. Looking forward, I see hope that we might live as if God’s reign were right now. (Because it is). What Paul reminds us in Colossians is that, no matter what has been or what will come, Christ is Lord over all.

I think it’s appropriate to come back to Paul’s words at the beginning of this lection: May we be strengthened through the glorious might of Jesus and endure everything we experience with patience. May we give thanks with joy to God the Father who has enabled us to take part in the inheritance granted to God’s people. For, we have been rescued from the control of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Jesus Christ where all people are loved, all creation lives together in peace, and all that God has made is set free from every kind of bondage that held it captive.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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