First, the Philippian readers report that Christ has left all power behind and made himself nothing for entrance into this world. Their strategy for a city will call for humility, relationships, and spiritual maturity while working out their salvation with fear and trembling in a crooked and depraved generation. The witness of the church will be their becoming like-minded and considering the interests of others above their own. Someday at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The Philippian Christ leads us to fellowship and unity with believers.

“The Colossians group has noticed that Christ is the firstborn of creation and a kind of cosmic glue that holds the entire universe together. He has unmasked principalities and has literally paraded them in the streets. Christ occupies a powerful reigning position physically in heaven, manifesting the “fullness of the Deity…in bodily form. They then take this transcendent, powerful Christology and transforms it into action plans for the churches. They affirm Christ’s lordship over all the city systems and structures, so they suggest church-led strategies to take on the renewal of all the systems of the city.  As well, a Colossian reading requires us to address the ecological crisis of our time for Christ is more than Lord of the church; he Lord of Creation.” In other words, the Colossian Christ directs us to be engaged in every aspect of life – political, economic, social and environmental.

Ray then points out how we have separated these two descriptions and defined our spirituality in one way or another. “The problem is that early on in the twentieth century, especially after 1920, the “Philippian Christians” and the “Colossian Christians” separated, and a great gulf appeared. We’ve called it the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, and it profoundly impacted ministry. Because modernists moved almost exclusively toward the social gospel and fundamentalists moved toward pietism.”

Let’s not fall into that trap but as we study Colossians keep our eyes on Philippians as well.

The first several verses of Colossians focus on Paul’s relationship with people. You cannot talk about God without talking about people or people without talking about God. So, this passage breaks up into two parts. Part 1(verses 1-14) is about our lives and Part 2 (verses 15-20) is about Christ and the nature of God.

“All over the world this gospel is producing fruit. (Verse 9). The nature of the gospel is to grow. It grows out – like branches – and it grows down – like roots. It grows like a virus and it grows like a vine. It grows in a thousand different ways – but it’s nature is to grow.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes: “In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade. The whole creation is one lunatic fringe. If creation had been left up to me, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that.”

The gospel is a living thing that adapts. If the host dies it survives – much like a virus retaining its strength even if the carrier succumbs. It will change, morph, assume new identities, and take new forms because it is alive and cannot be forced into one particular shape or culture.

And the result of the gospel is not merely correct knowledge about God or the growth of organizations but fruit in the lives of real people.

“One of the commonest ploys of the devil is to get us to think right thoughts about God and leave it at that. Or to do right things about God and leave it at that. Neither the thinking nor the doing is getting inside us, becoming life, our life. But one of the fundamental convictions of the spiritual life, and especially the Christian spiritual life, is that we can only know a thing by becoming it. No truth is Christian if it is disembodied: “the Word became flesh” in Jesus. He also becomes flesh in us, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Eugene Peterson

It is irrepressible and will grow invisibly even in the most hostile conditions. Some say, it grows even stronger and spreads faster in those conditions. The enemy of real growth is often success and the enemy of maturity is the same. The Gospel will move on when the form no longer contains the essential life and substance of the Gospel. Just as our bodies are a mortal tent for the life of Christ so are the forms of the Church for the gospel. They are disposable and even though we sometimes treat them as if they are permanent they are only temporary. When there is no longer life in the structure then the life moves on leaving only a shell behind. The shell may remain standing for decades or more but the Gospel has found other ways to grow and expand. None of us can know when that is. Look at Nineveh. It was a culture given over to wickedness. It had developed herd-immunity to the word of God but, even against his will, the preaching of Jonah produced repentance. “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth…And when God saw that they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”

This is funny but too true:

The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from generation to generation says that, “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.” However, in our organizations more advanced strategies are often employed:

  1. Buying a stronger whip. 
  2. Changing riders.
  3. Appointing a committee to study the horse.
  4. Arranging trips to other countries to see how other cultures ride dead horses.
  5. Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included.
  6. Reclassifying the dead horse as living-impaired.
  7. Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse.
  8. Harnessing several dead horses together to increase efficiency.
  9. Providing additional funding and/or training to increase dead horse’s performance.
  10. Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance.
  11. Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries lower overhead and therefore contributes substantially more to the bottom line of the economy than do some live horses.
  12. Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses.
  13. Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position.

I’ve read this before but it’s still appropriate:

As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.”

Sometimes the worst enemy of the message and faith of the Church is the church itself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church.  It is far too easy for us to base our claims to God on our own Christian religiosity and our church commitment, and in so doing utterly to misunderstand and distort the Christian idea.

The gospel produces fruit and that fruit produces growth – sometimes even when it appears, like Nineveh, to be dead. Scientists recently discovered an arctic plant that had been frozen for 32,000 years and yet they have been able to generate living plants from the fruit of the flower.

It is the same for us. The fruit of our lives is the means by which the gospel spreads.

Verse 9: “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”

We have talked many times, including last week, about why people want to know the will of God. For many, it is a fear of God’s anger or a fear of mistakes or a desire for sure success. Most of the time our desire to know his will is motivated by our personal interests. That is not what Paul is saying, is it? He is saying the goal is to know his will in order to live a life that bears fruit. It is living a life that is worthy of the Lord and that pleases him – but I don’t think finding God’s will is really about living a flawless and mistake-free life. It’s not like a quiz show where the buzzer goes off when you get a wrong answer and you are off the show. It’s both more complicated and simpler than that.

It’s not so much about making sure we pick the right mate or school or career or place to live as it is about the development of character and the fruit of our lives. The will of God is not perfect because it is so narrow but because it is focused on the glory of God in all things. It is, as Oswald Chambers says, to be so in the will of God that you are unaware of it.

