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JULY 21, 2013

Tomorrow’s Promise!
Amos 8:1-12
Colossians 1:15-28

One of the ways you learn what is prominent and suddenly emphasized in our culture, what is striking a nerve, is by paying attention to popular media: television, music and of course, the movies. The last movie we have seen is 42, which tells the story of Jackie Robinson, but the last couple of times we have been to the theater I have noticed something from all the previews: We have an unusually large number of movies being made this year about the end of the world. One article I found lists eight end-of-the-world movies produced in the last year! I looked for some of the titles. This is the End, After Earth, Contagion, Hell and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World were a few, all very upbeat and encouraging, no doubt! It seems Tom Cruise stars in one end-of-the-world movie every year, and this year’s is called Oblivion. Then there is Brad Pitt’s World War Z that tells how Gerry Lane saves the planet from the zombies who want to take all the life from it. He saves the world by offering his own life, a theme that sounds strangely familiar in this place! Isn’t it interesting that in the most powerful nation in the world, we have an insatiable appetite for doomsday, apocalyptic, end-of-the-world films? Mind you, I have not watched one of these movies, but I am willing to bet that they are not much of a source of hope or reassurance about the future. Apparently, Hollywood has sensed that there is an eager market for movies that scare people to death and paint dire pictures of the future. Maybe they are a reaction to our fear, and maybe they contribute to it. Likely they do both.

Compare this to the Apostle Paul writing to a tiny group of fledgling Christians in a forlorn corner of the Roman Empire. These early congregations were holding onto their life and their faith by their fingernails. In places like Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus and Colossae, which is in inland modern day Turkey, they had no buildings, no hierarchy, no numerical prominence that would come later, and only a handful of small, struggling worshipping communities. What they did have was a story to tell, much of which they borrowed from Israel, as many of their early number were of Jewish descent. And if Paul is any measure of their life, they had the rock-solid conviction that something utterly decisive had happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that changed everything, the whole course of human history. And they had their songs. Most scholars believe that Colossians 1:15-20 is one of those early songs of praise, a hymn or a piece of the early Christian liturgy that Christians sang when they gathered to worship their God. Scholars have called it “The Christ Hymn.” But before there were formal church structures, seminaries, colleges or divinity schools, creeds and confessions, or doctrines like the Trinity, all which would come in time, the Church had its songs, its hymns. And this one was so important, so life-giving, that Paul shared it with the Colossians near the beginning of his letter to them.

And the whole song, for that matter, the whole story Paul had to share was about Jesus Christ, history’s great game-changer. And please note, this “Christ Hymn” is all about the future, and all about hope. Hollywood is busy trying to scare you to death about the end of the world. Paul, and every last writer of the New Testament, for that matter, is offering you hope and Good News. The future is not up for grabs or in serious doubt. The future, and the world, belongs to Jesus Christ, the Creator of heaven and earth, “things visible and invisible,” the One in whom “all things hold together,” the One in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” and best of all, the One through whom “God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross.”

This is quite a song to sing! Seven times in the hymn the word “all” appears in relationship to what Christ has done, and the difference Jesus has made. And in this hymn, early Christians found strength and confidence and hope to go on, not to give up and not to give in to discouragement. Instead of being scared to death by the power of Rome, they were inspired and given hope by the greater power of the Gospel. For Paul, all of this was assured by what God had already accomplished through Jesus on the cross, and in His resurrection. And this is the hope that made the Church more powerful finally and more lasting than the Roman Empire.

On a late September Sunday in 1957, Karl Barth, arguably the twentieth century’s greatest theologian, preached as he often did in the Basel, Switzerland jail to its prisoners. His book of prison sermons is called, Deliverance to the Captives. This particular Sunday he began with his one verse text: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that He may be merciful to all” (Romans 11:32). Barth said that he did not need to convince this congregation that they all were prisoners. They knew it. “Each and all are prisoners of disobedience,” Barth said. “All.” “Anyone who knows Jesus knows this.” But the bulk of Barth’s sermon was not about us. It never was! Most of Barth’s words to these prisoners were about God’s lavish mercy. “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that God may be merciful to all.” That is the sweeping claim of Christ’s Gospel; in Jesus, God has shown His mercy and goodness to all. This is who God is, and until we know who God is and what God has done, we will never really learn who we are and what we have it in us to be.

The single most offensive thing to me in Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, is his claim that religions like Christianity foster exclusion, an “insider-outsider” mentality that has led to war. Dawkins claims to dislike all religions, but he has special antipathy for Christianity. It is an offensive claim to me because it runs absolutely opposite to who Jesus was and what Jesus said. Jesus was criticized as one who “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And when Jesus fed the five thousand, we are told “all of them ate and were filled.” Jesus said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus said His message was “a testimony to all nations.” In John He promised, “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” In John, Jesus says He is the light, “the true light which enlightens everyone.” And of course, in Matthew, Jesus says, “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

There is nothing narrow in Jesus. There is nothing exclusive or parochial in Jesus. And in Jesus, God has shown to all people for all times that God is for us, and God is with us. Or as Paul said to the Colossians, “For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and 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.” All things will be reconciled. That is no small claim about the future. All things. Jews and Gentiles. Conservatives and liberals. Republicans and Democrats. All things. Even Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Nations and peoples and even the rest of creation. All things! You can count on it. Better yet, you can live like it is so!


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