Citizens of the Reign of ChristPentecost
Prayer: Gracious and Loving God, speak in this place, in the calming of our minds and in the longing of our hearts, by the words of my lips and in the thoughts that we form. Speak, Loving God, as we listen for your word. Amen.
On the last Sunday of the Christian year we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Next Sunday Advent begins and it’s the start of a new church year. Our readings for this week highlight the reign of Christ. Our Gospel reading records the song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah praises God for raising up salvation from the house of David as God had promised through the prophets. This child will bring mercy, forgiveness, and light. In the Colossians text, Christ holds first place above everything else. Through his death we are forgiven and brought from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.
Following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the Christian faith spread so rapidly across the Roman Empire during its first years that there was continual danger that the new Christians would be led into false interpretations of the faith. Many of the New Testament letters were written to refute heretical beliefs and practices that had arisen in the infant churches. The letter to the Colossians is an example of this. Our text begins by affirming that God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of his Son through the forgiveness of sins. That is, salvation is not for an elite few of the spiritual superstars, it is for all who desire forgiveness. And salvation is not something that we earn by our actions, but is a gift of God’s forgiving love in Christ.
And then Paul tells us who Christ is. He is “the image of the invisible God.” In other words, if you want to know what God is like, God’s image has been given to us in Christ. He is the “first-born of all creation”. The term “first-born” was used to describe the person who is the legitimate ruler of a territory. To say that Christ is the first-born of creation is to say that he is the Lord and ruler of all creation.
And now we come to a crucial verse. Verse 16 says, “For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.” What this is saying in context is that all of creation comes from and belongs to Christ. The universe is not to be divided into a good realm of spirit and an evil realm of matter because, in Christ, both the visible and the invisible were created.
This passage is a hymn of praise to Christ but it is also filled with theological insights. Over against those who see Christ as one of the many spirits of the universe, it asserts the absolute sovereignty of Christ. Over against those who would save themselves, it asserts the gracious forgiveness of God through Christ is extended to all. Over against those who see the basic problem of a person as a struggle between the good spirit on one side and the evil body and material world on the other, it affirms that both spirit and body, soul and matter, are the creation of God in Christ. And therefore, the human problem is not that we have been born with an evil body from which we need to be protected, the problem is that we have become alienated from God and need to be reconciled to him.
The Gnostic philosophy, against which Colossians was written, was happy to accept Christ but it did not want to accept him as the Lord of all. It wanted him only as one of the many spirits of the universe. You can still see that today. C.S. Lewis says the great heresy is always to say “Christ and …”. We want to serve Christ and our country, Christ and our political party, Christ and our economic interests, Christ and our social group, Christ and our family’s interests and so on. The letter to the Colossians was written to rebuke such an attitude of “Christ and”. To know Christ is to see that he is not just another one of many spirits of the universe, he is not even the first among equals. But he is the “first-born,” the Lord of all creation. The claim that he puts upon us is, therefore, a claim to the whole of our lives.
The letter to the Colossians was written in the first century to refute a philosophy that has long since been forgotten. And yet, today as we read it, we find that it comes alive as though it were a special delivery letter sent to us in the twenty-first century. Like the philosophers of that ancient city, we have tried to divide the world into different realms and to allow Christ in only restricted parts of our life while we give the rest to other interests and powers. And so to us today the Letter to the Colossians is saying, “For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, where thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.” The question for us is do we really believe it and do we dare to live it?
In today’s gospel text John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, sings a hymn of praise to God, a song that recalls the past promises of God to the people and then describes the beginning of the fulfillment of those promises. The messianic salvation so long awaited by God’s people was at last about to come into their midst. Yet Zechariah’s hymn reminds his listeners that the anticipated messianic age would be marked by more than God’s redemptive actions, more than the messiah’s saving presence. In response to God’s divine deliverance of the people from their enemies, those who accepted the salvation of the messiah were expected to “serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (1:74-75).
Fear has been with us from the beginning. Adam was afraid in the garden and the Bible if full of announcement that tell us not to be afraid. Most angelic appearances begin with “Fear not.” Zechariah himself was afraid when an angel of the Lord appeared to him.
It’s been said that the only legitimate fears are of loud noises and falling. I’m not sure about that but I think most of our fear is of our own making. We need to hear the divine “Fear not” in our lives. God’s presence is what Zechariah praises and proclaims is present as the “light to those who sit in darkness” (verse 79). Without the presence of Christ, all our days are darkened by the lurking shadows around us. Bringing the presence of the living Christ into every moment, transforms every gloom into glory.
Would anyone voluntarily keep all the lights off in their home except for one hour on Sunday morning? Do you want to stumble around in the dark, unable to see the faces of your family, the colours of your world, because you refuse to let the light be turned on? When we bring the light of Christ’s presence into every nook and cranny of our lives, into every decision of every day, we commit ourselves to living as a citizen of the reign of Christ.
God raises a mighty saviour to help us gain freedom from fear. Think of some of the prophets and saviours who have come to us in our own lives. Think of our parents, relatives, colleagues, friends, teachers and ministers that God has sent to us. We are assured that we are not walking alone; we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” as we run the race set before us. With this help, we can experience moments of awe and reverence rather than worry and anxiety.
Zechariah’s hymn addresses John the Baptist as “child” and envisions him as a prophet, a leader who will guide us all in the way of peace. He will lead us to Christ.
Christ’s reign empowers us to work for peace. We can be thankful to God that the Christ child is the Prince of Peace and will guide and strengthen us as we do the work of peacemaking.
But this peace is not a destination. Zechariah does not sing of a place of peace. Instead his hymn promises that for those who live in light of the Saviour, their feet will travel along the way of peace. As citizens of the reign of Christ, we inherit the love of God that invites us into the circle of God’s abundant and amazing grace. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, who showers God’s gifts on us so that we can share those gifts with one another and experience the oneness of God’s family.
Now when we look at our neighbours, may we recognize the family resemblance and announce peace to all.
Let us pray: God of all creation, awaken in us the spirit of love, faith, and hope so that we may enjoy the reign of Christ wherever we are or whatever we do in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.