It’s not even about being a perfect person if you define perfect as flawless. Martin Luther said, “Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.”

As Paul says in verse 10: It is living a life that is worthy – a life with substance. It is nothing new in our time. It has always been true that the temptation is to live a weightless and worthless life – follow after worthless idols and become worthless ourselves.

God’s will for us is as Paul says in Romans 12: a transformed mind. It is as he says in Ephesians 4: maturity and the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. It is not a life trying to earn love from a God impossible to please but a life that gives glory to God.

Too many of us are still shaped by what we learned as children.  I’ve been reading Philip Yancey’s new book, “Where The Light Fell” this week and he writes about his childhood memories of church:

“A song from Sunday School perfectly captures the dread I live with:

O be careful little eyes, what you see;

There’s a Father up above

And He’s looking down in love,

So be careful little eyes what you see.

I know about a father up above, for Mother has used that as a threat. My own father, I know, can see every time I pick my nose, every time I sneak behind her back and disobey, every time I tell a lie. God, a Super-Father, is much scarier, equipped with X-ray vision, an eye with no eyelid. Somehow I miss the “looking down in love” part.”

Living in God’s will is like the great line from the movie about Eric Lytle’s life: “God made me to run and when I do I feel His pleasure.” What a wonderful release that would be for so many people. To find something for which they feel they have been made and when they do it they could feel God’s pleasure. It is a rare thing in my experience – yet that is what Paul holds up as the standard.

Ray Stedman puts it this way. “Faith is what pleases him. Every time Jesus approved or commended people it was because of their faith. Whenever our Lord commends people for anything it is because they believe him and act on what he says.”

I saw a cartoon this week that I like: A young boy is praying beside his bed before bedtime. “Today I cleaned up after Willie, held the door open for a guy on crutches..and put Miss Lucille’s trash cans at the curb for her. I’m letting you know all this..because I didn’t get receipts or anything.”

Part Two of this passage begins in verses 15-20

“He is the image of the invisible God.”

We sometimes think of Jesus as all of God compressed into a person. The infinite God somehow managed to squeeze Himself into a man-sized and finite being. We see the same image when we look at black holes in space. Surrounding matter is captured by the gravity of a dying star and everything becomes so incredibly dense that even light cannot escape. A whole galaxy is reduced to the size of a golf ball. It is the ultimate example of the power of compression.,

That is not how Jesus is described by Paul. In Philippians 2:6 we are told that Jesus was not the same size as God or was a reduced size version of God but that he shared the very nature of God.

Jesus shares the DNA of God and in Him so do we. You know there are 100 trillion cells in the human body and every one of them contains all the DNA required to reproduce a complete human body. Every single cell contains all the information, the essence, the nature of creation.

There is a danger in just thinking big about God and the Gospel by making size the most important feature. All the “Omni” characteristics – all powerful, all knowing, all present. As I’ve said before, I am always conflicted by the Hubble photos because there is the indescribable beauty and the infinite coldness of space. It is tempting to see the Creator in the same way – a cold and detached and infinite beauty that overwhelms us.

Psalm 8:4 “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”

I feel the same way at times.

Yet, I am fascinated by the dimensions of the universe. Google the question, “What is the size of the universe” and read through the description:  “The size of the universe is unknown; it may be infinite. The region visible from the Earth is a sphere with a radius of about 46 billion light years. For comparison, the diameter of a typical galaxy is 30,000 light years, and the typical distance between two neighboring galaxies is 3 million light years. As an example, the Milky Way galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years in diameter, and the nearest sister galaxy to the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, is located roughly 2.5 million light years away. There are probably more than 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. A 2010 study by astronomers estimated that the observable universe contains 300 sextillion stars.”

Yet, we have no way of knowing how infinite the universe is in the opposite direction. How infinitely small is it? What lies beneath molecules and atoms and particles? It is an infinite going out and going down. The universe may be as deep as it is wide. It is incomprehensible. Yet, God came to this insignificant dust mite in the universe to express His nature and the purpose of the rest of creation. He came, not as a concept or idea or to overwhelm us with His size and intelligence or power but as a person.

That is why our language about God must be both Colossians and Philippians – personal and universal. Eugene Peterson wrote:

One of the characteristics of language in the land of the living is that it is personal. When we use language that depersonalizes God into an abstraction or an idea or a project, the life leaks out of what we say and write, teach and pray. We are left with nothing but godtalk. It isn’t long before the depersonalized, non-relational language used with or about God affects the language we use with the people in our company and reduces them also into impersonal causes, or projects, or problems. Godtalk is human speech in which God is depersonalized into a language of information, manipulation, propaganda, and gossip.

The glories of language are under constant threat of being debased to clichés and reduced to verbal technology. Language at its core creates and reveals, brings us into personal relationships, establishes intimacies. We live what we speak. And if we don’t live the words, the words die and our spirits die. The salvation life is to be lived, not just talked about or written about.”

Look at verses 19-20. He came to reconcile the world to himself. Notice this. Not just all people – but all things.

The gospel is not just about personal salvation but about God’s making peace with all things in creation. All the many universes and everything in them. I cannot comprehend that. It is, like David, too wonderful for me.

Reconciliation is universal but that is not the same as universalism. It means that all the obstacles to peace have been removed but we still must choose to accept that offer of peace. We still must unclench our fists, lay down our arms and fall to our knees.

Reconciling the world does not mean the whole world is redeemed. It means the whole world has access to peace with God through Christ.

Still, think about God’s intentions. It is not to be satisfied with personal salvation alone but with reconciling all created things to Himself.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

That is how we start the book of Colossians: the finite and the infinite. The emptying and the filling. The incarnate and the invisible. I hope our minds can handle it.